On 12 November, I was a guest of the French President. Not the excitable Nicolas Sarkozy, but the imperturbable Julien Domercq, the President of the Cambridge Union, who invited me to speak in a debate before a packed chamber of several hundred undergraduates. The motion was: “This House believes the West wasted the opportunity presented by the fall of the Berlin Wall.” I was on the Opposition side, along with the Earl of Onslow and the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, up against a formidable Proposition team: Sir Emyr Jones Parry, a former ambassador to the UN and to Nato, Michael Moore, a former Prime Minister of New Zealand and former Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, John Kampfner, a former editor of the New Statesman, and Bruce Kent, a former leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The debate turned on what attitude one took to the West: was it to blame for all the troubles of the world, or not?
My distinguished colleagues argued that we defenders of the West were the pragmatists and realists, while the Proposers were the idealists, absurdly overestimating what could reasonably have been expected after 1989. My own pitch was slightly different: I did not want to concede the notion that the critics of the West had a monopoly of idealism. We, the victors of the Cold War, the liberators of the evil empire, could never have accomplished our bloodless triumph without a good measure of idealism. Over the past two decades, the West has brought freedom, democracy and prosperity to large areas of the world that had never known them before, often in the teeth of tyranny and fanaticism. I spoke of the future, imploring my youthful audience to seize their chance to make history, as our generation had done. It seemed to me that in the battle between hope and despair, the young would vote for the heroes of hope.
We lost. I thought we had the better of it, naturally, but nevertheless the House voted against us. It may not have been as momentous a debate as the motion carried by the Oxford Union in 1933, “That this House will in no circumstances fight for King and Country”, but it was significant.
The Cambridge undergraduates who condemned the conduct of the West since 1989 were sending a message not unlike that of their Oxford predecessors, the disillusioned generation for whom Auden spoke in his poem “1 September 1939”, when he looked back at Europe from the safety of Manhattan: “Uncertain and afraid/As the clever hopes expire/Of a low dishonest decade”.
About half of the audience hailed from the Continent, hardly surprising now that British students have to compete with 450 million other Europeans for a place at Cambridge. But those I spoke to did not seem cynical or disillusioned. One young Polish woman was a passionate supporter of the West and evidently grateful for her nation’s emancipation, however belated, from Soviet domination. Perhaps now, in our hour of need, New Europe will come to the aid of Old Europe.
I do not want to suggest that the students I encountered at the Cambridge Union were anything less than courteous, well-informed and intelligent. Only one was clearly hostile to Standpoint and his friends apologised for his behaviour. The problem, rather, is the one to which the Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, drew attention in his Theos Lecture last month: “You cannot defend a civilisation on the basis of moral relativism.” My young Cambridge acquaintances may not have been moral relativists, but many were clearly unsure of their ground when asked to decide whether they were for or against the West and its civilisation.
The new generation is, probably, no more tentative about its values than its predecessors. In her European Eye column this month, Mara Delius remarks that the English “have the courage to express bold opinions, without shouting them from the rooftops”. David Cameron now has a chance to show that kind of courage, inspiring the new generation with his leadership. He cannot be all things to all men. Let him be true to himself.