All over the world, historians are dusting off a phrase that regularly has a sharp, if fleeting, relevance: Pre-revolutionary conditions. That the 30th anniversaries of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and of the communism of the Soviet Union are at hand offers a cyclical validity to their unearthing.
Some of the historians, the kind that might have been approached during their undergraduate years by KGB recruiters, may struggle to suppress a gleeful I-told-you-so. The evidence ranges from the specific to the general, but there seems an accelerating momentum towards a traumatic known unknown.
That an Uighur protesting in Berlin, over China’s internment of more than 1m Chinese Muslims, got a call, the first in several years, from a sister in China, may seem a tiny incident, but it is part of pattern. The call — a naked threat — was made at the direction of Chinese security officers, as part of a campaign to silence opposition.
“You need to think of your family, while you’re running around doing your activism work in Germany,” said the spook. That campaign is gathering pace. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam was on Wednesday again forced from the legislature because of a violent attack on a leader of the nearly five-month-old protest movement. Different stage, same drama.
Hong Kong says Beijing has placed agent provocateurs in its protest movement. A similar accusation has been made in Spain. Catalan president Quim Torra has condemned violent protests over the jail terms imposed on nine separatist leaders. Torra blamed the unrest on “infiltrators”.
These events, however, seem harmless compared to the imploding melodrama of the Trump presidency. As an American delegation flew to Ankara to convince Turkey to end its offensive in Syria, their mission was made impossible by an off-the-cuff intervention.
Trump described his decision to withdraw US troops in Syria, a betrayal, as “strategically brilliant”, declaring the Kurds were “much safer now”. He contradicted the assessment of America’s state and defence departments that the offensive threatened regional stability and the fight against Isis.
Compounding the impression he is the King George III of the Twitter age, he was accused of having “a very serious meltdown” by Democrats, who left a White House meeting over Syria after it collapsed into a diatribe. And it became clear the president had no plan to confront any revival of Isis. House speaker Nancy Pelosi said:
I pray for the president all the time … I think, now, we have to pray for his health — this was a very serious meltdown.
And then, there’s Boris Johnson — and Erdoğan, Orbán, Bolsanaro, Modi, and the weekend endorsement of Jarosław Kaczyński’s nasty Law and Justice party, one shamefully endorsed by the stridently homophobic Polish Catholic church.
Though a Brexit deal seems to have been reached, the historians recognising “pre-revolutionary conditions” might wonder. After all, Johnson has, to date, failed to secure a mandate for an election in the House of Commons. Might he, by agreeing terms with Brussels that he knows the DUP will reject, hope to provoke one in this way?
History, sadly, justifies such scepticism.