Tuesday, August 16, 2005

non-fiction thoughts

Thanks to the food based chapter on war rationing, I have stuck with London: 1945 and I'm now in the chapter about the National Election that was held in July 1945. I'm finding this chapter fascinating because it shows how much has changed in the world of politics. I know many American's grasp of British history is a little shaky, so let me give a little primer: Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940; he was a member of the Conservative party (though in the 1930s he was somewhat of an outcast in the party; he said that in 1940 no one else wanted the job). In July 1945, after VE day but before VJ day, the conservatives LOST the election and the Labor Party won and their head, Clement Attlee, became Prime Minister.

The author, Maureen Waller, does a terrific job explaining how this shift happened--one would think that the Conservative Party would have had a huge advantage with a Prime Minister that led the country to victory over the Nazi's and in general brought about the whole British "team spirit" attitude towards enduring the war on the home front. I'll leave it to you to read her book and listen to her detailed explanation of the reasons for the Labor Party victory (big class issues, memories of Conservative mis-rule during the depression, the age of many of the returning service men and women who hadn't been old enough to vote in the last General Election of 1935, etc.).

But there are a number of things about this election that are striking to me, not the least the civility. A Labor Party minister discussed the date for the election with Churchill (British General Elections are called by the ruling party and thus don't have a set date the way the US Presidential Election is in November ever fourth year) and here is the language he used:

"I added that these points...were made in order to enhance the chance of a fair contest adequately prepared and free from as many emotional factors as feasible." (p.324)

This sentence left me breathless--I had to reread it several times. Can you imagine the current leaders of our political parties talking with each other about how to make sure our election was "a fair contest" and "free from as many emotional factors as feasible"? It seems to me that campaigns now days are almost entirely about emotional factors: lots of fear-mongering, buddy-buddy-whose-your-friend-characterizations, manipulations whenever possible of a candidate's record, personality, family, whatever.

I know it is silly to romanticize the past and this book is most certainly not a romaticization of Britain in 1945--it includes plenty of pretty horrible examples of humanity in addition to lots of inspiring references. But to think we have fallen so far in political civility makes me feel completely ill.

Is there any way back out of the hole we have dug for ourselves?


Anonymous said...

It isn't just Britain in 1945. Not long ago, a news program I watched had clips of our own politicians from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The obvious decline in political discourse, just since then, was striking. Even W. himself, running for governor of Texas in the 1980s, was far more coherent and intelligible than he is today. What happened? Jerry Springer? Rush Limbaugh? When did we all take the collective pledge to be stupid? I don't know.

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