In 1873, when Jules Verne published his Around the World in Eighty Days, it seemed worth betting that a circumnavigation of the globe could be achieved in less than three months. Having just completed the feat in roughly three weeks, I feel like a slowcoach. (I gather it can be done on scheduled flights in 32 hours.) First stop was Los Angeles for Mike Milken’s annual conference, an extravaganza of West Coast networking and notworking (the two go hand in hand) held in Beverly Hills. One of the year’s best one-liners was Jamie Dimon’s back in January, when he defined the Davos World Economic Forum as being ‘where billionaires tell millionaires what the middle class feels’. By contrast, the Milken conference is where New Yorkers tell Californians what the Chinese feel.
And so to Beijing, where I was lecturing on ‘The West and China’ to several hundred students at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management. I had not foreseen that my two lectures on the Cold War era would coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution. I asked a Chinese colleague if I might be treading on thin ice at a time when the regime was reported to be cracking down on heterodoxy at universities. ‘No, no — you must say exactly what you like,’ he replied. ‘That is what we want.’ So I told my class the story of how Stalin played Mao for a fool in 1950, duping him into fighting the Korean war at considerable risk to his fledgling revolutionary regime. I even quoted Mao’s frustrated comment when Stalin kept him cooling his heels in a dacha outside Moscow in late 1949. ‘I have only three tasks here,’ he complained to his security detail. ‘The first is to eat, the second is to sleep, the third is to shit!’ Not a dicky bird. Moreover, it would be hard to imagine a group of students more different from the little monsters who so cruelly molested and in some cases murdered their professors in the same city in the late 1960s.
From Beijing to Sydney. Democracy in Australia is compulsory: you have to vote. And you have to vote often, as they have general elections every three years and change party leaders between elections just to keep voters on their toes. They’ve had four prime ministers in the last five years. Most recently the politically incorrect Tony Abbott was dumped by the governing Liberals (in fact conservatives) for the more polished Malcolm Turnbull.
This system sounds mad. But then you see life in Sydney and you think twice. The no. 1 talking point in US politics today is the ‘hollowing out of the middle class’ and the ensuing political backlash (Trump to the right, Sanders to the left). The middle class of New South Wales doesn’t look very concave; more convex. Could this have something to do with mandatory, frequent voting?
In search of an explanation, I flew and sailed to Hayman Island, Queensland, home of the annual Australian Leadership Retreat. It occurred to me, as I reflected on Abbott’s ousting by Turnbull, that this might be read as an imperative: ‘Australian Leadership … Retreat!’ Unlike Abbott, Turnbull has the air of a politician in the tradition of the French revolutionary Alexandre Ledru-Rollin in 1848, to whom is attributed the bon mot: ‘There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.’
Intellectual leadership in Australia has been provided for 40 years by Greg Lindsay’s Centre for Independent Studies. It was primarily to celebrate the CIS’s birthday that I was in Sydney, for I owe Greg a special debt. It was he who introduced me to my wife, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in New York in 2009. Never say that libertarians are not romantic.
On the trendier US campuses, white males are now warned to ‘check your privilege’. Imagine my delight at seeing a sign above the urinal at Sydney airport that read: ‘Check your balls.’
Last stop, London for a meeting at 11 Downing Street of historians opposed to Brexit. It is 14 years since I left Oxford for the United States. Age has not withered the preposterously youthful Roy Foster, nor the supernaturally unchanging Quentin Skinner. Sir Keith Thomas stole the show with a deft speech that touched on everything from the nationalities of the Leicester City squad to the cosmopolitanism of the great historian Lord Acton, described in the old Dictionary of National Biography as ‘never more than half an Englishman’. That most English of historians, Andrew Roberts, was never likely to attend — he is a confirmed Brexiteer — but I quoted him just the same. Is this Munich, I wondered on the flight back to Boston, or Suez? Will the rifts caused by the referendum be equally deep and long-lasting? I asked Andrew. He thought not. I do hope he’s right.
Niall Ferguson is a Harvard professor and a Sunday Times columnist.