It has become fashionable in recent years to talk of the death of liberalism. But as crowds high on the octane of generational self-righteousness rampage through major cities, the evidence mounts. The growing intolerance of freedom of thought, the inability to talk across divides, the way that most of the British establishment, police included, feels the need to pledge fealty to the cause — as though all terrified of ending up on the wrong side — points to a crisis of more than confidence.
America can often look, to outsiders, like a country of two warring tribes: the Trumpish anti-PC brigade vs the woke Twitterati. Such divisions certainly exist. Our broadcasters are party political and partisanship is deeply entrenched in America’s two-party system. It’s tempting to see the scenes in recent weeks as the continuation of tribal warfare by other means —but the truth is far more complicated.
America has the most militarised and aggressive police force in the western world.
Once we wrote poems when we lost our trees. Now we just watch them rot. In 1820 John Clare was moved to mark the end of a single tree he had loved: ‘It hoples Withers droops & dies.’ In 2020, so many English trees are dying that it would take a library of Clares to record the casualties.
This year, locked-down in Derbyshire, I have been watching skeletons amid the green, hoping that they will return to life. Almost all have.
At the start of the pandemic, the situation in care homes looked particularly grim. One report on 19 March said: ‘Experts warn that hundreds of substandard long-term care facilities could serve as hotbeds for the contagious coronavirus.’ The alert came not from Wiltshire or Manchester, but from Park Chan-kyong, Seoul correspondent of the South China Morning Post. There was real fear that the residents of the city’s care homes would become victims of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The appointment of Simon Case to the role of No. 10’s new permanent secretary last month is already creating an interesting new power dynamic in Boris Johnson’s top team. Dominic Cummings, Downing Street’s resident grenade-thrower, is now working with someone more adept at defusing bombs. Case, a Barbour--wearing career civil servant, was poached from Kensington Palace, where he was Prince William’s right-hand man, by cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.
The government’s battle cry in the fight against the pandemic is ‘Follow the science’. But it is hard to see the science behind the disastrous and potentially crippling 14-day quarantine rule which came into effect on Monday — or, rather, failed to come into effect in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s not been made available or published anywhere, and even the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, politely refrained from giving the ruling his endorsement, saying it was a matter for the politicians: ‘They make the policy, and they make the timing decisions.
Last week shattered all my sense of stability and permanence in New York, the city I’ve called home since 2012 (though I’ve spent some of those years in London). The looting mobs that rampaged through Gotham’s streets — including my block — put me in mind of my native Middle East; it’s a phenomenon I thought I’d left behind ‘over there’, not to be encountered except on the occasional reporting trip to Iraq or Egypt. But no.
This week marked 500 years since the beginning of the two-week festival of jousting, feasting and general splendour that came to be known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Henry VIII, accompanied by a retinue of more than 5,000, had set out across the Channel from Dover for the small town of Guînes. There he was to meet Francis I, king of France since 1515, 25 years old to Henry’s 29, and seen by Henry as a rival. On this occasion, however, Henry came to make peace, not war, at a meeting organised by Thomas Wolsey — Lord Chancellor and the rising power in England.