As my colleague Adam Lent has argued, whether the result is disaster or near death experience for the UK the way the Scottish referendum campaign has unfolded is the most powerful indication yet of the enfeeblement of the Westminster political elite. Other consequential possibilities for humiliation loom large, including a strong showing for UKIP at the next General Election and a vote to leave the European Union. Whatever the virtues of Scottish independence, Mr Farage and national sovereignty there is no doubt each cause benefits hugely from our loss of faith in an establishment which has in one form or another held sway since the emergence of modern Parliamentary democracy in the mid nineteenth century.
People are angry about other people, about their own lives and about the state of their country. After first blaming each other the politicians promise to address the causes of our anger but virtually no one – including, one strongly suspects, themselves – believes a word of it. It is human to focus on the personalities but vital that we interpret the legitimacy crisis as more than a unfortunate coming together of events and poor leadership.
Think of it this way. For the overwhelming majority of human beings for nearly all of our evolution from nomads to particle physicists three conditions applied. First, we only knew much about, or engaged with, people much like ourselves. Those unlike us were assumed to be enemies or curiosities. Second, we lived under conditions of scarcity with relatively simple material expectations and needs. Third, we accepted and generally deferred to relatively fixed hierarchies of power and prestige based on religion, bloodline or more latterly class.
Since the Enlightenment, with occasional backtracks and by-ways, the West has been accelerating ever faster away from the conditions in which our social character and deep culture developed. Things cannot be reversed. Nor should they be because the progressive future involves transcending these conditions to reach a higher stage of human flourishing. This is the stage of cosmopolitan citizens inhabiting a cosmopolitan world. It is stage in which individual aspiration is focussed on the things that make life most enjoyable and fulfilling; friendship, generosity, autonomy, creativity. This is the stage where we govern ourselves identifying, discussing and solving problems together naturally and continuously in ways in which we only now occasionally do in the very best or very worst of circumstances.
But we now inhabit a disorientating and dark twilight world. Forced to live among strangers and in a shrinking world but not knowing how to understand, empathise and collaborate with those different to ourselves. Obsessed with an individualistic and materialistic account of success and achievement and then either finding it we can’t attain it or - almost as bad – that it is meaningless when we do. Unwilling to be governed but not yet willing or able to govern ourselves.
(Note that that each of these transitions concerns broadly one of the three main forms of social power; respectively solidarity, individual aspiration and authority. Each of the three cylinders which pump the engine of progress is cracked. This is why rich, technologically advanced, reasonably well educated societies seem unable to solve many of their biggest challenges; for example, tackling inequality, responding to population ageing, facing up to climate change.)
If this all seems too big and too abstract it can be brought back to topical concerns. The first painful transition from tribalism to cosmopolitanism is reflected in wars of religion and identity, the upsurge of anti-immigrant feeling or the inability of international governance to cope with international problems. The second, from scarcity to post materialism, is reflected in rage about living standards, in massive personal debt and in the various ailments of affluence. And the third, from tradition and deference to self-government in our current contempt for our leaders, only surpassed by the incoherence of our collective aspirations (as Ben Page from IPSOS Mori famously put it ‘the British people know what they want. It is very clear: American tax rates and Swedish public services’).
Thus the immediate crisis is a shallow and dispiriting manifestation of a shift which is more profound and difficult but which, hard though it is to believe, contains the possibility of a leap forward for humanity. Of course, huge generalisations are involved in this chronology: the future is already out there and the past clings on like burnt fat on a frying pan.
What then is to be done? First, progressives – however critical they are of the present - must never forget their belief in progress. Whilst the big picture still leaves lots of scope for debate about what to do next, we must keep always in view the vision of the cosmopolitan, post materialist, self-governing future. Indeed we should work harder to describe a practical utopia; what such a world might look and feel like.
Second, while the steps to transition will, in the main, be taken by us not for us, right now we need leadership like rarely before: Leaders who can confront us with the truth of the current crisis and inspire us with the possibility of transformative progress. Instead we have futile and dishonest promises to slash immigration, to extricate ourselves from global interdependency, cut taxes or energy bills, restore trust to politics by electing this career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party not that career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party. The sight of the Clegg, Miliband and Cameron postponing their enmities, defying convention and marching on Scotland shows both that it is possible to act differently and that it takes an emergency for political leaders to accept the need to question their stock responses.
When we as individuals face personal crisis, our first response may be to do differently but our eventual realisation may be the need to be differently. Trapped by our decaying democratic systems and the disastrous idea that politics is analogous to retail consumerism, our political elite run in circles trying to discover what they can do to address our rage. Instead we must encourage them to link social transformation to personal transformation by questioning deeply the very idea of what it is to be a leader - a creative leader - in these troubled times.
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