Acts of God

'It was on the road to Pisa that my family and I had our revelation of the fragility of Western civilisation'

It was on the road to Pisa that my family and I had our revelation of the fragility of Western civilisation. On Thursday 15 April, we heard the news that a cloud of volcanic ash had closed British airspace indefinitely. Our flight, like thousands of others, was cancelled. As the hours went by, the chaos worsened: nobody knew how long the emergency would last. I realised that my duty was to spare no expense in getting my wife and four children safely home, and ensuring that Standpoint would appear. After traversing a continent in pandemonium, with a French train strike adding insult to injury, and with the help of my magnificent colleagues at Standpoint, I was back at my desk by Sunday. We thanked God for our return in the words of Psalm 29: “I will praise you, Lord,/You have rescued me.” 

Our adventures have, however, left a permanent mark on me and, I suspect, most of the millions who found themselves stranded without warning. For the first time in many of our lives, we were thrown on our own resources. We came face to face with our own vulnerability and that of our way of life. In extreme situations, prayer is a real consolation, even if it is despised by those who regard God as a mere delusion. As Melanie Phillips argues in this month’s issue, in banishing the Judaeo-Christian God from our lives, we in the West have parted company with much else besides. The hollowness and irrationalism of the pseudo-religions that are filling the vacuum have not prevented them from gaining a hold over our intellectual and political elites. This has been brilliantly illuminated by the eruption in Iceland.

For despite its pretensions, modern environmentalism is strangely laconic about catastrophes that cannot be blamed on Western civilisation. When confronted with the awesome effects of a volcano on air travel, our politicians proved powerless. Worse, they seemed unable to find the right language in which to articulate the anguish of countless ordinary people who were directly or indirectly caught up in these events. In May 1940, Churchill had summoned the words to transform the disaster of Dunkirk into an act of defiance. Seventy years later, the Dunkirk spirit was much in evidence among those struggling to cross the Channel, but not among those hoping to fill Churchill’s shoes. 

Were it not for the election campaign, most British politicians would have been on holiday abroad too. Ironically, for once they were at home, obliged to flatter the voters. And so they failed to realise the scale of the distress, to the fury of an electorate already angered by the discovery that, as Nick Cohen explains, they had been lied to about the economy, immigration, corruption, Europe and much else besides. That has been the story of this campaign: a nation in dire straits, crying out for leadership, but faced with a Hobson’s choice between three ornaments of a political class that stubbornly refuses to raise its sights beyond the short-term concerns of tax and spend, let alone to defend the values that created our precarious prosperity.

The West may have forsaken God, but has God has forsaken the West? In his new book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, Eric Kaufmann raises the spectre of “demographically turbo-charged piety” overwhelming secularism by sheer force of numbers. There is a major objection to Kaufmann’s scenario: he conflates devout adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, treating all as “fundamentalists” who are natural allies against secularism. In reality, as several of our writers this month imply, it is only Islam, in its most radical forms, that poses a threat to the liberties enjoyed by a civilisation that was largely created by Jews and Christians. Unless and until all Muslims settled in the West can unambiguously embrace the open society, non-Muslims may feel threatened by their increasing numbers and influence — even if politicians treat this unease as unmentionable.

At the time of writing, the election result is unexpectedly unpredictable. Dominic Lawson shrewdly cited Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” to elucidate the bitter rivalry of David Cameron and Nick Clegg. But the electorate wants clear choices, not “Red Tories” or other political transvestites. If Clegg wants to pose as the new Tony Blair, promising to break with the idolatry of ideology, he will have to justify his party’s policies, which are the most ideological of the three. Clegg may be a young man, but he cut his teeth in the Old Europe of Brussels. To adapt Donald Rumsfeld: if Gordon Brown is a known known and David Cameron is a known unknown, Nick Clegg is an unknown unknown. If Britain is about to bet the farm, with the bailiffs already at the gate, God help us. 

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