Reflections on history and liberal democracy

History in my experience has been a catalogue of all of the worst things that people have ever done to each other. It has been a lifelong study into the dark side of human nature. I have seen what happens when a group of soldiers without effective leadership and discipline, thrown into a war in which their friends are blown to shreds by concealed booby-trapped bombs, can do to a village of women and children when order and control breaks down. I have seen leaders with total disregard for human life sign pieces of paper, often without a care in the world, that consign thousands of living, breathing human beings to death. And yet, as a species we carry on. We have managed to build the most open and prosperous nations ever to have existed, our technology progresses like an unstoppable cyclone and despite the mighty threats of the 20th century, namely Nazism/Marxism-Leninism, relatively free and open society survives.

The kind of tyranny we saw a glimpse of in those regimes has been staved off, if only for a time. The tendency in people towards authoritarianism is substantial in my experience. I have met only small amounts of people who I could consider to genuinely have an open mind and be willing to hear or allow differing or extreme opinions. This reminded me of John Stuart Mill’s work on liberty, in which he makes the case that prior to Martin Luther, the reformation had broken out at least twenty times and been put down brutally each time. He reminds us that freedom is fragile and does not always naturally triumph over repression.

Which led me to thinking about our own liberal democracy in Europe, as I often do. Liberalism has only ever really taken root in Europe or in countries where European colonists moved to and destroyed the native population to take the land. It is the product of hundreds of years of struggle in society against the controlling influence of monarchs and theologians. Both democracy and liberalism are somewhat embedded in the nations of Europe’s heritage. I have written a few times on how this is likely to change now that the continent has gone down the path of multiculturalism and why I fear the consequences of the the slow erosion of liberal values, but in this piece, I wanted to take another approach.

I’m amazed that liberalism/democracy have survived as long as they have. Liberalism in particular is an idea that allows its enemies by its own nature to speak and disseminate ideas that undermine its very structure. Unlike tyrannical one party/one leader states, which brutally oppress all dissent and individuality, our system is open to its foes. Because of democracy and the precedence of the individual over the state, it had been surprisingly hard for governments to infringe upon people’s individual rights when it came to scenarios like terrorism. This too is slowly eroding as people allow concessions of power to the state. But again how is it that a system that seemingly allows its enemies free reign and can’t effectively defend itself against the most extreme of its adversaries not only survive, but thrive in the world?

People don’t particularly take me seriously when I say that I’m a patriot because I love the UKs broad values and I suspect that’s in part because we’ve been raised in an educational environment that taught us all of the sins of the empire and connected them to its values. Patriotism and its connection to heritage, history and values are shunned and I find it incredulous that this is the case given where this country stands now and how tolerant and open it is. Surely to be able to consider all of the past sins, the destruction of native peoples’ communities and the taking of resources, together with the good, the progress and the drive that led to the end of things like slavery (officially) and the birth of the eight hour day or the end of children working in brutal factories does not lead you to a place of pure hatred for the UK, but one of balance and potentially hope.

Especially when you compare where we all are now, in our relatively cushy office jobs, surrounded by a plethora of people from all over the planet whilst we stuff our faces with donuts and coffee, to the struggle that millions of people endured in the past in search of a better future. Surely it is only possible to view that through a lens of negativity if you lack historical perspective?

And so we come full circle back to history. I opened this splurge of thoughts with the premise that history has been a catalogue of the worst things in human nature and it has for me. But that has allowed me to wake up in the mornings, look around me and be eternally grateful that I was born into a society that grants great freedoms and the ability to progress, all in a time of technological boom and peace time. Some of the simple things we consume daily even on the lowest wages in our society were luxuries in times gone by and it is with an appeal to gratitude for the values and system that allow this to happen and a greater appreciation of historical perspective that I end.

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