There has been much ado about our kow-towing to the Chinese during the recent visit of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping and talk of our being a puppy in danger of being put on a leash. I believe these worries to be misplaced. China is a fact on the modern world stage with its second largest economy. What it does or does not do impacts all of us.
The first major western power to seriously engage with her will reap a rich reward. She has been unable to achieve this with the country she would most like to, namely the United States, so she turns to the country she regards as the next most significant.
The reason she can make no headway with the US is that Uncle Sam confronts her militarily in East Asia, being locked in a web of alliances with regional powers there. At the core of the dispute is our old friend, oil. Huge deposits have been found in the South China Sea bordering on five East Asian countries that are all insistent that they have rights there. Also, the clamour of protests about job losses to the Chinese and internet piracy is greater there, as is the human rights lobby. Of course, all of these things are important and we would be foolish to ignore them.
But take steel as the most recent example. Just as we cannot manipulate the price of oil, so we are unable to do so with steel. With world demand slowing down – yes, led by China – there is a glut of it. Dumping is an inevitable consequence and we must deal with it.
Steel production is strategic; we cannot therefore lose the industry completely. We must be in a position to fire up those coke furnaces at some point in the future if the situation requires it. China and the rest have to realise that they must take their share of the pain by reducing capacity. Furthermore, it must boost home demand by turning itself into much more of a consumer society. The steel issue is exactly the sort of case in which the clout of the EU could achieve the required result where we alone could not.
Our relationship with China is more longer-standing than that of any other Western nation. They understand that and this is one of reasons they have turned to us. We were the very first to engage with them and introduce them to Western ways all those years ago, when we sent Lord McCartney on a trade mission to the ‘Celestial Kingdom’ in 1793. Famously, he refused to kow-tow, as required, to the ‘Son of Heaven’. Then, 150 years of ruling Hong Kong gave us an understanding of the Chinese psyche not vouchsafed to any other Western power.
They are touchy, to put it mildly, about being lectured by outsiders on human rights or anything else for that matter. They still see themselves as unique among humans. Being crushed in two opium wars by McCartney’s heirs didn’t change that perception. And their conception of human rights has a different slant to ours; they argue that lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty whilst maintaining stability is very much paying attention to human rights. They wonder why the West pays so much attention to them while it sucks up to primitive, atavistic Arab regimes who publicly crucify and behead teenagers. If they are lambasted for the number of executions in their country, remember that they number 1.3 billion. It is a nonsense to say they execute more than Iran or Saudi Arabia when those countries number 70 and 28 million respectively. Proportionately, China is way below them.
I personally take the view that nothing will achieve success, as we would like it, in China than that she become richer. Rich people are not so easily pushed around. The human rights of our own people were once – and not so very long ago – severely circumscribed. But in a thirty-year period in the nineteenth century, per capita income in Britain grew by 500% – a growth rate never before seen in human history. Our people became freer than they had ever been with trades Union rights guaranteeing that the days of gross employer and landlord exploitation were over for ever.
China sees that the soft power that our country enjoys all around the world with its Commonwealth contacts, its EU membership, its command of the world’s number one language and its close, familial association with the US – still the dominant power on the planet – makes us the nation of choice to cultivate. Also not lost on them is the fact that we are now the fastest growing economy in the Western world, with more jobs created last year than the whole of the EU put together. All these things and more confirm our relevance in their eyes. Also our ‘open for business’ outlook on the world goes down very well with them, as do our elite schools, peerless universities and exciting cultural attractions. Even being the home of James Bond makes us more interesting.
My own view is that, if we play our cards right, we and China could have a very exciting future together. Our joining the recently created and Chinese-sponsored Asian Development Bank may have annoyed the US, but it makes a great deal of sense and demonstrates to the Chinese that we are capable of acting independently of our former colony.
Trade enriches the world. It’s what makes it go round. It breaks down barriers and improves our understanding of each other. It makes war less likely with there being too much to lose and it addresses perhaps mankind’s most pressing problem: its ballooning population. No rich country has a high birth rate any more than a poor record on human rights abuses. Trade is what got the West where it is today; truly it is king.
So I am glad that we did Xi Jinping and his lovely wife proud. The splendour of his welcome will be noted and very well received in China. Even Jeremy Corbyn behaved himself.
Soon we will be receiving the Prime Minister of India, in whose land two million of our forefathers lie buried. We can do no less for him. That exotic, cricket loving country has a very special place in our hearts. Because of the institutions we left it with, not least our language, law, and democratic ways, it has a head start on China. I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, it were to outpace China.
What fantastic news it was that there is almost certainly seasonal running water on Mars. While there is a remote possibility of marine life under the ice cap that envelops Europa, one of Jupiter’s larger moons, it is Mars, our so-called sister planet, which is the celestial body in our solar system which has always fascinated us.
In Victorian times we were naive enough to believe in, shall I say, manmade canals on its surface. Just as well there were no men there; had they been anything like us, they might have fancied our planet rather than their own. With Martian surface temperatures rising to never more than freezing and plummeting as low as -139°C – against our lowest of -60°C – the temptation to take over our lovely, benign habitat, would have been great.
But, seriously, it is of huge significance that there seems to be flowing water on Mars. The reason it doesn’t freeze is because of its very high salt content, mixed with sodium and magnesium perchlorate. It is thirteen times saltier than Earth’s seas and flows freely during the Martian summer. It is enough to burn your skin; not too welcoming for a dip and certainly not the sort to get a mouthful of.
The greatest question that has exercised modern humans is whether we are alone in the universe. Just to complicate matters further, it is now thought that there may, actually, be many universes. So how rare is life? We know there must be a whole set of circumstances in place to give it even a chance. Venus – a misnamed planet if ever there was one – has a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead and an incredibly dense and sulphuric atmosphere. It suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. No chance of life there.
We know we are alone in our solar system – at least in the form of ourselves and the other life that surrounds us on Earth – but we also know that, clever as we are, we started as the lowest form of microbial life in the primordial ‘soup’ that once passed for oceans.
No one knows how that first single cell arrived or developed. Maybe it came to us riding on or in an asteroid, or comet. Or, perhaps, a chunk of another planet ricocheting off that heavenly body by an asteroid strike of its own and sent earthwards. And no one knows how that single cell divided into two and began its long journey to us. Perhaps it was a lightning strike into that primordial ‘soup’ that triggered it.
If we can establish that even microbial life once existed on a long ago, much warmer Mars, and is still there, dead or alive, then the probability is that we have companion peoples spread across the infinite reaches of the cosmos. Actually, I personally – for what it’s worth – have never doubted it. Notwithstanding how many the factors must come together to make advanced life possible, the sheer scale of the universe – and never mind the possibility of multiple universes – means that even if the odds were 10,000,000,000,000:1, it will have happened. And many times.
Our first microbial organisms began their evolutionary journey into us around 3 billion years ago. And there must be many habitable planets much older than our own which may have begun their journey into advanced life much earlier than ours. After all, the Big Bang took place nearly 14 billion years ago. If these civilisations managed to survive into maturity, they must be hugely more advanced than us. Imagine where a thousand years will take us from where we are now – and that is just a blink in space time. Then imagine a civilisation a million years ahead.
“So, where are they?” you ask. “Why haven’t we heard from them?” The answer may be that we have, but don’t know it. Or that such smart creature – dare we say considerate – hold to Star Trek’s Prime Directive of non-interference.
Then again, it may be that the sheer immensity of the distances which separate us confound even the most advanced civilisations. “Ah, but,” I hear you say, “what about warp speed and worm holes?” Yes, but they may only be part of our wild and ever-hopeful imaginings. The simple truth could be that even the cleverest of aliens cannot overturn the iron laws of physics. Perhaps one or more of those laws block our pathways to each other for ever.
What is undoubtedly true is that sooner or later SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) will hear from them in a form of encryption that we can understand. But we can never have conversations. Even at light speed, it would take far, far too long for a message to get back to the sender.
I well remember the incredible excitement which surrounded the Apollo missions and, in particular, those steps down the Luna module to make contact for the first time with the surface of an alien world. That was 1969. If only we had kept up that momentum, we would have been on Mars long ago. Instead, we chose to spend our precious resources on foreign wars, defense establishments and ever more fiendish ways of killing each other.
Having said that, I have to acknowledge that it was the Cold War and America’s refusal to be beaten to the moon that pulled off that stunning feat. NASA has shown that the final building block to possible life on Mars is there and that a permanent presence on that planet is possible. China’s interest in the Red Planet may be all that is needs to kick start a fresh race into space. I hope so. I would love to live long enough to relive a similar thrill to that which I enjoyed all those long years ago.
Grateful thanks to Plympton Gardeners’ Association, who dress out Ridgeway’s six concrete tubs (they’ve even painted them white). City parks department could learn a thing or two from this dedicated group, who even do what parks never did… keep it going throughout winter. Parks abandoned their post in their ill-chosen efforts to scrimp, but you’ve stepped into the breech with great panache. Thanks!
Oh, dear, I must apply myself once more to curbing my spiralling weight. I haven’t got what it takes to knock out the delicacies of life nor reduce what is left to minuscule amounts so that my calorific intake matches the reduced output of calories which comes with getting older. Moreover, I won’t be forced into eating things I don’t like. So the alternative is my fasting regime (for a period) which readers may be familiar with.
It might seem a drastic solution to go without food for 36 hours – a friend once described it as the nuclear option – but for me it works. Funnily enough, once I’ve psyched myself up to get started it isn’t nearly as grim as you might think. The joy of getting on those scales the morning after my nil by mouth effort makes it all worthwhile. And what heaven it is to be back to normal eating the following day! Anyway, each to his own. I must suffer for my excesses and the hairshirt may be good for the soul. The system delivers for me, with results coming in at an astonishing rate. And that’s how I like it. I haven’t the patience for the long haul. On those days of fasting, though, I do make sure I keep up the fluids.
One or two of my friends have cautioned me on my fasting caper, but I won’t be put off. You see, I have a theory to counter their concerns and it goes like this…
Anthropologists will tell you that we are essentially the same animal we were 100,000 years ago. Our whole digestive system – indeed our whole being – was geared to an irregular supply of food. It was a feast or famine existence, literally. Our world in that long ago time was a hunter-gather world. The boys hunted and the girls gathered. Kills on the African savanna were few and far between and nuts, fruits and berries seasonal. So evolution had to come up with an answer which allowed a big brained creature, whose diet required regular protein (principally meat), to get through those extended periods between kills. It couldn’t afford our ancestors to become lethargic and less focused during those hungry days leading up to the next successful hunt; if that had happened they would never have been sharp enough to nail those elusive, fleet-footed gazelles. (This, perhaps, explains why on my fast days in the shop I fancy I perform better than usual and even problem solve more imaginatively. I do a lot more thinking outside the box too.)
I think it entirely possible, indeed, likely, that our systems, benefit from a complete clear-out. In those far off times our digestion wasn’t at work 24/7, which is what our present ‘three square meals + snacks’ regime forces it to be. Nor were our bowels carrying waste matter round the clock.
It may be interesting to note that fasting is important to several religions. Perhaps the ancients knew a thing or two that we have forgotten in our headlong rush into modernity. Abstinence – call it a rest-up – in a great many fields can work wonders. Who knows, sex may even be among the beneficiaries!
My chief point is that evolution works at a much slower pace than the breakneck changes which have taken place since the Industrial Revolution. A great deal of catching up is in the pipeline.
While we are subject to a host of the ailments of our early ancestors, we have added a huge range of new ones due to our modern life, which includes much less exercise than they were formerly obliged to engage in. I doubt, for instance, that our forebears had many diabetic sufferers in their ranks. And there was no room for fatties in their world – try running down a springbok with a fifty-inch waist!
Anyway, yours truly, has put his hairshirt on for the next little while and hopes for the best. I know I will get the most enormous buzz when I arrive at my destination and that, too, must be good.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.