SOMETHING hit me when I was in my bathroom the other day. Luckily it was only a thought. Perhaps I was inspired by the decidedly Soviet tiling on the wall – no doubt an original feature.
It struck me that, had you asked them, the original occupants of this 1950s St Petersburg flat would have found it highly improbable that an Englishman would, in just a few decades, be using their facilities.
Nevertheless, here I am with little to complain about. I adore the flat: this era of Soviet housing was built with aesthetics in mind and is a far cry from less glamorous examples of USSR dwellings. There’s even a large tower, adorned with a Soviet star, visible from the living-room window. Currently reading an account of Kim Philby’s KGB antics, I find myself somewhat over-engrossed given my surroundings.
Clearly, for most of the twentieth century a majority of people would have opted to be in the West rather than behind the Iron Curtain or in Communist China, apart from the likes of Philby, of course. The few ideologues who bucked this trend often discovered – to their dismay – the realities of life under such regimes. The West was, at that time, certainly best.
Inevitably, times change. People’s minds, however, change less rapidly. People are, by and large, lazy. I am not referring to the inflating waistline of the nation. I mean in their modes of thinking.
People are locked into patterns of thought that are long past their sell-by date. It’s what leads to a vast part of our political establishment to entertain an overblown, reds-under-the-bed fear of Russia. Given the Cold War upbringing of many of our politicians, it is understandable. Growing up amid threats of Mutually Assured Destruction, the prospect of Ivan rolling across the plains of Europe atop a fleet of T-62s was not to be dismissed. Finding out the Soviets had utterly compromised our intelligence agencies probably didn’t help.
Yet for anyone paying attention, it has been clear for many years that our principal geopolitical threat lies further east. For all the endless hours of Russian scare stories, before our current WuFlu-fuelled crisis, there were probably four old men grumbling in pubs about the growing threat from Beijing. Perhaps there were more – but that was the effective sum of their political influence. Now they’ve even closed the pubs!
For years, the skin-crawlers of May, Gideon, Cameron et al took every opportunity to celebrate the supposed ‘golden age’ of Sino-British relations. Cameron’s Chinese New Year greeting remains particularly cringe-inducing. That China had been (and continues to be) massively expanding its military expenditure, engaging in wholesale intellectual property theft, buying up key strategic assets across the West and flagrantly abusing the privileges granted to it upon entering the WTO is neither here nor there. Instead, eyes were directed elsewhere, certainly more towards Moscow.
I am certain the prospect of a stack of Chinese renminbi helped keep any awkward questions at bay. Blinded by greed, short-termism and a healthy dose of idiocy, our politicians for years accepted trinkets from Beijing in return for vital industries. We got pandas, they got British Steel. Nobody should forget or underestimate how blind our leaders have been on this issue: it was, lest we forget, only a pandemic of Chinese origin that convinced Al Johnson to reconsider allowing the Chinese Communist Party a backdoor to our 5G network.
It is not only politicians who are compromised by their continued clinging to the flotsam and jetsam of history. Just look at the Right’s continued faith in the Conservative Party.
A certain breed of commentator is now relishing the demise of Johnson. To a degree I share this hope. But I do not pretend that it will be an elixir for our woes. If Johnson goes, whence, precisely, do people imagine that a new, red-meat Tory Party will emerge? Perhaps from the 80 per cent of sitting Tory MPs who voted to subject the country to an extended bout of lockdown?
If a tree is four-fifths rotten, it’s time to cut it down. Regrettably, having been duped for the last 30 years by the party’s inherent inability to provide a decent leader, the keyboard-bashers of the usual ‘conservative’ media will be drawn into another round of ultimately meaningless debates of who will be chosen to run the Conservative Party straight into the next visible iceberg.
Such staid thinking is ubiquitous. Observe elsewhere ‘conservatives’ flapping into moralistic histrionics about a cut to our foreign aid budget. Are they unaware of, or unbothered by, the fact that our economy has, in this year alone, suffered its greatest annual fall in output since Robert Walpole was Prime Minister? A few more years of this and we’ll be economically level-pegging with the likes of the head-shrinkers of Papua New Guinea. Tell me, what’s 0.7 per cent of a bankrupt economy? How many Sudanese cheerleading squads will we be able to fund after that? It’s a vital question. Those who complain so vehemently about this are residents of a time governed by a totally different set of facts.
There must be hundreds of such examples. For generations who have come to believe that our continued economic prosperity and social stability is some kind of immutable law of nature, the shocks that we are soon to experience will be a Hiroshima-sized wake-up call. Things have been so good for so long that people have simply forgotten – and have not been taught – how we arrived at wealth, stability and freedom. They merely opened their eyes, saw the trappings of civilisation – water, electricity, well-functioning institutions, rubbish collection – and believed it was ever thus. And that it will ever be will be thus. No matter how much they clawed at the fabric of the nation.
This blindness to our position has naturally been worsened amid the collapse of an overarching belief system. Cut off from the past by a stunning ignorance of our history and denied a stake in the future through the denial of the transcendental, we are obsessed with the temporal but don’t know how it came to be. Our society is like a survivor on a lifeboat amid the high seas, who can only hold on for dear life from wave to crashing wave. That the tempestuous seas are of our own devising is a lesson that has not been learnt.
But do not despair. I’m not trying to be too depressing (honest!).
When things seem helpless and the world’s insanity seems beyond resisting, I am often reminded of my dad’s story from when he visited my mum’s extended family in the GDR (my grandmother escaped East Germany in the late 1940s while the rest of her family remained in Karl-Marx-Stadt, now restored to its proper name, Chemnitz).
Visting Onkel Roland’s house in 1987, my parents were met by a group of students who came to say hello – no doubt mum and dad were considered an exoticism behind the Iron Curtain. In the course of conversation, my dad said plainly that the GDR, riddled as it was with inefficiencies, could not survive.
Nobody dared respond. If they harboured any doubts about the system they kept them closely guarded. At some later point, someone remarked in private – beyond the ears of any potential informers – that the system would not change, at least not in their lifetime. The Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands – the ruling party – had become permanent.
They were unable to foresee, of course, that in just two years the whole system would be gone.
Things seem beyond hope now although there is still every chance that they may improve. What is certain, however, if we remain wedded to the leaden weights of the past – oh, let’s just give the Conservatives one more chance – we are signing ourselves up to more of the same.
I, for one, will no longer play that game.