My pilgrimage on the Western Front Way

My pilgrimage on the Western Front Way

Updated: 2 months, 18 days, 23 hours, 28 minutes, 10 seconds ago

Daunt Books in Marylebone was full last Tuesday evening for the launch of The Path of Peace, my book about walking from Switzerland to the North Sea, to help realise the vision of a young subaltern, Douglas Gillespie, killed in September 1915 shortly after unveiling his idea in a letter to his headmaster at Winchester College. He envisaged after the war a ‘via sacra’ being created along the entire Western Front and he wanted every man, woman and child to walk the trail as a reminder of where war leads ‘from the silent witnesses’ on both sides. A ‘brilliant idea’ was how The Spectator described the suggestion during the war. But the vision lay buried for 100 years. My walk last summer was 1,000 km and took one million steps through soil where ten million bled to death or were severely wounded in body or mind. The walk, perhaps the best idea to have emerged from the war, is now being marked out with signposts across northern France and Belgium, called the ‘Western Front Way’. Pilgrimages on foot or cycle can revive purpose and zest for life, as Gillespie intended. I recommend it!

My much loved father, Arthur Seldon, co-founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs, was one month old when the Somme battle opened in July 1916, but his parents, both immigrants from Ukraine, were soon ailing with the Spanish flu. I researched their lives in the wartime Jewish East End for the book, learning how my father was passed unwanted from family to family after his parents died until he was adopted by a cobbler from Russia. A lifelong and passionate champion of the free market, he would have recoiled at the insensitive application of its principles by Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng.

I reached the halfway point this week in writing Johnson at 10, an analysis of his three years at No. 10 to be published in the spring. My co-author Raymond Newell and I are focusing on the key decisions, turning points and lost opportunities in Boris Johnson’s unruly premiership. Was it the most consequential short premiership in British history – up there with Lord Grey, whose three years saw the 1832 Reform Act and the abolition of slavery? History might judge Brexit, Covid and Britain’s decisive lead on the Ukraine war as of comparable historic importance. Fascinating too to weigh the roles of Dominic Cummings and Carrie Johnson, the most commanding aide and spouse in the past 100 years. Johnson’s premiership throws up so many paradoxes, none greater than why, after getting Brexit done so clearly and decisively, there was neither decisiveness nor clarity about what to do with Brexit – a puzzle all the greater given the political capital won in the 2019 landslide. And the answer? Because the principals – Johnson, Michael Gove, Cummings and David Frost – had very different and often inchoate ambitions for Brexit.

Brexit could have been a once-in-a-generation chance to renew the state and public services. Creating a government and No. 10 fit for the 21st century was Cummings’s passion, yet to be realised. He had similarities with Richard Haldane, who transformed the British state at the start of the last century. But while Haldane had 20 years, Cummings had 20 months at the centre. We need a commission, to report before the next general election and drawing inspiration from innovative thinking abroad, on modernising our government.

Misplaced negativity was another reason why opportunities to mobilise the country were squandered at this huge potential reset moment in British history. Business? Get stuffed. Whitehall? Utterly useless. Universities? Irredeemably woke. With imagination, universities could have powered the post-Brexit economy and been at the heart of levelling up. But instead of dynamic strategy, there was nitpicking which achieved nothing, not even sorting out free speech, so badly needed.

Back at Wellington College for the memorial to my former colleague Andrew Wilkinson, so alike in spirit to Douglas Gillespie. ‘He came back from Afghanistan, the North Face of the Eiger and Everest,’ we heard in chapel. But not this time from his beloved Alps. Teacher, soldier, adventurer, he left the comfort of Wellington to set up the charity Dynamis Adventures, to help underprivileged children develop and flourish through outdoor adventure. Magnificently brave and tirelessly loving, his Christian faith was his core. Most saw his selfless service, but few its wellspring – any more than they did with the Queen. As I stand at the Cenotaph for the service at 11 a.m. on 11 November, I will remember them.

The post My pilgrimage on the Western Front Way appeared first on The Spectator.

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