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The Spectator's Notes

Why didn’t Cameron realise the ‘strength of feeling’ about Brexit?

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

21 September 2019

9:00 AM

In his memoirs, David Cameron admits that he ‘did not fully appreciate the strength of feeling’ in favour of Brexit, before and during the referendum. The fascinating question is, ‘Why?’ The issue of Europe had been dividing his party from at least 1988 (and had earlier roots). It was part of his modernisation not to ‘bang on’ about Europe, but this was an evasion, not a policy. If a leader does not address a vital question, others will, if he gives them the chance.

You cross a windswept plaza, go down a steepish stair and then descend three floors below the ground. You are entering the astonishing, 21st-century Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, only a few miles from where it began when the German battleship the Schleswig-Holstein bombarded the Westerplatte in September 1939. The first notice you see reminds you that this war was the result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact the previous month, and that Poland was the first and greatest victim. As Evelyn Waugh puts it at the beginning of the Sword of Honour trilogy: ‘The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.’ Eighty years on from the month in which Germans from the West and Russians from the East crushed Poland, it is sobering for an Englishman to see how marginal — although we declared war for the sake of Poland — Britain was. The deep tunnels of the museum exhibit distressingly the utter, yet unutterable destruction. We were, by comparison, bystanders.


I was in Gdansk for another anniversary — 30 years since the end of communist government — a date which many Poles regard as their final liberation from the war. For this, there is another, equally impressive museum. The European Solidarity Centre, opened in 2014, memorialises the Solidarity Movement which began in Gdansk. It stands on the site where all this happened — the Lenin shipyards. The shipyard gates survive, but the word ‘Lenin’ was removed by the Solidarity strikers and the blank space in the notice beside the gates remains. The centre has a visual problem which a war museum does not have — how to depict a peaceful victory. But it succeeds. The single most powerful feature is the contemporary film of the dramatic 1980 meeting in the shipyard between the electrician Lech Walesa with his Solidarity comrades and the big Red cheeses from Warsaw, the latter sweating nervously as, for the first time ever, they confront a power which, though unarmed, is greater than their own. The film shows both sides signing agreement on the 21 demands which the striking workers had written crudely on a wooden board (the original is on display). To sign, Walesa deliberately used a jumbo-sized ballpoint pen marked with the name and symbols of John Paul II, the Polish Pope, so that it would be visible on the state-controlled news. As a result, copies of the pen became Poland’s earliest example of mass free-market merchandising. The short film encapsulates the true story that communists always dreamed of — revolutionary workers claiming their rights and freedoms against the bosses. Yet the workers were anti-communists, Catholics, liberals, conservatives, patriots. It is one of the most inspiring moments in 20th-century history.

Among the Solidarity exhibits are books produced by my Polish publisher, Grzegorsz Boguta. At that time, his work was underground, so each book was a criminal offence. After the Polish government declared martial law, he was imprisoned. Because Soviet communism no longer used mass murder, we forget how oppressive it remained. Grzegorsz was held without trial or lawyers or any idea when, if ever, he would be released, for two years. He was allowed family visits only once a month. His first wife left him while he was incarcerated. As a publisher today in a free Poland, he celebrates the memory of the westerners who most helped his country gain freedom and so he has had translated — assuredly not for profit — H.W. Brands’s biography of Ronald Reagan, and now (the reason for my presence) the first volume of mine of Mrs Thatcher. She came to Gdansk in November 1988, to see Walesa. As she entered the city by boat from the Westerplatte, state television cut off all coverage, because it would have revealed the huge crowds of cheering workers as she visited the shipyards. She was dressed in green, which is the colour, in Poland, of hope. She returned to Warsaw and told General Jaruzelski that Solidarity would negotiate in good faith and so he should admit them to the round-table talks. He did so. Through these talks, the communists voluntarily relinquished power in September 1989.

The BBC’s Roger Harrabin is an amazing fellow. On the Today programme on Monday, he reported that the former chief scientific officer Sir David King says he is scared by the pace of climate change. Harrabin also acknowledged that the head of the World Meteorological Organisation, Petteri Taalas, had recently expressed anxiety that climate alarmists were frightening people unnecessarily. Harrabin quickly added, however (‘I have to say…’) that an unnamed US academic had recently told him that climate change was ‘like watching a slow-motion train crash with me waving my arms and I couldn’t stop it’. Thus was Mr Taalas rebuked. The story reappeared on the TV news. It had the same ‘balanced’ presentational formula — Sir David King versus children being unnecessarily frightened — but Harrabin’s expert on frightened children was a spokeswoman for the Climate Psychology Alliance. I googled this body. The organisation positively advocates frightening us (‘I’m hoping that reading this will make you feel depressed’). So the balance was no balance.

Before leaving for Poland, I handed in the final proof corrections to the last volume of my biography — changes to the index. I enjoyed filing the following: ‘On Thatcher, (Sir) Denis, on p.x, — replace “on litter” with “on journalists”.’


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