Cair Paravel

Boris Johnson’s vision of Albion reminds me of Cair Paravel, the turreted castle and court at the heart of C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis’s nod to a chivalrous past that never, of course, existed. Boris, naturally, is High King Peter, ‘head of the world’ at last, rousing his subjects to a frenzy of patriotism with talk of a new era, a new dawn, a new beginning (an old cliché).

Cair Paravel is lovely. Primary colour standards flutter in the breeze. Boys can be Kings, and girls can be Queens. Whether boys can be Queens too, or girls, Kings, is never made clear, but C S Lewis, I suspect, might have given short shrift to Diversity and Inclusion Policy, even if not to gender equality. Queen Susan, after all, is a dab hand with a long bow, though Queen Lucy must rush about the battlefield like a courtly Florence Nightingale with a tiny bottle of Chanel No. 7 that cures even mortal wounds.

Everything in Narnia is noble and nice, and everyone is gracious. The Royals speak with the clarity of a BBC English of the 1950s, with a sprinkling of ‘prithees’, ‘nays’ and ‘verilies’ to make it even nicer. No one squabbles. For spiritual and ethical guidance there’s a talking lion.

Everything is good and wholesome at Cair Paravel, even if just a tiny bit priggish and smug. There are sometimes battles to fight, against envious oiks who want what Narnia has, but don your cuirass, your sallet, your fauld and your spauldron, parry and thrust awhile, and the oiks, natural cowards that they are, will retreat in shame.

Puberty is as yet a distant threat at Cair Paravel. Indeed, nothing sullies the loveliness. No one counts the debits and credits, there are no interfering bureaucrats, no constraining regulations, no spending reviews, no deficits, no cancer, no garlic, no cocaine, no coronavirus. And whilst not everyone is equal (after all, you can only be royal if you went to a good school) everyone seems happy enough, banqueting and quaffing mead together in the great hall of the castle – only enough, mind you, to make them merrie. No one is drunk and boorish at Cair Paravel.

I loved the Chronicles of Narnia until I was about sixteen (far too long, you might say). The muscular Christianity, the moral certainty, the nobility of it all – the clothes, too, and the talking animals. But in reality it has all the verisimilitude of Katharine Hepburn as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, make-believe nonsense that does a disservice to the multi-faceted, complex, competitive world we live in.

The oiks, after all, have their own point of view, their own moral certainties, their own talking animals, their own ‘good schools’. Is there anything as dangerous as righteousness, certainty or nationalism masquerading as patriotism? Better by far to compromise and cooperate, and to pool our sovereignty. We’re all of us oiks after all.

I dream of a time when the flag of the EU will once again flutter above the parapets of Cair Paravel.

Ambition and Greatness

Some days ago I was tempted to write a blog called ‘Et tu Boris’  but the comparison of Boris’s betrayal of David Cameron and Brutus’s betrayal of Julius Caesar doesn’t really hold. Brutus was a reluctant assassin, a late convert to the cause of preserving the Roman Republic from tyranny, and Boris, as far as I know, has never worn a toga. But betrayal it was, in Boris’s case, and I am one of the many who believe, as former Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, argued today in the European Parliament, that Boris brought about Brexit, and thereby potentially brought down his country, and the European Union with it, largely to serve his own Prime Ministerial ambitions. How otherwise can one explain his ruthless dishonesty with the facts – the nonsense about 350 million pounds flowing weekly from Britain into the EU’s coffers, and the putative invasion of Britain by a million Turks? In my eyes he has lost all credibility as a decent man, though I don’t doubt that he is a clever one.

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Boris Johnson has written about Churchill, and wags have suggested that he sees many of the great man’s qualities in himself – wit, independence of mind, brilliance, and oratorical originality – and for both Churchill and Johnson politics were and are but one facet of a wide-ranging career. Churchill, like Johnson, wasn’t always taken seriously, and had similarly clownish ways when it suited him.

But, consider May 1940, when Neville Chamberlain only narrowly won a vote of no confidence tabled in the House of Commons, when many MPs of his own party voted against him. Churchill spoke passionately in defence of Chamberlain. Deciding that a coalition government was needed Chamberlain sought the support of the opposition party, and when he met with the leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party, as well as with Churchill and Halifax on the 9th May, he was informed that they would support a coalition only on condition that he would not continue as Prime Minister. Chamberlain was willing to resign but had to advise the King on whom he should ask to form a Coalition Government.

Chamberlain greatly preferred Halifax. As Foreign Secretary, Halifax was the obvious choice, and it was said (a relevant consideration in 1940) that he enjoyed the confidence of the King. He was a more predictable, more widely admired politician. So, Chamberlain, Churchill and Halifax met to discuss whom Chamberlain should recommend to the King. Churchill gave Halifax the opportunity to put himself forward and would have been ready to support him. For reasons that are still not wholly understood, Halifax demurred, claiming that as a member of the House of Lords he would not be able to lead the country effectively (though historians point out that there were mechanisms that would have allowed him to speak in the House of Commons, if not to vote there). He also doubted that he had the bellicose qualities that the times demanded and that he would have the support of coalition partners. So, it remained to Churchill to offer himself, and in due course, according to Roy Jenkins (in his biography of Churchill), he became the greatest Prime Minister the country has ever known.

Nothing captures the British attitude to leadership more dramatically than the symbolic dragging of the elected Speaker to his chair in Parliament after his or her election. We do not like our leaders to show eagerness when they assume power.

Boris Johnson, as we have seen, clothed himself in the most convenient policies, told the most effective and appalling lies, and has now set about elbowing his way to the top job.

Greatness was thrust upon Winston Churchill, whilst Boris Johnson is thrusting his shabby mediocrity upon us.

 

 

 

Democracy

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If only David Cameron hadn’t promised a referendum (he might well have won the last General Election without it)

If only Jeremy Corbyn had campaigned for Remain more passionately (how different the outcome might have been if Gordon Brown had been in charge)

If only it hadn’t rained in London yesterday (turnout for Remain might have been higher)

If only Scotland’s political leaders had campaigned more passionately (turnout in Scotland might have been higher)

If only the referendum had been only about Brexit (it was inevitably an opportunity for the expression of other frustrations – a protest against austerity, authority, inequality, poverty and alienation)

If only Vote Remain had campaigned more positively (‘project fear’ was the wrong approach)

If only Boris Johnson was less ambitious.

If only MPs hadn’t lost the trust of the people during the expenses scandal (expert opinion is now routinely despised and all MPs’ sincerity doubted)

If only Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande had offered Britain more

If only the EU had been better at promoting its virtues and demonstrating its democratic credentials

If only the media had been more honest about the EU’s virtues and less intent on misrepresentation and the promotion of lies

Democracy is the least bad way of arranging human affairs on a large scale, and there is no purer form of democracy than asking the opinion of the people in a referendum, even if the question that is asked is more complex when taken in its full historical and political context than its simple form might suggest. But however we might analyse the reasons why Britain voted for Leave, the will of the people was finally expressed through a simple binary choice and it must be respected.

All the same, I think less of my countrymen for the decision they have made. It was a naïve, foolish, and selfish decision and I wish the question had never been asked, that the referendum had never been called. I hope that despite Brexit the EU will remain intact, but I fear that British parochialism may be contagious.

The UK will be smaller if it leaves

Absence has made my heart grow fonder, but if Brexit wins today’s referendum my affection for my country will be diminished.

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I’ve lived abroad for more than half of my life. I was born in Germany (West Germany as it was then called), to British parents posted in the late 1950s to Rheindahlen, an outpost of the British Army of the Rhine. If I add the two years I spent as an infant in Germany to the twenty-eight years I’ve spent in Central Europe it amounts to more than half of my fifty-eight years.

But despite the influence of Germany, Hungary and the Czech Republic, I am still recognisably British. Culture is surprisingly immune to residency, and if there is one thing we need never fear, however much closer the ‘union’ becomes, it is that everyone will end up being the same.

Over the last twenty-eight years I’ve come to appreciate British culture more and more – justice, fairness, humour, stiff upper lip (though the lip has softened markedly in recent decades), an international perspective, inventiveness, generosity, pragmatism, decency – despite our inability to acquire foreign languages, and our incomprehensible appreciation of the glories of cricket.  Britain argued for the widening of the European Union rather than its deepening, and I have seen European values, to which Britain has contributed more than any other nation, taking hold in all of the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe to the extent that these countries, whilst they have retained their national cultures, have, in their institutions and their prosperity, developed beyond recognition.

If Britain votes for Leave today, the country will be turning its back on the international principles it has lived by for decades, and on its capacity to extend its already enormous influence yet further beyond its shores. It will be a vote for insularism, parochialism, and a little-England outlook that demeans it, in the  belief that ‘full sovereignty’ is both possible and sensible. In my view it is neither.

‘Take Back Control,’ chant those in favour of Brexit. ‘Vote leave on Independence Day,’ shouts the mendacious and ambitious buffoon, Boris Johnson. But from the perspective of the rest of the world, it will be a vote for a small idea, and a smaller place in the world.

I am not offended by the European Courts, or by rules and regulations devised by European institutions. Many of them may be silly, but most of them make snese and bring advantage to millions. Take the abolition of roaming charges, for example. True, the EU may be overly bureaucratic, even corrupt, and I share the view that it has failed to ‘connect’ with its electorate, but let’s stay and change it, not abandon it. Cooperation is the future, not separation.

I came to Central Europe for three months in 1987, and I’m still here twenty-eight years later, still intending, as always, to return to live in London in ‘only five years time.’ For the first time, I fear that I may be returning to a country that is smaller than the one I left.

Vote to Lead, not Leave. Vote Remain!

Two Questions

I spent the weekend in the UK – in Brighton, London, Basingstoke and Salisbury (when you live most of the time in another country your visits home are a mad exhausting and bibulous rush to see all your friends and family). Whilst rushing (and drinking) I asked two questions about Brexit of everyone I met:

  • Will you vote to Leave or to Remain?
  • How do you think the vote will go?

 

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Most of those I asked are based in London,  so it’s hardly a surprise that the answer to the first question was generally Remain, though two of my friends and family hadn’t yet quite decided. Why would anyone want to leave? Interestingly, it wasn’t the argument about independence that attracted them (the ghastly Boris Johnson has already labelled June 23rd as Independence Day). They acknowledge that ‘independence’ is a chimera. Rather, the two issues uppermost in the minds of the doubters were:

  • The undemocratic, inefficient, meddling and corrupt character of the EU
  • Uncontrolled immigration

To which I can only reply that all human institutions are overly bureaucratic, inefficient, fallible and corrupt. Politicians are not the only ones who cannot know the future, and whose expertise is limited and judgement sometimes faulty. Whether you are a politician, or a businessman, an entrepreneur or a civil servant, you are likely to make some serious mistakes in your career. We should not expect otherwise. To cite the idiocies of the Eurocracy as a good reason to Leave, is foolish. We should stay and fight for reform, and accept that we will never fully succeed.

As for immigration, it is surely a cultural and economic stimulus. Most immigrants are young, and they invigorate us. At a friend’s wedding on Saturday evening I met a couple who farm vast tracts of land in the Midlands. They would be unable to bring in the harvest without immigrant labour. And where would our NHS be?

I don’t know if I managed to sway their opinions.

But it should come as no surprise that arguments made from an external perspective (as mine are, made from Prague) carry little weight in the UK. That the EU has entrenched peace in Europe, had impeded extremism (important now, given the direction of travel of Hungary and Poland), and has hugely improved the lives of the citizens of the new member states in ‘Eastern Europe’, is acknowledged as a GOOD THING, but as irrelevant to the argument. Moreover, that Brexit might trigger the dissolution of the UK, and perhaps even of the EU , doesn’t seem to register with most of the Brits I’ve spoken to. To me, of course, as an immigrant in the Czech Republic, and a businessman doing most of my business in the EU, it matters greatly.

As for the question of how the vote will go, almost everyone, including those who might vote to Leave, thinks that Remain will win, if narrowly. I am less sure. I can’t help feeling that the passion that ignites the Leavers will urge them to the polling stations, whilst those who would vote to Remain might simply stay at home and fiddle.

Betfair has odds of 3 to 1 (on) for Remain, which means, apparently, that Remain is the more likely outcome. Bet 3 pounds on Remain and you will get only one pound extra back. But recent opinion polls suggest it is a 50:50 question. I worry.