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When Worlds Collide

Matt Trevallion, Sub Editor – World Affairs


For me a defining moment of the Bush presidency was a picture that I cannot get out of my head – the look of incomprehension when an aide interrupted a school visit to tell him about the twin towers. I do not think I have ever seen a man look so utterly lost and out of his depth, not knowing what to do or say until someone gave him the words and responses he needed. 

I remember also Leonard Slatkin at the Albert Hall telling the audience: “When you are sad you play Elgar - when we are sad we play Samuel Barber”. 

One man was lost for words whilst the other was brave, intelligent, took risks and made changes in order to reflect a mood that he felt at the instinctive level. One trusted his gut and got it right – the other looked and acted lost until others helped him out.

More importantly the approach of one of them helped to heal, to unite –bringing people together at a terrible time. The other began a process that has taken us down a route to a more divided society and one that feels more threatened and lost than I have seen in my many years. 

Some years on and my conclusion is that the approach I still admire had at its heart a belief in people and a confidence in the structures of our civilisation whilst the other began a crusade - almost biblical in concept and scale - which has served to create rifts that are physical, political and religious. From this real hatred has slithered from the intellectual mud in which it has been sustained at the expense of tolerance, reason and understanding. 

The outcome has been a sustained attack on the fundamental civil liberties for which we have struggled for over hundreds of years and which have sustained us, even whilst they were evolving, through revolution, change, world wars and the cold war. 

It is one of my basic beliefs that governments never willingly give back powers once they have been taken from the people. 

To that end I listened carefully to the Democratic party assuring everyone that the process of restrictions and removal of rights by the Republicans would now be curtailed by the emergent Democrats. What was notably absent from the rhetoric was either a promise or a commitment to reverse or re-examine what had already been done in the name of ‘the war on terror’ – from renditions flights, through Guantanamo, to phone tapping, torture (“a good ducking does little harm”?) and flight restrictions. No, the powers and protections that we have lost stay taken from us until slowly over years we wake up and ask: “Dear God! When did that happen?!” 

It has been a real sadness for me to see how that wonderful, universal fund of sympathy and support shared by all fair minded folk for then USA after 9/11 has been so perverted and dissipated by the neo cons - with the support of the religious right – so as to create a conundrum that defies understanding: how does a country whose fundamentals are so admired and so emulated everywhere become so hated and distrusted whilst its young men are dying daily trying to do the right thing in a war that offers no direct benefits for their country?

In this country we have a tiger by the tail. The tiger is multiculturalism. We too are going down the route of restraining liberty and restricting protection for citizens in the maze of the war on terror. But it goes beyond that. In my view we are only now getting a glimpse of the damage our well-meaning policies have done over many years - and we have every right to be fearful of where those mistakes will take us. 

I am not particularly addressing the war on terror - or these young men complaining about their Muslim ‘brothers’ being murdered - largely because the truth is emerging. Its becoming clear that it is Muslim ‘brothers’ who are in fact killing their Muslim ‘brothers’. (If The Times is right, the Shia who joins the support staff at the newly furnished hospital has options – accept just $300 for identifying to Sunni hit squads who the Shia are who happen to have come to the wrong hospital in the wrong area - or take £600 for doing the entire job of identifying and administering the killer injection!)

What I am thinking about is here in our community. I read an article this weekend that stunned me. 

An intelligent woman who writes well and is well respected for her intellect and for being informed, was actually contemplating forced adoption to remove children from the influence of parents who have no hope of bringing them up to be valuable members of modern society or, even, to make sure that if they cannot be valuable members to instil in them respect, love and fear so as to make sure that they do no actual harm. Wow and dear God! Clockwork Orange where are you when we need you?!


At such a point it is perhaps time to stop and look at our route map. Where are we going - by what roads and with whom??

A dog savages a child – we need a new law. A BNP guy gets off for saying nasty things – we need a new law. Its as if no one had ever in the 1500 years of our law making been bitten by a dog - or if Oswald Mosley or Henry VIII had never existed and never said things that done things we did not like and/or had a nasty ring to it, an odour that offended.

We are busy creating new laws in a kind of knee-jerk reaction driven by … the tabloid press (?) rather then placing our trust in Laws that have been hammered out and served us well whilst our society has climbed slowly from the slime to a point where we have done pretty well, whilst there remain weaknesses and faults, and managed adequately, thank you. 

When I saw young men and women with faces covered holding banners demanding beheadings, blood in the streets, and annihilation for anyone who insults Islam. I rang the Met Police. As it happens I got short shrift from the Met, but I was not asking for new laws and new punishments merely that the laws and customs and due process we have should be applied to these people as they would be to the BNP, the Cheltenham Ladies College or the graduates from Cambridge on a night out that went too far.

My concern is that multiculturalism is leading us, as more and more people from Trevor Phillips downwards are warning, to separate societies within these Islands. We simply cannot go down that route and my point is that if we legislate for new offences that happen when these separate cultures meet we serve to facilitate the development of separatism that we should be breaking down.

Imagine, if you will, a series of atoms in orbit around each other mostly at a safe distance but, every now and again, they come close enough for the detritus of the two to mix up and bounce off each other. Our options are to change the orbits and further separate them or we begin to add neutrons and protons to consolidate and make something that is different but may be better.

I do not want to see a Muslim Parliament - or a Jewish Council or an Association of Black Police officers or the WWVS (The White Women’s Voluntary Society. Nor do I want to see a ‘Muslim’ MP or a ’black’ MP or a ‘woman’ MP. I want an MP - and I want a Policeman (or policeperson of you prefer).   I am happy for associations that seek to represent the views of a group but the time has come – not necessarily through legislation - to insist on transparent policies that demonstrate what these so called representatives have done to be elected and to gather the views of those they claim to represent. I want to see men and women of all faiths to be subject to the Law, being elected at every level, subjecting anything in our society that needs re-examining in the light of the modern world to a vigourous assessment using democratic means that are transparent and recorded and open. 

In short, I would like a cohesive society that agrees on one thing above all others – then need to work together using the existing structures in order to first agree and them implement any change that we can agree is needed.

I want to go back to having confidence in my fellow Brits - whatever their origins - and to continue to work towards a tolerant, free minded society in which free speech is the unifying force.  I believe now that I grew up in a third-world economy (in post-war Britain) in which deference and class consciousness were endemic - and repulsive. We changed that. In some ways it is better, in some ways not. The point being that we changed it. 

I feel that we have to have faith in the structures that we have helped evolved over our history. By that I do not propose to leave it static or unchanged, quite the reverse. I think we need a new invigoration, a vibrancy to add colour to the fabric of our lives and nationality to which many strangers have been welcomed and more will come. 

But our attention should be on making sure that our structures are evolving in ways that will ensure that our solutions can evolve also. 

We should protect those things we value – humour, tolerance, satire, freedom of speech and the right to be rude - but not to incite, freedom of religion and freedom of opportunity for all, men and women alike. 

We can ensure that if people want things to change in custom, in law, in politics that they debate and argue using those means - the very customs and structures that have got us to where we are. 

It is time to assert, not so much our traditional values, but the structures that have protected those values and that will, if properly used, continue to do so for the next 1000 years.

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