Talking about a revolution...

It’s a little like Monty Python’s version of the Spanish Inquisition: nobody expects a revolution on the scale of the Arab Spring, until it actually erupts under your feet.

Well, that’s what everyone else is talking about, anyway.

In most of Europe and great parts of the rest of the world, there is a seething discontent that is so palpable you can almost reach your hand out and touch it. It hangs over entire countries like an ominous storm cloud. In some cases, the storm has already been unleashed: Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria…these are all countries in which what was literally unthinkable only a few years ago, went on to happen with spectacular effect. And in all such cases, the upheaval came as an earth-shattering surprise.

Libya is perhaps the best example of how events such as these tend to overtake the political establishment we are all used to in our own, sheltered little countries. European leaders like David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were still trying to conclude business deals with Gaddafi when the first rumblings of unrest were being heard from the Benghazi direction.

It is clear as daylight that none of these prime ministers had any inkling of what was about to happen. Otherwise, Sarkozy might have been less keen to sell nuclear technology to the same man whose overthrow he would later help finance with money and weapons. And the United Nations may have thought twice before feting the Libyan dictator in New York as if he were the darling of the international community.

It’s a little like Monty Python’s version of the Spanish Inquisition: nobody expects a revolution on the scale of the Arab Spring, until it actually erupts under your feet. It is only when blood already soaks the streets and squares of Tripoli and Damascus that all the world’s academics, political commentators, journalists and even prime ministers suddenly scratch their heads and ask themselves: but how on earth did we not see this coming? How is it even possible that something as big as this could take us so completely by surprise?

And that is their reaction to revolutions that sweep conveniently distant and remote parts of the world. When it comes to revolutions in their own countries… Ha! The idea is automatically laughed off as an absurdity. So when people like Russell Brand (pictured above) in the UK (or Beppe Grillo in Italy) suddenly start ‘talking about a revolution’, right here in the context of Western Europe… the reaction is predictably to laugh the whole idea off as a schoolboy fantasy, and of course to heap scorn and insults on the harbingers of doom.

Even Johnny Rotten – who once sang about ‘anarchy in the UK’ – has now joined the ranks of angry defenders of a political system he himself used to rail against in the 1970s (usually while spitting into the frenzied audience at Sex Pistol concerts). I suppose that’s what inevitably happens to punk rockers when they grow up. They forget all about the time when they engaged in class warfare and glorified mob violence, and instead become spokespersons for their own country’s political establishment.

Anyway: I haven’t read Russell Brand’s latest book (imaginatively titled ‘Revolution’), but I’ve read enough about it, mostly in the form of scathing criticism, to form an idea of what motivates his current obsession with challenging the system. And I’ve read enough articles by Brand in the British press to know that he can certainly put a point across.

This, for instance, is his view on the democratic system in the UK today: “The only reason to vote is if the vote represents power or change. I don’t think it does. I fervently believe that we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tit-bits tossed from the carousel of the mighty, when they hop a few inches left or right… [it] amounts to little more than a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears….”

I honestly don’t see how anyone can really argue with that observation in itself… although the question of whether this complaint, on its own, is enough to fuel an entire revolution is another matter. Perhaps this is why his critics tend inevitably to resort to the usual ad hominem attacks (bringing up his marriage to Katy Perry, and all that) instead of actually rebutting the argument. We can all see the man has a point… so just demolish the man, and hope that everyone is distracted enough by the fisticuffs not to actually listen to anything he says.

Yet it is easy to confirm the truth in the above statement, even just by looking at our own political duopoly here in Malta. But you don’t really need to, because the same British political duopoly Brand was referring to, above, did precisely that in the week since ‘Revolution’ came out in bookshops across the UK.

Those who follow the ongoing apparent spat between Britain and the rest of the EU will surely get the gist. Britain has for some time now been making noises about a possible pull-out from the EU in 2017. Prime Minister Cameron has even been forced (or cajoled) into committing himself to a referendum on that issue by the rising popularity of UKIP – the only party in the British landscape to demand a full withdrawal from the EU.

Already you can see forces at work which undermine the choice facing the British electorate next year. As things stand, there are around five parties to speak of contesting that election. The Conservatives, Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Only one wants to pull out of the EU in as many words… and because of a sudden spike in its popularity at the polls (UKIP just won its first MP in the House of Commons) the two main parties in the equation can be seen to have remodelled their EU policy to address the haemorrhage. Cameron has even vowed to ‘renegotiate’ the UK’s accession treaty to set limits to EU internal immigration. So you can ‘choose’ to vote for an openly anti-immigration/anti-EU party, or one that claims to ‘want a better deal’ from Europe… on immigration.

And the choice has just narrowed further still. Ed Miliband – leader of a Labour Party that has hitherto been more on the pro-EU side of things – has just re-dimensioned his own party’s European policy along almost exactly the same lines. This is how it was reported in the Independent (UK): “Ed Miliband is to toughen Labour’s line on immigration as he seeks to combat UKIP’s growing appeal to the party’s traditional working class supporters. The Labour leader said that the UK ‘needs stronger controls on people coming here’ and called for reform of the European Union’s freedom of movement rules…”

Interesting way to combat UKIP’s growing appeal, isn’t it? Become UKIP yourself, so your own party supporters no longer have any reason to abandon ship. Where does that leave the British voter, exactly? It leaves him or her with a ‘choice’ of three UKIPs for the price of one. And if the original UKIP was such a dangerous political force that it needed to be fought at all costs… well, how is that situation made any safer when even the mainstream parties start echoing all its policies?

Again, I’m not at all sure if this intrinsic flaw in the current democratic model is, in itself, enough of a reason to promote a ‘revolution’ of any form. In fact it is not the only sore point that the likes of Russell Brand, Beppe Grillo and the rest of the growing European ‘anti-political’ culture complain about.

But to dismiss the argument out of hand is not exactly very helpful either. Even here in Malta – where there is no talk of revolution, at least none that has reached my ears – we can all see the same general pattern unfold. With each passing election the differences between the two main parties seems to get harder and harder to spot. Last week’s power station debate was a classic case in point. Under pressure to account for his government’s mystery energy plan, Konrad Mizzi pointed fingers at former resources Minister George Pullicino over a dodgy contract for solar energy. He accused Pullicino of hiding this contract: which, if allowed to come into force, would bind the present government and future ones, too.

Yet at the same time Mizzi didn’t table any of the contracts (if indeed these contracts even exist) governing the many agreements his own government has reached with ElectroGas, Shanghai Electric and others for the construction and management of a new power station that will radically change Malta’s entire energy profile. Future governments will also be bound by these agreements. So where is the difference, exactly, between the way past and present governments handle roughly the same challenges and problems? What choice does the voter really have, other than to choose the colour of the tie worn by the person lying to you (or, at best, withholding information) at any given moment?

And that’s just energy. We all saw the same intrinsic pattern apply to our own immigration scenario, too. When anti-immigration parties like Imperium Europa made inroads – even on a much smaller scale than UKIP – at the last European election, the reaction by both Labour and PN was to toughen up their own rhetoric on the same issue. Suddenly the choice we faced as an electorate was between which party screeched the loudest about how unsustainable irregular immigration had become. Both parties promised to fight the same case, in the same way (and presumably with the same results) in Europe. Which I suppose is music to the ears of the 3,000 or so who voted for Norman Lowell’s party in 2009… but where does that leave the rest of us, exactly?

It leaves us with a choice of two largely identical parties every five years. And if, like Russell Brand, you try and point this out in public… you will be accused of ‘undermining democracy’. Never mind that democracy itself is failing in its primary objective… you will be socially bullied into participating in this failed system, mostly by people who have either done very well for themselves out of it, or who are too shortsighted to project this trend over the next few decades and predict where it will actually take us in the end.

Personally, I think that… yes, it will take us to a revolution. Maybe not in Malta, where the system is still propped up by an element of political tribalism that doesn’t really exist in most European countries. And maybe not as soon as the Russell Brands of this world evidently hope, either. I also somehow doubt it will be a revolution of the Arab Spring variety… but who knows? It has all happened before; and if the recent past has taught us anything, it is that we learn the lessons of history very reluctantly… if at all.