A century is a long time in politics …

1 Jul

I remember very clearly the first time I heard the word ‘quagmire’ – it was when I was in secondary school studying the First World War.  Our history teacher was rather old school, and after a brief outline of the day’s topic and a bit of class discussion, he would dictate notes to us.  As he expounded on the nature of trench warfare, the horrors of going over the top, and the terrible physical conditions endured by the soldiers, it all culminated in a ‘quagmire’ of mud and fallen men.  The image has always stuck with me, reinforced by the war poets.


And today, after the most tumultuous week in post-World War Two British politics, the word ‘quagmire’ came to me again.  A sticky swamp of unreason seems as good a metaphor as any for the leaderless void in which we have found ourselves post-Brexit, with implosion in both the major parties, and economic and political uncertainty of a kind not seen for decades.  Events, dear boy, events doesn’t quite cover the pace of change in the last few days.  As the pictures of Somme commemorations shared the airwaves with latest machinations in Westminster, the Tory leadership contest and disorder in Labour, it was hard not to juxtapose these two vital periods in history.  And it occurred to me that First World War vocabulary has been around a lot – people talk of being ‘shell-shocked’ following the Brexit vote; ‘bombshells’ have been dropped, and both Boris Johnson and Angela Eagle have been styled Blonde Bombshells.  The language of political shocks was forged in wartime experience.  And the particular narrative of class division between leadership and frontline experience, which is part and parcel of the narrative of the First World War, resonates now: social media abounds with ‘lions led by donkeys’ echoes.


In the middle of all this, another part of the story seems more muted.  After the devastation of not just the First, but also the Second World War, countries came together to build a peace.  During the EU referendum there was a lot of talk about being bound together by fear – fear of outsiders on the one hand, fear of economic collapse on the other.  But there was little celebration of the power of internationalism for co-operation, for peaceful co-existence, for prevention of extreme abuses of power.  Many of the challenges we currently face cross borders – it’s not just about people.  Ideas – political, economic, scientific – are built on collaboration as well as contest, on wide debate as well as narrow self-interest.  These richnesses of stable cohabitation lie underneath the imperfect European Union.  I am keen to see how they can be preserved in some new form of partnership. It has been made more difficult, but we mustn’t give up now.


The other big story this week has been European football – and we all know how in the trenches at Christmas, British and German soldiers declared a truce and played football in no-man’s land.  As the England team dropped out of the Euros this week, and as our understanding of Brexit unfolded around a story that a long-overlooked population had decided to stick it to the man, I hope we have not forgotten how to play the ball.  That requires teamwork and an understanding of the other side.



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