British Politics: Waiting for the Revolution
I am no political oracle. I am busy. I have two books to finish. If teaching Greek and Latin is not in itself difficult, making sense of the new A Levels is difficult. Therefore, I have ignored requests to comment on the continuing mess of our leaving the European Union, and the banning of allegedly “right-wing terror organisations,” and the new surveillance laws, and whomever our armed forces may presently be killing somewhere in the world. Instead of detailed critique, I have only this to offer for the rest of 2016.
After 1917, the Communists imposed a grim tyranny on what had been the Russian Empire, or those parts of it left by the redrawing of borders in 1919. After 1945, the Soviet Union imposed slightly less awful versions of itself on the whole of Eastern and much of Central Europe. For the next forty years, half of Europe was locked into a system of political and cultural and economic control that had no precedent in European history. Efforts to break free – in 1956 and 1968, for example – were flattened by immediate Soviet invasion.
Then, on the 7th December 1988, Mikhail Gorbachev, the newish Soviet leader, stood up before the United Nations, and announced that he was withdrawing many of the occupying forces from the European satellite states, and that he would not look unfavourably on political changes within these states.
The speech had no immediate result within the satellite states. The old and ageing men who had come to power after 1945 continued just as before. There was no diminution of censorship or spying. Indeed, the Czechoslovak Government issued a new hundred Crown note, in October 1989, with a picture on it of Klement Gottwald, the first, and undeniably the worst, of the country’s Communist Presidents.
But we know what happened next. The forces of repression available to these men remained formidable for all settled purposes, but not for dealing with sudden dissent in public. No one, except perhaps at the very top, believed the system was either good or durable. Without the ultimate threat of a Soviet invasion, the system had no backing. In one country after another, with barely a shot fired, or a head broken, Communism was swept away on a wave of popular disgust. A quarter of a century later, no one will claim that these countries are positively nice places to live. But they are all an immeasurable improvement on what they used to be.
We may now be in the same position, here in England. I do not know if Donald Trump will be allowed to take office. I do not know if he will be allowed to keep many of his promises. But his election last month was only in part a result of America’s odd constitutional machinery. The somewhat rubbishy generation to which I belong – in terms, at least, of the date on my birth certificate – dominated the West after about 1990. It has discredited itself. It is growing old. It is being laughed out of power by younger men. If Donald Trump is allowed to be in office what he promised to be in the campaign, these younger men will carry forward their revolution. If he is stifled, those younger men will not go away, but will continue their destruction of the established order. Let us suppose even that the election were set aside, and Mrs Clinton were to be made President later this month – does anyone suppose that America would continue to be exactly what it was before last month? I do not.
This brings me to my own country. A few months ago, I suffered one of my periodic fits of enthusiasm for the Conservative Party. Mrs May, I said, was a One Nation Conservative. It was in her interest to take us out of the European Union. There was at least a chance that she would oversee some internal liberalisation. I was wrong. The stream of police state laws continues at full pressure. As for the European Union, I still believe her interest lies in a swift and radical break. But it does seem that neither she nor anyone else in her Government is competent to bring this about. There has been no move away from political correctness at home and neoconservatism abroad.
Even so, the correlation of forces has changed. For all its apparent solidity, the system over which Mrs May presides is brittle. The Referendum held last June was less about whether we should leave the European Union than what we thought of our own rulers. If there is a general election in 2017, I suspect it will show continuing and increasing levels of disaffection. The Conservatives will probably win, but the pattern of votes cast in many constituencies will often be more interesting than who is actually returned.
History is shaped by a combination of grand movements and accidents. If we look at Europe in 1914, we see a set of finely-balanced military alliances set atop a pile of moral and demographic tinder. Anyone shown only this will agree that a general war was likely. But it took that assassination in the Balkans, followed by a month of universal stupidity, before the guns opened fire.
Or, coming forward, the failure of the Soviet system was obvious by 1980. Its implosion, though, was an effect of the unpredictable belief that political could take precedence over economic reform.
I do not know – I cannot know – what will bring down the present order of things in England. But the circumstances within which that order emerged, and that sustained it, are ceasing to apply. Sooner rather than later, it will collapse.
Therefore, I see no reason to bully myself into another moan about data retention, or the jailing of political dissidents. Theresa May has chosen to be our own version of Gustav Husak in 1989. The evil laws she is making are her version of that hundred Crown banknote.
There will be change in England. It will not set everything right. But it is unlikely to be worse than what we presently have.