At this time of division, peace and goodwill feels a stretch – how can we develop a common good between groups of people who so often live parallel lives and understand so little of each other? Perhaps a football match between teams of Remainers and Leavers, or globalisers and communitarians, on Christmas Day in a Flanders field might do the trick.
A start, at least, would be to recognise what has gone wrong, and why. Real discussion is vital. In particular, those who feel increasingly estranged from our political system are crying out to be acknowledged, and they are long overdue a hearing.
To understand the root causes of the current political eruptions playing out across the West, one could do no better than read National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, by Professors Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell. In this brave and analytical book, the authors identify the seeds of the movements that have driven a stake through the heart of the liberal centrist order, how the rebellion was long in the making, and how a remote and tin-eared establishment became increasingly inattentive to the plight of millions who were demanding economic and cultural security.
Rarely are political studies written so explicitly from the perspective of the masses – presumably because most academics and commentators spend so little time mixing with them – which makes this book profoundly refreshing. It should be in the stocking of every member of the political class on Christmas morning.
On a similar theme, Ben Cobley’s The Tribe offers an excellent deconstruction of the whole divisive concept of identity politics and its permeation throughout our public institutions. Cobley demonstrates how this most regressive of ideologies – historically driven by the liberal Left, but later adopted by politicians and public leaders across the piece – has, through its obsessive focus on diversity above all else, exacerbated the very thing it sought to eradicate: prejudice and discrimination on the grounds of biology. It deserves a wide audience.
For lighter – or perhaps darker – relief, I will again turn to a BBC Christmas staple, A Ghost Story for Christmas, a festive treat broadcast regularly in the 1970s (usually a reworking of an MR James spine-tingler) and revived some years ago. A classic episode was an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman, in which the eponymous character, paranoid and tormented by a terrifying spectre while toiling away in his little railway signal box, is played masterfully by the late Denholm Elliott. The story was said to be influenced by Dickens’ own survival of a horrific fatal train crash in Staplehurst, Kent, in 1865, which haunted him for the rest of his days. The short book, which chills to the marrow, is a fine yuletide accompaniment to a glowing fire and a small glass of whisky.
John Masefield’s The Box of Delights, is another festive delight. It is a magical tale about a young boy who, while heading home from school for the Christmas holidays, is waylaid by an old man seeking his help in a desperate effort to keep a small box giving the power of time-travel out of the hands of pursuers. If you have young ‘uns, read it to them – even if they don’t want you to. They will almost certainly enjoy it – and even if they don’t, they will have benefited from the historical lesson that children once lived happily without Smartphones and Xboxes.
But back to Flanders. Thumbing through A Literary Christmas, I hit upon GK Chesterton’s The Truce of Christmas, inspired by the ceasefire that occurred on Christmas Day 1914. Might the final verse foretell our own predicament as we head through and beyond this most discontented of winters?
Hunger is hard and time is tough,
But bless the beggars and kiss the kings;
For hope has broken the heart of things,
And nothing was ever praised enough.
(But hold the shield for a sudden swing
And point the sword when you praise a thing,
For we are for all men under the sun,
And they are against us every one;
And mime and merchant, thane and thrall
Hate us because we love them all;
Only till Christmastide go by
Passionate peace is in the sky.)
We shall see.