Visiting America these days is somehow reassuring. Nothing changes from one decade to the next. Barry Manilow continues to tour and it now seems almost certain the next presidential election will be a face-off between Bush (Jeb) and Clinton (Hillary). On the Republican side, Mitt Romney, who was seriously contemplating another run for the White House, has given up. I am disappointed, since I don’t think we have ever got to the bottom of the Irish setter story. Mitt is supposed to have tied the family dog to the roof of their station wagon and driven to Canada. But was Mitt’s mutt in a cage? Did it have a passport for pets? Did the Mounties let them through without a glance? Did the dog ‘like fresh air’ as much as Mitt claimed? These and many other urgent questions may now be left unanswered for eternity.
There are other Red hopefuls, like Governor Christie of New Jersey, but his fuller figure puts off those who only drink tea, and the ‘Bridgegate’ affair (when the governor’s office caused chaos by closing lanes leading to the George Washington Bridge in 2013, perhaps as an act of revenge against the Mayor of Fort Lee, a political opponent) blights his chances. Rand Paul has his enthusiasts, but libertarian policies like abolishing the Federal Reserve Bank have never attracted majority support in the Grand Old Party. So Jeb, even though still undeclared, is clearly the man to beat.
In the blue corner Hillary has frightened off most potential rivals. The Clintonistas still wield frightening power. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the scourge of Wall Street, has a fan club of sorts, but is unlikely to stand against the First Lady twice removed. So the two great dynasties rumble on, and who would bet against Chelsea Clinton in 2032?
My American friends are less baffled by this phenomenon than I am. A form of cognitive dissonance allows them to hold two apparently contradictory thoughts in their minds: that the US of A is the land of opportunity, in which any member of the huddled masses can become a billionaire or president or both, and that their politics is controlled by a couple of ‘born to rule’ families. If we followed the US model Nicholas Soames would be prime minister, and Hilary Benn leader of the opposition. (Come to think of it, how bad would that be?)
Another enduring and endearing feature of life Stateside is the natives’ pride in, and reverence for, size and scale. So when warning New Yorkers about the possibility of a dusting of snow at the end of January, the mayor announced the imminent arrival of the biggest storm in recorded history, with the deepest snowfall and strongest winds. So the subway was shut down, cars were banned from the streets, and businesses closed down.
When the terrified inhabitants poked their noses out next morning they found a couple of inches of fresh snow in the driveway, and a somewhat chastened mayor, who immediately tried to blame the governor of the state. I was put in mind of the ‘end of the world’ sketch from Beyond the Fringe, when Peter Cook assembled the multitude on a hilltop to await a storm which would herald the end of the world. After the non-arrival of said storm the punch line was ‘oh well, same time next week, boys’.
And, sure enough, a week later the Weather Channel began to forecast another terrifying storm. This time, the mayor stayed silent.
Paris, my next stop, was almost as cold as New York. President Hollande’s experiment with socialism in one country seems to involve importing Soviet weather to provide the full authentic experience. Not surprisingly, the mood remains tense, with uniformed soldiers in groups of three patrolling the city streets. And the economy remains as flat as a crêpe.
Hollande himself, and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, have enjoyed a post-Charlie popularity boost. They are both perceived to have acted with dignity and decision. But the brooding presence of Marine Le Pen continues to dominate the political landscape, leaving Hollande’s socialists and Sarkozy’s ragbag army to scrap it out for second place in any electoral contest. Hollande’s renaissance makes it more likely that he will stand again in 2017, and Sarko’s takeover of the ailing UMP puts him in pole position on the centre right. Will their respective supporters, who abuse each other daily, be prepared to swallow their pride and vote for the other in the second round to beat Le Pen? It is much less likely than it was when Chirac attracted socialist support to defeat her papa. Chirac had far more appeal to the left than does Sarkozy. So a Marine presidency no longer seems so inconceivable.
Back home after my travels, I found a fairly full mailbox. There were, in point of fact, over 50,000 items in it, and they weren’t all messages from claims management companies about my non-existent payment protection insurance.
The explanation is that the Airports Commission consultation on the location of a new runway for London closed in February, and rather a lot of people wanted to have their say. That is good news, in a way, though it has challenged the capacity of our systems. The exercise, which some have criticised for being overlong, has certainly galvanised opinion on all sides. There are many people concerned by the noise implications, of course, but others who positively thrill at the thought of another square mile or two of concrete. I expect policy-making will be increasingly like this in the future. That is something to which later generations of politicians and commissioners can look forward.
Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter at: @howardjdavies