Unity through Strength
Finland celebrates its centenary this year. After bowing to the tsar for a century, the Finnish Senate decided the Bolshevik Revolution was a step too far and declared independence. In the ensuing civil war, the bourgeois, Swedish-speaking Whites eventually crushed, with German help, the Bolshevik-backed Reds. To mark the anniversary, the Finland Mint struck commemorative coins, including one that features the killing of Reds by a White firing squad (now withdrawn after protests). It's all about forging national unity through strength.
Unlike in the US or France, there's no sign that the Russians can be arsed to intervene in the UK election campaign, though maybe Lynton Crosby has a latter-day Zinoviev letter up his sleeve in case of need. May remains unfathomably popular, Corbyn fathomably unpopular. Labour's likely fate compares with the Finnish Reds, blindfolded and waiting for the order to fire. The Tories are marching on under the slogan 'strong and stable government', a Crosby-hatched earworm to stun voters through Pavlovian repetition and mute any risk of intercession by critical thought. Still, it's worth recalling how it has got to this.
Let's do the 'strong' thing first. Strong David Cameron promised to hold a referendum because he was scared of Ukip. Sure of winning, he made little effort to ensure victory or mitigate defeat – by imposing a super-majority requirement, say, or by underlining that the plebiscite was only advisory. Nor was there any vision, beyond Project Fear, of how the EU might be reformed. When Cameron blew it, a vacuum opened, to be filled by the government's lack of ideas of what to do with ‘independence’ once it was won.
If a few hundred thousand more Remainers had turned out to vote, and a few hundred thousand Leavers stayed at home, Britain wouldn't have triggered Article 50. His successor is described by some besotted fans as a woman of 'passion' and 'moral vision', but Theresa May's fervid conviction seems, like the Corinthians', to be directed at an unknown god. She backed Remain when it was thought likely to win, but now thinks 'Brexit means Brexit'.
Her government doesn’t look especially stable either. Brexit is now being steered by figures of the stature of Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and David Davis – though they may well wind up in the post-election tumbril. At this stage we don't even know who'll be negotiating. Inflation from sterling devaluation seems to have slowed growth in the last quarter. As for the economic upheaval while the Brexit talks go on, prospective inward investors have no basis for knowing the tariff regime in which they will have to operate. In the car industry, components cross the Channel several times before being finished. Nissan's European head of manufacturing, when asked in March if the firm's Sunderland plant, with 7000 jobs, was safe, said: 'No, I would not say that at all.'
Apart from the economic uncertainties of leaving the EU without any clear plan, there's the destabilising of the border with the Irish Republic and the further rocking of the UK's relationship with Scotland, which may well have jumped ship by the 2022 election. Strong and stable government? If only.
This week's most significant election campaign moment occurred not in Britain but Berlin, where Angela Merkel addressed the Bundestag ahead of the European Council meeting in Brussels this weekend on Brexit. ‘A third party state, as Great Britain will be, can't and won't enjoy the same rights as a member of the EU, or maybe even better ones,' said Merkel. 'I get the feeling that some people in Great Britain still have illusions about this. They're wasting their time.' Merkel reaffirmed her support for Donald Tusk's negotiating guidelines, and for insisting that talks about trade access follow rather than run concurrently with those over Britain's financial obligations to the EU. The Council quickly ratified this stance in Brussels.
Merkel talked about the disruption facing German nationals resident in the UK, such as a student finishing his studies at a Scottish university and wanting to stay on afterwards, or a couple with children brought up in London; as the chancellor noted, similar worries beset British nationals in Germany.
May shot back that 'twenty-seven other European countries are lining up to oppose us': it was time for the strength that can only come of national unity. Choose unity, choose strength, choose commemorative medals; Spitfires for victory, firing squads for the vanquished.