Vergangenheitsbewältigung

Dominic Raab wants to prorogue Parliament.

Prorogue?

Isn’t it funny how these obscure words turn up all of a sudden, and everybody starts to use them as if they are in common currency and familiar to everybody?  Mr Blair resiled, and continues to resile, nothing.

Chambers: prorogue v.t. to prolong (obs.): to keep from exertion (Shak.): to discontinue the meetings of for a time without dissolving. – v.t. prorogate to prorogue: to extend by agreement, in order to make a particular action competent (Scots law). – n. prorogation.  (L. prorogare, -atumpro, forward, rogare, to ask.)

Incidentally, while leafing through Chambers to find prorogue, I got side-tracked, as you do, and came across phratry (a social division of a people, often exogamous) and then phrontistery (a thinking place).  Aldous Huxley used to impress dinner guests with the breadth of his conversational topics, until they realised he had been browsing Encyclopaedia Britannica.  But I digress.  The phratry should be outraged that Mr Raab dare prorogue the phrontistery.

Boris, being a Classics scholar, would presumably be familiar with the etymology of such words.  He has a reputation for cleverness.  His absence from the Channel 4 debate on Sunday night might indeed be put down to cleverness rather than reticence.  With respect to the tenancy at No 10, everybody seems to think Boris is a shoo-in.  I’m not so sure.  You only need to look at the other occasions over the past 80 years when the Tories have replaced their leader, either as Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition.  The crown seldom, if ever, falls to the front runner.  Even the appointment of Theresa May herself in 2016 surprised many of her colleagues.  Mr Cameron resigned because with respect to Brexit he’d backed the wrong horse.  But then so had Mrs May, albeit in a lukewarm fashion.  So her succession didn’t really make any sense.  Events have shown that to be so.

Then in 2005 the front runner had been David Davis, but he lost the contest on the basis of a single lacklustre speech to the party conference, while a young and relatively unknown David Cameron, speaking without notes, was confident and smooth and articulate.

Then in 1990 the frontrunner had been the colourful, mace-wielding Michael Heseltine, but he lost to John Major, a son of music hall performers, who had a meteoric rise through the Foreign Office and No 11.

After Edward Heath lost the two elections of 1974, the Tories looked around for a suitable successor.  Margaret Thatcher was widely seen as a stalking horse who would wound Mr Heath before somebody else moved in for the kill.  But to everybody’s astonishment she beat Heath in the first round.  And back in 1965 when Heath himself assumed the mantle, it was not he, but Reginald Maudling who had led the opinion polls.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home might well be seen as the archetypal unexpected Tory successor.  The charismatic front runner in 1963 was Quintin Hogg.  But the Tories had been rocked by the Profumo scandal and no doubt felt they needed somebody entirely dependable, Establishment, and colourless.

Harold MacMillan succeeded Anthony Eden in 1957.  The front runner this time was Rab Butler.  And although Eden himself had long been the heir apparent to Churchill, it might be argued that he was past it even before he finally reached No 10.  The night Winston gave a farewell dinner to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh at No 10 in 1955, he apparently said to a private secretary, “I don’t believe Anthony can do it.”  Eden’s tenure was short.  He was destroyed by ill luck, ill health, and Suez.

Churchill’s own succession in May 1940 was greeted by a large part of the Conservative Party with dismay.  The great man himself writes most eloquently, at the end of Volume 1 of his 6 volume History of the Second Word War, The Gathering Storm, of the famous occasion he and Lord Halifax met with Chamberlain to decide whom the King should send for.  But, as Nicholas Shakespeare has pointed out in Six Minutes in May (Harvill Secker 2017) WSC’s account may not be entirely accurate.  The subtitle to that book is “How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister.”

A couple of years ago somebody asked Boris if he’d like to be PM and he replied in his bluff way that if the ball happened to squirt out of the back of the scrum in his direction he might be minded to pick it up.   I think such imagery speaks volumes.  Understatement, the Oxbridge litotes tradition, is alive and well.  Success must be effortless, or at least must appear to be effortless.  Boris does not cast himself as one of the pack.  That would be vulgar, altogether too plebeian.  Besides, he’s probably afraid – he certainly should be – of the forensic debating ability of Rory Stewart, and he must be hoping like hell that Stewart gets knocked out in the next round.  They say the premiership is Boris’s to lose.  Perhaps this is why he is walking on egg shells.  The weight of history since the Second World War suggests that to be handed the position of front runner in the race for No 10 is to be handed a poisoned chalice.  Maybe Boris has studied his history and taken George Santayana’s advice to heart, that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

The Germans, as ever, have a good word for it.  Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Coming to terms with the past.

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