Returning to Parliament after the Easter break has been in some ways a surreal experience.
Negotiations have been continuing between the Government and the Opposition about the shape that a rapid and orderly Brexit might take. But the result, for the time being, is only rumour and counter-rumour, with no immediate action in Parliament so there is a feeling of suspended animation.
Out in the real world, of course, much has been going on.
Two events, in particular, have served to remind us all of perennial issues facing humanity.
First, there was the massive conflagration at Notre Dame. For all those of us who have spent time in that wonderful edifice, the sight of it burning was poignant. But there is plenty of evidence from around the world that this episode affected millions who had never visited Paris, let alone spent hours in Notre Dame itself.
No doubt, the reason for this is not just the beauty and the splendour of the architecture but also the fact that this building so evidently connects us with our mediaeval past. All of the great cathedrals of Europe – and, indeed, the temples and shrines and mosques and synagogues and churches in the West and in the East (some, much more ancient than Notre Dame itself) – serve in this way to connect us with our history. They remind us that who we are and what we are has been formed by our history, and that the preservation of that heritage is a significant part of preserving our civilisation and our identity.
But of course it isn’t just the artefacts of our heritage which take us beyond the immediate realities of our everyday life and remind us of a greater reality. Nature, too, is a foundation on which we build our lives – consciously or unconsciously.
The so-called ‘Extinction Rebellion’ – though employing methods to which I cannot subscribe, and despite employing language that is, I think, exaggerated – has undoubtedly raised awareness of the importance of our eco-system.
Important though Brexit undoubtedly is, it is good to be reminded that the preservation of our civilisation and the conservation of our eco-system are of even greater long-term significance. Long after the UK has finally left the EU – I hope, in an orderly and agreed manner – we shall still face the twin challenges of conserving both our human and our natural inheritance – and the quality of our lives will be profoundly affected by the extent to which we succeed in doing both of these things.
It is of course part of the purpose of the system of parliamentary democracy that it should enable us to keep in balance at all times the long-term, the medium-term and the short-term – so that we focus our national energies not only on curing the most immediate problems but also on laying the foundations for a secure and congenial future. Indeed, the capacity to perform that balancing act is what distinguishes a mature parliamentary democracy from the welter of single issue pressure groups and from the lurid headlines of the news-cycle. This, too, is a capacity that we have inherited from our predecessors and need to hand on to our successors.