BRITAIN feels wobbly, wobbly. The assassination of MP David Amess is just the most recent event that frees us a little more from stability. In truth, the whole western world feels shaky. Democracy seems to shake everywhere you look. The smart money is for Trump to return to Washington. France is playing with the extreme right. The European project seems ready to implode. China towers over the once dominant West and threatens to overshadow America.
How did we get here? 20 years ago we were still enjoying “the great holiday from history” – the end of the 90s, when stability, peace and prosperity (at least in the West) seemed to be on the up. Today only the blatant optimists are not afraid of the future.
Three major historical forces have sustained Western democracies since the beginning of the 21st Iraq War – which, through a lie-based invasion, added terror and shattered confidence between US and UK voters and their governments; the 2008 economic crash – which proved people were less important than banks and the postwar promise that our children would be better off than us guaranteed death. In addition to these three monstrous pieces of evidence of political failure that fueled populism, social media layers with its common lies, hatred, and conspiracy theories – and you have the recipe for disaster.
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Perhaps – in centuries, when humanity makes it this far – historians will call this time “the great disturbance” when everything was in flux and the world seemed to be broken.
Here in Great Britain, however, it looks even darker and more dangerous than in other democracies – apart perhaps from America with Trump in the starting blocks.
Two MPs were murdered in five years. The country is literally falling apart as Scottish independence and Northern Ireland threaten to turn the union into a failed project. England is completely split into leftovers and leavers. We are facing a winter of discontent – a collapse of the functioning business. Britain has become the epitome of treason among our closest neighbors. After the Aukus deal, France regards Great Britain with contempt. Dublin warns Britain is untrustworthy after threats to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol – a treaty negotiated by Number 10 but now set to be destroyed because it no longer fits.
All of these ailments have one thing in common: their source is Brexit, itself a symptom of the populism that has grown in the West in the first two decades of this new century.
But Brexit is not the only thing that is ruining us. The Conservative Party is leaning in a direction that directly threatens democracy. There are plans to restrict electoral rights and allow ministers to overturn judgments that the government does not like: these endanger freedom and the rule of law. The Interior Ministry is considering immunity for border guards who kill refugees.
Marie anti-ionettism abounds, with one rule for the rich and powerful and one for the rest – not just when it comes to paying taxes, but also in simple matters like obeying the lockdown. Boris Johnson and his wife apparently broke the restrictions for Christmas so they could meet a friend while most Britons longed for family.
We also seem to be in some kind of snapback moment when it comes to civil and human rights. Whatever your views, it is clear that the UK trans community has become a destination for the most appalling levels of hatred and defamation. Misogyny and homophobia are also common. It seems that the extension of rights to everything that was so typical of the 1990s and 2000s has ended – and those who want to reverse those advances now have the upper hand.
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Hate, division, and conspiracy aren’t just being fomented online – they’re now being dished up in our mainstream media, from once reputable newspapers to broadcasters. Commentators stir up anger and look for scapegoats; the comment sections of newspaper websites are oozing with poison. In Scotland the worst elements of unionism and nationalism cause fear of how a future referendum – if it ever happens – might be carried out. Even politicians – themselves victims of so much hatred – stir up anger with casual, dangerous language. Words in Parliament profoundly affect the nature of the British debate.
We are an ailing state. What worries the mind is that a battered state can become a failing state – and failed states go very dark very quickly.
It is not that the main forces at play in politics right now are evil: Euroscepticism, unionism, nationalism – these are all legitimate positions. That is how we have had the debate on these issues that Britain has broken so badly.
We are all individually better than the collective chaos we created, and we all need to share some responsibility for what happened because we all did our part in one way or another.
The great project of the 21st century in the West should be the reshaping of democracy. We have to do it and we can. There are solutions: getting a stranglehold on social media, banning political donations to political parties, setting up town assemblies to advise and summon politicians, and establishing full proportional representation. The mainstream media could end the clickbait and end under the line comments – just to start with.
Perhaps the biggest solution would be some sort of movement towards a sorting democracy – where each of us has a role in politics, much like the jury system. The best way to envision the idea is to create a second chamber in Scotland. Instead of an unelected lord, you should have a chamber of ordinary citizens chosen along the lines of juries – those chosen sit in the House of Lords for a year, overseeing the legislature and holding Holyrood accountable.
Set up a sovereign wealth fund dedicated to ending child poverty. No more tax avoidance in companies. Establish a real living wage.
The list of things we need to fix is endless. We all know the problems: The biggest problem of all is not having the courage to solve the problems in the first place. If we do not start addressing the weaknesses of democracy, we will simply continue down this broken path, which indeed seems to lead to a rather dark place.
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