What are we to make of the tragedy which is unfolding across the beautiful waters of the Aegean? Here in high summer when they should be enjoying the fruits of their glorious holiday season they are locked in a battle for their very survival with the giants of north Europe and their banking systems.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Greece has already paid a terrible price for its profligacy and easy living on the back of a strong currency of which it was never qualified to be part. Their economy has had been bludgeoned by the money men into shrinking by a horrendous 25% and their youth unemployment exceeds 60%.
Right at the beginning, the books appealing for entry into the euro were cooked, helped in no small part by that ‘Great Vampire Squid’, Goldman Sachs. But while the Germans and the rest knew very well how the Greeks went about their business and that they were not a suitable candidate, political Europe had to take precedence over economic Europe and they let them in.
With other weaker economies such those of the Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Italians allowed to join the party, the Germans ended up with a currency much less strong than their old Deutschmark would have been and that made it much easier for them to flog their BMWs and the like. Borrowing rates for these weaker economies became much lower than ever they would have been had they been using their own currencies so, of course, they were happy to buy north Europe’s products as well as treat themselves to a much higher standard of living than their economic performances warranted.
All was well throughout the goods times that preceded the financial crash of 2008. That ill-conceived monetary union – which lacked the also essential fiscal union – of the euro could bumble along so long as there were no headwinds. But, boy, it wasn’t so much headwinds that arrived but rather a hurricane. The Credit Crunch brought the Western world’s economies to the brink of meltdown.
Today the weakest of the dominoes stands in imminent danger of falling, with the risk that others will follow. And the country that benefited most during the good times, Germany, insists on playing hardball. It needs to show a bit of humility – as well as compassion – and realise that it must take its share of the blame for the plight that Greece finds itself in today.
Despite its own banks, along with French and others, being exposed to a possible Greek default of alarming proportions, it knows that a Greek economy that cannot grow because of acute austerity will never ever be able to pay off its debts. It needs relief and restructuring. Long before this present crisis broke they acknowledged this fact. But what now are the Troika’s proposals? Even deeper austerity. Can we be surprised that a government that was elected on a mandate to end austerity has thrown up its hands and said enough?
If Greece on Sunday, in its touching desire to remain at the heart of the European family – but also out of sheer terror at the thought of the consequences of being cast adrift – votes to accept the Troika’s diktats, it faces never-ending recession. If the Greek people vote no on Sunday, they will stay in the EU and possibly even the single currency, but mayhem could follow with a complete national shutdown. Could Brussels stand by and see this happen?
Actually the majority of economists believe that this seemingly bonkers course would serve it best (Argentina went down a similar road). Economists say there would be six months of hell, or possibly longer, but then a future would open up for Greece. With holiday costs cut to half their present level, we would cast aside that old warning to ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. Greece would become the continent’s playground as never before. Poor, suffering Hellas, the first of all Europe’s civilisations, would start to smile again.
I personally believe that it was the power of money that defeated Napoleon. Britain dominated world trade. She was already a hundred years into the Industrial Revolution and these two provided her with the funds to build a truly colossal fleet to keep herself safe from invasion, safeguard all her worldwide trade routes and become the paymaster of all the European monarchies opposed to the ideals of Revolutionary France. French battlefield techniques remained superior to those of any other of the European powers, including ourselves, just as the Nazis were in World War Two; but just as in that war the underdogs got better so that their combined material and numerical numbers eventually proved decisive.
I think also there is a strong case for arguing that we made an end of Napoleon on the remote, South Atlantic island of St. Helena, his final place of exile. Crimes need three ingredients: means, opportunity and motive. We had all three. It was a healthy Napoleon who arrived at the island at the age of forty-seven. Six years later he was dead.
First, as our prisoner, we obviously had the means and opportunity. Finally – in my view the decisive factor – his incarceration was costing us a fortune. On that small island of ten miles by six we felt it necessary to garrison 2,000 troops. Second we also felt it necessary to maintain two ships of the line on permanent duty sailing round the island.
The final and perhaps decisive factor influencing the British government of the day was the nightmarish fear that France – which bounced back strongly after Waterloo – would mount a rescue operation to rescue their humiliated hero and begin the Napoleonic Wars all over again.
I have written a poem which attempts to tell the story of Waterloo in verse.
Unsparing of his soldiers killed,
Yet loved by them in every way.
Oppressed folk everywhere he thrilled
As Europe’s monarchies he flayed.
‘Armies march upon their stomachs,’
Said Bonaparte the Corsican.
Eurasia? He almost won it:
That ego said ‘of course I can’.
A wild adventure drew him east
To fabled Sphynx’s quizzic stare;
But dear Horatio sank his fleet
And left his army stranded there.
Then east again to Moscow’s gates
With half a million of his best,
The great retreat was left too late:
With winter came his grimmest test.
Our island race stood in his way
While others trembled at French might;
To field their armies we would pay
And lead them in a daunting fight.
Through two decades we fought it out;
Old liberties were put on hold.
To drive France from its last redoubt
We knew we must be hard and bold.
Prussians, Russians, Belgiums, Dutch,
Austrians, Swedes joined in the cause;
No one thought of the future, much,
Just to get through those endless wars.
At Waterloo the dye was cast;
Soldiers penned their final wills.
Those British squares, they must stand fast,
And Frenchmen by the thousand kill.
Cavalry charged against the squares:
Sharp sabres aimed at British breasts.
How would those lines of redcoats fare?
How would they meet that fearsome test?
Volley on volley they must shoot,
‘The closest thing you ever saw…’
‘Hard pounding,’ mused the Iron Duke,
Till Boney’s men could take no more.
To save the day, an Army Corps!
The Emperor’s Imperial Guard;
Unbeaten in a foreign war,
The hardest of the very hard.
In silence and in fearless line
They bore down on their British foe;
But raked by fire ten thousand times,
Those guardsmen made an awesome show.
This time the fates smiled on the reds;
Their musketry was so intense.
Sad doom came in a storm of lead:
‘Now was the game up,’ Boney sensed.
But Allied lines were weakening fast,
Exhausted from the nine-hour fight,
When in the distance came at last
Old Marshal Blücher’s Prussian might.
Our fearless Duke maintained morale
By riding ‘twixt those battered squares;
They stood there fixed like Zulu kraals,
Their mortal danger mutually shared.
The day was clinched, at fearful cost;
The corpses measured by the ton.
‘The next worst thing to battles lost…’
‘Is surely that of battles won’.
How to explain last Thursday? Reading people’s minds is far from the exact science the pollsters would like to pretend they have made it. And reading British people’s intentions may be the toughest nut of them all to crack. G.K. Chesterton had it right when he wrote:
Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget,
For we are the people of England, that never has spoken yet.
Hells bells, the people spoke alright last Thursday. They did it in the privacy of the polling booth. It was almost in the nature of a raised finger to those battalions of know-it-alls who told them how they were going to vote. There may also have been an element of bloody-mindedness in that decision which ended up stunning the world. Yet it wasn’t, in my view, an innate shyness to tell or an enjoyment of being a spoiler that was at work, but a cold hard appraisal of what was at stake.
Harold Wilson may have said that “a week is a long time in politics,” and so it is. But for all that, people weren’t readily going to forget an event of even six years before – when the cash points were within forty-eight hours of running dry and salary transfers could not have been made to banks. It was as dire a situation as it is possible to imagine. That same government of Gordon Brown had not long before given them an almighty fright by getting into a dispute with tanker drivers so that food, itself, was also within forty-eight hours of running out in the supermarkets. We got to realise, for the first time, how slender were the stocks they held and how utterly dependent they were on a fast turnaround.
Now they were being asked to give their trust to the same group of people who were at the helm at that time and who had gone on to display a level of fiscal incontinence unique in British politics. They thought about the man who was asking us to make him prime minister and the Damascene conversion he had made at the last minute to fiscal rectitude. The difficulty was that they had trouble believing him; he was still so purblind that, to the very end, he couldn’t bring himself to concede that the previous government, in which he had played an important part, had borrowed too much (it was all the fault of those damned foreigners he intoned ad nauseam… the worldwide credit crunch and all those wicked bankers). Every country had suffered, so he maintained.
The problem was that those countries which had not got themselves into debt were able, largely, to cope with the crisis without massive programmes of austerity. These and many other thoughts went through voters’ minds in the run up to the big day and even in the polling booth itself. A huge question mark hung over Miliband in particular as he just did not seem prime minister material – and certainly not when compared to the smooth, polished Cameron. This perception was reinforced by his opportunistic and silly decision to go and talk to Russell Brand. That garrulous, machinegun-like spouter of nonsense was the last person in the world calculated to reassure a worried public. And then there was that Ed Stone. ‘Oh, dear,’ thought the electorate. Where were the armies of special advisors that let that one go through?
It may have been some silly Yank’s idea, but gullible, unworldly Ed thought it a great one. What was he thinking? Talk about hubristic presumption. It must have been ordered weeks before it was unveiled, all 2.6 metres and £30,000 worth of it. And the monster wasn’t going to be installed at Labour party headquarters, but in the rose garden of Downing Street, for God’s sake.
Did he seriously think that future prime ministers – and, hell, we had not made him that yet – would want their lovely, sweet-smelling roses cast into perpetual shadow by such ‘monumental’ nonsense? And what about planning permission? Had he thought about that? After all, Downing Street is a listed building. Perhaps after he’d brow-beaten them into submission he intended to take it with him at the end of his long, glorious term of office and have it installed on the unused plinth at Trafalgar Square. How the episode plays to the blog post I once wrote 3 ½ years ago about the fall of Dominic Strauss Kahn titled ‘The Foolishness of Clever Men‘.
At the end of the day the great British public saw no sense in imperilling the undoubted progress that had been made in stabilising the economy, and they certainly didn’t want a cantankerous tartan army descending on London, gurning all the time about how hard done by they were and demanding ever more Danegeld. Nor did that public relish the thought of the slippery, cocksure Alex Salmond appearing once more out of the Scottish mists like the ghost of Banquo. It would have been unbearable were he to have ended up de facto deputy prime minister, slipping in and out of Downing Street at will and browbeating a hapless Miliband.
Finally, in an ever more competitive world people did not see that it made sense to drift back into left-wing policies that had been tried umpteen times and always found wanting. Not a single Labour administration had ever left office without the public finances being in an unholy mess. The people understood that, for the security of their jobs and the wellbeing of their country, a business-friendly mind-set was key.
So convinced was I, as well as another member of my family, that these ‘neck and neck’ polls were nonsense that we placed a £50 bet each on a clear Conservative majority (at 15:2 odds) and won a total of £830. Our mantra should always be to trust the people; they get it right most times, whether it be General Elections, Strictly Come Dancing or X-Factor.
Amidst all the ballyhoo of this incredible election we are in danger of not giving proper thought to an event which has shaped all our lives. Seventy years ago today saw an end to what Churchill called ‘the German War’. It was a war in which 50 million died – 20 million, let us never forget, Russian.
I have never regarded the Second World War as anything other than a continuation of the First, but with a 21-year interregnum. On 8th May 1945 the world was still far from at peace. Not yet vanquished were the fanatical Japanese. If our soldiers feared the last ditch fanaticism of the Nazis as they stormed across the Rhine into the enemy heartland, their fears were multiplied several fold as they considered the horrors of what awaited them on the beaches of Japan. Their naval comrades had already experienced a foretaste of what they could expect with the Kamikaze death flights into their ships.
As the great armies of the Western allies celebrated with their Russian allies in the West, they knew that an even more fearful test of their resolve awaited them in the East. Bloodletting on a scale hitherto unknown seemed guaranteed as they briefly enjoyed their moment of triumph in Europe before their embarkation to the other side of the world and a fresh clash of arms.
Their foe in this encounter did not abide by Western concepts of warfare and could, especially in defending their homeland, be expected to die to the last man and perhaps even woman. At that very moment, while the celebrations were continuing, British Empire forces were locked in mortal combat in the steaming jungles of Burma and south east Asia while their American allies were island-hopping ever closer in the Pacific to the Japanese mainland.
But far away in the deserts of New Mexico a secret project was being furiously fast tracked to its terrifying completion. It was a bomb of such enormous potential that a single one could lay waste an entire city. Millions of lesser bombs had fallen on the cities of the Reich, but still there were whole districts of them relatively unscathed. If it worked then even the suicidal Japanese – who at that moment were preparing for a ‘twilight of the gods’ – would bear what their emperor would later broadcast ‘the unbearable’ and surrender, rather than see their 2000-year-old civilisation wiped from the face of the earth.
In all the long march of humankind towards a better world, the stakes had never been higher. Terrible as the new weapon was, it would save those fearful young Western men who were even then preparing to board their ships, as it would also, ironically, save the Japanese themselves. (Though a quarter of a million of them would have to be sacrificed in the initial blast and its aftermath, it has been estimated that perhaps eight times that number would have perished on both sides before Japan could have been overcome by conventional means.) So while we are right to commemorate the end of the war in Europe, we must not forget the true end of the war, three month later.
This ‘true end’, as I call it has, in my view, the greater significance. This is because it really did achieve what many had, mistakenly, believed in the First World War to be: ‘The War to End Wars’. From the detonation of those two nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki came a belief – rightly – that global war was no longer an option as it would escalate, inevitably, into a nuclear conflagration and with that the end of all human civilisation. In such a scenario there could be no winners and it is my belief that that it is this appreciation during the Cold War that kept it from becoming a hot one.
As for the reason I do not believe the two European wars to be separate wars, it is because certain powerful elements in Germany considered the outcome of the First World War unfinished business. It took only a charismatic demagogue like Hitler to fan the embers for a re-run. Even then it would have been unlikely to happen, but for the Wall Street Crash and the impoverishment and mass unemployment which struck Germany. Of all the advanced economies, Germany suffered by far the worst because its situation was dramatically worsened by the huge reparations it was forced to pay under the Versailles treaty.
Why those powerful elements in Germany considered the war unfinished business was because the Western allies did not press home their advantage when they finally broke the four-year impasse on the Western Front and went on to smash the, by then, retreating German army which was surrendering in droves. Heeding Ludendorff, the German commander – who had a breakdown – and his call for a cessation of hostilities (Armistice) the allies allowed the Kaiser’s high command to maintain the fiction that it had not been defeated in the field. Hitler, of course, was all too ready to encourage them in this misplaced belief and, more to the point, provide them with the tools to try once more. The rest is history.
It is a strange thing to reflect on the fact there were once people who would have killed me if they could and that as a young man I was shot at. It was the last lot of the ‘Troubles’ with the IRA before the final bout broke out which ended with the ‘Peace Process’. Then civilians were not targeted – just the police and the military – and I was a National Serviceman.
After that I returned to the cut-throat world of commerce (managed to get sacked three times) before, at twenty-seven, going into business on my own and remaining there to the grand old age of seventy-five whence I am still contributing my penny’s-worth. In that period before I struck out on my own, I worked for nine different employers.
What causes me to return to those times is what strikes me as the glaring contrast between my own round-the-block experience, shared in varying degrees by many (though not perhaps the shooting and sackings) and the utter lack of worldliness between us and the very many callow people who govern us. Apart from having, in so many cases, little to draw on, they come up with plans to spend umpteen billions of pounds in a manner that suggests our money is almost monopoly money. Few, if any, have any serious costing experience, much less have run large companies be it their own or other people’s.
In my ideal world no person should be able to put themselves forward for public office such as an MP below the age of thirty-five nor do so without experience of a genuine job outside the world of politics. No person could, for instance, become Minister of Defence without a military background, nor Chancellor of the Exchequer without accountancy skills, nor Health Minister without medical or health service expertise, nor take charge of education if he or she knows nothing of the world of academia. Strangely, the one area where we do apply such thinking is the law. Lord Chancellors, Attorney Generals and Justice Ministers have all had to be lawyers.
What I would never allow to happen is for a student of politics or any other university discipline to be parachuted straight into the Westminster bubble of a think tank, policy unit, special advisor or any other similar make-work prop. Most bizarrely, as many people thought at the time, we once had a transport minister (Barbara Castle) who didn’t know how to drive. I realise that such rarefied thinking may be thought by many to be unattainable, unrealistic and even naive, but it seems sensible to me to aim towards drafting people into a job who are already half way to understanding it and who have acquired hard-won expertise in the field.
If they come to the job with the right background, they should be left to get on with it. Constant reshuffles – which have been a feature of governments of all hues – is inimical to rapid progress. In this respect Cameron’s administration has been unusual. Real expertise has been built up in many important departments of state with ministers left in situ for an entire parliament. Look at the long-serving and successful Theresa May at the Home Office, long regarded as the graveyard of the aspirant politician. See, too, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and Ian Duncan Smith, the Minister of Work and Pensions. Then there is Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, and most famously the Chancellor, George Osborne. Even the controversial Michael Gove at education was left long enough to get on top of his brief and effect his own mini revolution.
Considering the constraints which coalition government by their nature impose, it is surprising how much has been achieved. Welfare, education and the economy – with the independent Office of Budgetary Responsibility – can be said to be entering a new era.
What do the government’s opponents have to offer? The latest is rent control. I am no friend of landlords, but I have to accept that we can’t do without them and that, in fact, rental forms an essential cog in our housing needs. Ed Miliband’s populist wheeze here is a busted flush. It’s been tried before and it doesn’t work. First it sets up a whole new expensive bureaucracy and all to no avail since his proposals can be easily circumvented. His interference in the market would, however, be guaranteed to worsen the situation of the very people he purports to help, in the same way as his capping of energy bills when oil and gas was at an all-time high. It was like when Gordon Brown sold off half our gold reserves only to see the price of gold double within months. Socialists, sad to say, are not strong on economics even if their hearts, in most cases, are in the right place.
As for Miliband himself, he daily reveals himself to be in the Michael Foot mould. Just look at the ridiculous stone monolith he plans to erect in the garden of Number 10, no doubt inspired by his new anti-capitalist pal Russell Brand. Perhaps it was all those years at the knee of his Marxist father who turned his house into a debating parlour for Communism, inviting the likes of Foot, Benn, Eric Hobsbawn as well as the traitorous – as it later turned out – union baron, Jack Jones, who was in the pay of the KGB.
David Cameron is lacking in many things, but he’s much less dangerous to the economic wellbeing of our country than the unreconstructed son of the LSE Marxist lecturer whom we rescued from the Nazis (he was Jewish) and who then went on to warp the thinking of a generation of young people including, it appears, his own son.
No one has better reason to hate the heartlessness, secrecy and institutionalised privileges of the ruling classes of this country than I do, but I’ll tell you this: if we place our future in the hands of such a master opportunist and dissembler as Ed Miliband then we will have taken leave of our senses. He refuses, even now, to concede that the government in which he played an important part borrowed too much. (I am not interested in how he looks or sounds; we have had great leaders who scored on neither front.)
My own business has been punished grievously and, after twenty-one years, I find myself holding on by the skin of my teeth. We do not want, nor can afford, left-wing experiments at a time like this, especially when we have so narrowly escaped a catastrophe which he and his master’s policies inflicted on us only five short years ago and which have been the cause of so much suffering.
I will finally, and unapologetically, make this observation: I do not think it was outrageous that a minister made reference recently to the younger Miliband’s behaviour towards his brother. It was what most people thought and the ‘appalled’ reaction of Labour apologists as well as certain sections of the media I consider was entirely contrived. There are not many brothers who would do to their sibling what he did to his. In my view it speaks of something I do not find edifying. It had a devastating effect on their aging mother and he must have known that would be the case.
Among the forgetful Ed Miliband’s omissions at his party’s annual conference was any mention of immigration. Considering that it ranks currently as number two of the public’s national concerns and that finally it is deemed respectable to speak of it, that omission must be classed as a failure as lamentable as that other one of not referring in the same speech to the deficit. The recent brain shutdown of the Green Party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, in her Q&A sessions with Andrew Neil and Nick Ferrari can be forgiven since she has no prospect of taking charge of our ship of state, but for it to happen to Ed? Oh, dear.
Ed has a problem, so it seems, not just with his gormless appearance – which, admittedly, he can’t help – but worryingly with his little grey cells. Personally, I view it as regrettable that in today’s shallow world you have to be telegenic to have any chance of being elected your nation’s leader. That requirement seriously impacts your ability to draw on the full range of your nation’s talent. Had we been like this seventy years ago, we would have lost Churchill and probably with him the war. We certainly would have turned our backs on his mouse-like successor, the great Clement Attlee, and risked losing, in his case, the NHS and the Welfare State. Apart from being the antithesis of telegenic – one was fat and the other weedy – they both were terrible public speakers.
The same cannot be said of the present, glib PM who won his spurs with a single show-off party speech, disdaining the use of the autocue. He was lucky to get away with it because later with the US broadcasting anchor-man, David Letterman, the Eton and Oxford-educated whiz kid could not remember what either Magna nor Carta stood for. Being that this was on the eve of the 800th anniversary of that momentous event, and that neither of those august places of learning appear to have knocked it in to the young Cameron’s head, you’d have thought that he’d have done his homework first. Inexplicably, it was history he studied at Oxford and just as inexplicably they awarded him a First. How so many of us back home winced at the spectacle of our own prime minister displaying such appalling ignorance.
We have to ask ourselves whether his party made as monumental a mistake in selecting him on the strength of that single – admittedly virtuoso – performance as Labour made in allowing the unions to foist the Ed brother on the party over its much preferred other brother, David.
For the Conservative Party leadership the shoo-in, prior to the posh boy’s performance, was the one-parent, council estate, SAS veteran, David Davis. Are we seriously saying that the present perception of a cabinet of rich, privileged elite would have held true under a Davis leadership? And do you think that the present, lamentable state of Britain’s armed forces would have been allowed to happen on an SAS man’s watch?
It may be that the US made a similar mistake in preferring the cerebral Obama to the Vietnam, POW-tortured veteran, John McCain. McCain, the son of an admiral, had been offered his freedom by his Viet Kong captors, but he turned it down because they would not free his less-exalted comrades. Time has demonstrated that he is no swivel-eyed, Tea Party head banger, but a thoughtful, measured observer of the world scene. I do not see that McCain would ever have allowed the mess to develop in the Middle East as has, and I’m equally sure that he would have provided the leadership which would have kept Putin in his box.
In fact, with Davis in charge on this side of the pond – a friend remarked to me recently – perhaps something of the ‘magnificent’ (his words) partnership that grew between Reagan and Thatcher might have developed with McCain. He was firmly of the opinion that a different and more secure world would exist today. But that’s conjecture for you. And the world of what might have been. But it did get me thinking a little.
Returning to immigration, we have always been among the luckiest of nations in that respect. In a very real way, the world has been our oyster. Because of our historic engagement overseas our people have been free to flee these shores and settle almost anywhere they wished. Now the world is more tightly controlled, with independent states zealously guarding their borders. Yet still our options are vastly better than almost anyone else’s. So we should not be too hard on people who wish to do what we have been doing for centuries. At least we were not fleeing tyranny and brute barbarism.
A recent BBC programme discussing the urgent need to expand the number of school places referred only to a rapidly expanding population while disingenuously failing to mention what had brought about this expansion. The broadcaster was at this point free to mention, what previously had been the unmentionable, but still it chose not to.
Immigration has hugely benefited this country in years past and if handled astutely is likely to continue to do so. Huguenots fleeing catholic persecution in France, weavers from the Low Countries escaping Spanish oppression and Jews from the pogroms of eastern Europe all have brought valued skills and business acumen. Even banking, in its modern form, we learned from the Dutch. And what a success story the arrival of 20,000 Asians fleeing in the seventies, from the murderous Idi Amin’s Uganda, has been. Children of empire, carried by us from our Indian territories to Africa under contract as indentured labourers to help build the railways, they have truly prospered here. Their number boast an amazing clutch of millionaires. Most of them had opted to stay on in Africa after the railways had been completed and had become traders and shopkeepers. A jealous Amin could not wait to get his hands on their properties and businesses. Then there is the debt we owe the Irish. If we were first in the field with railways, as well as canals, that is because our networks were built with their brawn and sweat. Hundreds died in the process.
What we did not, however, need, was Tony Blair’s sly, unfocused rush of immigrants to these shores in numbers we could not properly handle. Hospitals, transport, houses, infrastructure and, yes, schools all have come under almost unbearable pressure.
Blair knew the people were entitled to be consulted in such a matter, yet, as with the Iraq war, he chose to deceive them. In order to shut down any discussion he encouraged a culture that linked any talk of immigration to racism, and he wanted to make perfectly decent people feel almost dirty in mentioning the subject. We saw that revealed graphically when a lifelong Labour supporter took up the matter with Gordon Brown, only to be labelled a bigot.
Blair also calculated that they would become grateful, client voters who would help maintain him in power. His mantra was ‘multiculturalism’. He was more than happy for the new arrivals to keep to themselves and form what amounted to ghettos. He saw no need to encourage them to become loyal Britons and was even content for them not to learn the language of their adopted country. Worst of all, he paid no heed to the ever present risk that his policies might erode the very character of his people. The whole exercise, and the way it was conducted, was almost criminal in its intent.
After years of being a non-subject to all parties and the media, immigration emerged into the sunlight as being a subject we could legitimately talk about. Now, it appears to have disappeared back into purdah. Despite being at the top of people’s concerns, David Cameron has joined with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to make scant mention of it in their election stomping. Is it that they think us a mean-minded people who cannot be trusted to dip our toes into such contentious waters? I believe that we are bigger than any of the pygmies who think such thoughts and who clearly have such a low opinion of us. We are a just, tolerant and fair-minded people, grown up beyond what our rulers give us credit for. Perhaps they should do a bit more of what the TV panellists do these days on such programmes as X Factor and Britain Has Talent: trust the people to get it right.
I have written four articles on the ‘King under the Car Park’ – Richard III – and this must surely be my last. The juxtaposition between a car park and a medieval king is a strange one. In his wildest dreams the dead king could not have imagined such a scenario. For a start, neither he nor anyone else at that time could have got their heads round car parks, much less the horseless carriages which were stabled there. As for those carriages being able to hurtle forward at unimaginable speeds, it would all have been too much for him. Just as amazing would be the fact that almost all the future subjects of his realm would own one and would be able to travel in perfect comfort and quiet on surfaced roads from one end of his kingdom to the other in hours. His bumpety, bump, clacktity, clack journey would have taken weeks.
It was the longest of long shots that led Philippa Langley, the Scottish Secretary of the Richard III Society, to Leicester’s city centre car park. For years she had obsessed about finding the only English king with no known burial place. They knew he wasn’t buried on Bosworth Field, the battlefield where he was cut down following his Victoria Cross-like heroics. His body was stripped naked and slung over a horse and paraded the fifteen miles to Leicester. That much was known.
Rumour had it that he may have been interred in a long vanished monastery. Others said that his body had been thrown in the river Stour. Yet more, that it was a mystery which would never be solved.
Philippa Langley – the hero of our tale – backed the monastery theory. I imagined she reasoned that although they weren’t going to give him a king’s funeral – usurper and murderer of his child nephews as they alleged him to be – they were most likely to hand his brutalised remains over for burial in consecrated ground such as a monastery.
Furthermore, Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian winner of the battle that unseated him, knew that if he was going to keep his newly won crown he would need to reach an accommodation with the Yorkists. Denying one of their own, a Yorkist prince of the realm – and an anointed king at that – a Christian burial was going to make that next to impossible. There would have been outrage in the Yorkist camp. Even a sinner, if that is what he was, was entitled to the sacraments and Richard’s frenzied, pitiless killers knew that. And even the meanest in the land took their Catholic faith extremely seriously at that time. Hell and damnation awaited anyone who offended against God’s law in a matter like that.
So Philippa’s hunch had a good chance of being the right one. By great good fortune the whereabouts of the monastery – although it was entirely gone – was known to the city authorities. By equally great good fortune – since it was city centre – it had no buildings over the site. That would have totally scuppered any excavation.
Philippa set about raising the considerable sums needed for a major archaeological dig. She also set about rallying the support of city authority who owned the car park, as well as its university which had the disciplines in all the relevant fields to cover the extensive research needed if she was to succeed in finding and authenticating the missing king.
It was all not so much a ‘whodunit?’ as a ‘where is it?’ affair. Both Leicester City and the university realised that success would bring massive rewards in terms of PR and tourism and put both on the map worldwide like nothing they had ever done before.
Even so, a very big if hung over the whole enterprise and a fiasco seemed much the likeliest outcome. Heavy industrial plant moved in on the site ready for the opening day of the dig. All stood prepared to excavate the entire car park if necessary. Every square metre of ground material would have to be carefully sifted. No one expected a quick result. All were steeled for plentiful egg on their faces.
Step forward our hero. “Where shall we begin?” asked the foreman of works. “There, where it says R,” indicated Philippa, pointing her finger. She had months before said, “the first time I stood in that car park the strangest feeling washed over me. I thought I am standing on Richard’s grave.”
In a particular part of the car park was a bay with a big R for reserved marked on it and it seemed as good a place as any to begin. Minutes passed after the tarmac was lifted and the subsoil carefully brought up. And like something yanked straight out of fiction, that very spot yielded a result. At only about three feet down a femur came into view. Though gratifying, that in itself was not cause for jubilation. The evidence was strong that this was where the monastery had been and that this was the area where bodies most likely had been laid to rest.
Following the sighting of the femur, more earth was removed. This time not by plant but gingerly by trowel. Then more excitement as the spine came into view. As the troweling moved up the spine from its base, a shriek was heard. The spine was veering off to one side from the vertical. It carried all the hallmarks of scoliosis – a curvature of the spine – just like Richard was said to have.
This was all too good to be true, even though their hopes were tempered by the knowledge that scoliosis was not that rare. They had managed to establish that it was a man. But did this man die violently? Then the skull was reached and there was exultation. Clear, unmistakable signs revealed that the deceased had died in battle. It was a Eureka moment for everyone, but most of all for Philippa. Tears welled up in her eyes.
Much had yet to be done forensically to authenticate beyond all question, but she had no doubt that her long search was over. A man, born in Canada, would later prove through DNA that the skeleton was of Plantagenet origin. The rest is history. One of the greatest hunts in all of archaeology had come to an end.
Four days of ceremonies will begin on 22nd March. There will be an honour guard of mounted soldiers and a 21-Gun Salute at the battlefield; two hundred children will display medieval, pennants they’ve designed; and four horses will draw the brake on its final journey to the cathedral where it will go on display before the final laying to rest of a monarch who fell in battle 530 years before. How the Tudors would have hated it all.
As for the TV broadcaster covering the event, it has gone bonkers. It’s been said there will have been nothing quite like it since television hit the airwaves. Britain’s reputation for eccentric, yet moving, theatre will have received a mighty shot in the arm. Quite what the rest of the world will make of it no one knows. They’re gobsmacked at it all, yet captivated. And they’ll all be watching.
The present monarch should have attended the reinterment. That much will be very apparent when she sees how her people have risen to the occasion. Richard’s own vile treatment in death will at least have been washed away by a £2.5 million effort of repentance by a remorseful people.
It seems to me that we have no other credible option but to return the current government to power in May. The alternative imperils the undoubted progress that has been made and just seems too much like a leap in the dark. As to whether we return the Conservatives with a working majority or oblige them to seek an accommodation with their present partners… that, for the moment, cannot be predicted. They may be forced – hold your breath on this one – to seek an accommodation with Labour if that party, as seems likely, is obliterated in Scotland. Oddly, for a coalition, it has been surprisingly radical in the hot potato issues it has tackled. The Liberal Democrats may have helped keep the more swivel-eyed Tories in check and were certainly right in making it a condition of signing up that the lower paid be taken out of tax altogether. It was always an affront to justice that tax was levied at such an obscenely low level of income. But now we learn that the fully converted Tories are planning to take the process a step further in the forthcoming budget and steal some of the Lib Dem’s clothes by taking the same people out of National Insurance contributions and paying for it by reducing concessions to better off pension contributors. That looks like a surprisingly egalitarian measure which will help allay the perception that the Tories only look after the rich.
If it is true that elections are decided first and foremost on the state of the economy, then we would be hard put to gainsay the achievements of the present incumbents. They came to office in about as dire a situation as it possible to imagine. In fact the country was teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe.
For years we had allowed ourselves to live beyond our means, forgetting that age-old truth that you cannot spend more than you have the guts to raise in taxation. A balanced budget was never, so to speak, a lifestyle choice and sound money should always have been at the heart of any government’s considerations. Once it has taken care of these then it should go hell for leather for an enterprise economy.
In thinking where we are to cast our vote in May, let’s take a look at some of the core issues and see if we can make a balanced judgement. Business is not everything, but it is something we have to get right if we are to become prosperous enough on a personal level and yet have enough left over to fund a compassionate society.
Recently the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – one of the world’s most respected forums – positively gushed at our efforts, lavishing praise on the economic turnabout we have enjoyed over the past five years. Far from being the basket case that our perilous situation seemed set to consign us to, we are, so it seems, a “textbook” example for economic success: the most go-ahead enterprise economy currently in the developed world.
Moreover, it isn’t just the OECD saying these things – it’s just about everybody, including the International Monetary Fund. Christine Lagarde, its CEO, has said that “Britain is an example to the world and is leading it in a very elegant and convincing way.” That’s praise indeed, especially coming from the woman who only two years ago trembled at the possible consequences of what the Chancellor was doing. So gutsy ‘Boy George’ has been vindicated and proved right all along. I don’t remember so many economic pundits getting it so wrong since 364 wrote to Mrs Thatcher predicting certain doom for her policies back in the early eighties.
And balancing the books? Well, we’ve got some way to go on that but the direction of travel is the right one and the deficit is on the way to being halved. With business confidence soaring and GDP expanding, tax receipts will balloon and we will find ourselves in a virtuous circle in which even paying down the national debt will become easy.
What about our currency? Well, it doesn’t get more trusted than when you have convinced the money markets that you are a “textbook” example and “leading the world both elegantly and convincingly”. In these circumstances your purchasing power remains strong and national borrowing costs nosedive, along with the dole queue. Against all received wisdom, job creation in the UK has leaped ahead during this recession, with jobs created running at twice the rate of lay-offs in the public sector. Here, again, Osborne’s prediction has confounded critics. Perhaps the most graphic proof that you now enjoy a strong currency is to be found when you next go abroad. Your money will go an unbelievably long way. Also, the imported goods you buy will mysteriously start getting cheaper as less and less of your precious dosh needs to be handed over to Johnny Foreigner. And all this hasn’t been brought about – as it usually has been – at the price of being forced by poor management of the economy to hike your interest rates. Indeed, the reverse is true: they are at an all-time low and likely to remain so for some time yet.
Then there’s the ever important matter of inflation. Like all the rest, we are in a very good place here. And while some people worry about the dangers of deflation, this seems unlikely to happen in our case. The reason is that pay rises are now running – thank goodness – well ahead of inflation (six times) and this will edge inflation up and so prevent a downward spiral of falling prices which cause people to hold back purchases in the belief that things will get cheaper still. In Europe, with growth remaining stagnant, only a minority in the efficient north is getting a pay rise (and then not much) and so there is not the pressure from this direction to force inflation to rise. While ours can be said to be a virtuous circle, theirs is a vicious one.
So, in all these extraordinary circumstances, why is the governing party not seeing the benefit in the polls? It is a very great mystery. On the face of it, getting re-elected should be a shoo-in. In normal circumstances, economic success translates into electoral victory. However, these are not normal circumstances and this is not an iron rule. Ask John Major. When he faced Tony Blair in 1997 we were doing so well we were even paying down the national debt and – until Gordon Brown sold off half at fire sale prices – our gold reserves stood almost at a post-war high. Gold, then, had hit rock bottom, but within no time had shot through the roof. What made the man do it? Nobody knows and Brown won’t tell us. Perhaps we should ask the would-be Chancellor, Ed. Balls. Ed was his hatchet man at the time. Anyway, the upshot of it all was this little exercise cost us billions.
Before that happened – and when New Labour took over – their inheritance was, in the truest sense of the word, a golden one. Blair and his surly, Heathcliff-like Chancellor, then proceeded to throw it all away. To reassure the country and the City to trust their fiscal rectitude, they pledged to keep to Tory spending plans for two years. When, later, New Labour called time on that irksome arrangement, Brown, together with his side-kick – who hopes to move into the Treasury again in May – went on an epic spending spree. Borrowing like never before, they displayed a level of fiscal incontinence rarely if ever seen in British politics.
With unmatched hubris, Brown – the man who doubled the size of the Revenue and Customs guide book so that only the largest and most expensive accountancy firms could fathom its complexities – shouted to the rafters, budget after budget, that he had solved one of the economic cycle’s greatest mysteries: how to avoid boom and bust. Later on he would let slip in the Commons how he had ‘Saved the World’ during the time of the credit crunch. The wonder is that some fool in Scandinavia didn’t find a Nobel Prize to award him… one as daft as that Save the Children award to Tony Blair, which was, actually, hugely insulting.
While we may find much to criticise in the ‘posh boys’ who make up much of the present cabinet, they have in most respects delivered. Quite apart from the economy, we all knew that the welfare system was a busted flush in desperate need of root and branch reform. It had encouraged a malaise of worklessness in which many had come to believe that they had a perfect right to live off their neighbour’s taxes if they were daft enough to get up on a cold winter’s morning and go off to graft for the stinking, exploitative capitalists. It also turned a goodly proportion of fundamentally honest people into cheats and fraudsters. Then, again, in education we each knew that our parents had enjoyed a sounder education in the basics than we had, and that all the certainties which had made that possible had been thrown out of the window by the fanciful, misguided notions of the teachers’ training colleges and their ilk. Discipline was also a casualty of all that trendy thinking. Meanwhile our kids slipped ever further down the international league table of academic excellence.
Another thing we all knew was that an insatiable public sector was not only looking after itself too well at the rest of the nation’s expense, but that it was gobbling up an unsustainable amount of its wealth.
It therefore is a puzzle that a government which has successfully bitten so many unpalatable bullets is struggling to get its message across. They were bullets so toxic that no government before had had the balls to bite on them. Perhaps the coalition was stiffened in its resolve to do so by the opportunities presented by the worst recession in 100 years.
Finally… what about fixed term parliaments? Another of the measures brought in by this unexpectedly reformist government. They may have many drawbacks, but one decided advantage is that there is ample time to examine the record and forensically explore the proposed alternatives. Springing a surprise election when things are temporarily looking good, but you know they are not going to stay that way was an old trick. A three-week campaign denies your opponents the time needed and allows you to work a flanker. That ruse is now firmly off the table.
Conspiracies abound and conspiracy theorists make a good living pandering to our natural suspicions. The vast majority, including those surrounding Marilyn’s and Diana’s deaths, are nonsense. They persist because we find it hard to accept that famous people are subject to the same chance, and often malign, forces as the rest of us.
But that there are out there a fair few I have no doubt. I believe them to be almost a part of the human condition – from the tiny trader, like myself, who might wish for a private arrangement with a fellow trader not to undercut each other to a mighty conglomerate who might wish to do the same. OPEC is a perfect example. It has also to be accepted that the great majority are successful and that, as a result, we never get to hear about them.
I am a natural born sceptic – which perhaps has something to do with being called Thomas – and while I try to maintain an open mind, I have to admit that some theories are outlandish to the point of being funny. A couple which immediately spring to mind are that the pyramids were built by aliens and that the photos of the moon landings were trick photography.
I do, however, believe that the universe is teeming with ETs. With 100,000 galaxies in this universe – and science is starting to believe that there may be many universes – it surely is down to numbers. However rare may be the incidence of all the important factors coming together to make life possible – the so-called Goldilocks Effect – I find it inconceivable, with such numbers, that it only happened once. Furthermore, I believe that when these factors do coalesce, sooner or later, life is the inevitable consequence.
But returning to Earth and our penchant for conspiracies, I believe I have cottoned on to one which may go a long way to explaining why, when there is a clear need for many more houses, it never seems to happen. It is because the politicos are terrified of bringing about a downward spiral in the value of houses. It is not a conspiracy in which a handful of people have got together, but rather an acknowledgement that one’s home is typically his only significant asset.
Meantime, millions languish in rented, overcrowded and often substandard accommodation, desperate to buy their own homes but unable to do so because house price inflation has advanced at three times the rate of general inflation and as a result the deposit required is beyond their reach.
No one can argue against our desperate need to build more houses. Unlike Japan with fewer divorces, a falling birth rate and zero immigration, we are high on all three; people splitting from their partners need separate homes, a rising birth rate requires more houses (down the line), and millions moving to your country will require places to live.
During the recession the construction industry was the hardest hit. Didn’t it strike you as odd that its legions of unemployed were not put to work building this extra accommodation? The 100k houses built last year was less than half of what was required. What would happen if supply at long last rose to meet demand? The iron law of economics says prices would fall. What pushed house prices up to their present level, racing ahead of general inflation at a crazy rate? Easy credit and too many would-be buyers chasing too few houses. The real question is: if all the political parties are agreed on the need for more houses, why doesn’t it happen? After all, builders would set-to with a gusto and buyers would have not just a house but one at a more affordable rate.
Cameron and Osborne promised a relaxation of planning laws in 2010 and pledged to free up more land for development, but this government has so far failed miserably to deliver. Why is this? The answer, I fear, is that present mortgage holders have an interest in not just maintaining prices but contriving to force them up still further. They love a situation in which they are getting richer by doing nothing. Many are making more on their house annually than they are getting paid, with the difference being that living eats into their salary while nothing eats into their unearned capital gains. So just let a politician come along who threatens this nice little arrangement. That greatest of all feel-good factors would disappear down the plughole. To prick that love affair with rising wealth would make them incandescent with rage.
But in many ways crazy house prices might be compared to fools’ gold. Unless you’re going to flee abroad to a cheaper domicile or downsize, which most don’t want to do, then there are no tangible benefits. So how do the politicos keep them happy in this delusional state and excuse themselves from doing their duty to the homeless? First they acquiesce in keeping planning laws fiendishly difficult and listening too much to the ‘not in my back yard’ arguments. Then they waffle on ad nauseam about converting brown field sites. Then they pedal the greatest fiction of all: that our island is in danger of being concreted over.
Next time you fly over our green and pleasant land, look down and see what proportion of our lovely acres remain green. The Office for National Statistics have produced some very interesting figures on this. I invite you to read a BBC News article titled ‘The great myth of urban Britain‘. You will be happily stunned by the stats provided. It turns out only 2.27% of England’s landscape is built on. Just look out of your airplane window if you’re in any doubt.