This may be controversial in some circles, but I have always been inspired by America.
Whilst my brother, sister and I grew up watching the Olympics listening to my dad over-enthusiastically shouting for any athlete who might rob the USA of a medal, we also listened obsessively to the music of the United States: Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, the Supremes, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye. As the thudding beats of Northern Soul stitched together the world of Atlantic Records, Motown and northern British towns, I felt a bond across that wide ocean. And when I later visited the immigration museum at Ellis Island I saw for myself the bond of history was real.
The idea of a nation of immigrants – including some from Ireland, some from Scotland, some from Liverpool, just like my family – is an irresistibly progressive vision. A country where it’s not your name that matters but how hard you work. A country where class didn’t matter so much. A country whose democracy defined itself against the monarchy and inherited power. The political song that inspired my young days wasn’t so much Billy Bragg’s There is Power in a Union, but rather Curtis Mayfield’s People Get Ready.
So, the day I watched Aretha Franklin sing at the inauguration of president Barack Obama, I thought my heart might explode. The greatest soul singer in history (for that is what she is) was born 1942, twenty years before the civil rights movement. Despite her friendship with Martin Luther King, did she ever think she would live to see the day?
But of course – like everywhere – progressive, inclusive America is just one side of the story. We know now that Hillary Clinton’s vision of her country, where people might be different in background yet stand shoulder to shoulder with one another, was not heard by enough of her fellow Americans. 74 per cent of non-white people voted Democrat, but 58 per cent of white people voted for Trump.
History, though, has another lesson for us. Bad harvests precede revolution. Economic circumstances that squeeze working people hard are followed by political turmoil. And sadly, not always progressive revolution that spreads power wide, but often, as in 1931 and 1979, a lurch to the right.
Tough economic times provide fertile ground on which the hard right and the far right can prey on people’s fears. They exploit fear to foster division, and tell people that the economic pain they feel is the fault of those just like them but who are ‘foreign’, rather than the fault of the powerful in their own country. Divide and rule: it’s always the same.
It’s easy to feel beat down by this victory for the right. It’s easy to think politics on either side of the Atlantic is a waste of time right now. The Brexiters won, and Trump won, and who knows how bad this could get if Renzi loses his referendum, and Le Pen rises in France. How tempting to sit politics out until there is a collective wake-up from this nightmare.
But, for what it’s worth, here’s my advice.
First, hold the line. Equality is indivisible, and in these times, solidarity is even more important than ever. Whether it is the eastern European victims of hate crime in Britain, or the global fundraising effort for Planned Parenthood, we all have a duty to stand by those who are under attack. Whether it is the battle for feminism, multiculturalism or against poverty and class prejudice, there is work to be done.
Let me give an example of how this works. When members of parliament were challenging the government to do more to get justice for those killed by the Hillsborough disaster, it wasn’t just people from Liverpool that provided the necessary backing. It was football fans across our country, and around the world. We could do little by ourselves, but millions of voices together made the call irresistible, even for a Conservative home secretary. Even in these tough times, progressives will get some victories if we stand together. Find a campaign you feel part of and fight like hell to win.
Second. Either side of the Atlantic we need to smarten up. The divide and rule rhetoric of the hard right is winning. We need to be much closer to those who they are speaking to, and understand where they are coming from.
If the care funding crisis means that older people (be they well-to-do or otherwise) feel that they and their loved ones are abandoned, and all they hear from us is that it’s young people who are losing out, they will turn to the answers others give. We must listen to those who don’t vote our way.
If multinational companies take decisions that cannot be constrained by national governments, those who lose out in the West as economic activity moves east will wonder what the point of their well-established politicians are.
New ideas about how we can co-operate politically to manage globalisation are required. This is not about facilitating or impeding trade, but rather to recognise that what globalisation has actually given us is multinational companies, whose supply chains take in half the globe, and whose customers are based everywhere. This makes shaping the rules of the market more complicated. But in the end there is simply no other way to protect workers, the environment and the revenue of national governments than to co-operate across countries internationally.
Getting progressive politics back on the road will take deep thinking about how to make this work. Both in developing policy ideas and building international partnerships. So we need more people to be involved to share the load. How do we deal with migration, what should the welfare state do to meet the needs of the twenty first century? Why is our education system still failing too many? All questions that beg for an answer. Be a part of finding the answer and we might get a hearing with the wider public.
And finally, if you are really feeling down about the state of the world, I have one final suggestion for you. There is one song, and one singer, that whatever the political weather always gets me through.
Get hold of Aretha Franklin’s ethereal, haunting, determined version of You’ll Never Walk Alone. And listen. However bad the storm, walk on, and remember, the golden sky is waiting.
Image: AustinMini 1275