A few days ago, I posted a piece titled "Fighting Talk: Brexit and civil disorder," arguing that the disconnect between Parliament and the people was potentially - in the long run - a threat to the Queen's peace in this country.
But if that sounds over-the-top (as is so much in the language of public debate these days), consider Professor David Starkey's article in the Daily Mail today
"It is no exaggeration to say that British democracy, which stands in direct line with Magna Carta, is now unravelling before us [...]
"The EU referendum tore apart the veil: it was now the People versus the Parliament...And where will it end? In [an]other very British revolution? Or something nastier?
"I don’t want to prophesy, good historian that I am, but I fear the worst."
Trouble starts with intemperate language, and there's a lot of it now. Not just in the illogical and ill-tempered exchanges on social media, but in mainstream print news. Even Boris Johnson, with all his experience in both journalism and politics, is so reckless as to say that Mrs May has wrapped a "suicide vest" around the Constitution.
And then there's the Union Jacks sprouting everywhere on Facebook, and the self-styled patriotic groups. At first this may be seen as a bit of venting, not to be taken seriously; but then what I remember seeing of the first formations of the Serbian Army in Bosnia was a bunch of fat, scruffy oiks.
Maybe there's a historical rhythm to riot, insurrection and war. It could be that every generation has to start a fight. 1914, 1939, the youthquake of the 1960s, the fall of Russian Communism in 1989... we're about due, perhaps.
These days the word "extremists" is usually accompanied by the adjective "far-right", as though that is the only element that threatens us. I would argue that the State will manage to deal with such people - they identify themselves with little disguise and can easily be spied on electronically, policed, infiltrated, warned, tried, jailed. The task of the State is made harder by the fact that the Internet allows for the proliferation of "echo-chamber" sites, reinforcing the prejudices of the deluded so that they drift ever further away from common sense; the number of these madhouses is such that not all incidents will be prevented. However, the perpetrators are likely to be caught, sooner or later. It is like the fire service: there will be outbreaks, but they can be addressed swiftly and contained.
A real conflagration requires really serious mass discontent, often with help and encouragement from outside; an analysis of events that promises a better alternative; organisation and leadership; a trigger. And it may succeed if the ruling power has its energies divided.
Think of the historic difficulties between Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland. The Fenians bombed London's Clerkenwell Prison in 1867, but it was the middle of WWI that was an opportunity for a mass uprising.
Then there was Germany in WWI, supplying 50 million gold marks to Russia's subversives so that they could circulate propaganda newspapers among army and navy units and factory workforces; and then sending Lenin to them in a sealed train; all to collapse the established order in Russia and free German divisions to come West and tackle the Allied Powers.
Too late. But the law-abiding, freedom-loving, God-fearing German nation was driven mad with war, starvation through blockades that were continued after war's end, vindictive peace terms that bankrupted them and gave them a hyperinflation that wiped out the savings of the middle class.
Then think of China in WWII, torn by warlords, and Stalin's sponsorship of Mao Tse-Tung as the latter was carried thousands of miles on a litter, reading voraciously so he could learn from the tyrants of the past. And later, Mao's own sponsorship of Communism in neighbouring countries.
A lot has to go wrong, and be made to go wrong, before ordinary people tear up their ordinary lives.
But when society is put under extreme stress, millennial movements spring up. Norman Cohn's classic "The Pursuit Of the Millennium" (1957, revised 1970) shows how mass anxiety and despair, caused by economic breakdown, drive communities crazy.
We're not there now, nothing like. In fact we in this country could lose a lot before we got to be merely as poor as we were in the early 1970s, and that was luxury compared to a generation before, and the privations of the interwar years (the Roaring Twenties didn't roar in Britain, and that was before the Depression.)
Yet there are historians and economists who claim to have identified a long economic cycle of boom and bust (remember Gordon Brown's claim that he'd beaten it?) For example:
- Nikolai Kondratiev theorised a wave length of 40-60 years, which implied that it was beyond the power of a centralised Socialist government to buck the pattern; so Stalin had him shot in 1938.
- Irving Fisher's analysis of the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Depression saw a cycle of debt growth followed by deflation; these ideas were later developed by Hyman Minsky and then Australian Professor Steve Keen, who was one of the mere handful (he said 12 at first, later revised to perhaps 20) of economists to foresee the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (most of his fellow professionals tend/ed to ignore debt and inflation, thinking that the effects would be spread around in society and offset by wage rises.)
- Original thinker Charles Hugh Smith sees an even longer wave of 150 - 200 years and thinks we are approaching the breakdown point.
- Financial analyst Martin Armstrong has developed a pattern-theory around the number pi and speaks of a "monetary crisis cycle" repeated throughout history (including in the ancient world); he sees 2020/2021 as a turning point ("that is probably where we will see the dollar rally break the world monetary system.")
Rulers of the past had seers and astrologers; today, governments have economists. Maybe it's all nonsense. But modern history certainly shows periodic horrible disruptions to our peaceful lives. What a wonderful period of relative peace and unparalleled prosperity we have enjoyed so far; but it's not guaranteed and not going to continue without our support.
I think there are two points to make here. One is that when disaster strikes, it may not be "far right extremists" we have to worry about so much as mass movements led from the Left and representing groups that feel excluded, ignored, despised and put down. How else to explain the success of Trump's Presidential campaign, and the Leave vote in the EU Referendum? These upsurges may not have been captained by Lefty politicians; but they could be captured by them. And when times are harsh, people become harsh.
Which leads us to the second point. Just as Noah built his Ark in sunshine, and Joseph advised Egypt's Pharaoh to store grain during seven good years to tide over the people in the following lean ones, so this (if not rather earlier) is the time our political leadership and news commentariat should be mending the divisions in our society, so that we can pull together when we face challenges of the scale that we have never confronted in our lives, though our parents and grandparents had to.
Imagine if, in 2016, either David Cameron or his successor Theresa May had said something like:
A very serious and difficult decision has been made, after a long period of fair and thorough discussion and a vote in which a record 33 million people participated. We promised that it would be a once in a generation choice, and that we, your Government, would be bound by it and would implement it faithfully.
This we will do.
A referendum like this was always going to be contentious. But just as the Government itself accepts the outcome, no matter how close, those who were of the alternative opinion, by taking part in it, have also agreed to accept it; and those who did not vote at all, as was their right, have thereby shown their willingness to go along with the result whichever way it went. This is how Parliament itself works - often on much narrower margins of votes - and it is what makes us a democracy and keeps us at peace. After a division, we reunite.
The key decision was whether we should remain part of a political organisation called the European Union. Together, we in Britain have chosen another path. So, in two or three years' time, we will once again have full and exclusive control over our laws and judiciary, our taxes and trade.
For of course we shall continue to work and trade with and visit the continent of Europe and its peoples, whether or not they are themselves members of the EU.
During the transition period, we will be negotiating agreements with the EU about how we deal with them in terms of goods and services, immigration and emigration, travel arrangements, the rights of foreign people working here and British people working abroad, financial services and so on. There is a lot of hard work to be done, and it will be done. We look forward to constructive discussions with our European partners in our changing situation, as well as with the rest of the world.
In the meantime we call on all people in this country, their political representatives, the news media and others to understand and accept that the nation's decision is collective, clear, binding and final. The agenda from now on is to manage the transition as smoothly as possible and to the benefit of all. Not for the first time, the British people have made history together and now we set ourselves once again to work for the common good.
Yes, just imagine.