Messages pour in for Joe

World leaders were united in offering congratulations to the man who will soon control the biggest national spending power in the world. Boris Johnson was one of the first to call the new President-to-be and in tribute to Mr Biden’s unique style, he plagiarised the whole text from a speech by Stalin.

Across the world, the message was the same: ‘we want your friendship, your goodwill, and most of all your money’. Hunter Biden stood by his father, watching as job offers rolled in from across the globe.

Boris Johnson did not forget to congratulate Kamala Harris too in her role, reminding her that both her parents were British subjects by birth and remarking on how well regarded her Indian grandfather was in the service the Empire.

Other political figures sent their own tributes. Ed Davey, brushed off being mistaken for a telephone sales caller to give a heartfelt tribute from the British Liberal Democrats, noting that they have long considered themselves allies with the US Democrats even if the Democrats have never heard of them, and they are in complete admiration, as in Britain they have never managed to conduct such open manipulation of the electoral system as was achieved in America.

Vladimir Putin did not send his congratulations: it is understood that in Russia a presidential election is not considered settled until they have finished counting all the bodies.

As the sound of knives sharpening behind Mr Biden continued, the world stood and considered the bright future for his budget spending.

In America now

Everyone has to give a commentary on the elections in the United States, apparently, and though I have never so much as stepped on American soil, it is expected of me.

The big winner was Joe Biden, in more ways than commentators have noticed; the apparent weakness of his overall position actually gives him more power against those who are seeking grab power themselves, but more later.

The election was all showbusiness, and that is what we have come to expect. It is turbo-charged since Hollywood pizzazz became the norm in all public presentations, and the Presidential Election is Hollywood-style with the stops pulled out, and that is the spirit in which I followed it, to the extent I did.

It would be comforting to believe this and the visceral hatred splitting the nation is new, but in 1835, when the ink was barely dry on the Constitution, De Tocqueville, who celebrated American democracy said:

For a long while before the appointed time has come, the election becomes the important and, so to speak, the all-engrossing topic of discussion. Factional ardour is redoubled, and all the artificial passions which the imagination can create in a happy and peaceful land are agitated and brought to light. . . . As the election draws near, the activity of intrigue and the agitation of the populace increase; the citizens are divided into hostile camps, each of which assumes the name of its favourite candidate; the whole nation glows with feverish excitement, the election is the daily theme of the press, the subject of private conversation, the end of every thought and every action, the sole interest of the present.

I say that Biden won, but there are the legal challenges. (Were there instances of corruption, stolen votes, dead voters and fraud? I expect so: there usually are in the American system.) It goes to the courts then to confirm the result we already know: the United States were founded by lawyers; the Union’s constitution and institutions were shaped by lawyers, and so it is expected that it will be fought out through lawyers. That is a habit of the American system almost unheard-of in the Commonwealth. On the other hand, it is far better than the alternative we see in less favoured lands.

The Presidency is a winner-takes all situation; it is not like a Commonwealth Prime Minister weighing the strength or weakness of a parliamentary majority, so the narrowness of win does not weaken the incoming President. What does, on the surface, is that his party failed to win control of the Senate, or to move the House of Representative much either. However, all is not what it seems.

The ground-level of the Democratic Party has become a very different place. This was the ancient party of the establishment – the party of Andrew Jackson, Jefferson Davis and George Wallace, the party that came out of the established powers and upheld them, championing in turn the old states, the plantation system and slavery, Jim Crow, and the gang bosses of New York. It was reliability encapsulated, against the insurgent Republican Party that wanted to tear down slavery and ossified power, but it learned to adapt, to create client groups dependent on them, in the New Deal and the entrenched dependency of welfare systems: even the Civil Rights Act was a cynical client-creation system when Jim Crow had failed. Now the roots are very different, filling with radicals that are the antithesis of what the Democrats were, whose ideas would cause collapse of systems, which are shattering the client systems. Now the man of their party is on top, with all the executive power in his hands, they want a turn at the wheel.

This is where the apparent weakness becomes a strength. By having power restrained, Biden cannot give that power to the nutcases – while he retains sufficient power to do as he wishes. Without control of the Senate, the wild-Democrats cannot fill all the offices of the Union with fellow nutcases: it requires compromise, which leaves Mr Biden in control of appointments, not the radical element.

Much has been made of the new conservative Supreme Court, and again this is to Mr Biden’s advantage, though not in the same way. The political argument over the court has been about the willingness of justices to overturn legislation, by reading into the Constitution words which are not there: a conservative court reads the American Constitution as it is written, and so is les willing to overturn legislation and executive acts. That strengthens the power of the President and of the House of Representatives. Mr Biden, for all the bluster by those behind him, should welcome a conservative court, and when the time comes he should appoint more conservative justices to it.

I doubt that the politicians will see it this way.

On the other hand, I am not an American, and I could have got it all wrong, and any American is welcome to tell me it is none of my business, which it isn’t.

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Books

Oh, Vienna!

This means anything but nothing to me: the city is imprinted upon my mind as much as in the days I trod its streets. It is an enchanting, frustrating, beguiling city. It is the Hauptstadt of Austria, but it is not an Austrian city – it is too big un-German and unique: Vienna is an Austro-Hungarian city.

The city is a jewel, a demonstration of the exuberant confidence which created it, not at the edge of a little, rural country as it is now, but at the centre of an empire of interwoven people, in which Vienna was the showpiece summation of cultural achievement, which was reflected also in the empire’s co-capitals, in Budapest and Prague. These cities were, and are, all of a piece with Vienna. Vienna is not the German one of the three cities but a coalescence: its heritage is German-Hungarian-Bohemian-Italian, and that still shows not just in the architecture and art but down to the everyday culture, such as the cuisine, and habits of the people.

This week the city was struck by horror. It somehow got lost in news that is obsessed with the showbiz election in America, and coming just after more horrors in France (which have themselves been lost to the attention because they are so frequent these days). It hit me because the city should be a place of joy.

It never has been, though. There was always a dark undercurrent beneath the dazzling sights: more than one Emperor has been driven out by a mob. In its heyday the streets were filled with a babble of voices from across the Habsburg lands and in reaction the populace installed a German nationalist mayor of a sort more familiar in the next generation. Here gathered artists, each believing himself a genius, and most being mainly talentless. Hitler and Stalin were wandering around town at the same time: there is no evidence that they ever met, but I like to think of them sitting together on a bench in the Volksgarten yarning over whom they would round up and kill if they ever could, as powerless vagrants do. There were artistic movements, but also very nasty political ones.

Now there are few Hungarian or Bohemian or Croatian noblemen riding about town to their palaces, but the streets are still a babble of voices. Of these came the blow that shattered the dream-city this week, ending the laughter with a voice reaching out in a piercing cry, killing and maiming near the city’s synagogue. (That there is still a synagogue tells something of resilience in defiance of all-burning slaughter; that it cannot live in peace is a shame to civilisation.) The daylight brings a cool empty silence.

Poignantly, those hailed as heroes for restraining the killer were two Turks and an Arab; amongst the city’s new version of its internationalism.

Oh, Vienna; your troubles hit me hard.

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What of Lagos?

I cannot hope to describe Lagos, except in throw-away lines about shimmering prosperity, practical, dirty industry, and huge neighbourhoods of those who have descended on the city to seek a share of its gold, but cannot find it.

The city is the mightiest in Africa, a tribute to its position on a vast natural habour and its confident establishment as a hub of Empire, and oil. It escapes the news in the northern world though, in Britain, where many of its people end up, or Europe. Last week the name of Lagos should have been blazoned over the headlines, but it was hidden away; an inside-pages “and also”.

When an American cop killed a single unarmed man, the cities of America rose in protest and much more, and across the Atlantic in places unaffected by the scandal there were protests of thousands crowded into the streets, expressing, regardless of race, fellow-feeling and incontinent rage. In Lagos though the police have been gunning down innocent citizens for years, and robbing, raping and extorting, all with impunity. Nothing was heard here.

Then on 20 October, a protest to demand the end of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad marched through the streets, and the police opened fire. This was not a morally ambiguous encounter like those that scar America, but plain murder. Maybe the Lagos police have become inured to it, but each body that fell is a father, a mother, a son or a daughter. The next day there were more, and more as gangs joined in.

Where were the crowds on the streets of London, or anywhere else? Surely Nigerian Lives Matter too?

The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke up, and he knows Nigeria well. There was silence from everyone other usual commentator. If you know one, ask him or her why.

Some passing eyes might have thought ‘SARS’ was just one of those Chinese respiratory diseases, which made the hashtags a bit unfortunate, but the Nigerians know what it is and they have learnt to tremble at it.

The squad was abolished when the protests began, but its members are still in the police, still facing no consequences for what they did, not ever will they.

There is a bit of nostalgia in my view of Lagos and prefer to think of the better things, and there are plenty of these, passing over the seedy side of the city, but it is a great city. It is not one of the lawless wildernesses of Nigeria – it is not the Sahel in the north nor the Delta in the south-east. It can prosper when its people are allowed to aspire – and not be beaten to death for looking flashy, which was the SARS way of working.

It is all going wrong now – with no law, the rioters have taken the opportunity to fill their pockets, and destroy those entrepreneurs who were making an honest way and providing employment and service to the community: just as the commercial life of Lagos thought it was relieved of the depredations of SARS, that hope is torn apart by rioters. Angels weep over the city.

Statesmanship, a lost art

In my youth I thought that the statesmen of great nations rose by natural superiority and brilliance of mind. Then I started meeting them and was at once disabused of this. Europe has no Talleyrand, no Bismarck, no De Gaulle. They would not have reacted with petulance nor believed the press headline over the reality.  One should not beg for another Bismarck to rise in Europe, but he is needed at this hour.

The forced introduction of democracy to the benighted states of Europe has succeeded in its purpose, of introducing imbecility and thus impotence. The condition appears to have spread also to the smaller states which had previously had forms of democracy. They spit out at the top no statesmen but petty players and énarques.

Taleyrand would not have read the newspaper headline to the exclusion of the reality. (He might have written the headline, to get effect.) Bismarck would leak a faked telegram, or email in our age, but he would not have believed one, nor preferred a Guardian leader over his own analysis. He would have understood, and understood the game. De Gaulle would occasionally make a diplomatic gaffe in exercise of his own greatness (Vive le Quebec…) but his every action was for the good of France and its people.

In the sensible world, beyond Europe, progress is being made on many fronts: a new trade treaty with Japan signed yesterday, and others rolling along towards the finish. That should be a challenge to Europe, but so far they appear just as inward-looking politicians.

It was commented on this blog earlier about the unseemly behaviour we have seen, fighting by press release instead of secret, diplomatic negotiation. Maybe, we may think, it is a symptom of the modern world of open, instant communication aimed at the lowest common denominator. However it has not affected the negotiations carried out elsewhere across the world.

The French Ambassadors to King Henry VIII, those in Holbein’s picture, on whose word turned war or peace, were in their twenties. We can afford elder statesmen these days. It would helpful if we could find some.

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