‘Collective’ madness in the Labour Party

There is a complete absence in the Labour leadership contest of what we like to call the ‘big beasts’. They're all minnows.

There is a complete absence in the Labour leadership contest of what we like to call the ‘big beasts’. They are all minnows.

How can we explain the ‘Collective’ madness that has taken over the Labour Party? I have just returned from lands of former Collectives (mega farms set up by the Communists) in Latvia and Lithuania, and I can tell you that Jeremy Corbyn’s much admired legacy to those once Communist countries is a nightmarish one.

The man might come across as a sincere idealist – not at all like the serried ranks of the career politicians so many disdain today – but the likes of Jeremy are the ones to fear the most. They are the zealots, cast in the mould of that ‘sea-green incorruptible’, Maximilien Robespierre, of the French Revolution. While on the subject of the quiet, softly spoken, hard-to-rile idealist, was not ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin exactly that sort of man? He, however had a term for the likes of sweet natured, but for us dangerous, men like Jeremy Corbyn; useful idiots.

And while an old geezer, myself, isn’t it a bit odd that so many young people appear so much in love with old geezer Corbyn? It’s all a little perplexing. If I were to make a guess as to part of the reason – and in life there are, more often than not, many reasons – I would say it is illustrative of the depth of public disenchantment with the political class. And when a man comes forward, however misguided, who is clearly a man of conviction and seems authentic, the young grab at him.

Another factor, surely, is the complete absence in the Labour leadership contest of what we like to call the ‘big beasts’. They’re all minnows. Alan Johnson might have qualified for that sobriquet, but he doesn’t want to know. Perhaps he’s canny enough not to risk losing his sanity in trying to bring together such a disparate band of brothers in what he might view as a poisoned chalice.

Then there’s that totally toxic Blair legacy. We won’t speak of the horrors of the Iraq war or the dodgy dossier that deceived us into sanctioning an illegal war, but there is such a litany of other failed measures that found their way on to the statute book that I might cause you to develop apoplexy half way through were I to attempt to list them all.

His favourite ‘Blair Babe’, Tessa Jowell, loves pontificating and acting as cheer leader for the Bambi project, but she would be better advised finding some stone to crawl under. It was she, who as Culture Secretary, allowed round-the-clock drinking, which has turned all of our city centres into no go areas for the majority of people at weekends. Worst of all the things she did was to promote online casino gambling – that egregious, family-wrecking Act which flies in the face of everything the titans of Old Labour stood for. These titans were high-minded men of probity, who among their other fine and compassionate qualities was a determination to uphold individual dignity and family life. Gambling was anathema to them.

Despite Corbyn’s phenomenal rise against the odds, one or other of his pigmy opponents may yet come through in the race to succeed disastrous Ed Miliband. But even if that were to happen, what does the whole business tell us about the present state of the Labour Party? Could a split prove terminal?

We have grown so used to a duopoly of political power that we could be forgiven for thinking that Tories and Labour are a permanent part of the political landscape. But even in the 20th century this was not the case. The party of Lloyd George seemed just as permanent on the eve of World War One. For much of the previous century, that Liberal giant of principled government, William Gladstone, bestrode the political firmament. Then, after Lloyd George, the party became an irrelevance. Following their brief re-appearance and engagement with power under the recent Coalition, they have again sunk back into irrelevance. Is it now, as a result, a return to business as usual? Not necessarily.

Whether Corbyn succeeds or not, what his extraordinary success has shown is the deep schism within the Labour Party. It may prove unbridgeable. Certainly it will take more than any of the lightweights on offer to heal the wounds of what is turning out to be a bitter, acrimonious fight. Tories may gloat over what is going on, but they would be wrong to do so. Any properly functioning democracy needs an effective Opposition. You cannot expect the media to perform this role alone, splendid though it is in exposing maladministration and wrongdoing. (How incredibly right it was to resist Leveson’s proposals to muzzle it. Do you seriously think the establishment would have allowed itself to be investigated for child abuse had those proposals gone through?)

There is now, as I see it, a chance for a regathering of the forces of the sensible Left to challenge an overweening government. Essentially the Liberal Democrats are a left-of-centre party. Were they to throw their lot in with similarly minded elements in the Labour Party, it could consign forever to the dustbin of history that Trotskyite wing of Labour that so bedevils its chances of regaining the trust of the British people.

It might, in the process, appeal to those many citizens north of the border and in Wales who still have faith in a Union which has shone so brightly for so long and raised us, a small people, so high among the nations of the earth.

Schäuble needs a history lesson

Poor, benighted Greece. Yes, it lived beyond its means, encouraged by greedy bankers all too willing to see it mortgage its future. And, yes, the Greek way of doing things seems decidedly un-Germanic.

What an unedifying carry-on that scrambled, weekend marathon was, called to decide Greece’s fate and preserve the integrity of the euro. A two days’ notice summons went out to the nine heads of government not in the euro who were told to attend that Sunday. Then they were told to stand down. They didn’t need a grand council of all twenty-eight EU members after all. Talk about an omnishambles and the Grand Old Duke of York.

It was always meant to be that, once enrolled, you were as locked in as all fifty states of the American union are to the dollar. But it turns out that that this is not the case. Former Foreign Secretary William Hague once made the mistake of saying that belonging to the euro was like being in a burning building in which all the exit doors are locked. Really! Wolfgang Schäuble, the hard-line German finance minister, had actually drawn up a plan to show Greece the exit door if it did not comply with EU terms.

There are many truths to this latter day Greek tragedy. Ironic it is that it should happen to Greece of all countries, which wrote the scripts of the very first tragedies concerning the foibles of human nature. Just as it was beginning to make progress under austerity – though there remained much to do, as the latest Brussels proposals made clear – a crazy, economically illiterate cabal of schoolboy lefties gained power. (They once believed that Communism was the answer.) Their silly promises of an end to austerity were seized on by a weary electorate. But how could they work that particular piece of economic sophistry? It was like asking someone to turn base metal into gold.

We are today in a situation in which a mere eleven million Greeks labour under a mountain of debt equal to what our sixty-four million people spend on the NHS in a year and a half. It was, and is, insupportable.

Once again the banks have a case to answer. It is a truism that a lender has as much of a responsibility as the borrower. What is abundantly clear is that the lenders did not exercise due diligence. They knew the Greek character and that once they enjoyed the security of the euro with its low borrowing costs would, likely as not, go on a spending spree and end up living high on the hog, enjoying a standard of living way beyond what their productivity justified.

But while the good times rolled the banks looked the other way and that fatally flawed conception – a currency (monetary) union without a fiscal and banking one was able to bumble along… just. But it was never going to avoid the attention of the speculators on the world’s money markets when the good times ended, as they always do. And boy, did they end! When the banks were exposed as having lent to millions of mainly Americans (but, yes, us too) on mortgages that they knew were likely to go belly-up, they then artfully – and I believe criminally – wrapped up those toxic, sub-prime debts in packages mixed in with sound debts and unloaded them to unsuspecting other banks all around the world. The consequence was that every bank viewed every other bank with suspicion and would not lend to them (an absolutely necessary requirement under the capitalist system) for fear that the other bank had saddled itself with lashings of toxic debt and may actually be insolvent.

When the giant Lehman Brothers bank went down and the Federal Reserve refused to save it, shock waves went round the world. It was a seismic event in that cloistered world of banking which everywhere shut down on lending. It sent the system into a tail spin. Thus we became familiar with a new term: the credit crunch.

Returning to Greece, the bailiffs of the big boys, (the Troika’s IMF, ECB (European Central Bank) and the European Commission) have effectively moved in. Proud, humiliated Greece is being told it must provide collateral for the monies advanced. It must sell off all it can of its public sector along with whatever else can raise hard cash. The next thing we’ll be hearing is that they’ve slapped a ‘For Sale’ notice on the Parthenon. What has been needed throughout, but which has been totally lacking, is a generosity of spirit. If the 520 million people of Europe cannot handle 11 million, admittedly errant, citizens, then something is seriously wrong.

The fact is it is perfectly possible to be a member of the European family (i.e. the EU) – after all, there are nine of us who are not using the euro – without being beholden and tied to that flawed currency. It is equally possible that if one day that currency proves itself by correcting its inbuilt defects and then goes on to become the world’s reserve currency, replacing the dollar, we may ourselves rethink our position and apply to join. But that day is a long way off.

Meantime what of Greece and its mountain of unrepayable debt? 92% of the monies advanced to Greece do not go to helping that country get back on its feet, but to servicing its debts. As a deadline for repayment looms, Greece is handed monies which it must immediately pay back. Thus, while for book-keeping purposes, the situation seems under control it is anything but. It is an altogether hopeless situation. In essence it’s no different from that of a person taking up ever more credit cards to pay off a loan from his bank.

Europe, and in particular Germany, should remember that when the Americans put together that incredibly generous Marshall Aid programme to rescue them from an even more dire situation than present day Greece’s at the end of World War II, there was a total forgiveness of debt. Without that there would have been no recovery of Europe for decades. It remains my hope where little Greece is concerned that our great continent will show a generosity of spirit similar to what the Americans showed with their Marshall Aid programme and declare a forgiveness of debt. Without it Greece has no hope.

A tragic consequence of the present situation which few have thought about is that we are in danger of losing, through neglect and vandalism, much of that peerless heritage we so like to visit and wonder at. The treasures of European antiquity, of which the Greeks are custodians, are already suffering terribly from thefts and shocking neglect. What with the destruction going on in Aleppo, the oldest inhabited city on earth, at Palmyra, Babylon and indeed throughout the Middle East – the very cradle of civilisation – the world will wake up one day and realise that it wasn’t just present day humans who paid the price, but the surviving evidence of what its distant ancestors achieved down the ages.

The latter day Greek tragedy continues

If the Greeks vote no, they face not just potential mayhem but a complete national shutdown. Yet the majority of economists actually believe this course would serve the country best.

If the Greeks vote no, they face not just potential mayhem but a complete national shutdown. Yet the majority of economists actually believe this course would serve the country best.

What are we to make of the tragedy which is unfolding across the beautiful waters of the Aegean? Here in high summer when they should be enjoying the fruits of their glorious holiday season they are locked in a battle for their very survival with the giants of north Europe and their banking systems.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Greece has already paid a terrible price for its profligacy and easy living on the back of a strong currency of which it was never qualified to be part. Their economy has had been bludgeoned by the money men into shrinking by a horrendous 25% and their youth unemployment exceeds 60%.

Right at the beginning, the books appealing for entry into the euro were cooked, helped in no small part by that ‘Great Vampire Squid’, Goldman Sachs. But while the Germans and the rest knew very well how the Greeks went about their business and that they were not a suitable candidate, political Europe had to take precedence over economic Europe and they let them in.

With other weaker economies such those of the Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Italians allowed to join the party, the Germans ended up with a currency much less strong than their old Deutschmark would have been and that made it much easier for them to flog their BMWs and the like. Borrowing rates for these weaker economies became much lower than ever they would have been had they been using their own currencies so, of course, they were happy to buy north Europe’s products as well as treat themselves to a much higher standard of living than their economic performances warranted.

All was well throughout the goods times that preceded the financial crash of 2008. That ill-conceived monetary union – which lacked the also essential fiscal union – of the euro could bumble along so long as there were no headwinds. But, boy, it wasn’t so much headwinds that arrived but rather a hurricane. The Credit Crunch brought the Western world’s economies to the brink of meltdown.

Today the weakest of the dominoes stands in imminent danger of falling, with the risk that others will follow. And the country that benefited most during the good times, Germany, insists on playing hardball. It needs to show a bit of humility – as well as compassion – and realise that it must take its share of the blame for the plight that Greece finds itself in today.

Despite its own banks, along with French and others, being exposed to a possible Greek default of alarming proportions, it knows that a Greek economy that cannot grow because of acute austerity will never ever be able to pay off its debts. It needs relief and restructuring. Long before this present crisis broke they acknowledged this fact. But what now are the Troika’s proposals? Even deeper austerity. Can we be surprised that a government that was elected on a mandate to end austerity has thrown up its hands and said enough?

If Greece on Sunday, in its touching desire to remain at the heart of the European family – but also out of sheer terror at the thought of the consequences of being cast adrift – votes to accept the Troika’s diktats, it faces never-ending recession. If the Greek people vote no on Sunday, they will stay in the EU and possibly even the single currency, but mayhem could follow with a complete national shutdown. Could Brussels stand by and see this happen?

Actually the majority of economists believe that this seemingly bonkers course would serve it best (Argentina went down a similar road). Economists say there would be six months of hell, or possibly longer, but then a future would open up for Greece. With holiday costs cut to half their present level, we would cast aside that old warning to ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. Greece would become the continent’s playground as never before. Poor, suffering Hellas, the first of all Europe’s civilisations, would start to smile again.

Was Napoleon murdered on St. Helena?

I personally believe that it was the power of money that defeated Napoleon. Britain dominated world trade. She was already a hundred years into the Industrial Revolution and these two provided her with the funds to build a truly colossal fleet to keep herself safe from invasion, safeguard all her worldwide trade routes and become the paymaster of all the European monarchies opposed to the ideals of Revolutionary France. French battlefield techniques remained superior to those of any other of the European powers, including ourselves, just as the Nazis were in World War Two; but just as in that war the underdogs got better so that their combined material and numerical numbers eventually proved decisive.

I think also there is a strong case for arguing that we made an end of Napoleon on the remote, South Atlantic island of St. Helena, his final place of exile. Crimes need three ingredients: means, opportunity and motive. We had all three. It was a healthy Napoleon who arrived at the island at the age of forty-seven. Six years later he was dead.

First, as our prisoner, we obviously had the means and opportunity. Finally – in my view the decisive factor – his incarceration was costing us a fortune. On that small island of ten miles by six we felt it necessary to garrison 2,000 troops. Second we also felt it necessary to maintain two ships of the line on permanent duty sailing round the island.

The final and perhaps decisive factor influencing the British government of the day was the nightmarish fear that France – which bounced back strongly after Waterloo – would mount a rescue operation to rescue their humiliated hero and begin the Napoleonic Wars all over again.

I have written a poem which attempts to tell the story of Waterloo in verse.

 

Unsparing of his soldiers killed,

Yet loved by them in every way.

Oppressed folk everywhere he thrilled

As Europe’s monarchies he flayed.

 

‘Armies march upon their stomachs,’

Said Bonaparte the Corsican.

Eurasia? He almost won it:

That ego said ‘of course I can’.

 

A wild adventure drew him east

To fabled Sphynx’s quizzic stare;

But dear Horatio sank his fleet

And left his army stranded there.

 

Then east again to Moscow’s gates

With half a million of his best,

The great retreat was left too late:

With winter came his grimmest test.

 

Our island race stood in his way

While others trembled at French might;

To field their armies we would pay

And lead them in a daunting fight.

 

Through two decades we fought it out;

Old liberties were put on hold.

To drive France from its last redoubt

We knew we must be hard and bold.

 

Prussians, Russians, Belgiums, Dutch,

Austrians, Swedes joined in the cause;

No one thought of the future, much,

Just to get through those endless wars.

 

At Waterloo the dye was cast;

Soldiers penned their final wills.

Those British squares, they must stand fast,

And Frenchmen by the thousand kill.

Cavalry charged against the squares:

Sharp sabres aimed at British breasts.

How would those lines of redcoats fare?

How would they meet that fearsome test?

 

Volley on volley they must shoot,

‘The closest thing you ever saw…’

‘Hard pounding,’ mused the Iron Duke,

Till Boney’s men could take no more.

 

To save the day, an Army Corps!

The Emperor’s Imperial Guard;

Unbeaten in a foreign war,

The hardest of the very hard.

 

In silence and in fearless line

They bore down on their British foe;

But raked by fire ten thousand times,

Those guardsmen made an awesome show.

 

This time the fates smiled on the reds;

Their musketry was so intense.

Sad doom came in a storm of lead:

‘Now was the game up,’ Boney sensed.

 

But Allied lines were weakening fast,

Exhausted from the nine-hour fight,

When in the distance came at last

Old Marshal Blücher’s Prussian might.

 

Our fearless Duke maintained morale

By riding ‘twixt those battered squares;

They stood there fixed like Zulu kraals,

Their mortal danger mutually shared.

 

The day was clinched, at fearful cost;

The corpses measured by the ton.

‘The next worst thing to battles lost…’

‘Is surely that of battles won’.

Poor, hapless Miliband and his Ed Stone

The Ed Stone must have been ordered weeks before it was announced, all 2.6 metres and £30,000 worth of it. And the monster wasn't going to be installed at Labour party headquarters, but in the rose garden of Downing Street, for God's sake.

The Ed Stone must have been ordered weeks before it was unveiled, all 2.6 metres and £30,000 worth of it. And the monster wasn’t going to be installed at Labour party headquarters, but in the rose garden of Downing Street, for God’s sake.

How to explain last Thursday? Reading people’s minds is far from the exact science the pollsters would like to pretend they have made it. And reading British people’s intentions may be the toughest nut of them all to crack. G.K. Chesterton had it right when he wrote:

Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget,

For we are the people of England, that never has spoken yet.

Hells bells, the people spoke alright last Thursday. They did it in the privacy of the polling booth. It was almost in the nature of a raised finger to those battalions of know-it-alls who told them how they were going to vote. There may also have been an element of bloody-mindedness in that decision which ended up stunning the world. Yet it wasn’t, in my view, an innate shyness to tell or an enjoyment of being a spoiler that was at work, but a cold hard appraisal of what was at stake.

Harold Wilson may have said that “a week is a long time in politics,” and so it is. But for all that, people weren’t readily going to forget an event of even six years before – when the cash points were within forty-eight hours of running dry and salary transfers could not have been made to banks. It was as dire a situation as it is possible to imagine. That same government of Gordon Brown had not long before given them an almighty fright by getting into a dispute with tanker drivers so that food, itself, was also within forty-eight hours of running out in the supermarkets. We got to realise, for the first time, how slender were the stocks they held and how utterly dependent they were on a fast turnaround.

Now they were being asked to give their trust to the same group of people who were at the helm at that time and who had gone on to display a level of fiscal incontinence unique in British politics. They thought about the man who was asking us to make him prime minister and the Damascene conversion he had made at the last minute to fiscal rectitude. The difficulty was that they had trouble believing him; he was still so purblind that, to the very end, he couldn’t bring himself to concede that the previous government, in which he had played an important part, had borrowed too much (it was all the fault of those damned foreigners he intoned ad nauseam… the worldwide credit crunch and all those wicked bankers). Every country had suffered, so he maintained.

The problem was that those countries which had not got themselves into debt were able, largely, to cope with the crisis without massive programmes of austerity. These and many other thoughts went through voters’ minds in the run up to the big day and even in the polling booth itself. A huge question mark hung over Miliband in particular as he just did not seem prime minister material – and certainly not when compared to the smooth, polished Cameron. This perception was reinforced by his opportunistic and silly decision to go and talk to Russell Brand. That garrulous, machinegun-like spouter of nonsense was the last person in the world calculated to reassure a worried public. And then there was that Ed Stone. ‘Oh, dear,’ thought the electorate. Where were the armies of special advisors that let that one go through?

It may have been some silly Yank’s idea, but gullible, unworldly Ed thought it a great one. What was he thinking? Talk about hubristic presumption. It must have been ordered weeks before it was unveiled, all 2.6 metres and £30,000 worth of it. And the monster wasn’t going to be installed at Labour party headquarters, but in the rose garden of Downing Street, for God’s sake.

Did he seriously think that future prime ministers – and, hell, we had not made him that yet – would want their lovely, sweet-smelling roses cast into perpetual shadow by such ‘monumental’ nonsense? And what about planning permission? Had he thought about that? After all, Downing Street is a listed building. Perhaps after he’d brow-beaten them into submission he intended to take it with him at the end of his long, glorious term of office and have it installed on the unused plinth at Trafalgar Square. How the episode plays to the blog post I once wrote 3 ½ years ago about the fall of Dominic Strauss Kahn titled ‘The Foolishness of Clever Men‘.

At the end of the day the great British public saw no sense in imperilling the undoubted progress that had been made in stabilising the economy, and they certainly didn’t want a cantankerous tartan army descending on London, gurning all the time about how hard done by they were and demanding ever more Danegeld. Nor did that public relish the thought of the slippery, cocksure Alex Salmond appearing once more out of the Scottish mists like the ghost of Banquo. It would have been unbearable were he to have ended up de facto deputy prime minister, slipping in and out of Downing Street at will and browbeating a hapless Miliband.

Finally, in an ever more competitive world people did not see that it made sense to drift back into left-wing policies that had been tried umpteen times and always found wanting. Not a single Labour administration had ever left office without the public finances being in an unholy mess. The people understood that, for the security of their jobs and the wellbeing of their country, a business-friendly mind-set was key.

So convinced was I, as well as another member of my family, that these ‘neck and neck’ polls were nonsense that we placed a £50 bet each on a clear Conservative majority (at 15:2 odds) and won a total of £830. Our mantra should always be to trust the people; they get it right most times, whether it be General Elections, Strictly Come Dancing or X-Factor.

‘The bomb’ saved us all

Though a quarter of a million of them would have to be sacrificed in the initial blast and its aftermath, it has been estimated that perhaps eight times that number would have perished on both sides before Japan could have been overcome by conventional means.

Though a quarter of a million Japanese would have to be sacrificed in the initial blast and its aftermath, it has been estimated that perhaps eight times that number would have perished on both sides before Japan could have been overcome by conventional means.

Amidst all the ballyhoo of this incredible election we are in danger of not giving proper thought to an event which has shaped all our lives. Seventy years ago today saw an end to what Churchill called ‘the German War’. It was a war in which 50 million died – 20 million, let us never forget, Russian.

I have never regarded the Second World War as anything other than a continuation of the First, but with a 21-year interregnum. On 8th May 1945 the world was still far from at peace. Not yet vanquished were the fanatical Japanese. If our soldiers feared the last ditch fanaticism of the Nazis as they stormed across the Rhine into the enemy heartland, their fears were multiplied several fold as they considered the horrors of what awaited them on the beaches of Japan. Their naval comrades had already experienced a foretaste of what they could expect with the Kamikaze death flights into their ships.

As the great armies of the Western allies celebrated with their Russian allies in the West, they knew that an even more fearful test of their resolve awaited them in the East. Bloodletting on a scale hitherto unknown seemed guaranteed as they briefly enjoyed their moment of triumph in Europe before their embarkation to the other side of the world and a fresh clash of arms.

Their foe in this encounter did not abide by Western concepts of warfare and could, especially in defending their homeland, be expected to die to the last man and perhaps even woman. At that very moment, while the celebrations were continuing, British Empire forces were locked in mortal combat in the steaming jungles of Burma and south east Asia while their American allies were island-hopping ever closer in the Pacific to the Japanese mainland.

But far away in the deserts of New Mexico a secret project was being furiously fast tracked to its terrifying completion. It was a bomb of such enormous potential that a single one could lay waste an entire city. Millions of lesser bombs had fallen on the cities of the Reich, but still there were whole districts of them relatively unscathed. If it worked then even the suicidal Japanese – who at that moment were preparing for a ‘twilight of the gods’ – would bear what their emperor would later broadcast ‘the unbearable’ and surrender, rather than see their 2000-year-old civilisation wiped from the face of the earth.

In all the long march of humankind towards a better world, the stakes had never been higher. Terrible as the new weapon was, it would save those fearful young Western men who were even then preparing to board their ships, as it would also, ironically, save the Japanese themselves. (Though a quarter of a million of them would have to be sacrificed in the initial blast and its aftermath, it has been estimated that perhaps eight times that number would have perished on both sides before Japan could have been overcome by conventional means.) So while we are right to commemorate the end of the war in Europe, we must not forget the true end of the war, three month later.

This ‘true end’, as I call it has, in my view, the greater significance. This is because it really did achieve what many had, mistakenly, believed in the First World War to be: ‘The War to End Wars’. From the detonation of those two nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki came a belief – rightly – that global war was no longer an option as it would escalate, inevitably, into a nuclear conflagration and with that the end of all human civilisation. In such a scenario there could be no winners and it is my belief that that it is this appreciation during the Cold War that kept it from becoming a hot one.

As for the reason I do not believe the two European wars to be separate wars, it is because certain powerful elements in Germany considered the outcome of the First World War unfinished business. It took only a charismatic demagogue like Hitler to fan the embers for a re-run. Even then it would have been unlikely to happen, but for the Wall Street Crash and the impoverishment and mass unemployment which struck Germany. Of all the advanced economies, Germany suffered by far the worst because its situation was dramatically worsened by the huge reparations it was forced to pay under the Versailles treaty.

Why those powerful elements in Germany considered the war unfinished business was because the Western allies did not press home their advantage when they finally broke the four-year impasse on the Western Front and went on to smash the, by then, retreating German army which was surrendering in droves. Heeding Ludendorff, the German commander – who had a breakdown – and his call for a cessation of hostilities (Armistice) the allies allowed the Kaiser’s high command to maintain the fiction that it had not been defeated in the field. Hitler, of course, was all too ready to encourage them in this misplaced belief and, more to the point, provide them with the tools to try once more. The rest is history.

There is a clear choice in this election

It is a strange thing to reflect on the fact there were once people who would have killed me if they could and that as a young man I was shot at. It was the last lot of the ‘Troubles’ with the IRA before the final bout broke out which ended with the ‘Peace Process’. Then civilians were not targeted – just the police and the military – and I was a National Serviceman.

After that I returned to the cut-throat world of commerce (managed to get sacked three times) before, at twenty-seven, going into business on my own and remaining there to the grand old age of seventy-five whence I am still contributing my penny’s-worth. In that period before I struck out on my own, I worked for nine different employers.

What causes me to return to those times is what strikes me as the glaring contrast between my own round-the-block experience, shared in varying degrees by many (though not perhaps the shooting and sackings) and the utter lack of worldliness between us and the  very many callow people who govern us. Apart from having, in so many cases, little to draw on, they come up with plans to spend umpteen billions of pounds in a manner that suggests our money is almost monopoly money. Few, if any, have any serious costing experience, much less have run large companies be it their own or other people’s.

In my ideal world no person should be able to put themselves forward for public office such as an MP below the age of thirty-five nor do so without experience of a genuine job outside the world of politics. No person could, for instance, become Minister of Defence without a military background, nor Chancellor of the Exchequer without accountancy skills, nor Health Minister without medical or health service expertise, nor take charge of education if he or she knows nothing of the world of academia. Strangely, the one area where we do apply such thinking is the law. Lord Chancellors, Attorney Generals and Justice Ministers have all had to be lawyers.

What I would never allow to happen is for a student of politics or any other university discipline to be parachuted straight into the Westminster bubble of a think tank, policy unit, special advisor or any other similar make-work prop. Most bizarrely, as many people thought at the time, we once had a transport minister (Barbara Castle) who didn’t know how to drive. I realise that such rarefied thinking may be thought by many to be unattainable, unrealistic and even naive, but it seems sensible to me to aim towards drafting people into a job who are already half way to understanding it and who have acquired hard-won expertise in the field.

If they come to the job with the right background, they should be left to get on with it. Constant reshuffles – which have been a feature of governments of all hues – is inimical to rapid progress. In this respect Cameron’s administration has been unusual. Real expertise has been built up in many important departments of state with ministers left in situ for an entire parliament. Look at the long-serving and successful Theresa May at the Home Office, long regarded as the graveyard of the aspirant politician. See, too, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and Ian Duncan Smith, the Minister of Work and Pensions. Then there is Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, and most famously the Chancellor, George Osborne. Even the controversial Michael Gove at education was left long enough to get on top of his brief and effect his own mini revolution.

Considering the constraints which coalition government by their nature impose, it is surprising how much has been achieved. Welfare, education and the economy – with the independent Office of Budgetary Responsibility – can be said to be entering a new era.

What do the government’s opponents have to offer? The latest is rent control. I am no friend of landlords, but I have to accept that we can’t do without them and that, in fact, rental forms an essential cog in our housing needs. Ed Miliband’s populist wheeze here is a busted flush. It’s been tried before and it doesn’t work. First it sets up a whole new expensive bureaucracy and all to no avail since his proposals can be easily circumvented. His interference in the market would, however, be guaranteed to worsen the situation of the very people he purports to help, in the same way as his capping of energy bills when oil and gas was at an all-time high. It was like when Gordon Brown sold off half our gold reserves only to see the price of gold double within months. Socialists, sad to say, are not strong on economics even if their hearts, in most cases, are in the right place.

As for Miliband himself, he daily reveals himself to be in the Michael Foot mould. Just look at the ridiculous stone monolith he plans to erect in the garden of Number 10, no doubt inspired by his new anti-capitalist pal Russell Brand. Perhaps it was all those years at the knee of his Marxist father who turned his house into a debating parlour for Communism, inviting the likes of Foot, Benn, Eric Hobsbawn as well as the traitorous – as it later turned out – union baron, Jack Jones, who was in the pay of the KGB.

David Cameron is lacking in many things, but he’s much less dangerous to the economic wellbeing of our country than the unreconstructed son of the LSE Marxist lecturer whom we rescued from the Nazis (he was Jewish) and who then went on to warp the thinking of a generation of young people including, it appears, his own son.

No one has better reason to hate the heartlessness, secrecy and institutionalised privileges of the ruling classes of this country than I do, but I’ll tell you this: if we place our future in the hands of such a master opportunist and dissembler as Ed Miliband then we will have taken leave of our senses. He refuses, even now, to concede that the government in which he played an important part borrowed too much. (I am not interested in how he looks or sounds; we have had great leaders who scored on neither front.)

My own business has been punished grievously and, after twenty-one years, I find myself holding on by the skin of my teeth. We do not want, nor can afford, left-wing experiments at a time like this, especially when we have so narrowly escaped a catastrophe which he and his master’s policies inflicted on us only five short years ago and which have been the cause of so much suffering.

I will finally, and unapologetically, make this observation: I do not think it was outrageous that a minister made reference recently to the younger Miliband’s behaviour towards his brother. It was what most people thought and the ‘appalled’ reaction of Labour apologists as well as certain sections of the media I consider was entirely contrived. There are not many brothers who would do to their sibling what he did to his. In my view it speaks of something I do not find edifying. It had a devastating effect on their aging mother and he must have known that would be the case.

Trust the evidence: flying is safe

One of the worst aspects of this terrible tragedy is that the grieving families of Flight 9525 passengers have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

One of the worst aspects of the recent Alps tragedy is that the grieving families of passengers have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

We have all been shocked to the core at the terrible tragedy which unfolded last week in the French Alps. It is the stuff of nightmares: a deranged madman propelling us forward to an inevitable and horrible death. While millions place their lives regularly in the hands of the airlines, a surprising number do so with the utmost reluctance. The reason they do so is that they recognise it is the only practical way of getting to distant, exotic places and that the urge manages to override their fears.

We heed, as best we can, the mass of statistical evidence which says that flying is safe. As I write, 9,000 passenger aircraft are in the skies of the world carrying a population the size of Manchester. All will arrive safely. When 9/11 struck and the order went out to ground all aircraft, private as well as civil, 5,000 aircraft were in the skies of North America.

The loss of two Malaysian aircraft, and this recent German one in what seems like quick succession, has evoked all our ancient, primeval fears of doing such unnatural things as soaring high in the sky. ‘That’s for the birds,’ we think. Evolution, after all, has hardwired us to fear heights as a terrestrial animal, and it takes a supreme effort of will to set such fears aside. I am myself full of irrational fears and contradictions. What do you make of a man who flew his own hang glider yet is anxious about trusting his lot to an airline pilot? The pilot’s machine is infinitely safer and better maintained, and his skills in the air immeasurable better, yet still I preferred to rely on myself.

We have come a long way since those first spluttering engines of World War One with their rickety airframes and fresh air environment. They were the true heroes of flying, not us. Accident by accident over these hundred years, we have investigated the causes of failures. And modification by modification, aircraft have been brought to the point where almost nothing remains to be discovered.

The machines we put into the air today are almost as safe as the birds which evolution perfected. In fact it is possible to argue that in some important respects they are safer. Birds regularly fall out of the sky with heart or other physiological failures. On long migrations, they fail through weariness or failure to anticipate the weather. Sometimes they fail to gain the height necessary to carry them over mountain ranges. Planes almost never fail on any of these counts. Moreover, aircraft are able to fly over 13 times the speed of the fastest birds, which, as it happens, nest on the cliffs of Cornwall. Even as long ago as World War Two we were well on our way. Look how many shot-up bombers were still able to limp home, so much were their aircrafts miracles of engineering.

It is a fact that if we are to fear anything today it is ourselves. By far the majority of accidents are human error. Electrical, structural, mechanical and computer, they are all a lot sounder than the frailty of human nature. We have pretty well guaranteed physical soundness, but this recent tragedy in the Alps has highlighted how far we are from understanding the vagaries of the mind.

Few air disasters have been more shocking than this one. When Pan American airlines was blown from the skies over Lockerbie, disaster came like a thief in the night but with no suffering. Death, or at least unconsciousness, was instant. The same is true of the recent Ukrainian tragedy. What unfolded over the Alps were minutes of utmost terror and a final few seconds of unimaginable horror.

This nightmarish scenario was compounded at ground level. When the bodies at Lockerbie and Ukraine fell from their destroyed aircraft, they travelled to earth at terminal velocity of a falling object (120 mph) and for the most part, remained intact. When the poor souls of Germanwings Flight 9525 impacted the ground, they did so at 330 mph and were shattered on impact. Even the metallic parts of the aircraft suffered a similar fate. It was next to impossible for a visitor to the scene to know that this mass of debris had once been an aircraft. A mountain of unidentifiable, desiccated body parts were scattered over a square mile of mountainside. Consequently, one of the worst aspects of this terrible tragedy is that the grieving families have a next to impossible task in recovering their loved ones among so mixed and fragmented a jumble.

Lufthansa will have much to answer for when the final reckoning takes place. It appears their vetting system was so inadequate that it allowed an individual with a long history of mental instability to slip the net and fly their aircraft.

While we all place great importance on patient confidentiality, it appears the Germans are almost paranoiac about it. This, where certain occupations are concerned, will have to change as I believe it will worldwide. A duty needs to be placed on all doctors, which has the force of law, requiring them to inform a patient’s employer the moment they believe their patient unfit to fly an aircraft. The same should apply to train and coach drivers.

At some point in the not too distant future, we are going to have to accept that ground control will get you to your destination and back, as it has long done on far more complicated missions into space. Already our drones daily take off, complete their missions and return safely to earth. Once again, it is an irrational, primitive belief that only a man up front can be given ultimate responsibility. When we have grown used to safely journeying in our cars by automated, driverless systems – which is coming sooner than we think – then we may start to believe that the same technology can be applied to the air. Such systems are already feasible in our towns and cities and will soon be trialled here in the UK. It is only human irrationality which is slowing the process. When accidents and fatalities are seen to have been driven down close to zero with machines in control, then perhaps we may summon up the courage to trust the machine more than the man.

The immigration debate

Gordon Brown demonstrated the disconnect between politicians and the public when he labeled lifelong Labour supporter Gillian Duffy a bigot for broaching the subject in 2010.

Gordon Brown clearly demonstrated the disconnect between politicians and the public when he labeled lifelong Labour supporter Gillian Duffy a bigot for broaching the subject in 2010.

Among the forgetful Ed Miliband’s omissions at his party’s annual conference was any mention of immigration. Considering that it ranks currently as number two of the public’s national concerns and that finally it is deemed respectable to speak of it, that omission must be classed as a failure as lamentable as that other one of not referring in the same speech to the deficit. The recent brain shutdown of the Green Party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, in her Q&A sessions with Andrew Neil and Nick Ferrari can be forgiven since she has no prospect of taking charge of our ship of state, but for it to happen to Ed? Oh, dear.

Ed has a problem, so it seems, not just with his gormless appearance – which, admittedly, he can’t help – but worryingly with his little grey cells. Personally, I view it as regrettable that in today’s shallow world you have to be telegenic to have any chance of being elected your nation’s leader. That requirement seriously impacts your ability to draw on the full range of your nation’s talent. Had we been like this seventy years ago, we would have lost Churchill and probably with him the war. We certainly would have turned our backs on his mouse-like successor, the great Clement Attlee, and risked losing, in his case, the NHS and the Welfare State. Apart from being the antithesis of telegenic – one was fat and the other weedy – they both were terrible public speakers.

The same cannot be said of the present, glib PM who won his spurs with a single show-off party speech, disdaining the use of the autocue. He was lucky to get away with it because later with the US broadcasting anchor-man, David Letterman, the Eton and Oxford-educated whiz kid could not remember what either Magna nor Carta stood for. Being that this was on the eve of the 800th anniversary of that momentous event, and that neither of those august places of learning appear to have knocked it in to the young Cameron’s head, you’d have thought that he’d have done his homework first. Inexplicably, it was history he studied at Oxford and just as inexplicably they awarded him a First. How so many of us back home winced at the spectacle of our own prime minister displaying such appalling ignorance.

We have to ask ourselves whether his party made as monumental a mistake in selecting him on the strength of that single – admittedly virtuoso – performance as Labour made in allowing the unions to foist the Ed brother on the party over its much preferred other brother, David.

For the Conservative Party leadership the shoo-in, prior to the posh boy’s performance, was the one-parent, council estate, SAS veteran, David Davis. Are we seriously saying that the present perception of a cabinet of rich, privileged elite would have held true under a Davis leadership? And do you think that the present, lamentable state of Britain’s armed forces would have been allowed to happen on an SAS man’s watch?

It may be that the US made a similar mistake in preferring the cerebral Obama to the Vietnam, POW-tortured veteran, John McCain. McCain, the son of an admiral, had been offered his freedom by his Viet Kong captors, but he turned it down because they would not free his less-exalted comrades. Time has demonstrated that he is no swivel-eyed, Tea Party head banger, but a thoughtful, measured observer of the world scene. I do not see that McCain would ever have allowed the mess to develop in the Middle East as has, and I’m equally sure that he would have provided the leadership which would have kept Putin in his box.

In fact, with Davis in charge on this side of the pond – a friend remarked to me recently – perhaps something of the ‘magnificent’ (his words) partnership that grew between Reagan and Thatcher might have developed with McCain. He was firmly of the opinion that a different and more secure world would exist today. But that’s conjecture for you. And the world of what might have been. But it did get me thinking a little.

Returning to immigration, we have always been among the luckiest of nations in that respect. In a very real way, the world has been our oyster. Because of our historic engagement overseas our people have been free to flee these shores and settle almost anywhere they wished. Now the world is more tightly controlled, with independent states zealously guarding their borders. Yet still our options are vastly better than almost anyone else’s. So we should not be too hard on people who wish to do what we have been doing for centuries. At least we were not fleeing tyranny and brute barbarism.

A recent BBC programme discussing the urgent need to expand the number of school places referred only to a rapidly expanding population while disingenuously failing to mention what had brought about this expansion. The broadcaster was at this point free to mention, what previously had been the unmentionable, but still it chose not to.

Immigration has hugely benefited this country in years past and if handled astutely is likely to continue to do so. Huguenots fleeing catholic persecution in France, weavers from the Low Countries escaping Spanish oppression and Jews from the pogroms of eastern Europe all have brought valued skills and business acumen. Even banking, in its modern form, we learned from the Dutch. And what a success story the arrival of 20,000 Asians fleeing in the seventies, from the murderous Idi Amin’s Uganda, has been. Children of empire, carried by us from our Indian territories to Africa under contract as indentured labourers to help build the railways, they have truly prospered here. Their number boast an amazing clutch of millionaires. Most of them had opted to stay on in Africa after the railways had been completed and had become traders and shopkeepers. A jealous Amin could not wait to get his hands on their properties and businesses.  Then there is the debt we owe the Irish. If we were first in the field with railways, as well as canals, that is because our networks were built with their brawn and sweat. Hundreds died in the process.

What we did not, however, need, was Tony Blair’s sly, unfocused rush of immigrants to these shores in numbers we could not properly handle. Hospitals, transport, houses, infrastructure and, yes, schools all have come under almost unbearable pressure.

Blair knew the people were entitled to be consulted in such a matter, yet, as with the Iraq war, he chose to deceive them. In order to shut down any discussion he encouraged a culture that linked any talk of immigration to racism, and he wanted to make perfectly decent people feel almost dirty in mentioning the subject. We saw that revealed graphically when a lifelong Labour supporter took up the matter with Gordon Brown, only to be labelled a bigot.

Blair also calculated that they would become grateful, client voters who would help maintain him in power.  His mantra was ‘multiculturalism’. He was more than happy for the new arrivals to keep to themselves and form what amounted to ghettos. He saw no need to encourage them to become loyal Britons and was even content for them not to learn the language of their adopted country. Worst of all, he paid no heed to the ever present risk that his policies might erode the very character of his people. The whole exercise, and the way it was conducted, was almost criminal in its intent.

After years of being a non-subject to all parties and the media, immigration emerged into the sunlight as being a subject we could legitimately talk about. Now, it appears to have disappeared back into purdah. Despite being at the top of people’s concerns, David Cameron has joined with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to make scant mention of it in their election stomping. Is it that they think us a mean-minded people who cannot be trusted to dip our toes into such contentious waters? I believe that we are bigger than any of the pygmies who think such thoughts and who clearly have such a low opinion of us. We are a just, tolerant and fair-minded people, grown up beyond what our rulers give us credit for. Perhaps they should do a bit more of what the TV panellists do these days on such programmes as X Factor and Britain Has Talent: trust the people to get it right.

The reburial of Richard III draws near

King Richard III’s bones will be placed in a tomb in a remodelled Leicester Cathedral.

I have written four articles on the ‘King under the Car Park’ – Richard III – and this must surely be my last. The juxtaposition between a car park and a medieval king is a strange one. In his wildest dreams the dead king could not have imagined such a scenario. For a start, neither he nor anyone else at that time could have got their heads round car parks, much less the horseless carriages which were stabled there. As for those carriages being able to hurtle forward at unimaginable speeds, it would all have been too much for him. Just as amazing would be the fact that almost all the future subjects of his realm would own one and would be able to travel in perfect comfort and quiet on surfaced roads from one end of his kingdom to the other in hours. His bumpety, bump, clacktity, clack journey would have taken weeks.

It was the longest of long shots that led Philippa Langley, the Scottish Secretary of the Richard III Society, to Leicester’s city centre car park. For years she had obsessed about finding the only English king with no known burial place. They knew he wasn’t buried on Bosworth Field, the battlefield where he was cut down following his Victoria Cross-like heroics. His body was stripped naked and slung over a horse and paraded the fifteen miles to Leicester. That much was known.

Rumour had it that he may have been interred in a long vanished monastery. Others said that his body had been thrown in the river Stour. Yet more, that it was a mystery which would never be solved.

Philippa Langley – the hero of our tale – backed the monastery theory. I imagined she reasoned that although they weren’t going to give him a king’s funeral – usurper and murderer of his child nephews as they alleged him to be – they were most likely to hand his brutalised remains over for burial in consecrated ground such as a monastery.

Furthermore, Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian winner of the battle that unseated him, knew that if he was going to keep his newly won crown he would need to reach an accommodation with the Yorkists. Denying one of their own, a Yorkist prince of the realm – and an anointed king at that – a Christian burial was going to make that next to impossible. There would have been outrage in the Yorkist camp. Even a sinner, if that is what he was, was entitled to the sacraments and Richard’s frenzied, pitiless killers knew that. And even the meanest in the land took their Catholic faith extremely seriously at that time. Hell and damnation awaited anyone who offended against God’s law in a matter like that.

So Philippa’s hunch had a good chance of being the right one. By great good fortune the whereabouts of the monastery – although it was entirely gone – was known to the city authorities. By equally great good fortune – since it was city centre – it had no buildings over the site. That would have totally scuppered any excavation.

Philippa set about raising the considerable sums needed for a major archaeological dig. She also set about rallying the support of city authority who owned the car park, as well as its university which had the disciplines in all the relevant fields to cover the extensive research needed if she was to succeed in finding and authenticating the missing king.

It was all not so much a ‘whodunit?’ as a ‘where is it?’ affair. Both Leicester City and the university realised that success would bring massive rewards in terms of PR and tourism and put both on the map worldwide like nothing they had ever done before.

Even so, a very big if hung over the whole enterprise and a fiasco seemed much the likeliest outcome. Heavy industrial plant moved in on the site ready for the opening day of the dig. All stood prepared to excavate the entire car park if necessary. Every square metre of ground material would have to be carefully sifted. No one expected a quick result. All were steeled for plentiful egg on their faces.

Step forward our hero. “Where shall we begin?” asked the foreman of works. “There, where it says R,” indicated Philippa, pointing her finger. She had months before said, “the first time I stood in that car park the strangest feeling washed over me. I thought I am standing on Richard’s grave.”

In a particular part of the car park was a bay with a big R for reserved marked on it and it seemed as good a place as any to begin. Minutes passed after the tarmac was lifted and the subsoil carefully brought up. And like something yanked straight out of fiction, that very spot yielded a result. At only about three feet down a femur came into view. Though gratifying, that in itself was not cause for jubilation. The evidence was strong that this was where the monastery had been and that this was the area where bodies most likely had been laid to rest.

Following the sighting of the femur, more earth was removed. This time not by plant but gingerly by trowel. Then more excitement as the spine came into view. As the troweling moved up the spine from its base, a shriek was heard. The spine was veering off to one side from the vertical. It carried all the hallmarks of scoliosis – a curvature of the spine – just like Richard was said to have.

This was all too good to be true, even though their hopes were tempered by the knowledge that scoliosis was not that rare. They had managed to establish that it was a man. But did this man die violently? Then the skull was reached and there was exultation. Clear, unmistakable signs revealed that the deceased had died in battle. It was a Eureka moment for everyone, but most of all for Philippa. Tears welled up in her eyes.

Much had yet to be done forensically to authenticate beyond all question, but she had no doubt that her long search was over. A man, born in Canada, would later prove through DNA that the skeleton was of Plantagenet origin. The rest is history. One of the greatest hunts in all of archaeology had come to an end.

Four days of ceremonies will begin on 22nd March. There will be an honour guard of mounted soldiers and a 21-Gun Salute at the battlefield; two hundred children will display medieval, pennants they’ve designed; and four horses will draw the brake on its final journey to the cathedral where it will go on display before the final laying to rest of a monarch who fell in battle 530 years before. How the Tudors would have hated it all.

As for the TV broadcaster covering the event, it has gone bonkers. It’s been said there will have been nothing quite like it since television hit the airwaves. Britain’s reputation for eccentric, yet moving, theatre will have received a mighty shot in the arm. Quite what the rest of the world will make of it no one knows. They’re gobsmacked at it all, yet captivated. And they’ll all be watching.

The present monarch should have attended the reinterment. That much will be very apparent when she sees how her people have risen to the occasion. Richard’s own vile treatment in death will at least have been washed away by a £2.5 million effort of repentance by a remorseful people.

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