The motto of Fritz Lang’s German expressionist epic Metropolis was a simple but affecting one: “The mediator between head and hand must be heart.” Without such a humane and moderating influence, the film argued, the failures of capitalism would breed social breakdown, demagoguery and large-scale class conflict.
That may have been based partly on observation, since it was made during the turbulent period following the First World War, at a time when a certain erstwhile lance corporal preaching the absurd notion that people’s brains were controlled by their blood had already attempted to overthrow the hapless Weimar state. Soon Hitler would gain much more support, at least some of it, ironically, from people worried that chaos would ensue otherwise — including the author of the motto, Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou, who opted not to emigrate when the great director, whose mother had converted from Judaism, was forced to flee.
After a war that had invited never-before-seen destruction on Germany, the angry but ultimately moderate message of Metropolis seemed more relevant than ever. In the eastern part of the country the industrial murder of the Nazis had been followed by the excesses of Soviet communism. Heinrich George, who played the foreman Grot in the film and, like von Harbou, had decided to collaborate, starved to death in a Stalinist labour camp, and two generations went on to have their lives blighted by a system that didn’t work.
The west, of course, was a different story: the two big Volksparteien of the Federal Republic propounded philosophies that closely followed the moral conclusions of Lang’s film. Just as Grot reluctantly forswears vengeance at the end of the film, the Social Democrats, who had been forced to look on as their comrades in the east were forced into political marriage with the communists in a Sozialistische Einheitspartei, eschewed anything remotely revolutionary, rejecting the programmatic nationalisation of industry as early as 1959. Their chief rivals, the Christian Democrats, perhaps embodied more than any other the “mediated” message of Metropolis. Often referred to as conservatives and born from the ashes of the old Centre Party, which had foolishly supported Hitler, they are, nevertheless, worlds away from the free-market ideologues of the United Kingdom.
And Germany has remained remarkably stable. Dangerously right-wing parties can be banned by a constitutional watchdog, and the welfare state is sacred. For their part, the Social Democrats have retained their distaste of communism, to this day refusing to form governments with the SED’s political heirs and instead, where the parliamentary arithmetic requires it, engaging in Grand Coalitions with the CDU.
Not only that, but Germany is rich, and solvent, and green.
In the UK, on the other hand, the post-war social-democratic consensus broke down. Tested by union leaders who thought it legitimate to use their power over nationalised industries to effect a change of government, it was finally dispatched by the free-market norie of the “socialist ratchet”, the lazy myth that moderation in matters social was a concession to communism. Since 1979, every Conservative Government has been more right-wing than its predecessor, if not in the pace at which it tacks to the right, then at least in the sum of its policies. And, since the Tories succeeded so admirably in changing the rules of the game, every Labour manifesto since the high-water mark of 1983 has been more right-wing too, with the party under Blair going so far as to embrace the whacky experiments of PFI, academies, a marketised NHS and, last but not least, the wholesale deregulation of banks.
The result has not, yet, been as spectacular as back then in Germany, but people are a good deal wealthier than they were 80 years ago, and there is, still, a welfare state to hold things together. Nevertheless, recent developments have — in a sedate British fashion, admittedly — formed unpleasant parallels with Weimar. For the first time since Thatcher’s revolution began, benefits frozen since 1980 are being cut in real terms, with ballooning use of food banks as a result. Populist demagogues are scapegoating foreigners and the poor, with the established parties pusillanimously adapting their policies to their voters. And the great English tradition of rioting shows no sign of abating.
In Scotland, there are no riots, and UKIP remains a fringe phenomenon. Probably we are lucky that our retained solidarity leaves us averse to fyling our own nest, and free-market inspired hatred of Europe is of course likely to be felt most strongly where affection for free markets is greatest. As the benefits cap shows, however, there is a limit to the extent to which a devolved Scots Government can mitigate the vandalism of the swivel-eyed. If Labour could not bring itself to reverse the privatisation of British Rail, which delivered a fragmented, dysfunctional, sclerotic — though still publicly subsidised – system, there is little chance that it will do so with other natural monopolies such as the Royal Mail. Indeed, the current debate about whether to decriminalise non-payment of the television licence fee may be a first step in the reinvention of the BBC as an encrypted, subscription-only pleasure, sold off to the rich to keep their taxes low. If there is a “no” vote in September, some of us might be tempted to view that as poetic justice, given the lack of balance that the corporation has shown, but it will still be another public service taken out of public hands with dire results.
The revolution launched by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 brought about the unintended, though eminently predictable, result of a continuing reduction in solidarity and cohesiveness across the social groups and nations of the United Kingdom. Indeed, so strong have those centrifugal forces now become that there must be a real risk that English society would not withstand a serious and long-term environmental and economic shock of the kind confidently predicted by climate scientists. Scotland, on the other hand, is in the position, enviable in UK terms, of having an historic border on which to realign — and being rich enough to do so. It is lucky, too, that it has always been a multi-ethnic polity, with national identity based squarely on institutions, allowing it to promote solidarity without division. While inertia, party tribalism or a nostalgic sense of Britishness may bring some people to vote “no”, fired by the unintentionally ironic slogan of “Better Together”, its independence is, for me, an archetypal no-brainer.
Indeed, it’s only a shame it took us so long to get here.