Marshall Plan? Martial Plans?

Stream in the Forest (Gustave Courbet, 1862.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Marshall Plan? Probably not.

‘In this crisis there can be no half-measures. And that will be the case for years to come as we seek to lift our economy out of the crisis valley’ wrote European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. ‘To do this, we will need massive investment in the form of a Marshall Plan for Europe. And at the heart of it should lie a powerful new EU budget … a proven instrument of solidarity and modernisation.’ Von der Leyen’s op-ed last week, ‘How our Europe will regain its strength‘, received a folded-arms greeting from every leader who mattered … ie Chancellor Merkel.

France, Italy and Spain pressed hard for the creation of debt-sharing mechanisms. Referred to solidarity, Italy’s PM, Giuseppe Conte, even invoked an existential threat to the European Union should insular national interests outweigh all others.

Such debt-sharing mechanisms are the instruments that dare not speak their name, Eurobonds. Today, carrying the zeitgeistier moniker ‘coronabond’, they would allow coronavirus-battered countries to access monies without increasing national debt, aka ‘robbing the Peter that is Germany/Netherlands/Austria/Finland to pay the Paul that is Spain/Italy’.

As a sop, a €500bn emergency intra-EU rescue package of Maundy Money was agreed, following sixteen fruitless Ash Wednesday hours of unedifying euro-wrangling. The once Europhiliac Dutch proved most self-interestedly inward-looking, allegedly only finding their inner European selves after Merkel called Dutch Premier Rutte.

Spanish Premier Pedro Sanchez joined the Marshall clamour: ‘This crisis affects the entire European Union. We must articulate a grand Marshall Plan of reconstruction.’

Uninspiring European Council President, Charles Michel, parroted the phrase of the month: ‘We’re going to put in place what I call a Marshall Plan-like stimulus strategy.’

Oh no you’re not.

Largely because even ersatz Marshall Plans require others to put a lot of their ‘hard-earned NorthEuropean money’ at the disposal of ‘profligate SouthEuropean’ countries: Belgium, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain.

Martial Plans? Now you’re talking. So much easier to produce.

Martial Talk costs nothing. Discuss.

Suddenly there was widespread recourse to the Language of War: leaders wished to be identified as Leaders. They’re (nearly) all at it. Worst by far are Trump and Johnson, with Macron (at the outset) not far behind.

War Warriors

When UK Premier Johnson left intensive care The Sun said Halleluia: ‘Boris is out. Now that really is a Good Friday.’ The same day UK hospitals reported 953 deaths.

Symbolically leaving hospital on Easter Sunday, Johnson was transported … to his second home.

Before leaving for countryside and R&R, Johnson delivered martial metaphors crowbarred into his ‘Thank You NHS For Saving My Life’.

Odd. He’d suffered a surely life-changing near-terminal experience. So facilely producing clichéd faux-Churchill bellicosity: ‘Incredible national battle’. ‘A fight we never picked against an enemy we still don’t entirely understand’ [‘entirely’? Really? Under-statement?]. ‘We are making progress in this national battle because the British public formed a human shield’.

Weeks ago, Johnson began his ‘campaign’ saying ‘We must act like any wartime Government’. On 23 March:’ … in this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted. Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together’. Ever-reliable non-sense of The Sun at hand as Johnson’s Rallying Sergeant. The HQ war machine flew the flag.

President Macron’s ‘We are at war’ speech (that phrase repeated sixfold) was hyperbolic: ‘This requires our general mobilisation.’ We need to ‘unite in this war’. ‘We are not fighting against an army, nor against another nation, but the enemy is there, invisible and intangible’. We will ‘fight against the epidemic, day and night’.

Spanish PM Sanchez used more circumspect martial imagery: ‘Europe must build a wartime economy and promote European resistance, reconstruction and recovery. Europe was born from the ashes of destruction and conflict. It learnt the lessons of history and understood something very simple: if we don’t all win, in the end, we all lose.’ Italian PM Conte referred to Italy’s ‘darkest hour’. Even UN Secretary-General Gutierrez: ‘We are at war with a virus – and not winning it. …This war needs a war-time plan to fight it.’

Most martial of all is The Commander-in-Chief. Vietnam draft-dodger Trump. 3 days ago tweeting: ‘We are winning, and will win, the war on the Invisible Enemy!’

Trumpisms: ‘Our big war’. ‘It’s a medical war. We have to win this war.’ ‘I view it as a, in a sense, a wartime President … We had the best economy we’ve ever had. And then, one day, you have to close it down in order to defeat this enemy … We must sacrifice together, because we are all in this together, and we will come through together. It’s the invisible enemy. That’s always the toughest enemy. But we are going to defeat the invisible enemy. I think we are going to do it even faster than we thought, and it’ll be a complete victory. It’ll be a total victory.’

War refuseniks

Coronavirus brought Angela Merkel’s first unscheduled address in 15 years as Chancellor. She (the adult in the Leaders’ Room?) did not invoke ‘war’: ‘The situation is serious. Take it seriously. Since German unification, no, since World War Two, there has been no challenge to our nation that has demanded such a degree of common and united action.’

Centre-left Suddeutsche Zeitung applauded: ‘[Merkel] did not speak of war … she did not rely on martial words or gestures, but on people’s reason … Nobody knows if that will be enough, but her tone will at least not lead people to sink into uncertainty and fear.’

Two recent morale-boosting contributions also avoided war imagery or did it wittily. Queen Elizabeth II’s TV address (her fifth in a 68 year reign makes it almost as lesser-spotted as a Merkel address) referred to her own childhood wartime broadcast, with a lovely ‘We will meet again’ reference.

While President Macron executed a smart about-turn in Monday’s TV address, watched by 36.7 million people: a new French All-Comers TV record. [He’d learnt from pollster Ifop, the day before, that only 38% of the French (down 6 points) had confidence in Government dealing with the epidemic, so Macron needed a change of approach.] The war imagery disappeared after its previous ghastly surfeit. Speaking honestly. Humanely. Recognising errors. His speech was so much more powerful.


Macron spoke at length. 27 minutes. There’s problems with that prolix literary tongue. It’s hard to disagree with the analysis of (always-anti-Macron) left(ish) weekly Marianne. It was fine for me, but I’m not his target audience. Inspired by HM The Queen’s pithiness, Marianne downsized Macron’s address to 4 minutes (in French). [Pace readers who feel enhanced judicious editing of this blog would be helpful.]

Helen Lewis writes for The Atlantic. She set out what makes me dislike the British yearning for sinew-stiffening and blood-summoning imagery of yore: ‘… this appeal to Blitz spirit, to the unbowed might of Albion, to the idea that Britain withstood the Luftwaffe—all of it is deeply unhelpful when dealing with an infectious disease.’

11 May … or Maybe not

On Monday, President Macron (over half of France watched live … an interesting question is what were the remaining 30 million up to?) often referred to 11 May.

Cautious, of course, with his language: ’11 May will only be possible if we continue to be public-spirited, responsible, and respect the rules. And only if the spread of the virus continues to slow.’ But he referred to ’11 May’ TWELVE times during his speech. That day, he said ‘will be the start of a new phase.’

After confinement comes déconfinement. And after President Macron comes Interior Minister Castaner.

In his role as dampener down of joy unconfined, 12 hours later Castaner was on public radio’s France Inter: ‘Le déconfinement, le 11 mai, is not a certainty but an objective.’

‘Yesterday’ said Castaner, ‘the President of the Republic did not announce that 11 May would be the end of the lockdown. What he announced was lockdown until 11 May.’

Asked about summer holidays, Castaner said he would ‘advise his family not to rush to make any reservations, above all not outside France.’ Yet with a hint of hope said: ‘I think there will be summer holidays.’ Whatever that means.

The Interior Minister also produced Lockdown Evader statistics. 11.8 million ‘papers’ checked: 704,000 Lockdown Breaches. Heart-warming that we are 94% law-abiding. He also noted that a miraculously-negligible 166 people had formally complained, on the Ministry website, about their treatment when being checked.

Something not completely different

I very much enjoyed this blog post by Brigitte Nerlich, Professor of Science, Language and Society, at Nottingham University: ‘Metaphors in the time of coronavirus‘. Her piece was written a month ago. I am indebted to her for some of these references.

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