“What is this optimism?” asks Cacambo, Candide’s servant and friend in Voltaire’s 1759 novella. “Alas”, responds Candide, “it is the madness of maintaining that everything is right when it is wrong.”
As readers of Candide will know, it takes war, disease, earthquake, lost love and bitter disappointment before the innocent young man begins to doubt his optimism and realise that he did not live in the best of all possible worlds.
That journey of discovery reminds me of today’s Britain (minus the excessive satire and exaggerated catastrophe) as it absurdly crashes its way out of the EU.
Last week, as temperatures rose and the sun shone on London, optimism was in rich supply. After three years of political disenchantment, in which a historic vote to leave the EU was stifled by the practical impossibility of leaving, the jovial Boris Johnson stormed into power and reminded the nation of its proud history and can-do spirit.
He vowed to march it out of the bloc and lead it as it rises “like a slumbering giant”, dusting off the self-doubt instilled by the previous prime minister.
Days into the Johnson premiership, I looked back at why Voltaire wrote Candide in the first place. Like his enlightenment contemporaries, Voltaire was influenced by the devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755. His satire was partly an attempt to ridicule the philosophy of optimism of Gottfried Leibniz, the theologian and mathematician who argued that if God was good and wise, he could only have created a world that was perfect, even when it didn't appear to be so.
“It is demonstrable,” says Pangloss, Candide’s “professor of metaphysics-theologico-cosmolo-nidology”, that things must be as they are “for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end”.
In Britain, I believe Brexit will eventually defy the Panglossian optimism of its most ardent believers. That’s not to say that optimism is not an important quality in politicians. In an age where too many people mistrust institutions and are suspicious of rationality, politicians should arm themselves with some optimism to connect with voters and energise them. These days those who voted for Brexit, and remain devoted to it, desperately need to believe that leaving the EU is still the best of all possible worlds.
But political optimism is most useful when it can be founded on a semblance of reality. Otherwise, as happened to Voltaire, it sets people up for a greater let-down.
For example, Barack Obama's election showered the US, and the world, with optimism because he was turning a page on a decade of conflict in which America needlessly squandered resources and sullied its image abroad. He had the power to retreat from military adventurism and the wisdom to restore America's standing. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, the eternal optimist, came into office at a time of economic gloom. But he had ample common sense, political skill and the weight of a superpower to deliver on his promises.
Like Obama and Reagan, Johnson is a great communicator and he has a better sense of humour. Unlike them, he doesn’t have the means to realise his optimism.
The no-deal Brexit he promises by October 31st sounds to supporters like a liberation from an overbearing Brussels bureaucracy. It is instead a dangerous leap into the unknown. An abrupt severing of ties with the continent will batter the economy, and the government, business and the public are unprepared.
At some point, as the going gets tough, the prime minister may address the nation with the same surreal explanation Pangloss delivered to a sceptic.
“All this was indispensable,” he might say, because “the more private misfortunes there are the greater is the general good.”
He will underpin his dogged optimism with another philosophy, which he calls “boosterism”. We will recognise it as something familiar: borrowing and spending your way out of trouble.
By then, however, his loyalists may be inflicted with the same self-doubt that besets Candide on his journey. As regret sets in they will wish they had heeded the warnings of all those rational people and recognised that, within the EU, Britain already lived in the best of all possible worlds. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019