Read the history of the 1930s and there is a deep sense of frustration that no-one seems able to halt an inexorable process. It is like watching a play when you know there is a tragic ending coming, but there is nothing that can be done to change things because that is what the script dictates. There is a desire to call back over the decades, “No! Stop! Don’t go that way!” It’s a response to history that is about as effectual as shouting at footballers on a television screen.
Politicians seemed like rabbits trapped in the proverbial headlights, incapable of moving decisively in any direction. Politics was about appearance, not substance. George Orwell’s 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter captures the essence of a policy-free politics, as his character encounters a by-election campaign.
. . . between the lanes of people, the Blifil- Gordon car was moving at a foot-pace, with Mr Blifil-Gordon smiling richly, first to one side, then to the other. In front of the car marched a detachment of the Buffaloes, headed by an earnest-looking little man playing the trombone, and carrying among them another banner inscribed:
Who’ll save Britain from the Reds?
Who’ll put the Beer back into your Pot?
Blifil-Gordon for ever!
. . . The Blifil-Gordon car, having rounded the pump, was now wending its way back, still accompanied by its troupe of middle-aged Bacchantes. Mr Warburton, his attention caught, paused to scrutinize it.
‘What is the meaning of these disgusting antics?’ he asked.
‘Oh, they’re–what is it they call it?–electioneering. Trying to get us to vote for them, I suppose.’
‘Trying to get us to vote for them! Good God!’ murmured Mr Warburton, as he eyed the triumphal cortege. He raised the large, silver-headed cane that he always carried, and pointed, rather expressively, first at one figure in the procession and then at another. ‘Look at it! Just look at it! Look at those fawning hags, and that half-witted oaf grinning at us like a monkey that sees a bag of nuts. Did you ever see such a disgusting spectacle?’
Mr Warburton, with his silver-headed cane, was a man of independent means, able to pass through the turbulent times almost unaffected by what is happening around him; few people have such a luxury. Even Orwell, writing in 1935 and aware that the times were unsettled, could not have imagined the cataclysmic events that would end the decade.
What the future brings will be shaped by how the present is handled and there is no more sense of direction than in the 1930s. Faced with a budget deficit in the order of €20 billion, the Irish government is hard-pressed to find €2 billion and stands dazzled into inaction, hoping something will come along. David McWilliams writing in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post warns that waiting in hope is a dangerous option.
In 1931, when everyone was calling the bottom of the stock markets and pleading that, at such low levels, there must be value in fallen stocks, Keynes reflected that “these markets can remain irrational, longer than you can remain solvent”.
. . . this is the Irish dilemma summed up wonderfully – we may well be bankrupt before the markets realise that we were not delinquent enough to go bankrupt in the first place.
In eighty years, these times will hopefully appear as a mere momentary blip before the world recovered its sanity, but that will only be possible with clear and decisive policies. The politics of Mr Blifil-Gordon, slogans, smiles and no substance, are taking us nowhere.