Bristling Brock speaks out...
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Over the last twelve months or so there has been a swathe of incidents or circumstances that have pitched the very substance of what we in the West perceive as democracy into that fine balancing act between serving the people or controlling the people.
If we start with the premise that possibly all forms of governance are somewhat delicately poised between, shall we say, success or failure then we can also see that the very processes of government have to be flexible enough to accommodate a particular political bias. A left bias perhaps pitches the processes toward social legislation and reform whilst a right bias errs toward more dramatic and strategic change. Politicians who believe themselves to be smart try to hedge their bets and become centreists so that they can swing either way as the popular mood dictates. Not really the smartest move in real terms. Yet we've seen with the cut and thrust of the arguments with Brexit and the EU, the ugly mood of American divisiveness, the totalitarianism of Russia, China and the Myanmar military to name but a few, that in some instances there is no centre ground to arbitrate from. You are either in or out of the game, no debate, no negotiation, no compromising - just hard-line positioning until one side or the other breaks.
In that, totalitarianism has the upper hand. Its politics are singular rather than inclusive and focus around either a central figure who has successfully grabbed the reins of power or alternatively an ideology that is so continuously pumped out at its population that there appears a complete besottedness and subservience to its creed. Democracy in its true sense is nowhere to be found in these places although it is a word frequently used to describe the munificence of the totalitarian state when it comes to the so-called aid of a minor state engaged in some sort of squabble with itself - "...we support the democratic aims of our comrades in their struggle.." blah, blah, blah. Rhetoric is cheap. Reality is strategic advantage.
Yet we have little room to crow in the West. Our notions of democracy are as frail as we might imagine are those reins of power in totalitarian states. If we look at popular democracy as an example, ask yourself whether you truly have representation, access to complete justice, a voice that is free to opinionate and do so without recrimination, opportunity to influence and lobby those with power and you will find that for most people these elements of democracy do not properly exist. The old Roman adage of 'governance of the people, by the people and for the people' is a grand posturing ambition - but no so called democracy has ever achieved it in practise. This isn't to say that the dilute version we generally accept as democracy isn't worth protecting. It is. Yet when the going gets tough in any situation, the gloves come off and nation states start sparring and employing tactics that ordinarily would be frowned upon in normal times - I'll use Josep Borell's ill judged kow-towing to Russia to try and obtain Covid vaccine supplies for the EU, only to be rebuffed by the Russians with some considerable smugness as they watched the farce being played out in Brussels. Diplomacy and good intent nowhere to be seen - just strategic advantage.
So where does this all leave Western democracy. Weakened, for sure but perhaps just showing the glimmerings of a wake-up following a few notable jolts. A new presidency in the US, a push-back against woke prejudice in the UK, a new chancellorship in Germany coming soon, and looking at a tough election for the French that may teach its incumbent government some sense. All are 'maybe's', but let us hope that at least some of them win through. For all our sakes.
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In BB's last blog there were some observations about the dangers of civil strife surrounding the new US President's inauguration and ultimate direction of policy. What could have been an ugly transition turned out to be something of a damp squib in terms of opposition and hostility. That must be counted as a bonus.
Here in Britain, whilst no major electoral change is happening just yet, there is the potential for civil dissatisfaction erupting on a number of fronts - social restrictions, vaccinations, priority lists, flood defences, universal credit, building cladding, overseas aid, defence, etc, etc. There is always a plethora of issues that seem to get folk uppity. The underlying question that is never really addressed is, "How much state intervention in your lives is good for you ?" and, conversely, "How little state intervention in your lives is too little ?" The essential issue seems to be that when things are a bit rocky and people start to feel the pinch, in their pockets principally, they moan that the government should do this or that or at least throw some money at the problem. That raises the spectre of increased taxation - for no government has an abundant money tree to provide funds for everything - yet how many of us would actually vote for higher personal taxation as a gesture of individual commitment to resolving big issues ? Very few one would suspect - the acceptance of personal responsibility and obligation to be a participative member of the community is a far distant concept under these circumstances. On the flip side of the argument, when life seems to be cruising reasonably trouble free, the refrain of pushing the state to withdraw from interventions in peoples lives is readily heard, "Get rid of all these restrictive impositions that stop us living as we would wish !" And, as an extra demand, lower our taxes even further.
There's no winning, is there ? On one level, folk demand more government interventions; on another level they demand the retreat of governmental interference. The middle ground is obscure and foggy for any administration that attempts to determine the accurate mood of the land - a mood so beset with rancour and simmering hostility in various parts of the country. Some of that must surely be a cultural influence, that shifting platform beneath our feet that tantalisingly hints at what our rights and freedoms and demands may be, a process that is getting more socially liberal with every passing year and, therefore, promising ever greater freedoms of action, choice, selective government help to suit, and so on. We are at a societal stage where many feel as though they have issues that affect them (and possibly a few others as well) for which government hand-outs and strategic actions are necessary and obvious. The BBC are particularly good at finding people to interview who think that whatever their complaint, the government should be there to dish out taxpayers money to rectify it. What a wonderful Utopia that would be, eh ? Yet our society has reached that level of expectation now. We have debased the notion of personal responsibility - all responsibility now is laid at the doorstep of governance - and we have equally debased any collective partnership with government to quickly establish areas of need and the best ways of tackling them - again, our cultural level is now so imbued with self interest that the very idea of a self-regulating society has long since disappeared. There are exceptions, of course, and may socially advantageous projects do attract engagement - regrettably, however, these are not the norm.
Government will never fulfill the role of being all things to all people - even the super state nations like the US display the fault lines in its society that we also have. The arguments are long and convoluted, but does it not come down to a very simple statement of evidence - that Western democracies are infinitely fragile and that social changes in the paradigm are progressively moving us all toward a less stable and less democratic life environment ? The real problem there is that most Western societies don't recognise that direction of travel...
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The events in the US over the last few weeks serve to remind us that our way of life in the West is seemingly a very fragile thing. Despite the clear peculiarities of the outgoing Trump administration, his departure from office has brought a picture of civil and social division across America to the fore. Many have fondly imagined that the Trump era was a blip, some form of societal aberration which will never be repeated. Yet here we are on the cusp of a new presidency and administration with a substantial number in the US electorate railing strongly against the fact that Trump is leaving office. How can it be that a presidency so marred by personal unpleasantness and a lack of civility, a presidency that has presided over what the rest of us thought pretty right wing in actions and statements can be so visibly and forcefully supported by a number that cannot be regarded as insignificant ?
The logical response is that there are a substantial number of Americans who do not fit into the stereotype of the American Dream. These are the people that have dreamt the dream but never entered it in real life. Socially at the thin end of the wedge, politically marginalised for years, working in environments where their employment has vanished and turned to dust without even a blink of a Washington bureaucrats eye. Until Trump. Trump, the most improbable champion of the common man, emerged four years ago into a job most would never imagine in their most fanciful thoughts he would have succeeded in obtaining - after all, he was stinking rich already, what did he need to add to his CV ? Yet arrive he did and in a style that no US President before him has ever adopted. Brash, arrogant and full of ego yet curiously in tune with many of the dissatisfactions felt by that vast swathe of common men and women. In a flash, Trump started doing things both politically and in real time action that made the Washington establishment cringe but which resonated deeply with the 200 million or more Americans who had felt ignored, left out, unrepresented and even forgotten by the smooth and urbane former incumbents of the White House. All of a sudden, here was somebody who did things he said he was going to do and do them against the grain of most former American presidents. Most of his actions have involved controversy - the Mexican Wall, the climate change withdrawal, trade and economic sanctions against virtually anyone he didn’t take a shine to, the Make America Great Again push to bring protectionism back into mainstream politics, and so the list goes on. Almost all his acts flew in the face of conventional wisdom - yet he was supported at a grass roots level by millions. Here was a president who did things the common man cared about, not least because most of them protected American jobs and focussed on the almost inbred fear of the American nation of either ‘Reds under the bed’ or ‘Terrorists under the bed’.
Ironically, until the blight of COVID, much of what Trump undertook has resulted in some benefit to those 200 million forgotten Americans - economically and in employment terms particularly. The 200 million were no longer forgotten. Now, as Trump reluctantly prepares to leave office, we might ask ourselves what those 200 million are going to do. The divide between them and those on the other side of the social fence is perhaps larger than ever. There is talk of civil strife, even of civil war. Weapons are being bought and amassed by thousands of Americans who never previously imagined the need to do such a thing - it is reported that there is a shortage of ammunition for all this weaponry, such is the scale of their numbers being bought up. Only once before has the American social divide reached this position - and on that occasion it left over 600,000 dead and with the divisions still largely in place. That must in itself be reason enough to make even the disgruntled think twice about such a course of action ? But America has never truly acted rationally within its own borders - or overseas for that matter - it has usually adopted the shoot first and ask questions later approach to any conflict situation and in doing so has created a mentality that tells the American people to prepare for the worst...so predictions of sanity when the blood lust is running high are not a foregone conclusion.
We all need to hope that the transition of power is not a powder keg awaiting the fuse to be lit. Whether we like it or not, the Western world needs a big brother champion, especially now in an era of adventurism and expansion by China and Russia. Maybe that’s a selfish reason on our part, but in cases like this it is truly a case of ‘size matters’ - and most of the rest of us don’t have it. Civil strife historically has changed little in terms of outcomes and it is a condition that America must avoid - for itself and the rest of the free world.
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