The Nice attacks highlight frailty of modern France

From the Evening Standard

As in Michel Houellebecq’s timely novel Submission, there is a general air of weariness about the escalating violence in France, and the fear of if and when it will spread to Britain, the Netherlands and Germany. Only this week the country’s intelligence chief warned that France was heading towards civil war, and its population is by far and away the most pessimistic about the future (although existential despair is part of the Gallic charm).

France is not England; its political history, since the events of July 14, 1789, has been consistently more violent, including the bloody Algerian War which still casts a shadow over its largely North African Muslim population. It also has high unemployment, partly because of labour laws, and more ghettoisation than the UK. But there are parallels across Europe, which make such attacks alas more likely in future.

As with the Charlie Hebdo, Paris and Brussels attackers, the Nice killer appears to have been European-raised, of Maghrebi descent, in this case a French Tunisian. After Brussels, Belgium’s Interior Minister Jan Jambon lamented that “We’re talking about third- and fourth-generation [immigrants]; these youngsters are born in Belgium, even their fathers and mothers are born in Belgium, and still they are open for these kinds of messages. This is not normal.”

Yet paradoxically it is being here in Europe that opens them up to these sorts of messages, since they are left awash on the sea of globalisation without an anchor of identity. And what stronger identity can there be than Islam, in particular its culturally homogenising, Saudi-funded modern form, spread as often in the language of the King James Bible as that of the Koran.

Islamism flourishes in the absence of other strong attachments, so second-generation men in Europe whose parents come from clannish societies are most at risk; Pakistanis and Somalis in Britain, Moroccans in Belgium and Algerians in France. As the Arab libertarian Iyad El-Baghdadi put it: “If you’re North African, there’s a bigger chance your children will get radicalised if you move to Europe than if you stay.”

On top of this the European countries in which young Muslim men have grown up, often where their fathers were recruited into declining industries for short-term economic benefits, have shifting national identities and social norms.

If Europe has something to “work on” in this matter, as Mr Jambon put it, it is of affirming a national identity that is stronger than the alternative of religious nationalism. Yet those European identities were to a certain extent built on exclusive factors such as ancestry in the case of Germany or Catholicism in Belgium; the British never explicitly said nationality was tied to ancestry or religion but the British are adept at saying things without saying them.

Instead, faced with newcomers from a variety of backgrounds, policy-makers talk of national identity based on “values”, in particular liberal universalistic values that mean almost nothing to people of all faiths and none. Worst of all they lack what historical identity provides, the heroic narrative that young men crave, and which today only the bombers and beheaders provide.

Anglo-German relations have truly reached the high altar

The succession of Theresa May means that both the German and British heads of government are the daughters of clergymen, Angela Merkel’s father, Protestant theologian Horst Kasner, being one of few Germans who moved from west to east after the war (at the instigation of his church, in fairness).

With that common heritage, let’s hope the two women forge a new era of Anglo-German relations, or to be more precise a restoration. Before the First World War it was common for upper-middle-class English people to speak and read German, and to take their holidays in Germany, and when the tragedy of 1914 came, four British Cabinet ministers had been educated at German universities.

Perhaps outside of the EU we’ll be better friends with the Saxons Overseas, as our ancestors called them: we can start by building a high-speed London to Berlin rail link, and by once again subjecting British school children to the torture of German grammar.

Heathrow Hogwarts could be a winner

The Heathrow v Gatwick saga continues, and as with airport delays it gets to the point where you can barely remember life before it began. But whoever wins, I have an idea to revolutionise air travel.

Asian countries put huge effort into their hub airports because they see them as their nation’s shop window.Now is an important time to work on “brand Britain”, to use a particularly vomitous phrase, so we need to ask what other people like about the country.

The answer? Harry Potter. Visitors to the UK want to visit J K Rowling’s imagination, so why not turn Heathrow or Gatwick into a Hogwarts-themed experience? Queuing for hours in Terminal Five-and-three-quarters could be fun.

Polarisation is nothing new

The brexit debate showed a worrying divide between London and the rest of England are growing apart but it’s geographic polarisation is nothing new; in the 18th century many of London’s squares were built as enclaves by rival Whigs and Tories. Hanover Square was a Whig stronghold while St James’s Square was heavily Tory, close to the party’s unofficial HQ, the Cocoa Tree coffee house in Pall Mall.

Some Tories were not popular with the “metropolitan elite” of the day, and workmen in the 1930s found a bolt hole under the Cocoa Tree where members could hide from the law. I guess today’s equivalent would be the Notting Hill and Islington sets, although even Michael Gove wouldn’t need a hole to flee the country. Not yet.

What do you think?