We are all familiar with the concept of the Arab Spring. The time when hope ignited peoples across the Middle East to overthrow established autocracies and political elites. I am now of the opinion that we are seeing something much more widespread. A Global Spring if you like. You can see it in the American Presidential race, in Brexit and you can follow the same thread that sees a third of French people now willing to vote for a racist party. It is making itself felt in elections in Italy, Spain, and Germany and in most established democracies in the world.
As a member of an established centre ground political party of Government I need to understand what is going on here, or perhaps I will be swept away on a similar tide in the years ahead. Firstly, there is a good side to it. A lack of deference and a move away from tribal support for particular parties is a sign of a more mature and challenging democracy. Challenge for those in positions of power is healthy and if done within the norms of electoral means, holds leaders to account as never before.
But there is a darker side which we need to counter. It comes mainly from the politics of the extremes. We have seen a new and profoundly worrying expression of rage in the US election. The so-called alt-right found in Donald Trump a hook for a style of campaigning that uses vitriol as a weapon. They like to shock with their claims about their opponents. They have weaponised issues like the migrant crisis using social media in pitiless attacks on the most vulnerable people in the world.
It is a phenomenon that exists on this side of the Atlantic too and is not just restricted to the right. We have seen the extraordinary rise of anti-Semitism on the left in British politics. It seems to have infected the Labour Party in a way that just cannot be eradicated.
The factor that allows the new vitriol to thrive is anger. In West Berkshire politics is a pretty civilised business. Passions do get aroused but most of the time we tolerate our opponents. That all changed earlier in the summer with the referendum debate. As a remainer I was subjected to a fair amount of bile. In a public meeting in Newbury a man stood up and pointing a shaking finger at me shouted that I would not be welcome at the war memorial on Remembrance Sunday because of my traitorous views on Britain’s membership of the EU (I will be there, with my fellow veterans!). This climate of anger coupled with the occasional death threat, does not change my view of public life and has not made me change how I do my job. But it has made me begin to worry about how we attract people to stand for office in the future.
Last week the High Court found that the Government was not acting within the law in regards to the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This is the measure whereby a country gives the EU a two year notice of its intention to quit. The law lords were doing what law lords should do: they heard a case and interpreted the law. The response in some newspapers and from some people was extraordinary. There were personal attacks on these judges that were utterly unacceptable in a society that has existed for years on the principle of a free and independent judiciary. The person who brought the case has been threatened with gang rape and murder.
At one end of the spectrum we have someone getting a bit over-excited in a public meeting in Newbury and at the other we have the vilest and most sinister threats to an individual and utterly wrongful attacks on the independence of our judges. The solutions are not easy. Firstly we all need to calm down a bit. This means leadership from the top. Newspapers, commentators and, yes, leading politicians need to reject vitriol as a way to respond to events. It is perfectly possible to disagree with the judges but to defend to the death their right to interpret the law as they see it. Just so as there is no misinterpretation here, the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, while expressing her disappointment at the verdict should have condemned newspapers for their coverage of the case.
If I get a ranting email full of bile and fury I sometimes telephone the sender a day or two later. This often results in a civilised chat and a rather embarrassed semi-apology for the language used. It won’t work with all cases and if we are to see the extension of the use of anger as a tool of legitimate political action we need to address its root cause. An establishment view is to roll the eyes and shake the head. This is shorthand for saying to the public, “Look, you are living longer and have a better quality of life of any generation that has ever lived, so damn well count your blessings and cheer up”. Not a universally successful response.
The alternative is to engage, to explain and to inform. This needs to be done as never before. Politics is complicated; issues are rarely binary and almost nothing or no one is totally right or wrong. Social media and other platforms allow engagement on an unprecedented level and we need to use them. We also need to be more retro. The public meeting went out of fashion in recent decades. I sense it is coming back into vogue. A couple of years ago I held a meeting in Newbury Town Hall to hear people’s views on Gaza. So many came that we had to turn some away. The same will happen when I hold a public meeting to hear people’s views on how they would like to see Brexit happen.
So understanding the fast-shifting politics of the Global Spring is one thing. Responding to it is another. Doing nothing and hoping it will all go away is not an option.