Once Upon a time, in the UK
Arguably, no interview with Margaret Thatcher has been quoted as much in the past three decades as the one, published by Woman’s Own in 1987:
But [the welfare state] went too far. If children have a problem, it is society that is at fault. There is no such thing as society.
This is also the interview people quote from most frequently, and preferably without much context, because “there isn’t society” wasn’t the end of Thatcher’s point. In fact, “tapestry” was just her word for society
But words are one thing; deeds are another.
Much of what Thatcher did during the earlier years as prime minister looks pretty much what we like to refer to as the will of the people. That is a somewhat abstract concept for a number of reasons, but she had a point at the time. Things – Labour policies – had gone too far, for too many people.
But Thatcher herself, and her successors, including “New Labour”, went too far as well. Deregulation of the financial services was one example. An economy with banks “too big to fail” is a corporate-welfare economy. Unfathomable amounts of of public funding has been used by now to save the financial system, but it appears that the causes of the 2008 calamities haven’t been addressed with the thoroughness they should.
At the same time, there is real poverty in Britain and in Europe, among common people. Those people are apparently too small to count. A society that reacts to their problems with a shrug has a problem itself, and will get yet more problems. A political class too ignorant to understand how modern manufacturing works adds to the problems. Callousness and ignorance are a nasty mixture.
Fast Forward to 2015
In that light, even if Jeremy Corbyn were a full-blown idiot (or villain), that would look like a manageable problem. At worst, a five-year premiership, if attained, would be another waste of time, but at least, it would be one more closely scrutinized by the mainstream media that previous wastes of time.
Then there’s the character issue. I’m far from saying that character doesn’t matter. But I do say with confidence that there is no way to know the true character of a politician before he assumes real powers. It isn’t even easy to predict a man’s behavior after assuming power when you know him personally. And it to predict his decisions is impossible if you “know” a man merely from the media.
One of the last last hurrahs from Corbyn’s opponents appears to have been this, from the Telegraph:
Jeremy Corbyn led a campaign for the release of two convicted terrorists who were jailed for their part in the car bombing of the Israeli embassy in London and a Jewish charity building.
Jawad Botmeh and Samar Alami were convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions in the UK in 1996, which injured 20 people. They were jailed for 20 years.
That sounds pretty ugly, as reported from the Telegraph’s angle. But it sounds reasonable as reported by the Guardian.
A common citizen is in a difficult situation when having to make choices between different politicians and platforms or manifestos. The media aren’t making his choices easier. One step to develop a clearer political eyesight might be to admit that we actually know very little, and to admit that propaganda isn’t necessarily something very Chinese, or much about agitation, let alone about confronting us with representations that run counter to our long-established concepts, but rather something to soothe or to tranquilize us.
But for too many people, the established policies of their countries have gone too far. They have gone wrong. That’s true for my country, too. That’s a moment when things begin to shift, and I believe it’s a good thing if they shift in a rather benign way. That’s democracy at its best.
A Universal Ideal
When asked what he thought his greatest weakness as a potential leader, Corbyn said that “I tend to see the best in people all the time. Is that a weakness? I don’t know.”
His answer would most likely be that it isn’t a weakness at all – that’s the message of those three sentences. At the same time, it reads a bit like a disclaimer. And he’ll need one. For all the experience he has, from decades of serving his constituency, his main job has been to ask critical questions. Now, he will have to provide serious answers just as well, and answers of that kind are never uncompromising. Maybe Corbyn should have an appointment with Barack Obama and Alexis Tsipras. They know both sides of the finishing line which in Corbyn’s case, for the time being, is the door mat of No. 10 Downing Street.
But what came to my mind when reading what he saw as his greatest weakness (or strength), and in the context of the accusations that he was too close to terrorism (or whatever the accusations were meant to amount to), was an old Chinese philosopher, Wang Yangming.
Obviously, what you get to see and hear from a professional politician is the artwork, or the package – see above, re “knowing” your country’s leaders. But even the choice of the artwork says something about the leanings of a campaign. Wang Yangming believed in the unity of knowledge and action, in terms of content and time. Man has an innate knowing of what is right, say Wang’s teachings, and there doesn’t need to be a barrier between knowledge and action, neither in terms of content, nor in terms of time. In fact, according to Wang, there can be no such barrier or difference between knowledge and action, if it is the kind of knowledge he referred to.
Politics of that kind are a fairly universal desire – but you might need to be a neo-Confucian to fully believe in the chance.
Either way, it’s too early to know if Corbyn is that kind of man. And we’ll only find out about that if the movement that has made him Labour leader will be successful, at least to some extent, so that time and circumstances can put Corbyn to the test.
But the ideal is one of the things that made Corbyn’s campaign work. I’m curious about how things develop from there, and a bit more hopeful about politics in general. I’m also hopeful that in the not too distant future, my country, too, will experience what Britain is apparently going to have now: genuine, democratic choices.