The house journal of the Royal Society of the Arts (the RSA) has just arrived. I always turn the pages, but increasingly with a sinking feeling. The editorial policy seems to encourage articles that are extremely long on abstract imperatives, and very short on information. However, discursive utterance can be revealing, not so much about the subject in hand, but the author. Here is a passage from an article by the journalist Neal Ascherson on why 'neo-liberal' political structures can't deliver the benefits of European Union, and why we should be unconcerned about a more coercive central authority:
If [...] the revived union is given stronger powers of intervention and discipline, nobody should fear the emergence of a superstate. It is both the wonder and the weakness of Europe, as a political entity, that it will never be a clanking armoured giant capable of instant decisions. On the contrary, its texture will be spongy, variegated, irregular - a rich and beautiful organism with every kind of visitor swimming in and out of its pores. (Neal Ascherson, "Europa's Trials", RSA Journal (Summer 2012), 39–41.)
When thought and behaviour is naively inconsistent with the world as it actually stands, as with the waddle and costume of a clown, or the gaucherie of Mr Bean, it provokes embarrassed and condescending laughter. Should Mr Ascherson be allowed out on his own? One wonders, and not only altrusitically, for the folly of the fool is potentially dangerous to all around him, as Mr Ascherson's concluding description of his dream Europe demonstrates:
That sort of union will never [...] be able to look after its own defence, and its common foreign policy will be a leisurely, bickering debate rather than the monosyllable of command. As a confederation, with ultimate power distributed among is member-nations, it will feel almost pre-modern. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was rather like this. So was the Holy Roman Empire, which jurists called monstro simile, 'like unto a monster', passing comprehension in all its complexities and exceptions. But this coming European Union, the post-crisis Europe, will be a gentle monster, and I think its landscape will become a happy place to live in.
This is politics as painting, with the future rendered as a rich Breughel of deep perspective, populated by happy peasants in colourful costumes, all presided over by a benevolent and toothless dragon. But this vision does not survive close examination. The Empire and the Commonwealth were both capable military forces, inflicting a crushing defeat, for example, on the Turks at the Battle of Vienna (1683), and even if the Europe for which Mr Ascherson hopes is indeed spongy and unthreatening to neighbouring states it emphatically does not follow that the liberty and lives of those within it will be protected. It was discontent, after all, with the authority of the Holy Roman Empire that produced the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), one of the most savage and disruptive conflicts in the continent's sad history. Monsters, even if unadventurous, tend to bear down heavily on the ground beneath them.