A Nation of Bystanders?

Bystander Society’ describes how or why vast numbers of otherwise decent citizens became implicit in the Nazi regime and the descent into World War II.  Historian Mary Fulbrook’s analysis of events in the 1930s extends to observations of the long aftermath (and after-myths) – a gradual and reluctant process of facing reality.  

Mary has produced a good book – a work that is surely relevant to a far wider audience than academics and historians.  Readers will demand that we heed the warnings and invest in the health of our democracy and its key institutions.

When data journalists present graphs that show decades of small incremental decay followed by rapid deterioration (whether concerning Climate or the NHS or the Poverty Pandemic) it is tempting to quote Orwell on institutional collapse – but the mere observation of tipping points does not clarify root causes.  The only immediate benefit lies in the shock value – exposure of our collective complacency.  As a Canadian poet wrote (hopefully) in the aftermath of WWII, ‘We rise to play a greater part’.

The Horizon, Grenfell, and sewage scandals (and countless other ‘canaries in the mine’) remind us that you can outsource systems, but you cannot outsource responsibility.  The enthusiasm for ‘small government’ and privatisation over the past five decades has weakened trust in institutions.

This year, this year of full consequences, is a time to face reality, to admit we have unthinkingly veered towards becoming a nation of bystanders.  Many will say (as during the Brexit referendum) that fears are exaggerated.  Leaders may claim they have everything under control.   Trust in central government and democracy is low.  I fear that democracy may soon be outsourced to a Palliative Care company.  ‘

Do not go gentle into that dark night.  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Being now of an age when, inevitably, thoughts of reaching a conclusion start to intrude, my epitaph will hopefully read, ‘Not a bystander’.




* David Brunnen is media liaison officer for Fareham Liberal Democrats. He writes on Municipal Autonomy, Intelligent Communities, Sustainability & Digital Challenges.

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  • Graham Jeffs 7th Feb '24 - 1:12pm

    Unfortunately, David, we seem to live in a society which invariably reacts to any issue that needs correcting as “not my job”. Yes, a small minority of people take action but they are a VERY small minority. It seems to me that often this inaction is a product of an all-pervading selfishness allied to pig ignorance.

    Maybe that is yet another reason why, as a party, we should be setting out our values and making it clear what we would like society to look like. And at the same time exhorting people to engage! We should not be frightened of saying that we see democracy being threatened.

  • Graham Jeffs – bang on the button. Some of us have been saying it for the past decade. For me the urgency of the echoes of the 1940s has led me tackle the issue in Methodist pulpits in the city of Bradford where in 1933 Bonhoeffer warned fellow pastors about the disasters which lay ahead in Germany. Our party has a distinctive responsibility as custodian of a political creed which is the absolute antithesis of the values of the authoritarian right wing extremists. Getting the complacent to wake up is part of job!

  • Sorry – part of OUR job!

  • @Graham Jeffs – might the bigger problem be that many people feel powerless or simply no longer believe that their personal actions can make a difference? This is of course embodied in our FPTP electoral system that effectively disenfranchises many. Couple that with populist politicians and their media cheerleaders who offer seductively simple solutions to complex problems, and here we are.

    Makes it all the more important that alternative radical and liberal voices are heard.

  • Chris Moore 7th Feb '24 - 6:14pm

    Oh dear, here we go again: the answer to societal complacency is PR.

    Please go and look at countries across Europe that have PR: disillusionment with politics and complacency in face of threats to democracy is a Europe-wide phenomenon, reflecting numerous social factors.

    If anything in Spain, where I live, disillusionment with politics is even more widespread and corrosive than in the UK. Spain has an admirable PR system.

  • Martin Gray 7th Feb '24 - 6:35pm

    When a political party does a PR stunt on a flagship policy – and does a complete 360 in govt , then people are going to be cynical when it comes to politics – rightly so. Cynicism turns to apathy as nothing fundamental changes in their lives for the better . Labours 17GE manifesto did give quite a few people hope & inspired many young voters …What’s followed since is mediocrity & a reaffirming of the status quo across the main political spectrum .

  • Mary Fulton 7th Feb '24 - 7:36pm

    @ Martin Gray
    You are absolutely right. I was one of many who could not force myself to vote Lib Dem in 2015 due to feeling so betrayed by the party. It takes time for trust to be restored and I understand those voters who just give up on the whole rotten political system with a crooked voting system and politicians who are willing to lie and make any promises to get votes and then no qualms about reneging on even solemn pledges once entrusted with power.

  • I agree with Mary Fulton. Despite a dodgy hip I canvassed and leafleted for my friend and local MP in 2015 purely out of personal loyalty and friendship. It was to no avail, I’m afraid. He lost and came third in a seat held by Libs/Lib Dems for over fifty years.

    If the party is ever to mean anything serious throughout the UK (and not just in the Home Counties) in the future, it needs to draw a big firm line under the policies and personnel responsible for that period. It also needs to rediscover its radicalism. Campaigning on apologies butters no parsnips when clear and strong leadership is required.

    If not, there will be a modern George Dangerfield out there somewhere sharpening his pen.

  • Bystanders: what are the extent of our campaigns in the the by elections next week? Does Lib Dem Voice even mention them?
    Important local by election tomorrow at East Hunsbury, a seat where we be would be expected to do well, good test of the Post Office scandal and its effect.

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