End of Belgium should be a warning to Gordon
At the end of some office crisis, the late, great Bill Deedes had a way of turning to you – if you were lucky enough to have been through the crisis with him – and saying, in his conspiratorial way: “Well, old cock, I think we got through that one all right.”
And that, I imagine, is the feeling in Downing Street today. The panic is over, apparently. The queues of frenzied depositors have died away. By the amazing expedient of nationalising Northern Wreck, and by offering unlimited sums of taxpayers’ money to guarantee the liquidity of everyone else, Gordon Brown seems to have contained the damage caused by the first run on the banks since the collapse of Overend and Gurney in 1866.
So, before the next building society goes belly up, and before Gordon uses yet more of our dosh to protect the financiers from the consequences of their reckless deals, let me warn the Prime Minister of another crisis on the horizon; a problem that is more pregnant with risk for this country than any collapse of the housing market.
Once again the bad news comes from abroad, and no, I am not talking about American mortgages, or the terrifying prospect of a Bush-led bombing raid on Iran.
It is a sign of this column’s complete indifference to fashion that this week I take my text from Belgium.
Yes, Belgium is the place that Gordon should be watching: because lovely, misty little Belgium, with its triste cobbled streets and Calpol-tasting beer, is now on the verge of a tragic disintegration. For 102 days, the country has been without a government. The Walloons can’t abide the Flemings, and the Flemings want to maroon the Walloons, and there is now a real chance that they will call it quits.
It is a superb and suggestive irony that the people of Europe are now being forced to accept a new constitutional document intended to unify 25 different polities, and yet the desire for national self-government is so strong that Belgium itself – the very country that plays host to the EU institutions – is in danger of breaking up.
Belgium, that state de Gaulle claimed had been invented by the British to annoy the French, may be about to go the way of the Soviet Union, of Yugoslavia, and of Czechoslovakia; and if it does, my friends, I will be the first to mourn.
Anyone who has spent any time in Belgium will know that the country has its genius, and that there is far more to it than the sum of Flanders, Wallonia and the Brussels region.
There are those who say the Belgians have given the world nothing of cultural significance except chocolates, as though that were a trivial contribution.
There are still those who resent the Belgian refusal to give – or even sell – the British Army weapons during the first Gulf war, though that is now surely a distant memory.
There are those who say there are no famous Belgians except two fictional detectives, Tintin and Hercule Poirot, and one of those was invented by a British author – as though they had never heard of Magritte, or Simenon, or Brueghel, or Johnny Hallyday, the world’s greatest Francophone rock star.
To all those who say Belgium is a non-country with a non-culture, I say come with me to the Grand Place and after our menu gastronomique let us sit under the stars with our coffee – and our speculoos biscuit and Nutroma milk substitute – and let our eyes wander over the lacy intricacies of the medieval stonework.
If you think that sounds a bit pricey, then we can just catch the ferry to Ostend and buy a hot waffle, and as we crunch away at this classic Belgian delicacy, we can study this peculiar port and reflect that, of all the resorts in the world, it was Ostend to which Marvin Gaye repaired for a period of recuperation and which inspired him to his greatest height of musical ecstasy, Sexual Healing.
Belgium has a sophisticated identity, based on compromise and a fusion of cultures; not only the battleground of Europe, but the place where two great linguistic traditions are preserved side by side, where a road diversion is a wegomlegging as well as a deviation.
Of course, there would be a sudden rush of energy in Flanders if the Flemings were detached from the Walloons, and perhaps the Walloons, like some chronically undervalued and put-upon spouse, might feel all liberated and renewed in the aftermath of the divorce, and perhaps the warring couple might find some way of sharing Brussels, the child of their union.
But something would be lost. Belgium would be gone, the Belgium that produced Belgian hens and Belgian horses and that bourgeois Belgian finicketiness about how to make steak tartare or moules frites. Belgian-ness would be over, and the many who feel neither particularly Flemish nor Walloon would be deprived of their portmanteau identity, and that would be sad.
If Belgium splits up, that fissure will not only make a mockery of Belgium’s central role in the cause of European integration. It will be a huge boost to Europe’s remaining separatist movements, the Basques, the Corsicans, the Welsh – and, above all, the Scots. If the Belgian creation of 1830 is capable of falling apart, why should we expect the union of 1707 to be imperishable?
It is one of the wonders of the Brown “bounce” that no one any longer sees fit to point out the infamy of the West Lothian problem. We have a Scottish MP Prime Minister, promulgating measures on health and education and other matters that have no effect on his own constituents, and while Scottish MPs are able to vote on English schools and hospitals, English MPs have no corresponding say in Scotland. The English seem utterly passive in the face of this injustice; and in spite of this passivity – or perhaps partly because of it – the Scots advance ever further on the path towards independence.
Alex Salmond now calls his executive a government, and Gordon can do nothing to correct him. Look at Belgium, Gordon, and tremble.