Britain for Peace

It was some time in the late 1950s that Dr Edward Conze gave a lecture to members of the London Buddhist Society which he called ‘The Age of the Common Man’. The English audience, with still, at that time, its in-born sense of class distinction, assumed that this would involve some kind of a socialist revolution in which the ‘working classes’ would take over the world. But, as Dr Conze went on to explain, he was predicting the future coming of an age when hierarchies would break down and intermediaries be swept away, when people would communicate directly between people, when loyalty to conscience would take precedence over loyalty to institution, when knowledge would become freely available to all, when the opinions of ordinary people would receive the same exposure and respect as the official pronouncements of business and governments.

From imperceptible beginnings, as beginnings often are, the new era gradually dawned, a major element being the growth of the internet which took off during the mid-1990s.

Today, the era is fully with us, the prediction fulfilled. A wealth of knowledge is available to all, not just the official ‘party lines’ of governments and historians, but stories and contributions by ordinary people. Historical events take on a different slant as people of different nations write their own versions, while personal on-the-spot accounts of events often correct with truth the official lies and propaganda. No need for aspiring authors and composers to send and re-send rejected manuscripts to publishers; articles, entire books, musical compositions can all be made available direct to the public, even sold commercially using a simple low-cost payment system. Thousands of people buy through internet auctions every day. And national barriers, once the proud tool of government control, are no more than lines on the map as people communicate across the world through the ether and even, within the new Europe, physically.

Many students are finding that pursuing knowledge at their own pace, following an exploration path of their own interests, is more informative and useful to them than formal classroom presentations. Certainly the internet with its vast knowledge base can supplement traditional teaching systems.

Conscience has often taken precedence over institutional loyalty in the past. But whereas a government employee whose conscience was at odds with government policy or who perhaps discovered some unsavoury acts of officialdom would need to meet a press contact in a corner of a busy pub perhaps, sliding an envelope of incriminating documents discretely across the table... nowadays it’s so easy to ‘leak’ on the internet, no danger, no traces. Indeed the websites publishing underground versions of ‘officialdom’ and unmasking the clandestine acts and dealings of big business and government are almost as plentiful as ‘regular’ publications. Today information is the property of all.

This is indeed the Age of the Common Man.

So far so good. But nothing is all good. Such is our world. And the internet also has its dark side. While we sanctimoniously voice pious platitudes about world peace, our junior offspring may well be immersed in the plethora of internet games, the sole object of which is to kill as many people as possible.

Gone too, or almost gone, are the days when nations made war upon one another after having given formal notice of their intentions - and even in the distant past behaving with a degree of chivalry. During the Crusades, the opening battles of the 1000-year-plus conflict over the Middle East and the Holy Places, two great leaders faced one another: Salah-ad-Din and England’s King Richard the Lionheart. During a skirmish before the gates of Jaffa, Richard’s horse was killed under him; Salah-ad-Din sent him a steed to replace it with the message: “It is not right that so brave a warrior should have to fight on foot.”

Today, nations can and quite possibly will make war upon one another. But now there is a new kind of war: the warfare of the common man. No longer do individuals seized with idealism and nursing a political or religious grievance, no longer must they wait for their own country to declare war. They simply strap explosives around their waist and sacrifice themselves in a bus or train or an airport. Called ‘terrorism’, it is the warfare of the common man. And if it is highly motivated and widely spread, the old-fashioned weaponry of mass bombing will not conquer it. Indeed in the Middle East today, as total religious conviction is combined with total intolerance of any other faith or viewpoint, there seems little that those outside the conflict can do.

The Age of the Common Man is People Power. On the positive side, as it progresses and gains in maturity, it will discover and make public the unsavoury dealings of government, the clandestine deals with big industries, the waste and the over-generous expense accounts. Dishonesty will give way to honesty, secrecy to openness, and armed with knowledge people will take more and more control over their governments and their lives. Perhaps People Power will begin to establish what no Constitution has yet succeeded in achieving: open, honest, disciplined and effective government. Or we may yet destroy ourselves.

Britain for Peace

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