Moving On

24 March 2022

Moving On

How to do it.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

A column of armour miles long heads towards Kiev. Most of us, readers and commentators alike, thought it irresistible. It has not proved to be quite as simple as that. How many of us watched the build up of forces before Russia attacked and, our minds going back to the Prague spring in 1968, intoned sagely that in reality the Russians could walk in easily if they decided to do so? Most of us? All of us? You too? Not so sage now.

And why were we all proved wrong? Because of the heroism of the Ukrainians of course but also because technology has moved on. Not so long ago tanks and armour reigned supreme. Now with the development of hand-held missile systems they are vulnerable, at least when pitched against a population in arms. Things have changed and military reality is unforgiving if your thinking falls behind the leading edge. It was always thus. Think of the 13th century castles which became vulnerable on the introduction of artillery. Think of the French knights charging into the arrow storm at Crecy and Agincourt. Think of the French columns marching into the firepower of new tactical formations at Talavera. Think of the Maginot line, a last bow to trench warfare and one which could not deal with a war of manoeuvre. All doomed, as approaches which had worked in the past were applied after their day had passed.

And in politics too we see the same thing. An attempt by Russia to revive 19th century imperialism. China preparing to fight for Taiwan which it lost more than 70 years ago. It only needs us to start thinking of reassembling the Empire to complete the set!  Then looking to wider issues, traditional principles of sovereignty are applied to justify appeasement and non-intervention. Extreme differences in wealth are tolerated on the principles of Victorian Liberalism. Everywhere there is much hugging of the past and whereas an old fashioned approach to military matters is quickly and ruthlessly exposed, the need for political changes is less obvious until truly appalling disaster looms. Take global warming as an example. The physical need is urgent enough and a strict international regime is clearly needed but because the effects are deferred there is insufficient political pressure to overcome the old systems of sovereignty boosted by commercial pressures for cheap energy and packaging. Old thinking could postpone effective action until it is too late.

Look where you will – the environment, the abolition of nuclear weapons, the fight against pandemics – and you see problems which the current international order is unsuited to dealing with. If we are to survive it needs to be changed but where are the young vigorous statesmen who will lead the charge for reform? Dictators whose very survival depends on short term decisions? Democracies whose politicians are circumscribed by the views of the voters? Serious structural change to society does not just happen; it has to be driven by an upsurge of new thinking, led by a new emerging younger generation of leaders. When Mrs Thatcher travelled to Russia to attend the funeral of Andropov she was struck by how old their leaders were and asked an aide if he could find someone younger for her to speak to. Eventually she was introduced to Gorbachev, a man from a new generation capable of approaching things in a new way with whom she could work, and a new political reality flowed from that.  Of course that reality has not cured everything – we see that only too vividly today – but for all that it amounted to a “moving on” in which many of the distortions of the past (eg the Berlin wall) slid from reality into history.

New institutions are needed now and it may be that the war in Ukraine will provide a catalyst for changes to the international order. But change won’t be generated spontaneously by those who have been in power for decades or those who are afraid that loss of power will have disastrous personal consequences for themselves. Courage and freshness are needed not just from a few individuals but from a generation. Cometh the hour cometh the man, says the adage. Well maybe but he or she normally rides on a groundswell of public opinion and it is up to the younger generation to give it tongue. So away with the nonsense about equal opportunity loos, away with the trivia for political correctness. These are just sinks in which unused energy is pointlessly absorbed. There is now something real to be addressed and it is time for everyone to take his or her role, from whatever political perspective, in the building of a society which will work for the next part of the 21st century.  

Tile photo: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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