…was the text of my latest letter to the columns of The Herald, from Disconsolate of Flanders Moss Grimpen. I should explain the context. The letters editor was extolling the virtues of short soundbites and he reprinted as an example a particularly pithy three word missive he had received. He then challenged the readership to come up with a two word missive (with a plea to avoid vulgarity). It so happened that a substantial number of The Herald letters published that day were written by a constituency of readers who did not wish to disestablish themselves from the European Union and who were therefore rubbishing the Brexit vote and seeking either to ignore it (it was after all purely advisory) or to rerun the referendum – presumably until the desired result was achieved. I wasn’t published. At least, not yet.
I’m currently reading A History of British Prime Ministers, by Dick Leonard (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). Walpole to Cameron (Tracy was not yet on the scene). I’m reading it backwards. Not literally, word for word, scanning from right to left as if the text were in Arabic. (Which reminds me, have you read Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis? It is a life story told backwards, this time literally so, from death to birth. Amis keeps up the fiction remorselessly. Before you go to bed in the morning you take a razor and attach facial hair to your chin. Half way through – or half way back – as you might expect from Amis, something appalling occurs. What can this blatant blasphemy against the second law of thermodynamics possibly mean? Is it a vision of Hell as a kind of recurring Groundhog Day? It’s very disturbing. Your Myth of Sisyphus involves standing at the top of a mountain watching a large boulder miraculously rolling up to you. You get behind it and support its weight and struggle back down the mountain with it, only to see it roll up to the top again. You go back up (walking backwards) and support its weight and bring it back down, conscious of the futility of the expedition.)
But to return to the august First Lords of the Treasury (Cameron to Walpole in my case), I find there are certain advantages to reading history books backwards. You are proceeding from the familiar to the unfamiliar, from the known to the unknown. So far I’ve done Cameron-Brown-Blair-Major-Thatcher-Callaghan-Wilson-Heath-Wilson-Home-Macmillan-Eden-Churchill-Attlee and already it’s before my time. It is a little like reading the Amis. You begin to question your perspective on the cause-effect relationship. I’ve particularly noticed that effect, during this week with regard to the UK’s troubled relationship with the European Union which was the European Economic Community which was the Common Market which was the European Coal and Steel Agreement. All that time and effort by Mr Heath and (as he was then) Mr Major et al to persuade the public to go in and persuade Europe to have us, and then to stay in, endlessly arguing the case for exceptions and opt-outs. Bureaucratic nightmare. And now Messrs Davis, Fox, and Johnson are taking us back out. Even bigger bureaucratic nightmare. Maybe De Gaulle (après moi, le deluge) was right to say “non”. He probably foresaw it would all turn into a labyrinthine cauchemar. It really is the Myth of Sisyphus.
It is inherent in democracy, particularly in the context of fixed five year terms, that anything a politician achieves can be “disachieved” in a flash. President-apparent Trump is going to reverse Obamacare. Mrs May is musing over Hinkley Point. It would make any Prime Minister hesitate to embark on any project at all, this knowledge that it’s all going to unravel under the auspices of the next incumbent. It’s said that PMs during their final term become preoccupied with “legacy”. Shelley wrote a poem about a great imperial tyrant named Ozymandias who was pretty smug about his Achievement, yet whose sole legacy was his own decayed and shattered statue lying in the middle of a desert. “Nothing beside remains.” Winston said of his own career, “I have achieved much, in the end to achieve nothing.”
I couldn’t help wondering whether the French were being a little mischievous last week when England embarked on the summer hols and ended up in a 20 mile traffic jam en route to Dover, tired and thirsty after ten hours, trying to entertain the fractious children in the back. Perhaps at the channel they were met with a Gallic shrug and a pout. “Isn’t this what you voted for?”
Maybe the trouble with Huge Projects is that they become inherently unstable. They are like the Tower of Babel, that absurd staircase to heaven and monument to man’s pride. After it collapsed, everybody went around talking gibberish – maybe, in the case of the EU, in 28 languages. Or should that be 27? No, 28. I have this hunch that Article 50 will never be triggered.