My grandfather liked to tell the following anecdote: one day, a man is walking down a street, when he spots his friend approaching him. Upon closer inspection, the man notices that his buddy has a rubber band around his head. Upon greeting him, the man asks, “Why do you have a rubber band around your head? Doesn’t that hurt?” The friend replies, “Of course it does, but it will feel real good once I take it off.”
I couldn’t help but recall this tale, and the twinkle in my grandfather’s eyes as he told it, upon hearing about the Coalition Government’s proposals for 40% cuts in public spending. The high figure is the proverbial rubber band, intended to frighten us and shock us, and eventually to make us feel much better when that particular band’s strictures are removed. When we learn about the actual scale of the cuts, which are still likely to be very painful, we are all supposed to say, “Phew, it could have been much worse.”
However, this is just one example of a political landscape which is infested by fear. It seems odd when one considers that there was a period of time in which politics was about limitless ambition. John F. Kennedy’s speech about America’s choice to go to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard, was a good example. Prior to this, Clement Attlee stated proudly, quoting a beloved old hymn, that the “sword shall not sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” No one sniggered at either of them. With the right leadership, sufficient effort, enough belief, great tasks seemed possible. They proved to be so: America did send a man to the moon, the Attlee government left a legacy which persists to this day, particularly in the form of the National Health Service. Believing in better as opposed to worse was not at all the prerogative of a fool nor perceived to be one.
However, something has shifted within the soul of the populace. Rather than better, we apparently believe in the avoidance of worse. Cuts are unavoidable; let’s choose between unpalatable and totally disgusting. Wars are inescapable; let’s be careful how we fight them, ensure the troops are properly supplied. Poverty, poor health, and unemployment are all facts of life, we just have to do what we can to hurt the fewest amount of people, but in the end we cannot prevent societal pain or social injustice. No grand projects please: we, in the Western democracies, no longer can summon up the faith.
Yet, there are many great endeavours we could undertake. America could build thermosolar plants in the Southwest of the country to supply much of its energy needs; this is a technology that has proven itself in Spain. Europe and America could join hands to build the trans-Atlantic train, in the process revolutionising both cargo and passenger transport. We could continue the spread of digital technologies, perhaps by following Finland, which recently enshrined every citizen’s right to broadband in law. What cripples us is a lack of vision. If both the government and citizenry look not to the horizon but seek solely to avoid “worse”, the best we can do is to bump along the bottom and to muddle through.
A lot of the blame for this situation resides with the politicians. When given hope, the public tends to respond positively, as was seen in New Labour’s 1997 triumph, and more recently, in the election of Barack Obama. However New Labour’s ideals didn’t coalesce around large, clear, comprehensible projects; their illiberal instincts took over, and in the end they became banker-coddling micromanagers. President Obama’s idealism was quickly caught up in the meatgrinder of Congressional politics, smothered by representatives seeking the best possible deal for their constituencies and states. No one can feel entirely comforted by a government that generates 2000 page bills whose full implications are unclear. In light of these failures, and given the large cheque that is coming due, it is no wonder the wider public’s taste for idealism has been blunted: no more dreams, please, they’re too expensive. This may have been the overriding message arising from the 2010 British General Election; the November contest in America may have a similar narrative. No more visions, no more hopes, just managerial competence: let us duck into the blander, safer refuge of tinkering till the storms pass.
The problem with this scenario is that it is an eventual recipe for democratic suicide. Not too long ago, I watched a replay of the February 1974 General Election on BBC Parliament; what astonished me was not only the comparative quality of the coverage but also the turnout figures, many of which were in excess of 80%. The spokesmen for the various parties spoke about clear ideas and policies; Labour was going to repeal the Industrial Relations act, for example. The Liberal Party urged voters to pick something different; in their party political broadcast from that year, Cyril Smith used language which would be considered immoderate even by today’s standards. Turnout rates in of around 60% are more commonplace in Britain now. America is not any better off. Indeed, despite the inspiration provided by Barack Obama and his well-tuned campaign, the 2008 Presidential Election generated a turnout of only 63%, a figure that hadn’t been approached since 1960. If there is no mass participation in democratic politics, then it becomes the purview of a narrow group of the interested; this recipe, by necessity, favours extremists. The effects may have already been seen in the Utah Republican Senate Primary in which the more than right of centre Bob Bennett was dumped for a “Tea Party” backed candidate. The visions that come to the fore in such a scenario are dangerous given their emphasis on simplistic solutions and misplaced nostalgia.
We don’t have a Kennedy nor an Attlee at the moment to guide us and to tap into what Lincoln would call our “better angels”. However, as a trade union activist, I can and do see a potential wellspring of hope: rather than from above, it can come from the grassroots. At the moment, individual movements are focused on individual agendas: whether that is for ending the war in Iraq, or preventing further expansion of Heathrow, or fighting spending cuts. The problem is that each of these movements in and of themselves do not represent a coherent programme. It has been said many times before: the task for a genuinely progressive political party is perhaps to thread the needle, and to stitch these groups together; attempts have been made, progress has been slow. But democracy may depend on this effort continuing, and the eventual success of something far better than worse.