It’s awfully easy to subscribe to the Grand Inevitable Tide of Progress theory of history. Of course slavery was going to be abolished. It was only natural that women should eventually be given the vote. American independence was self-evident, the collapse of Communism ineluctable. And as one young Labour researcher told me this week, “apartheid was always bound to come to an end”.
Following that thinking, this week’s news that the Supreme Court in India has declared homosexual acts illegal, and that their Australian equivalent has effectively annulled the same-sex marriages recently contracted in Canberra, is almost irrelevant. I guess most readers of this column will content themselves with the thought that both India and Australia will come round, in the end. The force of progress, after all, is so strong that it cannot be resisted for ever. You might indeed have come to the same conclusion about the Ukrainian President’s original decision not to sign up to a special relationship with the EU. Vladimir Putin may have his moment of backyard bullying, but it’ll all come right in the end, won’t it?
Have we learnt nothing from history? By far the most gay-friendly city to live in the 20th century was early 1930s Berlin. That’s why so many wealthy British and American gay men, such as Christopher Isherwood, travelled there, when homosexuality was still a fiercely policed criminal offence in their own countries. But by the end of the decade, the cabaret bars were closed and gay Berliners were wearing pink triangles in concentration camps and dying alongside Jews, Communists and Roma.
That’s why I caution against the presumption of progress. In truth, there is absolutely no guarantee that India or Australia will come round, or that Ukraine will be allowed to follow its own course towards greater independence from Russia.
Progress is never inevitable, because one man’s progress is another man’s defeat. However anodyne the choice between political parties may seem, we live in a world of competing visions of how the world should be. Take one example, Europe. Countless Tories believe that the collapse of the euro and the EU itself is inevitable, and virtually every columnist in every British newspaper has predicted at some point or other that Greece or Spain or Ireland will inevitably leave the euro. Yet the casual presumption of big business and the internationalists among us that Britain will never be so daft as to leave the union is a terribly dangerous complacency. If we don’t organise for victory in that particular battle for the economic future of Britain, we pro-European patriots will lose by default.
But my biggest beef with the Grand Inevitable Tide theory is that excessive optimism is the curse of the liberal ideal. We read in The Independent some horrible story of international repression or government incompetence; we dip our biscotti in our cappuccino, and quietly muse to ourselves that it’ll all be all right in the end. The good guys (or dolls) will win. Evil will never triumph. All shall be right with the world, in the end.
But I want to shout, “Wake up!” in every liberal or leftish ear. Good things don’t just happen thanks to wishful thinking. Barbarism often triumphs. Progress is frequently reversed. And since the days of Thatcher there has been a steady ratchet in British politics that has seen most right-wing economic policies only half repealed when the Conservatives have been out of power.
If there is one thing I’ve tried to argue in the 28 months that I’ve been writing this column, it is that political engagement does matter. Whether one lot or another wins does make a difference. The mind-numbing boredom of parliamentary committees, the bone-chilling delivery of leaflets in the freezing rain and the soul-destroying business of raising funds for political parties all add up to more than a row of beans. Progress was won by a man prepared to die for a cause, by women prepared to be howled down and abused for their views, and even by people combining together in a disciplined political party to bring about a whole programme of change.
As many have said a million times, it’s a privilege to be an MP, but it’s an even greater privilege to write a regular unfettered column in a national newspaper. This is my last outing, so I end with this: politics needs more campaigning activists. You may hate MPs as a class; you may be up in arms about your own MP or some particular policy failure of the government; you may be in despair about the futility of Prime Minister’s Questions. But don’t rely on wishful thinking to bring about a better world. Get your own hands dirty and fight for what you believe in.