The results of last month’s British election, which I learned while on a visit to Hungary, came to me, and to many of my friends, as a great relief. The defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, whose economic ideas could produce a shortage of salt water in the Pacific, was incomparably more important to us than the question of Brexit, a minor distraction by comparison.
The polls immediately before the election had been worrying. While the surveys suggested that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would win the most seats, they also hinted that they might not win enough seats to form an effective government. The result might bring further parliamentary chaos or, worse still, a coalition involving Corbyn, the Scots nationalists, the Liberal Democrats, and the greens. Try as we might to avoid thinking about the polls, we could not: they were everywhere, and they depressed our spirits by claiming that the gap between the parties was closing and that Johnson and Corbyn were running neck and neck.
The polls, thank goodness, were wrong by a mile. We no longer had to muse upon whether and how to leave—or escape—the country. The prospect of crushing taxes, total government and union control of the economy, expropriation of private property without proper compensation (or any), and a general Venezuela-ization, had receded.
But our rejoicing should be decidedly muted. No victory in politics is final, and even the most atrocious ideas are never defeated once and for all. Johnson’s political career might yet end in ignominy and humiliation—as most political careers do. He will not solve his country’s deep and enduring problems, and a crisis, or crises, will arrive that he will not be able to master. At such a time or times, Corbyn-type ideas will re-emerge: there remains always a temptation to say that if things are bad, they cannot get worse, and that therefore something radically different is worth a try. Good sense is not preordained to prevail.
I left Hungary the day after the election and travelled to Paris, where, because of the strikes, no trains and very few buses were running. The maladroit Emanuel Macron was trying to reform the nation’s pension system that awarded privileges to some and (by definition) denied them to others. Not only the privileged were demonstrating against his proposed reforms, however, but also the young, who did not appear to understand that they were only making a rod to beat their own backs: for it was they who would have to pay for a system sustainable only by heavy taxes on themselves.
Polls suggest that French public opinion is deeply and almost equally divided between supporters and opponents of the proposed reforms. Given the recent performance of polls in Great Britain, however, why should we believe them? I decided to take my own poll, of two taxi drivers. Opinion was indeed divided equally between them. The first said that he—unlike train drivers, who could retire at 52—would have to work until he was 67 to receive his pension, which he found unfair and unjust. The other driver said that in a country in which the middle class was disappearing, to the great profit of a few billionaires, it was only right and natural that people should cling to their few remaining privileges, by any means that they could.
No final political settlement will ever be found. And notwithstanding Boris Johnson’s victory, it remains to be seen whether Britain leaves the EU de facto as well as de jure.
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