Article by Geoffrey Heptonstall
What can politics do? It can bring in laws to change social behaviour. It can legislate for civil rights. Harold Wilson’s government brought in the Race Relations Act in the Sixties, and the Equal Pay Act in the Seventies. But no law alone can change people’s hearts. Discrimination is not dispelled by volition. You can stop people from painting swastikas on walls, but that will not dissuade a poisoned mind from harbouring dark thoughts.
At a glance it may seem that we are living in a multicultural society where social hierarchies have given way to a sense of a demotic community. A long tradition of tolerance has borne fruit. Society is open to anyone with ambition, talent and dedication.
That certainly is the established picture of society. There is some truth in experience. But it is only a partial truth. There is abundant testimony to the prejudice that was always there just below the surface. Sometimes it erupts, as in the aftermath of secession from the E.U. There remains narrow suspicion, a fear of being overwhelmed.
The problem is more complex than casual abuse in the street. Stereotyping in the media, even when well-intentioned, can express unconscious prejudice. The black barrister mistaken for a suspected criminal is an obvious instance. Some instances in social life are more subtle. Confused presumptions about region and class are very telling. These things catch people unawares, and expose the division between liberal aspirations and the realities of a society with illiberal foundations.
The imperial experience is not long gone. Nostalgia for empire persists even as the Commonwealth changes the colour and sound of national life. But the transformation is not all it seems. The reality is that the free market seeks to accept and absorb everyone and everything. When money is the measure of all things it does not matter who the venture capitalist is. Money does not discriminate.
The free market is an ersatz liberality that generates personal advantage for individuals. Access to wealth creation and managerial control has become the ‘progressive’ option, the quasi-radical co-optation of the previously excluded. Disadvantaged individuals are seen to need assistance to climb the ladder. They are not encouraged to work with and for others.
Competition is the ethic of choice. In other words, you kick the ladder away, destroy potential rivals, and secure your position. The individual is everything. Society barely exists except as a ghost of history. Personal conscience is as redundant as social co-operation. Once the mood was for liberation, a harmony of free exchange. Now there is only a hierarchy of power. It is the power to destroy the innocent. It is the power to buy more power. It is the power to bend the truth. All in the name of liberty.
The desire for personal fulfilment within a sympathetic community is long gone. Liberation is the true alternative to the free market. But this is not the current mood. Obsessive reference to failed and long-vanished bureaucracies continues to restrict political debate. The only alternative to the power of money is said to be an impoverished collectivism. All else is ignored.
The appeal therefore is to popular emotions generated by fear. The careful examination of historical truth is reduced to rabble-rousing phrases. Intelligent imagination, the fecund ground of civilized democracy, is dispelled by the triumph of over-promoted philistines.
As for political commentary, it is little more than a discussion of personalities. The only question asked is who will win the next election? The unasked question is can any government alone change society? The real debate takes place elsewhere in the democracy of the streets, the debating chambers of the unacknowledged alternatives to the entanglement of unqualified emotions beneath a carapace of illusions.
The change has to be within social feeling, and such a change is generated by a cultural dynamic. To begin with it is in the relative obscurity of the low circulation magazine or the studio theatre. The mainstream will take it up once the word has spread and caught a general mood. Then, of course, it becomes ‘obvious and necessary’ whereas only the day before yesterday it was in the realm of impossible dreams. The history of social change is the history of impossible dreams that transformed future realities.
The dreams are actually workable ideals. Their enemy is illusion. The principle illusion is the offer of freedom. Freedom in these terms is synonymous with prosperity. Most people in reality are not prosperous. They are heavily in debt all their working lives. Mortgages and credit cards, both at extortionate rates, enslave. Western society is a debtors’ prison.
Unfortunately change can happen only when the carapace of illusions is broken. In their place comes a torrent of hysteria and violence. The targets are rarely the truly culpable manipulators. Wild anger is directed elsewhere. Refugees are blamed. The poor are blamed. The left is blamed. ‘Britannia was proud and free. Now look what aliens and intellectuals have done to her. We need a leader who can make our country the proud and powerful nation it once was.’
The irrational confusion of such an attitude is inevitable in a directionless society of inchoate values. It is not the freedom of thought that educated minds cherish. It is the angry loner who breaks the rules of public safety in a pandemic. It is irresponsible leaders who knowingly make false promises and give false testimony. It is all those who follow their lead. It is the screaming headlines in unacceptable media. It is a political attitude that believes achievement can be willed into being. And all problems can be wished away.
This cannot go on. This is not the intelligent democracy we all need, and which many of us desperately hope to see. We need a sense of collective purpose. At the same time we need to value personal initiatives that contribute to the social good. We need to discover a more directed society by rediscovering the benevolent and authoritative state in which citizens can freely believe. Integrity and identity cannot be found in volition alone. We need a polity that measures unavoidable realities with legitimate aspirations. To be truly inclusive it must seek accommodation with a range of viewpoints.
Not an easy task. It will require not only intellect but heart, not only ambition but humility, not only articulate speech but a receptive ear. Demented careerists, left or right or centre, need not apply.
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