Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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The "when?" of destiny

1 September 2003

Some things are bound to happen, one day, but it needn't be tomorrow. If future generations are to thank them, political leaders need to know when to embrace destiny and when to fight it with a policy of "inevitability postponed".

The anticipated closure of Sellafield's Thorp reprocessing plant, reported last week, seems to herald the end of the nuclear phase of Britain's energy production. For a while, from its inception in the 1950s through the optimistic 'sixties and the oil shock of the 'seventies, the prospect of cheap and limitless electricity dazzled governments already in thrall to the economic promises of technological innovation. But for years now, with its rising relative costs and seemingly insoluble environmental consequences, the demise of the programme has seemed inevitable, and the only wonder is that it has lasted so long.

That word "inevitable" is important. Lexicographers struggle to distinguish inevitable from unavoidable in terms of their contemporary meaning. The former comes directly from Latin while the latter comes from old French (a complex derivation from vuider, meaning to empty). Ironically Lord Palmerston shunned the former as a Frenchism, which shows what he knew. But despite the similarity there is a subtle distinction to be drawn in the way that the words are used.

To say, at the scene of an accident, that the crash was unavoidable, means that the two cars were so placed that nothing either driver could do would prevent the collision. To say that the crash was inevitable is more likely to mean that the road was a known danger spot - an accident waiting to happen. There is a touch of the inexorable about "inevitable", a sense that, even if you stand still in the face of it, it will come towards you. If you stand still in the face of something unavoidable you may well be OK for as long as you stay put.

In policy it matters greatly whether something really is inevitable. Much energy, money and opportunity is wasted in pursuing objectives that simply aren't going to be achieved. Nuclear power is a case in point. People making decisions in the last five years or so based on the assumption that it would be a long-term player in the energy market simply weren't reading the runes. That's not hindsight; there were plenty of people at the time who were saying so.

Hindsight is, nonetheless, a wonderful assistant. To many commentators of the 1990s the demise of the Soviet Union looked inevitable, after the event. That this political behemoth would in due course expire was, in fact, highly predictable, certainly by the 1970s. But then, as Keynes said, in the long run we are all dead, and the useful thing to know, namely, when the predicted demise would occur, was difficult to say until shortly before it happened.

Timing is everything. It matters little to an investor that the cutting-edge product they are buying into will be obsolete in five years' time, so long as they make their money and get out before that happens. Predicting when is much cleverer than predicting if. That, of course, supposes that one is concerned only with making the most out of events. Politicians want to go further, actually changing outcomes; which means, if not trying to change the unchangeable, at least dodging around with dams and sandbags, trying frantically to redirect the natural flow.

This flow can be observed most strongly in the history of peoples. The currents are such that to efface completely a people's identity and collective coherence is almost impossible. Change comes about when inspired from inside the people itself. The Kurds have not had a country to call their own since the 11th century, but their cause and identity still feature prominently in the geo-political sands. These sands shift continuously as people try to sort themselves out into the groupings in which they feel most comfortable.

It seems inevitable that people will, eventually, succeed in this - that the Kurds will have their country, just as the partition of Germany was a mere surface wound, always certain to be healed. Does that mean that the citizens of Europe will inevitably form themselves into a post-national single identity, continuing a gradual but remorseless unification of component principalities and statelets, and with the incidental consequence (among other things) that Cyprus will at last form part of the same political entity as Greece and the Greek Cypriots will have achieved (after a fashion), their long desired enosis?

Probably it does, but the path will be neither straight nor short, and of indeterminate duration. So what should a Euro-sceptic Briton make of this unpalatable conclusion? If the flows are really, as Tolstoy so vividly maintained, beyond the power of individuals to divert, why should this Briton concern himself with the matter at all? It is a question worth asking of Ariel Sharon, who symbolises one side of a bloody laboratory for investigating what happens when two opposing flows of destiny converge. Sharon must know that the Palestinian people are not going to go away. One day, like the Kurds, they will have their country, and the creation of that country will impact greatly on the state of Israel as it is today.

But Sharon is seventy-five. In the long run we are all dead and Sharon's long run is shorter than many. The imbalance of power between the Israelis and the Palestinians is such as to sustain a state of "inevitability postponed" for a good while to come. "Inevitability postponed" is a way of trying to turn inevitable into unavoidable. If you don't walk towards an unpalatable destiny it may not come towards you, either. Each day, year or decade that Sharon can hold his line is a day, year or decade gained for his people. The future can look after itself.

History suggests that these bulwarks against somebody else's destiny do, eventually, crumble. It is the single-mindedness, the sense of special purpose, that goes. Think of Harold Macmillan and his winds of change, echoing a growing, pluralistic sentiment inconsistent with the principle of colonial rule. It was a message lost on his white audience in apartheid South African, until even they, decades later, were suddenly able to ask themselves what was the point of it all.

And spare a thought for David Trimble, who probably does know that the north and the south of Ireland are on a trajectory to grow together that the protestant population of the north cannot hope to reverse. It is the accelerated economic growth of the Republic that has done more than anything in recent years to achieve this. Money works faster than politics, and as a force of destiny it is the least easy to contain or divert.


©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2003

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