Living through history

‘Ordinarily, the public should flay this political class at the next available chance. But our options seem deeply limited’

In recent months I have been trying to put my finger on a term to describe one of the fallacies which many people today seem to have imbibed. It is something like this: “I know how I would have acted in history because I know how history went.” To give the obvious example, everybody knows that they would have been in the resistance if they had been French in the 1940s and would have assassinated Hitler the moment they saw him if they were German or anyone else. And yet people in history did not know what we know, and it seems to me that the lack of recognition of that simple fact is one of the causes of our current unforgiving attitude towards the past.

Living through history makes it far easier to understand that nobody ever has much of a clue. My own explanation for the confusion and mess of the last few years has been that there are now too many variables at play to make any meaningful predictions. Human beings, with their failings, hidden motives and personal ambitions, were always the most obvious scrambling device. Then there are the different elements in any negotiation which look solid in the abstract but in reality are like juggling mercury. And now we have to deal with the added scrambling device of the media and social media.


Some words of wisdom in the middle of the Brexit mess came from an Australian friend who has worked in government and recently passed through London. “There is no complex task that government cannot present as simple if it wants to do it,” she said. “And no simple task that government cannot make too complex if it does not want to do it.”


The message that it’s all too complex and it would be better if we just fudged the verdict of the people is clearly a seductive one to push for those opposed to Brexit. In France President Macron has been claiming that the public were lied to by the Leave campaign and given promises that were unfulfillable, a charge which could just as easily be levelled against Macron himself, not to mention every other politician who has ever put themselves before any public. What is saddening is speaking to people across Europe who have been immiserated by the EU (particularly by the euro) but who look at Britain’s Fawlty Towers attempt at leaving and think, “If even the British can’t leave this thing then what chance would we ever have?” I heard exactly those words in Italy recently and could only reflect that the blame lies equally with a Commission which doesn’t want anyone to leave well and a political class in Britain which must be the most inept this country has ever had.

Ordinarily, the public should flay this political class at the next available chance. But our options seem deeply limited. After one of the latest stumbles I told one cabinet minister that he and his party were making me wonder about voting Labour. But that minister, like all the others, knows that even the most furious voter will be reluctant to put their vote beside Jeremy Corbyn’s  party by way of protest. So I don’t know. Will people just not turn up? There must be some organised and realistic answer. But what is it? If only we knew what people in the future will know.


One of the few way to bear the news is to read books unconnected with any of it. Over recent weeks I have been reading Jessica Douglas-Home’s beautiful new book on the sculptor William Simmonds (William Simmonds: The Silent Heart of the Arts and Crafts Movement, Unicorn, £20). I say “over recent weeks” because I have been reading it slowly because it is such a pleasure. The book itself is like an act of resurrection, fondly and generously bringing someone back to the surface after they have been submerged by the passage of time. If I were to think of a definition not just of culture but of civilised life it would be captured in such an action and such a book.


Eleven years ago Daniel Johnson approached me and asked me if I would like to write a column for a new magazine he was starting. I leapt at the chance and have had the honour of being in these pages in every issue since. One of Daniel’s gifts as an editor has always been putting together people of different political slants and different generations who nevertheless have clear values and concerns in common. He has now gone on to other things but I didn’t want to let a decade of his visionary editorship pass without paying tribute to him. He always said that he wanted Standpoint to be a home for a robust defence of Western civilisation and culture. For the last decade he certainly achieved that, and everybody who cares about that culture and civilisation owes him a debt of considerable gratitude.

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