EU Referendum

Brexit: respect


It would be churlish to suggest the only reason the Queen's speech gets so much attention is because there is so little else on the news agenda. But when the head of state speaks to the nation, that by any measure is news.

Interestingly though, from the Brexit perspective, papers such as the Independent and many others have focused on the Queen's comment that, "even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding".

This is taken to allude to the divisive nature of the Brexit debate, and a plea for more tolerance between the protagonists. And that is fair enough. One would have to be on another planet not to be aware of what Brexit is doing to the political process.

But what was perhaps an equally significant part of the Queen's speech was another of her comments, the one where she said: "Some cultures believe a long life brings wisdom. I'd like to think so".

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Queen may be on to something. Born in 1926 and crowned in 1953, no one can be in any doubt about her experience, and few can doubt her wisdom.

But such respect as is afforded to the Queen does not seem to be reflected in society as a whole. Our is a culture which celebrates youth and where older people, at times, seem to be afforded scant respect. Even the Queen probably enjoys more respect from her position than she does her age - the phenomenon of prestige.

Of course, wisdom does not necessarily accompany age and we are all familiar with the phenomenon of stupid old people. Generally, though, one finds that they started off their careers as stupid young people. For these people, age provides no remedy.

All things being equal, though, age does confer some elements which can be of advantage - or even overcome disadvantages. I recall the autobiography of Ernest K Gann, the famous American aviator. In his epic autobiography, The High and the Mighty, he recalls being asked whether, as a veteran, he felt inferior to younger "jet jockey" pilots.

Admitting that the young pilots had faster reflexes, Gann nevertheless countered that, while theirs indeed were faster, his were "better educated".

If one, therefore, allows that age can bring wisdom, one can also argue that this is of special value in the Brexit debate, and for one very good reason. The EU is nothing without its history, so much a prisoner of its history that it is not possible fully to understand the beast without understanding that history.

But there is more to it than that. In my broader study of the EU, two apparently unrelated tracts were of huge value to me. The first is one I have used many times, the Milton Friedman article on "barking cats", and the second is the study of the Tennessee Valley Authority by Philip Selznick, which led to the concept of "self-maintenance", the idea that the institutions would always act in their own self-interests, even if this meant acting against the reasons for which they were established.

From Friedman, we get the idea of institutional "biology", rules that govern their behaviour which are as immutable as any natural laws - institutions have their own embedded "political DNA". And this, combined with Selznick's observations, tell us that the EU's behavioural patterns are both fixed and predictable.  

One of the problems with the EU, of course, is that its popular history has been comprehensively falsified, with the origins put in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, as opposed to the First. And, as time passes, the number of people who recall distant events decreases and the errors get locked in, to take on the mantle of truth.

The Queen, of course, from her advanced years, has the perspective that only years can bring, but it is one which is being lost to the current generation. Even in the Commission itself, there are signs that institutional memory is being lost.

And this is where the issues begin to merge – those who are best equipped to understand the genesis of the EU are those who have the longer memories that come with age and experience. But if those are the group who are no longer afforded "respect", it is harder for them to get their message through.

Nothing of this, though, is fixed. There are no absolutes. Experience cannot always be measured in years. People might have twenty years acquaintance with a particular discipline but, for some, this is actually one year's experience twenty times.

Whether such ruminations are of any help is debatable, but in my view we'll never get the politics straight unless we shed some of the more pernicious founding myths. And since that is unlikely to happen, we are doomed to struggle through the turgid misunderstandings which dog political debate in general.

Such matters though, are not for the relaxed aftermath of a quiet Christmas. But we can, at least, record the words of that wise old bird, Queen Elizabeth II – to whom we can afford some respect.