The latest collapse of devolution in Northern Ireland is actually fairly standard – so much so that I would need to look up all the times it has happened before. However, what is actually going on in the world, politically?
Global democratic chaos
In the United States, next week, yet again the electorate will choose “cohabitation”, making it effectively impossible for any legislation to pass with different parties in charge of each House (the Representatives and the Senate). This is a country in which, only last year, there was an attempted coup. Five people were killed, we tend to forget. The man responsible for that, the then sitting President, is still at large and openly threatening journalists, with sensitive documents at his home and the only consolation that there is no chance he would ever be bothered to read them. Fundamentally, madness and deadlock have become the norm.
In Italy, political collapses are also the norm. The bizarre decision to bring in Mario Draghi as a technocratic Premier (the man whose policies at the European Central Bank caused serious pain to southern European countries including his own) was duly punished by the electorate, who instead installed a new head of government from a party which, in the past, has openly colluded with fascism in a country which has suffered from it within some people’s living memory.
In France, there was relief when the far right populist candidate “only” received 42% of the vote in the second round of the Presidential election – before President Macron was denied a parliamentary majority and left with huge struggles to pass a budget.
In Germany, the Chancellor had to used a specific clause of the Basic Law to force the government to take a decision on the ongoing use of nuclear power stations in order to secure energy supply, contrary to a decision eleven years ago to phase out nuclear. That decision has led to chaos, but itself followed on from a corrupt deal where a previous Chancellor, acting in an interim capacity having lost an election in 2005, signed a deal on a pipeline from Russia. That pipeline, approaching completion, has suddenly begun “leaking” in the North Sea.
In Sweden, an arrangement first seen in Austria in 1999 will see the third largest party in fact provide the State Minister (head of government) after far right populists came second.
Speaking of Austria, in 2019 it had its first ever successful vote of no confidence in its government, forcing a mass resignation meaning the President had to appoint an interim government made up entirely of independents from outside politics, headed by a jurist (who technically became the country’s first ever female head of government). The Chancellor (head of government) losing the vote was, however, re-elected a few months later only to have to resign in a scandal, for his successor then to decide he really was not too keen on the job (although he did last slightly longer than the UK’s last Prime Minister).
In Spain, one region (Catalonia) is still struggling with the aftermath of a “successful” independence vote (which was partially boycotted, so did not really count). In Denmark, an early election was forced by a mink scandal during Covid. Ireland, which looks like a beacon of stability in comparison, has a government reliant on an agreement to change Taoiseach (head of government) half way through, in six weeks’ time in fact. That is before we go into any detail about the neighbours…
What is going on?
Depression of the Liberal
Victor Lapuente puts forward on idea in his book Decálogo del buen ciudadano which, I am sure, is by now available in English. He argues many things but one, in an appropriately titled section Depresión del Liberal, suggests that one reason for this chaos is that the comparative reduction of religion in society has led to a melding of religion and politics where once there was none (except where specifically introduced into politics, such as by the DUP in Northern Ireland). This leads to a “Liberal depression” because politics ceases to be about tax levels, welfare systems, health provision and so on, but rather about concepts and people who are treated, effectively, as religious icons – rendering meaningful rational debate impossible.
This seems counterintuitive, but currently much about the world is.
The late broadcaster Peter Jennings once produced a documentary arguing that the reason there are so many conspiracies around the Kennedy assassination is that it is just too uncomfortable to accept we live in a world chaotic and random enough that the President of the United States can be shot dead in broad daylight by a madman. Yet, in November 1963, that is exactly what happened.
As humans, we need to believe that in fact someone is in control. We cannot accept that a President can just be shot or indeed that a much loved Princess can be killed in a random car crash. We do not like to believe that we live in a world where terrorists can fly planes into skyscrapers or a virus can suddenly be unleashed forcing us all to stay at home while still killing millions. People who believe that someone is behind all of this (even if that person is simply referred to as “they”) in fact tend to be less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, even if they believe that “they” (whoever “they” may be) is fundamentally evil.
It is a very human thing to seek to make sense of the world, and it is much easier to believe that someone – be they “God”, “Allah” or simply “they” – is actually out there planning it all. Generally, we crave the security that comes with such a belief over the insecurity of a random world of 7.5 million people some of whom are cruelly deprived of life at a young age for no good reason and some of whom become Prime Minister despite having no discernible ability. This randomness drives us mad – almost literally.
To be clear, even though I profoundly disagree with them, I understand why in June 2016 some people voted for the UK to leave the European Union simply because they felt the UK did not really fit into a common political and social zone with Continental Europe. However, some people did not vote ‘Leave’ because they wanted the UK to leave the European Union. Much of it had nothing to do with that. We can see this in the way public “debate” has proceeded since.
“Brexit” has in fact become a word which means something other that simply the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. You will hear it in phrases such as “This would risk Brexit” or “Brexit would be endangered”. This is odd, because Brexit has occurred – the UK is no longer part of the European Union. So how can it be risked or endangered?
However “Brexit”, so expressed, does not really have anything to do with the European Union, nor indeed with politics at all. Rather, I am sure Lapuente would argue, it has become almost an argument of faith – “Brexit” is in fact, as it were, the way, the truth, the life. It has to do with a sense of detachment felt by many people – often for perfectly legitimate reasons particularly in post-industrial areas which are among the most marginalised in Western Europe – and an idea that “Brexit” is the route to overcoming that detachment. This detachment is, however, predominantly a feeling rather than an obvious economic reality – it can be expressed by arguments about the need for improved opportunities in left-behind areas (an argument typically associated with the “left”) or by arguments about negative experiences of immigration and multiculturalism (and perhaps even a “lost past”; arguments typically associated with the “right”). It has, therefore, taken on a quasi-religious meaning as a concept to be followed; and some of its followers follow it with a religious fervour, meaning that rational political argument is rendered ineffective and trying to determine whether it is of the “left” or the “right” is pointless.
“Boris”, oddly referred to almost always by that name only, was in some ways the son of Brexit.
Was he partying during Covid? Oh come on, who didn’t break the rules?
Did he miss a confidence vote? Oh, I’m sure he was “paired” or something!
Did he go on holiday during parliamentary time? Oh that’s harsh, are you saying he’s not allowed to go on holiday?
Should he be Prime Minister again? Oh yes – after all, he “saved” us from Covid!
Rationally, it is incredible just how many excuses people make for a man who is plainly a narcissist with no discernible ability to be Prime Minister whatsoever – a man who was finalising his divorce from a wife he cheated on while she had cancer rather than preparing for Covid in February 2020; a man who was partying and then proved too lazy to cover it up property during Covid while even the Queen adhered to the rules even at funerals; a man who promoted a sex pest and sent colleagues out to lie about it; a man who cannot even tell us how many children he has but has definitely been sacked more than once for lying; a man who missed a three-line whip confidence vote because he was on holiday during work time and could not even be bothered to get a flight back for two days even to run his own leadership bid; a man who met Russian people as Foreign Secretary he had no business meeting and put other Russian people in the UK Parliament contrary to independent recommendation and then laughably claimed to be a friend of Ukraine; a man who spends no time reading papers but a lot of time getting drunk.
Anyone looking at him even half rationally would see a nasty, selfish bigot. Yet look at him quasi-religiously – as the living embodiment of Brexit – and you see a quirky man who looks like he doesn’t take himself too seriously and may in fact be a bit of fun.
God and Caesar
Christians are in fact commanded not to mix politics and religion in this way. Christ himself said, in the gospel of Matthew, “Give back to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God those which are God’s“. Essentially, let God be your moral guide but not your political guide – that, at the time, was (Tiberius) Caesar and for us (luckier that we are) our democratically elected government. We should maintain our moral principles, but not at the expense of rational debate around practical issues; and indeed we should remember who is Christ, and who is not.
In a world in which religion were religion and politics were politics, the Trumps and Johnsons of the world would be seen as the cheats, liars and troublemakers that they are – by applying moral principles and rational debate this becomes indisputable. Mix the two, however, and you can end up presenting Trumps and Johnsons almost as if they are infallible religious figures – against whom any challenge is seen as that not of a thinker but of an infidel.
Why do they attain this status?
Unfortunately the “messiahs” of our new politics of religious fervour will almost invariably be narcissists because, psychologically, those are the people who care least about the suffering they inflict on others but also who exhibit a deep insecurity which means they have a constant thirst for adulation.
This is a lethal combination. Those who crave attention are also those likely to abuse it. Those who attain mass followings are also those most likely to seduce them. Those who attain positions of social responsibility are also those most likely to shirk it in the name of selfishness. The whole thing becomes a vicious circle of self-centredness and egotism.
Which brings us to what has just happened (again) in Northern Ireland.
I need write no more…
I write this blog primarily in an attempt to provide background, more long-term views of a world which has, unfortunately, been taken over in the rolling news era by a constant desire for short-term soap opera. This is a passion, which readers can take or leave at their pleasure, and I will always do it for free.
However, it does take time, so if you do want to buy me a coffee just to keep me alert, you can do so here. Many thanks!