One thing that did not change in 2001
A dramatic year has not revitalised the moribund politics of the West.
The leaders of the Western world are ending the year 2001 celebrating an ‘historic victory’ in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have been routed, their supposed strongholds reduced further to rubble. True, at the time of writing, nobody yet seems to have any more idea of where Osama bin Laden might be, or even whether he is alive. But no matter; the USA bestrides the world once more, and President George W Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair are both riding high in the polls.
Some warn that the West should not get carried away because, despite the formation of a fragile government in Kabul, there are further troubles to come in the fragmented and ruined state of Afghanistan. That may well be true. But the place where the Bush-Blair victories are most likely to prove illusory is at home.
The terrorist attacks of 11 September and their aftermath were said to have changed everything forever. However, one thing that these events have not altered is the crisis of authority and legitimacy afflicting Western political systems. It is this that ensures there are problems ahead for our governments – and for our societies as a whole.
Cast our minds back to the world before the shocking events of 11 September. Before that tragedy took over the agenda, the big story of the year was the slow death of politics in the West. This was evidenced most strikingly by the outcome of elections in the USA and the UK.
The US presidential elections of November 2000 confirmed the disengagement of millions of Americans from the political process. Despite the closeness of the race between Republican Bush and Democrat Al Gore, and a concerted ‘every vote counts’ PR campaign, barely half of the electorate turned out to vote. Worse still was the obvious generation gap in attitudes to voting. The over-45s accounted for 50 percent of those who voted, the over-60s for 22 percent – far more than the 17 percent of voters who were aged under 30.
After the presidential election, there followed the row over who had actually won – a constitutional crisis that carried on well into 2001. The allegations of electoral skulduggery and the intervention of the courts in the democratic process did further serious damage to the public credibility of the US system of government.
Indeed, it was only after 11 September that the US media agreed to withhold publication of the results of a post-election recount that may yet prove that Gore won the key state of Florida. The unprecedented acts of terrorism in New York and Washington, and the subsequent small war in Afghanistan, have certainly distracted attention from the problems of the political system. But they have done little to repair the underlying damage.
In the UK, the historically low 59 percent turnout in the general election of June 2001 sent a shudder through government. Yet 59 percent was really a gross overestimation of popular involvement in the British political process. Voting is now a more passive act than ever before, and many of those who did turn out cast their votes not so much for any party as against the political establishment. The victory of the Independent Dr Richard Taylor over a government health minister in Wyre Forest, the relative success of the far-right British National Party in Oldham, and even the gains by the Liberal Democrats, all fell into this category.
The New Labour government was stunned by the low turnout, yet it had no solution to this profound problem. All that it could suggest were little technical measures to make it easier for people to vote by post, or via the internet. Instead of solutions, Blair’s government leapt at public distractions from the demise of conventional politics. First it launched a phoney war against the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, putting the nation on a war footing to cope with a non-fatal animal disease, with disastrous consequences for the countryside and the country as a whole. Then, after 11 September, Blair seized with both hands the opportunity to become involved in the ‘war against terrorism’.
Yet at the end of this frantic year of action, the Western political systems remain moribund and governments often appear impotent. President Bush still lacks the authority to force through his economic and political agenda in the face of Democratic Party opposition on the home front. As we noted at the time, the first thing that collapsed after the World Trade Centre twin towers on 11 September was the US government, with the president running for his bunker and most centres of authority disappearing for two days.
Part of the reason why New York mayor Rudi Giuliani became such an instant American hero was that he was almost the only public figure to stand up and be counted. Despite Bush’s attempts to play the world leader since then, the way that Washington could be paralysed by a handful of envelopes containing some anthrax revealed the insecurity at the heart of the US political establishment.
Prime minister Blair faces no serious problems from the pathetic Tory opposition. Yet his government still seems unable to impose its will on a wide range of British issues, from transport to anti-terrorism laws. Never mind ‘the vision thing’, even New Labour’s claims to be a post-ideological government of managerial competence have been exposed as a sham, with revelations of how the health service has been fixing hospital waiting timetables.
Despite Blair’s high profile on the international stage, and clear lead in the opinion polls, New Labour does not command matters at home in the way that Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives could after the war with Argentina in 1982, when she used the ‘Falklands Factor’ to redraw the map of British politics and militarise society. By contrast, Blair has found this year that easy victories over the rump of the Tories and the ramshackle Taliban are not the same thing as winning genuine public authority.
Across the West, people remain just as estranged from politics as they were on 10 September. Indeed, if anything they are more atomised, inward-looking, fearful and disconnected. There was excitement that an upturn in UK retail sales before Christmas meant things were ‘returning to normal’. Yet people still show no willingness to buy into politics. Reports of an experiment in voting-by-mobile phone in an area of Liverpool with a large student population confirm that the authorities still have no idea how to inspire young people with politics and ideas.
And at the extreme end of the spectrum of political disaffection, the home-grown character of Islamic fundamentalism in the West is confirmed once more, as the man who tried to ignite a ‘shoe bomb’ on an American Airlines plane is revealed as a Briton who attended a mosque in Brixton rather than Kabul or Baghdad.
All of this suggests that, at the start of 2002, there are plenty of problems ahead for our governments – and for the rest of us. The crisis of authority afflicting the establishment, and the absence of any alternative, means that Western societies are now more or less adrift, lacking any real vision or values. Being against terrorism is no substitute for believing in some future that can be better than today.
The British Queen’s symbolic Christmas message talked about ‘faith’ – any faith, all faiths – as the solution to the world’s woes. Tony Blair has similarly fallen back on appeals to religiosity after 11 September, suggesting in his big speech to the Labour Party conference that Christians, Jews and Muslims should live side by side in an atmosphere of tolerance since we are ‘all Abraham’s children’. This abandonment of any notion of an enlightened secular society is typical of the way in which, while they advanced on Afghanistan, the Western elites have retreated from any defence of the universal values of our civilisation.
Yet even their appeal to faith is a sham. The recent report of how the UK prime minister and his devotedly Catholic wife smeared one another in mud and screamed out loud, while taking part in an ancient Mayan rebirthing ritual in Mexico, better symbolised the vacuum at the heart of our faithless, superstitious society.
All in all, 2001 has been a dramatic advertisement for the need for some fresh thinking and critical debate about the future of our societies. Fortunately, this was also the year when we launched spiked, as a focus for just such an agenda-setting discussion. May we wish a happy new year to all of our readers, contributors and supporters. And make sure you continue to watch this space in 2002.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
Blair’s gospel of despair, by Michael Fitzpatrick
Wishful thinking, by Josie Appleton
The bomber from Bromley, by Josie Appleton
Epidemic of fear, by Frank Furedi
spiked-issue: After 11 September
spiked-issue: Election 2001
spiked-issue: The race card
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