‘As we stumble along, all we can do is trust our instincts. But that is precisely what our politicians fail to do’
In Testaments Betrayed (Faber, 2004), Milan Kundera describes Man moving in a fog, always uncertain of where he is heading. Kundera was neither the first nor the last to observe this. What is interesting is what he said next. For despite Man’s own stumbling, he noted, “when he looks back to judge people of the past, he sees no fog on their path”. We judge the past by a different standard, emboldened by our recognition of the way in which things turned out. The path always seems clear once it has been trodden.
I was thinking of Kundera the other day as I sat in the European Parliament in Brussels. I was there to speak on a panel organised by the British Council. Charming as the organisers were, it was the wrong thing to do.
Speaking in Brussels is probably always the wrong thing to do. For me, it is also like turning up at a dinner party where you have let it be known in advance that you loathe your hosts and think their marriage is on the rocks.
Several people with impossible titles explained what the ensuing session would show. A very important man talked of the very important article in a very important treaty that would ensure everything needed to be done could be done. He was the Vice-President of the Commission or the Vice-Commissioner of the President. In Brussels, people can be called whatever they like to be called. I am confident that nobody outside the building had ever heard of him.
The treaty he was discussing had a clause on which he was particularly keen. Everyone talked about it. Yet I couldn’t name it, and no one outside the parliament will have heard of it.
The vast building, replete with such people, put me in mind of T. S. Eliot’s description of those who spend their days “dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good”. If enough laws and treaties are passed then everything will be OK. Everyone agreed with that and only the details remained to be sorted out. Here was the concoction of a society in which you won’t have to waste your time “pursuing” happiness. Here you will simply have to demand it.
And it wasn’t just the future but the past that they hated. Everything about it was wrong. The important man explained how terrible and base we Europeans had been, how low our civilisation was while the others all rode high. Everyone clapped. We Europeans had been born into sin while everyone else had been born into innocence.
Realising with a start that I was sitting in a chamber full of well-remunerated masochists, I wiled away the time wondering when they would suffer the fate that all masochists finally meet: which is what happens when they finally encounter a sadist. As I ran over the enjoyably apocalyptic possibilities in my head, one thing was clear: the overwhelming sensation that an institution of government so monstrously unaccountable and unnatural which so hates and distrusts the people it aspires to govern is an institution that cannot last.
The day I was there, a new European President and Foreign Minister were chosen in a nearby room. Neither the people who did the choosing nor the people whom they chose could claim to have any approval from the people they claimed to speak for. Yet everyone in power, including all our major political parties in Britain, are in agreement that this is the way things should be done. As Heidegger once said, the decisions have been made for us. There is nothing left to discuss.
Which brings me back to Milan Kundera.
If I manage to live a normal lifespan, I should make it into the 2060s. Had I been born a century earlier, I would have gone from the height of Victoria’s Empire into the age of the atom bomb. There is no reason to believe that my generation’s lifespan will not see change just as great.
As we stumble along, all we can do is trust our instincts. Yet that is exactly what our politicians no longer do. They distrust their instincts, believing they led them wrong before. Although our instincts certainly can go wrong, they are also the only things that ever guided us well. My own instinct is that something has gone badly wrong and that Brussels represents the core of that wrongness — the centre of the decline from a liberal state into an authoritarian one, a government of the people into a government apart from the people, and finally a government opposed to the people.
I do not know how this will all end. I am no more a prophet than I am a diplomat. But I do know that sometime in the future, older and greyer, those of us fortunate enough to still be around will look back at 2009 and 2010 and wonder why our younger selves didn’t see the path a little clearer or tread it rather better.
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