On and off the High Road

Tim Parks

  • Voltaire's Coconuts by Ian Buruma
    Weidenfeld, 326 pp, £18.99, March 1999, ISBN 0 297 64312 6

Italy has just come to the end of another referendum campaign. Two general elections ago a new system of voting was introduced. Instead of the extreme form of proportional representation in force since 1948, a first-past-the-post system was introduced for 75 per cent of the seats in the lower house, while 25 per cent would continue to be allotted on a proportional basis. The recent referendum proposed to eliminate that 25 per cent and base voting for the lower house entirely on the British system.

The idea behind these changes is one that was dear to Voltaire’s heart and inspires the title of Ian Buruma’s book: the notion that those institutions which have proved successful in one country, in this case Britain, might, like coconuts, be transplanted elsewhere with the same positive results. Dogged by a combination of chronically unstable governments and long-term political paralysis, the Italians hoped that by importing the British system they might also import the peculiarly British alternation of stable governments originating at different ends of the political spectrum.

As yet the scheme introduced two elections ago hasn’t worked. Rather than being reduced, the number of parties has considerably increased. The pattern of unstable and shifting alliances, of governments held to ransom by small minorities in hung parliaments, has remained much as it was. The pressure for this new referendum came from those who feel that the British system should have been introduced in its brutal extremity. The 25 per cent of seats still handed out on a proportional basis, they claim, has been used to keep tiny parties alive and unpresentable members of the old guard in parliament Its elimination, they believe, would finally produce British results.

Those who opposed the referendum and voted against its proposal (or who did not vote at all: in the absence of a 50 per cent turnout a referendum is declared void) maintain that British stability has little to do with the British electoral system and may rather be in spite of it. The first-past-the-post system, they insist, encourages a low turnout, because those who know their party can’t win in their constituency don’t participate, and this alienates them from the democratic process. A totally British system, they conclude, could lead to serious unrest in Italy.

The assumption, on both sides of the debate, that the results of such major changes would be apparent after just one or two elections is astonishingly naive. For if Voltaire chose the coconut to make the point that institutions, too, can be transplanted, it was precisely because it takes so very long to ripen. All the same, the lapse of time – how much time? – allows the debate to rage: can institutions be ‘universalised’, or are they intimately related to history, race or what is more vaguely referred to as ‘national character’?

In Voltaire’s Coconuts Buruma presents us with the visions of a number of European intellectuals who have come to Britain over the last three centuries and reflected on its traditions and institutions. In doing so he comes to think of them as either ‘universalists’, who believed in the possibility of exporting the best they found in Britain, or ‘nativists’, who didn’t believe in it or, perhaps more often, regarded it as undesirable. Pierre Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, saw no reason why the ethos of the Arnoldian public school could not be profitably transported all over the world. Certainly the Games were to be an expression of that ethos. His ideological and Anglophobe enemy, Charles Maurras, present at the first of Coubertin’s Olympics, in Athens in 1896, rather than acknowledging defeat, observed with some pleasure that ‘when different races are thrown together and made to interact, they repel one another, estranging themselves, even as they believe they are mixing.’

Dreaming of a future Jewish homeland, Theodor Herzl imagined it as having British institutions, an English-style upper class and even Jewish cricket on trim Palestinian, or indeed – did it matter? – Ugandan lawns. This was at a time when significant sections of continental Europe saw Jews as alien, hostile and incapable of being assimilated by German or French culture (logically, the extreme nativist no more believes in the possibility of others being assimilated by his culture than he does in transplanting its institutions elsewhere). The British were stigmatised for their perceived sympathy with Jews. ‘L’anglais est-il un Juif?’ Buruma quotes from a French tract of 1895. Clearly the danger of arguing against Voltaire and his optimistic universalism is that one may thus open the way to racism – which is why it is important for us to understand what we mean by national character.

Buruma’s book is largely and unapologetically anecdotal. He introduces us to a cast of prominent Europeans from Voltaire and Goethe in the 18th century to Nikolaus Pevsner and Isaiah Berlin in the 20th, with the central (and best) chapters dedicated to the revolutionaries and dreamers of the mid-19th century, so many of whom were to find themselves obliged to flee to London’s safe, if perplexingly unrevolutionary climate. Each character’s association with Britain is briskly sketched in, Buruma astutely pointing out that their positive or negative visions of the country can be properly understood only in relation to their own circumstances. Often enough, it turns out that those who stay in Britain for any length of time find it hard to sustain a view initially formed by a personal agenda set elsewhere. Unable to publish an anti-clerical poem in France, Voltaire praised the English for their love of reason and liberty, their respect for the artist, but he was later forced to leave the country in a hurry after some ambiguous financial transactions. Inspired by Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Coubertin needed all his considerable reserves of enthusiasm to overlook the less attractive aspects of the British public schools he visited. The intellectual traveller, and even more so the refugee, lives in a constant tension between his desire to abstract what he finds abroad and use it in an argument with those back home, and the wish to engage in the society that surrounds him on its own terms. Accordingly, the long-term immigrant’s vision of his host country will very largely depend on whether he has chosen to stay there, or is just physically present while spiritually embattled elsewhere. One of the most touching pictures in Voltaire’s Coconuts is that of the ageing Russian revolutionary and idealist, Alexander Herzen, finding himself after all not so miserable in the mercantile and irretrievably bourgeois stability of Victorian London.

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