Defending Democracy in an Interconnected World

Autocrats in China, Russia and Iran, and doubtless in other places too, look at what has been going on in the USA with Donald Trump, and declare through their state controlled media that there is something rotten about Western democracy. And they have a point. They draw attention, with a sense of smug satisfaction, to other events too, not least in the UK, which offer further opportunities for criticism. The response to the coronavirus pandemic reveals, they say, weaknesses in countries that put a high value on democracy and personal freedom, and therefore struggle to act effectively. The confusion and uncertainty over Brexit provides them with another example.

Parliamentary democracies with competitive elections every four or five years are by their very nature ill equipped to tackle global emergencies that demand decisive and united action. Such emergencies are likely to multiply in the future. The most dangerous threat is climate change. Other recent events have demonstrated the inadequacy of merely national solutions, including the financial crash of 2008, large scale movements of refugees and, of course, the 2020 pandemic.

Globalization is not the only present challenge to democracy, but it is a major one. As the inability of individual States to control the life experiences of their citizens has become more apparent, anxiety has increased and confidence in democratically elected politicians and previously respected institutions has fallen. Disgruntled electors look for someone to take back control. Arguably, both Brexit and the Trump phenomenon are at least partly a consequence of this.

Global interconnectedness is here to stay. So what should be done? Can democratic government survive? Essentially, it is a question of political priorities. Solutions, if they are to be found at all, depend on recognizing that significant changes, not least in political culture, need to be made. To regain confidence in our ability to make collective decisions peacefully, we need to look at what democracy means with fresh eyes. If the greatest challenges we face are global, so any effective response must also be global. Politics, and with it democracy, if the latter is to survive at all, must have a global dimension.

This is not to say that politics at a more local level is no longer important. Quite the opposite in fact. In an increasingly interconnected world, participation and a sense of belonging at a local level are more crucial than ever. But the global dimension of political activity must also be recognized as vital, and its democratic credentials strengthened.

In the years following the First World War, the League of Nations failed to prevent the second one, largely because it was ignored, or at least inadequately supported, by several of the world’s most powerful nations. They preferred to pursue their own national interests.

The United Nations has taken up the baton of the League of Nations. The UN and its related organizations are not perfect, but if another disaster, even more destructive than the Second World War, is to be averted, countries like the UK must show their support for it. We need to strengthen its democratic credentials, even to the extent of sometimes foregoing our own limited national interests.

The future health of democratic government depends on reliable information being freely available to its electorate. With the arrival of the world wide web this is now as much a global issue as a national one. Anyone seeking to control the information people receive, or to shape public opinion, now has an immensely powerful tool at their disposal, and one not limited by national boundaries.

Freedom of information, opinion and belief has always been a mainstay of democratic government, but this has never been an unlimited right. Regulation is necessary to prevent the publication of material that is misleading, untrue or dangerous. There is now an urgent need to find ways of regulating the new media, so that serious harm to freedom and democracy, whether the result of malice or ignorance, can be prevented.

Inequality of wealth and income, and therefore of opportunity, is another threat. Genuine democracy cannot exist if large numbers of people are excluded from having any influence over decisions that profoundly affect their lives. This too is an international as well as a national problem. National governments can and should take steps, primarily through the tax system, to alleviate inequality. They also have a responsibility to address global exclusion.

No-one, wherever they live and work, should be the victim of decisions being made by others who do not care about their welfare, and who have no interest in meeting their needs. Where this is widespread, democracy cannot thrive, or even survive at all, because less affluent nations, like poorer communities within nations, will quickly lose faith in it. If trust in democracy is lost, in the end, everyone suffers.

The peoples and nations of the world are now inseparably bound together. We need to address the challenges to which this gives rise. Those who we elect to represent us and who exercise political leadership have an urgent responsibility to do so. Otherwise, the leaders of undemocratic countries will continue to rub their hands together, their influence will continue to grow and the principle of democratic government will seem more and more irrelevant.

Old Year, New Year

It always cheers me up when we get past the shortest day of the year. The sun slowly begins to renew its strength and the days start to lengthen. Winter may not be over – by some reckoning it’s only just beginning – but signs of hope are in the air. And in the ground too, as green shoots emerge from buried bulbs.

As the winter solstice passes, our calendars tell us that the old year is passing and a new year is dawning. There is nothing inevitable about the start of a year occurring just then, and the tradition of marking it at different times exists in other cultures. But throughout the world, 2021 conventionally takes over from 2020. The gloomy experience of Covid-19 and the hope of a vaccine, not to mention the final break with the European Union, make the transition seem particularly significant this year for the UK.

For most of us, the move from one year to the next at midnight on December 31st is much more than just the change of one digit in the numbering of years, or the appearance of a new calendar on the kitchen wall. It is a moment to reflect on the events and experiences of the past year, with a mixture of emotions. The ongoing march of the years reminds us that we part of human history. A new year also points us towards the future. A blank page, full of possibilities, lies before us. Anxieties and hopes mingle. Resolutions are made, normally, it must be admitted, quickly to be broken.

The New Year draws people together. As the earth reaches this particular stage in its orbit around the sun, the whole of humanity shares, over one twenty-four hour period, this symbol of time passing. Around the world, people gather together, setting off fireworks, joining hands, taking “a cup of kindness”, singing Auld Lang Syne and wishing each other a “happy New Year” – in non-pandemic years, at least.

There is, however, also something melancholy about the occasion. Perhaps it derives from a sense of loss. A whole year, with all its ups and downs, has gone forever. It reminds us of our mortality, and that, sooner or later, all things must pass. That may be the reason why New Year’s Eve is often obscured behind an alcoholic haze. Nature continues to take its inevitable course, mindless of us, our calendars and our traditions. We are caught up in it, with no way of escape.

Can it really be, though, that the earth’s cycle around the sun is nothing more than the inevitable and meaningless consequence of the fixed laws of nature? That all our feelings of joy and sorrow, all our hopes and dreams, will, like us, quickly vanish into a dark empty nothing? That our sense of community, and our love for those dearest to us, are only mechanisms to help our species survive a little longer?

As 2021 embarks on its way, our hopes for the future can be be founded on more than such empty, fatalistic considerations. We can reject the notion that we are no more than random life forms existing on the surface of a planet spinning around a star in the vastness of space, trying vainly to create a structure and meaning for ourselves with our measures of months and years. Our hopes can rest in the reality of God, the source of all meaning. Our lives, like our earthly home and the universe in which it is set, can be seen as God’s gifts to be valued and cherished. The choice of December 25th as the day to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, and the following twelve days of Christmas that embrace the start of the new year, may in many respects be an arbitrary one, but if we pay attention, it will enable us to have confidence and hope for 2021, or any other year.

Hope for gloomy times

The decision to put the Royal Navy on standby to repel French fishermen illustrates just how depressing things have become. The possibility of a deal with Europe still exists, just, but whether or not it materialises, it is clear that our Government is ready to accept economic disaster and decades of mistrust between us and our closest neighbours, not to mention the threat of the break-up of the UK itself, in the interests of a theoretical and impracticable sovereignty.

A different kind of crisis has been unfolding across the Atlantic. President Trump has been doing his best to undermine democracy and to sow seeds of animosity and mistrust. The UK and the USA are both looking like examples of the failure of democratic government, much to the comfort and amusement of its enemies. Political leaders, indeed the whole process of government, are viewed with scepticism. Political debate is soured by insults and acrimonious rhetoric, and trust is undermined by empty promises.

Ambition for power has always cast a shadow over politics, but the challenges we face today are particularly ominous. The widespread anxiety and uncertainty caused by the pandemic make them worse, providing a gloomy back-drop to it all.

How should we understand what is going on? The tendency of social media to exacerbate division and to make respectful, reasoned debate more difficult is one factor. Another is globalisation, leading to a sense that national freedom and independence are being lost. Yet another is the failure of political leadership to demonstrate courage and integrity when difficult decisions have to be made.

Underlying all these factors is a deep and widespread pessimism, in the West at least, about the future of the planet. As global population rises, alongside its ever more sophisticated ability to exploit the earth’s resources, a climate and environmental catastrophe looms. Traditional politics, based on the nation State, appears incapable of rising to the challenge. Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock warned of the distress caused by rapid social and technological change 50 years ago. Its warning is much more critical now.

How can democracy survive these challenges? It is a task for us all, whether we hold political power or not. It is important not to be intimidated by the siren and often passionate voices proclaiming that there are easy answers to profound and complex problems. This is not a time for slogan politics. Demonizing those we disagree with, however provocative they may be, is not likely to help. Addressing the issues we face thoughtfully and honestly is an important starting point, and those who do so need to be encouraged. We all have opinions and convictions, and we must find ways of expressing them, and also to listen respectfully to those held by others, for none of us has a monopoly of truth.

In the end, cheerfulness and kindness are probably more powerful than we imagine. And for those of us who believe that prayer makes a difference, we need to make our prayers for those in positions of power and influence a priority. We confront real dangers in the months and years to come. How it will all turn out is far from certain. Ultimately, our hope rests not in fallible political leadership, nor in the ability of humanity to solve the problems it faces, but in God, who in Bethlehem’s stable has brought us a light that will never be extinguished, however deep the darkness.

“Honour the Emperor”

In his letter to the Romans in the New Testament, Paul tells his readers to obey those in political power because they are servants of God. In a similar vein, Peter says in his first letter that believers should submit to the Emperor and the Governors because they were appointed by the Lord. There is an echo of the words of Jesus at his trial before Pilate that the Governor’s authority over Jesus was given to him by God.

These are remarkable statements, given that at the time believers faced discrimination and sometimes cruel persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities. The followers of Jesus rejected the idolatry and violence that was central to the culture of Rome, but they were nevertheless urged to honour its rulers. Understandably, they did not want to be seen as rebels. They trod a narrow and dangerous path, as there were definite limits to their obedience when the authorities’ demands contradicted their Christian convictions.

In principle, the same guidance applies to us, but our circumstances are complicated by the fact that we live in a democracy. Followers of Jesus are duty bound to obey the law and respect political authorities, unless to do so means failing in their commitment to him. In practice, however, it is not always easy to decide when this line has been crossed. Sincere Christians have often disagreed about it. Ever since New Testament times, when believers struggled with difficult decisions relating to idolatry, marriage and slavery, dilemmas have confronted those who have sought to be both loyal citizens and faithful followers of Jesus.

When Jesus was confronted with the thorny issue of whether to pay Roman taxes, he said that the Emperor should be paid what belongs to the Emperor, and God should be paid what belongs to God. This was an astute way of avoiding the trap set by his opponents, and also an indirect but clear endorsement that such taxes should be paid. Paul also urged his readers to do the same. Deciding just what belongs to the Emperor and what belongs to God, however, remains for each generation of believers, and each individual Christian, to resolve for themselves.

The New Testament was written when Christians, along with everyone else, had no say whatever in who would govern them. Democracy, of the kind we are familiar with, would have been inconceivable. Honouring those who govern us, when we have shared in the process of choosing them, raises a new set of issues for us to think about.

As well as the responsibility to submit and obey, honouring a democratically chosen Government inescapably also involves honouring the means by which it is elected. Christians, like everyone else, are no longer passive subjects of an imposed system of political control. We are active participants in that system. As such, we should exercise that responsibility thoughtfully and prayerfully, not only by voting, which is but one part of the democratic process, but also by our prayers, by making our views known and, for some, by active political involvement.

Honouring the government and loving our neighbour means we have a responsibility to value and uphold the processes and institutions that make true democracy possible. Government by the people, which is literally what democracy means, is fragile. It depends, among other things, on a properly informed and engaged electorate, the fair administration of justice, proper law-making procedures in Parliament and a Civil Service free of corruption. If we are to take the Bible’s teaching seriously, we have to recognize the importance of these things too.

The acceptance of democratic government has taken many centuries to achieve. It reflects the principle that every person has equal value, which in turn reflects the teaching of the New Testament. In the face of widespread mistrust and cynicism, it is especially important that we play our part in ensuring it survives and prospers. Major reforms may well be necessary to make democracy work effectively in a rapidly changing world, but the alternatives are worse.

The “emperor” we honour is not the autocratic rule of one man or a clique of the privileged, but the rule of law overseen by our representatives in Parliament. If the Christians of the Roman Empire were instructed to honour the system of Government under which they lived, how much more should we?

Head or Heart?

We are frequently told by our leaders that we are “following the science”. A problem, for them, and for us, is that science takes time. It requires disciplined thinking. It is not usually clear cut. It deals with probabilities rather than certainties. It’s easier and more immediately rewarding to follow the heart, even while claiming to follow the science. The heart moves us in ways science rarely does. As the very word suggests, emotion is usually what motivates our acting and decision making. We love, we desire, we fear, we hate, we admire, we envy, and therefore we act.

It’s not altogether clear cut, of course. The head plays its part too. We make lists, we calculate the pros and cons, we look at reviews and the experience of others, we seek advice. But generally, at the end of the day, the heart rules. We are very good at finding the evidence we like and ignoring what doesn’t appeal to us, especially now that access to information (and disinformation) is so readily available. However hard we try to be rational, when we decide what to buy, who to vote for, what school to send our children to, what TV programme to watch, who, or whether to marry, or whatever, if we are honest, our decisions are usually based more on the way we feel rather than on anything we could justify logically.

Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that. If we feel good about something, decisions made on that basis may well be good ones. Experience may have taught us that feelings (instinct, as we may call it) are a reliable guide to action.

But on the other hand, the heart is very good at leading us astray, especially when there are powerful interests working hard to manipulate our feelings for their own benefit. Getting hold of our money is essential for businesses if they are to be profitable. Gaining our support and vote is necessary for those ambitious for political power. Great efforts and expertise are employed to understand and shape our fears and desires, and so to control the decisions we make. Recognizing and resisting these schemes is difficult, and can be costly if it means we find ourselves out of step with the majority.

Powerful as they may be, professional opinion shapers are far from the only factor in determining our emotional response to the world around us. Especially given the kind of media world we live in, images and stories of all sorts frequently break through the morass of information around us, feeding our imaginations, gaining our sympathy for those presented as victims, raising our anxieties and shaping our sense of what is important. Whether they are true, or representative of anything really significant, is beside the point. One of the key tasks of those who want to shape our decision making is to try and understand the emotional impact such stories are having, often through the use of focus groups, and to design their strategy accordingly.

Life would not be worth living without the joy, the thrill, the inner peace that the heart brings. We need the passion and the sense of urgency that leads to action. But we also need to be aware of what is driving us and to interrogate our feelings, with sufficient humility to accept that they may be unreliable. We should be suspicious of anyone who uses emotive language or slogans to gain our attention or support. We need to ask ourselves how our reading and watching shape our view of the world. We need to try to understand those we disagree with.

It would nice if life was black and white, with straightforward decisions to be made, without shades of grey to complicate things. But it isn’t. Especially in times of crisis, we need clear heads. Immediate, decisive action may sometimes be needed, but almost always, a little extra time to listen and reflect leads to a better outcome.

Can democracy survive the mess we’re in?

I’m thinking about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit (or indeed, Brexit itself), the inability to respond well to Covid, leading to “world beating” infection rates and economic decline, Trumpism (which is not limited to the USA), the tragically slow response to climate change, the prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom and the obscene inequalities in wealth and opportunity that persist. In the UK, as in many other countries, we seem to be incapable of making fair and sensible collective decisions.

Why? Does it boil down to the self-centred ambition or mere incompetence of our politicians? To some extent, no doubt, it does, but it is far too easy to shift the blame in this way. Those who make decisions on our behalf are products of our own decisions in the ballot box. We entrust them with this responsibility, and they reflect our values.

If democracy is failing, then why? Can it be revived? In the world of the twenty-first century, has power swung decisively away from nationally elected politicians? If so, where does it now lie? How can the powerful be made accountable for the decisions they take?

For democracy to work, people need to understand and value it. We need to feel we are in a position to participate in our government, and to make properly informed decisions when we cast our votes. Political education at school is so important if this is to be acheived. It is vital that children and young people develop a sense of how their government functions, and why democracy is important. In the UK, we have not paid enough attention to this.

The way news and opinions are broadcast is also crucial. The mainstream media has too often given the impression that politicians as a breed cannot be trusted. This cynical atmosphere undermines democratic government.

The freedom of the press and broadcasting from political control has always been an important feature of democracies, but the arrival of electronic methods of communication means it is more important than ever. Also, it has also never been more difficult to achieve. Clever political marketing and spin, sometimes deliberately intended to mislead, can now with breath-taking speed be heard and seen by millions, giving new power to political opportunists.

We all have a tendency to justify the opinions we hold by seeking out other people who agree with us. The social media now make this much easier, with the result that prejudices are reinforced and mutual understanding is made more difficult.

Another challenge confronting democratic government is that national boundaries now matter much less than they did. Globalisation has profoundly changed our lives in a myriad of ways. The decisions made by individuals and businesses are increasingly only understandable when looked at within a global context. Most political decisions, however, are still made at the level of the nation state. This disjunction is highly significant, as it makes it much more difficult for politics to address the issues that matter most. To make matters worse, the power of trans-national political bodies like the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the European Union seems to be reducing.

Whether and how democracy can survive these, and no doubt many other challenges, is far from clear. No-one can pretend to know how things will unfold in the decades to come. The mess we’re in, nationally and internationally, shows that things need to change. Perhaps we need a greater emphasis on collective action, and less on individual freedom, in order to take decisions in an effective and timely way.

There will be a price to pay, and without a new kind of political leadership we will not succeed. We need stable and courageous leadership based on values and an integrity we respect. A leadership that can take on the vested interests of the minority. The only way this is likely to happen is as a result of a significant change of mood in the country as a whole. The mess we’re in will probably have to deepen before that happens. Perhaps, in time, the present Covid crisis will prove to be a wake-up call.

Belonging

Research by the think-tank Onward has produced evidence to show that volunteering, social club membership and church attendance have been dropping significantly in recent years. Many more people are also now living on their own, and local shops and post offices are disappearing. One could add other factors, such as the increased centralization, and therefore remoteness, of Government. The study sees trends such as these as destructive to “social fabric” and our sense of community, particularly in the more deprived parts of the country, and as having damaging political consequences.

Belonging to a local community like a church and contributing to its activities demands tolerance and a willingness to compromise and work alongside others, qualities that are essential for a healthy society as a whole. These qualities are increasingly missing today, as trust in our institutions diminishes and anger, suspicion and fear grow.

Onward‘s report suggests that combating these tendencies should be a priority, and that greater emphasis should be given by Government to community renewal. No doubt this is important, and more support should be give to local community organisations. However, when it comes to church attendance (and, come to that, for mosque, synagogue or temple attendance as well), community renewal and a feeling of belonging may be an important consequence, and for some even a significant motivating factor, but at its heart is something quite different. Churches are religious organisations, and without a faith in God and a commitment to Christ, they and the sense of community they foster would not be possible.

The reality of God is the underlying source of welfare for human society. Without God and God’s care for us and our welfare, we have only ourselves to look to for standards and guidance for living. Some claim it is liberating to do away with God, but the fragility of a purely human foundation for living makes it deeply unsatisfying and dangerous.

We may congratulate ourselves on the moral and humanitarian progress we have achieved over time, but our record is a mixed one, and historically, attempts to build society on explicitly godless foundations have generally been disastrous. Admittedly, the power of religion has not always been used for good, but frequently those who have led the most significant social progress have been men and women of faith. Principles and standards we invent or develop for ourselves carry no authority other than what we choose from time to time to give them. There have been, and are, many different notions about what makes for a good life and a good society. Without God, there is no reliable basis for distinguishing them from each other.

In practice, God’s guidance is not easy to discern, and those who claim to know it can be mistaken. Those who do not acknowledge God at all can of course contribute to a good and just society. Nevertheless, without a foundation to our personal and social welfare that ultimately derives from God, we are lost.

Policy initiatives aimed at renewing a sense of community are important and deserve support. Our most important responsibilities, however, are to bear witness to God and God’s love for us as the only secure foundation for good human relationships, and with humility and resolve to try to build on that foundation.

Peter Shepherd (September 2020)

Politics and Big Data

The world is going through a communication revolution. It affects almost everything we do, and is shaking up our social and economic life in profound and often unpredictable ways. Covid-19 has accelerated the process as on-line traffic has grown.

Business has responded eagerly to the opportunity. Global corporations with the ability to profit from the manipulation of the massive quantities of data now available dominate the commercial landscape, and a bewildering array of new businesses rush to claim a stake in this twenty-first century gold rush. Marketing techniques grow ever more sophisticated and new products become available, all bringing with them their own terminology.

Commercial interests are only part of the story. Social relationships and leisure activities have been transformed. Criminals are naturally keen to get involved. Politics is also changing. Those seeking power who are able to gain access to big data, and to analyse and effectively make use of them, have a decisive advantage. It enables them to understand and shape our needs, fears and desires, and so to influence how we vote. None of us are immune from being influenced in this way, any more than we are by other kinds of advertising. Why else would Governments and political parties take so seriously those who have the skills to help them in this way?

Politicians have always sought popularity by identifying and making use of people’s fears and ambitions. The difference now is that the tools available are much more effective, and the scale and speed with which this can be done has dramatically increased. There is a worrying international dimension to it, as Governments try to influence political life in other countries. Domestically, in the UK as in other countries, it is vitally important to be aware of the new powers available to our politicians, and to understand their significance, so that their wrong use can be curtailed and democracy protected.

The outcomes the Brexit referendum and the 2020 election, and probably elections before that, were more a consequence of the collection and analysis of data, accompanied by the effective management of communication, than anything else. The use of focus groups, professionally designed slogans, targeted communication and carefully controlled press briefings illustrate this. The lack of meaningful accountability, especially when it comes to social media, also raises the danger of “fake” news, designed to manipulate public opinion. The most useful are not out-and-out lies, but attempts to mislead or obscure the truth, although even blatant, easily disproved untruths can often be effective.

A particularly worrying trend reported in the press recently are the steps being taken by the British Government to keep all official communication firmly under centralized control, so that nothing will emerge from different Departments or the Civil Service except that which has the sanction of 10 Downing Street or the Cabinet Office. This is more than merely an attempt to ensure that the message is a consistent one, something which governments have always tried to do. The ability to manage information and control communication has given unprecedented power to a few individuals at the centre. It threatens the respect owing to independent judgement and expression, even within the corridors of Whitehall, a respect necessary for healthy government.

The powers now available to governments have grown enormously, and it is important to remember that a balance of power is essential for any country that values its freedom. Allowing dissenting views and a variety of opinion to be heard are essential. In principle, this will no doubt be accepted by most politicians, but protecting this freedom in practice is the responsibility of us all. Threats to it are not always obvious. The communication revolution we are going through requires us to think carefully what it means, and to take steps to make sure it is not being undermined by the powers now available to those who exercise political power over us.

The Legacy of Empire

What a disastrous time for the UK! First, the down-grading of public services due to the Government’s austerity programme, then the tragedy of Brexit, and now the ongoing mismanagement of Covid-19. How have we got into such a state? A huge number of people live in poverty with insecure employment and housing, the justice system is creaking at the seams, school and hospital buildings are falling apart and local councils have been stripped of their powers. We have turned our backs on our European neighbours, cast adrift into the dangerous seas of cut-throat global trade and we languish at the bottom of the Covid deaths league table. What a state to enter a crucial stage of confronting probably the most dangerous threat of all – global warming.

These are complicated issues. It’s tempting to look for villains to blame, but it’s more important to find the underlying reasons why we find ourselves in such a horrible situation. Boris and Dominic would be near the top of the list of villains, with their uncaring, gung-ho politicking. But deeper, institutional factors, some the consequence of our national history, or at least the way we tell it to ourselves, are more significant. A proud and unrealistic sense of who we are and our place in the world is doing us untold harm.

Domestically, a corrosive inequality exists, not just in wealth, although that is an important part of it, but in terms of privilege. An outdated class system lies at the heart of it. Status and power still belong, predominantly, to far too small a section of society, mostly privately educated white men who assume their birthright is the right to rule. There is a sad lack of understanding about the reality of life for the many people who live and work outside the circle of the privileged. The elite cultivate the friendship of the rich and they make use of their considerable political instincts to maintain their position. A successful tactic has been the promotion of Britishness and British values, which they claim to embody, as better than anything anyone else has to offer.

Linked to this is the legacy of Empire. Boosted by resilience and victory in two world wars, the notion that we represent the pinnacle of civilization has been encouraged. After all, we possess the “Mother of Parliaments”, we were the cradle of the Industrial Revolution and we once ruled a quarter of the world’s population. No doubt this gives us British much to be proud of, but also much of which to be ashamed – wealth derived from the cruel use of superior military hardware and the use of slave labour among the worst examples. There is, and really never has been, any room for any feelings of superiority or self-satisfaction. If the response to Covid-19 has taught us anything, it is that we have a great deal to learn from others.

So what is to be done? Only radical measures are likely to overcome such fundamental problems, and that won’t happen in a hurry. Powerful vested interests are naturally resistant to change. Might Covid-19 be the kind of crisis that makes change possible? Anyway, my suggestions would include reforming the House of Lords (so it’s no longer full of lords), abolishing the honours system, reducing the scale and expense of the monarchy, taking privileges away from private schools, taxing wealth and strengthening local Government. If we were able to do at least some of these things, our political life would be healthier and we would be better able to avoid the failures that have dogged our national life in recent years.

Against Extremism

Spring smashed all previous records for its hours of sunshine. An unexpected blessing for lock-down! This followed a less welcome record-breaking February, when rain fell incessantly, in a few places as much as four times more than the average.

Extremes in weather are not the only extremes we face. The historian Eric Hobsbawn described the twentieth century as The Age of Extremes. He wasn’t talking about the weather, of course, but primarily about political extremism and its consequences: two world wars, Nazism, Soviet Communism and the Cold War. The 1900’s were not unique in exhibiting such extremism, but increased technological and economic powers made the damage it did that much greater. Men with the political ambition and cruelty of Hitler and Stalin have always existed, but have not had the machinery of a modern industrial state to help them.

How you think of extremism depends on your experience and your understanding of what is normal. Three months of almost unrelenting sunshine is not at all extreme in many parts of the world, and some behaviour we consider normal now would be regarded as extremely odd or offensive by previous generations. People who speak out from beyond the boundary of what most consider normal may at the time be condemned as extremists, but they often have important things to say. Subsequent observers may well regard what was then considered normal by the majority to be extreme – slavery comes to mind. Notions of what extremism is changes over time, and from place to place. We might do well to consider it not in terms of particular behaviours, but in terms of its attitude towards those who disagree. Real extremists are those who have no respect for other points of view, no time to listen to them and are committed to fostering a spirit of animosity and confrontation. They may therefore be in the majority.

The twenty-first century has so far been no stranger to extremists, political or religious. They thrive on external threats of one kind or another, real or invented. Promising simple answers to complex problems, they widen divisions between groups of people, creating anger and resentment and sowing the seeds of conflict.

As threats to our safety and prosperity multiply in today’s world, a longing for heroes to slay the dragons causing our confusion and anxiety, and to return us to the world we once knew, is natural. The cry is for strong, charismatic leaders, proclaiming simple and inspiring battle cries. At times there is a need for such leadership, but real dangers lurk in the background. One such danger is the tendency to search for someone to blame, and to portray them as an enemy who to be silenced or defeated. In the UK, minority groups, immigrants or Muslims for example, are good candidates, or foreigners, represented by the European Union. Another danger is to over-simplify the issues involved. Slogans (“Get Brexit Done”, “Protect the NHS”) might have some role to play in inspiring and motivating support, but the idea that they are meaningful, or a reliable basis for action, is an illusion. A further danger is to polarise debate and demonise critics. All these are signs of extremism.

Even, and perhaps especially in the face of an urgent crisis like Covid-19, the willingness to listen to opposing points of view, to consult widely, to accept the need for compromise and, where possible, to achieve consensus is vital. Such principles in our national life, and in today’s global political culture, are in short supply.

The ingredients are present for the current century to be as much an age of extremism as the last. Co-operation and respect, both globally and nationally, are needed more than ever. Sadly, the signs are not hopeful. What is needed is an acceptance that other people, who have a different point of view from our own, may have something to say worth listening to, and might even be able to change our minds. We need to find the kind of leaders who will steer us away from extremism and towards a more inclusive, co-operative way of living.