JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 4.4.09
THURSDAY 2nd April, 2009; I think it’s a date we might remember, although whether as a turning-point in our history, or as something much more fragile than that, remains to be seen. For unusually, it was a day when the news was dominated by images not of conflict, or scandal, or the nagging adversarial battle of everyday politics; but of leaders experiencing a brief moment of unity, in the face of forces much greater than any of them.
In the Scottish Parliament, it was the simple fact of the helicopter tragedy in the North Sea which briefly stilled the rumble of party debate; commentators differed about whether the cancellation of First Minister’s Questions was necessary, but all noted the brief air of dignity which settled on the Parliament as politicians of all parties expressed a common grief. And on the big world stage – well, for better or worse, the image of the leaders of the G20 gathered in London’s Docklands to express their unity in the face of world economic recession will be one for the history books. In the chair, Gordon Brown declared the end of “the Washington consensus” – the extreme free-market ideology that has dominated world affairs since 1980 – and announced the leaders’ shared belief that “growth, to be sustained, has to be shared”.
And needless to say, the first reaction of many – in a culture wedded to scepticism, and addicted to stories of splits, rows, and conflicts – was one of doubt, denial, and mild mockery. In Scotland, some questioned whether the First Minister has always responded to tragedy in such a graceful, non-partisan manner; in London, many sections of the media were reluctant to let go of the idea of a fierce summit confrontation between Britain and America on one hand, France and Germany on the other.
The markets, though, liked what they saw, perhaps recognising that in a crisis as deep as the present one, disunity among major governments is dangerous to the future of free trade and exchange. Down at the grassroots, I would guess that most ordinary citizens were likewise relieved to see world leaders singing from something like the same song-sheet; folk memory tells us that this is the kind of crisis that can lead to war and terrible hardship, if nations stop talking to one another. And the whole episode provokes deep thought about the high value our political culture tends to place on constant opposition and dispute, often of the most futile kind; and about how we might, at this moment of political change, strike a new balance between a rigorous protection of the right to oppose and dissent, and a useful appreciation of the value of occasional moments of unity.
For let’s be clear: at the moment, in Britain, we often seem to enjoy the worst of both worlds, in the sense that we have become more and more squeamishly intolerant of events like this week’s almost entirely peaceful and good-humoured anti-capitalist demonstration in London, while nurturing a political culture which encourages the most witless forms of daily political confrontation between party politicians. I don’t defend the systematic abuse of expenses that seems to be endemic at Westminster; and I think the opposition are absolutely right to challenge aspects of Gordon Brown’s current financial policy.
But the brute fact is that useful political debate in this country is not furthered one inch by the implication either that Labour politicians are particularly personally corrupt, or that Gordon Brown is both stupid and malign in his approach to the wellbeing of the average British citizen; and our addiction to this kind of personalised political bickering and bitching, often mistaken for real political debate, is not only unpleasant in itself, but actively damaging to our chances of identifying effective political solutions to pressing problems which require collective action, implemented with a high level of consent.
And when this kind of political tribalism and grandstanding is extended to the global stage – well, then the results can be truly terrifying. It’s no secret, for example, that the sheer force of market ideology in Washington has probably cost humankind a vital twenty years in the battle against climate change. Like ancient theologians arguing over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, world leaders bickered for decades over the question of whether governments had any right to intervene in such matters, while carbon dioxide thundered into the atmosphere at ever-increasing rates. To put it bluntly, our complete disunity over climate change – both internationally, and within our own societies – has rendered us powerless to act effectively against a truly catastrophic threat; and it should give us pause for thought about the point at which our cherished culture of political back-biting, and automatic opposition, becomes dangerously disempowering.
Real freedom of speech and thought, in other words, is indispensible to the creative future of humanity, and should be defended to the death. But the kind of pathological individualism that mocks every display of unity, that derides the possible of real consensus among thinking people, that denies the power of collective action taken by elected governments with real democratic consent – that is an ideology now as outdated as it is dysfunctional. No doubt many tensions seethed beneath the surface of Thursday’s global meeting in London. But those whose instinct is to talk up those divisions, to deride Gordon Brown’s efforts at consensus, and to mock the smiling photographs of world leaders in harmony, should remember that this is much more than an idle political game. For it’s on that fragile unity of purpose, expressed in those brief images, that the whole future of our world may now depend. And we mock it at our peril; like people trampling on our own last, best hope of a future worth working for, and worth surviving to see.