Revolution in the air

The road to revolution (part 5)

When we think of revolutions, we think of violence. Or, at the very least, of mobs on the streets. We think of the storming of the Bastille, or of the Winter Palace. We think of the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. We don’t think of a revolution happening over a cup of tea and some digestive biscuits. But there is no reason why not.  

This series of blogs, ‘the road to revolution’, will not have as its culmination (when it arrives next week) a prophecy of tanks in Parliament Square, or any manifestation of violence. The archetypal revolutions occurred in undemocratic countries, where there was no alternative to mass violence to bring about any sort of change to an autocratic regime. Revolutions in a democracy are different. But they are still possible.

Let’s not be too pedantic in defining ‘revolution’. What I mean, in the context of revolutions in democracies, is a profound change to the intellectual and political climate of a society, a rejection of the orthodoxy that has preceded it and the adoption of a new orthodoxy that is demonstrably different. I don’t mean a small twitch on the tiller and ‘steady as she goes’. I mean a fundamental change, but peaceably achieved.

By this definition, I have witnessed (very nearly) two revolutions in Britain in my lifetime. The first occurred in 1945, four years before I was born. It emerged out of the aftermaths of two world wars, out of the mass unemployment of the ’30s, out of the sense that Britain’s rigid stratification and the dominance of its social elite had no place in a brave new world.

That revolution, epitomised by the landslide victory of Clement Attlee and the unceremonious dumping of Churchill’s Conservatives, was inspired by the ideology of Karl Marx. Its more perceptive adherents already recognised that the Soviet Union represented a flagrant distortion of their ideals. Nevertheless, the belief that central planning and state control were the best means of achieving a fairer society and a more efficient economy had yet to be challenged, and was pervasive in the thinking of the time, as well as in its brutalist architecture.

This indeed was a revolution against the old orthodoxy, and it rapidly became a new orthodoxy. The Conservatives accepted one half of the argument and engaged in skirmishes over the second half, never fighting beyond the penultimate ditch. The new orthodoxy acquired a name – ‘the post-war consensus’. It then acquired a second name, ‘Butskellism’, a conflation of the names of two of its least successful practitioners, the Conservative leader-who-never-was, Rab Butler, and the never-elected Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.

The hegemony of the post-war consensus lasted from 35 to 40 years. During the course of it, and right up to the point of its demise, it was held to be sacrosanct. I first became involved in politics towards the end of its dominance and can well recall the adamantine certainty that the consensus was insusceptible to successful challenge and would continue to be the cornerstone of British politics for ever.

Then it collapsed. More or less overnight. Or at least over the winter of 1978-79. And we had the second revolution.

I don’t know whether it was indeed true that Roy Hattersley greeted the news of Margaret Thatcher’s election as Conservative leader by dancing around the corridors of the House of Commons singing ‘Happy days are here again’. It is so delicious it ought to be true. In any event, the story is a pertinent reminder of the myopia that afflicts anyone who becomes too steeped in any orthodoxy. Such as believing that the country could never elect Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister, for example.

The new orthodoxy was originally named after an individual, ‘Thatcherism’, and has since acquired the more generic name of neo-liberalism. Once it had taken root, it too was declared to be inviolable – a permanent feature of the democratic landscape; the fixed star in the heavens by which a course was steered. Tony Blair accepted a great deal more than half of this orthodoxy. He skirmished over a quarter of it, at the most.

This orthodoxy has now prevailed for 35 to 40 years. Perhaps that is the natural lifespan of orthodoxies. Like everything that becomes entrenched, it is believed to be unassailable. I’ve a nasty feeling I’ve said as much myself. But it isn’t. Once it reaches the end of its cycle, an orthodoxy can dissolve with breathtaking rapidity.

It is in this sense that I now expect a revolution in Britain, and almost certainly in other countries too, although I’m not sure which ones. Much will depend on America, and on what form the eventual and inevitable reaction to Donald Trump takes. This time, it will be harder than usual to predict what course the new orthodoxy will take. It doesn’t yet have a coherent intellectual underpinning, and perhaps it will never achieve one. We may be looking forward to 35 or 40 years of amorphous backlash, where anything suggested by any supposed expert or elitist is immediately scorned.

The new movement cannot easily be characterised as ‘left’ or ‘right’. In some countries it is one; in some, the other. Overall, it is both. The one thing that unites it is the vague concept of ‘populism’. It perfectly illustrates the adage that the only difference between extreme right and extreme left is that one is nationalist and the other is internationalist. Otherwise, it is difficult to tell the two apart. The economic programme on which Jeremy Corbyn fought his election last year was almost the same as the one on which Marine Le Pen fought hers. Both their parties are stained with anti-semitism. Excused in different ways, but still stained. Both have nothing but scorn for the centre in politics, for a consensual approach to life.

There is a pervading sense that something is deeply rotten with our system, however one defines it, and that something extreme is required to reform it. The same feeling existed in the ’70s. If my memories from the womb are accurate, it existed after the second world war as well. Revolution is on the rise. Now. Shall I change the mindset of a lifetime and support it?