At a time when the world is wrestling with perhaps it’s greatest humanitarian crisis since World War Two a scenario is developing in the Far East which has the potential to eclipse even the worst that Russian air strikes and President Assad are capable of. It concerns North Korea.
Just when we had managed to convince ourselves that we had reigned in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the ‘Hermit State’ with its mad boy-wonder brags to the world that he has exploded a hydrogen bomb. He then follows this up a short time later by firing a rocket into space demonstrating that he can deliver his terrible toy virtually anywhere in the world.
Quite how his bankrupt state ever got the wherewithal to finance so horrendously an expensive operation as a nuclear bomb programme is something of a mystery (although I suppose starving its people helps) as indeed it is a mystery where he got the techno/scientific expertise to pull it off. Pakistan, in this regard, has a lot to answer for as one of its scientists is said to have sold the essential start up information. If this is so, what a crime against humanity this was. Pakistan itself is highly unstable and many consider that it is only a matter of time before it falls to the Taliban who may then gain access to its own illicit nuclear arsenal.
The bald fact that now confronts the world is that a pitiless, paranoiac delinquent has been allowed to assemble the ultimate weapon of mass destruction as well as the means of delivery. In truth we should have been much less worried about the mad mullahs of Iran acquiring it than Kim Jong-un.
What sort of message does it send out to the world that we have allowed this to happen? There are other states far bigger and more significant than North Korea with its 25 million people who may judge that their status in the world, as well as their ability to intimidate their neighbours, will be mightily enhanced by their possession of the bomb too.
Only the long-established democracies – which have the necessary checks and balances – can properly be trusted to hold such weapons and even then it would be better if none of them held such awesome power. Short of a ground invasion of North Korea, there are only two options available to the world. One is for the United Nations to consider expelling North Korea as a member and applying comprehensive sanctions backed up by a naval blockade, if necessary, to ensure that its strictures are not breached. The other is to call on China to do its duty by the rest of humanity.
North Korea is impervious to the protests of the entire world so long as it has the support of its northern neighbour. The umbilical cord of China is what keeps it going. Without it, it must bend. China, for its part, is fearful that if it cuts this cord it will have a Syria-style rush across its border. It is also fearful that a collapsing North Korea will fall into the arms of its prosperous and powerful neighbour, South Korea, whose armies, alongside its long-standing ally America, will advance to the Yalu river, the boundary between it and North Korea. China must be assured that the latter will not happen.
As it happens, China is furious at Kim Jong-un’s brinkmanship as is North Korea’s other neighbour in the region, Russia. There is now talk of America providing a shield for its allies in the region called THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) – a new Star Wars – and this absolutely terrifies both China and Russia as they cannot match America in this technology and it threatens to render obsolete their own nuclear arsenals.
So now is the time to get tough, not just with North Korea but with its indulgent backer, China. Either it wishes to curtail nuclear proliferation, which will surely happen if North Korea gets away with it, or it does not. Failure to come on side will spark an arms race in East Asia. With tensions already high in the South China seas over the huge oil deposits contested by six nations, this is the last thing that China must want. It risks a Balkan-style powder keg situation such as led up to the First World War igniting.
Remember Blaire’s apology for the Irish potato famine? Or Brown’s apology for our treatment of the Bletchley Park codebreaker, Alan Turing? How about his apology to the families of the 306 executed ‘cowards’ of WWI? This furore over Cecil Rhode’s Oxford University statue is another prime example of our breast-beating tendencies today. What nonsense it is to maintain that because ethnic minority students walk past a high-up – and out of the way – statue of the arch empire builder they are suffering a form of violence. Let’s grow up a little; this surely is over-egging it.
I am not saying that we should not be aware of what was done by us long ago around the world and, indeed, that much of it was wrong. It was even sometimes brutal. But that is to see it through today’s prism. George Washington was a slave owner and Elizabeth II tortured Catholics. Churchill excoriated Gandhi and the whole notion of Indian independence. He positively gloried in the British Empire. Are all his statues, worldwide, to be taken down, including the one in Parliament Square?
I can list many examples of terrible things done by our nation. I can also quote you many more carried out by other nations. Of course, that doesn’t make any of them right. It is simply to contextualise them.
The retreat from empire in the British case was orderly and largely peaceable. In France’s it was bitter and bloody. The First World War brought about an upsurge of nationalism. The genie was partially put back in the bottle after that war, but it burst out with a vengeance following the Second World War and there was no putting it back. Bankruptcy and the need to rebuild Europe convinced us that the imperial game was up. Others were slower to realise it.
Those undergraduate agitators should pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that their privileged Oxford education came courtesy of one of the undoubtedly good things that Rhodes did with his life: he donated an immense sum to the university. I know his detractors will leap in and say that it was wealth accumulated on the backs of poor, benighted Africans, and to an extent, this is true. But we are where we are and numbers of them are at least seeing some of it coming back to them. The fact is we cannot undo the past.
Nowadays we are much taken to apologising for our forefathers’ misdeeds and though I see no great harm coming from that I have to ask myself where it ends. Should Rome apologise to us for its soldiers flogging our Queen Boudicca and raping her daughters? It may, for all I know, be that it makes a few of our ‘victims’ feel better for our having owned up and taken sack-clothe. Perhaps the idea is not that at all, but to make us feel better about ourselves. The question then is whether we are actually achieving anything meaningful at all. Does it help to rake over old coals and give ourselves an unhelpful guilt complex?
If we were such a shower of cruel oppressors, why are our former colonies so anxious to maintain their links with us? Why do they play an active part in the Commonwealth club and travel from the far corners of the earth for its bi-annual jamboree? It is telling that the French have not been able to form such a club.
It can be argued that while we took much – especially from India in the early years – we also gave much. We irrigated huge swathes of the country which hitherto had never been brought under the plough by constructing 40,000 miles of canals. We gave it, too, the largest railway system in all Asia (another 40,000 miles.) We also built and surfaced roads and constructed the 2,000-mile Grand Trunk Road east-west with trees either side to shield its travellers from the Indian sun. We gave our former subjects throughout the Empire the rule of law. We gave the Indian subcontinent parliamentary government. We also saved myriad constructs and temples, including the Taj Mahal, and its ancient language, Sanskrit, by setting up the School of Oriental Studies. We gave them an education system, which they maintain with all its rigours to this day, and we gave them a free press. Oh, and we also gave them the greatest love of their lives, cricket. It has become the poor boy’s hoped-for route out of poverty; their equivalent of our premier league.
In the last century of our rule there we developed a strong conscience so that, when we stood in mortal peril in the two World Wars, they martialled the largest volunteer armies the world has even known to help us win them.
As well as the profiteers and exploiters of the early years, we later sent the brightest and best that our country has ever produced to govern it. The special public school, Haileybury – set up to train those administrators in the languages and culture of the sub-continent – was second to none with, created in its wake, the Indian Civil Service, the most dedicated ‘sea-green incorruptible’ system ever devised. Its entry examination had no equal on earth.
Without exonerating Rhodes for his excesses, he, like many others of his time, believed fervently that they had a duty to mankind to spread British values across the world. It may seem presumptuous, even arrogant to us today, but because the Industrial Revolution had so changed the face of humanity they believed, with their strong Christian faith, that they were the elect of God, chosen to lead the world to a better future. It was an understandable enough trap to fall into and any country finding itself in that position might well have believed similarly. In truth they did mean well.
So let the callow hot-heads who will take away that priceless Oxford degree show a little humility themselves. They are young and, for the moment, know little of the world. For our part we are content to stand on the record and let history be the judge.
What disordered times we are living though now. What a total mess surrounds us on all sides. You have Islamic terrorism stalking our cities; the European Union buckling under the weight of a tide of ‘refugees’ while at the same time grappling with bankrupt states on its periphery; our own referendum to decide whether we’re going to cut and run; an Opposition in total disarray; an America which refuses anymore to act as the world’s policeman; and failed states lapping Europe’s boundaries which have collapsed into anarchy. As if this all wasn’t enough, the world is still not through the consequences of the biggest financial crash in living memory. What are we to make of it all?
Not so long ago, we faced a foe on the other side of the Iron Curtain. He was an implacable one who had the means to destroy us all. But he didn’t. There were ground rules which we both observed, since he knew that we had the power to destroy him, too. He wore a uniform and he had client states – a great many of them – which he kept in check, as we did ours. There would be stand-offs from time to time and localised bushfire wars, but they were handled within well understood rules which worked. All that is now history and no one knows any longer where they are.
I cannot help but think that a great mistake was made when Communism collapsed. The former enemy was prostrate and needed help, but he didn’t get it. He went through ten years of hell with robber barons (oligarchs) stripping the state of assets and operating a mafia-style regime. To curb it all, but without success, authoritarianism returned to Russia in the form of Vladimir Putin. But he did not see himself to be at odds with the European Union. Indeed, he sought to reach out to it and gain acceptance as a valued partner. He even wanted an accommodation with NATO on joint exercises.
But all these overtures fell on deaf ears and now you have a troublesome bear rampaging through the undergrowth, which has had to be put into the school-equivalent of ‘special measures’ with sanctions applied.
A new opportunity, however, presents itself in the Syrian quagmire to put right some of this damage. Russia is as anxious as we are to bring that murderous conflict to an end. It is equally understanding of the need to play its part in destroying Isis, the most malignant evil since the days of Pol Pot.
Just as important, it accepts that the Syrian dictator, Assad, cannot be part of any long-term solution and that, as long as a face-saving interim arrangement can be made, Putin will go along with it. Assad has, hitherto, always enjoyed their backing; this is because Assad, and before him his father, had allowed Russia to maintain a naval base on the Syrian coast and pretend to a Mediterranean presence.
Provided its interests are protected in any eventual settlement, Russia can be expected to cooperate and play its part in ending the civil war. In so doing and acting in concert with the West, the West can begin the process of undoing the damage which its former cold-shouldering of Russia brought about. The European Union, for its part, can begin to lock Russia into its embrace and give Putin the respectability and acceptance which he originally craved.
Turning to Uncle Sam, we are going to have to accept that he will never again be prepared to shoulder the burden of world peace alone. He made a terrible mistake in withdrawing the last ten thousand troops from Iraq. Had they stayed as an emergency, fire-fighting backup, Isis would never have been able to establish itself.
What is needed now is for the European Union to step up to the plate, militarily, for the purpose of burden-sharing. Were it to do so, Uncle Sam would happily abandon any thoughts of retreating back into isolationism which was a major contributor to World War Two.
It is morally and dangerously wrong for Europe to expect any longer a free ride where security is concerned. It has the wealth and it must use it, along with others, to bolster America. I am sure the United Nations, in the interests of world peace, would welcome such a development. Of course, the European powers would have to make it clear that they seek no territorial advantage and that this is not a fresh round of empire building by the back door. Even Iran must be allowed to play its part, along with neighbouring powers.
I doubt that even if peace, by such a combination of power, can be restored to Syria that in the short term a viable government can be made to work when there is such bitterness on all sides. In that event, a United Nations mandate should be imposed on the country for It has to be accepted that, just occasionally, only the application of overwhelming force can settle the argument. This, I believe, is just such a case
There has been much ado about our kow-towing to the Chinese during the recent visit of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping and talk of our being a puppy in danger of being put on a leash. I believe these worries to be misplaced. China is a fact on the modern world stage with its second largest economy. What it does or does not do impacts all of us.
The first major western power to seriously engage with her will reap a rich reward. She has been unable to achieve this with the country she would most like to, namely the United States, so she turns to the country she regards as the next most significant.
The reason she can make no headway with the US is that Uncle Sam confronts her militarily in East Asia, being locked in a web of alliances with regional powers there. At the core of the dispute is our old friend, oil. Huge deposits have been found in the South China Sea bordering on five East Asian countries that are all insistent that they have rights there. Also, the clamour of protests about job losses to the Chinese and internet piracy is greater there, as is the human rights lobby. Of course, all of these things are important and we would be foolish to ignore them.
But take steel as the most recent example. Just as we cannot manipulate the price of oil, so we are unable to do so with steel. With world demand slowing down – yes, led by China – there is a glut of it. Dumping is an inevitable consequence and we must deal with it.
Steel production is strategic; we cannot therefore lose the industry completely. We must be in a position to fire up those coke furnaces at some point in the future if the situation requires it. China and the rest have to realise that they must take their share of the pain by reducing capacity. Furthermore, it must boost home demand by turning itself into much more of a consumer society. The steel issue is exactly the sort of case in which the clout of the EU could achieve the required result where we alone could not.
Our relationship with China is more longer-standing than that of any other Western nation. They understand that and this is one of reasons they have turned to us. We were the very first to engage with them and introduce them to Western ways all those years ago, when we sent Lord McCartney on a trade mission to the ‘Celestial Kingdom’ in 1793. Famously, he refused to kow-tow, as required, to the ‘Son of Heaven’. Then, 150 years of ruling Hong Kong gave us an understanding of the Chinese psyche not vouchsafed to any other Western power.
They are touchy, to put it mildly, about being lectured by outsiders on human rights or anything else for that matter. They still see themselves as unique among humans. Being crushed in two opium wars by McCartney’s heirs didn’t change that perception. And their conception of human rights has a different slant to ours; they argue that lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty whilst maintaining stability is very much paying attention to human rights. They wonder why the West pays so much attention to them while it sucks up to primitive, atavistic Arab regimes who publicly crucify and behead teenagers. If they are lambasted for the number of executions in their country, remember that they number 1.3 billion. It is a nonsense to say they execute more than Iran or Saudi Arabia when those countries number 70 and 28 million respectively. Proportionately, China is way below them.
I personally take the view that nothing will achieve success, as we would like it, in China than that she become richer. Rich people are not so easily pushed around. The human rights of our own people were once – and not so very long ago – severely circumscribed. But in a thirty-year period in the nineteenth century, per capita income in Britain grew by 500% – a growth rate never before seen in human history. Our people became freer than they had ever been with trades Union rights guaranteeing that the days of gross employer and landlord exploitation were over for ever.
China sees that the soft power that our country enjoys all around the world with its Commonwealth contacts, its EU membership, its command of the world’s number one language and its close, familial association with the US – still the dominant power on the planet – makes us the nation of choice to cultivate. Also not lost on them is the fact that we are now the fastest growing economy in the Western world, with more jobs created last year than the whole of the EU put together. All these things and more confirm our relevance in their eyes. Also our ‘open for business’ outlook on the world goes down very well with them, as do our elite schools, peerless universities and exciting cultural attractions. Even being the home of James Bond makes us more interesting.
My own view is that, if we play our cards right, we and China could have a very exciting future together. Our joining the recently created and Chinese-sponsored Asian Development Bank may have annoyed the US, but it makes a great deal of sense and demonstrates to the Chinese that we are capable of acting independently of our former colony.
Trade enriches the world. It’s what makes it go round. It breaks down barriers and improves our understanding of each other. It makes war less likely with there being too much to lose and it addresses perhaps mankind’s most pressing problem: its ballooning population. No rich country has a high birth rate any more than a poor record on human rights abuses. Trade is what got the West where it is today; truly it is king.
So I am glad that we did Xi Jinping and his lovely wife proud. The splendour of his welcome will be noted and very well received in China. Even Jeremy Corbyn behaved himself.
Soon we will be receiving the Prime Minister of India, in whose land two million of our forefathers lie buried. We can do no less for him. That exotic, cricket loving country has a very special place in our hearts. Because of the institutions we left it with, not least our language, law, and democratic ways, it has a head start on China. I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, it were to outpace China.
What fantastic news it was that there is almost certainly seasonal running water on Mars. While there is a remote possibility of marine life under the ice cap that envelops Europa, one of Jupiter’s larger moons, it is Mars, our so-called sister planet, which is the celestial body in our solar system which has always fascinated us.
In Victorian times we were naive enough to believe in, shall I say, manmade canals on its surface. Just as well there were no men there; had they been anything like us, they might have fancied our planet rather than their own. With Martian surface temperatures rising to never more than freezing and plummeting as low as -139°C – against our lowest of -60°C – the temptation to take over our lovely, benign habitat, would have been great.
But, seriously, it is of huge significance that there seems to be flowing water on Mars. The reason it doesn’t freeze is because of its very high salt content, mixed with sodium and magnesium perchlorate. It is thirteen times saltier than Earth’s seas and flows freely during the Martian summer. It is enough to burn your skin; not too welcoming for a dip and certainly not the sort to get a mouthful of.
The greatest question that has exercised modern humans is whether we are alone in the universe. Just to complicate matters further, it is now thought that there may, actually, be many universes. So how rare is life? We know there must be a whole set of circumstances in place to give it even a chance. Venus – a misnamed planet if ever there was one – has a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead and an incredibly dense and sulphuric atmosphere. It suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. No chance of life there.
We know we are alone in our solar system – at least in the form of ourselves and the other life that surrounds us on Earth – but we also know that, clever as we are, we started as the lowest form of microbial life in the primordial ‘soup’ that once passed for oceans.
No one knows how that first single cell arrived or developed. Maybe it came to us riding on or in an asteroid, or comet. Or, perhaps, a chunk of another planet ricocheting off that heavenly body by an asteroid strike of its own and sent earthwards. And no one knows how that single cell divided into two and began its long journey to us. Perhaps it was a lightning strike into that primordial ‘soup’ that triggered it.
If we can establish that even microbial life once existed on a long ago, much warmer Mars, and is still there, dead or alive, then the probability is that we have companion peoples spread across the infinite reaches of the cosmos. Actually, I personally – for what it’s worth – have never doubted it. Notwithstanding how many the factors must come together to make advanced life possible, the sheer scale of the universe – and never mind the possibility of multiple universes – means that even if the odds were 10,000,000,000,000:1, it will have happened. And many times.
Our first microbial organisms began their evolutionary journey into us around 3 billion years ago. And there must be many habitable planets much older than our own which may have begun their journey into advanced life much earlier than ours. After all, the Big Bang took place nearly 14 billion years ago. If these civilisations managed to survive into maturity, they must be hugely more advanced than us. Imagine where a thousand years will take us from where we are now – and that is just a blink in space time. Then imagine a civilisation a million years ahead.
“So, where are they?” you ask. “Why haven’t we heard from them?” The answer may be that we have, but don’t know it. Or that such smart creature – dare we say considerate – hold to Star Trek’s Prime Directive of non-interference.
Then again, it may be that the sheer immensity of the distances which separate us confound even the most advanced civilisations. “Ah, but,” I hear you say, “what about warp speed and worm holes?” Yes, but they may only be part of our wild and ever-hopeful imaginings. The simple truth could be that even the cleverest of aliens cannot overturn the iron laws of physics. Perhaps one or more of those laws block our pathways to each other for ever.
What is undoubtedly true is that sooner or later SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) will hear from them in a form of encryption that we can understand. But we can never have conversations. Even at light speed, it would take far, far too long for a message to get back to the sender.
I well remember the incredible excitement which surrounded the Apollo missions and, in particular, those steps down the Luna module to make contact for the first time with the surface of an alien world. That was 1969. If only we had kept up that momentum, we would have been on Mars long ago. Instead, we chose to spend our precious resources on foreign wars, defense establishments and ever more fiendish ways of killing each other.
Having said that, I have to acknowledge that it was the Cold War and America’s refusal to be beaten to the moon that pulled off that stunning feat. NASA has shown that the final building block to possible life on Mars is there and that a permanent presence on that planet is possible. China’s interest in the Red Planet may be all that is needs to kick start a fresh race into space. I hope so. I would love to live long enough to relive a similar thrill to that which I enjoyed all those long years ago.
Grateful thanks to Plympton Gardeners’ Association, who dress out Ridgeway’s six concrete tubs (they’ve even painted them white). City parks department could learn a thing or two from this dedicated group, who even do what parks never did… keep it going throughout winter. Parks abandoned their post in their ill-chosen efforts to scrimp, but you’ve stepped into the breech with great panache. Thanks!
Oh, dear, I must apply myself once more to curbing my spiralling weight. I haven’t got what it takes to knock out the delicacies of life nor reduce what is left to minuscule amounts so that my calorific intake matches the reduced output of calories which comes with getting older. Moreover, I won’t be forced into eating things I don’t like. So the alternative is my fasting regime (for a period) which readers may be familiar with.
It might seem a drastic solution to go without food for 36 hours – a friend once described it as the nuclear option – but for me it works. Funnily enough, once I’ve psyched myself up to get started it isn’t nearly as grim as you might think. The joy of getting on those scales the morning after my nil by mouth effort makes it all worthwhile. And what heaven it is to be back to normal eating the following day! Anyway, each to his own. I must suffer for my excesses and the hairshirt may be good for the soul. The system delivers for me, with results coming in at an astonishing rate. And that’s how I like it. I haven’t the patience for the long haul. On those days of fasting, though, I do make sure I keep up the fluids.
One or two of my friends have cautioned me on my fasting caper, but I won’t be put off. You see, I have a theory to counter their concerns and it goes like this…
Anthropologists will tell you that we are essentially the same animal we were 100,000 years ago. Our whole digestive system – indeed our whole being – was geared to an irregular supply of food. It was a feast or famine existence, literally. Our world in that long ago time was a hunter-gather world. The boys hunted and the girls gathered. Kills on the African savanna were few and far between and nuts, fruits and berries seasonal. So evolution had to come up with an answer which allowed a big brained creature, whose diet required regular protein (principally meat), to get through those extended periods between kills. It couldn’t afford our ancestors to become lethargic and less focused during those hungry days leading up to the next successful hunt; if that had happened they would never have been sharp enough to nail those elusive, fleet-footed gazelles. (This, perhaps, explains why on my fast days in the shop I fancy I perform better than usual and even problem solve more imaginatively. I do a lot more thinking outside the box too.)
I think it entirely possible, indeed, likely, that our systems, benefit from a complete clear-out. In those far off times our digestion wasn’t at work 24/7, which is what our present ‘three square meals + snacks’ regime forces it to be. Nor were our bowels carrying waste matter round the clock.
It may be interesting to note that fasting is important to several religions. Perhaps the ancients knew a thing or two that we have forgotten in our headlong rush into modernity. Abstinence – call it a rest-up – in a great many fields can work wonders. Who knows, sex may even be among the beneficiaries!
My chief point is that evolution works at a much slower pace than the breakneck changes which have taken place since the Industrial Revolution. A great deal of catching up is in the pipeline.
While we are subject to a host of the ailments of our early ancestors, we have added a huge range of new ones due to our modern life, which includes much less exercise than they were formerly obliged to engage in. I doubt, for instance, that our forebears had many diabetic sufferers in their ranks. And there was no room for fatties in their world – try running down a springbok with a fifty-inch waist!
Anyway, yours truly, has put his hairshirt on for the next little while and hopes for the best. I know I will get the most enormous buzz when I arrive at my destination and that, too, must be good.
How can we explain the ‘Collective’ madness that has taken over the Labour Party? I have just returned from lands of former Collectives (mega farms set up by the Communists) in Latvia and Lithuania, and I can tell you that Jeremy Corbyn’s much admired legacy to those once Communist countries is a nightmarish one.
The man might come across as a sincere idealist – not at all like the serried ranks of the career politicians so many disdain today – but the likes of Jeremy are the ones to fear the most. They are the zealots, cast in the mould of that ‘sea-green incorruptible’, Maximilien Robespierre, of the French Revolution. While on the subject of the quiet, softly spoken, hard-to-rile idealist, was not ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin exactly that sort of man? He, however had a term for the likes of sweet natured, but for us dangerous, men like Jeremy Corbyn; useful idiots.
And while an old geezer, myself, isn’t it a bit odd that so many young people appear so much in love with old geezer Corbyn? It’s all a little perplexing. If I were to make a guess as to part of the reason – and in life there are, more often than not, many reasons – I would say it is illustrative of the depth of public disenchantment with the political class. And when a man comes forward, however misguided, who is clearly a man of conviction and seems authentic, the young grab at him.
Another factor, surely, is the complete absence in the Labour leadership contest of what we like to call the ‘big beasts’. They’re all minnows. Alan Johnson might have qualified for that sobriquet, but he doesn’t want to know. Perhaps he’s canny enough not to risk losing his sanity in trying to bring together such a disparate band of brothers in what he might view as a poisoned chalice.
Then there’s that totally toxic Blair legacy. We won’t speak of the horrors of the Iraq war or the dodgy dossier that deceived us into sanctioning an illegal war, but there is such a litany of other failed measures that found their way on to the statute book that I might cause you to develop apoplexy half way through were I to attempt to list them all.
His favourite ‘Blair Babe’, Tessa Jowell, loves pontificating and acting as cheer leader for the Bambi project, but she would be better advised finding some stone to crawl under. It was she, who as Culture Secretary, allowed round-the-clock drinking, which has turned all of our city centres into no go areas for the majority of people at weekends. Worst of all the things she did was to promote online casino gambling – that egregious, family-wrecking Act which flies in the face of everything the titans of Old Labour stood for. These titans were high-minded men of probity, who among their other fine and compassionate qualities was a determination to uphold individual dignity and family life. Gambling was anathema to them.
Despite Corbyn’s phenomenal rise against the odds, one or other of his pigmy opponents may yet come through in the race to succeed disastrous Ed Miliband. But even if that were to happen, what does the whole business tell us about the present state of the Labour Party? Could a split prove terminal?
We have grown so used to a duopoly of political power that we could be forgiven for thinking that Tories and Labour are a permanent part of the political landscape. But even in the 20th century this was not the case. The party of Lloyd George seemed just as permanent on the eve of World War One. For much of the previous century, that Liberal giant of principled government, William Gladstone, bestrode the political firmament. Then, after Lloyd George, the party became an irrelevance. Following their brief re-appearance and engagement with power under the recent Coalition, they have again sunk back into irrelevance. Is it now, as a result, a return to business as usual? Not necessarily.
Whether Corbyn succeeds or not, what his extraordinary success has shown is the deep schism within the Labour Party. It may prove unbridgeable. Certainly it will take more than any of the lightweights on offer to heal the wounds of what is turning out to be a bitter, acrimonious fight. Tories may gloat over what is going on, but they would be wrong to do so. Any properly functioning democracy needs an effective Opposition. You cannot expect the media to perform this role alone, splendid though it is in exposing maladministration and wrongdoing. (How incredibly right it was to resist Leveson’s proposals to muzzle it. Do you seriously think the establishment would have allowed itself to be investigated for child abuse had those proposals gone through?)
There is now, as I see it, a chance for a regathering of the forces of the sensible Left to challenge an overweening government. Essentially the Liberal Democrats are a left-of-centre party. Were they to throw their lot in with similarly minded elements in the Labour Party, it could consign forever to the dustbin of history that Trotskyite wing of Labour that so bedevils its chances of regaining the trust of the British people.
It might, in the process, appeal to those many citizens north of the border and in Wales who still have faith in a Union which has shone so brightly for so long and raised us, a small people, so high among the nations of the earth.
Poor, benighted Greece. Yes, it lived beyond its means, encouraged by greedy bankers all too willing to see it mortgage its future. And, yes, the Greek way of doing things seems decidedly un-Germanic.
What an unedifying carry-on that scrambled, weekend marathon was, called to decide Greece’s fate and preserve the integrity of the euro. A two days’ notice summons went out to the nine heads of government not in the euro who were told to attend that Sunday. Then they were told to stand down. They didn’t need a grand council of all twenty-eight EU members after all. Talk about an omnishambles and the Grand Old Duke of York.
It was always meant to be that, once enrolled, you were as locked in as all fifty states of the American union are to the dollar. But it turns out that that this is not the case. Former Foreign Secretary William Hague once made the mistake of saying that belonging to the euro was like being in a burning building in which all the exit doors are locked. Really! Wolfgang Schäuble, the hard-line German finance minister, had actually drawn up a plan to show Greece the exit door if it did not comply with EU terms.
There are many truths to this latter day Greek tragedy. Ironic it is that it should happen to Greece of all countries, which wrote the scripts of the very first tragedies concerning the foibles of human nature. Just as it was beginning to make progress under austerity – though there remained much to do, as the latest Brussels proposals made clear – a crazy, economically illiterate cabal of schoolboy lefties gained power. (They once believed that Communism was the answer.) Their silly promises of an end to austerity were seized on by a weary electorate. But how could they work that particular piece of economic sophistry? It was like asking someone to turn base metal into gold.
We are today in a situation in which a mere eleven million Greeks labour under a mountain of debt equal to what our sixty-four million people spend on the NHS in a year and a half. It was, and is, insupportable.
Once again the banks have a case to answer. It is a truism that a lender has as much of a responsibility as the borrower. What is abundantly clear is that the lenders did not exercise due diligence. They knew the Greek character and that once they enjoyed the security of the euro with its low borrowing costs would, likely as not, go on a spending spree and end up living high on the hog, enjoying a standard of living way beyond what their productivity justified.
But while the good times rolled the banks looked the other way and that fatally flawed conception – a currency (monetary) union without a fiscal and banking one was able to bumble along… just. But it was never going to avoid the attention of the speculators on the world’s money markets when the good times ended, as they always do. And boy, did they end! When the banks were exposed as having lent to millions of mainly Americans (but, yes, us too) on mortgages that they knew were likely to go belly-up, they then artfully – and I believe criminally – wrapped up those toxic, sub-prime debts in packages mixed in with sound debts and unloaded them to unsuspecting other banks all around the world. The consequence was that every bank viewed every other bank with suspicion and would not lend to them (an absolutely necessary requirement under the capitalist system) for fear that the other bank had saddled itself with lashings of toxic debt and may actually be insolvent.
When the giant Lehman Brothers bank went down and the Federal Reserve refused to save it, shock waves went round the world. It was a seismic event in that cloistered world of banking which everywhere shut down on lending. It sent the system into a tail spin. Thus we became familiar with a new term: the credit crunch.
Returning to Greece, the bailiffs of the big boys, (the Troika’s IMF, ECB (European Central Bank) and the European Commission) have effectively moved in. Proud, humiliated Greece is being told it must provide collateral for the monies advanced. It must sell off all it can of its public sector along with whatever else can raise hard cash. The next thing we’ll be hearing is that they’ve slapped a ‘For Sale’ notice on the Parthenon. What has been needed throughout, but which has been totally lacking, is a generosity of spirit. If the 520 million people of Europe cannot handle 11 million, admittedly errant, citizens, then something is seriously wrong.
The fact is it is perfectly possible to be a member of the European family (i.e. the EU) – after all, there are nine of us who are not using the euro – without being beholden and tied to that flawed currency. It is equally possible that if one day that currency proves itself by correcting its inbuilt defects and then goes on to become the world’s reserve currency, replacing the dollar, we may ourselves rethink our position and apply to join. But that day is a long way off.
Meantime what of Greece and its mountain of unrepayable debt? 92% of the monies advanced to Greece do not go to helping that country get back on its feet, but to servicing its debts. As a deadline for repayment looms, Greece is handed monies which it must immediately pay back. Thus, while for book-keeping purposes, the situation seems under control it is anything but. It is an altogether hopeless situation. In essence it’s no different from that of a person taking up ever more credit cards to pay off a loan from his bank.
Europe, and in particular Germany, should remember that when the Americans put together that incredibly generous Marshall Aid programme to rescue them from an even more dire situation than present day Greece’s at the end of World War II, there was a total forgiveness of debt. Without that there would have been no recovery of Europe for decades. It remains my hope where little Greece is concerned that our great continent will show a generosity of spirit similar to what the Americans showed with their Marshall Aid programme and declare a forgiveness of debt. Without it Greece has no hope.
A tragic consequence of the present situation which few have thought about is that we are in danger of losing, through neglect and vandalism, much of that peerless heritage we so like to visit and wonder at. The treasures of European antiquity, of which the Greeks are custodians, are already suffering terribly from thefts and shocking neglect. What with the destruction going on in Aleppo, the oldest inhabited city on earth, at Palmyra, Babylon and indeed throughout the Middle East – the very cradle of civilisation – the world will wake up one day and realise that it wasn’t just present day humans who paid the price, but the surviving evidence of what its distant ancestors achieved down the ages.
What are we to make of the tragedy which is unfolding across the beautiful waters of the Aegean? Here in high summer when they should be enjoying the fruits of their glorious holiday season they are locked in a battle for their very survival with the giants of north Europe and their banking systems.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Greece has already paid a terrible price for its profligacy and easy living on the back of a strong currency of which it was never qualified to be part. Their economy has had been bludgeoned by the money men into shrinking by a horrendous 25% and their youth unemployment exceeds 60%.
Right at the beginning, the books appealing for entry into the euro were cooked, helped in no small part by that ‘Great Vampire Squid’, Goldman Sachs. But while the Germans and the rest knew very well how the Greeks went about their business and that they were not a suitable candidate, political Europe had to take precedence over economic Europe and they let them in.
With other weaker economies such those of the Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Italians allowed to join the party, the Germans ended up with a currency much less strong than their old Deutschmark would have been and that made it much easier for them to flog their BMWs and the like. Borrowing rates for these weaker economies became much lower than ever they would have been had they been using their own currencies so, of course, they were happy to buy north Europe’s products as well as treat themselves to a much higher standard of living than their economic performances warranted.
All was well throughout the goods times that preceded the financial crash of 2008. That ill-conceived monetary union – which lacked the also essential fiscal union – of the euro could bumble along so long as there were no headwinds. But, boy, it wasn’t so much headwinds that arrived but rather a hurricane. The Credit Crunch brought the Western world’s economies to the brink of meltdown.
Today the weakest of the dominoes stands in imminent danger of falling, with the risk that others will follow. And the country that benefited most during the good times, Germany, insists on playing hardball. It needs to show a bit of humility – as well as compassion – and realise that it must take its share of the blame for the plight that Greece finds itself in today.
Despite its own banks, along with French and others, being exposed to a possible Greek default of alarming proportions, it knows that a Greek economy that cannot grow because of acute austerity will never ever be able to pay off its debts. It needs relief and restructuring. Long before this present crisis broke they acknowledged this fact. But what now are the Troika’s proposals? Even deeper austerity. Can we be surprised that a government that was elected on a mandate to end austerity has thrown up its hands and said enough?
If Greece on Sunday, in its touching desire to remain at the heart of the European family – but also out of sheer terror at the thought of the consequences of being cast adrift – votes to accept the Troika’s diktats, it faces never-ending recession. If the Greek people vote no on Sunday, they will stay in the EU and possibly even the single currency, but mayhem could follow with a complete national shutdown. Could Brussels stand by and see this happen?
Actually the majority of economists believe that this seemingly bonkers course would serve it best (Argentina went down a similar road). Economists say there would be six months of hell, or possibly longer, but then a future would open up for Greece. With holiday costs cut to half their present level, we would cast aside that old warning to ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. Greece would become the continent’s playground as never before. Poor, suffering Hellas, the first of all Europe’s civilisations, would start to smile again.