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?