Among the forgetful Ed Miliband’s omissions at his party’s annual conference was any mention of immigration. Considering that it ranks currently as number two of the public’s national concerns and that finally it is deemed respectable to speak of it, that omission must be classed as a failure as lamentable as that other one of not referring in the same speech to the deficit. The recent brain shutdown of the Green Party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, in her Q&A sessions with Andrew Neil and Nick Ferrari can be forgiven since she has no prospect of taking charge of our ship of state, but for it to happen to Ed? Oh, dear.
Ed has a problem, so it seems, not just with his gormless appearance – which, admittedly, he can’t help – but worryingly with his little grey cells. Personally, I view it as regrettable that in today’s shallow world you have to be telegenic to have any chance of being elected your nation’s leader. That requirement seriously impacts your ability to draw on the full range of your nation’s talent. Had we been like this seventy years ago, we would have lost Churchill and probably with him the war. We certainly would have turned our backs on his mouse-like successor, the great Clement Attlee, and risked losing, in his case, the NHS and the Welfare State. Apart from being the antithesis of telegenic – one was fat and the other weedy – they both were terrible public speakers.
The same cannot be said of the present, glib PM who won his spurs with a single show-off party speech, disdaining the use of the autocue. He was lucky to get away with it because later with the US broadcasting anchor-man, David Letterman, the Eton and Oxford-educated whiz kid could not remember what either Magna nor Carta stood for. Being that this was on the eve of the 800th anniversary of that momentous event, and that neither of those august places of learning appear to have knocked it in to the young Cameron’s head, you’d have thought that he’d have done his homework first. Inexplicably, it was history he studied at Oxford and just as inexplicably they awarded him a First. How so many of us back home winced at the spectacle of our own prime minister displaying such appalling ignorance.
We have to ask ourselves whether his party made as monumental a mistake in selecting him on the strength of that single – admittedly virtuoso – performance as Labour made in allowing the unions to foist the Ed brother on the party over its much preferred other brother, David.
For the Conservative Party leadership the shoo-in, prior to the posh boy’s performance, was the one-parent, council estate, SAS veteran, David Davis. Are we seriously saying that the present perception of a cabinet of rich, privileged elite would have held true under a Davis leadership? And do you think that the present, lamentable state of Britain’s armed forces would have been allowed to happen on an SAS man’s watch?
It may be that the US made a similar mistake in preferring the cerebral Obama to the Vietnam, POW-tortured veteran, John McCain. McCain, the son of an admiral, had been offered his freedom by his Viet Kong captors, but he turned it down because they would not free his less-exalted comrades. Time has demonstrated that he is no swivel-eyed, Tea Party head banger, but a thoughtful, measured observer of the world scene. I do not see that McCain would ever have allowed the mess to develop in the Middle East as has, and I’m equally sure that he would have provided the leadership which would have kept Putin in his box.
In fact, with Davis in charge on this side of the pond – a friend remarked to me recently – perhaps something of the ‘magnificent’ (his words) partnership that grew between Reagan and Thatcher might have developed with McCain. He was firmly of the opinion that a different and more secure world would exist today. But that’s conjecture for you. And the world of what might have been. But it did get me thinking a little.
Returning to immigration, we have always been among the luckiest of nations in that respect. In a very real way, the world has been our oyster. Because of our historic engagement overseas our people have been free to flee these shores and settle almost anywhere they wished. Now the world is more tightly controlled, with independent states zealously guarding their borders. Yet still our options are vastly better than almost anyone else’s. So we should not be too hard on people who wish to do what we have been doing for centuries. At least we were not fleeing tyranny and brute barbarism.
A recent BBC programme discussing the urgent need to expand the number of school places referred only to a rapidly expanding population while disingenuously failing to mention what had brought about this expansion. The broadcaster was at this point free to mention, what previously had been the unmentionable, but still it chose not to.
Immigration has hugely benefited this country in years past and if handled astutely is likely to continue to do so. Huguenots fleeing catholic persecution in France, weavers from the Low Countries escaping Spanish oppression and Jews from the pogroms of eastern Europe all have brought valued skills and business acumen. Even banking, in its modern form, we learned from the Dutch. And what a success story the arrival of 20,000 Asians fleeing in the seventies, from the murderous Idi Amin’s Uganda, has been. Children of empire, carried by us from our Indian territories to Africa under contract as indentured labourers to help build the railways, they have truly prospered here. Their number boast an amazing clutch of millionaires. Most of them had opted to stay on in Africa after the railways had been completed and had become traders and shopkeepers. A jealous Amin could not wait to get his hands on their properties and businesses. Then there is the debt we owe the Irish. If we were first in the field with railways, as well as canals, that is because our networks were built with their brawn and sweat. Hundreds died in the process.
What we did not, however, need, was Tony Blair’s sly, unfocused rush of immigrants to these shores in numbers we could not properly handle. Hospitals, transport, houses, infrastructure and, yes, schools all have come under almost unbearable pressure.
Blair knew the people were entitled to be consulted in such a matter, yet, as with the Iraq war, he chose to deceive them. In order to shut down any discussion he encouraged a culture that linked any talk of immigration to racism, and he wanted to make perfectly decent people feel almost dirty in mentioning the subject. We saw that revealed graphically when a lifelong Labour supporter took up the matter with Gordon Brown, only to be labelled a bigot.
Blair also calculated that they would become grateful, client voters who would help maintain him in power. His mantra was ‘multiculturalism’. He was more than happy for the new arrivals to keep to themselves and form what amounted to ghettos. He saw no need to encourage them to become loyal Britons and was even content for them not to learn the language of their adopted country. Worst of all, he paid no heed to the ever present risk that his policies might erode the very character of his people. The whole exercise, and the way it was conducted, was almost criminal in its intent.
After years of being a non-subject to all parties and the media, immigration emerged into the sunlight as being a subject we could legitimately talk about. Now, it appears to have disappeared back into purdah. Despite being at the top of people’s concerns, David Cameron has joined with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg to make scant mention of it in their election stomping. Is it that they think us a mean-minded people who cannot be trusted to dip our toes into such contentious waters? I believe that we are bigger than any of the pygmies who think such thoughts and who clearly have such a low opinion of us. We are a just, tolerant and fair-minded people, grown up beyond what our rulers give us credit for. Perhaps they should do a bit more of what the TV panellists do these days on such programmes as X Factor and Britain Has Talent: trust the people to get it right.
I have written four articles on the ‘King under the Car Park’ – Richard III – and this must surely be my last. The juxtaposition between a car park and a medieval king is a strange one. In his wildest dreams the dead king could not have imagined such a scenario. For a start, neither he nor anyone else at that time could have got their heads round car parks, much less the horseless carriages which were stabled there. As for those carriages being able to hurtle forward at unimaginable speeds, it would all have been too much for him. Just as amazing would be the fact that almost all the future subjects of his realm would own one and would be able to travel in perfect comfort and quiet on surfaced roads from one end of his kingdom to the other in hours. His bumpety, bump, clacktity, clack journey would have taken weeks.
It was the longest of long shots that led Philippa Langley, the Scottish Secretary of the Richard III Society, to Leicester’s city centre car park. For years she had obsessed about finding the only English king with no known burial place. They knew he wasn’t buried on Bosworth Field, the battlefield where he was cut down following his Victoria Cross-like heroics. His body was stripped naked and slung over a horse and paraded the fifteen miles to Leicester. That much was known.
Rumour had it that he may have been interred in a long vanished monastery. Others said that his body had been thrown in the river Stour. Yet more, that it was a mystery which would never be solved.
Philippa Langley – the hero of our tale – backed the monastery theory. I imagined she reasoned that although they weren’t going to give him a king’s funeral – usurper and murderer of his child nephews as they alleged him to be – they were most likely to hand his brutalised remains over for burial in consecrated ground such as a monastery.
Furthermore, Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian winner of the battle that unseated him, knew that if he was going to keep his newly won crown he would need to reach an accommodation with the Yorkists. Denying one of their own, a Yorkist prince of the realm – and an anointed king at that – a Christian burial was going to make that next to impossible. There would have been outrage in the Yorkist camp. Even a sinner, if that is what he was, was entitled to the sacraments and Richard’s frenzied, pitiless killers knew that. And even the meanest in the land took their Catholic faith extremely seriously at that time. Hell and damnation awaited anyone who offended against God’s law in a matter like that.
So Philippa’s hunch had a good chance of being the right one. By great good fortune the whereabouts of the monastery – although it was entirely gone – was known to the city authorities. By equally great good fortune – since it was city centre – it had no buildings over the site. That would have totally scuppered any excavation.
Philippa set about raising the considerable sums needed for a major archaeological dig. She also set about rallying the support of city authority who owned the car park, as well as its university which had the disciplines in all the relevant fields to cover the extensive research needed if she was to succeed in finding and authenticating the missing king.
It was all not so much a ‘whodunit?’ as a ‘where is it?’ affair. Both Leicester City and the university realised that success would bring massive rewards in terms of PR and tourism and put both on the map worldwide like nothing they had ever done before.
Even so, a very big if hung over the whole enterprise and a fiasco seemed much the likeliest outcome. Heavy industrial plant moved in on the site ready for the opening day of the dig. All stood prepared to excavate the entire car park if necessary. Every square metre of ground material would have to be carefully sifted. No one expected a quick result. All were steeled for plentiful egg on their faces.
Step forward our hero. “Where shall we begin?” asked the foreman of works. “There, where it says R,” indicated Philippa, pointing her finger. She had months before said, “the first time I stood in that car park the strangest feeling washed over me. I thought I am standing on Richard’s grave.”
In a particular part of the car park was a bay with a big R for reserved marked on it and it seemed as good a place as any to begin. Minutes passed after the tarmac was lifted and the subsoil carefully brought up. And like something yanked straight out of fiction, that very spot yielded a result. At only about three feet down a femur came into view. Though gratifying, that in itself was not cause for jubilation. The evidence was strong that this was where the monastery had been and that this was the area where bodies most likely had been laid to rest.
Following the sighting of the femur, more earth was removed. This time not by plant but gingerly by trowel. Then more excitement as the spine came into view. As the troweling moved up the spine from its base, a shriek was heard. The spine was veering off to one side from the vertical. It carried all the hallmarks of scoliosis – a curvature of the spine – just like Richard was said to have.
This was all too good to be true, even though their hopes were tempered by the knowledge that scoliosis was not that rare. They had managed to establish that it was a man. But did this man die violently? Then the skull was reached and there was exultation. Clear, unmistakable signs revealed that the deceased had died in battle. It was a Eureka moment for everyone, but most of all for Philippa. Tears welled up in her eyes.
Much had yet to be done forensically to authenticate beyond all question, but she had no doubt that her long search was over. A man, born in Canada, would later prove through DNA that the skeleton was of Plantagenet origin. The rest is history. One of the greatest hunts in all of archaeology had come to an end.
Four days of ceremonies will begin on 22nd March. There will be an honour guard of mounted soldiers and a 21-Gun Salute at the battlefield; two hundred children will display medieval, pennants they’ve designed; and four horses will draw the brake on its final journey to the cathedral where it will go on display before the final laying to rest of a monarch who fell in battle 530 years before. How the Tudors would have hated it all.
As for the TV broadcaster covering the event, it has gone bonkers. It’s been said there will have been nothing quite like it since television hit the airwaves. Britain’s reputation for eccentric, yet moving, theatre will have received a mighty shot in the arm. Quite what the rest of the world will make of it no one knows. They’re gobsmacked at it all, yet captivated. And they’ll all be watching.
The present monarch should have attended the reinterment. That much will be very apparent when she sees how her people have risen to the occasion. Richard’s own vile treatment in death will at least have been washed away by a £2.5 million effort of repentance by a remorseful people.
It seems to me that we have no other credible option but to return the current government to power in May. The alternative imperils the undoubted progress that has been made and just seems too much like a leap in the dark. As to whether we return the Conservatives with a working majority or oblige them to seek an accommodation with their present partners… that, for the moment, cannot be predicted. They may be forced – hold your breath on this one – to seek an accommodation with Labour if that party, as seems likely, is obliterated in Scotland. Oddly, for a coalition, it has been surprisingly radical in the hot potato issues it has tackled. The Liberal Democrats may have helped keep the more swivel-eyed Tories in check and were certainly right in making it a condition of signing up that the lower paid be taken out of tax altogether. It was always an affront to justice that tax was levied at such an obscenely low level of income. But now we learn that the fully converted Tories are planning to take the process a step further in the forthcoming budget and steal some of the Lib Dem’s clothes by taking the same people out of National Insurance contributions and paying for it by reducing concessions to better off pension contributors. That looks like a surprisingly egalitarian measure which will help allay the perception that the Tories only look after the rich.
If it is true that elections are decided first and foremost on the state of the economy, then we would be hard put to gainsay the achievements of the present incumbents. They came to office in about as dire a situation as it possible to imagine. In fact the country was teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe.
For years we had allowed ourselves to live beyond our means, forgetting that age-old truth that you cannot spend more than you have the guts to raise in taxation. A balanced budget was never, so to speak, a lifestyle choice and sound money should always have been at the heart of any government’s considerations. Once it has taken care of these then it should go hell for leather for an enterprise economy.
In thinking where we are to cast our vote in May, let’s take a look at some of the core issues and see if we can make a balanced judgement. Business is not everything, but it is something we have to get right if we are to become prosperous enough on a personal level and yet have enough left over to fund a compassionate society.
Recently the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – one of the world’s most respected forums – positively gushed at our efforts, lavishing praise on the economic turnabout we have enjoyed over the past five years. Far from being the basket case that our perilous situation seemed set to consign us to, we are, so it seems, a “textbook” example for economic success: the most go-ahead enterprise economy currently in the developed world.
Moreover, it isn’t just the OECD saying these things – it’s just about everybody, including the International Monetary Fund. Christine Lagarde, its CEO, has said that “Britain is an example to the world and is leading it in a very elegant and convincing way.” That’s praise indeed, especially coming from the woman who only two years ago trembled at the possible consequences of what the Chancellor was doing. So gutsy ‘Boy George’ has been vindicated and proved right all along. I don’t remember so many economic pundits getting it so wrong since 364 wrote to Mrs Thatcher predicting certain doom for her policies back in the early eighties.
And balancing the books? Well, we’ve got some way to go on that but the direction of travel is the right one and the deficit is on the way to being halved. With business confidence soaring and GDP expanding, tax receipts will balloon and we will find ourselves in a virtuous circle in which even paying down the national debt will become easy.
What about our currency? Well, it doesn’t get more trusted than when you have convinced the money markets that you are a “textbook” example and “leading the world both elegantly and convincingly”. In these circumstances your purchasing power remains strong and national borrowing costs nosedive, along with the dole queue. Against all received wisdom, job creation in the UK has leaped ahead during this recession, with jobs created running at twice the rate of lay-offs in the public sector. Here, again, Osborne’s prediction has confounded critics. Perhaps the most graphic proof that you now enjoy a strong currency is to be found when you next go abroad. Your money will go an unbelievably long way. Also, the imported goods you buy will mysteriously start getting cheaper as less and less of your precious dosh needs to be handed over to Johnny Foreigner. And all this hasn’t been brought about – as it usually has been – at the price of being forced by poor management of the economy to hike your interest rates. Indeed, the reverse is true: they are at an all-time low and likely to remain so for some time yet.
Then there’s the ever important matter of inflation. Like all the rest, we are in a very good place here. And while some people worry about the dangers of deflation, this seems unlikely to happen in our case. The reason is that pay rises are now running – thank goodness – well ahead of inflation (six times) and this will edge inflation up and so prevent a downward spiral of falling prices which cause people to hold back purchases in the belief that things will get cheaper still. In Europe, with growth remaining stagnant, only a minority in the efficient north is getting a pay rise (and then not much) and so there is not the pressure from this direction to force inflation to rise. While ours can be said to be a virtuous circle, theirs is a vicious one.
So, in all these extraordinary circumstances, why is the governing party not seeing the benefit in the polls? It is a very great mystery. On the face of it, getting re-elected should be a shoo-in. In normal circumstances, economic success translates into electoral victory. However, these are not normal circumstances and this is not an iron rule. Ask John Major. When he faced Tony Blair in 1997 we were doing so well we were even paying down the national debt and – until Gordon Brown sold off half at fire sale prices – our gold reserves stood almost at a post-war high. Gold, then, had hit rock bottom, but within no time had shot through the roof. What made the man do it? Nobody knows and Brown won’t tell us. Perhaps we should ask the would-be Chancellor, Ed. Balls. Ed was his hatchet man at the time. Anyway, the upshot of it all was this little exercise cost us billions.
Before that happened – and when New Labour took over – their inheritance was, in the truest sense of the word, a golden one. Blair and his surly, Heathcliff-like Chancellor, then proceeded to throw it all away. To reassure the country and the City to trust their fiscal rectitude, they pledged to keep to Tory spending plans for two years. When, later, New Labour called time on that irksome arrangement, Brown, together with his side-kick – who hopes to move into the Treasury again in May – went on an epic spending spree. Borrowing like never before, they displayed a level of fiscal incontinence rarely if ever seen in British politics.
With unmatched hubris, Brown – the man who doubled the size of the Revenue and Customs guide book so that only the largest and most expensive accountancy firms could fathom its complexities – shouted to the rafters, budget after budget, that he had solved one of the economic cycle’s greatest mysteries: how to avoid boom and bust. Later on he would let slip in the Commons how he had ‘Saved the World’ during the time of the credit crunch. The wonder is that some fool in Scandinavia didn’t find a Nobel Prize to award him… one as daft as that Save the Children award to Tony Blair, which was, actually, hugely insulting.
While we may find much to criticise in the ‘posh boys’ who make up much of the present cabinet, they have in most respects delivered. Quite apart from the economy, we all knew that the welfare system was a busted flush in desperate need of root and branch reform. It had encouraged a malaise of worklessness in which many had come to believe that they had a perfect right to live off their neighbour’s taxes if they were daft enough to get up on a cold winter’s morning and go off to graft for the stinking, exploitative capitalists. It also turned a goodly proportion of fundamentally honest people into cheats and fraudsters. Then, again, in education we each knew that our parents had enjoyed a sounder education in the basics than we had, and that all the certainties which had made that possible had been thrown out of the window by the fanciful, misguided notions of the teachers’ training colleges and their ilk. Discipline was also a casualty of all that trendy thinking. Meanwhile our kids slipped ever further down the international league table of academic excellence.
Another thing we all knew was that an insatiable public sector was not only looking after itself too well at the rest of the nation’s expense, but that it was gobbling up an unsustainable amount of its wealth.
It therefore is a puzzle that a government which has successfully bitten so many unpalatable bullets is struggling to get its message across. They were bullets so toxic that no government before had had the balls to bite on them. Perhaps the coalition was stiffened in its resolve to do so by the opportunities presented by the worst recession in 100 years.
Finally… what about fixed term parliaments? Another of the measures brought in by this unexpectedly reformist government. They may have many drawbacks, but one decided advantage is that there is ample time to examine the record and forensically explore the proposed alternatives. Springing a surprise election when things are temporarily looking good, but you know they are not going to stay that way was an old trick. A three-week campaign denies your opponents the time needed and allows you to work a flanker. That ruse is now firmly off the table.
Conspiracies abound and conspiracy theorists make a good living pandering to our natural suspicions. The vast majority, including those surrounding Marilyn’s and Diana’s deaths, are nonsense. They persist because we find it hard to accept that famous people are subject to the same chance, and often malign, forces as the rest of us.
But that there are out there a fair few I have no doubt. I believe them to be almost a part of the human condition – from the tiny trader, like myself, who might wish for a private arrangement with a fellow trader not to undercut each other to a mighty conglomerate who might wish to do the same. OPEC is a perfect example. It has also to be accepted that the great majority are successful and that, as a result, we never get to hear about them.
I am a natural born sceptic – which perhaps has something to do with being called Thomas – and while I try to maintain an open mind, I have to admit that some theories are outlandish to the point of being funny. A couple which immediately spring to mind are that the pyramids were built by aliens and that the photos of the moon landings were trick photography.
I do, however, believe that the universe is teeming with ETs. With 100,000 galaxies in this universe – and science is starting to believe that there may be many universes – it surely is down to numbers. However rare may be the incidence of all the important factors coming together to make life possible – the so-called Goldilocks Effect – I find it inconceivable, with such numbers, that it only happened once. Furthermore, I believe that when these factors do coalesce, sooner or later, life is the inevitable consequence.
But returning to Earth and our penchant for conspiracies, I believe I have cottoned on to one which may go a long way to explaining why, when there is a clear need for many more houses, it never seems to happen. It is because the politicos are terrified of bringing about a downward spiral in the value of houses. It is not a conspiracy in which a handful of people have got together, but rather an acknowledgement that one’s home is typically his only significant asset.
Meantime, millions languish in rented, overcrowded and often substandard accommodation, desperate to buy their own homes but unable to do so because house price inflation has advanced at three times the rate of general inflation and as a result the deposit required is beyond their reach.
No one can argue against our desperate need to build more houses. Unlike Japan with fewer divorces, a falling birth rate and zero immigration, we are high on all three; people splitting from their partners need separate homes, a rising birth rate requires more houses (down the line), and millions moving to your country will require places to live.
During the recession the construction industry was the hardest hit. Didn’t it strike you as odd that its legions of unemployed were not put to work building this extra accommodation? The 100k houses built last year was less than half of what was required. What would happen if supply at long last rose to meet demand? The iron law of economics says prices would fall. What pushed house prices up to their present level, racing ahead of general inflation at a crazy rate? Easy credit and too many would-be buyers chasing too few houses. The real question is: if all the political parties are agreed on the need for more houses, why doesn’t it happen? After all, builders would set-to with a gusto and buyers would have not just a house but one at a more affordable rate.
Cameron and Osborne promised a relaxation of planning laws in 2010 and pledged to free up more land for development, but this government has so far failed miserably to deliver. Why is this? The answer, I fear, is that present mortgage holders have an interest in not just maintaining prices but contriving to force them up still further. They love a situation in which they are getting richer by doing nothing. Many are making more on their house annually than they are getting paid, with the difference being that living eats into their salary while nothing eats into their unearned capital gains. So just let a politician come along who threatens this nice little arrangement. That greatest of all feel-good factors would disappear down the plughole. To prick that love affair with rising wealth would make them incandescent with rage.
But in many ways crazy house prices might be compared to fools’ gold. Unless you’re going to flee abroad to a cheaper domicile or downsize, which most don’t want to do, then there are no tangible benefits. So how do the politicos keep them happy in this delusional state and excuse themselves from doing their duty to the homeless? First they acquiesce in keeping planning laws fiendishly difficult and listening too much to the ‘not in my back yard’ arguments. Then they waffle on ad nauseam about converting brown field sites. Then they pedal the greatest fiction of all: that our island is in danger of being concreted over.
Next time you fly over our green and pleasant land, look down and see what proportion of our lovely acres remain green. The Office for National Statistics have produced some very interesting figures on this. I invite you to read a BBC News article titled ‘The great myth of urban Britain‘. You will be happily stunned by the stats provided. It turns out only 2.27% of England’s landscape is built on. Just look out of your airplane window if you’re in any doubt.
I was taken aback recently to learn of a serious proposal to set up a school for Gays. While a firm supporter of not stigmatising minorities – as a child of an unmarried mother at a time such things were scandalous, I know just what that means – I felt that this was simply a bridge too far. In fact I believe it could be counter-productive, harming the very people it was designed to protect; a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. Humans across the world belong to a single family. If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream and create an environment in which they circulate for substantial and formative periods only among people of their own preferences you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream. We know the aims of Gays in making this proposal are laudable; they wish to experience and benefit from an education free from the slings and arrows of a taunting minority. But the answer, I fear, is not to remove them from the orbit of the bullies but to bear down and educate bullies into accepting that it is they – the bully – not their victim, who is the problem. It was never more clear to me than during my army service in Northern Ireland that if people are ghettoed from their fellows they will not relate to them and, as a consequence, would be capable of doing terrible things. And there, job discrimination was total – in schools, churches, policing, pubs, town halls, housing and just about anything else you could think of. The first question that any employer asked of you was, “are you Catholic or Protestant?” We saw in blood where that led.
Social attitudes can be turned full circle. We know this from things we have already achieved. Do you remember that ‘Carry On’ film in which a partying group of young medics came out and piled into an open-topped sports car and roared off? The noisy, raucous group were all the worse for drink. We thought, at the time, it very funny and so did the producer. Neither he nor we would think that now. In fact we are appalled that we ever thought it so. In similar vein was the ubiquitous glamorising of smoking on the silver screen. Also, look at our previous indifference to the disabled; we never bothered to put wheelchair access into anything. Then, just let a landlord – as happened when I first lived and worked in London – try putting in his window a sign reading ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’. All hell would break loose. Women’s prospects have improved immeasurably from what they were and so have peoples’ of other races. I could go on. Indeed, some might argue that in today’s Britain your life chances might be improved if you were not of Caucasian stock. Racial, religious, gender and disabled abuse have all joined the bonfire of the unacceptable, as has hate language. Also that pernicious culture of being able to touch women up and, worse, and get away with it is thankfully at an end, though I do wonder if we are right in pursuing old men to the grave. But I acknowledge that justice must trump everything and you could argue that they were lucky to have got away with it for as long as they did before justice finally caught up with them. Finally, while we’re at it, let’s remember that poor unmarried mother whose family once turfed her out. That was not a million miles removed from stoning her.
My point in highlighting all this is to show that Europe in times past – often with us as flag-bearer – has had very backward attitudes. In addition to this we have been exceptionally cruel, physically as well as emotionally. It therefore ill behoves us, as we make progress, to lambast the Muslim world for its tardiness. The whole world hardly needs to take lessons from us in this area. There was a time, which lasted for seven hundred years, when Muslim Spain led the world in virtually all the sciences. While it was rescuing and translating almost all the Greek classics, we were transporting ourselves across the Mediterranean Sea and despoiling their prosperous, peaceable lands in Palestine. Our ‘great’ King Richard (The Lionheart) – who spoke no English and spent only a few months out of his eleven-year reign in England, bankrupting it in the process – wrought such cruelty on Crusade that even today Muslim mothers will quieten their little ones by saying “shhh… King Richard is coming”. He once decapitated 5,000 prisoners on the beach at Acre. Strange it is then that of all our many illustrious monarchs he is the only one honoured with a statue outside Parliament. An unfathomable people we are for making such a judgement. And in terms of cruelty, no Muslim country that I am aware of ever matched our grisly hanging, drawing and quartering routine, nor Bloody Mary’s 300+ burnings at the stake in a five year period, nor Vlad the Impailer’s bestial cruelties, nor the horrors of the 30 Years’ War.
It is very true that we have today a terrible problem – to put it mildly – with certain crazy Muslim men, but we have had our share of crazy men, even if they have not specialised in running wild on the streets with butchers’ knives and Kalashnikovs. The sheer magnitude and level of depraved brutality which our own continent has exhibited throughout the recent century should humble us considerably in our dealings with the rest of humanity. It certainly does not qualify us to hand out advice as though it is coming from on high, and as though we approach the world’s problems with clean hands. However, it is my belief that it is this very barbarism which has made Europe determined to do things differently in the future.
It may not seem so but we are moving into a kinder, more caring world. Not only have we such institutions now as the International Criminal Court, whereby previously unchecked rulers can be held to account, but we show concern and provide help when manmade or natural catastrophe overwhelms one of our brother countries. This is new. Every country now acknowledges that it has a duty to work towards some sort of a welfare state for its people. This, too, is new. Making war without United Nations authorisation is an option becoming increasingly difficult for sovereign states.
Social networking, Skype, emails and the instant availability of facts and information – as well as the next day delivery of goods on eBay and Amazon – makes ours a more joined-up world than it has ever been. And we are only at the beginning. Within three generations, virtually the entire human race will be able to communicate with each other in a universal language. What incredible good fortune that it happens to be our own which will be that medium – and what business opportunities that should present us with if we have the wit to seize them!
Meantime we must hold our nerve as we navigate through what undoubtedly will be treacherous waters, finding ways of containing and then rolling back the bone-headed fanatics who seek excitement on foreign battlefields as well as at home in the misplaced belief that their warped vision is the future. Yet we must do so without compromising our essential liberties and bring our Muslim brothers and sisters on board. Their thinking, young people, in particular, want all the same things we have, including democracy. We must find ways of getting them to prevail over their rogue elements and bring them on board too.
The year is young, even if some of us are not. I thank my readers for showing interest in my musings over this past year and hope they will hang in there for another.
My feelings about 2015 are that it will fully live up to that old Chinese adage on parting from a friend or acquaintance, ‘May you live in interesting times’. Think about it: no pundit has ever approached an election with so little of an idea as to how it will all pan out. The stakes are incredibly high.
If we elect Red Ed, then the spectre of a departure from the EU recedes as he has no intention of holding a referendum. That should please the Europhiles. On the other hand, if he pursues the path of his hero François Hollande of France, whose policies he’s publicly endorsed, then he will jeopardise a recovery which is the envy of the world and which even the IMF itself said recently was unlikely to happen. To add to confusions and insecurities, it seems distinctly possible that the man who resoundingly lost the Scottish independence referendum and who slunk away with his tail between his legs is now set to bounce back as England’s ‘Kingmaker’ and become part of that same Westminster clique he so scathingly denounced throughout the referendum. But what if Cameron – while gaining the most seats – fails again to win an outright majority? Will he attempt once more to climb into bed with the much derided and ridiculed Clegg? Or will Theresa May’s day have come and the party turf our Dave out in favour of ‘kitten shoes’?
Maybe beer-swilling, cigar-chomping Nigel Farrage will make such a scenario a condition of his anticipated clutch of Ukip MPs joining with the Conservatives to keep Labour out, saying as he laid out his stall, that he couldn’t possibly ask his boys to support a man who once described them as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. Working with Theresa would be much more fun, particularly as it would demonstrate that our Nige and his cohorts were not against women per se. But they would point out they needed to be of the right type: the Thatcher/Boudicca variety. The then adolescent Nige still vividly remembers being powerfully affected by the leather-clad, jack-booted ‘Great She Elephant’ (Thatcher) as depicted in ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Private Eye’. He even recalls frissons of sexual excitement at the way she liked bringing her riding crop down on any recalcitrant cabinet member. A favourite victim was poor, timid chancellor Geoffrey Howe. Not known for her sense of humour, even she saw the funny side when Labour’s former chancellor, Dennis Healey, said “being attacked by Geoffrey was like being savaged by a dead sheep”.
So now we are in an election run-up in which absolutely all bets are off. My own feelings tell me that there will be local deals between Ukip and Conservative candidates in which they agree not to split the right-of-centre vote if there is a chance of administering a good kicking to the incumbent Labour MP and giving him the old heave-ho. Such deals, I believe, will be made regardless of what the leadership wishes. So I predict a very messy and fractious bunch of new MPs arriving at Westminster. As well as the usual tired old band of re-treads, there will be loads of gurning, cantankerous Scottish Nationalists – specially authorised by their slippery leader to drive their English compatriots to distraction – as well as a band of screamingly politically incorrect Ukipers and a sad little rump of Lib Dems. I even think Wales – where it used to be said that even a donkey wearing a red rosette would get itself elected – may be ready to give that donkey’s party (Labour) a good hammering and have their own nationalists sent to Westminster in their place. And I wouldn’t put that past even the Cornish in the future – as a way of thanking ‘Calamity Clegg’ for giving them special status – by ridding the Duchy of his long-established Lib Dem MPs and installing their own brand of nationalists in their place.
What seems obvious to all but the Westminsterites is that the ruling class have failed properly to grasp the sheer scale and magnitude of public anger at them. With the possible exception of the military, the whole job lot have been found wanting. Even the Church has been shockingly compromised, with children’s homes being added to the time-honoured choirboy repertoire by predatory priests.
The Westminster Village clique are hated for their highhandedness – their unprincipled, venal use of taxpayers’ money and their lack of understanding of what this recession has done to the middle classes. Only last year they accepted a pay rise greater by far than they imposed on the rest of their public sector comrades and billed the five-year-long recession-crucified taxpayer an amount for expenses even bigger than the great expenses year scandal that so shattered their egos a few years ago. Many MPs have not forgiven the press for that excruciating public exposure.
Also hated by many are the police. A long list of terrible failures, from Hillsborough right through to Jimmy Savile, have doomed them. As I write this article it is reported that Cressida Dick, of the appalling, seven-shots-to-the-head Stockwell underground shooting of the innocent Brazilian Charles de Mendez, is to be honoured in the New Year’s Day Honours List. Since that terrible day she has gone from promotion to promotion. Are they intent on rubbing our noses in it to show how truly impotent we, the public, really are? And what about those theatrical, scandalous celebrity dawn raids on suspects’ homes? And their even more scandalous abuse of police bail, whereby they keep them under that career-destroying shadow for anything up to a year before, in most cases, releasing them?
The judiciary have fared little better. They are hated for their secret courts; their refusal to return murderers and rapists to their countries of origin; as well as its lawyers who, at vast public expense, fight for these criminals to stay here to the tune of £millions.
And let’s not forget either the town halls. Once the Town Clerk was a respected figure. Now his grandly titled successor, the CEO (they do love these self-important terms, don’t they, even having their own ‘Cabinets’) expects to be paid twice what the PM is paid, and their minions similarly rewarded. These obscenely paid jobsworths wouldn’t last one minute in the private sector. I doubt if more than a thimbleful of them would get shortlisted even for a job interview. While looking after themselves, they happily dispense with large numbers of their own, and as many of the more sensitive public services, as they can get away with. The idea being, of course, to discredit the whole notion of economies and getting value for money, as every household has had to do for years.
In similarly low esteem are the Revenue Collectors. The public despise them for their cowardly ‘sweetheart deals’, sucking-up-to and leniency towards the likes of Google, Starbucks and the rest while they mercilessly traduce the public. Even now they are laying plans to lift thousands out of individuals’ bank accounts without so much as a by-your-leave, never mind a court order.
But most of all the public hate the bankers, whom many believe brought us to this sorry pass. They blame them for leading this shameless descent into amorality and corrupt practices. These same miscreants still insist they are worth their obscene bonuses. Not a single one of the banks’ crooks is behind bars, and yet we know that criminality on an industrial scale was rife and that the sums involved ran to hundreds of billions. Compared to these Libor rate fixings, mis-sold PPI policies and companies deliberately driven into bankruptcy in order to asset strip them, anything that certain sections of the press did was trivial and small beer – regrettable though it was. Indeed, these banker boys never do or did anything at the petty level. It was they, after all, that managed the extraordinary feat of nearly crashing the entire global financial system. Millions went on the dole and the public was plunged into the misery of a five-year fightback right across the developed world to restore normality after having had hundreds of billions sequestered to prop up a bankrupt system which was judged ‘too big to fail’ and faced, in the process, a decade of falling living standards. How nice to be a bank and run a business where no matter what you do you never have to face the consequences. Even better is that when you make a cock-up and your criminality is exposed, you get away with it with barely a slap on the wrist and expect to be rescued and given another chance.
Not so lucky were the journos. While not for one minute did our Dave consider employing the majesty of the law to find out what went wrong with banking, name names and expose the culprits, the journos of the press – who had so embarrassed his Westminster chums – would have to face that majesty in their place. It was payback time. Into the frame stepped the infamous Leveson Inquiry. Andy Coulson and many of his associates went to Choky and continue to do so. Meanwhile those same banker chums continue to traipse in and out of Downing Street as though nothing ever happened, and in numbers greater than all the rest of British industry and commerce put together (which shows who’s got the ear of the ‘posh boys’, doesn’t it, and why they will never have to wear prison blue).
So, come May, don’t be surprised if this anti-establishment backlash assumes massive proportions and brings a dramatic reversal to years of falling voter turnout when ‘the plebs’ set out to overturn the establishment’s applecart. Either that or it will be close to a boycott if they decide en masse to stay away, taking the view that their votes will change nothing: ‘A plague on all your houses!’
Traditionally any leader presiding over such a climb-back from certain catastrophe, boasting 1.75 million new jobs and facing an opposition leader so utterly devoid of anything associated with leadership, could expect to be massively ahead in the polls. Yet Cameron is not. Something very strange is going on out there.
In all these musings I have said not a word about what is happening in the broader world, and surely they are terrible. No pundit either, in that confused and bloody mayhem, can point to a way out. That subject must be for another article. But for us, in the meantime, let’s raise our glasses for this New Year of 2015 and pray that answers will be found abroad too. We can take genuine pride in having overtaken France to be the world’s 5th largest economy, and they say that by 2030 we will have overtaken Germany as well. Glory be! The last time we were there was 1954, but that was because we destroyed most of her economy in WWII. She had originally overtaken us in 1894 and that’s when our troubles really began. Clever, industrious Fritz got too big for his jackboots.
I sometimes think that China believes it should receive special treatment and indulgences from the rest of the world. It seems to have got it into its head that it is a case apart, and that the rest of the world has no place in offering it advice, much less in criticising it. Take what is going on in Hong Kong at the moment. The people of that former colony of ours are asking no more than that China honour the agreement standing when we departed the colony in 1997 – including the ability to choose their own administrators. That seems fair enough, doesn’t it? Yet having a list of approved candidates presented to them by the Communist authorities in Beijing, which inform them that they can chose any one of these, is not quite what the rest of us understands as free choice. It’s like when Henry Ford quipped about his Model T that you can have any colour as long as it’s black. For Beijing, read red.
But Beijing dreads any move in the direction of opening up Chinese society, even though the drumbeat for change grows louder every day. The Central Committee remains fixated on what became of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev when he recognised the inevitable and began the process of cutting the people a bit of slack. Look where that got him, Beijing says to itself. The result of the ending of the Cold War is that there are three times the number of democracies in the world today as there were at that time.
Try as the Communist authorities might to control the flow of information, they know that with the advent of the computer and, even more so, the world wide web and social media, it becomes daily more difficult to keep people in the dark. A while back I heard that years passed and there were still people in China who did not know that the Americans had landed a man on the moon. It didn’t fit with Communist orthodoxy which held that capitalist science was inferior to their own, so they kept quiet about it. There are echoes here, too, of that chap who fought on in the jungles of Southeast Asia for twenty-seven years after war’s end because he did not know that the atomic bomb had been dropped and that it was all over. Such situations are inconceivable in today’s world. Incidentally, the man was feted on his return to Japan and said only that he was awaiting orders from his commanding officer. Some wait!
Beijing and its leaders know that the tide of history is against them. No doubt their hope is that they can put off the evil day beyond their own lifetime so that they can continue to bask in the aphrodisiacs of total power. They thought they had identified Gorbachev’s mistake – that of opening up society rather than delivering the goodies that mysteriously only capitalism seemed able to produce. So they abandoned the command economy and Marxist economics and plunged, pell-mell, into capitalism. That made a nonsense of everything that Mao and the Long March stood for, but that didn’t matter so long as it enabled them to hang on to power. The worrying thing for the rest of us is that, having performed that astonishing conjuring trick, they seem unable to realise that a wealthy man – and there are a great many in China today – is not so accepting of orders as a poor man. He may have been willing to forego liberties in pursuit of getting out of the gutter, but once out he wants to breath the sweet air of liberty. That is the Politburo’s dilemma and it is an impossible one to solve in a way that allows it to keep power. Trying to square that intractable circle is further complicated by a very dangerous legacy of history.
China, I fear, has something of a contempt for the rest of humanity. For so long it considered itself the centre of not just the world, but of the Universe – and in many respects it was (at least of the world that followed, Persia, Greece and Rome). Although imperially ruled, with the usual aristocratic class, it did have advancement for the plebs by examination – the Mandarin system. So convinced was it that it had nothing to learn from the rest of the world that it did a North Korea and sealed itself off from what it considered the contaminating influences of its fellow humans, deeming them “barbarian”.
Our own Lord McCartney’s high-powered, governmental trade mission to the Celestial Kingdom in the 18th century turned out to be a very strange affair, bearing in mind that he was a “barbarian”. While the emperor’s court was in awe of McCartney, his entourage and even more so of what he had brought with him, the great man himself was nonplussed and uncomprehending. He was even disdainful. Yet here before him was a pro-consul of the mightiest power on earth, whose nation was in the process of changing the face of humanity with its Industrial Revolution. He was laden with a vast array of the products of that revolution, several of which the emperor played with like a little child.
Yet in the end, the ‘Son of Heaven’ turned his back on them (the only thing he couldn’t resist were clocks). “Go back to your master, King George,” he said, “and thank him. Tell him that we have everything we need, but he is welcome to do homage to me as do all the other rulers of the earth.” And that was that. China, in the years following, paid a terrible price for such highhandedness. Two maritime wars with the new super power laid it prostrate and humbled with the Victorians seriously considering annexing it. In the process it was forced to engage with those products it had so scornfully rejected a hundred years before. It is only now recovering and turning out those same products itself.
Until recently, China refused to believe the ‘Out of Africa’ origins of the human race. It actually believed that they had quite separate beginnings to the rest of us. For a long time we all thought that Homo sapiens shared the world with only one other kindred species: Homo neanderthalensis, or Neanderthal Man. Then on a small island called Flores in Indonesia, a new hominid was found. He was only a metre tall and was nicknamed Hobbit. Although from the east, China would have no truck with being related and, indeed, he wasn’t except in the wider Homo sense. Soon after, but this time on the mainland of Asia itself, quite close to China, was found a new but normal sized hominid which we called Denisovan Man (named after Denis, a Russian hermit who lived where the fossils were discovered in the 18th century). Still China insisted it was distinct.
Finally those illusions were shattered when a new science was brought to bear: DNA. It had no choice but to accept that ‘Out of Africa’ hypothesis – that it was just like the rest of us and was once black with frizzy hair. China has now joined the comity of nations and needs all of us just as much as we need it. But its grievances at past humiliations and present ambitions will have to be contained, and that’s not going to be easy. It never, historically, interested itself in the world beyond Asia – except for one brief period in the 15th century when it built a gigantic fleet with ships four times larger than Europe’s, stuffed with presents for the ‘ignorant savages’ who did not have benefit of his imperial rule but who could, nonetheless, submit to the overlordship of the ‘Son of Heaven’. It reached as far as the east African coast. At that point in time it could have stopped Europe in its tracks, since it preempted Magellan’s circumnavigation by seventy years and been itself the great exploring power which opened up the world. But once again its insularity when a new, less enterprising emperor came to power was its undoing. He ordered the fleet destroyed and imposed death on anyone caught building a sea going vessel.
The nations which now have to band together to resist China’s present ambitions are those of Southeast Asia, particularly those around the South China Sea where large oil deposits have been found. Meantime it is preoccupied with its standoff with Hong Kong’s dissidents who, sooner or later, will prove the catalyst for opening up the whole of China. A Tiananmen Square solution is no longer an option in this media savvy world. And besides, it knows that should it apply such a method it can whistle goodbye to the people of Taiwan ever agreeing to reunite with the motherland. For that is its most cherished territorial ambition.
China’s long history makes it a country that thinks in centuries. Thankfully it is a nation which seldom acts hastily, and once it has been persuaded to come down from that pedestal it has perched on for so long it will become a good friend and contributor to the rest of humanity.
I’m sitting here in our bedroom on the 28th floor (top) of the 3,626-bedroomed Flamingo hotel close to the 3,933-bedroomed Bellagio hotel as well as opposite the 3,960-bedroomed Caesar’s Palace hotel on Las Vegas’ famous ‘Strip’. What brings me to this exotic location is an invitation from an award-winning San Francisco broadcaster to talk about my recently released book. My wife and I thought it would be an opportunity lost if we didn’t see as many sights as possible of the western US, and Las Vegas is the jumping off place for the Grand Canyon. These three hotels alone, according to our tour driver, have more rooms than all of San Francisco’s put together. Vegas is awash with them and these three represent only the smaller part of an incredible total.
I’ve always viewed Las Vegas as a totally artificial construct – something dumped in the middle of the desert and catering to the most vulgar, hedonistic, licentious and tasteless leanings of human nature. In many ways it is these things, but in other important ways it is a great deal more. My wife and I are not gaming types (never having bought so much as a scratch card or a lottery ticket) and not a nickel slipped through these canny fingers of ours in the three days we have been here. But it is the jumping off place for the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam, and it seemed churlish not to explore this ultimate symbol of western decadence and see if we could discover what makes it tick.
To begin at the beginning, I doubt I shall ever again be assigned a bedroom more palatial than the one we have; it has to be more than twice the size of any other we have stayed in. We showed interest in the receptionist who came from Hong Kong and had a little chat. She told us Hong Kongers yearned for the old days and determinedly kept as many symbols and aspects of their colonial past as the Beijing authorities were prepared to countenance (and actually, as it turns out, it’s quite a few). I think our interest and the fact that we were from the old colonial power was rewarded with this magnificent top floor bedroom with its spectacular views. Considering the amazing online deal my wife got, we were truly lucky.
America, as we all know, is a big country and it likes – wherever possible – to do things big. America also works; it’s rare you encounter anything with an ‘Out of Order’ sign on it or malfunctioning in any way. It also does things in style (the showman is never far away) and here you will find everything, absolutely everything: the good, bad and the ugly. The good – and truth to tell there are so many ‘goods’ – is that it is full of so many unexpected delights. One such is a wonderful water course… one is a fountain display in front of the Bellagio hotel the like of which I have never seen. It must be unequalled in the world. Also, no city on earth brings the wonders of electricity so brilliantly to life. An orbiting visitor from outer space would have to wonder what this incredible glow from the blackness of the surrounding desert was all about.
You might say that a fake volcanic eruption in the giant forecourt of one of the strip’s hotels would have to be tacky. But it is not. It is, in fact, a truly breathtaking spectacle and, like the water display, free. There is, of course, much that is vulgar and much that is kitsch, such as Little Venice, but it is a very superior kitsch. Every single structure is built to the highest order using the best materials and the finest craftsmanship. And everywhere is spotlessly clean. Pity the litter-bug Brit who indulges that particular vice of his: he will be jumped on from a very great height. But make no mistake, this place is about money – as much of the lovely stuff as they can legitimately extract, though I have to say they do not harass you. Prices, with some exceptions, are not extortionate. It took a whole half mile of walking to get through one hotel: MGM and its mall. The walk took us past thousands of games machines, umpteen roulette tables, shops, bars and cafes. Any visitor to Vegas needs first to get in training: the walking will test them to their limit, especially those parts under the blazing sun. What a relief that my two knee replacements had bedded in and that I walk the two-mile journey to my shop and back every day.
We visited in the autumn when temperatures are at their best (the high 20s (75F – 80F). But as states go, Nevada is a poor one – close to desperately poor. As a desert state, it has little or no arable land and precious few minerals. Something had to be done. Thankfully it had the mighty, 1,400-mile-long Colorado River, and on it bounty. Las Vegas became possible as did – 400 miles away – Los Angeles. In my own lifetime, Vegas has grown from a few thousand to 2.1m, and it is still growing apace. It is based almost entirely on the service industry. If our excursion driver to the canyon is to be believed, 90% of its workers are on the minimum wage and, irritatingly to those of us from Europe, he made what we would consider an unseemly powerful pitch to be tipped. It is sad that someone has to abase himself in this way to make a decent living, but probably he doesn’t see it that way as he has been doing it so long and has got used to it. The bogeyman in all this is the employer who, by improper means, gains a cheap workforce. But there’s another way of looking at it. America is famous for its service; everybody is keen to help you, to smile at you, to please you. To them we must extend thanks for causing our supermarket checkout girls and others to stop being surly, to engage with us, look us in the eye and smile at us. May this not in part be because their living is not guaranteed and they need your reward for looking after them?
On reflection, it is not so different in my own little shop. I cannot be indifferent to my customers. I must at all times engage with them and provide the service they are looking for. If I and my wife are now celebrating the 20th anniversary of the shop’s opening, may this not be because we have done this? This grim recession has taken its toll. Perhaps 25% of our takings have been lost, but we are still standing and signs are beginning to look up.
But returning to Las Vegas, and how it seeks to please and relieve you of a dime or two, everything operates on a huge scale. The buildings are ginormous with more shiny glass and steel skyscrapers than you are ever likely to see in one place, except perhaps the Gulf States and some newly built Chinese cities. Although much of Vegas is now 40 years old, it looks remarkably pristine and un-weathered. That’s down to the same desert conditions which helped preserves the pharaohs and their monuments. The place heaves with people, but somehow absorbs them so that they do not seem to be too many. There are masses of Malls so that you will still find wide, empty spaces. Las Vegas is America’s premier playground – it’s guilty secret. Running through the country’s psyche is a vein of Puritanism that includes a loathing of gambling. Even now, a majority of the states ban it. It all goes back to those pilgrims who left my own city of Plymouth almost 400 years ago to create a better England, a New England, in a far-off wilderness across the ocean.
Here in the desert, their descendants have conspired to offer a bit of light relief to those earnest hopes of yesteryear. In the process, they have gone a long way to rescuing their basket-case state. Rich widows come here – some regularly – to spend their husband’s fortunes in the cause of cheering themselves up. Ordinary Americans come here because it’s just one helluva place. Executives come here for conventions, naughtiness and show-time on the side. Outsiders like ourselves come to gawk, and newly-weds for the ‘quickie wedding’. From day one the Mafia made it their home and large dollops of their ill gotten gains have been laundered through it and financed its expansion. Hollywood too, along with its stars, once looked down their noses at Las Vegas, but now play court to it. And above it, all the sun shines down for 320 days of the year. It’s an amazing place, and like Muslims with their religious obligation to visit Mecca once in their life, consumerist Westerners should feel a similar obligation to visit this desert El Dorado: this hedonistic, earthly temple of pleasure.
The countdown has begun on the biggest political issue to confront the British people in 307 years. 91.6% of those people, the English, Welsh and Northern Irish are mere bystanders in the great debate. Should the Scots go back to where they were in 1707?
All credit to the slick and answer-for-everything Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scots independence campaign. He has run rings round the dull, pedestrian Alastair Darling, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. Characteristically, the ex-chancellor has based his campaign for staying in the Union on bread and butter issues: the pounds shillings and pence he no doubt obsessed about when he was at the Treasury. Those units of solvency are important, of course, but there is more to life than monetary issues. There is another narrative to be told; it was one of the heart, and on this, we have to ask ourselves whether the polite, unemotional, former small-town solicitor was the one to tell that story.
In all the long history of our time on earth there have been only two fundamental changes to the human condition: the move from hunter-gatherer to farming and the Industrial Revolution. Guess which two nations spearheaded that latter change, along with the other component nation of the British Isles? Our thinkers, scientists, engineers and administrators took the world by storm and changed it forever and the consequences are with us today. Every production line, every factory, every office administration, every hospital – even organised science itself with its insistence on empiricism and peer review – is the by-product of that coming together of our peoples.
If troubled areas of the world, like the Israelis and Arabs, wonder if it is ever going to be possible to live in harmony they need look no further than at the Scots and the English: they were forever at each other’s throats – literally – exhibiting a visceral hatred that today is almost impossible to imagine. Those martial qualities on both sides which made their borderlands a nightmarish place to live in were turned outwards and their armies proved unstoppable. Within a hundred years a quarter of the planet lay at their feet and they found themselves administering the greatest empire known to man. It was a benign empire, not at all like the cruel Conquistadors of Spain or the blood soaked hordes of Genghis Khan. It laid telegraph lines across the oceans of the world seeking to bring it together and railway lines everywhere, even in countries which were not part of its family of nations (South American railways owe their existence to British capital and engineering expertise). Their fingers were in every pie you can imagine. Theirs was a progressive, driven empire which had very elevated notions concerning its role in the world, which in fairness was not altogether fanciful. It saw itself as the heir to Rome, but on a vastly grander canvas. It was on a mission – so it thought – to civilise the world.
When danger threatened in the terrible form of Napoleon, the Kaiser and, most frighteningly of all, Hitler, the two nations stood foursquare in opposition to tyranny, never once arguing whose blood was being shed the most liberally to maintain the Union. No little man like Alex Salmond then lurked in the wings to undermine our joint resolve. We were as one in our determination to see it through. Now, under the guise of self-determination, such men – and women, too – have come out of the woodwork to tell their countrymen that they have all along been deceived, as though those proconsuls of Empire and great explorers like David Livingstone were, from the beginning, guileless dupes of the English. The Canadians know otherwise. They have a whole range of mountains named after a Scot – my own family name Mackenzie, as it happens – and the world is peppered with Scottish place names.
Scotsmen and women have been honoured and appreciated by the English throughout these three centuries of marriage and never was a Scotsman working in England made to feel unwelcome. Indeed, if anything the English grew to develop a respect for the Scots which in many ways made them want to emulate them. So what is this angry discourse which Salmond and his cohorts have whipped up in Scotland? I do not for a moment believe that he thinks his countrymen will be better off without the English. No thoughtful person could ever truly believe that and that includes a Nobel economics prize winner, Paul Krugman, who states that Salmond’s proposals are a “recipe for disaster”.
For all their faults, the English are an easy-going lot. Who else would see only their own young people incur thousands in university debts, allow only Scots free prescriptions, and cover all their care home costs whereas the English have to sell the family home? The English also pay £1,400 more per head under the Barnet Formula. All of this and much more is denied to their own people. They even let Scots have many more Members of Parliament than their population warrants and vote on purely English matters, when the English have no say in most matters relating to them. No, Salmond would happily risk impoverishing his own people so long as he and his lackies can enjoy la dolce vita, swanning around the world attending head of state junkets with his retinue of ministers as well as being chauffeured everywhere around their new fiefdom.
If the English are so terrible a people to be in harness with, why is it that half the world – or so it seems – is knocking at their door, with Calais under siege and young men willing to risk life and limb to gain entry?
Cameron will have history to answer to if our country falls apart. He could not possibly survive any more than Lord North did after the loss of the American colonies. Scots needed to know from the beginning that the English valued them, even loved and in many respects envied them. As canny people they are, they did not need reminding ad nauseam which side their bread was buttered on. I say this as a person of Scots parentage who through long years has grown to love and appreciate the English. This failed and abysmal campaign to save the Union should have been first and foremost an appeal to the heart. The Scots are a sentimental people. They would have listened. If only, at this time of national peril, we had the eloquence of a Churchill to plead the cause of the Union. When the arguments are done and dusted in a few days’ time, and should the Scots decide to listen to the better angels of their nature and save the Union, it will be no thanks to Cameron. It will be because they know, in their heart, that much of what I have said here is true.