It is not often you get to bury a king of England. The last time we did so was sixty two years ago. The next one will be in seven months’ time when the whole world’s eyes will be on Leicester cathedral. Then we will be burying, in befitting manner, a monarch who died 530 years ago – the only one with no known resting place; who was the last true English king; the last to lead his soldiers from the front and die as a consequence; the last of a 330-year dynasty and the last king of the Middle Ages. We speak, of course, of Richard III, Shakespeare’s ‘crookback Dick’.
More controversy has swirled around this king than perhaps any in our island’s long history. When he was originally buried by monks, they were so frightened and intimidated by the people who had killed him – and under such compulsion to get a move on – that they had no time even to find a coffin. Imagine that. A king of England who, earlier that day, had been their anointed sovereign dumped naked in an unmarked grave like so much flotsam. Minutes before, the badly hacked about, naked body had arrived on a donkey after a fifteen-mile journey from the battlefield of Bosworth and the populace had been invited to abuse it as it went by. One had even driven a dagger deep into an exposed buttock, striking the pelvic bone.
Richard died in 1485 in what we regard as the last of the many battles of the thirty-year dynastic struggle known to us as the Wars of the Roses. He was thirty-two years old. No monarch in all of English history has been so thoroughly traduced and demonised. What has led to this? We know he was utterly loyal to his brother Edward IV – a Yorkist – fighting his battles fearlessly and with great distinction. So trusted was he that at the age of nineteen he was asked to govern the turbulent north of England as a virtual Vice-Roy, which he did so successfully for the next eleven years that they came to love him and regard him as one of their own, hence York Minster’s own fierce battle to have him interred amidst its ancient cloisters.
That total trust of his brother, the king, even extended, when he was dying, to asking Richard to look after his two infant sons rather than their mother. The princes were housed in what was then a royal palace, the Tower of London, and it is their later disappearance which has landed Richard with the heinous charge, even for those brutal times, of murdering his own nephews, aged nine and twelve, in order to usurp their right to the throne. This has been the justification for the victor of Bosworth to set about vilifying Richard for posterity. But what are the facts?
Unfortunately for Richard’s detractors there is not one scrap of evidence to show that their deeply religious and loyal uncle killed them. Yes, he had the opportunity, but then so did several others. What if when Henry Tudor, after killing Richard, had arrived at the Tower to find the boys still alive? He would have been appalled. Rumour had it that they were dead and Henry would certainly have wished it so. Their continued existence would have posed a terrible threat to his rule, in fact it would have removed all legitimacy. May it not be that, when he made a show of looking for the bodies, he knew that they were not there but felt it necessary to make it look as if he believed they were by digging around? Murder, later of the princes, would have been his only option. Strange it was, if Richard was the killer, that Henry never did find the decomposed bodies. That would have damned Richard for all time and been perfect justification for Henry taking the throne. As it happened they were later discovered under a staircase, one of the first places to look, one would have thought. It would have suited Richard’s successor, Henry Tudor, very well on taking over to have found the decomposed bodies as it would have totally validated his killing of the king.
The fact of the matter is that Henry Tudor had a much stronger motive for disposing of the boys than their uncle. While they lived there was no way he could rightfully claim the kingship. His closeness in the line of succession was so remote it was almost laughable. One genealogist has placed him 16th in line.
Now comes the reason why Richard had no great reason to kill the boys. Rumour had widely circulated for years that they were illegitimate – that the king had married bigamously. Then, after he had died, the bishop of Bath and Wells came right out and, like another bishop would do, hundreds of years later, concerning the Duke of Windsor’s affair with Wallace Simpson, he blew the whistle and preached this openly in a sermon. The evidence was that strong for him to do so. The upshot was that Richard, as a consequence, was the rightful heir.
The entire nobility as well as the church rallied behind Richard. Apart from anything else they wanted no boy king. They had the good of the nation to think about. After thirty years of turbulent bloodletting they wanted a wise and proven administrator, a man of action to settle the affairs of state. England had been torn apart during those years and the aristocracy decimated. In one battle alone, Towton – fought during a blizzard – 28,000 men had been slain, the greatest number ever to fall on English soil. It represented 8% of the country’s population, as high a percentage in a single day as four years of World War l clocked up. No wonder there was enthusiasm for Richard. His coronation was the best attended in the whole of the Middle Ages.
The Tudors, after their victory at Bosworth, knew they had an uphill struggle to gain legitimacy in the face of Richard’s watertight claim to the 330-year Plantagenet line. History, as we know, gets largely written by the victors and finally, after a hundred years, the Tudors had the Bard, no less, to finish the job for them; and my, how he did it with his Richard III! ‘Crookback Dick’ became England’s true devil incarnate – and a twisted and deformed one at that; one even dogs barked at as he went by.
Unfortunately for the propagandists, after five hundred years, the wheel has come full circle and the truth is out. He was not a hunchback and he had no withered arm. He did have curvature of the spine (scoliosis), but people would have barely noticed the condition – just a slight stoop to one side. But what forensic science has also shown with this incredible find of the king under the car park is that Richard battled a painful infirmity just as heroically as he fought his brother opponents in battle. It is truly remarkable that he was able to function well under the weight of over sixty pounds of armour and wield a massive broadsword. His slight frame conformed more to that of a woman and his height was barely 5’5”. In today’s world, we would have nothing but praise for such magnificent stoicism. He would at all times have been in acute arthritic pain and, because of compressed lungs, only capable of short bursts of maximum energy before he became breathless.
When he finally succumbed in battle to his enemies, he did so in such a manner – and with so many witnesses – that even the great Tudor propaganda machine could not hide the truth of his incredible bravery. It was Victoria Cross stuff. He came within inches of killing Henry Tudor, having charged him from a thousand yards away, hacking his way to the pretender and cutting down his standard bearer, England’s leading jouster, a massive beast of a man. No English king in history ever led such a heroic charge – not even the magnificent Henry V or Richard the Lionheart – but even in this his detractors still had to have a dig, saying that it was really the mad frenzy of the defeated devil at work. But now time and science have laid bare the truth and it should be spoken loud and clear. Perhaps the Bard’s work should not be performed in future without a disclaimer along the lines of ‘Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely co-incidental…’ Certainly we must rewrite our history books.
There is, however, one note of puzzlement to me in all this. In view of the massive interest both here and abroad, how is it that we have not, to my knowledge, heard a single word from any of the royals? Are they not in the slightest interested? He was, after all, one of their own and an anointed head of state. Is it their intention to boycott the internment? We must hope not. That would be an act of the crassest folly. A proper response would be for the present sovereign to pay her respects and acknowledge that a terrible wrong has been done to her ancestor. It would be a way of saying sorry on behalf of all of us.
Today we long for the certainties of the Cold War, when the prospect of nuclear Armageddon kept us all in order and expulsions from embassies of so-called ‘trade envoys’ and exchanges of spies at Checkpoint Charlie was pretty much all there was to get excited about. The enemy lay over there, just behind the Iron Curtain and he wore a uniform.
He had got as much of the world as he could persuade to side with him and we did the same. Those who cried ‘a plague on both your houses’ liked to call themselves the non-aligned. Among our cheer leaders, we had some real bastards (outright tyrants like Saddam Hussein during the Iran/Iraq war) but – as one American famously said – they were, at least, our bastards.
In that halcyon, far-off time, an old man like me could pass through airport controls without being ritually humiliated and he had no fear of being blown out of the skies by a Ukrainian nutter or taken on a one way flight into the Shard. These, I am sure, are the thoughts of many people – and some of these same people will even think further back to a time when the whole world was kept in a form of order by the great European empires.
“What fool,” they are now asking themselves, “said at the collapse of Communism that it was the ‘end of history’”? But foolishness was not confined to him. The so called ‘Peace Dividend’ was lauded by almost all and caused developed nations around the world to think that they could safely slash their defence budgets. Now those same nations find themselves powerless to intervene with overwhelming force when a bunch of wild jihadists – too wild even for Al Qaeda – set up a terrorist state in the most volatile region of the world, from which we gain most of our energy supplies. They even taunt us with their social networking and media skills by flashing up images of their barbarities, virtually in real time.
The truth of the matter is that the ‘good guy’ always needed to keep up his guard, As President Theodore (‘Teddy’ of Teddy bear fame) Roosevelt said: “Walk softly but carry a big stick”. My complaint is not that Uncle Sam is not pulling his weight, but that his collectively richer European partners are not pulling theirs. Had they not scrambled to save pennies on their defence budgets – preferring, self-indulgently, to leave it all to him – they would have been in a position to buttress him and not leave him the lone, isolated figure he is today, carrying the burdens of the world. We, more than anyone, know how thankless and onerous a task it is being the world’s policeman. No wonder, after Korea (which he still shoulders), Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan he is now weary of it all and contemplates increasingly withdrawing into isolationism. God helps us all if he does.
My argument is that if you are rich you carry responsibilities. Europe, in my view, shirks its. This is an area where the EU really could do something useful. That something is to get all member states to agree a percentage of their GDP to defence and hold them to it. Furthermore, it could make a portion of that defence capability available to the UN to give it teeth to deploy forces to troubled areas as and when the need arises. Peace keeping may then move forward to peace making so that, eventually, when enough other countries have pledged similar support, the world’s only legitimate superpower will be the UN.
Right now an arc of terror embraces huge swathes of Africa – right on Europe’s doorstep – and extends thousands of miles eastwards to the major oil producing countries of the world. It may soon extend thousands more if Afghanistan, as seems likely, falls once more into terrorism when NATO leaves next year. Adjacent Pakistan – always a perennially unstable country – may quickly follow suit and that is a state with a nuclear armoury which may very well fall into hostile hands.
To say that the unfolding situation is worrying is to put it mildly. The very first step is to give the well organised and heroic Kurds the capability to smash the ten thousand or so ISIS fanatics. If the new government of Iraq can get its act together, so much the batter. It too can help, so long as they don’t run away again and leave more state-of-the-art stockpiles of weapons to their opponents.
After that, Palestine – the kernel of all Middle East problems – must be addressed. Israel, the one shining light of openness and democracy in a darkening region, must shine that light throughout the troubled Middle East. Unlike the Red Indians, the Maoris, the Incas, Aztecs and so many others, Israelis have at least got their ancestral land back. The rest never will, even though they lost them just a few hundred years ago, never mind two thousand. They should be happy for that and we can take some credit for that happening with our 1917 Balfour Declaration.
But Israel should avoid the deadly sin of greed by being thirsty for more land, personified by the never-ending building of fresh settlements on land they acknowledge not to be theirs. They should show pity for the dispossessed as they themselves were so mercilessly dispossessed down the centuries. The price the Palestinians have paid for Israel regaining its historic land which had been Palestinian for two millennia has been a heart-breaking one. Surely Israel, of all countries, can see that.
Only the victor is in a position to show magnanimity and in all the terrible circumstances now prevailing let Israel show just that. It might be surprised at the response such action elicits. Included in any settlement must be the lifting of the awful siege of Gaza. If a settlement can be achieved between Jew and Arab – who are, after all, ethnically the same people and who both through their holy books revere the same prophets – then much of the ground will have been cut from beneath the feet of the Muslim extremists. Gaza has shown what the alternative is: a legacy of bitterness and hatred which will fester into a new generation.
What we’ve seen these last few days has not been pretty. It has been the very antithesis of the bible story in which little Israel in the form of the boyish David took on the monstrous brute, Goliath. Now in the most disheartening of role reversals, Goliath has become the mighty, clanking war machine which is Israel and David, little, smashed-up Gaza. Interestingly, Goliath did actually come from Gaza, then known as Phoenicia.
A hundred years has passed us by and still we think of them:
The lives un-lived, the dreams destroyed, the legions of our men;
We did not know, we could not tell, what terror lay in store,
As year on year the butcher’s cry demanded more and more;
For full a hundred years before our power had waxed supreme,
And kept large conflagrations low and made us start to preen;
We thought we could control events and stop war in its tracks,
With webs of close alliances, diplomacy and pacts;
A maelstrom poured upon our men of iron, steel and fire,
And sent a wail of pitious grief through every town and shire;
“We must press on,” we told ourselves, “what now we had begun,”
Till British pluck and doggedness did triumph o’er the Hun;
Through mud and ice and poison gas, the order was ‘stand fast':
This trial of strength twixt mortal foes, it surely could not last;
For four long years we stood our ground and bravely would not yield,
Till northern France ran red with blood though every poppy field;
Delusions of gargantuan depths had caused us to believe
This war would be no different from the rest we had conceived;
But science changes everything and chivalry was dead,
Midst fire and smoke and shrapnel shells and mustard gas and lead;
Oh God above, what did we do to vent our foolish spleen,
But sacrifice the bloom of youth on altars of the keen?
How little did we think it through and cry aloud, “enough!”
But yet preferred to stumble on with bloody blind man’s bluff.
Are we really out of the mess we got ourselves into six years ago? Can it be true that we are the fastest growing economy in the developed world? It would seem so, according to the statistics. But how are we achieving this? It is certainly not coming from the manufacturing sector, an area which Mrs Thatcher as well as her successors neglected in favour of the keep-your-hands-clean service economy. It’s coming from two quarters. First is an increase in investment from business.
At the height of the recession, when there was no money for anything, medium and large businesses were sitting on £75 billion of liquidity – twice the defence budget – which in the right climate they were ready to release. That climate, which is principally one of confidence, has finally come. The second factor which was depressing the whole of the economy was a moribund housing market. When houses start moving again it has a tremendous knock-on effect right across the board. Tired old carpets are thrown out; new kitchens and bathrooms installed; more stylish furniture acquired; dodgy roofs repaired; gardens landscaped and solar panels ordered; double glazing resumed; painting and decorating starts; the DIY stores hum; the list goes on and on.
But important as houses are, we mustn’t obsess about them. There are other things – like the ones which would earn us shed loads of foreign exchange, i.e. manufactured items. We were once so good at manufacturing and can be again. But if there is one area where there is huge room for improvement it is productivity: it is our Achilles’ heel. Why we are so sluggish here beats me. If we can get this up this summer of rejoicing – weather-wise and economy-wise – may open the sluice gates and propel us into a new era of prosperity.
That high risk policy of quantitative easing – essentially printing money – appears to have worked for us, but it didn’t work for the Japanese. They left it too late to begin and as a result entered what has been called the ‘lost decade’ of the nineties. In fact it has been more like two lost decades. They’ve never recovered their old elan. Our own emergency package to survive the financial crisis was more deftly handled, first by Mervyn King (though he was somewhat late dropping interests rates) and then by Mark Carney, both governors of the Bank of England. Perhaps our success has been part due to the City of London’s historic financial expertise
But alongside this, and despite their other cataclysmic failings, we must give credit to Gordon Brown and his chancellor, Alastair Darling. Once they realised the enormity of the crisis – on the Monday following that dire weekend when it struck and the ATMs would have dried up – they moved quickly and decisively to recapitalise the banks. As Wellington said after Waterloo: ‘It was the closest run thing you ever saw in your life’.
Brown’s successor in Downing Street was on a steep learning curve after his chancellor’s earlier silly mantra of ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’, and when he eventually wised up the results were there for all to see. But interest rates cannot stay as they are – it is so unjust to the prudent saver who for years has been bailing out the feckless spender. They must rise, and soon. When it comes it must be small and incremental, like a quarter of a per cent every couple of months; a policy of slowly, slowly catchy monkey, so to speak. This will help cool the overheating housing market.
We don’t have to worry too much about irresponsible lending as in the past, leading to wholesale repossessions, because the criteria today to get a loan and the deposit required has been massively tightened. Some complain that the hoops you have to jump through are as many as to adopt a child.
But two things, above all, are needed to sustain the recovery: first, a massive house-building programme to meet the demand that years of unrestricted immigration have imposed. This, too, will cool house price inflation and re-balancing our economy by boosting manufacturing; and second, markets should then be found for those goods beyond the still Doldrums-plagued Euro area. The obvious target ought to be that vast zone of good will to us, the former empire. With our shared history, common institutions and legals systems and, of course, language, it is calculated that we have a 21% financial advantage over our competitors.
In this world of falsehoods, duplicitous behaviour and double dealing the one thing we must all strive for above all others is truth. My wife grew up in a world heavy with the former and very little of the latter – the Soviet Union. The worst of it was that those negatives were state-sponsored, with a challenger facing the prospect of a bullet in the back of the head, the Gulag or in the later years after Stalin’s death being assigned to the madhouse, there to be medicated with mind-bending drugs which effectively turned them into a zombie.
The thinking was that if you couldn’t see the benefits of Communism you must, indeed, be mad. In true Kafkaesque, they even named the regime’s leading newspaper ‘Pravda’, which in Russian means truth. Yet for all the suffocating and malign effects of government policy, people did know much of the truth. Today’s N. Korea is an out-on-its-own, bizarre exception. Nothing in all human experience quite compares with what they do there. However, in order to get a decent job and stay out of trouble with the Soviet version, the bulk of the people chose to play the system and not challenge it. Only in the anonymity of the kitchen did they dare to speak their true thoughts.
Thankfully that system has been consigned to the dustbin of history and my wife’s once occupied people, the Lithuanians, can breathe the sweet air of Liberty – guaranteed, I’m proud to say, by our own RAF (among others) jets which daily sweep their skies. We in Europe congratulated ourselves that our own steadfastness – mightily reinforced, I have to say, by Uncle Sam – has seen off the dead hand of tyranny in our own continent. Only the single, anomalous state of Belarus remains to remind us of the awfulness of the system which prevailed for so long.
But far away, across the other side of the world, an eastern version staggers on. Full of absurd contradictions, it has loosened the economic purse-strings to such an extent that to pretend it reflects the thoughts of Marx and Engels is to put us back once more into the realms of Kafka. However, in terms of the suppression of liberties it is still very much in the mould of the old masters. I refer, of course, to Communist China.
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the student uprising in Tiananmen Square in which, after much prevarication, the regime shot and crushed beneath tank tracks hundreds, perhaps over a thousand young people. All mention of that terrible atrocity has throughout this quarter century been forbidden in the Chinese media. A state-sponsored collective amnesia has blanketed the Chinese people. It is a non-event to be airbrushed from memory – except that it hasn’t, at least in a normally tranquil and prosperous part of the Middle Kingdom, which is what China liked to call itself when it considered it was the centre of the world. That corner of mainland China – where 100,000 people took to the streets in remembrance of the students – is Hong Kong. To the fury of the regime, the people there took no notice of Beijing’s ban on gatherings.
Who does the regime blame for that blatant act of defiance? Why, of course, we the British. Nearly two centuries ago we took over a little fishing village in a remote backwater and turned it into one of the great mega cities of the world. We gave it good governance and introduced the rule of law. It became a magnet for Chinese to flock to for a better life as well as jobs and prosperity. We taught them not to accept unfairness and now they turn these attitudes against their new masters in Beijing.
It may have been possible a quarter century ago before the age of social media, instant news and mobiles with millions of cameras to commit atrocities and get away with it, but not now. You may gun down a thousand people but can you gun down a hundred thousand? It is my belief that we have introduced a virus into the body politic of China, which in the fullness of time will sweep out of Hong Kong and infect the whole of China. If that is the case then we shall have done something of which we can be really proud.
Our five large council plant tubs on Plympton Ridgeway have remained undressed as late as 1st July. A few weeks ago they came and cleared the weeds and sprinkled pellets preparatory to their usual floral display, but bare earth remains and the season grows late. I rang the parks manager querying the lateness. “Ah,” says he, “it’s the cuts. It isn’t just Plympton, it’s all the suburbs.” I came away saddened, before anger took over.
Here we are, the fastest growing economy in the Western world, now at the end of a long recession during which we have kept up our spirits as well as the flowers which brighten our lives. But Joe Council comes along and says he must make cuts. I could have part understood it had he said this five years ago, when we knew we were going to have to tighten our belt. But now?
He will make the usual excuses. We’ve heard it all before. It will go something like this: He has spent these five years trimming in every direction until all that is left are the the flowers. What nonsense. Every one of us could identify areas in which there is disgraceful waste as well as inefficiency. I give you one tiny example. Each evening a man and his equally expensive van goes round the Hoe area locking up toilets. Doubtless they do this in other areas of the city too. Why don’t they slip a few bob to one of the householders living close by to do the job? That way the toilets could stay open longer. It is farcical that in the city’s prime tourist area they close at such a ridiculously early hour.
Is it not possible – with a bye-law or something – to make householders responsible for cutting the grass verges fronting their properties? In Germany they are fined if they do not clear the snow from the pavement fronting theirs. Think of the money this would save. I well remember, just a few years ago when they came along and concreted over a lovely flower bed that fronted where cars parked at West Hoe. Stupidly they had built a wall just high enough to block out the driver’s view of our splendid Plymouth Sound, but at least they compensated somewhat with a beautiful display of begonias. Then in the name of cuts they took even that away. Now you sit there staring at a wall (why they spent precious money building it in the first place is beyond me) when just beyond that wall is one of the most spectacular views in the world. First prize to the dunderhead who thought that one up.
I remember also what I wrote of at the time as ‘civic vandalism‘, when they demolished the Hoe diving boards which our kids for generations had such fun on – and safely on the whole, I might add. Our city fathers had spent a lot of money on that facility for youngsters. All they had to do was maintain them, but they couldn’t even be bothered to do that. What would those fathers have thought of their successors’ treatment of their legacy? No, the headsman’s axe was the easier option. Always, always it’s the soft, ill-thought-through option. So, how now do the kids have their fun – for they will, and indeed must have ways of getting rid of their youthful exuberance. They move a few yards up the road and go in for the highly dangerous ‘tombstoning’. As if to complete their killjoy vandalism, the department responsible then went on to concrete over a couple of pools which also the kids had fun in. As well as the kids letting off steam the promenading public also had the pleasure of watching the younger generation enjoying themselves and remembering their own childhood.
I watched a very interesting documentary recently on Scotland’s greatest victory over the English at Bannockburn. The English were unlucky having the hopeless Edward II conducting the battle. Had it been his father, the mighty and illustrious Edward I – the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – things might have turned out very differently, despite us having our equally illustrious Robert the Bruce. It would have been an interesting contest. Alex Salmond might have hoped that his newly enfranchised sixteen-year-olds might have felt a bit of angst and voted his way in the coming referendum but my gut feeling, as a Scot, tells me that he is going to be disappointed in what Scots generally will decide to do. Untangling a marriage which has last 300 years will prove unbelievably difficult, not to say expensive. And for what? The 53m English with their City of London could probably bear the cost, but could the 6m Scots?
What saddens me is that all the arguments which have been bandied back and forth have been on nuts and bolts issues. But what about the appeal to the heart? We have bled together across a thousand battlefields, blood brothers in the ruest sense of the world; we have built together an empire greater than all others which went before; our scientists and engineers have fashioned the world in which we live with their Industrial Revolution and our poets and writers have thrilled it with a language which is set to be the lingua franca of all mankind. Are we to walk away from all this?
It seems to me that it is low and base motives which are the drivers for Scottish independence, though Alex Salmond likes, with his weasel words, to dress it up as otherwise. But Prime Minister Salmond sounds good, doesn’t it… ? And soon it would be President, once the dust has settled. That would sound even better. And let’s not forget all the baubles he would be handing down to his minions from the Palace of Holyrood House. God would be in His heaven and smarmy Alex would end up making ever more implausible excuses to his people as the years went by for the rotten outcome of it all and the likely penury he had plunged them into. Meantime the English, with their rejuvenated economy, their break with welfarism, their highly educated kids and their fracking bonanza would be heading off into the sunset, but sad nonetheless.
I am glad the government has banned that sinister-looking council vehicle going round with a camera on the top. We all had deep misgivings about Google trundling round photographing everything in sight, but at least that wasn’t a means of filching money out of our ever more depleted pockets and there were many clear positives to the whole operation.
Ours is the most spied on country in the whole world and, to our shame, that includes N. Korea. What is it about those in authority over us that they treat us as they do? Is it that they don’t trust us? They’ll have plausible answers of course – they always do. Not the least of them is that catch-all one of ‘combating terrorism’. But we combated IRA terrorism for thirty years without compromising our essential liberties.
We have to be very careful about going down the path of the surveillance state. The powers-that-be, including the town halls, seem to relish lording it over us – watching our every move, socially engineering us, politically correcting us, and nannying us with a patronising ‘you know it’s all for your own good… don’t get yourself worked up’ sort of attitude. The fact is we are right not to trust them; all the time they are taking liberties with our liberties.
The Cameron government promised more openness. ‘Transparency’ was the word. And all the while the Court of Protection – another Blairite invention – continues on its merry way (except that it isn’t at all merry). Terrible injustices are daily taking place behind closed doors with social workers being treated as if they are expert witnesses and who, in too many cases, are themselves operating behind closed minds. Even the President of the Family Court has expressed his extreme disquiet and called for less secrecy, but still the injustices go on.
David Cameron has called for Magna Carta to be taught to every kid. Is this the same David Cameron who wanted recently, for the very first time in English jurisprudence, to hold a trial so secret that even the very fact that there was to be a trial at all was not to be disclosed? Magna Carta, indeed. Who can forget that cringe-making, toe-curling interview with America’s most famous interviewer, David Letterman, in which the British PM didn’t know what Carta stood for. Eton educated, was he? With a first-class honours degree from Oxford thrown in for good measure? Something went badly wrong there. Even little old me, educated in the Foundling Hospital and at work at fifteen, knew that. Perhaps it is the years in Downing Street that have addled his brain. That hothouse of intrigue and backstabbing must take its toll.
But don’t think me ungracious to our Dave. For all his many deficiencies, he has turned the economy round and we must give him credit for that mighty achievement. There is also a real chance that our kids will stop sliding down the international education league tables and begin the climb northwards. Then there’s that pernicious client state of welfarism that Gordon Brown positively pushed which is being dismantled and a sensible one – such as the Welfare State’s founder, William Beveridge, wanted – being reinstated (but still in a far more generous form than ever he envisaged). So each of these important areas which will determine our nation’s future we must give the present incumbent of Down Street credit for.
What are we to make of developments in Eastern Europe? It is one thing to have a squabbling clutch of Balkan countries at each others’ throats, as we saw in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, but quite another to have the Russian bear stomping around with what looks like a very sore head. Europe, historically, never expected anything sensible coming out of the powder keg of the Balkans. After all – at its worst – it gave us the First World War, but since then Europe has never had to worry too much about that region disturbing the peace of the continent as a whole – only its own.
The chief reason for its instability were those many hundreds of years that it lay under the yoke of the Turkish sultan who did his best to turn as many of them as he could into Muslims. So in that corner of Europe you have not just a religious divide, such as we still have between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, or Sunni and Shia in Syria, but a divide of Faiths itself: Islam and Christianity.
But none of this exists where the bear is concerned. He belongs to the Christian community of the West. His trouble is that, unlike us, he has not yet come to terms with the loss of empire. It is, after all, only twenty years since the Soviet republics – there were thirteen of them – gained their independence. Russia still believes, deep down, that those countries rightfully should belong to it or at the very least should be under its sway.
Putin, the Russian leader, knows that the warm water ports of the three Baltic republics will never be his again; they are too close to the West and with long historical ties to it. But, more to the point, they now enjoy the protection of NATO – the best life insurance policy they could have taken out. Even now NATO planes, including our own, are sweeping Baltic skies daily. The message there is ‘thus far and no further’.
A great opportunity was thrown away when Putin first came to power. He wanted desperately to gain acceptance from the West, but foolishly his overtures were spurned. Even as late as his second presidency he offered to open up his vast country into a free trade area which would extend from Lisbon in the extreme west to Vladivostok in the far east. Instead of looking seriously at this, what did the West do? It pooh, poohed the notion and even provocatively poked the bear by offering deals to Russia’s former vassal states, Moldova, Armenia and Georgia – the latter two far from Europe’s heartland.
Undoubtedly, down the ages, Russia has been Europe’s perennial headache – and I’m not just talking about the seventy years of the Communist era. For almost all of its history it has been a delinquent state and now resembles something of a corrupt gangster state. But it needn’t have been this way. An understanding tutelage by the West after the failed experiment of Communism would almost certainly have worked wonders.
When Russia lost the Crimean war in the middle of the 19th century and the Russo/Japanese war in 1905 it came to a full appreciation of how backward it was, politically and economically. It set about changing this at a fast and furious pace and, by the outbreak, a hundred years ago, of the First World War, it had very largely succeeded. Only the curtailing of the Tzar’s autocratic powers remained.
It was the foolish mobilisation by Tzar Nicholas II of his army – much like what Putin is doing today on Ukraine’s border – which brought the whole process of modernisation to a halt. It gave Germany the excuse she sought to smash her militarily before she became too powerful for even the Prussian-led German army to defeat easily. But for the Tzar’s crazy action in plunging Russia into WWI and losing it there would never have been a Bolshevik revolution and no wasted seventy years pursuing the fantasy of a workers’ paradise under Communism.
The Duma – Russia’s parliament – would have long since clipped the Tzar’s powers and turned him into a constitutional monarch, much like our own. She would by now have genuine democratic institutions and, probably, with all her vast natural resources, be the world’s leading economic power instead of running an economy smaller than Italy’s.
Putin, although a bully, is not a fool. He is in fact an intelligent man. He knows that in the long-term his 145 million people cannot hope to get the better of the European Union’s 485 million. He also knows that his armed forces are miniscule compared to NATO’s.
It must be made plain to him that the postwar borders of Europe are sacrosanct and if he insists on challenging them there will be consequences – damaging and unpleasant ones. Chancellor Merkel of Germany is the one best placed to talk turkey to him. He learned fluent German during his years as a KGB operative (a colonel) in East Germany.
Then, when he quietens down, she must tell him that his gifted people – great in the sciences, literature, sport and music – will not be spurned and belittled anymore but will be embraced by the West and led into the comity of nations, so completing the mission which Peter the Great began all those years ago.