A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. The opening lines of Dickens great book about London and Paris in the French Revolution, seem peculiarly appropriate this morning, as Theresa May drags her battered authority to meet newly triumphant President Emanuel Macron in a desperate bid to show that, despite her self-inflicted defeat, it is still “business as usual” in the Downing Street bunker.
Compare and contrast.
In Paris the mood is everywhere of renewal. In London the stale smell of stagnation and paralysis hangs over Whitehall and Westminster. President Macron, with his new majority in parliament is now in total command of what happens in his country. Mrs May is more the prisoner of her Government than its triumphant leader. He has a modern, European, globalist forward-looking vision which has set France on fire. She has ridden to disaster on a closed, isolationist, right wing tide in our country, which she now does not have the authority to control. He has beaten the nationalist right wing forces back into their heartlands. She has been forced to incorporate them into her Government. He has united France behind a movement for radical change built around the moderate voices of the nation. She has tragically and deliberately divided our country from the moment she became Prime Minster and forced us to a general election which has produced an outcome so polarised between the political extremes, that the moderate progressive voice of Britain has been crushed into silence. He has a wide selection of young, professional new comers to choose his Government from. She can only choose from the narrow pool of those stale talents who share responsibility with her for the disaster in which they have landed our country – she must even submit to bringing back a bitter enemy like Michael Gove, who she threw out only nine months ago. She depends on a Parliament which is dominated by the old failed Parties of the past, he has one which has pushed aside the worn out and exhausted structures of France for something more in tune with the modern internet age. He is head one of the two nations which now steer the European Union, whose economic growth is now running faster than the US. She is a poor friendless supplicant at the gates, in charge of an economy dominated by the dark clouds of piled up debt and stagnant productivity.
None of this is to say that the Macron enterprise will work. Maybe today will turn out to be “never again glad confident morn”, to misquote Robert Browning on the failure of another Liberal giant. But after three terrifying years in which the politics of “peoples movements” have brought forth the misshapen, the ugly, the divisive and the preposterous, is it not refreshing that we now have proof they can produce something positive and hopeful too? If, as I think true, the peoples of the advanced Western democracies are aching to sweep away the old failed structures of our politics, is it not inspiring that this can be done in favour of a change which reaches out to decency and the realities of our internationalist future, rather than back to isolationism and the dark forces of division?
That our election failed on all counts to help our country out of its current mess, is now obvious. That it has ended up by polarising us between a proto-UKIP Tory party and an neo-socialist Labour Party, both of whom have abandoned any pretence to appeal to their centrist traditions, is unquestionable. Nowhere is this more powerfully or painfully illustrated than in the most important single fact of the 2017 election – that the moderate, decent, progressive centre of British politics, the place where elections up to now have always been won and lost, now lies largely empty, voiceless and waiting for someone to claim it.
So how can we replicate what Macron has done in France?
Not easily, I fear.
No single person amongst those elected last Thursday has yet the stature – or perhaps the courage – of Emanuel Macron. It is a terrible indictment of our politics that the most powerful figureheads of the progressive centre our country needs so badly have either, like David Miliband chosen for the moment to pursue their careers elsewhere, or like Nick Clegg, been rewarded for a lifetime of putting country before party, by being kicked out at the ballot box. I do not think that we can replicate an SDP type, Macron coup de theatre in Britain. Nor do I support, except as an occasional sideshow, the so-called “Progressive Alliance” which depends more on mathematics, than principle and ideas. I believe in partnership politics. But partnerships for something constructive which we want, not just opportunistic alliances against something we hate.
Nor is it, I believe, reasonable in these turbulent times to expect any but the very bravest to leave their tribe and join another.
We probably need something which looks more like a process, than an event. Would it really impossible, for instance for politicians of the progressive centre from all parties and none, to get together and pledge to work across party divides, so as to prosecute and protect say five or six principles which we believe essential to our country as it passes through these dangerous convulsions.
I am an impatient man. I would like to move faster. Time is short for a British en marche, with another election potentially round the corner. But getting started with the possible, is probably more useful at this moment, than wasting time puzzling about perfection. Mao Tse Tung was once asked by a follower why, since his Long March was a thousand miles, they had to start that afternoon? He replied, that because it was a thousand miles, they had to start that afternoon.