The recent European elections saw a significant lurch to the far right, which took many by surprise.
From a cultural perspective this was entirely predictable.
The colours of that end of the political spectrum are those of the national flag, and the emotions it thrives on are feelings of helplessness, anger and a fear of the unknown.
In difficult times like ours, when people have lost their jobs, feel political power is out of their control (Brussels), and that the cultural landscape of their own country is changing (immigration), it is easy to cling to what we first learned – our national values and beliefs – and to reject violently anything ‘other’ which threatens that.
W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming sums up the apathy (low voter turnout), which can lead to the passionately intense seizing power:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The EU is based on the principle of closer and closer union, but a union of nations with widely divergent values. These divisions can be at the deepest philosophical level: compare French rationalism and German theory with British pragmatism, and you can see why the UK has never felt at home in a political construct built on Franco-German foundations.
We can live with such differences while it is ‘business as usual’, but when crisis hits, and when it hits the pockets of the citizens of Europe, those who can afford it may shrug their shoulders and not bother voting, while many of those who can’t will retreat into their national enclaves and defend their unique values to the death.
There are no simple answers. But the EU needs to examine its first premises and consider whether closer and closer integration is the right goal, given the cultural differences within Europe. It can then either decide to scale down its ambitions, or come up with such a compelling alternative, such a message of hope – ideally embodied in an Obama-like figure – that it appeals to and unites the whole of Europe….
But something must be done to avoid a ‘Second Coming’ like that of Yeats’ poem where a ‘rough beast … slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’. It has happened before in Europe, and history has a nasty habit of repeating itself.
I was reminded recently of the old anecdote about Finnish national self consciousness:
A German, a Frenchman, a Russian, and a Finn took part in a writing competition about elephants. The German came up with A Short Introduction to the Physiology of the Elephant (1,500 pages, plus appendices). The French entry was The Love Life of the Elephant. The Russian wrote Elephants in Russia, and the Finn wrote What do Elephants Think of Me?
The Finns really do care about what you think of them.
Last summer I moved from London to Helsinki for a ‘cooler’ change of scenery. This change has given me a different perspective on the country I left behind and an insider’s view of Finland. One of the notable adjustments I have had to make in my new home country is that of living in a nation that spends considerable time pondering what the rest of the world thinks of it. Speaking to my Finnish partner this week she considered the topic and summarised thus, ‘Maybe we (the Finns) do worry what they (the rest of the world) think of us. And maybe we areclumsy communicators, lack confidence and are pre-programmed with a degree of national self doubt.’
I was talking to a waiter in a Helsinki café this week. He was amazed that I lived in Finland. Partly in disbelief, and partly out of interest, he asked me, ‘How did you hear about us?’ – An amusing turn of phrase which made me feel as if he was interviewing me for a job in the café. In truth he was amazed that someone from London would move to Helsinki. He waxed lyrical about London’s rich history, its reputation as one of the world’s leading financial hubs (until recently) and, even more importantly, the 13 professional football teams based in London. He mentioned The Beatles as well, but I didn’t want to correct him because I’m English and we generally don’t do that unless we absolutely have to.
In truth, Helsinki offers everything you would expect from a great city apart from a 150 year old metro system and a highly respected royal family. Still, the Finns remain surprisingly reticent about the merits of their capital and country.
Google Street View
For a more modern perspective, consider Google’s recent innovation Street View. The controversial mapping service provides a 360-degree view of streets and buildings including residential addresses, people and cars. Since it was launched two years ago people have complained in their thousands that their privacy and civil rights have been breached.
Take the two men who got caught out just after the UK launch. In one incriminating shot a man was seen exiting a Soho sex shop and another shot included a man vomiting outside a pub. Both images had to be removed from the application soon after the launch following strong complaints from the gentlemen in question.
The Finn’s view
It was interesting to note Finland’s reaction to Street View. As the western world raged against breaches of civil rights and privacy, the Finns were more concerned with Google’s timing to drop by with their cameras in early spring. There were widespread concerns that during this period of transition Finland would not create the right impression (trees without leaves, melting and muddied snow and the sun would be somewhere else, of course). ‘What will the world think of us!’ the Finns cried. Finland’s number one broadsheet Helsingin Sanomat highlighted the view of many Finns stating that the primary concern was to create the right impression, and hoped that the pictures ‘came out alright’.
The Brits on the other hand are more concerned with what they can edit so they don’t get caught out doing things they shouldn’t. There is an interesting juxtaposition as Britain’s leading politicians currently face their own challenges around declaring and editing the truth.
Transparency and Openness
So there we are, the Finns are committed to openness and honesty, whilst lacking self assurance about their country. I wonder if this is a consequence of being ‘up front’?
The Brits, in contrast, appear to be able to cover things up and still remain proud of their nation.
Keeping to the rules is hard and places a lot of emphasis on order. Finland enjoys a surprisingly transparent political process which most European countries would not believe.
Secretary General of The Finnish Parliament, Seppo Tiitinen, delivered a short speech two weeks ago. He spoke of parliament’s open policy towards the media and the public in Finland and asserted, ‘the best safeguard against corruption is openness’.
Is everyone else just hiding behind their national pride?