THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840
A ROCK AND A
ABritish general election initially billed as being “the most important since the war” has turned out to be about nothing in particular. It was supposed to contrast the “strong and stable” leadership of Theresa May against the incompetent “coalition of chaos” offered by Jeremy Corbyn. But Mr Corbyn has benefited from the eclipse of Mrs May’s unique selling point – that she alone was tough enough to stand up to the bullies of Brussels. In the light of various hurried policy adjustments, even commentators on the right have started to substitute “weak and wobbly” for her preferred definition. At the start of the campaign Mrs May led by some 24 percentage points. Within weeks the margin had dropped by two thirds, and may yet fall further. It could even be an exciting finish, though the possibility that Mrs May will not be Prime Minister on 9 June still seems remote. Meanwhile the probability that Mr Corbyn will still be leader of the Labour Party has increased. Those who hoped a post-election Labour meltdown would lead to a rapid change of leadership may have to wait. His manifesto, though to the left of many previous Labour efforts, has gone down better than expected.
Transfixed by the clash of personalities, the media has failed to give each party’s policy positioning the close scrutiny it deserves. Mrs May has moved her party to the left, shifting from the free market ideology that held sway from the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership to the end of David Cameron’s, to something more closely resembling a continental Christian Democrat model. Just as Britain gears up to leave it, this movement towards mainstream European Union economic doctrine – which can be traced back to Catholic Social Teaching – is a development loaded with irony. And her emphasis on families who are “just about managing” in difficult economic circumstances could even become her “preferential option for the poor” – but only if she showed signs of recognising that cuts in welfare payments, however well intentioned in reducing individual dependency on the state, actually make the poor still poorer. Mr Corbyn has positioned Labour to the left of where it was in the Blair-Brown years, with the promise of higher taxes on the better-off and on corporations. He would restore public ownership of energy companies, the railways and the mail – the latter two, notably, being industries that even Mrs Thatcher declined to privatise. Such proposals, though easily branded left-wing, turned out to be popular. The days of the Thatcherite mantra – private good, public bad – are obviously over. However, while promising increased public expenditure on schools and hospitals, Labour has yet to develop a convincing welfare policy. Keeping two thirds of the Tory austerity programme regarding benefits will do little to reduce the sum total of human misery. What has counted for little in the pre-election political debate is the issue of Brexit itself, which Mrs May claims was her primary reason for wanting an election. This may be because she relied on the supposed strength of her personality as a “bloody difficult woman” to carry the argument. This has come across simply as a not very attractive stubbornness. Mr Corbyn’s apparent flexibility is an interesting contrast. What happened to the quasiMarxist dogmatist the country was told to expect? If it remains part of his baggage, it is well hidden in the hold.
The one real choice still facing the country over Brexit – whether to stay in or leave the single market – has hardly been aired. It is such issues as this which arguably made this the most important election since the Second World War, because of its impact on the economy and national prosperity, not to mention on Northern Ireland. Instead Mrs May’s Government prefers to pursue the hollow yet dangerous right-wing obsession, cutting immigration – just as it begins to look like yesterday’s issue.
MERKEL SHOULD STEP UP
During the Cold War, American leadership of the free world brought its economic strength and military power down on the side of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. Though America’s hegemony also had vices associated with its virtues, including a paradoxical willingness to support repressive regimes in the cause of freedom and an inclination to join in conflicts that were none of its business, there was no question who was the leader. But now, nearly six months into the presidency of Donald J. Trump, no such certainty exists. He is being regarded not so much as the leader of the free world as a danger to it.
His ham-fisted intervention in Arab politics during his visit to Saudi Arabia was followed by an almost equally clumsy rummage around in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, purportedly to promote peace, actually to muddy the waters. He will surely find, as he said when he tried replacing Barack Obama’s healthcare system, that nobody realised how complicated the issue was. Nobody but him.
Then he called on Pope Francis, a successful visit by Mr Trump’s standards in that nothing untoward happened, and moved on from there to a Nato summit in Brussels and a G7 meeting in Sicily. He unceremoniously lectured Nato leaders on their failure to pay enough for their own defence, which made American forces attached to Nato look like hired guns or mercenaries. He failed to endorse Nato’s basic principle, that an attack on one member state is an attack on all, thereby tempting the Kremlin to look again at the map of Eastern Europe and the Baltic. After that embarrassment he then became the only G7 leader to refuse to endorse global climate-change targets set by the Paris Agreement. Climate change is a threat to world peace if anything is.
Those are not the morals or manners of a leader. So who is one? The obvious candidate, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has shown brave moral vision in her approach to the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean refugee crisis. She has governed Germany well. Yet she has not yet learned how to project herself into all the spaces that Mr Trump has vacated. Her inhibitions are the standard German inhibitions moulded by German history – not wishing to seem over-mighty. But a vacuum is what nature abhors. The mantle of leader of the free world is available to her. She should try it on.
2 | THE TABLET | 3 JUNE 2017