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We’ve never had it so good

Back in around 1999 or thereabouts, I suggested in a conversation to some miserable git or other that we were living in a golden age. My evidence for this was that, at the time, we were enjoying unprecedented economic wealth, were not at war with anyone (at least not what we would usually call a war), were governed by a centrist Labour government whose stated primary objectives (of alleviating poverty and improving the life chances of all through education) more or less chimed with the prevailing mood of the nation, and were not, it seemed, imperilled by any aggressive totalitarian regimes threatening our existence. Even the IRA had piped down. Admittedly Arsenal were much too strong for my liking and England still weren’t that much cop at cricket, but things were, on the whole, pretty good.

The only dark cloud (literally) came in the shape of eventual climate armageddon, but there was still time to deal with that.

Whoever I was talking to clearly wanted to start a conversation with someone else, because after some minor hectoring they agreed with me. “Put it like that, and I can see your logic,” they smiled (or so I like to imagine). “Let’s hope things carry on improving, or one day you’ll end up writing a blog – whatever they are – about how prescient you were.”

And here we are.

I shan’t chronicle the past 17 years, but a few things have happened. As the infuriating American saying pithily puts it, “It is what it is.”

So, I was watching the movie “The Big Short” and there’s a great bit at the end where, quoting Michael Lewis’s book directly (I assume) Ryan Gosling’s character amusingly says something like, “post the financial crash, all the bankers were jailed, the taxpayers were reimbursed, the politicians got a hold of things and justice was served.”

Then the payoff: “Only joking. They just blamed immigrants and poor people as usual.”

And here we are.

It’s hard to argue that life is better now than it was in 1999, for those of us fortunate enough to have lived through that golden era. Cynical politicians have managed to persuade the uninformed that “immigrants and poor people” are indeed to blame for their ills. There’s Trump. ISIS. Farage (in descending order of scariness). But, again, it is what it is. My point is that things could very well get worse.

We mustn’t take for granted what we have now, because there’s no guarantee we’ll still have it in 20 years unless we get to grips with the alarming increase in nationalism and racism we’re seeing now. We have to deal with it.

I watched “The Big Short” with a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the events that led up to the biggest global financial crash in history. I laughed, knowingly, about the “immigrants and poor” line. I wondered how they’d managed to get through the whole film without mentioning Gordon Brown or Labour, as I had heard the Conservatives say that the financial crash was all his fault. I wondered why Barack Obama, who has overseen an almost implausibly solid recovery in the US from the ruins of an economy he inherited, is not only given no credit for this achievement but has to watch as his opponents accuse him of trashing their country. It’s a film based on actual events, which makes it clear that bankers and lax regulation by the politicians they owned screwed us all.

Knowledge helps in that way. It allows you to contextualize and analyse. It’s why the likes of Farage and Trump are so dangerous; they are working from a playbook written back in the 1930s and relying on a compliant political class that has indulged their poison.

So yes, it’s ok to get angry at Wall Street and politicians – indeed, we didn’t get angry enough – but not to infer that everything else touched by government is illegitimate. If you want change, yes, vote against politicians in thrall to Wall Street, but not by siding with racists and misogynists.

If we don’t take care to promote the forces of enlightenment, information and reason, the tools we use to share those values may soon be taken from us. If the other side stop respecting the values and legitimacy of our nation and our institutions, then we have nothing to keep this wheezing charabanc on the road.

When that happens, then all the stuff we enjoy now – and I’m talking about a free press, the supremacy of the rule of law, a choice of food at the supermarket – might disappear.

So far, so good: if you’re reading this, you probably agree with every word. Our challenge is to break out of the echo chamber and get this message to the people we need to hear it. And that’s where we – the creative, informed, empathetic metropolitan elite – need to use our skills.

Be creative. Get to it.


Categories: politics, Uncategorized
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