“The faith is Europe,” said the great Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc. “Europe is the faith.” We might not use that kind of language these days – there are other faiths in European residence these days – but it does explain something about how the loss of Notre Dame de Paris is such a blow. Not just because it is the pre-eminent gothic building in the world, but because it also has such spiritual significance.
There is an opportunity here, if only for us to be a little clearer about the meaning of the radical centre. On the right, the traditional point of view might be to say that the cathedral is too expensive to rebuild and that the site should be replaced by luxury flats. On the left, you might hear cynical mutterings about religious sentiment.
The radical centre sees clearly the tragic significance of such a loss. Macron appears to have done so too – it was one of those make or break moments for him – he needs to be snapped weeping amidst the ruins, and I hope he will be.
Because the other political force that will recognise this as a tragedy is the populist nationalists, breathing their hot breath down the back of his neck.
There is an opportunity for us in the UK too. We have no building of similar national significance, except possibly Canterbury Cathedral – Westminster Abbey has been shorn of its spirituality by state pomp. Nor do we really share the vital significance of gothic – we have our own milder version called English Perpendicular (though we did invent neo-gothic some centuries later).
We have our own versions of soaring spiritual symphonies in stone and light, but nothing like Notre Dame.
What we do have, thanks to our own fires (Windsor Castle, Cutty Sark), is a skilled cadre of craftspeople able to help in the rebuilding. We should immediately promise to send a team of these, when the time is right, at taxpayers expense. When our neighbour has been wounded, as France has been, we need to heal recent wounds by reaching out with more than words. It is in that sense an opportunity to go beyond Brexit.
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