Simone Veil, the French politician most responsible for the passage of the law to legalise medical termination of pregnancy in France, died recently at the age of 87 in what I would be tempted to call, if France were not so militantly secular a country, the odour of sanctity. She was incontestably a redoubtable woman, a survivor of the German camps to which she was deported at the age of 16; but the effects of the law that she so assiduously promoted soon escaped her control and went far beyond its original intentions, as so many reformist laws are inclined to do. Very few reformers, however, ever take this tendency into account, perhaps because, for many of them, reform is the whole purpose and meaning of their lives.
As Mr Bumble famously remarked, the law is an ass, the law is an idiot: especially, it seems, when the judges sit in the European Court of Justice. They have just issued a judgment that is an open invitation to fraud on a mass scale and that, if taken seriously, could bring all economic activity whatsoever, apart from litigation, to a halt. The only hope is that the ECJ judges knew not what they did: any other interpretation would be deeply uncharitable.
There is a strange dialectic at work in Western society, or so it seems to me, between political apathy on the one hand and political rage on the other. In the recent French elections, for example, the rate of abstentions was the highest ever seen, more than half in the second round of the election of the legislature. But in the first round of the presidential election, the candidates of the extreme Left and extreme Right, both of whom drew their supporters by appealing to subliminal rage, had more votes than the eventual winner, a man previously almost unknown.
It is a commonplace that Switzerland is the only real democracy in the world: that is to say, the only country in the world where the people control the government in more than a nominal and intermittent fashion, and can call it to account at any time, on any subject, at any level of the administration.
In no country is central government less important. The President of Switzerland changes every year, and the position is purely honorific. Many Swiss do not even know his (or her) name. And what non-Swiss has ever heard of a President of Switzerland?
When a young man such as Salman Abedi, the Manchester bomber, blows himself up, killing as many others as he can take with him, it is only natural for us to ask why he acted as he did. His behavior is so extraordinary, as well as evil, and so far beyond the range of normal, that we are inclined to seek for an answer in his personal psychopathology. Only the mad would do such a thing; and since he did it, we conclude that he must have been mad.
In politics, there are no final victories and no lessons that are learned for good: error, like hope, springs eternal. Moreover, what counts as error for some may be wisdom, or at least temporary advantage, for others. There is no catastrophe, political or economic, from which someone does not benefit.
In modern democracies, promises to tax-and-spend are like sin, a permanent temptation: only that they are worse, in so far as they are an instrument for some to gain and (as they hope) to keep power. And so the pendulum swings, seemingly for ever, between extravagance and retrenchment, the former always being more popular than the latter.
In Britain, Mrs. May has overthrown the legacy of Mrs. Thatcher, though nominally she is of the same political party.
The Guardian newspaper, Britain’s major organ of liberal opinion, recently ran this headline: “The Arkansas mass executions on Easter Monday must be stopped.”
The emotive words “mass execution” conjure up in my mind considerably more than the eight executions the state of Arkansas planned to perform over the course of 11 days, two of which, as far as I am aware, had been carried out at the time the headline appeared. Che Guevara would have laughed at the idea that a mere eight people put to death, let alone two, constituted a mass execution. He would have taken the use of the word as further proof of the decadence of late capitalist society and its ripeness for overthrow: and so, no doubt, would Slavoj Zizek, mass murder’s star philosopher and proselytizer.
One of the great difficulties of consistent libertarianism is that of making people bear the full consequences of their own actions and choices. Another great difficulty, indeed, is whether we should much care to live in a society that found a way of doing so.
Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit is one of the worst books on any subject that I have read in a long time. It is a blow-by-boring-blow account of David Cameron’s referendum campaign, principally in the media of mass communication, to keep Britain in the European Union. It was written by Craig Oliver, whose job was director of politics and communications in David Cameron’s administration, a title instinct with dishonesty. At least one knows what a second-hand car salesman does. But a very bad book may, in its own way, be highly instructive, as this one is. If mediocrity can…