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Benedict Rogers: Our civilisation is under threat: from ourselves, as well as from extremists

I am an optimist. I don’t generally buy the Victor Meldrew view of the world. But events of recent weeks have made me deeply concerned for the future of Western civilisation and, in particular, Britain as a civilised state.

On many previous occasions, I have written on this site about the threat posed to our liberal democracy by radical Islamism. That threat still holds. The terrorist massacre in Norway exposed in a stark and tragic way the threat from far-right ideology in Europe. But there is another threat: ourselves, our ruling classes and, more precisely, our lack of vision.

In recent years, one by one shocking scandals have been exposed in key institutions that are meant to be pillars of stability and reassurance in our society. MPs’ expenses drastically undercut whatever remaining vestiges of respect there may have been for politicians, and damaged the reputation of Parliament, perhaps irreparably. The banking crisis unleashed distasteful stories of city fat cats claiming large bonuses while ordinary hard-working honest people saw their savings disappear. The phone hacking scandal has torn apart our trust in the media, the police, and perhaps even each other.

Three articles in yesterday’s newspapers highlight the breadth of the challenge facing Britain. Nick Cohen, writing in The Observer, focuses on the challenge of extremism in all its forms, and argues, in effect, that Britain’s apparent stability has lulled us into a slumber. He notes that although extremist parties perform badly in Britain, we have become “the European capital of extremist ideas”. The Henry Jackson Society’s report Islamist Terrorism: The British Connections claims that between 1993 and 2010, at least 43 people born, resident or radicalised in Britain have committed suicide attacks abroad. Anders Behring Brevik, who killed 77 people in Norway, was apparently not only inspired by far-right fascists based in Britain, but was also armed by British suppliers. Unlike Norway or much of the rest of Europe, Britain was never occupied by fascists or communists. “It has never had a modern revolution or domestic dictatorship,” notes Cohen. “It is a steady, sensible and safe place that never stops to think that being so stable is what makes Britain so dangerous.”

On a related theme but a different context, Andrew Rawnsley warns of the dangers of professional politics, mourns the lack of thinkers among our policy-makers, and celebrates those who think outside the box, in particular Steve Hilton and Maurice Glasman:

“David Cameron has been in professional politics for nearly all of his adult life. So has Ed Miliband. So have the great majority of the senior politicians of their generation. It has generally made them a cautious, calibrating breed. They need the spark that is brought by people who don’t think of politics just in terms of the latest focus group or polling result. We need more of these intellectual agitators on both sides of the aisle. There’s a shortage of stirrers who can shake things up a bit and jolt arguments out of ruts. They are often wrong, they can sometimes sound bonkers, but you can say this for Steve Hilton and Maurice Glasman: they make everyone think. Would that there were more people in British politics like them.”

Thirdly, Matthew D’Ancona has a valuable message for David Cameron on the need to show empathy with those who are suffering as a result of necessary, but painful, cuts. “By empathy, I mean the visceral connection between politician and voter, the strand of communication that makes the latter believe – or half-believe – that the former grasps what life is really like for him,” d’Ancona writes. Cameron’s reluctance to do so, on account of his own privileged background, is illogicial. “A doctor doesn’t have to be suffering from an illness to make a patient feel at ease ... Cameron needs to show that he is fully aware of the pain that the public is feeling.” It echoes Charles Moore’s article on Saturday. “’We’re all in this together’ is a good message,” he writes, “but it needs to have an accompanying sense of hope that we can get out of ‘this’ together too.”

How do these trumpet sounds from right and left on different aspects of our politics and society tie together? What do they mean?

Over the week-end, I read an excellent book by Oliver Letwin, published twelve years ago by the Social Market Foundation, called The Purpose of Politics. It is a book every politician and political adviser, on all sides, should read. Examining, in turn, freedom, equality, justice, virtue, beauty and truth, prosperity and power as, individually, the ultimate aim of politics, Letwin concludes that in fact politics’ purpose is a combination of all of these. Striking, however, is the prose around beauty and truth:

“The argument for the establishment of beauty and truth as the ultimate aim of politics is clear: a society with a politics which consisted in the full realisation of both beauty and truth would be cleansed of the impurities of ugliness and falsehood, would shine, glisten, gleam and glow, unsullied by the dingy and tawdry artefacts and practices with which human societies are in fact filled. What nobler or more complete aim, then, for politics than to promote universal beauty and truth, to the extinction of their opposites?”

I have to admit that my politics is shaped by those who stood for a great, and true, cause and did so with inspiring courage, steely determination, motivational rhetoric and minimal self-interest. My politics is the politics of William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Aung San Suu Kyi. My politics often transcends narrow, petty party politics into the realm of real questions of life and death, freedom and oppression, hope and despair.

The 1980s were, in many ways, an easier time for politics than today. In the Cold War, we had a clear delineation in the battle of ideas, between Western democracies and the communist Soviet bloc. We had inspirational and courageous leadership from Reagan and Thatcher. We also had unambiguous battle lines between left and right here at home. Today’s battle lines are more blurred, they don’t always stay true to the traditional party political divide, and to some extent visionary leadership has given way to managerialism. Yet the challenges are no less great. The global economic crisis, the sustainability of the Euro, social breakdown and the rise of extremism, Islamist and fascist, pose challenges that demand vision, clarity and leadership from our politicians.

Letwin sets out to examine and define ‘civilisation’, and concludes that we are all on a continuum from “barbarism” to “civilisation”. The essential features of a ‘civilisation’ are, he concludes, “an inheritance of shared practice and shared value, the treatment of persons as ends rather than means, and the use of prosperity to pursue beauty and truth”. Based on these criteria, the revelations of phone hacking and the horrors of Norway, while themselves in differing leagues of awfulness from one another, both indicate we’re closer to “barbarism” than perhaps we had thought. Is it not time to rediscover our civilisation, not in a narrow, xenophobic, racial sense but in the sense of our shared values and how we treat each other? And is it not time to rediscover a politics which is, as Letwin suggests it should be, “the servant of civilisation”?

Civilisation, Letwin further argues, is “fragile” and the way politicians act affects the civilisation they are meant to serve. “There is an intolerable risk that a politics conducted within the rules, but with no sense of historical effect, will slowly but surely grind away at the foundations of civilisation ... Where the best do not act well enough, the worst may come in time to abandon all constraint.” That last sentence is a warning we would do well to heed.

There are some causes for hope to hold onto: flickerings which, while mixing metaphors, we need to fan into flame and weave into the fabric of our politics and society. First, when David Cameron talks of the ‘Big Society’ he is onto something. He really is. At every level, we need to rediscover a sense of community, an engagement with our society, a respect for one another. And we need to celebrate, not penalise, those who live the community spirit. Letwin writes:

“Atomic individuality is at one level a self-contradiction and at another a description of Hell ... we humans can be content only in the giving and receiving of affection – a giving and receiving that is possible only in and through society.”

A personal anecdote illustrates why society is important, and how it is currently under threat. My next-door neighbour is a dream, model neighbour, excelling all expectations of neighbourliness. She cuts my grass as a neighbourly act, not a job, and refuses to accept more than a nominal fee. Mysteriously, almost angelically, she leaves pot plants on my garden table. She puts my recycling bins back behind my flat before I get home from work. How is she rewarded by society? Some busy-body complained to the local council, and I received a letter enquiring whether I had given her permission to enter my garden. Instead of being celebrated as a role-model, she stands accused of 'anti-social behaviour', and meanwhile the thugs who are really guilty of anti-social behaviour are left to roam the streets unchallenged. Society gone wrong? Closer to barbarism than we thought? The need for a bigger concept of society? I think so.

‘The Big Society’ needs clarification, development and realisation, but it is right in its intention. Similarly, Andrew Mitchell has shown courage and leadership not only in responding so well to Africa’s current famine, but also in defending Britain’s overseas aid expenditure as both a moral duty and a matter of national interest. He is right to review precisely how money is spent and to ensure that it yields results for those we are trying to help, but in defending the principle of overseas aid he is defending our civilisation.

Tragedies and scandals tend to bring out the best in us. The Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg was absolutely right in defying the fear and hatred sown by Brevik and declaring that Norway’s answer would be “more democracy and more openness”. The courage shown by survivors of the Utoya massacre, young men like Adrian Pracon, is inspiring and the spirit of unity among the Norwegian people shows that there is hope. The sense of outrage by people across the political divide at News International’s phone hacking scandal shows that what unites us, in terms of basic values and common decency, is far greater than what divides us.

Celebrations also unite us. At a national level, the two royal weddings this year reminded us that love, marriage and family are bonds which are important in our civilisation. And at a personal level, when I was looking after my five-month old nephew for an afternoon, I was astonished at how passers-by in a park stopped, smiled and commented on how adorable he is. Why it takes a baby to get strangers to talk to each other I do not know, but it was a heart-warming experience.

So where do we go from here? It isn’t just up to David Cameron, though he should be encouraged to press ahead with the ‘Big Society’, articulate the vision more clearly, give us hope that we’ll get through these troubled times, while showing empathy with those who are hurting right now. There are, however, things all of us can do. Be nicer to each other, whether or not we have a baby in tow. Rebuild a culture of respect that spreads from our villages, our suburbs and our city streets to our newsrooms, offices, trading floors and political life. Rediscover a proactive commitment to liberal democracy, to defending our cherished values of freedom for which so many have died and which we take for granted.

To confront extremism, whether Islamist or far-right, we should read Maajid Nawaz’s analysis and develop a global movement for democracy made up of grass-roots social activists. Far-right and Islamist extremists, Nawaz notes, have several things in common, one of which is that they have successfully built transnational social movements, particularly using the Internet and social media:

“Hatred has gone global. Globalisation has made it easier to hate as well as to love. The fringe has become viral, and localised parochialisms are in danger of becoming new inter-connected pockets of mainstream, through globally connected social movements.”

We need to respond. Those of us on the mainstream left, right or centre of politics must unite to confront extremism of all kinds, says Nawaz:

“Traditionally, sections of the political left have not done enough to challenge Islamism yet, encouragingly, they have challenged anti-Muslim extremism. Similarly, sections of the political right have been reluctant to challenge far-right extremism yet willing to challenge Islamism. We can only move forward when all forms of extremism are challenged by activists from across the political spectrum."

Writing twelve years ago, it is as if Oliver Letwin foresaw the problems we face now. They were emerging then, but few were talking about them. Practices which have become “unusual and even expected” have resulted in “the demeaning of politics by the triviality, cynicism and shallowness that characterises, on occasion, the utterances of politicians themselves, and all too frequently characterises the activities of journalism in its widest sense – the turning of politics into a bullfight.” We need, he argues, to develop an understanding of ‘how’ we should behave:

“How those who act in politics (the statesman or official administering, the politician politicking, the journalist writing or interviewing, the activist lobbying, the citizen voting) should act when engaged in politics.”

How prescient. He warns, however, that:

"a great part of Western civilisation is threatened – that is to say, in a great many places in the West, the conduct of a civilised life is threatened – by a lack of virtue more exaggerated than at some other times and in some other places.”

The warning signs are there, but it is not too late to save our civilisation. We need leaders to give us hope and vision, a politics that is the servant of civilisation, a society based on respect and empathy, and a community in which we are all engaged. Then, perhaps, we will rediscover a purpose in politics.


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