Bonfire Night has come and gone, although no doubt you will still hear the crackle of leftover fireworks being shot off for the rest of the week. It is a particularly odd event, especially for the outsider: the celebration of a four hundred year old arrest (and subsequent execution) in one of the longest religious conflicts seen on the European continent. The jihad is long over, but night remains as a tribute to the most enduring traditions of the kingdom: the monarchy, the English church, and a long memory. Perhaps Bonfire Night is most instructive for reminding us, in this age of ideological divisiveness realized on a global scale, that what we now consider the ‘developed’ world has also been responsible its share of zealotry and internecine conflict.
The idea that this country could, in 2012, tear itself apart on the scale that it once tried to (several times over throughout history) seems absurd. The worst that has to be countenanced is Scotland leaving the Union – far fetched though even that is – which would be a limited kind of separation. The EU and the de facto political economic community in Europe as a whole makes for a kind of international psychology which even the fiercest sceptics must acknowledge as unique in the world. Derisive laughter though there was at the awarding of the peace prize to the European Union, as protests flared up again in the austerity-hammered countries around the Mediterranean, it can surely be acknowledged that the lack of war inside its borders in the last fifty years is the glaring exception, rather than the rule, when taken in consideration with the last century, never mind the last five hundred or thousand years.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a much less deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize is about to have his political future put to the test. Although every presidential election in the last twelve years has been hyped as momentous for one reason or another (aren’t they all, in their own way?), this one seems particularly so. The latest and most damning evidence of climate change has just rocked the east coast, which is still picking up the pieces despite being pushed almost instantly out of the news cycle. (In any other year, one might expect at least a week of attention, especially as the other bookend to a landscape-altering decade of New York history.) But the climate isn’t on the agenda. Neither is war or foreign policy. Even the Guardian must admit that in Afghanistan and China the thought of the American election elicits not much more than shoulder shrugging. The drone strikes will continue, trade will flow. These things are certainties.
What isn’t certain is the political and social attitude of the country that perpetuates these facts. The political soul of America is being argued for in this election, and the choice is clear: a slightly right-of-center executive who inspires racist-tinged obstructionism in his opponents, or a corporate shill in thrall to the worst reactionary elements of the GOP. It is enough to make the idea of filling out an absentee ballot downright repulsive. Even though the cynic might delight in pointing to a Republican victory as a way of illustrating that things really haven’t changed in four years, or that as a nation American cannot and will not join the modern world, with it’s supposedly awful ‘socialized medicine’ and community-saving ‘welfare state’. The optimist in us does not delight in these things. The optimist thinks that maybe, given another four years and lessons learnt, we will see a rise in Democratic politics in America that pushes back against the hard right turn of conservatism of the last decade and a half, that given time and the realities of implementation, a healthcare system that acknowledges every citizen will become as politically untouchable as the NHS is in this country, even if an insurance mandate is only the pale shadow of actual national care.
Most of all, the optimist dares think that time might give way to reason, that the cynic will lose his bet against the incumbent, and that the slow crawl towards a new kind American progressivism might one day begin again. He admits that although the commentators crow on about the political realities of the last four years shearing away the idealism of the sitting president, that his own idealism has not been completely sheared away. He dares whisper that one, now guilty-sounding idea: there might still be some hope.