'Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.' –
Many people today deploy the phrase, 'We live in strange times.' We hear it in conversation, we read it in various articles, and it is a constant on social media. Most of us probably think it now and again as we consume vast amounts of news, whether fake or non-fake, every day in various forms. Yes, strange times – times that we just can't quite seem to get a grip on.
I must say, as a teacher of modern history, that I have always considered the period leading up to and during the first world war to be the strangest of human times. I say this because I was brought up to believe that responsibility is the most crucial ingredient in sound government and policy making. Yet from 1871 until 1918, Europe's major powers indulged themselves in an orgy of self-indulgent irresponsibility that remained unique in modern times until, well, 1939 when they resumed where they had left off on 11 November 1918.
To begin with, they built powerful nation states with successful, but competing, economies. Then they gorged themselves on weapons production. Then they ramped up their competition with increasingly aggressive propaganda and formed themselves into two vast armed camps, creating the circumstances that led to a catastrophic war at the lighting of the smallest match.
All of this instead of doing their very best to find ways to enjoy what could have been a period of prolonged prosperity for most Europeans, soundly based on peaceful industrial manufacturing, increasing levels of mutually beneficial trade and a safety net of sustainable non-aggression treaties. This would have been responsible. However, the governments of Europe and their excitable people chose another path.
If we define responsibility in government as being the expression of thoughts, the development of policies and the following of strategies that provide the most peacefully beneficial outcomes to most people; then, looking at the present, we have indeed entered that realm of strange times that some European leaders identified as early as 1900. Today the situation covers the entire developed world, not just Europe. Today it is China that is expanding, in search of vital raw materials, not Japan. For it is China that is laying claim to island territories in the South China Sea and building a larger navy to support those claims, starting an Asian arms race in the process regardless of the likely consequences.
Today it is the USA, under Trump, that is making itself the enemy of free trade to protect its own underperforming economy, having spent the last century shaping globalisation to its advantage. It is also the USA that is leading the reaction to free-movement migration and the attempt to restore the dominance of 'white' cultural values in the West, supported by activists in Europe who seem to be finding new positions in the mainstream of their countries’ politics.
Today it is Russia, under Putin, that is successfully undermining the political systems and cultures of the West after a century of active Western destabilisation of the USSR. This at a time when trust in western institutions and values have already become internally weakened.
Today, in Britain, we see an attempt by Conservatives and a nominally eurosceptic population to return the country to the status it held after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, apart from continental Europe, and free to resume strong trading and strategic relationships with the wider world. However, this is not 1815. Britain's manufacturing production trajectory is not upward, Britain's balance of trade has has shown a continuous and significant deficit since 1998, and while people point to strong GDP, they forget to mention that Britain's GDP is greatly influenced by high rates of consumption. This consumption is funded by historically high levels of personal debt – we buy things, produced elsewhere, with borrowed money.
Today, in Scotland, we have a devolved parliament in which the SNP form a minority administration and dominate the country's representation in the House of Commons at Westminster. The SNP has done spectacularly well during the past 10 years and yet the campaign for Scottish independence remains as unsuccessful as ever with little or no movement in the numbers that could reverse the result of the referendum of 2014.
Strange times indeed. Times that seem to make no sense, when alliances that have generally lasted since 1945 are fragmenting. Times when the value of international institutions is being strongly challenged and the nation state seems to be making a return to the stage, led by Trump's America, leading to growing competition and possible conflict over resources and economic advantage.
The current situation is not strange – we've been here many times before and for generally the same reasons. This is, in my opinion, a new age of irresponsibility. It isn't the first and I hope it won't be the last, because if it is, then we will have blown ourselves up in the process.
It is irresponsible for China to start flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, not just because of the potentially disastrous consequences, but because it needs the co-operation of other countries to develop its economy enough in order to spread wealth throughout the poverty-stricken population in its huge interior. Japan tried it in the first half of the 20th century and failed. China should be responsible enough to acknowledge that.
It is irresponsible for Trump to challenge the development of global free trade because the USA and American families, many of them Trump supporters, benefit from it. Trump’s tariffs are facing retaliation from other countries and it is not certain that the US economy is strong enough to withstand that kind of pressure. Globalisation is based on trade, with generally shared economic benefits except in less developed countries that suffer as badly as ever. Attacking global trade in the way Trump is doing is clearly primitive and will, in the long term, not make America great again.
Creating a hostile environment for migrants in any country is irresponsible because any rise in the levels of hatred in a country, usually based on race and ethnicity, creates a dynamic that only those active in the dark underbelly of politics are happy with. Most people suffer when violent hatred rises to the surface with the support of a government, if not immediately, then later when the guilt and remorse set in. However that doesn't mean that it will stop happening.
Putin’s destabilisation of Western political structures and culture is irresponsible, no matter how he justifies it, because he simply does not care about the long-term damage that a Trump or Boris Johnson can do to the credibility of the constitutions and institutions within those societies. The ultimate target for any intelligence officer is to undermine the rule of law and the belief that citizens may have that they live in a just and fair society. Once that has been undermined anything is possible. Putin is, first and foremost, an officer in the Cold War KGB and it would be irresponsible of us to forget that, as many seem to do now.
Britain leaving the European Union now is an act of supreme irresponsibility, not because the EU is perfect, but because Britain's economy is simply not equipped to benefit from the consequences. In many ways this will be the final act of Britain's post-imperial decline, which may be seen as inevitable, but tragic, nonetheless.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is a fine personal example of the irresponsibility of Brexit. He is erudite, personally wealthy, and bound to benefit financially from the sale of British assets after Brexit – such as the NHS – through his part ownership of Somerset Capital Management, who he effectively represents in parliament. Mr Rees-Mogg can't tell us when the benefits of Brexit will eventually trickle down to the general population. Mr Rees-Mogg hasn't bothered to construct a vision of post-Brexit Britain that he can share with the rest of us. Instead, he spends his time attacking the vision and policy proposals of others, including his party's own leader.
Jacob Rees-Mogg is the totem of Brexit precisely because he is, quite literally, in it for himself. His post-Brexit Britain will be nothing more than an economic environment from which he, his friends and their business contacts can benefit.
It is irresponsible of the SNP, their leadership and their elected representatives in both Edinburgh and London, to continually promote the idea of a second independence referendum unless and until they produce a credible plan and vision for the successful development of the Scottish economy after independence. This means that they must, as a priority, get their heads around a realistic relationship with the EU, a practical solution to the fiscal issues facing the country, an assessment of what kind of economy we can and should have, and where the large amounts of necessary investment are going to come from.
The Growth Commission report was a start, but only that. Right now, the Scottish economy needs everything and none of it will come from Westminster or from Brussels. If we want to be independent, then we actually must, right now, start thinking about generating wealth and attracting investment in the medium- and long-term. We can't all work for the state, we have to get out there and make things happen ourselves. In other words, overcome our fear and take responsibility for independence.
Spreading lies and fake news on social media is irresponsible. Not checking sources is irresponsible. Believing everything we read is irresponsible. Voting for people only because they say what we unthinkingly want to hear is irresponsible. Talking about things you know nothing about on TV as a government minister is irresponsible. And spinning to put the blame on everyone else is irresponsible.
In August 1914, the politicians and their generals said that the war would be over by Christmas. Are we, in 2018, to allow our ego-driven irresponsibility to lead us to an even greater disaster than they did, because it's easier that way?