1968 and all that

There’s a perverse pleasure in wading through reviews of books and articles on subjects I know nothing about and may never encounter again. On occasion something hits home. One example: Terry Eagleton in the special Cheltenham Festival Times Literary Supplement edition, on everyone’s favourite subject, post-structuralism:

‘In its curious blend of scepticism and euphoria post-structuralism is a form of libertarian pessimism – one which dreams of a world free from the constraints of norms and institutions, but which is not so incorrigibly naïve as to believe it could ever come about.’  

I could dine out on that one!

‘The revolutionary elan of 1968’ was followed by ‘the disenchanted mood of its political aftermath’. I remember 1968. Too well.

It’s a pattern oft-repeated. More recently we’ve had the frustrations of the Obama years, when ‘yes we can’ didn’t quite happen. (Maybe it never will.) The aftermath of the 1989 and the fall of the Wall. Occupy and the now empty squares of New York and London. Above all the Arab Spring, and its brutal aftermath.

But we won’t and can’t let our optimism die. I’m one of millions now and forever who believe in social justice, opportunity, capability, compassion. We rejoice when we see progress, we’re despondent when we see it pushed back. But we don’t despair.

We don’t of course always agree with each other. Do we work with the system, or oppose it – and by what means? The divide between global and anti-global perspectives is vast. Many (not all) proponents of big government and small government have the same end in view but believe in radically different ways of getting there.

I supported and support Obama, always believed Occupy wasn’t sustainable … Bernie Sanders I admire, Corbyn I don’t. We will bicker and insult and traduce the motives of others, while still aspiring to the same humanity.

And we will undermine each others’ efforts. Refuse to vote for Hillary. Battle it out for the soul and machinery of the Labour Party. And if we’re not careful – and we haven’t been of course – let another party in, a party which doesn’t define compassion and social justice quite as we do… which puts up barriers rather than engage with the world. Abandons institutions rather than seeks to reform them. Follows the populist piper, who advocates easy solutions, and plays to prejudice.

There are many good reasons for retiring to a monastery or a country cottage or sitting room and TV, and disengaging – and yet we hang in there. If we keep open minds, listen to each other, avoid scorn and hubris, remember that we’re ultimately on the same side – then we might just make progress.

Democracy – a bloody miracle

Democracy is a fragile institution. Not, to paraphrase Churchill, the least-worst form of government, but a bloody miracle. Against the tendency humanity has shown throughout history to tear itself apart we have fashioned a form of government which works – where we listen, argue, campaign, vote, and accept that vote. After legislation in the last parliament, for a five year period.

And in practice?  Governments and oppositions have to abide as far as they can by the manifestos on which they’re elected. But MPs also have to make their own judgements. Trust in an individual has to be one of the criterion the electorate use in voting someone into parliament. Ultimately MPs are mandated by the electorate, and not by conferences which may support policies which weren’t in an election manifesto. 

Party loyalty, and especially the three-line whip, is necessary part of the parliamentary process, but there will be issues where MPs take principled positions against party policy (‘conscience’ is a poor term), as Jeremy Corbin often did in the past, and as others would have done had there been a three-line whip in the Syria debate. There’s been much talk recently of the duty of an opposition to oppose,  and the failure to impose a three-line whip in the Syria debate is seen as weakness by some. But when a party is divided, with both sides arguing from principle, a three-line whip serves no purpose. It only exacerbates division. 

Nor am I a fan of referenda which can be influenced by short-term considerations, or media hype. But with the Europe referendum coming up, that’s an issue for another time.

There’s a centre ground of British politics, where parties are broad churches, encompassing right and left wings, representing interest and arguments across the political spectrum. It’s as near as we have to a political duty to make certain the system continues to function and flourish.

History has yet to suggest that there is any better form of government than parliamentary and party democracy, with all the check and balances of tradition (the UK) or a constitution (the USA, above all others) built in. I think it’s one of mankind’s greatest achievements, flawed in its execution, but our first and last best hope.

I want to be arguing in this blog for compassion, aspiration and opportunity. Against the bigotry of some sections of the press, and for a compassionate state. Neither small state or command economy. For a wide and international perspective. Beyond ideology.

But this blog is called zenpolitics – politics, and politics is a rough old game. That said, we have in the UK the finest working democracy in the world. The challenge is to build on that, not to undermine it.