It is tempting, as we head into August, to gaze across the Channel at the continent of Europe and despair. Some of us will be about to take our holidays in France, Spain, or Italy – others will stay at home and wonder what is to become of us.
In the past two weeks, a series of attacks in France and Germany has left those countries reeling. In Nice, Würzburg, Munich, Reutlingen, Ansbach and Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray in Normandy, where an 86-year-old priest was murdered by men who had pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State group, dozens of people have been killed and injured. Three of the attacks in Germany were carried out by recent immigrants – two from Syria and one from Afghanistan; the fourth, in Munich, where nine people were killed, was carried out by an 18-year-old Iranian-German who was said to have become obsessed by violence.
But Europe’s problems go much deeper than how to deal with a spate of attacks by deeply disturbed young men. Those of us of a certain age will remember the 1970s and 80s when the Basque separatist group ETA, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigades and sundry neo-Fascist groups in Italy, as well as the Provisional IRA, all spread death and destruction across the continent. Then, as now, there were calls for crack-downs to catch the killers. And then, as it will be now, it was careful, methodical intelligence work that beat them.
Europe’s deeper malaise stems from a process that has been under way for at least three decades, a process that enables goods, services, capital and people to flow across borders unhindered, disrupting national economies and creating deep social fissures between those who have benefited from this process and those who have not.
We call it globalisation, and I remember once asking someone to define exactly what it meant. ‘Globalisation,’ I was told, ‘is what we call anything that we don’t understand.’ We certainly didn’t understand the fundamental changes it would bring with it, or the political tensions that would result.
Britain is not immune from these tensions, as we saw all too clearly in the result of the EU referendum. In a fascinating essay in the London Review of Books, the journalist and novelist John Lanchester wrote: ‘To be born in many places in Britain is to suffer an irreversible lifelong defeat – a truncation of opportunity, of education, of access to power, of life expectancy.’
Once, he said, people who grew up in these areas were equipped for reasonably paid unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in the same industries that their parents had worked in. But now those jobs have gone, and in their place are new jobs that are unsatisfying, insecure and badly paid. The proletariat have been replaced by the precariat, and they resent the process that has destroyed the things they most valued.
As Lanchester wrote: ‘People hate to have things taken away from them. But whole swathes of the UK have spent the last decades feeling that things are being taken away from them: their jobs, their sense that they are heard, their understanding of how the world works and their place in it. The gaps in our society have just grown too big.’
In the US, a similar process is under way. How else could a lying, ignorant demagogue like Donald Trump – a man who this week became the first presidential candidate for 40 years to refuse to publish his tax returns and who called on Russia to hack into the emails of his Democratic party opponent, Hillary Clinton – be the chosen candidate of millions of American voters?
The NewYork Times columnist Tom Friedman divides Americans into Wall People and Web People. The Wall People are those who want a president to build a wall to protect them from what he calls the ‘violent winds of change that are buffeting every family.’
It is not, he says, just about race and class. ‘It is also about a yearning for community — about “home” in the deepest sense — a feeling that the things that anchor us in the world and provide meaning are being swept away, and so they are looking for someone to stop that erosion.’ They are the same people whom John Lanchester calls the precariat.
On the other hand, according to Friedman, Web People embrace change and focus on empowering more people to be able to compete and collaborate in a world without walls. They are in favour of expanding trade and of more, managed immigration to attract the most energetic and smartest minds from overseas. Here in the UK, the Web People would have voted to stay in the EU; the Wall People would have voted to leave.
Across Europe, as in the US, the Wall People are rising up. They are angry and frightened, and with every new attack in a shopping mall, a concert hall or a church, they become more angry and more frightened as they search for political leaders who will give voice to their anger and promise to assuage their fear.
Here, a new political movement has just been launched – it is called More United UK, a deliberate echo of the words of the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox, who said in her maiden speech in the House of Commons: ‘We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.’ Among its early backers are the historian Simon Schama, the internet entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox, the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, the feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, the former High Court judge Janet Smith, and the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown.
It calls itself a tech-driven political startup and says its aim is to harness the power of crowd-funding to offer financial support to any political candidate who shares its principles. It wants to ‘get more progressive MPs from all parties elected and shift the balance of Parliament away from extremism.’
I wish it well, because I share its liberal and progressive principles – but if it wants to make a real difference, it will need to find a way to reach Wall People as well as Web People.