Edward VIII, whose short and inglorious reign as King-Emperor ended 80 years ago this month, only made two memorable utterances in his life: his abdication speech and his declaration, a few weeks earlier, that “something must be done” to alleviate the ravages of unemployment in the Welsh valleys.
It is the conviction that “something must be done” that has echoed down the years. We hear it in the news bulletins each morning, on every issue from Aleppo to obesity, child sex abuse to prison overcrowding.
Unfortunately the somethings that must be done tend to be mutually contradictory. On the one hand there are powerful lobbies determined to send ever more people to gaol, whether for paedophilia or texting behind the wheel of a car.
On the other there are voices of what seem to me like sanity questioning what useful purpose is served by incarcerating non-violent offenders with thugs and drug abusers, under conditions which make the chances of rehabilitating anyone as close to zero as makes no difference.
However vile his crimes and however strong the desire of individuals and communities for retribution, I struggle to see the point of locking up a 101-year-old man for an entirely hypothetical 13 years.
And then there is Syria, where the horrific images from Aleppo have produced concerted calls of “something must be done” from, in many cases, exactly the same people who were insistent that something must NOT be done when the British Government proposed taking military action there in 2013.
If you recall, the Government’s argument was that we should be intervening in support of the “moderate opposition” to President Assad, the evil dictator who was dropping barrel bombs onto his own people. Despite the fact that some of the most effective opposition to President Assad was far from moderate, in the shape of ISIS, which on any rational analysis represents a bigger threat to our interests, and to civilisation in general, than the unlovely Assad family does.
Do we believe that the lot of the suffering Syrian populace would have been any better, on the whole, if the bombs raining down on them had been US and British ones aimed at the supporters of Assad, rather than Russian and Syrian ones aimed at his opponents?
Call me cynical, but I very much doubt it.
Every recent attempt to improve the lives of those in the Middle East by removing their dictators, whether in Iraq or Libya, appears to have had the unintended though far from unpredictable consequence of making their lives materially worse.
It is impossible to look at the ruins of Aleppo without seeing echoes of Berlin in 1945, if Hitler had still been alive and well in his bunker and declaring victory.
Could it have been or yet be different? Yes, if we had the stomach to declare war, commit all our national resources to the effort, and prepare for a long term occupation of conquered territory, under constant attack. Does anyone who is not certifiably insane have the stomach for that?
Then let’s bombard the suffering populace with aid, say the something-must-be-doners, maybe using drones and parachutes we don’t actually possess and would not be capable of delivering the required payload even if we did.
Or open up our borders to many more of the suffering refugees, which is a noble enough aim but does also run the significant risk of admitting a number of people whose chief aim in life would be to kill or maim us.
It is a conundrum. “Something must be done”, but nothing can be done that does not bring with it risks of very serious harm either to those we wish to help, or to ourselves.
Similarly on Brexit, where clearly “something must be done” to satisfy the democratically expressed will of the majority of the people (or at any rate of those who took the trouble to vote), but clearly no one at all has the slightest clue what that something should be.
The risible pronouncements of our Prime Minister have self-evidently been chaff, but I lived in hope that it was the sort of chaff released from planes to confuse an attacker’s radar. In other words, that it was designed to conceal a cunning plan. But with every passing day it becomes clearer that there is simply no plan at all.
Perhaps leadership was ever thus. Many years ago now I began work on a PhD on the grand strategy of the British Empire between 1939-47, and it became ever more obvious that, at least until the entry of the US into the war in 1941, the dominant sentiment of those at the summit of British political and military power was, “Oh Christ, what are we going to do now?”
This is, I suspect, very much the feeling that will animate the May family’s groaning festive board this Christmas. On the plus side, at least she won’t also be depressing our beloved monarch, as she did – if yesterday’s leak is to be believed – on her autumn visit to Balmoral.
So whenever somebody proclaims that something must be done, let us pause to consider carefully whether anything actually can be done, and whether what can be done is likely to represent an improvement on doing nothing.
On the plus side, the 48 per cent who voted Remain will be utterly delighted if Brexit fails this test, and it turns out that nothing sensible can be done to give it effect. Personally I will be bitterly disappointed, but far from surprised. Particularly since the current leadership of this country strikes me as without question the least impressive of my lifetime, and I have lived through the premierships of Eden and Heath as well as Blair and Brown.
Of course, the political consequences of failing to deliver Brexit will be disastrous for Mrs May. But to look on the bright side, as seems appropriate for the season, she may leave us, like Edward VIII, with a parting speech we will remember long after she has vanished into obscurity as one of the side-shows or might-have-beens of modern history.