Morning all. The late and much loved journalist Frank Johnson had a habit, during many an August, of writing a column about August’s place in history. The conceit was simple. We think of August as a time to slow down; as the silly season. In fact, August is anything but silly; indeed, it’s the month when history speeds up.
Given what an action-packed month this has already been, this seems as good a time as any to revive Johnson’s tradition. Besides, it’s been at least a couple of years since Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times had a stab (and I copied him).
In August 1914 Sir Edward Grey said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Sixteen Augusts earlier, the Spanish-American War ended; and in August 1939, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact – which led to the invasion of Poland – was signed. The following August, the Blitz began; five Augusts later, the Americans bombed Hiroshima, prompting the Japanese to surrender. India became independent on 15 August 1947. Fifteen Augusts later, Marilyn Monroe died and Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.
August has served us the following dollops of history too: the crushing of the Prague Spring (1968); Richard Nixon resigning following Watergate (1974); Elvis dying (1977); Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait (1990); Princess Diana dying (1997); Hurricane Katrina (2005); and Russia’s invasion of Georgia (2008).
News never stops, but this month has been a typical August – that is, especially busy. We had the centenary of the First World War, of course. Israel and Hamas have re-engaged in their own brand of seemingly permanent conflict; Russia has renewed its interest in eastern Ukraine; Ebola has broken out; and the Isis advance has led to the sickening murder of James Foley – and a propaganda coup for the gutless scum responsible.
August was never actually a good time for our politicians to get away. The past week has shown that the modern news and social media put new and intolerable pressures on holidaying politicians. No 10 was keen to brief the fact that the Prime Minister came home early from holiday, and the image of him getting out of his official car without a tie on added to the impression that he was getting down to work. But the fact is, Britain doesn’t really have a foreign policy at the moment – and this week confirmed it. Then, in America, Barack Obama gave a press conference about Foley’s death, again tieless – and headed straight for the golf course. That wasn’t an uncharacteristic error in itself – but being photographed was.
As we wrote in an editorial this week, politicians deserve holidays more than most. The trouble is, in the age of BlackBerrys and Twitter, the need for leadership and decisive action is relentless. Given school holidays, there’s no chance of a change; but now more than ever, our leaders should beware the guns of August.