In September 2001, I went to Bangor University to study English and Contemporary History. I chose those subjects due to a fascination born of a childhood holiday to Germany at the age of 11. On that holiday I was taken to Dachau concentration camp, a day trip that was to have a profound impact on my life.
I couldn’t fathom the horrors that had happened in that place. I couldn’t understand how one faction of society could turn against another and commit acts of such barbarity. Humanity lost in atrocity.
From that trip, an interest was born – as so many questions left unanswered. Choosing to study History felt like an opportunity to find some of those answers. But it was the other part of my course that eventually became of greatest interest to me, when, in my first year as a literature student, I was introduced to dystopian fiction.
I became fascinated by the novels of Atwood, Orwell, Bradbury and Huxley, offering, as they did, a glimpse of a world that seemed so close, yet so far away.
They painted a picture of a society we could recognise, one that seemed like our own, yet, one where the societal norms we take for granted had collapsed. They showed how close to dystopia we were, and in that, they were fascinating, but they always felt like works of literature – intellectual explorations of what could, but never should happen.
But I haven’t been able to read a dystopian novel in years. These books, which once seemed so fascinating, now seem all too real.
Geeks of both dystopian fiction and contemporary history will recognise that there are commonalities; patterns that become apparent in societies before things get truly dark. They include a disenfranchised people, and an effective propaganda machine which lays the blame for this disenfranchisement at the feet of another group of people.
Narratives of blame are peddled until they become narratives of hate, then bit by bit, those deemed ‘guilty’ are criticised, ostracised, and criminalised. Increasingly unjust actions against them become normalised and justified. Then, democracy gets shut down – and that’s when things get really dangerous.
And that is why so many of us have taken to the streets. Because while in many ways this is about Brexit, it is, in fact about so much more. This is about a dangerous precedent being set of democracy being abandoned, and one man doing what the hell he likes.
Now I understand the arguments about democracy and that crucial vote in 2016. I understand why some might say Johnson’s actions are an act of democracy, that he is carrying out the will of the 52% that voted to leave the EU that day. But to them I say this:
When we are being taken into a no-deal Brexit, which expert opinion agrees will be disastrous for our country, and which never appeared on the ballot paper – is that democracy?
When arguments are based on lies, not fact – is that democracy?
When 700,000 Britons living abroad are ineligible to vote and have no say in their future – is that democracy?
When EU nationals, who have built their lives here in the UK are shut out of the democratic process – is that democracy?
When the younger generation, whose futures will be most affected by this, were not allowed to cast a vote – is that democracy?
And when an unelected leader seeks the permission of another unelected leader to shut down an institution of democratically elected representatives in order to push through such a disastrous option – effectively gagging their right to debate it – is that democracy?
I don’t think it is. I don’t think people voted for food shortages. I don’t think people voted to see vital medical supplies under threat. I don’t think people vote to see a staffing crisis in our National Health Service. I don’t think people voted to see transport systems grinding to a halt. I don’t think people voted for potential mass disruption and martial law.
And I don’t think people voted to be even worse off than we are now – even after enduring 10 years of crippling Tory austerity.
Right now, it is easy to feel that we are living in times of frightening historical parallels. It’s easy to see ourselves living through one of those dystopian novels I used to so enjoy.
While the amazon burns and our climate collapses; while women lose the right to choose what happens to their own bodies in supposedly one of the most advanced countries in the world; when the LGBTQ community in Chechnya and Brazil are persecuted simply for who they chose to love; and when migrants are vilified, incarcerated indefinitely and extradited from the UK, or left to drown on the shores of Europe, it certainly feels like Dystopia.
But I offer you one glimmer of hope. When I visited Dachau at the age of 11, I didn’t leave simply asking how did this happen, but I also asked why did no one do anything to stop it? How could people stand by and let it happen?
And a common feature in many dystopian novels is the fact that people didn’t rise up and take action when they had the chance. A chilling meme from The Handmaids Tale has been doing the rounds on social media of late, and it states ‘That was when they suspended the constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even rioting in the streets. People stayed at home at night, watching television, looking for some direction.’
Therefore, my friends, let me point out that the glimmer of hope lies within each and every one of you. People did not stay home watching television – they came out to protest on the street. They were conscious of what was happening and took action.
And I am going to ask you to keep taking on taking action. Keep on taking to the streets and making your voices heard. When you witness an injustice, take to the streets. Take to the streets to protest the decimation of the welfare system.
Take to the streets to protest the indefinite detention of migrants and refugees. Take to the streets to protect the rights of the vulnerable. And take to the streets to protest the destruction of our democratic systems.
But we must do more than that. We need to start living by the morals that have brought us here today. We need to start taking positive collective action to tackle all the things that seem to be going wrong in our society. We need to get active at grassroots and community level and bring about change from the community up.
Let’s get together and plant trees and pick up litter to tackle, bit by bit some of the disastrous climatic effects of our modern lives.
Let’s get those community food shares or lift-sharing projects started.
Let’s shop local, support local businesses and keep our economy going at the most fundamental level.
Let’s reach out to create networks of support within our communities, coming together to support each other when the state fails to do so.
Let’s reach out to those who have built their lives here, who chose the UK as the place to live, work and love, but who may be afraid of what the future holds for them after the 31st October.
If we witness racism, sexism or any form of prejudice, we must challenge it. And most importantly, we must be kind. Because right now, it’s up to us to turn things around.
Up to us to ensure that this world doesn’t turn into the dark dystopia we probably all fear.
It’s up to us to build the society that we want to see, because if there’s one thing I can promise you today, this government most certainly won’t.
This article was originally delivered as a speech at a democracy rally in Bangor on August 31st, 2019.