GUEST COLUMNIST: Centrist politics must challenge the threats from both extremes

EARLIER this week the all-powerful, life-giving or life-denying European Central Bank published the results of its stress tests on 130 of Europe’s banks. Only 25 failed and just one — and what a welcome “just” that is — is Irish.

So very Irish that it is owned almost in its entirety by you and me; a poisoned-chalice bequest that has made us all reluctant, heavily-overdrawn bankers. I didn’t get a buy-the-Merc bonus or a pension top-up either.

The ECB assessment, seven years after the kind of brush with a back-to-the-dark-ages catastrophe that would make most of us fail even a moderate stress test, was primarily a banking exercise; it dealt with figures on balance sheets. It dealt with consequences and the system’s imagined — it cannot be any more — capacity to withstand another of those Halloweenesque unknown unknowns that Donald Rumsfeld warned us about. It hardly looked at the causes, the collective craziness that turned so many of us into free-lunch lemmings who should have known much, much better.

It did not deal with the social or legal structures, the boomier-and-boomier zeitgeist, the smash-and-grab capitalism, the collusion between too many governments and too many unions to leverage each other to pretend the unsustainable was sustainable. It certainly did not consider if there is a limit to what might be decently done in pursuit of a profit.

The ECB didn’t look at how changing just one catalyst in the construct we call a society — the availability of almost unlimited, unfettered capital – might threaten the whole, tottering Sellotaped-together edifice. How could it? That kind of unflinching heart searching is so out of fashion that it would make Pope’s Francis’ recent brush with not-an-inch conservatives seem little more than a 10-second radio promo for some noxious Joe Duffy victimhoodfest. And if it did how might its conclusions be represented in an international agreement aimed at preventing the next economic implosion? And why would it? Had it taken on that almost impossible task it would have had to conclude that shackling those who have shown time and time again that they are far too powerful to shackle is essential.

Instead of a full, all-drugs-considered post mortem from the ECB we must rely on politics to parse and phrase our misadventures and to try to change our world for the better and that may not be the cheering, empowering prospect we all might wish it to be.

Nevertheless, the process is well underway and even if we are still at the stage when the broken crockery is being gathered in a dust pan, when rage is expressed in fragmented and sometimes inarticulate ways change, or at least the wish for change and the hope that blindly infers, is apparent and challenging. It must be welcomed too, it is long overdue.

In Ireland we have the rise, and possibly the collapse as their particular finishing line comes into sight, of Sinn Féin. That this cult-dressed-as-a-democratic-party might yet be counter-balanced by the end of the seven-veiled tease of waiting-in-the-long-grass Lucinda and the establishment of a neo-Progressive Democrats adds entertainment value to our politics watching but does not offer any real value to our response to the weaknesses and failures of establishment politics.

In an Irish context this incoherence is best seen in the anti-water charges campaign, an incoherence regularly fuelled by the spectacular mismanagement and communications failure around the entirely valid charge. There will be change though and whether that is positive or destructive, and who will it that change, are the only issues that remain undecided.

In England that a-plague-on-all-your-houses rage is expressed through UKIP, a golf club (public, nine holes only, dodgy neighbourhood) bar Broederbond of nasty Little Englanders with the capacity to do damage far beyond the reach of their mandate.

Tea Party Republicans have carried that shabby, tattered mantle in America for some time but, despite the inevitable disappointment of Obama, and despite the considerable leap of faith required to believe that Hilary Clinton might win the White House race in two years’ time, America, despite an endless line of political and religious loonies, seems to cling pretty much to the middle ground. This, for a waning superpower, and one with a national debt that almost puts ours in the credit union category, is a considerable and very welcome constant.

Naturally enough the French are venting their spleen in an entirely more intellectual way. No farmers waving shotguns at Irish Water workers for them.

Conservative Le Figaro columnist Éric Zemmour has written a 544-page polemic called The French Suicide pointing the doigt at the “cowardly politicians, feminists, the gay lobby, film-makers, songwriters, Muslims, immigrants and high finance” blaming them for “the 40 years that have undone France”. The usual suspects so.

M Zemmour echoes the EU hate-speak of UKIP’s Nigel Farage: “Since [the Maastricht Treaty in] 1992, France has abandoned her national sovereignty in favour of a monstrous Brussels bureaucracy,” he splutters.

This venom expressed on behalf of the latest failed ancient regime — the post war one, not the crowd swept away to dance with Madame Guillotin — has proven so popular that M Zemmour’s contribution to the advancement of humanity has become a best-seller. Never have I felt such unexpected warmth for Cecelia Ahern.

That M Zemmour’s diatribe has overtaken former first lady Valérie Trierweiler’s account of president François Hollande’s indifference to the social graces has an almost perfect French symmetry about it. The unspeakable in pursuit of the irrelevant, to half borrow a phrase from another, more expressive ancient regime. It must be a cause of deep concern though that such odious views have any traction at all in a country with a history that taught it to know better.

It should cause even more concern that those views, so redolent of the extremism that threatened our civilisation just a lifetime ago, are echoed in so many countries battered and bruised by the economic collapse, globalisation, unemployment, especially among the young, and a tsunami of rage driven by traditional politics instinctive but inadequate reaction; a reaction defined by tinkering at the edges rather than one that might actually be a defining game changer. Those dangerous forces will be strengthened too by unstoppable immigration into Europe.

Squaring that circle in our multi-coloured, fragmented and conflicted world is an inestimable challenge but it is one of the most pressing of our time and it that must be resolved.

It is time for centrist politics to show it can work, that it can put aside relatively petty differences to repel threats looming on the right and on the left. There is an urgency about this because if that cannot be achieved then we face a very different and far more challenging kind of stress test and in the not too distant future.

The French are venting their spleen in an entirely more intellectual way.


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