Bad regimes are in the business of making us forget. More than anything they want to cancel our feeling for the impossible that twists some of us into impractical romantics. Teenagers tend to pass through this phase before buckling down to the hard business of living, with grocery bills and mortgages, the stuff parents lecture us about.
Idealism, fair play, “how it should be” rather than “what is” usually passes, like growing pains.
I was lucky to go live where a little of the “how it should be” actually existed. Not in Shangri La or Gauguin’s Polynesia or E.T.’s home planet but grubby, damp, tight-little-island Britain.
My luck was in the timing, after a deadly war and before Mrs. Thatcher and Tony Blair. Before fatigue set in.
Nothing worked very well – O those primitive Press Button B phones and exploding Ascot heaters! – yet things seem to run incredibly smoothly without the Internet or Starbucks. The post delivered letters twice and sometimes thrice a day, and the district nurse came on her bike when called…free of charge.
True, hardly anyone had money, but a good fattening, hearty heart-attack breakfast could be had for practically tuppence.
Then as now the political election cycle strictly lasted only six short weeks.
Even illegal aliens (like me) got single payer medical care. Government-run utilities.
Strong trade unions. Gunless cops. A ‘fair shares for all’ social bargain left over from the war.
It was real, unromantic, rain-sodden, pull-together Bernie Sanders “socialism” – and it worked.
Call us drab and dismal, if you like. And tell us we don’t know how to cook our food or wear our clothes – but, for heaven’s sake, recognize that we’re trying to do something…extraordinary and difficult – to have a revolution for once without the Terror…–J.B. Priestley, his play The Linden Tree
It wasn’t easy. Unlike Sweden’s welfare state, which grew war-rich by selling to the Nazis, the Brits came out of six years of bombing broke and nearly bankrupt. Imagine having no money and inventing an efficient free for all National Health Service over the fierce opposition of the nation’s doctors won over by the bullying of a “red” South Wales miners’ leader, the Health Minister Aneuran Bevan.
The British welfare state was not a sudden “revolution” but built on a solid base of previous slow and steady, bit by bit reforms, a fascinating mix of Methodism, Marxism, Victorian liberalism and from-below mass protest. Just like our own welfare system – Social Security and Medicare – about to be Trump-dismantled, didn’t come out of thin air.
At the moment, while we’re still dazed and hoarding obsolete allegiances, it doesn’t seem possible not only to rescue but improve upon the best of what we have. But then it wasn’t long ago when landing on the moon and electing a black president didn’t seem possible.
The incoming president’s mission is to help us forget.
(Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset.)