Here’s a question for you: “Which is more likely to lead to World War Three: Brexit or Trump?”
It’s a serious question for serious times. The thing is, when it was directed at me this week, it was preceded by the word “Mummy” and came from the mouths of Bridget, aged 10, and Rupert, who is eight.
I was a bit shocked, I’ll admit. The smalls are pretty clued up on world events – they watch Newsround and read kids’ newspaper First News at school, and they listen to the grown-ups around them discussing things. But this question (which they asked in a perfectly matter-of-fact way) came out of the blue, and was clearly not based on reported events.
Turns out, it came from a place beyond the news: from discussion, speculation and extrapolation with friends. It also came from fear, both of the unknown, and of unnamed and unnameable bad things happening to themselves and the people they love. The “logical” end point for them of a year of unprecedented political uncertainty in their privileged world was war; specifically, nuclear war.
I get this. I get it completely. I was having a conversation on Twitter recently with an educated, hugely respected expert in his field, also in his mid-40s. We agreed that, in our lifetimes, living in the West, we’ve never experienced this level of visceral fear about how the volatile political situation might play out.
We were born during the Cold War, but by the time we were conscious of the world around us it was drawing to a close. One of our first big news memories was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Raymond Briggs’ “When the Wind Blows” was just a comic book, with no resonance for us. The “Protect and Survive” booklet from 1976 on how to prepare and deal with a nuclear attack was a dusty museum artefact.
I’m optimistic, and I’m not really a worrier. I know I am extremely lucky to be born in the UK, in Europe’s biggest ever stretch of peacetime ever. I take the security and safety of my family pretty much for granted. Even the threat of global terrorism, which runs like an anxiety-provoking thread through 21st century existence, wouldn’t stop me doing anything or going anywhere. I got through a rather serious dose of cancer, for goodness’ sake, I’m not scared of much.
But something happened overnight for me when the Brexit Referendum results came in last summer, and it was compounded by Trump’s election. The “South-East England liberal elite bubble” I was apparently in had well and truly burst. For the first time ever, I am not sure that things will trundle on being more or less OK, with the occasional blip.
I think we are in for a rough ride through unknown territory. Many of us are in shock, or brace position, or both. And I don’t think this is melodrama, and I don’t think it’s all down to social media stirring.
I’m no longer certain of peace in our time. It feels like a luxury that we may have inadvertently and rather unconsciously squandered, somehow. I’m just not sure (and neither is anyone else) what the implications of Brexit and Trump (or “President Fart” as the kids call him) will be.
There’s stuff about the future stability of Europe, about NATO and Russia and nuclear capability (and who has the codes) that concerns me greatly. Brexit looks like it’s going to be Theresa’s way or the highway, and I can’t believe it will make the UK a better place. In Trump’s first six days, we’ve already seen him erode women’s rights, cutting funding to NGOs that give women all over the world access to contraception and abortion services (yet more pussy-grabbing); shout about “America First” and stuff about “walls” and the okayness of torture, and silence scientists. (Don’t get me started on climate change – I can’t even look those graphs and pictures of shrinking ice caps in the eye, so terrified am I.)
The talk of closing borders, the resurgence of racism and treating migrants with suspicion and hate rather than compassion are not the values I was brought up with, as the daughter of a refugee.
And the rapid emergence of a truly Orwellian post-truth era of fake news and “alternative facts” is making everything much, much scarier.
All of which increases our feelings of powerlessness. But all is not lost.
That five million people in 70 countries took part in the Women’s March last Saturday, whether in the name of equal rights or to protest Trump’s presidency, was the first glimmer of light I’ve felt in quite a while. Many of the placards pictured the late, great Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and used the words “Resistance” and “Hope”.
The internet, social media and the global digital economy mean that, however backwards things seem at the moment, we are more connected, and have more tools, information and capability to be a movement for change than ever before.
And politics isn’t all bad: Canada’s Trudeau, Germany’s Merkel and London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan seem to be on the side of the good guys. Plus the Obamas are still in the world, and I have no doubt that when they return from their well-deserved holiday they will continue to be a force for good.
We also have our young people. There’s some inspiring research into younger Millennials aged 14-21 by Professor Noreena Hertz. She calls them Generation K, for Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the dystopian Hunger Games books. They were born into global terrorism and financial crisis, and they are fearful and distrustful. And they are also kinder, more generous, more collaborative, more open-minded and more creative than any previous generation. These are the kids who will change the world for the better, once the angry old white guys have had their last gasp.
2016 may have been notable for its prominent deaths, including Bowie, but future Heroes may have been born all over the world; we just don’t know it yet.
So how did I answer Bridget and Rupert’s question?
I thought about saying all of the above, but of course the only real option when faced with those two sweet little faces was to say: “Neither, darlings. Brexit and Trump are just interesting political situations. We’ve seen worse, and we’ve seen better. We must stay vigilant and call out unfairness and bad behaviour and lies when we see them. But you are safe, and loved, and all is well”.
I’d like a grown-up to reassure me, too. But we’re the grown-ups now.