The religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe culminated in the Thirty Years War, which killed approximately one third of the entire population of Germany. This conflict also caused terrible casualties in most northern and central European nations except Britain, which stayed carefully aloof. It is thought that around eight million people died in total. The political leaders of the time fell broadly into either Protestant or Catholic camps, and in the wake of the Reformation this religious identity became more important than their normal political differences. The only major exception was France, which under the canny direction of Cardinal Richelieu and in an excellent example of realpolitik determinedly followed the course of self-interest.
At the time Germany was politically fragmented, meaning there were no clear front lines or convenient geographical groupings, leading to one of the messiest, bloodiest wars in human history. This fragmentation also made any wide-ranging peace settlement incredibly difficult to achieve until all sides eventually realised the futility of continuing the bloodshed.
Europe had learned its lesson (at the appalling cost of those eight million dead), and for over three hundred years religion has rarely been an explicit or major factor in European politics.
But I think that in Europe, and much of the West, a new condition is developing that is closely analogous to the corrosive effect that religion formerly had on politics. This is the escalating politicisation of so much of human activity – art, education, and especially science. These are fields of human interest that all but political extremists pay lip-service to keeping politics-free, and yet that just does not seem to really be the case anymore. I am not naïve enough to think that politicisation hasn’t been going on the past, but it does seem to be getting worse.
Examples of this phenomenon are all around us and it would be tedious to list too many, but think only of the number of anti-Israeli boycotts of concerts or lectures by visiting professors, of the ‘direct action’ taken by pressure groups to interrupt sporting and social occasions, and of the endless political squabbles over the content and structure of education in Britain and other countries.
For me, science is the most pernicious battleground of all. In general the current public perception of science is positive and people are inclined to trust published findings. But as climate alarmism (largely driven as it is by political beliefs) collapses the damage it does to public opinion will surely harm not just the scientific disciplines directly involved but science as a whole. It is inevitable that other smaller-scale scientific scandals will happen in its wake, but once the topic of scientific credibility is under public scrutiny the sensitivity to such things will increase enormously. I worry that some potential developments beneficial to the mass of humanity may never come to fruition as a result.
So what is the driver of this increase in politicisation? As all Western political parties have grown ever more statist, politics has become more about tinkering around the edges of policy. In order to widen the perceived gap between parties, invective and rhetoric increases. Shrill, continuous politicking has been made possible by dedicated television news channels, the internet and social media. In the same way Marxist groups save their strongest insults for each other, the closer political parties are the less they are open to compromise. In the absence of any real ideological discourse, and abetted by the weakening of parliament as the place politics actually happens (as opposed to back room deals and politics by press conference and media leaks), party activists take their battles ‘onto the streets’, i.e. into the other arenas mentioned above. Personally I find this tendency to be noticeably worse among the Left, as their instinct is more naturally statist than the Right, but both sides are very guilty.
The irony is that this is all taking place as the membership of political parties and voter turnouts at elections are at or near all-time lows. In the face of public apathy, political activists have taken to ramming their views directly and unpleasantly in our faces.
The end-game of this process is clearly visible in the many tin-pot ‘democracies’, flourishing particularly in Africa, where the concept of a loyal opposition is entirely missing and factionalism trumps all other considerations. All human affairs are necessarily political to some degree, but to those impassioned by it the stakes are often seen as being too high to only take half measures. It is increasing acceptable among politicians that any and all measures are taken. But we must re-learn tolerance and, as with any form of conciliation, find a time and a place that is neutral for all and offers us a sanctuary. The arts in particular should fulfil this role.
I am as I have mentioned before generally optimistic about long term future of West, but if anything can prevent our continued development, a slide into totalitarianism due to over-politicisation, and the subsequent exclusion of political tolerance, has to be among the most likely contenders.
Interestingly, the very day after I posted this a perfect example of political campaigners intruding into the arts came to my attention here.