The old ‘Yellow Peril’ with its racist undertones and vision of the ‘Golden Horde’ sweeping towards Europe may have been a thing of the past, but a new one is taking it place. This one is a debt crisis which threatens to take China down.
We have all marveled at the economic miracle which has taken place in formerly backward China during the last thirty years. It is now the world’s second largest economy, and if its double-digit growth continues for one more decade it will overtake the mighty United States. But a very big if hangs over that prospect.
The phenomenal growth that China has enjoyed in recent years has been based on debt – astonishing and unsustainable debt. To make matters worse, it is mired in corruption on an equally gargantuan scale.
One of the prices we in the West have had to pay for China’s breakneck progress is to see many of our traditional industries relocate to the low-wage, low-overheads Far East. The flood of cheap consumer goods helped the West keep inflation down – at the price of seeing its own unemployment rise.
Yet all was apparently well until the banking crisis struck in 2008 and the West stopped buying – at least in the quantities it had. China faced ruin. It had two options: it could either invest heavily in infrastructure and property (it had millions to house who had flooded into the cities) or it could turn its people into a consumerist society modeled on the West and sell to itself – God knows there are enough of them. It chose overwhelmingly the first.
Unfortunately no one knows how to get the Chinese to spend on themselves. It may be this is because there is no safety net of a welfare state to sustain people either in old age or in sickness, so they have to do it themselves and save a much higher proportion of their earnings to make good this shortcoming. They decided not to put their savings under their beds but to invest it in property and to a lesser extent in factories. Unfortunately this launched a runaway property boom. Stupidly this was at the higher end of property market so that the average apartment came out at £300k – 70 times what the average factory worker earned. Consequently, while there are scores of millions in the cities desperately wanting to get out of sub-standard and crowded accommodation, they cannot afford to buy. A similar glut of unwanted factory units has taken place.
This was at the time the Chinese government had ordered its state run banks to open their wallets wide and lend. And, boy, did they obey orders. The result is a debt crisis of unimaginable proportions and one which is set to grow exponentially. The Communist government is at a loss to know what to do about it and still maintain power in a one party state.
It has long been thought an anomaly that a Marxist state can stay communist while operating a capitalist system. The reason the Chinese have so far pulled it off is they have markedly raised the standard of living in the cities – though they have neglected the countryside. This has bought the party time in a country which elevates stability above everything and avoided people taking to the streets demanding more political freedoms. The hypocrisy of the party in abandoning Marxist economics to gain the fruits of the super-abundant capitalist table is breathtaking. China’s volte-face has allowed the party to stay in power while the USSR collapsed. It has delivered materially where the Soviets did not. But the capitalist system which Beijing let rip has none of the constraints and rule of law which developed over centuries in the West.
The ‘entrepreneurs’ which it put in place to run its factories and the like did not earn their spurs through the fierce blast of competition; they were placemen and apparatchiks who had no experience of business. They set about lining their pockets with shady deals and kickbacks which would cause Marx to turn in his grave. And because the system is run by the party faithful right across the country, from the very top all the way down to the lowest jobsworth, there is no chance of reforming it.
The party bosses in Beijing are waking up not just to the enormity of the task ahead of them to address this but to their debt crisis. They are telling their factory managers that the centre can longer subsidise their inefficiencies. They are going to have to lay off tens of millions who will be forced to return to their poverty-stricken countryside homes, many of which have been forcibly taken over by the state for land development. It is a recipe for insurrection.
Already the West is seeing many of the jobs which went to the Far East being repatriated because the economics have changed: Chinese workers have demanded, and got, big pay increases as well as better working conditions. All this costs money and the result is that the Chinese competitive edge is being eroded year by year.
When the West’s financial crisis struck in 2008, we were all enormously relieved that the world economy, chiefly driven by China, kept on growing, albeit it at a smaller pace. Now China must hope that the West’s efforts to restore order in its own financial house will be completed in time to alleviate its own coming time of distress. One pundit opined the Chinese are where we were in 2005-6, so there’s not much time. However, we must never forget that China remains a totalitarian state.
In seeking to restore its finances it has none of the experience and sophisticated tools at its disposal which Wall Street and the City have. If things go wrong, it is liable to lash out in frustration and seek a foreign adventure to rally the people and take their minds off their troubles at home. Galtieri did it over the Falkland Islands and China may well do it over those oil rich islands in the East China Sea.
Although Plymouth has been my home – by choice – now for forty-seven years, there is and will always be another city close to my heart. It is that great throbbing metropolis of London.
I was born there on Grays Inn Road which, on a quiet Sunday, may still be within sound of Bow Bells. If so, that would make me a true Cockney – a born, though not bred, one. Unfortunately the not-bred part renders me incapable of fathoming most of those strange yet endearing Cockney terms.
When I was born in May 1939, London stood on the edge of a cataclysm which would test its metal as much as the plague, the great fire or that earlier fire when Boudicca’s enraged followers torched the Roman city in AD 60. Luckily, when the bombers came, I was safely ensconced forty miles north in the lovely little Essex market town of Saffron Walden. From that area would be assembled the mighty armada of bombers which make good on Churchill’s promise to repay the Luftwaffe with interest tenfold.
When I returned to the city as a sixteen-year-old in 1955 to find a job, it was a sad place. It was not long since its skies had been darkened by Hitler’s bombers. My job was to take news photographs to the art editors of all the leading periodicals and newspapers of the day to see if they were interested in featuring them. The agency was based in Fleet Street. When I stepped out on my rounds I could see the massive structure of St. Paul’s cathedral 500 yards away on the top of Ludgate Hill. To the right and left as you walked up that famous hill was a wasteland of bombed out buildings. Feral cats and other creatures had made the ruins their home. All over Central London, which was my stomping ground, were similar sad sights. I could never quite understand how, amidst such destruction, Wren’s masterpiece had survived. (Later I learned that, apart from an element of luck – which some might prefer to regard as divine intervention – this was because orders had gone out from on high (not that high) that, whatever happened elsewhere, the great cathedral must be saved. The firefighters, therefore, made it their business to prioritise it.)
When I was born, London was the largest city in the world which, perhaps, befitted the world’s largest empire ever. Though today thirty one other cities have overtaken it in numbers, it is still Europe’s largest if you exclude Moscow, which is a Johnny-come-lately having ballooned since the fall of Communism. Before this it was only half London’s size and you needed a permit to go and live there.
When I took up my job, a pall of gloom hung over the city. It was only a decade before that the doodlebugs and V2 rockets had come visiting. We talk of austerity today, but those times knew the real thing: a biting hard period of real deprivation which makes today’s talk sound something of a joke. There was simply not the money to give people a decent life, never mind make good all that bomb damage.
It was a dirty city, too. Those building which had survived were encrusted with a thick, black layer of industrial grime. And the grime was still coming down. Once, I had to get off a bus in Harrow and take my turn to walk in front with a torch to help the driver to avoid mounting the kerb. The smog was so thick you could barely see your feet from a standing position. It was actually quite scary. The dear old Thames, which today is alive with every kind of fish and aquatic creature, was then a dead river.
Unlike Berlin and so many other shattered cities of Europe, London, despite everything, still had a pulse – even a beating heart. But it was weak and its population shrank as so many of its citizens migrated to the leafy suburbs and the new garden cities erected close by. And while all this was going on, the great empire, whose imperial will had reached out from the city across the world, was being disbanded. Truly, it seemed, London’s glory days were over. It would have been a brave pundit who would say it would ever rise again to its former pre-eminence.
Yet hey, that is exactly what has happened. Few would say it was exaggerating to call it the coolest city on the planet. In 2012, with the Olympics, it had the chance to showcase itself like never before in its history. And what a success it made of it. Athletes and visitors alike were stunned at how well that most challenging and complex of events was managed and how beautiful the city had become. Even the sun made a brief appearance, as though to bless our endeavours. London may not exercise hard power to the extent it once did, but it projects soft power by the shedload.
When I treat myself to a visit, as I like to do every three months or so, I look around and marvel at the transformation that has taken place since I trod it walkways as a youth. As its skyline grows ever more interesting, it remains the financial centre of the world, beating New York, Hong Kong and Singapore to the spot. And its many great parks and myriad little squares have grown even more beautiful. Racial bigotry has all but gone, with no more signs to be seen in landlords’ windows saying ‘No Dogs, Irish or Blacks’. Couples of mixed race walk hand in hand and its streets echo to the sound of dozens of languages. Street cafes are everywhere and British cuisine has been turned on its head. It is now right up there with the best. The city has a multiplicity of world-class chefs.
It is at last a truly cosmopolitan place. Not only is the shopping the best to be had anywhere in the world, but, glory be, London now hosts its best fashion houses. Now there’s a surprise for all of us. Perhaps that all began long ago in a non-descript place called Carnaby Street.
So there we have it, my second favourite city. One which, along with our hopefully-reviving economy, we can all celebrate.
New Year after New Year for half a decade now we have entered it with a sense of deep foreboding. There has been no joy anywhere. We clung together in families during the Christmas festivities hoping against hope that our jobs would still be there in a year’s time. But this year we seem to have had a festive period in which much gloom has been banished.
Just six short months ago, the pointers were still showing southwards. Now, they tell us we are on an upward trajectory unmatched almost anywhere in the Western world.
The French, who five years ago were pouring scorn on our economic model, extolling their own socialist variant, are now having to eat their words. Theirs is the model that isn’t working. Indeed, they are increasingly being described as ‘the sick man of Europe’ – and that’s saying something when you consider all those other sick bailout EU states. The Economist recently branded them the ‘ticking time bomb’ of Europe.
Whatever you say about the Cameron government, with all its cock-ups and string of bad calls in terms of the prime minister’s personal lack of judgment which continue apace, it bit that most necessary of bullets in setting about rebalancing the books and shrinking the ballooning government payroll. The world looked on and approved. Credit rating agencies backed off downgrading our prospects while they continued to downgrade those of our neighbours à la France.
Sooner or later, our fast-expanding economy will start feeding through into pay packets and people will start feeling better off. Inflation is low and likely to stay close to target, so even modest pay rises above it should be felt. My own great fear, however, is of what will happen when interest rates start to rise, as surely they must. They have never been so low or for so long. Will we see huge numbers unable to keep up payments on those previously cheap mortgages and masses of repossessions? Hopefully those inevitable pay rises and the continuing downward costs of filling up at the pump will help to bridge the gap. The more enterprising, growth-orientated new governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, will also play a useful part helping us to find a way through.
The main thing is that we have growth again. Without it you are sunk. Government receipts are rising, government outgoings are falling and a virtuous circle is now being created.
The growth is mainly in the service sector in which we as a country have always excelled. Not for nothing did Napoleon describe us as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. But services does not only cover retail; it covers insurance, banking, shipping and a host of others which we used to call ‘invisible earnings’. And what would be the cherry on the top is if we could boost our engineering capabilities. It was once what we did better than anyone else at, and we have not lost our skills: look at how well auto manufacturing is doing. We have jettisoned – painfully, I know – old and clapped out industries, preferring to let them go to low cost, low skilled economies while we concentrated on the clever stuff like aerospace, architecture, biomedicine, computer science and pushing pioneering research into all of the above via our world renowned academic institutes. So alone in Europe we have every reason to be optimistic. Trade outside the Eurozone is expanding, and if we can better rebalance our economy by engineering our way back to excellence, so much the better.
Fracking will help since there will be a lot of jobs there, but we, with our stricter environmental laws, will avoid the undue damage to the countryside that Uncle Sam has suffered. We will, however, share with him a dramatic fall in energy prices as well as enjoy security of supply and see less of our precious earnings going to undeserving, corrupt states in the gulf region.
And close to that region is poor benighted Syria and its suffering people. While we worry about ourselves, shouldn’t we move heaven and earth to relieve their terrible distress?
The Chinese have a very good saying: ‘may you live in interesting times’. Well, the period ahead is certainly going to be interesting. Are hoards of Bulgarians and Romanians going to pour over our frontiers this year and ‘do a Poland’ on us, blowing a massive hold in Cameron’s pledge to reduce incomers to the tens of thousands? Funnily enough, I’m sure our people would actually welcome making an exception for a quota of genuinely wretched Syrians, as UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, is betting. And how Europe’s credentials would soar among Muslims if all 28 EU members agreed their own quotas! We should press the issue.
Is UKIP going to sweep the board in the May Euro elections? Are the Scots going to take the high road back to Scotland in September? Are the Lib Dems and Tories going to turn on each other in their efforts to get back to normal politics before the election and render government business impossible? Is Red Ed going to find himself in Downing Street with one of the chief architects of our misfortunes as his chancellor, because so many Tories have deserted to UKIP? Is dreadful Clegg going to remain as deputy prime minister, having thrown in his fair-weather lot with Labour? All of these conundrums and more will be revealed in the next few months, and not too long after that the question of whether we stay in Europe, should the Tories win a majority. I suspect the bookies will be tearing their hair out giving odds on any of these vexatious questions.
On a different and more tragic key, how many of the celebrities now arraigned and set for trial will go down to long prison terms? For those who do, what a sad end to otherwise illustrious careers. What will be the fate in this forthcoming year of public figures such as Ken Barlow, Max Clifford, Freddy Starr, Rolf Harris, Dave Lee Travis, Gary Glitter, Jimmy Tarbuck, Paul Gambaccini, Stuart Hall (again)? What a can of worms the monstrous Jimmy Savile opened up. Truth to tell, there can’t be a surviving pop idol – and think how many and distinguished they are – who didn’t succumb to the allures of those legions of groupies who threw themselves at them over the years. And did they ask to see a birth certificate in each case?
Having failed to do his duty half a century ago, plod seeks to exonerate himself by doing it now. But what about those NHS managers who failed to protect the innocents in those hospitals such as the one who gave Savile the keys to Broadmoor? And what about all those BBC bigwigs who we know turned a blind eye? Are they all to be let off the hook?
But back to our own prospects, there remains one very black cloud which can still rain on all our parades: we have not seen the end of the Eurozone crisis. Yet a great positive should give us cause for hope; the one country which has the capability of resolving it is now in a position to do so. Angela Merkel is now safely back in office having won the September election. She is now free to take whatever decisive action is called for to stabilise and reform the European juggernaut.
So in these ‘interesting times’, let’s hold our nerve and hope 2014 comes up rosy. I certainly hope my readers take heart, hold onto their hats and enjoy the ride. I know I will. Happy New Year.
How might the world have looked but for that cataclysmic conflict which began almost a hundred years ago? Mighty different, I can tell you. It is highly unlikely we would have a United Nations since only a catastrophe on a planet-wide scale could have caused countries to submit themselves in the future to a supra-national authority.
There would be no Arab-Israeli conflict and, as a result of that, no 9/11. We would be boarding aircraft in pretty much the relaxed way we used to, with none of the demeaning scrutiny and security measures we have now. There would have been no Cold War and as a consequence of that no mad rush to be the first to land a man on the moon. Because the Second World War was the unfinished business of the first, rocketry was given priority by the Germans as a possible war-winning technology and without that impetus space technology would be way, way behind where it is today. We might not even have those satellites circling the earth which give us GPS, satellite television and so much else. Computer technology – also hastened by war – would still be in its infancy and the World Wide Web would be non-existent. The whole business of electrical miniaturization on which just about everything today depends received a major shot in the arm by the space effort. Of course we would have got there in the end but it would have been at a much more leisurely pace.
In geopolitical terms, the landscape would be just as dramatically different. There would be no European Union since it was only the trauma of the two World Wars which caused Europeans to think there had to be a better way. We would probably still rule India and most of the other European empires would be staggering on, though under rising pressure for emancipation along with us. Russia would have evolved from a tsarist autocracy into a fully fledged democratic state. All the fallen monarchies of Europe – the Hapsburgs of Austria/Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, he Tsar of Russia and even the Sultan of Turkey would still be in place along with a clutch of Balkan princlings. It is likely, though, that most of them would have had their wings clipped democratically.
But the Emperor of China would still be gone. He went three years before the Great War started, discredited by his inability to prevent China’s humiliations by the European colonial powers. But the new China would have had a Japanese experience; it would have taken the Japanese approach of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and industrialised like mad. Today, most probably, it would be the top economic as well as military power in the world with Uncle Sam as No. 2. It would have avoided the trauma of the Mao experience and be like Japan, a democratic state. Britain’s colossal overseas investments – all lost to war – along with her staggering land holdings around the world would have been deployed to who knows what ends. They might even have allowed her to stay top dog.
All in all it would have been an utterly different landscape from the one we see around us today. It would not necessarily have been a better world since many of the less salubrious features of the old world would not have been swept away and there would have been umpteen disputes leading to what may be described as bush-fire wars.
As for no conflict with the Muslim world, that is because there would be no state of Israel. If there was any conflict it would be with their Ottoman overlords – it would be them, not us, taking the flak. It was Britain’s seizure of Palestine and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire along with its foreign secretary’s promise to allow a home for Jews in the Holy Land which made the creation of Israel possible. He had no idea it would lead to the dispossession of millions of Arabs from their ancestral lands. This, above all else, is what drives the Jihadists today along with Western military intervention in Muslim affairs. They take the view that it was not a kind-hearted act on the part of Britain regarding Jews – which in fact it was – but a calculated move to plant a Trojan Horse in their midst which would do the West’s bidding and help it keep control of them.
One of the consequences of the two World Wars was to so weaken and discredit the European powers that it hastened the end of their empires. Had the people of the various empires gained their freedom at a more leisurely pace – perhaps as much as a century later – there would have been more time to prepare cadres of their people and put institutions in place which could have avoided the shambles we saw following the rush to independence after the war. Africa, today, with its boundless resources, might perhaps be a well-governed and prosperous continent
But war did hasten the end of deference – à la Downton Abbey – and dispose, in the process, of autocratic monarchies. Only in the victor or neutral states did they survive. Interestingly, not a single state which abolished its monarchy has had a change of heart and reinstated it. I suppose that is our fate when something cataclysmic comes along one day to discredit our own monarchy.
Apart from the most obvious ones – the advancement of science, the UN and the EU – the other major beneficiary of war has been the emancipation of women. Oddly, it was not the dictatorships with their powers of compulsion (the USSR was an exception) which were the earliest and most successful in harnessing the abilities of the fair sex, but the elective dictatorships of the West. Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, was always bemoaning the Reich’s slowness in this crucial field to his boss.
The long awaited rescue of Europe, along with its badly put together single currency, gets under way now that the German chancellor no longer has the distraction of an election to worry about.
Angela Merkel, the pastor’s daughter from the former Communist east, will get down to a lot of serious business. Her mission, no less, is to save the continent from imploding. In doing this she will seek help from her new best friend, David Cameron. Many of us here at home have gone off him, particularly the women, but he makes a good impression abroad. Even neo socialist Barack Obama gets on well with the ‘posh boy’ from Chipping Norton. He is mannerly, brimming with self-confidence and knows how to talk the talk. What else would one expect from an Old Etonian, that breed of Brits who once believed that they were born to rule. Incredibly, it seems that even in 21st century Britain they still have grounds to believe this.
Angela Merkel aspires to a business-minded Europe: caring but frugal; hard working, but at ease with itself. The last thing she wants is a Europe in tatters. Whether or not it was wise to create the euro in the form they did, we have to accept it is a fact of life. It certainly has benefitted German exporters, whose massive sales to the rest of Europe is part of the reason they are in such debt. If Germany were to go back to the deutschmark its exports would be so incredibly expensive that their export dependent economy would be in danger of crashing. So save the euro they must. But they must also save it for another reason: if it collapses, or even fragments, the whole European Project will as likely as not come off the rails and Germany will take the blame. For the third time in a century, people will say Germany has left Europe in ruins.
The simple truth is that the political and financial establishment have too much at stake to allow their dream project to collapse. The consequences would be seismic and coming at this time, when recovery seems underway, it would be unthinkable. Only Germany has the financial clout to save the Euro.
But Fritz does not want to open up his coffers – especially to what he perceives as lazy and corrupt southerners – but neither does he want to become Europe’s baddy all over again. He will drive a hard bargain which will involve some pretty nasty medicine when he takes responsibility for all that toxic debt and he will seek a powerful, respectable ally to share the howls of protest with. France is no longer willing to be that ally. She seems not to understand the scale of the problem. Perhaps that’s because she is herself part of the problem. That leaves only one ally available to Germany and it is not even in the euro. That ally is us.
Germany views Britain as a business-minded country, like herself, and it makes sense, in her view, to get Britain onside in her chancellor’s drive for reform because Cameron wants reform too. But his reform is not just in monetary matters. As it happens, Germany, as well as others, doesn’t much like a lot of what is coming out of Brussels so he could find himself pushing at an open door.
I am convinced Germany will do all that it can, within reason, to give Cameron what he needs from Europe rather than lose a necessary and valued ally. Merkel is said to be ready to discuss anything, so long as Cameron does not ask her to chose between Britain and Europe. She knows that if he cannot repatriate powers then Britain is a goner from the EU. That would be a body blow to the whole European Project and it would set a most unwelcome precedent. It would send shock waves throughout Europe and indeed the world.
Even before her re-election, when she had to be careful, she began her courtship of David Cameron. That weekend soiree to her country home in which Samantha and the kids were invited, was in my view, extraordinary. It spoke volumes. She has never asked any other political leader to visit her at home, never mind bringing the whole family. So even if the women on Dave’s home patch have abandoned him in droves, Angela most certainly has not. She thinks he’s lovely – ‘My naughty nephew’, she calls him, and can’t wait to team up with him in sorting out Europe. In all the photo shoots of recent times she makes a point of standing next to him, and the body language is very telling.
All in all, it causes me to think that we are in the early stages of seeing a new, powerful axis being formed… a resurgent Britain alongside its fellow Teutonic power Germany. That axis will be an outward-looking one keen to harness the enormous potential of half a billion Europeans, but moving to direct their energies to the world beyond Europe. Britain, for its part, is already travelling very successfully down that road and with its vast connections worldwide, its goodwill from its former empire and its universal language, it is peculiarly well placed to profit from it all.
Uncle Sam worries about the threat posed by the emergent Eastern economies – we all do – but he does not worry about Europe. Rather he wants to team up with it in a North Atlantic trade partnership. Such a partnership is a very real prospect; it will hugely benefit all of us and give the whole world a tremendous fillip.
I do not subscribe to the view that this century will necessarily be the Asian century. Yes, it will do well, but all the countries concerned have tremendous structural and political problems which the West overcame long ago. Endemic corruption and a lack of trustworthy institutions will also act as a break. Human Rights issues will plague them because justice, as we know it, does not exist. They have got a lot of work to do and are not in a position to give their undivided attention to coining a buck, as the West is. For a start, they are going to have to take better care of their people and that means creating something of a welfare state – and we know how ruinously expensive that will be.
As for Cameron, he has a great opportunity, but if he does not put forward some female friendly policies and quickly, he won’t be there after the election to take advantage.
What is happening in Egypt and, indeed, through much of the Muslim world is sad beyond belief.
For two and a half years now we have seen the Syrian people tearing themselves apart. Before that it was Tunisia, then Libya, then Yemen, then Bahrain and now back again to Egypt. We even saw riots in normally peaceable Turkey. What is happening in these lands which once spawned one of the world’s most tolerant religions – lands which form Europe’s nearest abroad?
I believe it is all down to aspirations and two classes of people which live cheek by jowl with each other but yet have totally divergent views on how life should be lived. They have co-existed for many years now, but what is different today from what has gone before is the advent of the Internet, the mobile phone – which is able to tap into it – and the spread of literacy, which even the most authoritarian of regimes has proved unable to resist.
From the point of view of totalitarian regimes which find themselves unable to stop the free flow of information and the millions now able to liaise and call up street protests in an instant it is a total disaster – a truly toxic mix. It is what I call empowerment of the masses.
The two worlds of which I speak are the world of the cities and the largely unchanged world of the hinterland beyond. Across the broad expanses of the countryside – where the majority of the population still live – life goes on in much the same way as it has done for hundreds of years. Yet in the cities things are very different. The educated and young people are in revolt. Their outlook is not so very different from that of their fellow city dwellers just across the Mediterranean Sea. They want the same jobs, opportunities and freedoms as they see in the West.
In times past, their authoritarian rulers have been able to keep them ignorant of what is happening in the rest of the world, but thanks to people like Sir Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, those times are over. They are now fully aware of the venal corruption and murderous cruelty which holds them back and they are no longer prepared to put up with it. Good on them, I say.
Turkey is an interesting example to look at. Here is a not in-your-face Muslim state which has fully embraced development without compromising its Muslim faith. It has one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world and this, perhaps, is what has led its current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to start getting too big for his boots and begin behaving like an old time autocrat.
But again the educated classes and young people were having none of it and they pulled him up sharp. This was the true reason for the recent riots.
We can take some credit for Turkey’s emergence as a secular state. It was our defeat of the old Ottoman Empire in World War One which ended the Caliphate and set Turkey on the path to modernity.
(On this note we can also take some pride too in the emergence of democracy throughout South America since it was our defeat of the Argentine military junta in the Falklands War which saw democracy restored there and umpteen other Latin American military dictatorships discredited and overthrown.)
But the great worry in Egypt and elsewhere in the troubled Muslim lands is that democracy is hijacked and used as a tool to impose Iranian-style rule by the Mullahs. At that point democracy ends.
It would be a bit like our Parliament having to seek the approval of the Arch Bishop of Canterbury before any act could pass into law.
That, effectively, is what you have got in Iran, and soon its Ayatollah hopes to have his finger on the trigger of a nuclear bomb. When the masses protested vote rigging during their 2009 election they were shot down like dogs for daring to question the Mullahs. People on the Iranian street do not like it and neither do those on the Arab street, whether it be in Cairo, Alexandria or any of the other large Egyptian cities.
The democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood – largely made up of the masses from the countryside – pressed its strict Islamic agenda too hard for the city dwellers. It did not understand that democracy only works by compromise. Morsi, the Brotherhood president, felt that it was enough that he had a democratic mandate. But urban Egypt wasn’t having it, particularly the women who saw their recent hard won liberties under threat again. The highly westernised army agreed with them.
Democracy is a fragile thing which took the West many decades to refine and make workable. It involves a great deal of give and take and a willingness to put up with the other side – in Egypt’s case the Muslim Brotherhood – but it has to learn not to push it luck too far with the opposition. Think how it sticks in the craw of right wingers in the West to put up with years of left wing policies and vice versa.
Complicating everything right now in the Muslim world is not just the stand-off between city dwellers and the countryside, but the schism between Shia and Sunni. It reminds me of the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants, and in particular the Thirty Years War in the early 17th century which brutalised and lay waste so much of central Europe. We must hope and pray that Islam is not heading down that terrible rad.
For all its many fine qualities, Islam’s greatest failing, it seems to me, is its attitude to women. It is going to have to address that. But we must remember that it was not so very long ago that a husband in the West had the legal right to beat his wife and gain all her property on marriage. It ill behoves us to forget these things when we get on our high horse about what is happening in our neighbour’s world.
Meanwhile we must hope that things do not get out of hand in these two pivotal Arab states of Syria and Egypt so that the whole region goes up in smoke. Syria’s neighbour, Iraq is already teetering on the edge. Meantime the West must mount a monumental effort to relieve the suffering presently going on there.
As I wrote recently, there are many things happening on many fronts at this time. And considering that most people are in a continual gripe about the Coalition Government, believing that it is next to impossible to get anything done for fear of offending the other partner, it is surprising how many serious issues are being tackled.
In no particular order there is social security, education, immigration, the NHS and, above all, the state of the nation’s finances. We cannot know at this point if all, or indeed any, of these will come good by the time of the next election in a little under two years from now, but early indications are that we may be in for some pleasant surprises.
But one great agency of the state has largely escaped scrutiny: the police. It was hoped by the Government that here, too, serious change could be effected by the election of the new police commissioners who would oversee police budgets and other matters. The commissioners, it was believed, would look to the public for guidance as to what it wanted rather than the hierarchy of the police and its 43 chief constables. If they failed to fulfill these hopes then they would be thrown out at the next election for their post. That, at least, was the thinking behind it all and it seemed not unreasonable.
The voters, however, were totally hacked off by this time with the whole political establishment. Memories were still fresh in their minds over the expenses scandal and the thought of another tier of bureaucracy did not much appeal. The result was that only 15 per cent bothered to vote the new commissioners in. That, I believe, was a great pity. While some good people made it through, so did a lot of tired old retreads and chancers. Fortunately, the greatest of these, that discredited old buffoon, John Prescott, who thought it would be a shoe-in, was not one of these. But overall the commissioners have proved a disappointment. These are, however, early days and at some point the hope remains the new system will prove its worth.
For good and fearless policing that does not kow-tow to political or any other power, we have always judged it essential to grant the various chief constables full operational independence. Only in extremis can the Home Secretary dictate to them or sack them. The independence of police constables appears to have gone to the various chiefs’ heads.
‘Plod’ has got too big for the boots Joe public issued him with. For instance, he knows that the public highly values its almost unique unarmed method of policing and yet, more and more, chiefs ignore this fact and go on spending vast sums on gadgetry – much of it of a lethal nature – and are close to looking plain silly. ‘Plod’ seeks no approval for any of this and there has been no discussion in Parliament about it. Chiefs now dress their officers in intimidating Robocop fashion so that the gap between him and the public he is meant to serve grows daily wider. It has reached the point whereby they are almost unapproachable. You certainly wouldn’t think to ask such a weirdly dressed creature into your house for a cuppa so that you can give him an update on what is going on in your neighbourhood and where all the baddies are.
Instead of listening to the public’s concerns – like boots on the ground – he prefers to listen to what his own officers want and pander to their convenience. When things go wrong, ‘Plod’ springs to their defence like a she-wolf protecting its cubs.
In the last ten years, 74 people have died in police custody but not a single officer has been found culpable. Time and again ‘Plod’ was told about children being abused – including Savile’s hundreds – but he did nothing. ‘Plod’ cocked up at Hillsborough football stadium where nearly 100 died and tried for 25 years to put the blame on the public. That responsible chief constable was allowed to retire, keep his handsome pension as well as his knighthood: scandalous is not the word for it!
Faced with multiple unsolved crimes, England’s worst performing force, Nottinghamshire, adopted a policy of wholesale roundups and arrests of ‘the usual suspects’ with not a scintilla of evidence to justify bringing them in. They spent time under arrest and had unlawful conditions of bail imposed on them before they were released without charge.
Now it transpires that Cleveland police have spent ten years – yes, ten years – and millions of pounds trying to fit-up a distinguished solicitor who was rather better than they would have wished at getting people off. They were ordered by the High Court to pay £550,000 compensation. But should we be surprised that if they would go for a solicitor – distinguished or otherwise – they also tried to fit-up a cabinet minister? I could go on. There is so much.
In 100 years crime has grown 30-fold, even allowing for population growth.
The clear-up rate in the last 50 years has fallen from 47 per cent to 28 per cent.
Why did we waste all that money on gadgetry?
But, listen, you’ll enjoy this: Plod’s latest wheeze is to fit himself out with CCTV somewhere among all that paraphernalia, if he can find the space, so that every minute of every day he can photograph and record people he comes into contact with. Now, that definitely does it!
Mrs. Ramsbottom, who’d gone off him anyway, will never, ever, now ask him in for that cuppa. He might, after all, be photographing her bloomers on the clothes horse so that he and his mates can have a good laugh later, down at the station.
But, joking apart, there is, as we can see, much to be done where the police are concerned. They are in serious danger of becoming a law unto themselves and they must be reined in. Since it is still important that they remain free of political and other interference, we must hope that the new commissioners rapidly get their act together and do the job we have called them in existence to do. Only they can offer hope of a solution.
Are we seeing the first signs of confidence returning? We must earnestly hope so. Even that prophet of doom, Sir Mervyn King – the newly retired Governor of the Bank of England – is getting excited.
Houses prices, which never quite went into the tailspin of the US, are starting to rise again and mortgages are increasing. On balance, I think it was right to kick-start the badly hit building industry by government underwriting of mortgages. But this must be of limited duration. The last thing we need is for another bubble to start inflating. Hopefully the painful lessons of what happened before will act as a cautionary tale.
The fact is that our housing stock has greatly to be increased. The reason why house prices grew to such levels was that a fundamentally sound economic model of price determination was broken: supply was hugely below demand. And when that is put into reverse, the opposite price movement will happen: prices will fall. Last year we built 100,000 new houses, when most experts said it should have been 250,000. And it should have been at this level for years.
Those millions of immigrants that Tony Blair ‘sent out his search parties’ for have to live somewhere, as do the increasing number of people needing to be separately housed due to divorce and other factors. The point to remember is that when you build a house, you not only put builders, plumbers and electricians back to work but you create orders for carpets, furnishings, double glazing, electrical goods, furniture and much else besides. The knock-on effect is tremendous. Big infrastructure projects are all very well, but they are few in number, take years to process and are localised anyway. Huge swathes of the country see no obvious activity and don’t much benefit – if at all. But houses popping up from Lands End to John O’Groats do get noticed.
People’s income has been squeezed these past five years almost like never before. They have been subject to pay freezes, cuts, short time working and even lay-offs. And throughout all this time, the relentless march of inflation has eroded their disposable income. Even their taxes were going up. And while all this was going on, people desperately sought to pay down their horrendous debt levels. No wonder confidence went out the window and they felt unable to spend. When they looked around the world, the picture was just as grim – and in some cases much worse. Fear begets retrenchment and that, until this moment, is where we have been.
But now, with the stock market reaching its highest level since the turn of the century, banks being brought under control and being required to rebuilt their balance sheets (albeit at the expense of lending), medium and large size companies sitting on £70 billion and ready to go, houses shifting, mortgages easier to get and hundreds of thousands of new jobs being created, things are changing. Those straining-at-the-bit companies will feel encouraged to invest. Now the final – and critical – part of the jigsaw to be put in place is for people to get out there and start spending. And if they start to feel that the worst is over, they will. The rest will take care of itself. People, after all, do like to spend.
We have learned one hell of a lesson these past five years, and hopefully both government and people will act more responsibly next time round. But some real good will have come out of it all – as it always does: we are emerging leaner and meaner. The recession has forced us to address issues which we all knew had to be addressed, but which, while the good times rolled, we found excuses for putting off. We, individually, have been forced to examine every item of our domestic expenditure – but so too has the public sector. Now, at last, we are cutting away the fat which we allowed to accumulate in the public sector and, boy, was there a lot of it. Everything has to be justified. Any firm will tell you that, if it had to, in order to survive it could effect colossal savings. I, myself, have seen my shop takings drop by 25%, but I am still here. I cannot take much more, but my customers have not suffered. If anything, they are getting a better deal than ever and I am doing my level best to be even sweeter to them. But when central and local government were asked to do the same thing – very belatedly I might add – they squealed like stuffed pigs. And they had vastly more fat on them in the first place.
But, as they say, it’s an ill wind that blows no good. Soon, hopefully, we will have schoolchildren entering the job market with an education which can compare favourably with those hungry tigers in the East which are seeking to steal our thunder. Also we will have a workforce that knows and appreciates the necessity of becoming more competitive. Exports have already shown strong signs of picking up – although this has been mostly due to a weakened pound rather than anything else. Maybe, too, we will have put an effective break on those vast numbers of unskilled workers flooding into our little country who have put, unwittingly, such a strain on all our services. Even the NHS reforms may start to deliver, for as much as we love it, it cannot stay forever a holy cow which cannot be touched. We spend, now, as much as the European average, but we have nowhere like their standard of care. Where did all those scores of billions disappear? We doubled its budget in real terms in a decade. Perhaps it will improve now that it is to be under new management and not under the baleful control of that unrepentant apparatchik who presided over those scandalous deaths in North Staffordshire and who knows where else. And, finally, there is that lumbering giant, the Welfare State, who so many took for a ride. That, too, is being brought under control. Perhaps now we can get back to helping the genuinely needy, even alleviating their suffering more than we have previously been able. That would be good. So we do, very much, have positive things on the horizon. We must hope now that the Germans will continue to hold the eurozone together and stop the continent from imploding. That will give us even greater reasons to be hopeful.
We are busily re-orientating our services and export drive toward the still booming East – something which we should have done years ago. Even formerly-basket-case Africa is on a powerful upward trajectory. Uncle Sam, too, is showing distinct promise and is growing again at a healthy 2% with rising employment. He does, however, have some big problems which he has not addressed and only gets away with it, for the moment, because he stewards the world’s reserve currency – as we once did for so very, very long.
But, for our part, we must continue to hold our nerve with our own reforms. Only the police, it seems to me, remain a loose cannon among the great institutions of state. Though they have had cuts forced upon them, like almost everybody else, they still behave as though they a law unto themselves. More about that later.
On the mighty dam men guarding it knew
That a reckoning was coming by air;
The hum, it grew, as the terrified crew
Followed the bomber with which it was paired;
Never was a venture as bold as this,
To blow up a thing so massive and strong;
Only a plan with a devilish twist,
At the centre of which was a bouncing bomb;
Flyers were needed with critical skills,
Matched with a bravery few could muster;
Then with much luck they could go for the kill,
Bestowing on them well-deserved luster;
Ruhr workshops were on the hit-list that day:
Much ordinance for the war they did make;
Across factory floors would floodwaters lay:
German war efforts would falter and shake;
Destruction was wrought on a frightening scale:
Nigh half the flyers would never come home;
’Twas a mission beside which others would pale:
Their glory written on tablets of stone.
Today I want to write about something I wrote on nearly a year ago. It concerns getting our bodies in the shape and condition that we would be happy with.
A lot of people – probably the majority – have got it into their heads that there is nothing they can do about middle age spread – that it is an inevitable consequence of getting older.
This is not so. It is totally within our gift as to what weight and shape we are.
My method – and it has worked for me – is to fast one day and eat the next, with two days eating at the weekend. In just four weeks I got my weight down from 14st 1lb to 12 stone 7lbs (21lbs). There are many incredibly good aspects to this method… if only I had thought about it during my twenty five years of running health clubs!
The first is the breathtaking speed at which the weight fell away; there was no agonising for months and months as you nibble away at the pounds. The second is that you can carry on eating the things you like and in the same quantities you are used to. There is no having to fork out for expensive dietary lines, many of which I don’t like and forsaking the wonderful things that you do. Third, you’re getting a regular detox. Normally our digestive and bowel systems are working 24/7, with never a let-up. Now they have a rest and a thorough flush out. Fourth, while you’re pursuing your goal, you’re massively reducing your supermarket bill as a result of the 40 per cent calories you are no longer consuming.
This inspirational thought which came to me out of the blue allowed me to go into this summer and the last unencumbered with all that useless and damaging baggage. To ensure that it never came back after I reached my goal I could have cut my calorific intake for the future, but I prefer to eat what I want to in the quantities I want.
Every so often – usually every week or ten days – I nuke it with a day of fasting in which I can easily knock off two whole pounds or more. Wonderful, I think to myself. I’m back to ground zero!
Now, I know your reaction to all this is: ‘Great! But those days of fasting must be sheer purgatory.’ This is not so. Like you, I thought they would be, but they were amazingly easy to get through. Yes, I had odd moments when I could have stuffed myself, but they soon passed. I thought of the joy I would feel the following morning when I got on the scales.
Amazingly, I felt so alive and focused on those days of fasting. Why was that? I believe it goes back to our hunter gatherer days, which after all is only ten thousand years ago. Then it was a life of feast and famine. When you and your family had gorged itself on your latest kill you had to think about the next meal. Days might pass before you could bag that fleet of foot antelope for your next feast.
Nature equipped you to get through those days of hunger without feeling below par. You had, if anything, to be even sharper and more focused than normal to run your next kill to ground, certainly not lethargic and off key.
Evolution does not fundamentally change our digestive or any other system in a short time span like 10,000 years. To evolution, it is a mere blink of the eye.
My plan, I will freely admit, is not rocket science, but it is radical and it does work. And the speed at which it works is phenomenal and that is what makes it so exciting.
So why haven’t we heard of this in all the years we’ve been regaled about dieting? There is so much ballyhoo about losing weight one could be forgiven for thinking that it is complicated when it isn’t. I believe it’s all down to calories; the number going in versus the number going out.
But could it be that money is the reason we haven’t heard of it?
The dietary industry is worth billions and the supermarkets even more. Imagine if millions of people start consuming 40 per cent less food each week and abandon dietary products altogether. I’m not, by nature, a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe it would tantamount to suicide for those two mammoth industries ever to allow such thinking to take hold.
Of course, exercise can and should play its part, though its greatest contribution is its benefit to the cardio vascular system and general all round health. It also aids your immune levels to stay high and so ward of attacks of this or that. But to burn up the excess number of calories that Western man is piling on each day by exercise alone would take an effort beyond anything that all but the most heroic could endure.
As in so many things, we tend to follow in Uncle Sam’s footsteps and are usually the first in Europe to do so. Most of them are beneficial, but over indulgence is certainly not one of them. We are now officially the fattest nation in Europe. No single thing could aid our aging and increasingly overweight population than to take obesity seriously – and it should start with our children. As the best form of preventative medicine, it would massively reduce the spiralling burden and costs of our health service.
Friends that we holiday with from Sweden from time to time were telling my wife last week, via Skype, that a new craze is sweeping the country… fasting your weight off, one day on and one day off, with two days of eating at the weekend. Ausra, my wife’s friend, said that the word is that the scheme came from England.
I wonder if Yours Truly began it all with that article nearly a year ago in this paper? The blog version of it went out on the World Wide Web. Something of a thought isn’t it? I’d love to think that is what happened.
All power, I say, to Sir Tim Berners Lee‘s invention of web. Now, there’s a man who really did merit a Nobel prize – though he didn’t get one. Think just of one benefit alone: the alleviation – through Skype and other instant messaging services – of the loneliness of people whose loved ones have gone abroad. The call, no matter what its duration, is cost free and the whole thing is totally brilliant.