Us Lerts must stick together, but not too close . . .

It was Mario Cuomo, three term Governor of New York State, who liked to repeat, “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose”. Writing in The New Yorker the day of Cuomo’s death, Elizabeth Kolbert noted that “His great gift—and it was an important one at the time—was to make listeners feel that politics was a serious business and that civic life matters.”

If only that were true today.

The present government in Westminster appears simply to rely on slogans. There is not much governing going on. This undoubtedly is a hangover from their successful Brexit campaign. But quite what the new slogan – “Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives” – is meant to mean, is anyone’s guess. They clearly are as baffled as the rest of us, as having leaked the slogan, they then felt obliged to issue a 137 word statement to explain it.

The pandemic is serious, for each and every one of us. Civic life matters and civic responsibility is paramount. But you wouldn’t know it from our lords and masters. The overwhelming feeling is that we, the public, aren’t to be trusted with truth.

It is little surprise that our trust in government is ebbing fast.

Cometh the hour . . .

Whether or not they are thinking it yet (and my money is on the grown ups in the room doing just that), are some in the Conservative Party wondering just how much longer they can leave Boris Johnson in post? May is a long way off.

The analogy with Britain at war in 1940 has been done to death – if I am allowed to use that expression. There is a constant evocation of the Blitz spirit, a harking back to Britain standing alone (not that far off the truth given that we appear to be taking a somewhat different approach to managing CV-19 than anyone else), and appeals to a sense of country and adversity framed in terms of duty and patriotism. And all the while, the Prime Minister channels his inner Churchill, addressing the nation in front of two Union flags, his language a pale imitation of his acknowledged hero.

But just occasionally history has lessons. So back to May, and in particular May 1940. I had a debate with the boss this morning about the suitability or otherwise of Boris Johnson. The argument advanced was that however poor he is, and he undoubtedly is, we should stick with him. I disagree. For all that he tries to emulate his hero, Johnson is no Churchill and is singularly ill-equipped to lead the country through this crisis.

The events of early May 1940 are instructive. Leo Amery lit the blue touch paper in the course of the Norway Debate,

“I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what Cromwell said the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: ‘You have sat here too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.’

speech, House of Commons, 7 May 1940

By 10 May 1940 Neville Chamberlain had gone, the King had called Churchill to the Palace, and there was a National Government in place.

The question now is not whether the Tories can wait until May, but rather whether they should. Now is not the time for party but country – but then we have heard that before.

Nos miseri homines . . .

It was pure chance that the weekend before last I happened on the 2017 Christ Church Annual Report. A few days later came the most welcome news of Martyn Percy’s reinstatement as Dean.

In its report on his reinstatement, the Church Times noted,

The row exposed tensions that exist at Christ Church between the cathedral and the academic establishment.

It was ever thus – although there is undoubtedly much more to this than ‘tensions’.

Rows at Christ Church (though rarely quite as public as this most recent one) have invariably been about reform. There have been few periods in its history when reform, of one sort or another, has not been the subject of bitter debate.

Reflecting on this, I re-read Martyn Percy’s piece in the 2017 Report. He begins with the 150th anniversary of the formation of Christ Church’s Governing Body, which recognised its unique status as both college and cathedral. His message is reform. He pulls no punches.

The challenge remains constant: to continue to be shaped by the past, to adapt to the present, and so shape the future.

He continues,

The story of Christ Church is current and unfolding. The changes in governance we celebrated are a timely reminder to us: that within our institutional DNA, we recognise we are a body that knows how to self-improve. Reform is not an event.It is a process. It is more like steady evolution than a one-off revolution. Yet it is a labour that requires constant attention. It also requires some degree of faith – in the past, the wisdom of the body in the present, and the teleology of the foundation as it faces forward.

The dust hasn’t yet settled on this latest row. It will, because it always does. And the battle for reform will continue, as it must. And there will casualties, as there always are.

Martyn Percy’s tweet last Sunday evening – in which he spoke of being marked by the words of the opening hymn at Blackbird Leys Church of the Holy Family earlier that day – speak both of the personal costs of this struggle, and the continuing challenge.

Lord of all our past traditions, Lord of all our future days.

But for the time being – and I hope for some considerable time more – we have our Dean back.

Autumn in London

I am on my way to Paddington. Travelling this way on a Saturday seems strange. I only got back to the west country on Thursday. But I will be on Park Lane at midday, as we gather for the People’s Vote March. If all goes well, it will be the largest public demonstration in the capital for more than a decade. Somehow I shall find my son, and we will march together.

I am not a natural marcher. This is only the third time in my life I will have turned out to demonstrate. The first was exactly 50 years ago, in Oxford, protesting about the Vietnam War. More recently I stood outside the Old Bailey, to protest the cuts to Legal Aid. And today it is the folly that is Brexit that saw me up shortly after 6:00.

Much is written about the anger of those who voted leave – their anger at elites, at the politicians they believe have ignored them, at metropolitan liberals in the south east, at being left behind, at losing their identity – and their anger that many of us who voted remain refuse to accept the result of the referendum.

We are told that in holding to our conviction – that Brexit has to be fought – we are disrespecting democracy and thus disrespecting those who, for whatever reason, voted to leave.

So be it.

I feel a corresponding anger. Not at those who voted leave but at those who manipulated the truth for their own ideological ends, and at those politicians (and they are not all in the Conservative Party) who continue to put personal ambition and party before country.

I have no idea how this will all end, except my money is on it ending badly.

But when my grandchildren ask me what I did, I want to be able to say that I marched – and that I marched for them, for Lewis and Max, Otti, and Amelie.

Where are the good Germans?

One of the least attractive aspects of the Brexit debacle is the way in which Brexiters have prayed in aid the (fairly) recent history of this country.

Perhaps the most egregious example is this tweet from Andrea Jenkyns

It is better to go down fighting and honouring the democratic decision of our British people. Then to be long remembered for waving a white flag and surrendering to EU demands. All Brexiteers in Gov and on the backbenches its time to #StandUp4Brexit and finally #ChuckChequers.

She is not, of course, alone in all this fighting talk. As Christopher Grey notes in his recent article in Prospect, How Brexit got metaphorical,

Indeed, mentioning the war—or a war—is almost compulsory. For Brexiters, Dunkirk—that strangely ambivalent moment of defeat and triumph—has pride of place, and their leaders also yearn for a fight on the beaches, if only to dust down their dodgy impersonations of Churchill.

and Nigel Farage is never more at home than when posing in front of a poster showing spitfires in the blue skies over the Weald.

There is a risk in looking for similar analogies. But one thing strikes me: Theresa May’s shtick is that she is only following orders.

In doing so, not only has she abnegated all responsibility for the state we are in, but far from being the woman of principle that she likes to portray herself as – and as she is held out to be by those who would wear her crown – her lack of imagination and blind insistence that the referendum vote is irreversible, because “the people spoke“ simply accelerates us towards the cliff edge.

She may not be the author of our misfortunes: he is holed up in a shepherd’s hut somewhere in Oxfordshire. Nonetheless, she has been his willing accomplice.

And the ‘Good Germans’?

In a Tory party desperate to cling to office, there are very few.