Like every other pundit on the planet I was certain that the United Kingdom was going to descend into Israeli-style coalition bargaining after May 7 — so certain that I flew to New York on the morning of the election. Apart from having accepted a speaking commitment, my general feeling was that, like an especially bad painting, the whole mess might look slightly more bearable from a distance.
How wrong I was. By the time I retired to bed in Brooklyn I knew the fate of Ed Balls, the likely success of the Conservatives and — joy of joys — the evisceration of the Liberal Democrats. I have always kept a special portion of my spleen dedicated to loathing the party. Not just because (before becoming Deputy Prime Minister) Nick Clegg once repeatedly, and publicly, lied to my face, but because I always felt they were at the root of our current political confusions. For almost a century the party has been a husk. Labour and the Conservatives still have a point since not everybody believes in an enlarged or a restricted state. But the Liberal Democrats?
With the exception of the jihadists, everyone in Britain is either “liberal” or a “democrat” and most people are both. Beyond that the party has never explained its purpose, and when it does it wholly changes. Are they, for instance, the interventionists of the 1990s or the isolationists of the 2000s? The sooner the party dissolves — as it should have done several times since 1951 — the sooner British politics as a whole can become clearer.
My engagement in New York was a discussion at the Brooklyn Art Museum on “Islamophobia”. My friend and ally Ayaan Hirsi Ali was meant to be on my side, but the event took place only a few days after the attack on a cartoon exhibition in Texas and her security advice was to stay away. My other buddy, Asra Nomani, told me that someone who had sent her a death-threat had RSVPed. I have never seen so many police and security for a debate in America. In the end everything went fine. A young Palestinian-American hijabi argued the anti-American case to whoops from the Brooklyn audience. An Egyptian comic of amazing fatuousness behaved as such a person would. And a young Al-Jazeera journalist who called Ayaan a “prostitute” on his blog presented a more moderate façade. Ayaan’s replacement was a young Iraqi secularist called Faisal al-Mutar who had come to study in the US a couple of years ago after losing his father and brother, among other members of his family, to sectarian Baghdad death-squads. The audience was not much interested in him. They wanted to hear of American crimes and American ills. Just before going on, Faisal and I talked about this masochistic trend in American life. “I didn’t think America would be like this,” he admitted.
At the end of a fairly nasty barrage from the Islamists — to which we returned plenty of fire — he, Asra and I had another reminder of what America now is. It was we who were expected to be on the defensive. Yet it was only our side who were under any threat. At the end a friend in the front row of the audience came forward to say well done. A wall of police and security guards threw themselves between us. America still has free speech, but it doesn’t feel very free.
A week earlier I had been on assignment in Lampedusa and Sicily, chasing the migrant crisis story round the Mediterranean. I managed to get the last possible plane back to the UK and arrived, unshaven and under-dressed, for a magnificent dinner at the Victoria and Albert Museum in honour of George Weidenfeld.
The crisis in the Mediterranean is an unbelievably complex and harrowing story. But it is also haunted — like everything else — by our past. Are these people going to become Europeans? If so, what type of Europe are we intending to make? Among the migrants travelling across continents to get here are some who will be coming not just to the geographical place called Europe, but for the idea of Europe. If there is one person who epitomises that idea for me it is George, himself a refugee in 1938 from Austria to Britain and a totem of our culture and politics.
But while migrations have often happened, all migrations are different. How easy is it for an Eritrean to become a European? Not impossible. But not easy. Of course it would be so much easier if we were culturally confident. But we are not. And the fear I had, as I sat in that Raphael-bedecked room, listening to the heartwarming speeches while looking at an altar-screen of St George slaying the Dragon, was that we are doing next to nothing to introduce these new arrivals into the culture that comprises our continent. This is in some ways the greatest failure of our age.