current affairs politics

On keeping calm and carrying on

So much has been written in the last week about what is happening in the US and why. I’m not sure I need to add much to it today, though there is plenty to say in due course. For now, I wanted to write about our response. And I say ‘our’, for two reasons. One is that the comments from my American friends on Facebook right now are so similar to what we were saying in Britain this summer, and many of the same forces have been at work behind the outcomes of our respective votes. And secondly, the USA remains the world’s principle, possibly only superpower. In our globally connected world, what happens there affects us all.

I’ve read a variety of reactions on my social media streams. There are the occasional expressions of jubilation, though as I mentioned on Friday, the Facebook algorithm assumes that I won’t want to see too many of those. There are expressions of shock and disbelief. There’s a lot of anger. And then there are those who are saying not to worry – either explaining the reasons why things won’t be as bad as expected, or saying that God is in control and has a plan, or some version of that most tired of memes, keep calm and carry on.

Needless to say, panic is not helpful. A level head is important. But I want to take issue with the suggestion that we stop worrying and get on with our lives. We cannot assume that everything will be alright, and that’s not a useful piece of advice.

It’s easy to be complacent about progress. Contemporary philosopher John Gray explains why in his book The Silence of Animals. “Science and technology are cumulative” he writes, “whereas ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas.” Because our modern worldview is so dominated by the idea of technological advance, it’s tempting to think that all things advance in this way, incrementally moving forwards greater tolerance, civil rights, cooperation and understanding.

Unfortunately, says Gray, civilisation is more fragile than it appears. Looking at the last century, he describes wealthy Germans burning their pianos for warmth during hyper-inflation, or the famine in Naples during the Second World War. These were unimaginable reversals for sophisticated societies, and I don’t want to imply that we’re in for anything quite that bad. But history should warn us that such breakdowns are possible.

If we value the society we have, then we must be prepared to defend it. And if we see injustices being perpetrated, then we need to stand against them. When minorities are persecuted with official sanction, when torture is normalised, when political opponents are threatened with jail, the correct response is not to keep calm and carry on.

Exactly how we act is a matter of wisdom and timing. I can understand those who want to march in protest at the results of the vote, but ongoing refusal to recognise it risks further undermining a democratic process that has already been abused on the campaign trail. Better to accept the result, and then watch the new administration like a hawk. There will be a time to march, to write to representatives, even for civil disobedience, but it’s going to have to be about something specific, something that can actually be stopped. That needs organisation, and it needs patience.

President Trump is not the end of the world. Brexit is not the apocalypse. But on both sides of the Altlantic, we are taking a turn towards a meaner, uglier society.  We should not adjust to this new normal. We should resist it. So let’s put that meme to bed, with a little help from Edmund Burke:




  1. I’m sorry but this post exudes the sense of moral superiority that has helped alienate the working classes from liberal politics.

    ‘We’ (those who agree with me) are smarter and more moral than ‘them’ (Trump, Brexiters, those lower class people who voted for them). ‘We’ decide what is moral or not. ‘They’ should go back to doing what we tell them. I think ‘they’ might have had enough condescension

    I understand feelings are raw right now. But while the idea that you are now the moral resistance is flattering as the idea of being moral leaders was before, it falls close to virtue signalling.

    Brexit and Trump , along with populist movement in Europe are a reaction against political, cultural and economic trends that go against the values of many working and lower class people. Apparently it was moral to ignore them and look down on them., To tell them what their problems were rather than listen to them.

    If you paint yourself as the guardian of morality you won’t understand what went wrong. For believers in liberalism (in its British sense) such as myself we need humility to see and accept were we are at fault. I think I had too much faith that while free markets were delivering for the very poor, the low prices they gave the population here would offset the slower wage growth.

    The concerns of this blog are well away from most people who voted for Brexit or Trump. May I humbly suggest you consider that.

    1. What on earth do you stand for DevonChap?

      The post quite clearly says that the results need to be accepted, but that when we see things like minorities persecuted with official sanction, torture normalised, or political opponents threatened with jail – then we stand against those things.

      Do you think torture is wrong? Do you believe in a free press?

      1. The election of Trump is a big blow to what I believe in. I stand in favour of freedom including a free press, free speech and against torture. Go look up liberalism in its British manifestation. Liberalism that goes both ways. Where you stand up and say it is wrong to prosecute people for ‘climate change denialism’ or for the BBC to give in to political pressure from the Green Party and not allow ‘climate sceptics’ on the airwaves? Or for a mob to hound someone out of their job and destroy their reputation because a weak poor taste joke. Freedom is under threat not just from bad orange people but also those who loudly declaim their morality.

        As we are dealing is misattributed quotes, just as Burke did not say ‘The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’, my maxim is what Voltaire never actually said, ‘I may not agree with you but defend to the death your right to say it’.

        The people who voted for Trump and Brexit have legitimate concerns. Not just economic but social and cultural too. We need to accommodate them which means compromises you or I may not like in immigration or trade policies. It is right to do so while defending important principles of freedom of speech, thought and the rule of law.

        1. So if you’re all about “defending important principles of freedom of speech, thought and the rule of law”, and I’m not contesting the election results, what is it that you disagree about?

          1. For someone who on the basis of this blog hasn’t seemed very exercised by threats to free speech in the past it seems a little jarring that you position yourself as moral arbiter of freedom of speech.

            Not saying it isn’t nice to have you alongside. Looking forward to the articles about how freedom of speech is indivisible, includes that which we hate and those who disagree about climate change should be given a fair hearing.

          2. What’s your liberalism worth if you suggest we let it go so easily? We’re not talking about people’s freedom to say unconscionable things. I don’t contest that. We’re talking about people getting into power and then planning to do those things – in Trump’s case, banning whole religions from entering the country, or bringing back torture. We’re well beyond the issue of free speech.

          3. Yes, in many ways this is the inevitable consequence of globalisation that serves the rich first, and the neoliberalism that underlies those power structures. Prolonged inequality was always going to give rise to extreme politics. Planning to write about that in a separate post.

          4. Trumps Muslim ban was wrong but I has rowed back on it, now pledging checks not far worse than the ones Clinton was proposing. But there is clear disquiet about immigration in the US. Are you saying that should be ignored? I think that would just fan the flames.

            Movements like Brexit and Trump are a reaction to what their supporters think is over-reach by the dominant ruling group. The longer the issue goes unaddressed, the greater the disconnect between the ruling group and those opposed, the greater the reaction. Britain has been having high levels of immigration for nearly 20 years. The ruling group said it was great and stifled complaints by implying only racists had a problem. So instead of reaching a humane compromise the groundswell grew into such a reaction that it was incompatible with EU membership. Too many people were ignored too long. They were told it wasn’t immigration but inequality or their own stupidity that upset them. That they should celebrate what they saw as a dilution of their culture. Now they have spoken roughly because we wouldn’t listen before.

            Similarly in America working class white people who saw their incomes stagnate were told they were the recipients of white privilege. They saw the bailing out of Wall St but not Main St, a Republican dominated by the tea party that was obsessed with itself and a Democratic Party that seemed to celebrate everyone except white men and they had had enough.

            And we should also remember that the method of our defeat was gifted to the reaction by those on the left. The competitive victim hood of identity politics led to our Waterloo when a white majority decided they could play the victim too.

            Now we can refuse to compromise, to say we want things back how they were but that will lead to a worse defeat and nastier governments than we will otherwise have. Maybe the sense of virtue of not having compromised may compensate. It seems to for the Corbynites. But I feel we need to engage. If we can give a bit culturally, the act a bit more nationalisticly to save freedoms and free speech that was already under attack from the left, then we should.

            We need to defend what is important but to defend everything is to defend nothing. We are partly responsible for this situation by out running wider opinion so we need some humility.

  2. Let me comment as an American who did not vote for Trump.
    You do not have to feel morally superior to see that some of his policies are on the wrong side of history at the least and un-constitutional at the most obvious.
    I agree with him that nato partners need to fund their own militaries to their treaty obligation levels. The war is over, we do not need to occupy Europe, Japan and Korea. If the us military is providing a service, then that service should be paid for.
    I know Europeans don’t want to hear that but America is over spent and we feel that everyone is taking advantage of the situation.

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