I very much doubt that this really is the worst time ever in British history, though it’s beginning to feel like it. Obviously periods of war, famine, extreme poverty, political oppression and great natural catastrophes bring far more suffering to more people; and women have been worse off at almost any other time. But there may be one factor that distinguishes today from most other periods: which is the virtual extinction – in Britain at any rate – of hope. Even in war people can feel that things will be better afterwards; famines can be brought to an end, as can dictatorships and imperialisms; earthquakes and tsunamis will pass. However poor one is, one can bear it if one believes that things will improve in the future. Hope is what takes the edge off suffering: that bright small light at the end of the darkest tunnel, that encourages us to push on regardless.
This was why the 1850s and 1860s were such a ‘golden’ age in Britain’s history, despite the abject condition of most of her population – not to mention her exploited colonial subjects – which of course was far worse than today’s. (Dickens’s Hard Times, and the industrial novels of Mary Gaskell, bear this out.) The difference, however, is that most people then had hope for a better future. For the working classes the promise lay in the advance of their Chartist and Socialist movements, and in particular in the steady contemporary progress made towards parliamentary reform. For the capitalist middle classes the engine of ‘progress’ was supposed to be the advance of ‘free trade’. (We mustn’t forget that for liberals then, unlike the ‘new’ liberals of today, the free market was believed to conduce to greater social equality.) The grounds for these two classes’ hopes were different, indeed antagonistic; but they were both optimistic in their own ways, at what was in consequence a mainly optimistic time. And then, of course, there were those many Christians who believed that Jesus would make it better for everyone, if they continued to have faith. The future was rosy.
Can anyone believe that these days? We ‘progressives’, of course, have been terribly discouraged by the key events of 2016: Brexit, Trump, wage stagnation, growing inequality, Islamicist atrocities, climate change denial; which it is difficult to see as mere blips in the generally upward trend of human history. Even more discouraging is the lack on the Left of any leaders or movements, like the Labour Party and Trade Unions used to be, able to spearhead the cause of those who would like to be hopeful still. But turning to the other side: are the Trumpists and Farageists – history’s winners this year – any more hopeful? Do the Ukippers really believe that Britain can thrive – as opposed to merely exist – outside the EU? How many Americans truly and confidently believe that Trump can make America ‘great again’? How many ex-colonial subjects any longer think that things are going to get better for them? Who in the world has any faith at all in the likelihood of global poverty and inequality diminishing, or wars ceasing, or even in their planet being still habitable in – say – the next 100 years? Right wingers don’t sound very hopeful. Hence all their hatred and bile.
Which perhaps makes some sense of Nigel Farage’s latest obscenity: his labelling of ‘Hope not Hate’ – the movement set up in the wake of the murder of the MP Jo Cox by an English nationalist – as ‘extremist’. Perhaps ‘hope’ is ‘extreme’ now, no longer the normal state of mind of most of us which it was until fairly recently.
I’m reminded of the line by the John Cleese character in Clockwise, when during a farcical struggle across the country to get to his Headmaster’s Conference, he and his under-age pupil driver find themselves ditched beside the road, unable to move another yard. Suddenly, with all hope of reaching his destination seemingly lost, he relaxes. ‘I don’t mind the despair’, he says. ‘I can cope with despair. It’s the hope I can’t bear.’ Maybe that’s how we can cope with our modern political despair. Abandon hope. And – as it’s Christmas coming – get drunk.
And who knows, salvation might be just around the corner. That’s the message of Christmas, after all, in both its religious and original pagan forms.