Before the lockdown began, I had been hoping to celebrate VE Day in Belarus this weekend. Within a year of winning power in 1994, Alexander Lukashenko organised a march in Minsk to commemorate victory in the Great Patriotic War, and it’s become a quinquennial tradition. Events intervened. Curiosity ceased to be a reasonable excuse for leaving home in the UK, and Belarus requires foreign visitors to isolate themselves for 14 days. If that suggests the president is taking a precautionary approach to Covid-19, however, it’s misleading. With neo-Soviet folksiness, Lukashenko claimed in March that the disease is ‘nothing more than a psychosis’ which people could overcome by driving tractors and disinfecting themselves with vodka. He has ignored the social distancing recommendations made by the WHO, which said on 1 May that infections were spreading faster in Belarus than almost anywhere else in Europe. The official death toll is still below two hundred, but the true figure may be far higher. Two TV journalists were last week stripped of their accreditation for discovering ‘an abundance of fresh graves’ in a cemetery just outside the capital.
Orbán has been described by his biographer Paul Lendvai as a ‘master tactician, gifted populist’ and ‘radical and consummate opportunist’ – remind you of someone? Anyone familiar with Boris, however (and I was a close acquaintance for 25 years), will know that the parallels are misleading. Johnson isn’t a nationalist strongman in the Orbán mould. He’s a lot more cavalier than that.
Czechoslovakia would have been a hundred years old last Sunday, and Prague spent the weekend celebrating. I’ve been to better birthday parties. The gloomy weather didn’t help – it didn’t just rain on the parades, it poured – and the centennial narratives, never simple, were complicated further by the fact they were commemorating a state that dissolved itself in 1993.
I met Aung San Suu Kyi just the once. It was in August 2012, quite soon after she was released from fifteen years of on-off house arrest. Myanmar’s military junta looked ready to loosen its grip on power, and I was there on behalf of an international organisation of human rights lawyers to investigate how the legal order might be stabilised. Serious business, but you wouldn’t know it from my souvenir photograph. I look thrilled to bits.
Like Neal Ascherson, I recently revisited Gdańsk. The last time I was there was in August 1983, three years after the Gdańsk Agreement, the Communist Party’s abortive deal with the Solidarity trade union movement. Protests were expected. I was 19, and still had a few weeks left before university. It seemed sensible to lend a hand. I was detained several times by the ZOMO riot police, and once found myself marching beside Lech Wałęsa. But it was a lull in the action that came to mind most often last week. At one point in 1983, as protesters around me contemptuously tossed złoty coins towards ZOMO officers, a wall of shields advanced and we were all swept into a subway. Smiling nervously at a priest who ended up next to me, I heard him murmur something like a prayer. When I explained that I spoke only English, his eyes widened. ‘England?’ he repeated. Reaching for my wavy black hair, he pressed a curl between his fingers. ‘But you are … nigger?’
It is a political cliché that tails sometimes wag dogs. The metaphor isn’t instantly decipherable though. Politics has no shortage of figurative fauna – from snakes in the grass and stalking horses to big beasts and dinosaurs – but a wagged dog is more complex than it sounds.
As posturing over Brexit has given way to negotiations, the European Court of Justice is looming large. The prospects for EU citizens resident in the UK, uncertain enough to begin with, have been obscured by the government’s insistence that ECJ judges won’t be determining their rights. Even the court’s regulatory role over nuclear research is one judicial pretension too many for London: Theresa May has committed the UK to withdrawing from the European Atomic Energy Community as well as the EU, because the ECJ sorts out Euratom disputes.
Donald Trump’s instinctive response to his most recent crisis was predictable. As the tales of groping multiplied and swirled, he claimed the high ground. His accusers, he said, were ‘horrible, horrible liars’, whose attacks were being ‘orchestrated by the Clintons and their media allies’. He was willing to suffer for his ‘disfranchised’ followers, however, and they would collectively ‘take back our country’. The election, he promised, was going to be ‘our Independence Day’. As far as the US media took any notice – and many, in their mainstream way, were focusing instead on the complaints of Trump’s alleged victims – there was confusion. Was Trump drawing on the science fiction movie of the same name, wondered the New York Daily News? The 1996 film shows the White House destroyed by aliens. Worldwide havoc ensues. America’s president leads the counterattack that eliminates the intruders for ever (sequels notwithstanding). In Trump’s eyes, that's not fantasy so much as cinéma vérité. The inspiration for his speech, however, is almost certainly closer to home.
In the Telegraph last week, Andrew Roberts suggested that one of ‘the many splendid opportunities provided by the … heroic Brexit vote’ was the chance for Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom to unite as a federation. Nigel Farage advised Irish radio listeners to ‘hedge their bets’ by rejoining the Commonwealth. And Liam Fox (who wants us to abandon our ‘obsession’ with Europe in favour of the Commonwealth) has started ‘scoping out the parameters’ of a free trade deal with Australia.
Reactions to the Chilcot Report suggest that the only remaining argument for the Iraq War is that criticism rests on hindsight. Tony Blair explained that he invaded the country 'in good faith', as if that somehow excuses the catastrophe that followed. General Sir Mike Jackson shrugged off responsibility for British soldiers blown up in inadequately armoured vehicles by observing that their fate was unforeseeable: ‘we'll never know,’ he said, if any died unnecessarily. Listening to the deflections of blame, I was reminded of a scholar whose work Tony Blair has long admired. Philip Bobbitt warned in 2004 that the war's critics were making a basic philosophical error. He called it ‘Parmenides' Fallacy’: the mistaken attempt to assess a situation 'by measuring it against the past, as opposed to comparing it to other possible present states of affairs’. The argument sounded clever when I first read it, but not for long.