ARE WE on the brink of fascism? Is there a growing belief in the world that only highly authoritarian leaders can solve the problems we face? Is the rise, again, of nationalism inexorable? Are they all going to be the consequences of terrorism — and the cause of more terrorism?
I had just left a wonderful reception at the French embassy in Dublin when the news of the latest terrorist attack in Nice began to break. It seemed half the population of Dublin had turned out to help the French ambassador and his family celebrate Bastille Day. It was a glorious evening, and the friendship and hospitality of the embassy was unsurpassed. The ambassador spoke warmly about the solidarity between the people of France and Ireland — at its most evident in the wake of the Paris attacks last November.
In a way, that made it all the more shocking to turn on the news when we all got home and start to hear about the numbers of people who had been killed on the Promenade des Anglais. At first the numbers were small, and then they began to grow. At first it seemed like a terrible accident, and all too quickly it became clear that this was mass murder.
There is something indescribable about families out walking, in one of the safest pedestrian areas you can imagine, and being mown down in this way. The loss of children and parents, all doing what children and parents do, doesn’t bear thinking about.
But in some ways the most awful dimension of this incident is the fact that we now know it’s possible for anyone anywhere, with sufficient motivation, to rent a vehicle and turn it into a weapon of mass destruction. No guns or bombs are necessary, just a driver’s licence and a set of keys.
The world as a whole needs to acknowledge the failure of intelligence. Despite all the technology available, despite what we’re shown on television about the capacity of counter-terrorist agencies to spy on all of us, it seems clear that some of the most basic requirements — the need to share information effectively, for instance — are missing. In the wake of many of the terrorist attacks we’ve seen, it has emerged that someone somewhere knew something about the perpetrators, but nobody seemed to know enough to prevent carnage.
More fundamentally, the world is responding to extremism by becoming more extreme. Fear is breeding fear. People are increasing turning to ideas and people they think can keep them safe.
Brexit was many things. But it was driven in large part by nationalism, a belief that controlling borders was the key to safety — in economic and cultural terms. If we can keep the other out, that will protect our jobs and keep our children safe.
The rhetoric now emerging in Britain is about a country that’s ready, once again, to take its place among the nations of the Earth. But the Brexit decision was, at its heart, a decision to leave, not to join, a decision to abandon responsibility and not embrace it.
It’s of little comfort to know that most of the Brexit leaders, who ran a campaign of fear from the start, have now walked off the pitch. It remains to be seen if those who have picked up the reins have any of the capacity necessary to begin to undo that damage. In or out of Europe is no longer the point — the point is a divided nation, where some of the most corrosive nationalist instincts have the capacity to eat away at democracy.
I read an interesting article last week which referred, among other things, to an American scholar called Elaine Kamarck. She is a long-time student of, and participant in, American elections — she will be a super-delegate at the Democratic convention. In the article I read, she is quoted as saying (in a book called Why Presidents Fail) that “successful presidential leadership occurs when the president is able to put together and balance three sets of skills: Policy, communication, and implementation”.
Assuming one accepts that they are the only three ingredients necessary, this week the Republican Party will nominate someone who has never shown the slightest interest in policy, whose idea of communication is based entirely on soundbites full of spite, and who has never implemented anything that doesn’t reflect his own interest.
If he gets elected, he will probably go down in history as one of the worst American presidents there has ever been. But along the way America will become ever more divided, and the tendency towards extreme solutions ever more pronounced. Studies have been done in the US which suggest that Donald Trump’s greatest appeal lies among those who hanker after authoritarian government.
Strong men, it seems, are the only answer to the world’s woes — no matter how irresponsible and unprepared they are. As unlikely as it may seem, there is the possibility that sooner or later, a trial of strength between Trump and Vladimir Putin might be the beginning of disaster for us all.
Hopefully that will never happen, but all the signs are that we are witnessing a massive global failure of politics. The attempted coup in Turkey, and the likely reaction of a highly authoritarian leader to it, are just the latest challenges to democracy that we all face.
And we do all face them. Democracy is like the water from your kitchen tap. You take it for granted — but you never realise how often you go to that tap until the water is turned off.
Perhaps most depressing in all of this is the complete and abject failure of social democracy. Trying to understand what’s going on in the British Labour Party, for instance, is like trying to understand why there is so much hatred within a family. Whatever the outcome of its leadership election, it’s hard to see how Labour can avoid a serious and potentially fatal split.
Much of the uncertainty in the world, much of the search for authoritarian responses, has inequality at its heart. The concentration of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the development of materialism and consumerism, the race towards xenophobic responses to economic and cultural challenges — these are all corrosive and frightening aspects of the world we live in now.
In my lifetime, social democracy was one of the bulwarks against trends like this. Great European social democratic leaders held the line in favour of greater equality and social justice. In the heyday of social democracy, policy and legislation that favoured greater equality were the battles worth fighting.
Even in recent times, the social democratic instinct has enabled gay rights and equal marriage to take hold. But in the face of rampant extremism, social democracy, it seems, has nothing to say.
And when social democracy goes silent, when it can think of nothing to do except turn inward, when it lacks personalities and voices that are prepared to lead, the last defence against fascism begins to disappear.
It has happened before, and it can happen again.