My thoughts this week, like many others no doubt, have been dismal. A common thread running through events has been the importance of good governance and the potentially dreadful consequences of the lack thereof. If any single feature of social and economic life can be linked to human wellbeing, it is good governance. And if anything is guaranteed to lead to misery, it is incompetent, corrupt political leadership.
This week saw thousands of people commemorate the centenary of the end of the first world war, and if ever there was an example of this theme, this is it. One of the most horrific aspects of the 'Great War' was that it was entirely avoidable, and would not have happened but for a series of disastrously stupid decisions taken by the Kaiser. It is unbearable to think of the lives lost in such a pointless conflict. And I don't say this as a pacifist. Whatever one thinks of Bismarck, he would never have the allowed the Germans to begin such a conflict over a regional issue in a backwater of Europe.
A war to end all wars, it had no inevitability to it, and no rationale: there was no issue of realpolitik that could not have been solved by other means. In fact, so disturbing was the first world war to the policy wonks and diplomats of the day, that a new discipline was brought into being: international relations. The discipline was spawned by the pressing task of explaining how Europe could 'sleep walk' into such a disastrous conflagration. And then we did it again. An overly punitive peace treaty – with which many leaders were uncomfortable with the exception of France – sowed the seeds of such deep resentment that 30 years later Europe was plunged into its second, most hideous, civil war. Again, appalling political governance.
Thankfully Europe found great leaders in the aftermath of the second world war, Konrad Adenauer being perhaps the most significant. His sensible approach to governance was coloured by his rueful observation: 'In view of the fact that God limited the intelligence of man, it seems unfair that He did not also limit his stupidity.'
With this appalling history in mind many, including me, opt to wear the poppy: the flower's symbolism is whatever you personally choose it to be. It reminds me of what I say to visitors, say, touring the Vatican or the Duomo in Florence, and find the enormous wealth inherent in the architectural magnificence rather off-putting. My response is always to think of the anonymous working men who built them – their sacrifice often leading to death on site – rather than the commissioners, the Catholic Church and the Medici family. The poppy commemorates the pointless deaths of millions of young, mostly working-class men, not the catastrophic stupidity of the warmongers or war itself.
To continue my dismal theme, the boundless stupidity of leaders was on display again last week, here in the UK. Dominic Raab – an MP, a member of the cabinet, the man in charge of Brexit negotiations no less – admitted that he hadn't appreciated the importance of the Dover-Calais link to trade in goods between the UK and the mainland. To say this is a worry is an understatement. But the want, or I should say the desperate, urgent need, of coherent leadership of the official Opposition, renders the UK's terminal condition all the more chilling.
Perhaps we can turn to 'the people'? Can we hope that the good sense of the British electorate will dictate to this generation of hapless, self-serving Tory politicians, who put party before country, a route to a safe harbour? Let's not get our hopes up. It was, after all, a referendum that got us into this mess.
There are now growing calls for a second referendum. I'm all for it, but how is this to be justified in a democracy? To send the electorate back to the polls until it comes up with the 'right decision' is untenable. So efforts have been made to suggest that the referendum was compromised in some way through lack of information, shoddy or mendacious electioneering, or that matters have changed materially to such an extent that a new referendum is in order. Another suggestion is to claim the first referendum null and void despite its being an exercise in democracy. I say this as a democrat. How can a course of action be democratically 'legitimate' if the course of action proposed prior to the referendum is impossible? No individual or group, not even an electorate, can legitimately decide to implement the impossible.
But that is what the proposed Brexit, voted for by 17 million electors, has turned out to be. Impossible. Voting to 'take back control' without incurring any negative consequences (like breaking up the union, losing frictionless trade with the continent, losing our security arrangements, etc) was a mirage. Surely we need to set aside the result of that first referendum on this basis? Most definitely, we need leaders willing to state plainly this basic truth. It's been a dismal political week, so I'm not holding my breath.
Don't get me started on Trump's behaviour last week. I've run out of suitable nouns and adjectives to describe the ghastly (haven't used that one yet) leader of the 'free' world. I've no idea where this is all going, but I'm pretty sure historians, in the generations to come, will be scratching their heads at this political generation's crass stupidity and lack of leadership.