The Writing on the Wall

The Conservative government in Britain is on its way out. Everyone knows it, including the government itself. They are desperately trying to mitigate the impending disaster by implementing minor tweaks including a reduction of National Insurance charges. They may as well throw pennies into a well and make a wish. They could sacrifice a goat, burn incense, run around fields naked in the moonlight. It will not help.

In Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel, the Babylonian king Belshazzar calls the prophet to his feast to explain the meaning of a supernatural message written on the wall: “Mene mene tekel upharsin”. Daniel interprets the text; it states “God has judged and you have been found wanting”. According to the Bible, the king was killed that night and Darius took over.

Sometimes God speaks in silence. Nothing is (likely) coming to help the Conservatives. The country will judge because the government has been found wanting. The inevitable becomes ever clearer as more and more cabinet ministers are disgraced or recycled into roles that do not suit them. For example, Grant Shapps, the current Defence Secretary, has had 9 roles since the Conservatives took power in 2010. In addition to his present job, he has been Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Home Secretary, Secretary of State for Transport, Minister of State for International Development, Chairman of the Conservative Party, and Minister without Portfolio. Was this because of any exceptional skill on his part? Considering the discernible lack of improvement in all these areas, this seems unlikely. Rather, he likely rose because his errors were merely less spectacular, particularly in contrast to the likes of Liz Truss, who survived as Prime Minister for less time than a head of lettuce succumbs to rot. Brexit, an ill-thought out project asserting a useless sense of sovereignty, has made the country poorer. In contrast, Shapps’s failures seem trivial. He is merely a minor actor in this farce.

Things pass. We reach an apogee; then, entropy is inevitable. All great empires that rise must fall. Rupert Murdoch may get married again at the age of 92, but this is no magic elixir to restore his youth. Allegedly, when a Roman general paraded in a triumphal procession through the capital, a slave would stand behind him. The slave was there to issue a reminder: “Remember, thou art mortal”.

We either accept this truth or we don’t, but it lands upon us anyway. Some, using Dylan Thomas’s apt phrase, “rage against the dying of the light”. This brings us to the phenomenon of right wing populism.

Since circa 1492, the world order has mainly been dominated by white Europeans and their offshoots. White Europeans took over the Americas and felled the peoples living there mainly via disease. Brutal military expeditions overran sophisticated empires like the Aztecs and Incas. The Spanish took so much gold and silver they inflicted inflation upon themselves.

White Europeans enslaved and trafficked Africans to the New World to produce commodities the European markets wanted including sugar and cotton. Europeans controlled the Far East and collected spices. Europeans took over India, beat down and humbled China and demanded the right to sell opium. Europeans later split up virtually the entire continent of Africa without reference to the people living there. Later, they toppled governments like Iran’s which could potentially disrupt the supply of oil. Only nations which followed the European model, e.g. Japan, provided a challenge; Japan defeated Russia in a 1905 war. The facts are not in dispute. But there was always an end point coming.

Birth rates in Europe and America have declined below replacement levels. The environment is under increasing threat due to pollution; our economic model is slowly killing us and science is working overtime in an attempt to salvage the situation.

Furthermore, minorities, religious, ethnic, and otherwise living in Western nations have rightfully asked the questions arising from history and demanded the dignity they are due. Also, China has the second largest economy in the world and produces a vast of array of products the West consumes. India is now the most populous nation in the world and its economy is growing rapidly; the country’s role in information technology is assured.

Things pass: the age of the white European man is ending. Trumpism, Brexit, and similar phenomena in other countries is all part of a singular rage against the dying of the light. The avatar of a typical populist party is an angry white male living in a rural area. To salve the anxiety brought about by change, populism offers closed doors and hostile slogans. It provides nothing that will actually improve anyone’s lives. Media pundits and others wonder why this electorate is not moved by facts: but rage at being increasingly irrelevant is impervious to truth, just as a toddler denied an extra helping of pudding will not be moved by a nutritional label. Sometimes the avatar isn’t even a white male: Alabama Senator Katie Britt is a recent prominent example. Her exaggerations, dramatic and otherwise, are a plea for security against change, even if that surety is an illusion. Even when the populists get their way, as with Brexit, the ends are all dead. Britain is slowly grasping this; the Conservatives are doomed and recent polls show increasing evidence of Brexit regret.

Nevertheless, these are dangerous times. People raging at the dying of the light have created a lot of damage and can do much more. Indeed, they could plunge us into catastrophic darkness. Trump could still be elected President and unleash horrors in a misguided attempt to turn back the clock as he shakes his fist at Heaven.

However, decline is inevitable: the demographic that voted for Brexit and the Conservatives is dying away. Trump is 77. The walls, symbolic and otherwise, are temporary dams to prevent the future from arriving. If we want to preserve anything positive, such as the democratic and intellectual structures which enable power to be consistently challenged, and the institutions which progress science, we should remember that change is going to happen whether we like it or not. We must adapt; for in the end, the writing is always on the wall.

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