In all our sanctuaries we sit at risk

Our present democracies will not rescue us from ourselves.


For the young, it will already seem a long time ago that the Soviet Communist bloc effectively closed down, its remarkable leader Mikhail Gorbachev introducing “Perestroika,” its various constituent states, including Russia itself, “giving way” to democracy in remarkably quick succession. A major symbol of that dramatic and joyful time was the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1990. As its concrete blocks were knocked away and Berliners came together across this unnatural division now defunct, the whole world seemed to shift on its axis. No longer would it revolve around West vs East, USA vs USSR, with everyone else cowering beneath those two appalling shadows. Europe too was now a different entity, part of a new and wider world dispensation and a more complex balance of forces.

Things rush on. Horrors old and new preoccupy us these days, but we should not forget the euphoria and hope of that time of nearly 25 years ago when the Cold War ended. Myself no longer young, brought up in the Cold War’s shadow, I remember its conclusion as a still recent wonder and the relief that followed, however temporary, remains palpable.

But of course there were all sorts of different ways one could understand the extraordinary events of 1990. The UK Prime Minister, the late Margaret Thatcher, took a characteristically gung-ho line. “We” had “won.” “They” had “lost.” Yah-boo. Good had triumphed over Evil, Light over Dark. She trumpeted a victory.

A very different approach was taken by the UK Roman Catholic Archbishop of the time, the late Basil Hume.

In a speech delivered that same year, (his introductory address to the Ampleforth Conference, 1990) he in effect rebuked Thatcher for her puerile triumphing. It was simply not true that one system had proved itself the right one, or even that some sort of victory had taken place, along with some sort of defeat. The Archbishop said that, whatever their obvious and profound differences, merits and demerits, extents and limits of human rights or abuse etc, both “are economic, political and social systems that have failed signally to befriend humanity and to reverence and respect individual dignity. At the same time, and consistently, they have adopted similar attitudes towards nature and the environment. They have been aggressive, insensitive and short-sighted.” Both systems were thus failures and a threat to Creation. The fact that the Eastern Empire had now fallen meant simply that one failed and brutal project had hit the buffers a little earlier than the other.

Was the Archbishop right ? Personally I believe so, and as a citizen of the UK, whose civilisation is presently being dismantled by Thatcher’s heirs, in terms both of structures and moral values, with little learned from the international banking disaster of 2008, I believe further falls and collapses are imminent and the need for new answers across the board has become desperate. For our survival’s sake we need to up our game.    

I am hopelessly ill-equipped to see much further than this, let alone propose concrete or detailed answers to all the obvious questions. But if we say, summarising radically, that the Soviet bloc worked, and failed to work, through excessive reliance on an unaccountable and brutal State ; and Democracy as envisaged by the present Right Wing works, and fails to work, through excessive license given to the unaccountable and brutal Individual, then perhaps we can catch a glimpse of what has to follow, for our survival‘s sake.

None of the old forms seem adequate to the task. But some essential principles that led to those forms must surely be re-visited.

What is this world? What aske men to have?” (Arcite, The Knight’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer). Across contemporary Society, it continues acceptable and is even seen as commendable for individuals to seek to realise themselves and achieve social standing and “success” by pursuing and accruing gross and superfluous material wealth and the trappings and comforts such wealth makes possible, however excessive and divisive these must inevitably be. Is Greed and Envy the engine, then, which powers Democracy and protects our Freedoms, the Rights of Man ? Is this what the various faiths propound for humankind ?

But, if not this, if not Greed, Envy, irresponsible exploitation and acquisition, without concern for wider or future cost, what else might we be alive for ? And how can social structures that promote a higher, more responsible and care-filled state of being, a higher set of aspirations, be protected ?

I shall turn for my conclusion to a literal example which I see also as a metaphor. I cannot do better.

The public park. It is a pleasant place. The soil is rich there and the flowers are carefully tended. There are expanses of grass to lie and play on. The grass is glossy in the evening sun. 

We take our dogs walking in the park. They rush about joyfully, chasing one another, chasing the balls or sticks we throw for them. And they defecate joyfully before rushing on.

There is a dog in all of us, and that dog has a nature which needs close attention. It can turn nasty, especially when anxious. But whatever its mood, it will be acting within its nature to defecate in the park whenever we take it walking there.

And slowly the park will become impossible to take our children to. It will no longer be safe or hygienic. It will become a danger to their health and their future lives.

Unless we do something to clean up the mess our dogs leave behind.

I don’t know about other countries, but in the UK, it has needed a law and the threat of penalty, to persuade people to take a little plastic bag with them when they walk their dogs in the park, so that a dog’s excrement is not the result and signature of each human visit.

Most people see the necessity for this greater show of social responsibility, but they need a regulation to ensure they practise what they know to be right.

Thus, I think that, for the Earth to survive, for the park we inherited to remain available to us, and viable for our children, we need Government to be strong enough to regulate our natures and our behaviour on our behalf, better than we ourselves do at present. Equally, though, and just as crucially, we need to ensure that Government itself is kept sufficiently in check so that it does not abuse its powers. Of course I do not know how either of these enormous tasks might be achieved.

However we do it, we have to establish from first principles a new balance of those two elements, the Individual and the State, new shapes for our Democracy. In the UK, the Right presently in the ascendancy hates social accountability, regulation, the State and the taxes a strong State requires, and with astonishing success is progressively destroying the achievements of several generations since the Victorian age, who sought to build a State capable of sustaining a just and civilised urban Society. The political Right of the present age are like over-indulged adolescent hoodlums stalking the main street, smashing what they can. They will fight without scruple to maintain their ascendancy by playing on our fears and prejudices. For our hope henceforward as a civilisation, we have to spurn utterly and urgently this regressive hoodlum mind-set, its hollow public-school self-assurance exhumed from the nineteenth century. We have to be willing in doing so to think and re-think radically what we are for on this Earth, and what sort of State we therefore need, what sort of powers it should have, to help us up our game and rescue our inheritance from ourselves.