Important (for good or evil) as Brexit may be to the future of Britain, it is not without its importance for the European Union. Indeed, it was always essential for the Union that Britain’s departure should be an economic disaster for Britain: for if it were not, why have a union at all?
It was a humbling experience to read what Pierre Ryckmans, later to be famous as the sinologist Simon Leys, wrote when he was only twenty years old. He had voyaged solo through the Belgian Congo not long before its independence, a vast territory of which his uncle, of the same name, had once been a famous governor-general. Ryckmans’ reflections on his journey have lost none of their pertinence in the sixty years since he wrote them, and go straight to the heart of the matter with unrivalled concision:
In outline, we might say that [the Africans’] ambitions push them to reject and become Europe at the same time. (When I speak of Europe, I mean the Europe that they know, that is to say the Europe in Africa). They want to be like these powerful men who humiliate them; they want to be those whom they do not want. . . .
It was for this reason that Mugabe, a highly intelligent man, was a revolutionary and a conservative at the same time.
Though I lived in Rhodesia (as it then was) for only seven months, and returned to Zimbabwe (as it had by then become) ten years later for only a couple of weeks, the country has occupied my thoughts since then intermittently but quite often. It raised, at least in my mind, questions of political philosophy which I am still not sure that I can fully answer.
Editor’s note: The first installment of a three-part series.
The first political leader of any consequence whom I ever met (and I have not met many since) was Ian Smith, Prime Minister of the pariah state of Rhodesia, as it was then still called. I was working as a young doctor in the country, in Bulawayo, and someone said to me at a garden party, ‘Would you like to meet the Prime Minister?’
A cocktail party is an odd place, perhaps, to discuss the rule of law, but I have no small talk and neither had my interlocutor. Our views on this subject were, fortunately for the flow of conversation, somewhat at variance.
My interlocutor asked me whether I believed in redemption and forgiveness, that is to say the possibility that a prisoner incarcerated for a serious crime could redeem himself and be forgiven. I said that I did not, at least not in any sense that had any legal bearing. From the religious point of view, of course, it was different.
If there were one word that we should expunge from the political lexicon, it would be “cowardly.” This is not because there are no acts or deeds to which it can rightly be applied, but because our politicians and officials have lost the ability to use it aptly. They fail to make the proper moral distinction between cowardice and other qualities.
There are many subjects on which decent people may disagree and some subjects on which a person may not entirely agree with himself, in so far as he can see both sides of an argument at the same time (assuming there to be only two sides, when often there are more).
One such subject is that of assisted suicide and euthanasia. I can easily conceive of circumstances in which I should want it for myself, and circumstances in which it would be the kindest thing for others. And yet, at the same time, I can see the objections to it.
Populism—the politics of resentment—is generally regarded as a right-wing phenomenon.
A friend of mine, an academic researcher in what at least 99.9 per cent of the population would find an arcane area of human knowledge, recently brought to my attention the form he was obliged to sign in order for a particular learned journal (owned by a publishing conglomerate) to agree to publish a review article that he had written.
It was an extraordinary form, six pages long, and so one-sided in the contractual obligations it imposed, or tried to impose, that I wondered whether any court would enforce it.
Former Prime Ministers of the Duchy of Luxembourg did not usually bestride the world like colossi, at least not until the advent of the European Union. This, indeed, is one of the great advantages of that Union, at least to members of its political class: that it provides them with the means and opportunity to become more important in retirement than ever they were when they held directly-elected political office. It is a kind of insurance policy against electoral defeat or other political disaster.