Saturday, 19 May 2007

Curbing the abuses of power


In 1952 Lord Radcliffe, a much-respected senior Judge, delivered the BBC Reith Lectures on “The Problem of Power”. When these were published in book form, a few years later, he added a Postscript, from which I quote the following:

“The old glories of the liberal tradition, the passionate belief that political liberties are the essential condition of the greater liberties of thought, speech and action, have shrunk to a meaningless constitutionalism which asserts that anything is all right if it is permitted, nothing is all right if it is forbidden, by an Act of Parliament. We have forgotten, or we do not care to remember, that the formal liberties of Parliament, Press and Trade Union were established to be the vehicle of real liberties of individual persons, not at all to set up those institutions to be the chartered libertines of modern English society….

“It is the vulnerability of the modern democratic society that is our abiding danger. If there is one noticeable change in the general outlook of this country in the twelve years since the end of the war it lies in a marked lowering of public tone. We seem to be losing at an alarming rate the power of independent judgment, the independent sense of value…it is egalitarian democracy that nourishes this oppression of the individual personality by its dislike, even fear, of privacy, its prim refusal to accept distinctions of value between persons, its obsession with the struggle for material advantages. We gaze with misgiving at the spectacle of a society which combines a low level of thinking and feeling with a wide diffusion of benevolence and goodwill….It is one of the deplorable results of our developed engines of publicity that persons can deeply affect the taste and tone of society who are neither conscious of their responsibilities nor qualified to perform them….

“It is enervation of soul, an abdication of personal responsibility of judgment, that we have to fear. It does not come about because evil men set out to corrupt society: it comes about because the majority of members of society will always beg not to be required to keep themselves in training….Modern life is lived as an essay in public relations. Facts themselves begin to matter less and less: all that matters is the way to put the thing. Persons themselves begin to matter less and less: all that matters is the kind of show they give….

“It seems to be the fate of the member of contemporary society that he should be invited to participate in everything and to experience nothing. Two-dimensional feeling of this kind must in the end corrode the link that relates action to emotion. When the full range of Pity and Terror can be travelled two or three nights a week, at stated hours, in all the comfort of the home, it really seems as if there was nothing more to be done about it except to register the receipt of the appropriate emotions. It is often said that this great enlargement of the possibilities of experience at second hand also extends the range and capacities of human sympathy. I daresay that it does. But it would not be a safe inference that it deepens them in the same measure. ‘Very terrible: what is the next programme?’….

“It can never be too early for people in this country to take stock of their beliefs and aspirations, to ask themselves who or what they think they are and to where they want to go. They still have the great opportunity – richness of human material, a history at once fascinating and unique, and social relations which, for all the criticism, have yet been humane, kindly and wholesome when contrasted with those of other countries. What they must not believe is that they will be saved by their institutions if they are not saved by themselves….”

[My italics]

Re-reading this after nearly sixty years, I find its prescience remarkable. Although the political and social situation of the 1950s was very different from that today, the seeds of many of our present discontents were already sown, and clearly discerned by Lord Radcliffe. If he were still alive, he would be in the forefront of those expressing concern at the way supposedly ‘democratic’ governments in Britain and the USA are trampling roughshod over our traditional and hard-won civil liberties in the name of a spurious ‘war against terror’.


Lord Radcliffe published his lectures shortly after the 1956 Suez Crisis, which had divided the country more sharply than any other political event since the struggle over Home Rule. It was the only time I remember when total strangers were arguing heatedly with one another in public – even on buses and tube trains. There was a deep sense of anger and, later, humiliation on the part of those who supported Eden’s disastrously abortive venture, and of shame on the part of those [including me] who felt he had besmirched the national honour.

Today, the nation is even more bitterly divided, and the rift has gone on far longer – for practically the whole of the 21st century so far. The dispute between those who originally supported the invasion of Iraq [and the dwindling few who still do ] and those who regard the whole thing as an unmitigated moral and practical disaster is exacerbated by their common feeling of helplessness about how to extricate ourselves from this sorry mess.

How has this situation come about? In part, because we have not heeded Lord Radcliffe’s warning that we shall not be saved by our time-honoured institutions if we are not saved by ourselves. The ‘Mother of Parliaments’ has proved even more spineless in articulating the widespread opposition to the ill-starred Gulf adventure than the wishy-washy Democrats in the US Congress. There is as yet no help in either of them – which brings to the forefront the burning question of the ‘Democratic Deficit’ which is at the heart of the modern malaise.

During the past quarter-century, there has been an increasing slippage in the power of public opinion to exact accountability from its elected representatives, or from over-powerful corporate interests which increasingly operate on an international, and even global, scale. As a result, the individual citizen feels increasingly impotent to influence the course of events, and ends up [as Lord Radcliffe realised he or she probably would] helplessly shrugging shoulders in front of the latest atrocity beamed in by the ‘telly’ and turning to more palatable fare. Thanks to the onslaught of our dear and belatedly departing Prime Minister and his authoritarian-minded cronies upon our freedoms of speech, movement and privacy – the latter concept now almost a thing of the past - there is an uneasy and growing sense that we are sliding, gently at present but more precipitately soon, into an Orwellian nightmare strongly reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-Four . It is ironic, to say the least, that less than twenty years after the euphoria engendered by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a decade after the even more misguided euphoria at the advent of ‘New Labour’ [the very name should have warned us!] the materialisation of a British Stasi, in substance if not in name, seems more and more imminent.

It had been my intention, in planning this piece, to offer some practical suggestions as to how this dire and increasingly menacing situation is to be redeemed. But as so often, analysis is far easier than prescription; and this post is already long enough. So I shall pass the problem over to my readers, some of whom I well know have given even more anxious and sustained thought to this mess than I have.

How do we rebuild genuine democracy? How do we stop overpowerful toxic tails wagging supine, bemused underactive electorates? Who is going to bell the cat, and to prod sleepy Cerberus?

W.B Yeats inimitably pinpointed our current dilemma in The Second Coming:







It is five minutes to midnight – there is still time for the Democratic Centre to regroup and ACT. But only just.


Richard W. Symonds said...


(George Orwell - June 1949 - Statement on Nineteen Eighty-Four - his last-known published words - he died January 1950, aged 46)

How do we stop this "slide" into an Orwellian nightmare ?

Do something and something may happen.
Do nothing and nothing will happen.

Each one of us has to choose to do something - and then do it.

What did Orwell do ? He had an idea burning inside him, and he wrote a book in Jura - gravely ill. It was to be his last book. It was Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Thank you.

Jose said...

Dear Antiat,

I am sorry I am a little bit out of the normal path in today's politics. Maybe it is because I'm fed up with old stories whose contribution to enhancing our system of liberties have done, if you excuse me, absolutely nothing to improve them, or perhaps I should say they have been completely ignored.

As a ruminant process in our society we just have limited ourselves to disgorge the ideas and swallow them without even thinking of their intrinsec values, letting ourselves be led in the direction some with definite intentions have wanted us to go towards.

We live today. Those who lived before us could not change it. Why should we follow that experience and not ours, why should we not think it over and availing ourselves selfishly of past experiences not improve them so that history does not be repeated?

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
anticant said...

I don't quite get your point here, Jose. What I am asking in this post is HOW to improve the present lousy state of affairs.

I agree [for once] with Marx that while philosophers interpret the world, the point is to change it. How?

Jose said...

I mean, Anticant, that what people said in their time about how to run the world may not help now in the present circumstances. Are there no persons that of their own initiative come up with the right solutions to the problems we have today?

You quote illustrious persons of old, but you yourself - I am sure -may also have ideas of your own that might be of greater value nowadays.

We live today, they lived many years ago.

Richard W. Symonds said...

Sometimes we should try to stand on the shoulders of certain giants to see further. Sometimes not.

It's up to us to decide...

anticant said...

Jose and Richard, when I think of any brilliantly original ideas as to how best to proceed, I shall post them here.

Meanwhile, I am asking for yours!

Richard W. Symonds said...

Me ? Tell the truth to power- especially unpalatable, life-and-death truth.

Ruffle angel feathers...afflict the comfortably numb...

And pray for a miracle

Jose said...

When Lord Radcliffe said what he said in 1952 the circumstances were not the same as they are today. The same can be applied to Orwell.

One thing that did not happen at that time was the enormous problems caused by migrations. Delinquency has soared up at an incredible pace. Democracy has ben trampled by "you-know-who". Intellectuals were not under pressure from anywhere.

I am very much afraid persons of our time are needed to find solutions for present problems. That doesn't mean that the experience those illustrious persons contributed to our knowledge cannot help in that pursuit, I just mean circumstances are different.

Richard W. Symonds said...

I sense an uncharacteristic, growing impatience, Jose...keep wise with it.