Not all words are equal. People who speak or write for a living are more aware than most that some passages can stay with you a lifetime. The best are those that have so moved us that we carry them in our minds as strong and as instantly recallable as the faces of those we love.
As I write this last paragraph, it is raining in the city of London. Below me in the streets, the umbrellas are commiserating with each other. But 12,000 miles away and 12 hours from now, the yachts will be racing on Sydney harbour on a sea of crushed diamond under a sky of powdered sapphire. All up, the whippy’s taken. The birthplace of the fortunate sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will until the last of us come home.
I am quoting from memory and may have misplaced a word or a tense. When they first took root, I was eagerly discovering what it was to be an adult yet often felt homesick among the spires of Oxford. Thirty five years on, I can’t recall them without exaltation or tears. We should take care of our words because we never know what they will do for people.
So I made a pilgrimage to say ‘thank you’ to their author while I still could. My sense is that Clive James has never been more mentally and spiritually alive since he was told that he would soon be dead. Let’s hope the doctors at Cambridge’s renowned Addenbrooke Hospital can keep him going through another winter and for another book. All good people live on in the hearts of those who loved them but authors live for as long as people read them. Long may reading Unreliable Memoirs be a part of growing up for adolescents of all ages!
For most of the world there has never been a better time yet rarely have people in well-off countries seemed more discontented. As the desperation of millions to get here shows, to be an Australian is to have won the lottery of life – yet scarcely less than our cousins in Brexiting Britain and Trumping America, we seem convinced that we’re being ripped off and that government has let us down.
Britain’s new PM is not the first mainstream centre-right politician to wrestle with this pervasive mood that ‘I’m doing it tough and no one is on my side’ but I think she might be closer to a sensible response than anyone else. In Australia, as in Britain, government spending is too high. Government’s operations are wasteful. Everyone knows that Woolies and Coles are more efficient than Centrelink but most people feel that they have more of a say over government than they do over big business. Only political leaders of the left can safely embrace markets because it confuses their opponents and because they can credibly say that they won’t allow too much of a good thing. Maybe – just maybe – it’s time for the sensible right to abandon the Reaganite doctrine that government-is-the-problem-not-the-solution and to start really believing in the good that government can do. Perhaps vulnerable voters will only accept the need to take more responsibility for their own lives when they’re sure that government is still there for them if it doesn’t work.
Bill Clinton was lionised for the dictum it’s ‘the economy, stupid’ but being all-about-economics has done little good for any centre right leader. Now, Theresa May is saying, in effect: ‘society, stupid’. A budget surplus is important but it’s not an end in itself. A strong economy is vital but we live in a community not an economy. May’s speech last week to the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham would be a must-watch if it were shorter but it’s certainly a must-read. Conservatives must avoid the ‘extremes of socialism and libertarianism’, she declared. It’s important to have worker directors of companies, she said, because all of us contribute to their success. Of course, this 21st century version of Randolph Churchill’s Tory Democracy and Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism is easier to invoke than to implement. Still, my sense is that this could be a light bulb moment for the global centre-right.
I was in resurgent Birmingham as The Spectator’s guest to participate in a panel on the pitfalls and the possibilities of Brexit. Earlier, I was in New York for a seminar on US-China tensions and in London to address the UK-Australia Chamber of Commerce on a fast track Britain-Australia FTA. My website tonyabbott.com.au has the speeches. Alexander Downer, flourishing again as the diplomat he was before entering politics, and his predecessor-but-one as high commissioner, now Liberal Party president, Richard Alston, were also at the conference; as was Sir Michael Hintze, the most successful Australian in the world’s biggest financial market.
Geography means that Britain can’t leave Europe even if it wanted to; but, three months after the Brexit vote, my sense is that Britons are becoming quite reconciled to leaving the EU. It’s a ‘yes we can moment’. Still, post-Brexit Britain needs to show that it has economic partners while Australia needs to show that economic reform is not dead even in a difficult parliament. A ‘one page’ deal between the world’s fifth and 12th biggest economies for zero tariffs, full mutual recognition of standards and credentials, and free movement of people to work-but-not-to-bludge would be a rare win for economic common sense.
Memo to our prime minister: this is one thing that you must drive that could permanently improve Anglo-Australian relations. Memo to our trade minister: don’t let officials bamboozle you with detail and with alternatives, just get this done!