Looking at the result of the recent general election in Ireland it’s impossible not to conclude there is no shared vision among the electorate of the sort of country they want.
No single party managed to secure the support of as many as 1 in 3 of the votes cast. There is a plethora of small parties, loose alliances and independents. It is a state of affairs that bears comparison to the situation exactly 100 years ago.
The rebels who proclaimed a new republic from the steps of the GPO at Easter 1916 did not have the support of the majority of the ordinary citizens they claimed to represent. That only came after the citizenry saw, and were horrified by, the way the rebel leaders and their supporters were treated by the authorities.
Looking back, such treatment seems inevitable. If your country is at war, if hundreds of thousands of your country’s young men, including tens of thousands of young Irish men, are risking their lives fighting an avowed enemy, if that enemy is a passionate opponent of the ideals you espouse, you would be a fool to seek the help of that enemy. And yet, that is precisely what this group of intelligent, highly educated, professional men, did.
The street fighting that followed, and the shelling of Dublin, were a natural response that any government would take in such circumstances. So, too, was the branding of the leaders as traitors and the infliction of the only punishment appropriate for traitors in time of war.
Those of the followers who surrendered were imprisoned in Wales, treated as prisoners of war. It was there they were able to regroup and devise the strategy for armed struggle that occupied them from their release until the eventual signing of the Treaty in 1922. Even then, there was no shared vision. Those who accepted the Treaty as the best option available were bitterly opposed by those who still sought independence for the whole of Ireland rather than the 26 counties of the Republic. The civil war that ensued pitted brother against brother and father against son. It is that history that makes it unlikely the two largest parties will ever co-operate in a grand coalition for they were formed from those disparate traditions
Looking further afield, it seems, from the outside, that the electorate in the United States is similarly unable to agree on a vision for the future of their country. The ‘primary’ roadshows are highlighting, not just the difference between the Democrats and Republicans, but significant divisions within each of those parties. In Britain, too, similar differences of vision are being exposed by the debate over whether the UK should remain a part of the European Union.
Anne Applebaum, in a Washington Post article on 4th March, says “we are two or three bad elections away from the end of NATO, the end of the European Union and maybe the end of the liberal world order as we know it.” (Is this the end of the West as we know it? Washington Post Mar 4th 2016).
She cites the rise of Marine Le Pen in France, and Hungarian prime minister, Orban’s talk of “leaving the West in favor of a strategic alliance with Istanbul or Moscow.” (op.cit), alongside Trump’s rhetoric and the strength of support in the UK for Brexit, as examples of the breakdown of the old order that has served us well since the end of World War Two.
The rise of large corporations
To me they are all symptoms of the erosion of the sense of a shared vision that prevailed in my youth. In part this has been driven by the rise of the big corporations whose vision of globalisation often seems contrary to the aspirations of ordinary citizens. The banking crisis of 2008/9 highlighted the vast gulf between rich and poor and left the latter picking up the bill for bailing out the wealthy victims of their own greedy risk taking.
Politics today is characterised by divisive rhetoric from both left and right as the ordinary citizen is left wondering which scapegoat to blame for his or her lack of economic progress. Immigrants? Islamists? Bankers? Tax averse corporations? Take your pick.
Proponents of Brexit suggest the EU’s policy of free movement of labour prevents the UK from controlling who enters the country. Trump says much the same about Mexicans crossing the USA’s southern border. Barriers have already been erected along the southern border of the EU to restrict the flow of refugees from conflicts in the Middle East. The left blames bankers, everyone fears Islamic terrorism.
Much of the rhetoric on all sides is reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s. Hitler wanted to round up and deport Jews (and later adopted an even more drastic ‘final solution’). Trump promises to round up and deport Muslims. The potential outcome of such policies is too frightening to contemplate.
Back, finally, to the outcome of the Irish election. The possibility of the two largest parties talking to each other still seems some way off today (Mar 5th). Those of us old enough to remember all of the second half of the 20th century must hope they are able to find sufficient common cause to present a vision of the future that most can share. Is it too much to hope that similar unifying forces win the arguments elsewhere?