First century Roman senator and historian Tacitus railing against the greed of imperial Rome said, “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace”. Sitting up all night in the wake of the seasonal festivities I found myself glued to CNN (sad I know) and the pending American train wreck that has become known as the fiscal cliff. It is hard to watch the political leaders of a country one respects and admires playing chicken with the livelihoods of tens of millions of ordinary, hard-working Americans, and much of the world beyond. As I watched I was struck by two phenomena all too evident in both America and Europe today: the creeping extremism of the political ‘mainstream’; and the growing detachment between the political virtual reality of capitals and the lives of ordinary people.
The creeping extremism/unworldliness of the ‘mainstream’ has been under way for some time. The post-war ‘one nation’ generation that was infused with a spirit of ‘doing the right thing’ has passed. Of course, the post war West was certainly not short of political folly but not on this scale. Moreover, democracy used to by and large work with the ballot box a correcting mechanism punishing those that ventured too far right or left. Sadly, be it in Washington, Brussels, London or any Western capital what I have witnessed over the past twenty years or so has been a growing intolerance of the ‘other’ in the political mainstream, with the people seen as gullible suckers to be manipulated one way or t'other.
Much of this is to do with the growing influence of political activists via one-thought ‘think tanks’ or single issue pressure groups. Indeed, activists have not only successfully inserted themselves between the people and their politicians but forced politicians too often to look to them for legitimisation rather than the people. Today many politicians on both sides of the Atlantic are drawn from the ranks of such groups. Watching both Democrat and Republican politicians last night twist the twisted statistics provided by such groups I was struck by how little room for manoeuvre anyone had given the need not to be seen to give an inch for fear of losing the support not of the people but of the activist base. Be it spending cuts or tax hikes the perceived impact on the people was simply one weapon in a war that was almost entirely of the political class’s own making.
Too many in the political establishments on both sides of the Atlantic believe people denied both leadership and choice have but one option; to vote for one set of failed ideologues or another. In fact a form or street politics is emerging reflected in the rapid emergence of new political parties, such as the UK Independence Party. The establishment tries to sneer off such parties but they are here to stay precisely because of the growing disconnect between the establishment’s world/euro-view and that of ordinary people.
In Britain political discourse is dominated by a false ‘one nation’ narrative and an implicit shift to the left by the London metropolitan political elite and their media ‘chums’ under the guise of political correctness. To them Britons are either ‘all in this together’ or part of a tolerant multicultural kaleidoscope of togetherness. The reality is very different; a ‘society’ fractured by the failed experiment of hyper-immigration in which the gap between rich and poor only gets wider with a political class unable to confront the mess their inept social experimentation has created.
On the Continent the gap between political fantasy and reality is even more marked. With Chancellor Merkel yesterday warning that the Euro crisis can only get worse Brussels Centre is singing the same one-note tune; the very mess created by ‘Europe’ can only be solved by more Europe. Come to my Dutch village or go to any community across Europe and it is quickly evident that such nonsense is seen pretty much as Tacitus saw the Roman Empire – the usurpation of legitimacy and democracy in the name of a false peace.
The detachment of Europe’s political class from its peoples is simply accelerating Europe’s decline as ‘leaders’ drive disunited and very disparate Europeans towards a political fantasy land that can only fail. For America the stakes are potentially even higher. If American politicians cannot lead at home what hope or chance have these cliff dwellers got of credibly leading the rest of us abroad?
Of course Washington struck an eleventh hour temporary ‘deal’ but it is not one that in any way bridges the divide between high spenders and low taxers. It is merely a truce in Washington’s war against Americans (and the rest of us).
Washington should be ashamed of itself this morning; but of course Washington is not.
Happy New Year!
Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council and of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome.