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Whatever happened to the silly season? This summer has been one of the most deadly serious I can remember. No one – from the foreign secretary down – has been able to get away from it all.
The gut-wrenching catastrophe in Afghanistan is uppermost in our minds. Women vanishing from the streets, throwing their babies over razor wire at British soldiers in a last desperate bid to save them from the Taliban. It’s the kind of dystopia we used to rely on Margaret Atwood to conjure up in words. Now it’s on our TV screens every night.
But while the scenes at Kabul airport horrify us today, just a few short days ago a different disaster claimed our attention.
People who escaped to the Mediterranean found themselves in the path of raging wildfires or cataclysmic floods. If they momentarily forgot about the global pandemic – tricky with the obligatory nasal swabs to be paid for and administered – the extreme weather was a reminder of the climate crisis now upon us.
And the scary thing about this summer of woe is the realisation that we’re all that little boy in the Hans Christian Andersen fable. We once thought world leaders were enrobed in the finest garments of government. Now we wonder – too late – if they’re wearing nothing at all.
The former prime minister Theresa May channelled the little boy in the fairytale yesterday in the Commons when she asked: “We boast about global Britain but where is global Britain on the streets of Kabul?”
Back in July, when US president Joe Biden and Boris Johnson said they didn’t think the Taliban would take over Afghanistan, few questioned their judgement. Now it’s clear that was, at best, wishful thinking; at worst, embarrassingly ignorant.
Donald Trump used to call Biden “sleepy Joe”. Unfair that might have been, but the Afghanistan debacle raises legitimate questions about the vim and vigour of the global superpower, at a time when the challenges facing us all have never been greater.
It sometimes feels as if the world’s policeman has taken off his uniform, laid down his truncheon, and is contemplating opening a pub.
As our government and others debate how many desperate Afghans will be given refuge, it’s hard not to recall Angela Merkel’s rallying cry back in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled their war-ravaged country: “Wir schaffen das.” We can manage this.
It felt at the time like a moment of great leadership, giving people hope at a time of despair. Here was a powerful country offering a solution to what seemed like an insoluble problem.
But she came to regret her phrase, and it was weaponised by the far right, bitterly opposed to mass migration. Now Merkel is departing the political stage. With the French president playing to the gallery and countries like Poland and Hungary turning inward in the face of rightwing populism, truly the centre cannot hold.
Figures of the past have in the last year or more been – rightly – reappraised and found wanting. But some of their achievements look colossal compared to the puny efforts of the current crop of world leaders. Biden likes to compare his economic agenda to Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal. But FDR was able to cement his radicalism with decades of Democratic majority rule. Few believe the gyrations of modern politics will afford Biden that luxury.
Similarly, Johnson would love to be seen as a latter-day Winston Churchill. But where his predecessor convinced his cabinet and the public he had the “blood, toil, tears or sweat” required to defeat Nazi Germany, even his erstwhile closest aide Dominic Cummings declared Johnson simply didn’t have the necessary qualities to win the war against the virus.
And while Sir Keir Starmer had a good mid-summer outing in the Commons yesterday, there’s a world of difference between a decent opposition leader and one like Clement Attlee – capable not only of winning power, but of rebuilding post-war Britain.
Perhaps the brutal truth is that we get the politicians we deserve. Why would clever, capable visionaries go into politics now? The pay isn’t brilliant, the online abuse is hell, the press scrutiny ferocious, and the working hours often gruelling. All the smart people are running tech companies or banks.
And whether you’re an Afghan woman wrapping yourself in a burqa to try and spare yourself from the Taliban, or a tourist fleeing a forest fire in France, the weakness of leadership in America, the UK, Germany – and the prospect of China and Russia picking over the ruins of Afghanistan – matters to us all.
Cathy Newman presents Channel 4 News, weekdays, at 7pm