The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

17 March 2016

3:00 PM

17 March 2016

3:00 PM

Do Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Bashar Assad support ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ in Britain’s EU referendum? I ask because they are the most powerful foreign leaders in deciding the vote, their views being much more effective than any sonorous words that may soon be offered by Barack Obama or any last-minute inducements from Angela Merkel. If President Assad — his position secured by Vladimir Putin — decides to make a dramatic gesture between now and 23 June, and call for some peace conference, preferably in a European capital, then the sense of crisis which makes the EU look so weak will dissipate. If President Erdoğan accepts the latest EU bribe and temporarily halts the export of terrorists and ordinary, decent migrants to the union, then it may seem, for the few months necessary, that order has been restored and European solidarity has worked. Only later will the arrival of millions of Turks into the Schengen area as part of the deal cause consternation. On balance, both these feints should be considered quite likely, although one must doubt whether Assad or Erdoğan have any love for ‘our common European home’. A ‘remain’ vote, which helps to perpetuate the illusion of a single European actor in world affairs, would help both men bamboozle the international system for longer. It is a long time since the Ottoman world has been so important in British politics.

A friend draws my attention to the statement of the European (Catholic) Bishops’ Conference on Europe, published in March 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. It was celebratory. The first paragraph said ‘We consider it our duty to carry on the work of European construction, bearing in mind that it is a century-long task… In 50 years we have built a new “cathedral” for all Europeans.’ An interesting feature of this statement is that it marks almost the last possible moment at which such remarks could have been made. That summer, the inter-bank market froze, and the world of money entered a prolonged crisis from which the eurozone has still not emerged. It turned out that the ‘cathedral’ for all Europeans was not fully funded and may have been built on sand. Then came the great migration, with its attendant confusion and fear. The ‘cathedral’ could not agree who should be given sanctuary. The congregation increasingly found that they did not all worship the same god. Of course, seen from a religious point of view, the last decade is much less than the twinkling of an eye, and it is possible that the cathedral could be rebuilt. But that sense of what the Prayer Book calls ‘sure and certain hope’ has trickled away.

Debate rages about whether Britain, having left the EU, would resemble Canada, Switzerland or Norway. Two points should be borne in mind. The first is that whatever deal Britain has with the EU afterwards need not be the same as that of any of the above, Britain being far more economically important to Europe than them. The second is that there isn’t much wrong with the plight of Canada, Switzerland or Norway. If the ‘remains’ (as they are best called) really want to win this argument, they would need to show that we would be like Sudan or North Korea, or at least Belarus or Egypt, if we left. To threaten us with attaining the state of three of the most stable, prosperous and free countries in the world is not very frightening.

There are several books and films (Shout at the Devil, Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs etc.) about the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s. They show how the western powers/United Nations stood by and let hundreds of thousands of people be murdered. People are disgusted and perplexed by how such a thing could have happened. A partial answer is that we tend to pay attention to such things only when it is too late. Just now, the three preparatory symptoms of something terrible are evident in Rwanda’s neighbour Burundi. They have been identified by the Archbishop of Canterbury, who recently returned from a mediating mission to church leaders in Burundi. They are: the stockpiling of weapons, the sharp increase of sexual violence against women, and the dissemination of inflammatory rumour (e.g. describing Tutsis as ‘cockroaches’) through modern technology, in this case WhatsApp. So far, hardly any other public figures are paying attention. No doubt, though, once the massacres have happened in Burundi, there will be some cracking good films about them.

Elsewhere in this issue, Simon Barnes writes powerfully in favour of ‘political correctness gone sane’ — the way that social pressure to respect difference, disability and so on does actually help create a kinder society. He is to a great degree right. Many PC doctrines are soundly based on the traditional injunction to support the weak, a call which constantly needs repeating and re-expressing because it goes against the Darwinian side of human nature. But I do blame the repressive puritanism of political correctness for provoking such a strong reaction, which might be called ‘political incorrectness gone mad’. Without this, how could Donald Trump possibly have got near the Republican nomination?

If you had to explain to tourists what was the most interesting thing about Trafalgar Square, you would presumably start with Nelson’s column and Landseer’s lions (although in fact there is a more dramatic history in the statue of King Charles I looking down towards the place of his execution). As I passed through the square last week, I heard a guide get going: ‘This is Trafalgar Square — location of the largest Harry Potter party in history.’

One of the tiring aspects of national journalism is the demand for interesting headlines. This does not afflict the local press. This week, our local paper  splashes: ‘No action on lettings agency’.

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