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Paul Vallely: MPs leap into the dark, without a rope

14 December 2018

No one is certain of the outcome of what they propose, says Paul Vallely


El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, in the United States

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park, in the United States

THERE was a man on the radio this week named Alex Honnold, who had scaled what is acknowledged to be the most difficult rock face in the climbing world — El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, in the United States — and had done so without any ropes or any assistance. He had clung to the 3000-foot sheer granite surface by fingertips that were covered in chalk dust, to prevent the sweat from his fingers from marring his grip.

They played a clip of the soundtrack from the film of his three-hour and 56-minute solo ascent, for which he afterwards recorded a move-by-move commentary. At one point, he debates whether or not to perform a complex finger and thumb manoeuvre or whether just to jump for a ledge. He says: “The idea of jumping without a rope seems completely outrageous. If you miss it, that’s that.”

The interview was surrounded, as almost everything on the radio is nowadays, with news items about Brexit, and the increasingly desperate moves and manoeuvres being made by our politicians to secure their preferred version of Britain’s exit from the European Union. No one is quite certain of the outcome of the various options that they are proposing. Everyone is gambling in some way. It is not only a leap without a rope: it is a leap in the dark.

Two of the contributors to Radio 4’s Thought for the Day this week tried to inject some calm into the febrile political process. Bishop James Jones suggested that politicians should pause and consider the secular commandments that are the Nolan Principles on good conduct in public life.

Usually, these are applied retrospectively by those sitting in judgement on the past performance of some public figure. But the Bishop proposed that our MPs jump off the frenetic whirligig of Brexit politics for a moment to consider whether they can, in good conscience, say that they are acting with authenticity. Lord Nolan proposed that holders of public office should act with selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.

The next day, the Revd Lucy Winkett — suggesting that our elected politicians consider the parable of the man who built his house on rock and the one who built his on sand — used a vivid metaphor about the shifting sands of expediency, fear, or anxiety which can lead exhausted MPs to make bad decisions.

The radio interviewer had begun by exclaiming to the climber, “You’re crazy!” to which Mr Honnold replied: “No, I’m not quite crazy.” He had rehearsed every move like a dancer, by climbing the rock face with ropes on 80 occasions, and practising the most difficult individual sections even more than that, over an 18-month period.

Eighteen months, it occurred to me, is the amount of time that the incorrigibly divided Conservative Party has spent in its shambolic negotiations with the EU. The climber’s preparation somehow seemed to have been more thorough.

When the radio programme ended, I went online to watch extracts from the film of Mr Honnold’s head-spinning vertiginous ascent. It was scary to watch, but perhaps our politicians should take a look. It might bring home to them how perilous it is to jump without a rope.

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