The long awaited rescue of Europe, along with its badly put together single currency, gets under way now that the German chancellor no longer has the distraction of an election to worry about.
Angela Merkel, the pastor’s daughter from the former Communist east, will get down to a lot of serious business. Her mission, no less, is to save the continent from imploding. In doing this she will seek help from her new best friend, David Cameron. Many of us here at home have gone off him, particularly the women, but he makes a good impression abroad. Even neo socialist Barack Obama gets on well with the ‘posh boy’ from Chipping Norton. He is mannerly, brimming with self-confidence and knows how to talk the talk. What else would one expect from an Old Etonian, that breed of Brits who once believed that they were born to rule. Incredibly, it seems that even in 21st century Britain they still have grounds to believe this.
Angela Merkel aspires to a business-minded Europe: caring but frugal; hard working, but at ease with itself. The last thing she wants is a Europe in tatters. Whether or not it was wise to create the euro in the form they did, we have to accept it is a fact of life. It certainly has benefitted German exporters, whose massive sales to the rest of Europe is part of the reason they are in such debt. If Germany were to go back to the deutschmark its exports would be so incredibly expensive that their export dependent economy would be in danger of crashing. So save the euro they must. But they must also save it for another reason: if it collapses, or even fragments, the whole European Project will as likely as not come off the rails and Germany will take the blame. For the third time in a century, people will say Germany has left Europe in ruins.
The simple truth is that the political and financial establishment have too much at stake to allow their dream project to collapse. The consequences would be seismic and coming at this time, when recovery seems underway, it would be unthinkable. Only Germany has the financial clout to save the Euro.
But Fritz does not want to open up his coffers – especially to what he perceives as lazy and corrupt southerners – but neither does he want to become Europe’s baddy all over again. He will drive a hard bargain which will involve some pretty nasty medicine when he takes responsibility for all that toxic debt and he will seek a powerful, respectable ally to share the howls of protest with. France is no longer willing to be that ally. She seems not to understand the scale of the problem. Perhaps that’s because she is herself part of the problem. That leaves only one ally available to Germany and it is not even in the euro. That ally is us.
Germany views Britain as a business-minded country, like herself, and it makes sense, in her view, to get Britain onside in her chancellor’s drive for reform because Cameron wants reform too. But his reform is not just in monetary matters. As it happens, Germany, as well as others, doesn’t much like a lot of what is coming out of Brussels so he could find himself pushing at an open door.
I am convinced Germany will do all that it can, within reason, to give Cameron what he needs from Europe rather than lose a necessary and valued ally. Merkel is said to be ready to discuss anything, so long as Cameron does not ask her to chose between Britain and Europe. She knows that if he cannot repatriate powers then Britain is a goner from the EU. That would be a body blow to the whole European Project and it would set a most unwelcome precedent. It would send shock waves throughout Europe and indeed the world.
Even before her re-election, when she had to be careful, she began her courtship of David Cameron. That weekend soiree to her country home in which Samantha and the kids were invited, was in my view, extraordinary. It spoke volumes. She has never asked any other political leader to visit her at home, never mind bringing the whole family. So even if the women on Dave’s home patch have abandoned him in droves, Angela most certainly has not. She thinks he’s lovely – ‘My naughty nephew’, she calls him, and can’t wait to team up with him in sorting out Europe. In all the photo shoots of recent times she makes a point of standing next to him, and the body language is very telling.
All in all, it causes me to think that we are in the early stages of seeing a new, powerful axis being formed… a resurgent Britain alongside its fellow Teutonic power Germany. That axis will be an outward-looking one keen to harness the enormous potential of half a billion Europeans, but moving to direct their energies to the world beyond Europe. Britain, for its part, is already travelling very successfully down that road and with its vast connections worldwide, its goodwill from its former empire and its universal language, it is peculiarly well placed to profit from it all.
Uncle Sam worries about the threat posed by the emergent Eastern economies – we all do – but he does not worry about Europe. Rather he wants to team up with it in a North Atlantic trade partnership. Such a partnership is a very real prospect; it will hugely benefit all of us and give the whole world a tremendous fillip.
I do not subscribe to the view that this century will necessarily be the Asian century. Yes, it will do well, but all the countries concerned have tremendous structural and political problems which the West overcame long ago. Endemic corruption and a lack of trustworthy institutions will also act as a break. Human Rights issues will plague them because justice, as we know it, does not exist. They have got a lot of work to do and are not in a position to give their undivided attention to coining a buck, as the West is. For a start, they are going to have to take better care of their people and that means creating something of a welfare state – and we know how ruinously expensive that will be.
As for Cameron, he has a great opportunity, but if he does not put forward some female friendly policies and quickly, he won’t be there after the election to take advantage.
What is happening in Egypt and, indeed, through much of the Muslim world is sad beyond belief.
For two and a half years now we have seen the Syrian people tearing themselves apart. Before that it was Tunisia, then Libya, then Yemen, then Bahrain and now back again to Egypt. We even saw riots in normally peaceable Turkey. What is happening in these lands which once spawned one of the world’s most tolerant religions – lands which form Europe’s nearest abroad?
I believe it is all down to aspirations and two classes of people which live cheek by jowl with each other but yet have totally divergent views on how life should be lived. They have co-existed for many years now, but what is different today from what has gone before is the advent of the Internet, the mobile phone – which is able to tap into it – and the spread of literacy, which even the most authoritarian of regimes has proved unable to resist.
From the point of view of totalitarian regimes which find themselves unable to stop the free flow of information and the millions now able to liaise and call up street protests in an instant it is a total disaster – a truly toxic mix. It is what I call empowerment of the masses.
The two worlds of which I speak are the world of the cities and the largely unchanged world of the hinterland beyond. Across the broad expanses of the countryside – where the majority of the population still live – life goes on in much the same way as it has done for hundreds of years. Yet in the cities things are very different. The educated and young people are in revolt. Their outlook is not so very different from that of their fellow city dwellers just across the Mediterranean Sea. They want the same jobs, opportunities and freedoms as they see in the West.
In times past, their authoritarian rulers have been able to keep them ignorant of what is happening in the rest of the world, but thanks to people like Sir Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, those times are over. They are now fully aware of the venal corruption and murderous cruelty which holds them back and they are no longer prepared to put up with it. Good on them, I say.
Turkey is an interesting example to look at. Here is a not in-your-face Muslim state which has fully embraced development without compromising its Muslim faith. It has one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world and this, perhaps, is what has led its current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to start getting too big for his boots and begin behaving like an old time autocrat.
But again the educated classes and young people were having none of it and they pulled him up sharp. This was the true reason for the recent riots.
We can take some credit for Turkey’s emergence as a secular state. It was our defeat of the old Ottoman Empire in World War One which ended the Caliphate and set Turkey on the path to modernity.
(On this note we can also take some pride too in the emergence of democracy throughout South America since it was our defeat of the Argentine military junta in the Falklands War which saw democracy restored there and umpteen other Latin American military dictatorships discredited and overthrown.)
But the great worry in Egypt and elsewhere in the troubled Muslim lands is that democracy is hijacked and used as a tool to impose Iranian-style rule by the Mullahs. At that point democracy ends.
It would be a bit like our Parliament having to seek the approval of the Arch Bishop of Canterbury before any act could pass into law.
That, effectively, is what you have got in Iran, and soon its Ayatollah hopes to have his finger on the trigger of a nuclear bomb. When the masses protested vote rigging during their 2009 election they were shot down like dogs for daring to question the Mullahs. People on the Iranian street do not like it and neither do those on the Arab street, whether it be in Cairo, Alexandria or any of the other large Egyptian cities.
The democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood – largely made up of the masses from the countryside – pressed its strict Islamic agenda too hard for the city dwellers. It did not understand that democracy only works by compromise. Morsi, the Brotherhood president, felt that it was enough that he had a democratic mandate. But urban Egypt wasn’t having it, particularly the women who saw their recent hard won liberties under threat again. The highly westernised army agreed with them.
Democracy is a fragile thing which took the West many decades to refine and make workable. It involves a great deal of give and take and a willingness to put up with the other side – in Egypt’s case the Muslim Brotherhood – but it has to learn not to push it luck too far with the opposition. Think how it sticks in the craw of right wingers in the West to put up with years of left wing policies and vice versa.
Complicating everything right now in the Muslim world is not just the stand-off between city dwellers and the countryside, but the schism between Shia and Sunni. It reminds me of the wars of religion between Catholics and Protestants, and in particular the Thirty Years War in the early 17th century which brutalised and lay waste so much of central Europe. We must hope and pray that Islam is not heading down that terrible rad.
For all its many fine qualities, Islam’s greatest failing, it seems to me, is its attitude to women. It is going to have to address that. But we must remember that it was not so very long ago that a husband in the West had the legal right to beat his wife and gain all her property on marriage. It ill behoves us to forget these things when we get on our high horse about what is happening in our neighbour’s world.
Meanwhile we must hope that things do not get out of hand in these two pivotal Arab states of Syria and Egypt so that the whole region goes up in smoke. Syria’s neighbour, Iraq is already teetering on the edge. Meantime the West must mount a monumental effort to relieve the suffering presently going on there.
As I wrote recently, there are many things happening on many fronts at this time. And considering that most people are in a continual gripe about the Coalition Government, believing that it is next to impossible to get anything done for fear of offending the other partner, it is surprising how many serious issues are being tackled.
In no particular order there is social security, education, immigration, the NHS and, above all, the state of the nation’s finances. We cannot know at this point if all, or indeed any, of these will come good by the time of the next election in a little under two years from now, but early indications are that we may be in for some pleasant surprises.
But one great agency of the state has largely escaped scrutiny: the police. It was hoped by the Government that here, too, serious change could be effected by the election of the new police commissioners who would oversee police budgets and other matters. The commissioners, it was believed, would look to the public for guidance as to what it wanted rather than the hierarchy of the police and its 43 chief constables. If they failed to fulfill these hopes then they would be thrown out at the next election for their post. That, at least, was the thinking behind it all and it seemed not unreasonable.
The voters, however, were totally hacked off by this time with the whole political establishment. Memories were still fresh in their minds over the expenses scandal and the thought of another tier of bureaucracy did not much appeal. The result was that only 15 per cent bothered to vote the new commissioners in. That, I believe, was a great pity. While some good people made it through, so did a lot of tired old retreads and chancers. Fortunately, the greatest of these, that discredited old buffoon, John Prescott, who thought it would be a shoe-in, was not one of these. But overall the commissioners have proved a disappointment. These are, however, early days and at some point the hope remains the new system will prove its worth.
For good and fearless policing that does not kow-tow to political or any other power, we have always judged it essential to grant the various chief constables full operational independence. Only in extremis can the Home Secretary dictate to them or sack them. The independence of police constables appears to have gone to the various chiefs’ heads.
‘Plod’ has got too big for the boots Joe public issued him with. For instance, he knows that the public highly values its almost unique unarmed method of policing and yet, more and more, chiefs ignore this fact and go on spending vast sums on gadgetry – much of it of a lethal nature – and are close to looking plain silly. ‘Plod’ seeks no approval for any of this and there has been no discussion in Parliament about it. Chiefs now dress their officers in intimidating Robocop fashion so that the gap between him and the public he is meant to serve grows daily wider. It has reached the point whereby they are almost unapproachable. You certainly wouldn’t think to ask such a weirdly dressed creature into your house for a cuppa so that you can give him an update on what is going on in your neighbourhood and where all the baddies are.
Instead of listening to the public’s concerns – like boots on the ground – he prefers to listen to what his own officers want and pander to their convenience. When things go wrong, ‘Plod’ springs to their defence like a she-wolf protecting its cubs.
In the last ten years, 74 people have died in police custody but not a single officer has been found culpable. Time and again ‘Plod’ was told about children being abused – including Savile’s hundreds – but he did nothing. ‘Plod’ cocked up at Hillsborough football stadium where nearly 100 died and tried for 25 years to put the blame on the public. That responsible chief constable was allowed to retire, keep his handsome pension as well as his knighthood: scandalous is not the word for it!
Faced with multiple unsolved crimes, England’s worst performing force, Nottinghamshire, adopted a policy of wholesale roundups and arrests of ‘the usual suspects’ with not a scintilla of evidence to justify bringing them in. They spent time under arrest and had unlawful conditions of bail imposed on them before they were released without charge.
Now it transpires that Cleveland police have spent ten years – yes, ten years – and millions of pounds trying to fit-up a distinguished solicitor who was rather better than they would have wished at getting people off. They were ordered by the High Court to pay £550,000 compensation. But should we be surprised that if they would go for a solicitor – distinguished or otherwise – they also tried to fit-up a cabinet minister? I could go on. There is so much.
In 100 years crime has grown 30-fold, even allowing for population growth.
The clear-up rate in the last 50 years has fallen from 47 per cent to 28 per cent.
Why did we waste all that money on gadgetry?
But, listen, you’ll enjoy this: Plod’s latest wheeze is to fit himself out with CCTV somewhere among all that paraphernalia, if he can find the space, so that every minute of every day he can photograph and record people he comes into contact with. Now, that definitely does it!
Mrs. Ramsbottom, who’d gone off him anyway, will never, ever, now ask him in for that cuppa. He might, after all, be photographing her bloomers on the clothes horse so that he and his mates can have a good laugh later, down at the station.
But, joking apart, there is, as we can see, much to be done where the police are concerned. They are in serious danger of becoming a law unto themselves and they must be reined in. Since it is still important that they remain free of political and other interference, we must hope that the new commissioners rapidly get their act together and do the job we have called them in existence to do. Only they can offer hope of a solution.
Are we seeing the first signs of confidence returning? We must earnestly hope so. Even that prophet of doom, Sir Mervyn King – the newly retired Governor of the Bank of England – is getting excited.
Houses prices, which never quite went into the tailspin of the US, are starting to rise again and mortgages are increasing. On balance, I think it was right to kick-start the badly hit building industry by government underwriting of mortgages. But this must be of limited duration. The last thing we need is for another bubble to start inflating. Hopefully the painful lessons of what happened before will act as a cautionary tale.
The fact is that our housing stock has greatly to be increased. The reason why house prices grew to such levels was that a fundamentally sound economic model of price determination was broken: supply was hugely below demand. And when that is put into reverse, the opposite price movement will happen: prices will fall. Last year we built 100,000 new houses, when most experts said it should have been 250,000. And it should have been at this level for years.
Those millions of immigrants that Tony Blair ‘sent out his search parties’ for have to live somewhere, as do the increasing number of people needing to be separately housed due to divorce and other factors. The point to remember is that when you build a house, you not only put builders, plumbers and electricians back to work but you create orders for carpets, furnishings, double glazing, electrical goods, furniture and much else besides. The knock-on effect is tremendous. Big infrastructure projects are all very well, but they are few in number, take years to process and are localised anyway. Huge swathes of the country see no obvious activity and don’t much benefit – if at all. But houses popping up from Lands End to John O’Groats do get noticed.
People’s income has been squeezed these past five years almost like never before. They have been subject to pay freezes, cuts, short time working and even lay-offs. And throughout all this time, the relentless march of inflation has eroded their disposable income. Even their taxes were going up. And while all this was going on, people desperately sought to pay down their horrendous debt levels. No wonder confidence went out the window and they felt unable to spend. When they looked around the world, the picture was just as grim – and in some cases much worse. Fear begets retrenchment and that, until this moment, is where we have been.
But now, with the stock market reaching its highest level since the turn of the century, banks being brought under control and being required to rebuilt their balance sheets (albeit at the expense of lending), medium and large size companies sitting on £70 billion and ready to go, houses shifting, mortgages easier to get and hundreds of thousands of new jobs being created, things are changing. Those straining-at-the-bit companies will feel encouraged to invest. Now the final – and critical – part of the jigsaw to be put in place is for people to get out there and start spending. And if they start to feel that the worst is over, they will. The rest will take care of itself. People, after all, do like to spend.
We have learned one hell of a lesson these past five years, and hopefully both government and people will act more responsibly next time round. But some real good will have come out of it all – as it always does: we are emerging leaner and meaner. The recession has forced us to address issues which we all knew had to be addressed, but which, while the good times rolled, we found excuses for putting off. We, individually, have been forced to examine every item of our domestic expenditure – but so too has the public sector. Now, at last, we are cutting away the fat which we allowed to accumulate in the public sector and, boy, was there a lot of it. Everything has to be justified. Any firm will tell you that, if it had to, in order to survive it could effect colossal savings. I, myself, have seen my shop takings drop by 25%, but I am still here. I cannot take much more, but my customers have not suffered. If anything, they are getting a better deal than ever and I am doing my level best to be even sweeter to them. But when central and local government were asked to do the same thing – very belatedly I might add – they squealed like stuffed pigs. And they had vastly more fat on them in the first place.
But, as they say, it’s an ill wind that blows no good. Soon, hopefully, we will have schoolchildren entering the job market with an education which can compare favourably with those hungry tigers in the East which are seeking to steal our thunder. Also we will have a workforce that knows and appreciates the necessity of becoming more competitive. Exports have already shown strong signs of picking up – although this has been mostly due to a weakened pound rather than anything else. Maybe, too, we will have put an effective break on those vast numbers of unskilled workers flooding into our little country who have put, unwittingly, such a strain on all our services. Even the NHS reforms may start to deliver, for as much as we love it, it cannot stay forever a holy cow which cannot be touched. We spend, now, as much as the European average, but we have nowhere like their standard of care. Where did all those scores of billions disappear? We doubled its budget in real terms in a decade. Perhaps it will improve now that it is to be under new management and not under the baleful control of that unrepentant apparatchik who presided over those scandalous deaths in North Staffordshire and who knows where else. And, finally, there is that lumbering giant, the Welfare State, who so many took for a ride. That, too, is being brought under control. Perhaps now we can get back to helping the genuinely needy, even alleviating their suffering more than we have previously been able. That would be good. So we do, very much, have positive things on the horizon. We must hope now that the Germans will continue to hold the eurozone together and stop the continent from imploding. That will give us even greater reasons to be hopeful.
We are busily re-orientating our services and export drive toward the still booming East – something which we should have done years ago. Even formerly-basket-case Africa is on a powerful upward trajectory. Uncle Sam, too, is showing distinct promise and is growing again at a healthy 2% with rising employment. He does, however, have some big problems which he has not addressed and only gets away with it, for the moment, because he stewards the world’s reserve currency – as we once did for so very, very long.
But, for our part, we must continue to hold our nerve with our own reforms. Only the police, it seems to me, remain a loose cannon among the great institutions of state. Though they have had cuts forced upon them, like almost everybody else, they still behave as though they a law unto themselves. More about that later.
On the mighty dam men guarding it knew
That a reckoning was coming by air;
The hum, it grew, as the terrified crew
Followed the bomber with which it was paired;
Never was a venture as bold as this,
To blow up a thing so massive and strong;
Only a plan with a devilish twist,
At the centre of which was a bouncing bomb;
Flyers were needed with critical skills,
Matched with a bravery few could muster;
Then with much luck they could go for the kill,
Bestowing on them well-deserved luster;
Ruhr workshops were on the hit-list that day:
Much ordinance for the war they did make;
Across factory floors would floodwaters lay:
German war efforts would falter and shake;
Destruction was wrought on a frightening scale:
Nigh half the flyers would never come home;
’Twas a mission beside which others would pale:
Their glory written on tablets of stone.
Today I want to write about something I wrote on nearly a year ago. It concerns getting our bodies in the shape and condition that we would be happy with.
A lot of people – probably the majority – have got it into their heads that there is nothing they can do about middle age spread – that it is an inevitable consequence of getting older.
This is not so. It is totally within our gift as to what weight and shape we are.
My method – and it has worked for me – is to fast one day and eat the next, with two days eating at the weekend. In just four weeks I got my weight down from 14st 1lb to 12 stone 7lbs (21lbs). There are many incredibly good aspects to this method… if only I had thought about it during my twenty five years of running health clubs!
The first is the breathtaking speed at which the weight fell away; there was no agonising for months and months as you nibble away at the pounds. The second is that you can carry on eating the things you like and in the same quantities you are used to. There is no having to fork out for expensive dietary lines, many of which I don’t like and forsaking the wonderful things that you do. Third, you’re getting a regular detox. Normally our digestive and bowel systems are working 24/7, with never a let-up. Now they have a rest and a thorough flush out. Fourth, while you’re pursuing your goal, you’re massively reducing your supermarket bill as a result of the 40 per cent calories you are no longer consuming.
This inspirational thought which came to me out of the blue allowed me to go into this summer and the last unencumbered with all that useless and damaging baggage. To ensure that it never came back after I reached my goal I could have cut my calorific intake for the future, but I prefer to eat what I want to in the quantities I want.
Every so often – usually every week or ten days – I nuke it with a day of fasting in which I can easily knock off two whole pounds or more. Wonderful, I think to myself. I’m back to ground zero!
Now, I know your reaction to all this is: ‘Great! But those days of fasting must be sheer purgatory.’ This is not so. Like you, I thought they would be, but they were amazingly easy to get through. Yes, I had odd moments when I could have stuffed myself, but they soon passed. I thought of the joy I would feel the following morning when I got on the scales.
Amazingly, I felt so alive and focused on those days of fasting. Why was that? I believe it goes back to our hunter gatherer days, which after all is only ten thousand years ago. Then it was a life of feast and famine. When you and your family had gorged itself on your latest kill you had to think about the next meal. Days might pass before you could bag that fleet of foot antelope for your next feast.
Nature equipped you to get through those days of hunger without feeling below par. You had, if anything, to be even sharper and more focused than normal to run your next kill to ground, certainly not lethargic and off key.
Evolution does not fundamentally change our digestive or any other system in a short time span like 10,000 years. To evolution, it is a mere blink of the eye.
My plan, I will freely admit, is not rocket science, but it is radical and it does work. And the speed at which it works is phenomenal and that is what makes it so exciting.
So why haven’t we heard of this in all the years we’ve been regaled about dieting? There is so much ballyhoo about losing weight one could be forgiven for thinking that it is complicated when it isn’t. I believe it’s all down to calories; the number going in versus the number going out.
But could it be that money is the reason we haven’t heard of it?
The dietary industry is worth billions and the supermarkets even more. Imagine if millions of people start consuming 40 per cent less food each week and abandon dietary products altogether. I’m not, by nature, a conspiracy theorist, but I do believe it would tantamount to suicide for those two mammoth industries ever to allow such thinking to take hold.
Of course, exercise can and should play its part, though its greatest contribution is its benefit to the cardio vascular system and general all round health. It also aids your immune levels to stay high and so ward of attacks of this or that. But to burn up the excess number of calories that Western man is piling on each day by exercise alone would take an effort beyond anything that all but the most heroic could endure.
As in so many things, we tend to follow in Uncle Sam’s footsteps and are usually the first in Europe to do so. Most of them are beneficial, but over indulgence is certainly not one of them. We are now officially the fattest nation in Europe. No single thing could aid our aging and increasingly overweight population than to take obesity seriously – and it should start with our children. As the best form of preventative medicine, it would massively reduce the spiralling burden and costs of our health service.
Friends that we holiday with from Sweden from time to time were telling my wife last week, via Skype, that a new craze is sweeping the country… fasting your weight off, one day on and one day off, with two days of eating at the weekend. Ausra, my wife’s friend, said that the word is that the scheme came from England.
I wonder if Yours Truly began it all with that article nearly a year ago in this paper? The blog version of it went out on the World Wide Web. Something of a thought isn’t it? I’d love to think that is what happened.
All power, I say, to Sir Tim Berners Lee‘s invention of web. Now, there’s a man who really did merit a Nobel prize – though he didn’t get one. Think just of one benefit alone: the alleviation – through Skype and other instant messaging services – of the loneliness of people whose loved ones have gone abroad. The call, no matter what its duration, is cost free and the whole thing is totally brilliant.
As a country which abhors state sponsored killing and the grisly process of snuffing out a human life, I find it perplexing and distressing that the British Government will not lift a finger to save a British grandmother facing death by firing squad in Indonesia. I will not get into the details (she was a drugs mule) of why she finds herself in her present situation. But she acknowledges her foolishness and offered full co-operation to the authorities.
As for the men who put her up to it, they have received light sentences. Many aspects of the trial were deeply flawed so that any examination will show that a death sentence was totally uncalled for. An appeal funded by legal aid would almost certainly highlight this, but our own authorities will not grant this.
They are more than willing to provide legal aid to umpteen tycoons – millionaire Asil Nadir springs to mind, as does that property developer reputably worth £400m who is hiding his money from his ex wife. And, of course, there is unlimited funding at taxpayers’ expense for any number of foreign nationals who wish us harm and for their never ending appeals under the Human Rights Act for permission to stay amongst us.
Ours is a nation they despise, whose culture and laws they wish to overthrow. Yet they are happy to take advantage of its lifestyle and the benefits system which makes that possible. The reason why these expensive appeals by self-proclaimed Jihadists so often succeed is that we are unwilling to send them back to their homeland in case they are mistreated there. Yet here is the ultimate case of mistreatment – death by firing squad – and it is happening to a British born woman who has lived most of her life here.
There may well be millions living in our country who have no legal right to be here. Any one of them, before they could be deported, would be able to throw themselves on the mercy of our courts and run us up huge legal costs before we could send them home. Where, I ask myself, is the logic or consistency which allows us to say no to a British grandmother and yes to one of them?
All this reminds me of the cold-hearted, honourless attitude of the Gordon Brown government when it would not allow Gurkhas, who had frequently put their lives on the line for us, to settle in our country at the end of their service lives. It took the redoubtable Joanna Lumley to help that government change its mind.
But right now there is another ongoing scandal which this time concerns the Cameron government. It relates to interpreters in Afghanistan. Two hundred or so who have risked their lives working for us in that benighted country are to be abandoned as next year begins the drawdown of our presence in that country and thus our need for linguists. They are fearful of what will become of them and their families once we are no longer there to protect them. The answer seems a simple one: let them come back with us. But shamefully that is not the response of our authorities. The interpreters are being told they must remain and take their chances. How truly inhuman is that? When the presently contained Taliban presence in Afghanistan is augmented by floods more coming in from Pakistan, once we are gone these interpreters are dead men walking. The Jihadists will take a terrible revenge. They will not care a hoot that the whole Afghan operation was authorised by the UN. Anyone who assisted, as they see it, the foreign invaders, can expect their special brand of punishment. What is at issue here is not just the saving of lives of people who have risked all for us, but the very honour of our country. The idea that we can happily grant asylum to countless others who have no claim on us is beyond comprehension.
Present day Russia is very much a gangster society led by an authoritarian government claiming to be democratic. But in one important area it puts us to shame. That is where honour is concerned. My Lithuanian wife’s father was a colonel in the Russian military. When the thirteen countries which formed the Russian empire – which it chose to call the USSR – broke away and gained their independence the Russian state could quite easily have washed its hands of obligations to the nationals of those newly independent states who had served it for their pensions and other rights. But it did not. My wife’s father receives a full and generous pension from Moscow.
How did we handle a similar situation when our own legions and public servants came home from our far flung colonies? We abdicated the duty to pay their pensions. We turned to the new rulers of India, Burmah, Ghana, Malaysia and the rest and said to them: “It’s up to you, old boy. You must pay their pensions”. If later they reneged or found they couldn’t afford it or felt they had been blackmailed to get their independence and stopped payments then that was that. Our attitude was tough. “Your quarrel,” we said to the poor man who had sweated all his life under the tropical sun, “is with the new rulers”.
Honour is a noble thing and it grieves me to think that my country has been short on it in so many instances. I hope Cameron will do the right thing where those brave Afghan interpreters are concerned and that he will intervene, before it is too late, over that wretched grandmother.
It seems clear to me that a major link-up between the two top Teutonic powers of Europe – Britain and Germany – along with lesser like-minded powers to the north and east is taking place. The tectonic plates of Europe are on the move in a way that may prove irreversible. This will certainly be viewed with horror in Paris.
That invitation from Angela Merkel for David Cameron to come and visit her at her home north of Berlin a few weeks ago and to bring his wife and children has, I believe, great implications. She even wheeled out her hermit husband for the weekend soiree.
It had all the characteristics of a love-in. No other European leader has had such an invitation or been accorded such warmth and hospitality. It is known that the pastor’s daughter holds Cameron in the highest esteem – perhaps that Eton grooming helps – and it will have been reinforced, I’m sure, by the shy, but charming, Sam Cam – and her equally delightful children. Such personal chemistry and bonhomie really does matter. The invite, in my opinion, speaks volumes.
But equally importantly her whole philosophy of life gels with that of the foreign leader she is said to have once described as her “naughty, but charming, nephew”. Naughty because, at a time of huge difficulty for her beloved Euro Project, he has rocked the boat by demanding fundamental changes to the way the EU goes about its business.
It is not as if she disagrees with much of what he committed to put before the British people in a 2017 Referendum, should he retain power, but because it’s complicated and will take a lot of what she does not have: time. As it happens, most of her fellow countrymen agree with David Cameron. They, too, dislike much of what is coming out of Brussels and would like to see things done differently. But she wants to keep her eye on the Euro ball, whose solution – if there is one – is also complicated. She feels she cannot afford the distraction of a major renegotiation of EU treaties at this time. There is also the added factor that she is up for re-election in September and has all that circus ballyhoo to worry about. Cool and detached, as Angela famously is, she is in danger of becoming stressed and Davy boy, right now, isn’t helping.
What with France’s weak and hopelessly left-leaning ‘leader’ – distracted as he is with woman problems and who cannot see the necessity for tough measures in France – she is at her wits’ end. The Franco-German axis, which has been the engine of the EU since its beginning, is unravelling.
France, under Hollande, seems destined to be the flag-bearer of a southern rim of EU countries which will put up with no more belt-tightening. Merkel admires little Ireland’s heroic acceptance of the need to pay off its debts, but she is fast losing patience with the other PIGS (Portugal, Greece and Spain, that is). She is full of praise for Cameron’s recognition that sound money and balancing the books is central to everything. Also his open trading outlook and market philosophy equates exactly with her own. She has no truck with spending your way out of debt. She sees David Cameron as an economic soul mate.
Germany herself has still not shaken off the terrible legacy of WWII and she is unwilling to take the lead in Europe on her own for fear of cries of a Fourth Reich being hurled about. She feels she has to have a partner who is ‘respectable’ and can front up everything diplomatically while she can make the running economically. France, for fifty years, has been that partner. Yet now the dice have rolled in another direction and an alignment of Teutonic powers seems in the offing. Is this a good thing? It certainly will not seem so in Paris, which will be outraged at its relegation and see the hand of perfidious Albion at work all over again. As virtually the creator of the EU, which she saw primarily as a means of controlling German ambitions, she has seen her dominance slide inexorably. That is why, originally, she was so keen to keep ‘interfering’ Britain out. But this proved impossible in the end, especially when you had a British leader, in Edward Heath, who was prepared to sell the pass and demean himself as a wretched supplicant, to get in.
Now, more and more countries have been allowed to join the original Club of Six – chiefly at the instigation of Britain – and France’s position has weakened with each new entrant. Most infuriating of all, they seem to want to use English in preference to French in the corridors of Brussels power! Once you could not get a job anywhere – even a lowly one – if you were not fluent in French, but now the point had been reached in which the Brussels power brokers actually had the audacity to appoint a Union foreign minister who spoke no other language but English. That was the ultimate insult.
I have no doubt that Europe has the capability to become the dominant power in the world if only it can get its act together. Its GDP is already way ahead of Uncle Sam’s and it will only widen. In terms of any numbers you care to look at, it is perfectly within its reach to see off competition from the east for the rest of this century. I look to the day when Russia itself comes knocking at the EU door. It is essentially a European country.
Europe’s cultural dominance is already unassailable: its music; its art; its literature; its universities; its history; its multiplicity of matchless ancient cities. Even its science is on a par with the US. I see no reason for us to be downcast. All things come to an end, including this wretched recession.
So will David Cameron get his deal, which will persuade enough Britons to back him in the referendum? I think he will. Angela will see to that, one way or another, and she will be assisted by Britain’s many other friends in Europe. France will be incandescent. Germany does not wish to lose a country which she sees as pivotal to Europe’s future; one that has played so crucial a role in its past. America will be delighted, for she will feel that in the coming difficult world, where after 500 years a resurgent east threatens to displace a weary west, a half a billion people, all speaking its own language – as a back up – and mentored by his closest ally and friend, will be there to stiffen its own resolve. And that same Europe may well be a Europe fashioned after the Anglo Saxon model – one very much to the US liking. Rest assured, too, that Uncle Sam himself is far from finished. He will come bouncing back, I am sure, with all that energy we are so familiar with. Together with Europe, it will be a bloc more than capable of looking after itself in a fast-changing world.
Yesterday we buried a titan and she was a woman. Not since Churchill’s bravery when he took the awful decision to sink his French ally’s fleet in WWII, rather than let it fall into enemy hands, have we seen such a brave leader. I even think that Churchill might have blanched at the idea of sending the hugely depleted Fleet that Margaret Thatcher had at her disposal to rescue the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles away.
But her bravery extended well beyond the battlefield – something that Churchill’s did not. She took on and defeated ‘the enemy within’, as she called them: the Arthur Scargills, Derek Hattons and Ken Livingstones of this world. ‘Union Barons’, one by one, fell upon her lance until the wheel had turned full circle and we had the fewest strikes in all Europe.
Churchill had his own bitter enemies among the working classes as well as the establishment, but somehow their vehemence had faded under the glow of his magnificent conduct of the war and the glory of his rhetoric in its early days, urging his countrymen to stand fast and not be seduced by peace ‘with honour’ offer which he knew would turn out to be humiliating. But Margaret Thatcher’s enemies never left her in peace, not even in death. Whole swathes of industrial England, Scotland and Wales died on her watch. Most of them were dying anyway (as they had been under Labour), but she did nothing to slow the process.
Yet much the same was happening all over the industrialised West. Mines were closing and shipyards were losing out to cheap labour in the East; steel was being produced in the same areas at Mickey Mouse prices. Long-established and close communities who had come to rely on a single industry became a wasteland. Standing guardian over these nationalised and loss-making industries was a union hierarchy more powerful, many argued, than the state itself. It was said that no law could be enacted without their approval.
Thatcher believed herself to be on a mission to restore Britain’s governance, finances and greatness. She believed she saw a very sick patient whom only surgery could cure. The medicine, she knew, would be bitter and the recuperation hard. But she insisted it would be all be worth it. Some said she was stubborn, and she was. But she could be flexible when she needed to be; she could duck and dive with the best of them in politics, but on core issues, as she saw them, she would not budge. You don’t stay on the way to twelve years at the top (almost as long as Hitler’s Reich) without heavy doses of pragmatism.
Also she was not above using her sex either to get her way. Flirtatious Mitterrand, the French president, thought her coquettish and remarked that she had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” He fell in love with her ballroom dancing skills. In another world he would have had her – or at least tried.
For all this, Thatcher was an earnest woman, almost devoid of humour (jokes had to be explained to her). She had an almost childlike certainty that she knew what to do to lift the economy out of the pit of despondency into which it had fallen. When 360 of the country’s leading economists signed a letter to tell her that her policies were doomed, she ignored them. Once she was the boss she would brook no backsliders. She was dictatorial, but luckily she was compelled to operate within the constraints of a liberal democracy. But she got the essentials right and, remarkably, that army of doomsayers were proved wrong.
Personally, she was very kind to her staff and to the little people, the ones without power – but she could be brutal to those who wielded it. However, her all-consuming ambition made it impossible for her to be a hands-on mother; perhaps that wasn’t her style anyway. But in her extreme old age she did feel pangs of guilt. She shed more tears over her lost boys in the South Atlantic than ever she did for her own children. It is said that she never went to bed during the three months of the Falklands conflict, dozing instead on a chair, waiting to hear the telephone ring to tell her of more boys lost in the latest sinking. She took it all very personally. Churchill seldom did. An eyewitness told of her sobbing for 40 minutes non-stop when news reached her that another ship had been hit by a missile. When her own torpedo slammed into the cruiser Belgrano and sent Argentina’s sailors to the bottom of the icy south Atlantic, I have no doubt that her mother’s heart felt for those other mothers in far away Argentina. But if ‘cruel necessity’ – Cromwell’s justification for cutting off his own king’s head – called for its sinking to save her own precious boys, she would not hold back.
She was tough beyond belief – far tougher than any of the men who surrounded her. She would not yield to IRA hunger strikers, no matter what. It was a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It took ten emaciated corpses before the IRA conceded defeat. They repaid her by destroying her hotel and almost her.
Her toughness and certainty of the correctness of her policies followed through to the economic woes which beset the country; her monetarist measures brought record inflation to low levels; her privatisation of loss-making, nationalised industries stopped the haemorrhaging and put shares into millions of pockets, becoming a model for virtually the whole world; her sell-off of council houses made property owners of millions; her ‘Big Bang’ financial liberalisation in the City made London the world’s leading capital market; and her curbing of restrictive union practises such as flying pickets and the closed shop brought order to the factory floor. It is an impressive list and there is more.
But she made mistakes. She believed too much in the service economy and failed to realise sufficiently the importance of manufacturing. She was plain stupid in doing a dry run of the Poll Tax in, of all places, prickly Scotland – even though its principals were sound. (She never had any admirers in that part of the kingdom and still doesn’t.) And she should never have allowed herself to be talked into signing up to the ERM at a rate that shadowed the Deutschmark. Her earlier signing of the Single European Act cost her many of her cherished powers of veto. Also her closure of Grammar Schools exceeded even that of her Labour predecessors. It infuriated great numbers of her own followers.
Too long in power, and with the inevitable hubris setting in she finally gave the game away when she used the ‘royal we’ to announce the birth of a grandchild. Her patronising treatment and her public put-downs of her loyal chancellor and foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, were not pretty to watch and her hectoring style got worse the longer she remained in office.
But for all her faults and mistakes, she was nevertheless a force of nature that moved the economic firmament. There was no going back, even for an incoming Labour government. She also moved the political centre ground. It might be said that if you seek her monument, as Sir Christopher Wren once famously stated, “look around you”.
Nothing is the same. She was not interested in spin doctors, focus groups, think tanks, legions of special advisers or even the nasty things the papers said about her. She had a job to do and she would do it come what may. There is a certain courage here also. But if we still have difficulty in recognising her greatness then we have to cast our eyes around the world. All of its leaders are in awe of her achievements. They know a colossus when they see one. They were not distracted by the smoke and din of battle as we were here at home. They could see more clearly where she was headed. Their universal opinion was that Great Britain was a more respected nation than it had been at the start of her reign. Flags flew in many countries at half mast when her death was announced and most of all across the broad expanses of North America. There her name, alongside Ronald Reagan, is revered – as it is too across Eastern Europe, as the liberator from Communism. It was she who brought Gorbachev in from the cold and told her friend, the president, “this is a man we can do business with”. Together, their steely resolve and willingness to do whatever it took, brought the Cold War to a triumphant end. It might justly be said that had she accomplished nothing else, that alone would stand as a fitting testament.
Finally there is the no small matter of a grocer’s daughter – a woman – scaling the heights of a man’s world to achieve the highest office in the land. Women everywhere, and that encompasses the whole world, owe it to her that she has for all time proved – with her competence, drive, bravery and vision – that women are truly the equal of men and that there is no office of state that they cannot handle. In the great scheme of things I do believe that history will place her before Churchill – who, after all, was born to privilege – as our greatest 20th century premier.
With the approach of the weekend I fret about what topic I can try to interest the reader in next week. But it seems the answer is clear: the Philpott case. A bit like the immigration issue, if you mentioned it you were in immediate danger of being labelled a closet racist, but now we can have an open and honest discussion. So it was too with Welfare.
In that case you were a stony-hearted – boot on the neck – oppressor of the poor. In both cases the bleeding hearts hoped by such calumnies to shut down the discussion and for generations they succeeded. Now Philpott has breached the dyke in magnificent fashion and the second of these taboo subjects has fallen to the dictates of rational argument.
If Philpott has done nothing else positive in his whole miserable, outrageous life he has, at least, opened the floodgates for a full scale debate on the whole meaning of Welfare. Now, let us be clear from the beginning: all right minded people pity the poor and disadvantaged and are prepared to move heaven and earth to ease their plight. But just as vehemently we feel a mighty anger at those who pretend to be in that category.
Long ago (1988) the British Shoe Corporation closed on me after years of pursuit for the back rent and balance of a 14-year lease for a business whose premises they rented to me. I had sold it in Glasgow six years before. You see, in legal parlance, I was ‘The Leasee of Last Resort’. It is a practice now banned by Parliament. What had happened was that the man I had sold my health club to had got into business and matrimonial difficulties and had done a runner to Australia. Muggins, here, was left to pick up the pieces. The Shoe Corp was finally advised by its sharp lawyers in London that the best way to force my hand was to take out an order in bankruptcy. At that time I was coming to the end of my 21-year lease for my Plymouth city centre health club and was making preparations for a new line of business – the ski centre – and I knew that if they made me bankrupt that was never going to happen. I was forced, as a result, to liquidate all my assets and that included two houses.
As a now homeless person with three children I ended up in a housing association property, but I was enabled, with the help of investors, to continue the ski project and drive it forward to completion.
The reason I tell you all this is that I saw at close quarters the benefits system in action – or at least two significant parts of it. My neighbour on one side was on disability benefit. There was a brand new disability car on the driveway. You can imagine my shock when later I saw that same person’s photo in a local newspaper, having completed a half marathon. My neighbour on the other side used to get up at 5.30am for his six o’clock work start. He told me that out of about 60 housing association properties only three were paying the rent. He felt a deep rage at this. The rest were claiming either to be one-parent families, disabled or unemployed. There were a few pensioners. Daily we could see the so-called unemployed going off to their cash-in-hand jobs or the fellas of the so called one-parent families parking their cars down the road and sneaking in through the back door to spend the night. So let’s not pretend that there is not widespread abuse.
The burden, especially during the longest recession in 200 years, has become intolerable as well as unsupportable and its effects are deeply pernicious.
Next year is a special year for me: I will have been at work for 60 – yes, 60 – years. I did not celebrate my 70th birthday – particularly, as I felt that in today’s world, unless you are unlucky, 70 is no big deal. But the thought has recently occurred to me that next year is different: it represents my own little Diamond Jubilee. You see, I am old school; I am deeply proud of not being a burden to my country and blessed with health that allows me to continue contributing my penny’s worth to its well being. I get up in the morning and walk the mile to work and there I meet the public – to whom I must continue to be nice and disavow what some would say is a normal right to be a grumpy old man. I set to, repairing shoes, cutting keys, servicing watches, engraving trophies, making wooden house and other signs and framing pictures. None of these things could I do before the age of 55, so I think I may have disproved that old dictum that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.
When I was about to leave school at 15, the idea of not working was not on the radar. There weren’t benefits as we know them today. My foster parents took the view they had done their bit and it was up to me to do mine. Three years after starting I got hauled off to the Army to do my bit there for two years as a National Serviceman and I managed to get shot at by the IRA. Quite sobering it was. But the point of all this is about being useful to society if you can. I was 21 when I heard President Kennedy’s famous line in his inaugural speech when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Did Philpott ever think such thoughts? I think not. Nor, unfortunately, do multitudes of others. That is the trouble. It was right that William Beveridge, in his famous report, sought to abolish the evils of want, hunger, idleness, ignorance and disease. It was wrong that noble concept was hijacked by scroungers and the workshy. We – all of us – are culpable for the stupidity we displayed when we allowed it to happen. Naively we believed in peoples’ essential goodness and probity. Yet it has turned otherwise honest folk, who saw their neighbours getting away with it, into dishonest scroungers themselves. Now, perhaps, the party is coming to an end and we can begin the long climb back to our core values. We may, in the process, start to balance the national books.
As for Philpott himself, he represents all that is despicable in our species. He was a bombastic, narcissistic bully with a deeply cruel streak who even imagined he was fast becoming a celebrity, perhaps eventually a national treasure. He thought he could lead the media by the ears believing it to be something else he could control. He was also very stupid. Did it never occur to him that fire is not so easily controlled as the hapless women who came into his orbit? He may continue to try to play the big man as he has done all his life, particularly with women, but that won’t last five minutes under the rigours of the prison system. I shudder to think what might happen if his fellow inmates gain access to him. Prisoners are infamous for exacting their own kind of primitive justice, especially where crimes against children are concerned. A speedy visit to that same eternity to which his lunatic actions consigned his six innocent children might well end up being a much sought after escape.