So. What’s next? For you, 2016 has been a year of achievement. My warmest congratulations to you, your teachers and your parents. The partnership has held firm and there has been success at the end of it.
Many of you have already embarked upon a new path – and you may therefore think my question, “What’s next?” slightly pointless. ‘Isn’t obvious?’ you ask. ‘Weren’t you listening? Most of us have already got ourselves firmly established on a fresh new course. Our lives are shaping up very nicely with prospects opening up in front of us… “What’s next?” It’s already sorted.’
But 2016 is likely to be one of those years when the question “What next?” or “Whatever next!” is particularly pertinent. Things have happened in the past twelve months which have set the needle on the compass swinging wildly, no longer pointing ahead with any confidence. To the east, the Russian Bear is lumbering about, sniffing around the borders of its territories, nosing into the hornets’ nest of Syria in a quest for honey. To the west, the American duck has hatched and is waddling about, fluffing out its orange feathers as if it were a majestic rooster perched on top of a haystack crowing in a new dawn. It is quacking raucously, taking advantage of the fact that all the other animals on the farm seem to have been struck dumb by its ascendancy. Here in Europe, we find the Far Right surfacing, like a bad gas bubbling up from the bottom of the lake, in a way that we have not seen for over half a century. In countries throughout the continent, discontent is a flame which threatens to ignite this noxious vapour.
So, “What next/whatever next?” is a valid question to pose.
But I am not going to give you a political diatribe tonight. It’s not the occasion and I am not the best qualified. On the other hand, the political and social upheaval, which we have witnessed this year, and shall continue to witness, I am sure, over the next decade or so, does lie behind what I want to say. You see, I think, we are at a pivotal point in world history, where responding to the question “What next?” is critically important. Similarly, many of you are at a pivotal point in your development; you have just reached or are about to turn eighteen. You are legally an adult and, as such, you will have the right and the responsibility to vote. You must do so. You must take this political responsibility seriously.
Let me tell you why.
The writer and novelist, E.M Forster (who is probably not as popular as he once was but whose novels – to a discerning reader – I heartily recommend) wrote an essay in 1939 entitled, What I Believe. I re-read it the other day because I remembered he had written something about democracy. He gave democracy two cheers – only two – one cheer because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers were quite enough, he said. Only a system founded on Love and Tolerance deserve three cheers. I think Forster is right. Democracy enshrines two fundamental freedoms: the freedom to be different and the freedom to disagree. Those of us who live in democracies and enjoy those freedoms have to make sure that we protect them. I make this point because it seems to me that they are under threat. They are threatened by a great wayward thing called ‘Populism’ which somehow, whilst our backs were turned, has got loose.
Once upon a time, Populism (in the eighteenth century it was nick-named the Mob) was no more than a toddler; often badly behaved, it would bellow in a loud, ugly voice shouting for whatever it was it demanded. It was not an attractive child and we were reluctant to take it seriously whilst it was still small enough to be picked up and left in its room until it had calmed down. Now Populism has grown up into a monstrously obese creature of indeterminate sex with the power to do a great deal of damage if it is not pacified. At the moment, it’s just rampaging through the house making a mess but it might not be long before it’s broken through the front door and is out on the streets.
Of course, democracy gives Populism, along with nearly every adult, a voice in how the country should be run. However, in Britain, we keep a check on Populism whom we would prefer does not get a foothold in the seats of government. We have what is called a representative democracy because, realising that a conversation between 50 million or so is impractical, we choose then men and women to have a seat in Parliament. It’s called parliament because it is the place to parley; it’s how we ensure that things get done. We expect our representatives, those members of Parliament, to take their role seriously. It’s a key job if democracy is to be effective. They each have an electorate to represent. They have national interests to consider. There is a global context to work within. There’s a lot to juggle. We trust them to work at it. If they make mistakes or behave irresponsibly or dishonourably, or show themselves to be too interested in their own status, if they lie or distort the truth in their pursuit of power, putting their own interests above the interests of the people whom they should be serving, then that is corrupt; it is an abuse of their position. It can bring discredit on the whole system and turn many voters off this sort of democracy all together; it can threaten those precious, shared freedoms are neglected. And – it is dangerous because it is at these times, when disillusionment has set in, that Populism eagerly seizes the advantage.
It is at these times, that Populism can appear attractive. Its rebellious refusal to play by the rules gets the adrenalin going; there’s a bit of a buzz in the air and, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves being stirred up; it can all appear rather exciting.
Populism often wears a disguise. Here is one we’re all familiar with. We’ve all been in classrooms where one pupil has discovered how to bully the teacher. It’s not long before other pupils start to join in. The bully’s tactics somehow magnetise the class and, if the teacher is weak or inexperienced, any learning is lost and the classroom becomes a little hot-bed of anarchy. Populism rules. She struts her stuff down the corridor and, when she throws the door open into the next classroom we know that there’ll be more of the same. She’s on a roll, leaving destruction and pain in her wake.
Hers is the loudest voice, and whatever it’s shouting, is the only voice to be heard. Many people, even if they are singing the most melodious of tunes, eventually give up and hum along to Populism’s chant. Others sink into silence. Populism, arms folded smugly, appears triumphant. Fear is widespread.
That has not happened. Not yet. Not quite. But to avoid it occurring, we need to act. And the way to act, I suggest, is to promote our individuality. This is something each of us is blessed with. We need to safeguard it. One way to do this is to react against the way that individuals are classified as if they were simply one uniform mass. When you hear people talk about “Immigrants” rephrase it in your head to “the men, women and children who are hoping to improve their lives by coming to Britain.” When you hear the term “Latinos” (used repeatedly during the American presidential election) rephrase it: “families descended from Spanish and Italian settlers”. “Refugees” becomes “women, boys and girls, men and youths fleeing from untold hardship and persecution.” We need to reinterpret these collective terms and see through them to the separate individuals, each with a personal story to tell.
We also need to remember that we have our own narratives too, and these ought to be heard. If we bump into Populism and he or she won’t listen to them, then we have to persevere, never giving-in but relentlessly persisting. Anything less is surrender.
And now I find myself confronting a paradox. The communications technology at our disposal, the ability to tweet and blog and cavort through a huge array of social media should mean that the ease with which we can tell our individual stories and listen to others’ is unparalleled. This ought to be the age when celebrating the individual has never been more straightforward. And so it is. But, of course, this technology also means that bullies have yet another platform from which to shout and bellow. Populism can tweet like the devil. And the ease with which rumour, gossip, half-truths and blatant lies are shared can swamp everything which is honest and genuine.
It comes back to individual responsibility. If we truly value each individual (believing, if we are a Christian, that each is made in the image of God) we have a responsibility to resist the behaviours which threaten the full expression of each individual’s worth. We must make sure that our own voice is not so dominant that others are forced into silence. We must make sure that we spend at least as much time listening and reflecting as we do pronouncing. We must cultivate dialogue not monologue.
E.M.Forster reserved three cheers for what he called the Beloved Republic of Love. This is a society where the people who hold sway are the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky. “They are sensitive for others as well as themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure and they can take a joke.” They are to be found in all nations and classes and they alone can effect a permanent victory over cruelty and chaos. Advent is not a bad time to wait for the inauguration of Love as a Beloved Republic but, in the meantime, the best we have got is democracy. Two cheers for democracy because it does acknowledge the right of everyone to have a voice and play a role. Let’s defend it by confronting the ogre Populism, wherever we find it spouting ugly obscenities or dribbling oily lies.
For my part, I reserve three cheers for those individuals who have the self-discipline to think before they act, to listen before they speak; who have the courage to defend what is humane, however unfashionable it might be and the steel – the tenacity – to remain unrelenting in the face of bullying and aggression. I reserve three cheers for everyone who acknowledges that living in a democracy brings with it responsibilities.
And so I reserve three cheers for each of you, the rising generation, if, in response to the question, “What next?” you reply, “sensitivity, consideration, courage and care”… and then go on to actively promote these virtues.
When you vote look to support the policies which enshrine them. Of course, no political party will get it all right, they are imperfect mechanisms, but you need to vote for the one which does the best. And, if change is required, be an advocate for it.
Get stuck in; contribute to your communities. Don’t just sit on the sidelines, passively.
Be a protagonist. Drive things forward. Be agents for change and make a difference.
It will be good and I look forward to it.