‘Rather worried about democracy’

‘Sometimes people never saw things clearly until it was too late and they no longer had the strength to start again. Or else they forgot their idea along the way and didn’t even realise that they had forgotten.’[1]

Park-2

Walking back across the park, I feel a brisk wind spring up, quite cold, an abrupt imposition on a pleasantly warm morning, thirteen or fourteen degrees (mid-fifties in American money). As the 2016 Nobel laureate once sang, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. So which way is it blowing just lately?

In 1917, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published ‘His Last Bow’, in which Sherlock Holmes appears in the guise of a successful British agent in the summer of 1914, kitted out with Yankee accent and goatee beard. At the close of the story, reunited with the faithful Doctor John Watson, he remarks: ‘There’s an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.’[2]

This was the Conan Doyle who wrote warning pamphlets even before the war broke out (and, subsequently, a six-volume work on The British Campaign in France and Flanders, apparently showing the same trust in official sources as he later showed towards spiritualists and small girls photographed with fairies in their garden).

Many of us will doubt that this is ‘God’s own wind’ and will certainly doubt that ‘a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared’. But yes, there’s an increasing suspicion that the wind is indeed coming from the east, though blowing more strongly on the United States at present, often via companies that specialise in harvesting data from social media and personalising election messages based on that data.

Scottish-miners-strike-17-June-1926-001

(Scottish miners strike, 17 June 1926: http://historycollections.blogs.sas.ac.uk/ ©Bishopsgate Institute)

Samuel Hynes, writing of the conclusion of the General Strike of 1926, observed that it was ‘more than simply the end of an industrial action; it was the end of hope that the war might still have some positive consequences in the lives of the men who had fought it.’[3] The Great War was seen by many of the survivors as a terrible gap in their lives. Wyndham Lewis wrote of it as a bridge: ‘Of course the bridge is symbolic. The bridge stands for something else. The bridge, you see, is the war.’[4] David Jones remarked that ‘for us amateur soldiers’, ‘the war itself was a parenthesis’.[5] Hynes notes that after the gap of the war, the General Strike could be seen as ‘war’s echo in society’, forcing another gap in the continuity of history.[6]

Literary types are (or should be) always alert to echoes—which are not the same as duplications. (The comments I’ve read from people who assure us that there’s no element of fascism in any of the recent political upheavals in the world because there aren’t endless rows of men in black shirts continually raising their right arms are beside the point.).

Echoes, yes. In Anthony Burgess’s novel, Napoleon Symphony, Lebrun remarks of Napoleon: ‘the new thing is lui, Bonaparte. What I mean is he doesn’t express any separable idea – you understand me? He’s not there to personify some new notion of absolutism or democracy or what you will. He’s there to turn the age into himself.’[7]

David Moody, author of a recent three-volume biography of Ezra Pound—who was often casually and carelessly referred to as ‘anti-democratic’ or ‘fascist’—remarked of Pound’s economic campaigns: ‘He found it infamous that the governments of those democracies should put saving the banks, and saving the financial system responsible for the crisis and the depression, before the welfare of their people. He held it as axiomatic that a democratic government should serve the interests of the whole people, not the interests of the few who controlled the nation’s wealth’.[8]

Dangerfield_Strange_Death

George Dangerfield, in his classic study, The Strange Death of Liberal England (first published in 1935), writing of the years 1910-1914, referred to ‘the spectacle it affords us of a democracy passing from introspection to what looks very like nervous breakdown.’[9]

The most famous phrase from Mrs Dale’s Diary, the drama serial broadcast every weekday on BBC Radio for more than twenty years (1948-1969), was Mrs Dale’s remarking of her husband that she was ‘rather worried about Jim.’ A great many people must now be ‘rather worried’ about democracy—or should be. A form of government ‘in which the people have a voice in the exercise of power, typically through elected representatives’, the Oxford dictionary has it. In the UK, we bypassed those elected representatives in the 2016 referendum. The official party policy of all the major parties was to remain in the European Union but David Cameron’s government went directly to ‘the people’. The total ‘Leave’ votes represented 37% of the electorate. In the 2015 General Election, the total Conservative Party votes represented 24% of the electorate. It’s easy to understand why such phrases as ‘the will of the people’, which are thrown around so freely, are viewed with widespread scepticism, and the electoral system still current in the United States seems no less odd than ours.

Most recently, our local elections and the Metro mayoral elections were won on even more derisory turnouts. When we walked into our local polling station, I said to one of the two electoral officers sitting behind the tables: ‘I hope it’s been a bit busier than this most of the time.’ He said: ‘This is a flurry.’ My wife and I were the only voters in the room. The West of England mayoral election eventually produced a 29.3% turnout: the winning candidate took the votes of just 8% of the electorate. Line up thirteen voters and just one of them voted for the new Metro mayor. The ‘will of the people’ manifested here, the ‘democratic choice’, was—apparently—for nobody at all.

Where does this leave the democratic project, the system of government designed to represent the will of the people, when the people seem to have abandoned it? And how are such questions complicated by the rapidly accumulating evidence of covert, if not unambiguously illicit, interventions in both referenda and national elections, frequently by immensely wealthy men, with their own agendas, purporting to oppose ‘elites’?

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy

There have been a great many conspiracy theories in recent years—some of which have been used quite frankly as weapons of political power. And some, of course, are real. Are there conspiracies—or altered landscapes resulting from such conspiracies—that are almost too large to see?

We have a General Election approaching now, though it seems more like a presidential one because of the dogged and calculated focus upon individuals rather than policies. The Labour Party manifesto has been leaked (though none of the others, naturally). From what I read about it, there seemed—finally—something to vote for (after the many years of voting against things and generally being on the losing side). The right-wing rags duly foamed and flailed about Jeremy Corbyn ‘dragging us back to the seventies’, which was quite amusing, since many on the right seem to be yearning for the 1950s while others are clearly looking back longingly to the nineteenth century. And then, come to think of it, whatever the trials and troubles so beloved of political historians—and everyone will pick and choose to suit his or her preferred narrative—I remember, for example, how easy it was to find a job in the 70s, how easy—and affordable—it was to find a flat, how higher education was not yet limited to the wealthy or the massively indebted, how public libraries were properly stocked and staffed.

Still, for now we have the relentless bombardment by inane slogans. The EU referendum and the US Presidential election confirmed that, even if—or especially if—meaningless, phrases repeated ad nauseam will do the job: ‘In general, there is evidence that repetition of political frames tend to be effective, especially when the aim is to reach an audience that is not highly knowledgeable about politics.’[10]  And we are hearing a great deal more of Vox populi. It’s a cheap and handy option. Of course, broadcasters and newspaper journalists will tend to select those opinions which are most striking because of their forcefulness, dogmatism or sheer lunacy but, even knowing this, the spectacle is hugely dispiriting. Quite frankly, to look back at what has been done to this country in recent years and to be told that huge numbers of people are eager to vote for those who did it, are continuing to do it, and planning to do it even more, is mildly astonishing.

The reaction in this house tends to vary between the question addressed to newspaper, radio or television screen (‘Are you completely insane?’) or the statement addressed to the air (‘We’re doomed’).

As, indeed, we seem to be.

 

References

[1] Tove Jansson (who didn’t write only about Moomins), The Summer Book (1972; Sort of Books, 2003), 105.

[2] ‘His Last Bow: An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes’: The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, edited by Leslie S. Klinger, two volumes (New York & London: W. W. Norton, 2005), II, 1443. The editor notes (1425) that the subtitle in the Strand Magazine, where the story first appeared, was ‘The War Service of Sherlock Holmes’.

[3] Hynes, A War Imagined (1990; London: Pimlico, 1992), 412.

[4] Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1937), 2.

[5] Jones, In Parenthesis (London: Faber, 1963), xv.

[6] A War Imagined, 421.

[7] Burgess, Napoleon Symphony (London, Jonathan Cape, 1974), 80.

[8] David Moody, Ezra Pound: Poet. A Portrait of the Man & His Work. Volume II: The Epic Years 1921-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2014), xi.

[9] The Strange Death of Liberal England (London: Granada Publishing, 1970), 75.

[10] Dr Aleksandra Cichocka, political psychologist at the University of Kent, quoted in Steven Poole, ‘Stuck on Repeat’, Guardian (11 May 2017), 7. The ‘American strategist’, Jim Messina, is, apparently, ‘fond of saying that the average person thinks about politics for just four minutes a week’: mentioned by Stephen Bush, in his ‘Politics’ column: New Statesman (12-18 May, 2017), 9. How cheering is that?

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