Monday, 2 October 2017

Are we behaving as if it's the 1930s?

My novel opens in 1918 on the day women, aged 30, finally got the 'married women's vote'. Ninety-nine years ago around 8 million women stood alongside men, in the polling booths. It took another ten years for universal suffrage to be extended to all in the UK. The 'Votes for Women'  movement was a grass-roots pressure group forcing the government's hand. Today, almost a century later,  we hear how votes for a referendum in Catalonia - for a declaration of independence from Spain - was banned by Spain's constitutional court. Police used force to try to block voting. As an interviewer on 'Today' stated Spain is a young democracy, having been ruled by Franco from pre-world war two until his death in 1975. In other words they are still learning how democracy works.

My father always said the USA is a young country, implying they are still learning how to run themselves whilst, apparently, being the most powerful nation in the world. When the USA went to the presidential polls last year, Donald Trump, at best 'a wild card' with his lack of  political experience, gained fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, a political heavy-weight, yet he was voted in as President.
This was described as a populist movement against the political elite.

In Britain we have had a referendum which asked us simply 'should the UK remain in the EU?'.
In another soi disant populist attack on our political status quo the vox populi was to leave the EU.

The situation in Spain, the USA and in the UK show democracy in action, struggling for birth or re-birth, but shifts in people's perception of who they want to represent them are taking place. In Germany Mrs Merkel has been voted in for a fourth term as Chancellor, but with neo-Nazis nipping at her heels. Her stability seems desirable but at a considerable cost if neo-Nazism is on the move.

My novel ends two weeks after Britain has declared war on Germany in 1939. Europe and the USA beat the Hitler dictatorship. The slump of 1929 sent shockwaves through western economies and people were poor, unemployment was very high and the lot of the common man - and woman - was desperately hard in the 1930s. Economic unrest can lead to civil unrest and war.

Do we have this level of civil unrest and poverty now, causing populist movements ie Trump's ascendancy and the UK referendum? It is said parts of Bristol, in the UK, are as poor as the dreadful days of the 1930s. But is this a localised pocket of poverty? Are children walking the streets barefoot as pictures from the 1930s reveal?

It seems one reason for the populist vote for Trump was a result of the American rust belt ... declining industry, joblessness, folk forced to move to find work. A reason for our UK referendum leading to Brexit was, similarly, joblessness, a belief that being in the EU meant Eastern Europeans were free to travel to the UK and take 'our jobs' and school places. Again joblessness or austerity have, possibly, created a gass roots movement leading to a protest against current politics and politicians. More voted in the UK ref than in any general election. Is this democracy at work? I would defend the right, of course, for people to have a referendum. If the people of Catalonia want a referendum it's easy for me to say they should have it. But what if London wanted a referendum to split from the rest of the UK, or Birmingham, or, as nearly happened, in Scotland's referendum, the Scots voted to leave the UK? We wouldn't want that level of independence and break up. Spain likely doesn't want Catalonia to leave it. Democracy is hard to achieve; it can lead to outcomes we don't all want.

Thus democracy is good if the results of a democratic vote go the way you want it to. I didn't vote for our Conservative government, I think its austerity policy has damaged thousands of our most vulnerable citizens and I certainly didn't vote for Brexit. However, since 2010, Britain has had a democratically elected Conservative government, which I don't like, but we aren't a dictatorship. Are the conditions across the USA and Europe as bad as the 1930s? Blaming East Europeans for our joblessness sounds familiar. Despite my dislike of Trump and our Conservative government we don't have neo-Nazis nipping at our heels like Chancellor Merkel in Germany. Aren't they the elements to watch? Trump, austerity Britain and our Conservatives will go. Democratically. But we know what damage was done in 1933 by Hitler and his Nazis.And we have just seen Attwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale' on UK TV.  Let's hope the conditions in the USA and Europe are not the same now as in the 1930s, nor Gilead. Let's hope further discontent can be avoided and no extremist force takes over in any of our democracies in the forseeable future. Perhaps we are all still learning how to be democratic, not just Spain. Let's hope upheavals in the land are small ones and not the seismic shifts of the 1930s. We don't want another 1939.

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