United Nations Association – Shropshire. – a platform for exploring global/local issues


At the time of publishing, Russia has invaded the sovereign territory of Ukraine and is in a brutal war against the people. To find this happening again in Europe in a modern world is a deep shock. Autocratic regimes have perceived that Western liberal democracy is weak, and when the crunch comes, it is ineffective. This has now been tested and democracies have risen in a controlled anger. Globally, democracy is fragile. Ukraine is a country in transition, now arrogantly interrupted by a ‘messianic’ whim of an autocrat. At the same time, in Britain, a bill has passed through the Commons and is under scrutiny in the Lords, which campaigners claim will restrict freedom of speech and skew democracy in a partisan way.

How fares the democratic model of government in the world today? And in modern Britain, how safe is democracy?

What is perhaps happening in western liberal democracies is a crisis of identity and having withdrawal symptoms from the old world of empires. Outbursts of a narrow nationalism still gurgle up and are regularly topped up with national sentiment around wars, of standing alone against the foe, which is one of our patriotic myths. What about all those nationals from other countries even beyond the empire, who fought for an empire from which they were soon to free themselves, many of whom have become citizens in this country? Though, now, the world is a different place, which should have been observed since Syria.
Every country has its myths of the past, some of which are important for learning but then moving on. It is also illustrated in the over-confidence of America, the largest economy, having the responsibility to shape other nation’s futures, especially where its own interests are concerned. It is a role that Britain, France et al, once had, and all are painfully reaping the whirlwind of the turbulence that followed. The rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan leaves us wondering what the difference is, between democratic and autocratic powers. Francis Fukujama predicted that the end of the Cold War would be a time when western liberalism had triumphed. The idea that somehow the western liberal democratic model would eventually be adopted by all nations has proven to be an illusion in our time.
Profound political shifts in our time have split families and friends, cut across social classes, re-arranged alliances and seek to disrupt international partnerships.
Something else is going on among populations to which the elites in power face at least in two ways. One is the disbelief that governments can deliver what people really need. The second is that governments are really plotting against the people to service their own and their cronies’ interests.
Governments may respond by running popular policies of e.g. apparent low taxation or cutting of bureaucracy and spending. Another is to ride on the back of the frustration and anger, blaming former governments or other nations, global conditions, or the pandemic or Europe. But one element that governments have not consistently faced down; during and since the 2008 banking crash, we live in more unequal times, even from the last 300 years. The causes and consequences of widening disparities in income and wealth should have become a defining debate of our age. 

Can there be a levelling up without a levelling down, when the disparities are so wide?

This is by no means a new phenomenon in political responses, both from the far right or far left. Though today their reach and power is so much larger and deeper than ever because of social media, and the polarisation of views across the globe. Again, we can go to America to illustrate the virulence of this phenomenon.
The Prairie Fire Organising Committee (PFOC) under the guise of a group ‘the Weathermen’ have been operating at least since 1974 as an anti-imperialist group; quote from their website: ‘Our intention is to forge an underground, a clandestine political organization engaged in every form of struggle, protected from the eyes and weapons of the state, a base against repression, to accumulate lessons, experience and constant practice, a base from which to attack’.
Combine this with the Christian Right who see America in a state of depravity, decadence, racial mixing and secularism. Some see the second coming of Christ as the solution, though many are prepared to see Trump filling that role, or at least as a pre-runner. Add the continuing movement of the Ku Klux Klan and a host of other white supremacist and anti-Semitic groups, and then you have a ready-made cauldron of potential rebellion.
Conspiracies range from Jews conspiring to bring down America often in tandem with denial of the Holocaust; to the Hilary Clinton and cronies conspiracy theory of the White House being at the head of a paedophilia organisation. It only required a politician to adopt the main themes of any of these groups, thus, uniting them with slogans such as ‘draining the swamp’ or ‘that woman should be in jail’ for them to flock to Trump’s side.
Trump is a wealthy businessman, claiming to speak for the common man and who in his inaugural address expressed cynicism about the democratic system. Nigel Farage is a wealthy city trader, beer-drinking, swearing ‘one of the people’, a nationalist and anti-European. Often, leaders assume a prevailing mood to gain or retain power.
The recent parliamentary attack on Keir Starmer by Boris Johnson placing blame for his failure to prosecute Savile falls into this strategy. Starmer had stood down from his role as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and Head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) before charges had been made. The objective is met when words are turned by far right or left groups into violence, inducing fear and promoting chaos. The strategy is designed for this, thus deflecting attention from the actions of politicians, who at the same time condemn such behaviour. Statements no longer need to be true or evidence based; they simply need to feed the already toxic views of the antagonists.
Visions of a world born of resentment, anger and a deep messianic dreams undermines consensus, dividing people even more. The polarising of ideas confronts attempts at reconciling of opposites. Collaboration, old partnerships are despised, and the dogs of violence and war are unleashed.

How does the liberal mind, schooled in evidence-based reasoning, dialogue with fear, suspicion and ‘alternative facts’?

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – This is an unused preface to Animal Farm, but it was used by the winner of the 12-13 years 2016 Orwell Prize. Robust and fierce disagreement is essential in political democracy. But it is also essential that the electorate have the opportunity to compare the sides in the argument which are based on evidential truth. This is precisely what populist regimes are adept at avoiding and present ‘alternative’ facts that angry and disillusioned people are prone to believe. The populist is well aware of the complexities in governing, but prefers to offer simple and apparently attractive solutions which usually create even more inequalities and division.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan, decided by the Trump regime and carried out all too fast by Biden exposed a plan that had fallen short of what was needed in Afghanistan – a long-term working with Afghani institutions to create stable and functional government and security. This really belongs to the role of a United Nations operation through its many agencies, whilst security is secured.
The US base housed a prison which conducted wide-scale torture. It was feared and hated by Afghans and more than 1000 inmates, some of whom escaped or were released. This was not widely known at the time and a false picture was promoted, of Afghans who had been rescued by the troops, turned traitor and joined the Taliban.
Populism promises to deliver what a section of the population who felt ‘left behind’, desire, but at the cost of scapegoats; those who have been on the margins through good and bad times. Those are Black minorities and immigrants. It divides sector against sector. It politicises the judges, so that the people perceived to be keeping the country down, are victimised. It is the tool that corrupts and it ensures that the chosen elites do well. It maintains its power by producing false news of its actions and what its opponents are doing.
Brexit was a model of populism at work in Britain. Not yet do we know, because of the pandemic, the facts about the cost of Brexit. None of the claims of the ‘sunny uplands’ has been backed by evidence of real gains. The reverse is claimed by businesses that have had to meet extra transport costs, more regulation and shortage of staff. How quickly the £350 million to the NHS each week has been muted. The N Ireland peace dividend from the Good Friday Agreement is again threatened by a protocol, signed off without engaging all the parties of the NI Assembly.
The latter indicates a growing element in governance of dismissing the importance of historical events out of which strategic partnerships and solutions were honed. Populism can tear up international treaties; make its own rules in an international world. It claims other nations are holding it back and denying its own freedoms.
Many regimes demonstrate features and tendencies of a modern fundamentalism: the attempt to recreate a crudely simplified version of an irretrievable past. When it eventually does not deliver, it too will face the anger of its citizens. The cost to populations is high, as in Belarus, Poland, Hungary and Brazil.

Does the UK also sit in this list?

Do we the people, local and global citizens, realise our power in any of this?

We are witnessing in Ukraine the dignity and its enormous cost of democracy.

On behalf of UNA Shropshire
Noel Beattie
25th February 2022
You are welcome to join in an open conversation on the
Questions raised in this article, both local and global

WEDNESDAY 20th APRIL at 10.15 am. – 12.00 noon

In the United Reformed Church, 73 High Street Church Stretton

As you register you will receive the full first paper
Proceeds to humanitarian aid for Ukraine and its Refugees

In the MAY 4th SESSION 2: How populism becomes autocracy, authoritarianism; control of the media; a rules- based world is violently challenged. How is Britain evolving in these shifting sands? Are we secure in the democracy we have now?