What politicians could learn from the French Revolution

It’s the job of historians to try to understand the past, not to predict the future. Normally we keep to our patch, to the stuff we know. So when I wrote my most recent book Choosing Terror, about the crisis of the French Revolution as it was experienced by its leaders, I had no thought of contemporary political resonances. Surely, I thought, in my naïve historian’s way, we’ve learned from the past. That at least won’t happen again. I can’t help being struck though with the parallels between the situation for the leaders of the French Revolution, and what I am witnessing every day in contemporary British politics: political leaders making catastrophic misjudgements about their country’s rightful relations with the other European powers – misjudgements that threaten to affect a whole generation of young people (in the case of the French Revolution a reckless declaration of war in 1792, in the case of the contemporary UK a political miscalculation to decide the country’s fate by referendum that is fast leading to an economic as well as a political crisis); a cosmopolitan outlook undermined by misguided patriotism swiftly leading to a rise of xenophobia and nationalism; ambitious leaders ready to destabilise politics for their own personal advantage – the very opposite of what a politician as a ‘man of virtue’ was meant to do; politicians plotting against one another, ruthlessly betraying their friends and allies; conviction politicians who refuse to be moved, who say they don’t do factional and party politics and think only of the common good; politicians so emotionally devastated that they weep openly at the impending collapse of all have devoted their lives to; a tense situation in which every day brings fresh crisis so that politicians are stressed, on edge, exhausted and afraid; and many ordinary people who feel a dangerous contempt for their politicians and the political process – though I guess we had that already. Of course, they haven’t set up a guillotine in Parliament Square as a way of disposing of political opponents. Not yet, anyway ….

Does anyone else see parallels that I’ve missed out here? Or do I just spend too much time with French revolutionaries?


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