I was looking through some notes I took when visiting the home of Sir Winston Churchill at Chartwell a couple of months ago and I came across the following. During a speech in the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 – the day after the fall of France – he said: ‘Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.’
This made me stop and think. It is all too easy to pick over the different interpretations of history (how we got to where we are) and justify ourselves by the accuracy of our (post hoc) prophecies or analytical skills. But the danger is that, despite the importance of knowing where we have come from in order to know why we are where we are, we simply distract ourselves from the task of shaping the future.
I am conscious of this reading the post-Budget reporting this evening. I was in meetings all day and so was spared the puerile bear-pit shouting match that always accompanies Westminster activity. But it seems to me that there is a good deal of self-justification going on (in ‘I told you so’ terms) – to the detriment of an adult and responsible cooperation by political leaders for the sake of the country and the world. The massive enormity of the economic challenge should not be a matter for party-political opportunism. It is a classic of losing the big picture by haggling over some detail.
There is a typically English touch to Lady Churchill’s erstwhile bedroom at Chartwell. On the four-poster bed there is a sign that says: ‘Please try not to touch’. Isn’t that lovely? Not a command such as: ‘Do not touch!’ or ‘Touch this and you’re dead!’ But an invitation to be be responsible and considerate that recognises the power of temptation to do the opposite of what we are told.
I wonder if it might be remotely possible for our political leaders to accept a gentle invitation to try something different and resist the temptation to play the tedious old games of partisan point-scoring and take responsibility for our mutual future?