Notebook

Not one of my Harvard students thinks Brexit is a good idea

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

21 April 2018

9:00 AM

My wife laughs that my love of gadgets is a remnant of my Communist upbringing, when western toys were objects of veneration. A couple of days ago, I found myself on a Lufthansa flight over the Atlantic indulging precisely that love: using an app, I could see live pictures of our house in rural Poland via the security cameras. I could also check that the alarm is on, heating system off and the new photovoltaic farm is producing more energy than the house is consuming. I suppose that’s the consumerist heaven we fought for in those days, just as much as for freedom and democracy.

Back in Boston, I am reminded why I prefer museums created by the whim of a millionaire to those assembled by committees. The equivalent here of the Frick Collection in New York or Sir John Soane’s in London is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. At a time when you could still do it, she transported most of a Venetian palace to Boston and adapted it to the climate by building a glass roof over the courtyard. The collection is wonderfully idiosyncratic, reflecting her travels and contemporary fads, but that’s the beauty of it. You get to see the objects, a feel for the era when they were assembled, and the personality of the collector. Every face lights up entering the cloister around the courtyard garden — which is how she had planned it. There is a nice Polish touch: a signed photograph from the celebrity pianist and future Polish foreign minister Ignacy Paderewski, the Michael Jackson of the fin de siècle. And all of it on an inheritance of $1.6 million. A million dollars is clearly not what it used to be.


Across the street at the Museum of Fine Arts, there is an extraordinary collection of Georgian furniture and paintings from Boston just before the revolution. It all seems a lot more sumptuous than the sort of thing that would have been found in a contemporary English town of 15,000. The colonials were, of course, more lightly taxed than the British, yet they rebelled. Might it have been to do with sovereignty and ‘taking back control’? I suppose it worked out for them.

Still, when I asked my study group at Harvard’s Kennedy School whether Brexit was a good idea, not a single hand went up. The consensus seemed to be that the European Union actually resembles the United States in the brief period between the war of independence and the constitution — the era of confederation. Enough powers were delegated to the centre to annoy anti-federalists, but not enough to stop individual states from cheating on the agreed rules. Our quick study of the history of confederations suggests that they either evolve into proper federations, or collapse. The EU’s dilemma is that actions which are necessary for its survival may not be politically possible. Unless events intervene. But thanks to Brexit, which has made the union more popular than ever in many European countries, a transition to some sort of federation is more plausible than in the past.

The credibility of President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen — and perhaps of the whole Russia collusion story — now turns on whether or not in the summer of 2016 he visited Prague, where he supposedly met senior Russians to scheme against Hillary Clinton. He denies it, but if he did, a key part of the Trump dossier put together by the former MI6 spook Christopher Steele would be dramatically vindicated. It seems quaint that thus far Cohen has been believed because he showed his passport without stamps by Czech immigration. His claims are now said to be shaky, because the FBI have just found out that under the EU Schengen system he could have landed in, say, Munich, and travelled overland to the Czech Republic without ever showing his passport. So thanks to President Trump, Americans are learning about Europe’s common travel area. But in any case, can’t they check the logs of his phone or his email account? Or scan Prague surveillance cameras with face recognition? Big Brother is watching us. It wouldn’t be the first time that trouble for great powers had brewed in central Europe.

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