In Prelude to War, the first part of Frank Capra’s 1942 Why We Fight film series, the narrator John Huston explains to his American audience the moral and political imperative for the involvement of the United States in the Second World War.
He shows two globes side by side, one in light representing the free democracies and the other shrouded in the darkness of totalitarianism. Key tenets of Capra’s world of light are constitutional law, free speech, a free press, independent judges and the right to join a union.
A counter theme from the world of darkness and militaristic imperialism is the exhortation to ‘Stop Thinking’ and ‘Follow Me’.
Liberals are faced with a challenge. The old certainties of “Why We fight” have been eroded. Leaders of hitherto free democratic countries have taken concepts from Capra’s world of darkness and have sought to undermine established institutions to promote new forms nationalism.
The truth is portrayed as fake. Social media used to tap into individual frustrations to create broader unrest. The world is now greyer.
It can rightly be pointed out that the 1930s catastrophe of expansion through military force does not represent today’s global situation, yet liberals must not be complacent. Expansionism is alive and well in the South China Sea, in Ukraine, in Kashmir even perhaps in Greenland.
In 1911, the Peace Palace was built in The Hague, an institution designed to promote goodwill between the key international powers and reduce the threat of war. As soon as 1914, of course, the project had failed – although it did lay a foundation for future dialogue.
A short ride on an upright bicycle from the Peace Palace across The Hague will take the traveller to the beach at Scheveningen and the huge concrete bunkers of the Atlantic Wall. A stark testament to Capra’s cinematic work.
Liberals must be vigilant. Today, skirmishes between the great powers are currently focused on tariffs but they highlight a larger economic and strategic struggle between China and the United States. In the near term, the tariffs may have created the conditions for a global slowdown. Bond market yields and manufacturing statistics are flashing red for recession. Such an economic setback might further encourage a greying of the world.
There are, however, huge causes for optimism that a continued enlightenment lies before us. So liberals should remain positive.
The trends which have created relative peace, stability and wealth are very powerful. The globalisation of effective economic ideas will not be halted by the new nationalism, the power of technology will continue to unleash new working practices, new industries, educational advancement, consumer power, community development and democratic involvement.
The growth of cities will create new employment and economic strength. The great challenges of climate change and the disparity of wealth can be met with liberal ideas of social justice, co-operation and innovation. Liberals must also be optimistic.
Join movements and political parties, agitate for change, stand for office, write, create communities, influence shift opinion, speak out, campaign and win power – so: liberals of the world, Unite!
Come and see us in the politics tent to talk about these and other ideas at the Big Tent Ideas Festival this weekend!