Writers or presenters in need of a catchy headline often deploy the line from Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ that ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. The phrase in question compares London and Paris, around time of the French Revolution.
Having spent Thursday giving a talk on ‘La Guerre par d’autre moyens’ to a group of French economists and then Friday in London attending the estimable Pi Capital’s lunch meeting (Ian Bremmer presented his ‘risks for the year ahead’), I couldn’t help thinking of the ‘Two Cities’ and everything their history has to tell us about the development of economies, power and the state of the world today.
They are the two most extraordinary cities on earth, and no modern city, nor I expect Beijing (for a very long time the most populous city on earth – Rome has the record here) will match their colour.
I have lived in London and Paris for nearly half my life, so a full and worthy attempt to compare and contrast them could take a very long time. O’Sullivan’s Guide to the Pubs of The City and Paris Centre (sponsored by Eurostar) will have to wait.
What is interesting today is how each city confirms the stereotype of the other – London rather than Paris is beset by strikes and labour disputes, alternatively I find Paris more elitist than London and provocatively, I find Parisien(ne)s more polite than Londoners. There are certain elements of British culture I miss – notably the artistry of newspaper headlines. ‘Sex at No. 10 Covid Party’ is one such banner that greeted my arrival in London,
There are a number of serious points in comparing the two cities – not least in the context of the rest of Dickens’ quote that ‘it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair’ which underlined the dangers of the post-Revolution period.
The uncertainty that the French Revolution caused, and that Dickens wrote about, might well map onto Brexit. We are at a point in history where, as the old globalization led order dissipates, the rise and fall of countries will accelerate. For example, Russia, Estonia and Poland have all made strong choices this year, and will reap the consequences – in a positive way geopolitically for Poland Estonia, and quite possibly in a catastrophic way for Russia that could see the disintegration of its geopolitical hinterland and potentially the country become a renegade actor internationally.
Brexit is not quite as bad, but its folly is laid bare every day. Investment, especially in social infrastructure and public goods has collapsed over the past ten years, while productivity is anaemic. In France productivity is healthy, but France is reaching the limits of its budgetary and financial power. So, not entirely unlike the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, which drove economic innovation (in England), both the UK and France need to rethink everything they have done in the past forty years.
The UK needs to follow the French model – greater, better spending on education, health (and a less politicised approach to operating healthcare and policing), and possibly also on the military. The UK’s tax base needs to widen and arguably corporate tax needs to rise.
France on the other hand needs to look at what its neighbours are doing well. The heavy burden of administration needs to be cut away – to help businesses and to shorten the gap between the state and ‘the people’. Granted that France is at the limit of its budgetary potential, it has two (non-mutually exclusive) choices – political crisis or innovation. Mass privatisation is a non-starter but the digital economy in France offers the means to use private capital and expertise to improve public services.
As a final, crucial point, the ‘real’ tale of the two cities is how politically they have become estranged during the Johnson years. Brexit and the post Merkel era in Germany have left France the indispensable country in Europe, but with American singularity and Russian savagery on the rise, it needs to be politically closer to the UK (notwithstanding AUKUS) on topics of defense and security.
If this is the case it will suit Rishi Sunak, who I suspect will follow a foreign policy akin to the old Turkish one of ‘no trouble with neighbours’. There are already welcome signs of a change in tack in discussions around the post Brexit trade relationship of Northern Ireland. There is growing urgency to solve this before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.
Fittingly then, it has just been announced that Emmanuel Macron and Rishi Sunak will hold the first UK-France summit in five years on March 10, and King Charles III is expected to cross the Channel in late March.
At long last, harmony may reign between the two greatest cities on earth.
Have a great week ahead,