London is glorious in the spring. It’s still cool enough to be able to enjoy hurrying about, and trains and buses aren’t unbearably hot as they become in summer. There are daffodils in the parks and the trees have that first glorious mist of pale green as the leaves arrive, or – best of all – are a mass of white blossom, which flutters down in the breeze like confetti. The huge tourist crowds haven’t yet arrived, but the parks and palaces, museums and exhibitions have a start-of-season feel to them.
For all that, this is a depressing place at the moment. Each day seems to bring some new dreary scandal among our politicians. Cheating on housing allowances by claiming money on properties owned by various family members, and then excusing themselves on the grounds that they were technically within the regulation, has put various Government ministers in the spotlight. It has been unpleasant to realise that this sort of conduct – which would bring instant dismissal and probably criminal charges if done by anyone in an ordinary business – is apparently regarded as fairly routine among some Members of Parliament.
By law, elections in Britain have to take place every five years, but can be called earlier if it is clear that the Government can no longer command support in Parliament. A General Election is preceded by the Prime Minister going to the Queen to announce the need for a fresh mandate. Then follows all the usual paraphernalia that has become familiar worldwide: slogans and rosettes and banners, TV interviews and posters and phone-ins and arguments and debates.
What will be the issues at the next election, when it comes? No one seems to have a very clear idea about what to do about economic problems. Social issues? Everyone is worried about the soaring rates of crime, especially violent crime. But there is also a recognition that there are no easy political solutions on offer. The collapse of family life, the difficulties faced by teachers in trying to achieve discipline in schools, the sense of menace that can be felt in some streets and shopping centres as night falls and gangs gather, are much discussed. But what to do about these things?
Meanwhile, life rolls on with a sort of gloom about it. Gruesome official initiatives that have recently been announced include (I’m not inventing this) arranging for teenage girls to obtain contraceptives and “morning after” abortion-inducing pills via the Internet, having advertisments for abortion agencies on television during what used to be the “family viewing time” up to 9 p.m., and restricting the freedom of speech of anyone who might seek to speak about the wrongfulness of homosexual activity.
The mass media spent a lot of time just recently denouncing the Pope when he spoke about the positive way to tackle the AIDS tragedy in Africa. Perhaps one reason for the savagery was a recognition that what he was saying about Africa had a resonance for us here too. No one likes uncomfortable home truths, even when – perhaps especially when – they are spoken with gentleness and quiet wisdom. Papa Benedict spoke of “a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another.”
Sounds like a message we would do well to heed.