Czechoslovakia would have been a hundred years old last Sunday, and Prague spent the weekend celebrating. I’ve been to better birthday parties. The gloomy weather didn’t help – it didn’t just rain on the parades, it poured – and the centennial narratives, never simple, were complicated further by the fact they were commemorating a state that dissolved itself in 1993.
I met Aung San Suu Kyi just the once. It was in August 2012, quite soon after she was released from fifteen years of on-off house arrest. Myanmar’s military junta looked ready to loosen its grip on power, and I was there on behalf of an international organisation of human rights lawyers to investigate how the legal order might be stabilised. Serious business, but you wouldn’t know it from my souvenir photograph. I look thrilled to bits.
Like Neal Ascherson, I recently revisited Gdańsk. The last time I was there was in August 1983, three years after the Gdańsk Agreement, the Communist Party’s abortive deal with the Solidarity trade union movement. Protests were expected. I was 19, and still had a few weeks left before university. It seemed sensible to lend a hand. I was detained several times by the ZOMO riot police, and once found myself marching beside Lech Wałęsa. But it was a lull in the action that came to mind most often last week. At one point in 1983, as protesters around me contemptuously tossed złoty coins towards ZOMO officers, a wall of shields advanced and we were all swept into a subway. Smiling nervously at a priest who ended up next to me, I heard him murmur something like a prayer. When I explained that I spoke only English, his eyes widened. ‘England?’ he repeated. Reaching for my wavy black hair, he pressed a curl between his fingers. ‘But you are … nigger?’
It is a political cliché that tails sometimes wag dogs. The metaphor isn’t instantly decipherable though. Politics has no shortage of figurative fauna – from snakes in the grass and stalking horses to big beasts and dinosaurs – but a wagged dog is more complex than it sounds.
As posturing over Brexit has given way to negotiations, the European Court of Justice is looming large. The prospects for EU citizens resident in the UK, uncertain enough to begin with, have been obscured by the government’s insistence that ECJ judges won’t be determining their rights. Even the court’s regulatory role over nuclear research is one judicial pretension too many for London: Theresa May has committed the UK to withdrawing from the European Atomic Energy Community as well as the EU, because the ECJ sorts out Euratom disputes.
Donald Trump’s instinctive response to his most recent crisis was predictable. As the tales of groping multiplied and swirled, he claimed the high ground. His accusers, he said, were ‘horrible, horrible liars’, whose attacks were being ‘orchestrated by the Clintons and their media allies’. He was willing to suffer for his ‘disfranchised’ followers, however, and they would collectively ‘take back our country’. The election, he promised, was going to be ‘our Independence Day’. As far as the US media took any notice – and many, in their mainstream way, were focusing instead on the complaints of Trump’s alleged victims – there was confusion. Was Trump drawing on the science fiction movie of the same name, wondered the New York Daily News? The 1996 film shows the White House destroyed by aliens. Worldwide havoc ensues. America’s president leads the counterattack that eliminates the intruders for ever (sequels notwithstanding). In Trump’s eyes, that's not fantasy so much as cinéma vérité. The inspiration for his speech, however, is almost certainly closer to home.
In the Telegraph last week, Andrew Roberts suggested that one of ‘the many splendid opportunities provided by the … heroic Brexit vote’ was the chance for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to unite as a federation. Nigel Farage advised Irish radio listeners to ‘hedge their bets’ by rejoining the Commonwealth. And Liam Fox (who wants us to abandon our ‘obsession’ with Europe in favour of the Commonwealth) has started ‘scoping out the parameters’ of a free trade deal with Australia.
Reactions to the Chilcot Report suggest that the only remaining argument for the Iraq War is that criticism rests on hindsight. Tony Blair explained that he invaded the country 'in good faith', as if that somehow excuses the catastrophe that followed. General Sir Mike Jackson shrugged off responsibility for British soldiers blown up in inadequately armoured vehicles by observing that their fate was unforeseeable: ‘we'll never know,’ he said, if any died unnecessarily. Listening to the deflections of blame, I was reminded of a scholar whose work Tony Blair has long admired. Philip Bobbitt warned in 2004 that the war's critics were making a basic philosophical error. He called it ‘Parmenides' Fallacy’: the mistaken attempt to assess a situation 'by measuring it against the past, as opposed to comparing it to other possible present states of affairs’. The argument sounded clever when I first read it, but not for long.
I'd love to be closer to Sarah Vine. Not just because she's married to Michael Gove, though I'm as interested as everyone else in his very uncertain career prospects. The degree of support she's given his twin campaigns to undermine the European Union and Boris Johnson has made me almost pruriently curious about her own power. And her weekly column for the Daily Mail, though revealing in its way, doesn't illuminate enough. It’s padded out with domestic anecdotes, to be sure, but they come with too many platitudes and skincare tips for my taste. But a significant social opportunity has just opened up – because last week, Sarah (I feel I can now call her that) reached out on Facebook.
Boris Johnson uses today's Telegraph to trail what will doubtless become a leadership bid, and his agenda for post-referendum Britain contains some remarkable claims. Not in the form of proposals, but by its lack of them. If Johnson has his way, Brexit is going to involve inactivity on an industrial scale. He envisions a 'balanced and humane points-based' immigration system, but that’s for the extremely indeterminate future – and everyone can meanwhile look forward to 'intense and intensifying' co-operation with Europe, and opportunities to live, travel, work and study on the continent just as they please. British businesses will enjoy uninterrupted 'access to the single market'. The only apparent change, which will happen 'in no great rush', will be the UK's 'extrication' from the European Union's 'extraordinary and opaque system of legislation: the vast and growing corpus of law enacted by a European Court of Justice from which there can be no appeal’. The programme sounds so laid back that it's tempting to wonder why we committed national hara-kiri in the first place. But Johnson’s proposals obscure a lunge for power as disingenuous as it is opportunistic.