August 18, 2022

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Defend our way of life or we will surely lose it

When  news broke last Saturday that Joe Biden would be the next President of the United States, I felt happy.

It wasn’t the obvious  satisfaction anyone might have at seeing their horse win the race. This was something deeper, more fundamental, something that went beyond politics and policies. Other people have told me they felt the same way. Biden’s victory was a win for decency. Trump’s defeat lifted a brooding, malign presence.

For the first time in  years, good had triumphed over bad, right over wrong and honesty really did seem to be the best policy.

It was, it seemed to me, a victory not just for Biden and the Democratic Party but for democracy itself, or at least for the form of social democracy that has shaped the modern western world.

I have lived with this slightly left-of-centre form of democracy for seventy years and I have benefited hugely from it, as has everyone in Ireland and almost everyone in western Europe.

It gave birth to the European Union and the EU gave us peace. My parents and my grandparents both lived through world wars but I was never embroiled in a conflict of that sort. Nobody conscripted me into an army or sent me to fight in trenches with my comrades dying around me.

With peace came stability and with stability came prosperity.

All my life I have lived in a society which has grown more prosperous and where increased wealth has been shared – not always fairly or equally, but the rising tide has lifted all boats.

The standard of living in Ireland has improved beyond measure.

Slums have been cleared. One reason for the shortage of housing now is that people would no longer tolerate living in conditions which were common in my childhood.

Our health service has improved. It’s still a bit rickety, but no emergency is ever turned away from a hospital and there is free GP care for children and a lot of adults.

Education has improved. The door to second-level schooling was opened by Seán Lemass and Donogh O’Malley in 1969. Today third level education in some form is available to just about  everyone who wants it.

Social welfare has improved. People don’t have to beg for a pension any more, single parents are supported not stigmatised  and, while nobody is living it up on unemployment benefit, they don’t starve either.

Things that once seemed an incredible luxury – foreign holidays, a family car, good clothes – are now taken for granted. I was late into my teens before my family could afford a telephone, now everybody has one in their pocket.
Social democracy made all this possible and it did it while allowing us the right of free speech and freedom to pick and change our leaders.

It built the great modern nations of Germany, Sweden and France. It took Britain, battered and torn by two world wars, and gave it good public housing, a wonderful health system and a welfare structure that was an example to the world.

Americans seem allergic to the word ‘socialism’ but it was the broad concensus of social dermocray that built their moden nation too – in particular, it put a stop to racial segregation and opened the door for Barack Obama and Kamala Harris.

In recent times, we who have benefitted so much from social democracy, have not done enough to defend it.

In Britain, people did not speak up for their health and welfare systems: they lost them and got Margaret Thatcher.
Across Europe, we did not speak up for the great achievements of the EU: we got Brexit.

And in America they did not sufficiently applaud the tolerant society passed from Kennedy to  Clinton to Obama; they got Donald Trump.

Western democracy is on the retreat in Turkey, Brazil and Pakistan. It is being stamped out in Hong Kong. Developing countries in Africa are looking to China as a model to follow.

Social democrats everywhere need to make a stand and I am hoping the election of Joe Biden might start that process.

I may be naive. Biden is an elderly man and was no radical even in his heyday. But it is not radicalism we need so much as common decency and Biden has that in spades.

So I live in hope. A year from now – a month from now? – my cynical self may be restored. But for the moment, Joe Biden has made me a happy man.

So, thanks Joe. You’re off to a good start.

PHOTO: Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix

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