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.
How extraordinary that plod, in pursuit of what he thought was criminality, obtained a search warrant to raid and look for clues in the flat of the grandmother of the littler brain tumour boy who had been carted off to a Spanish hospital where he lay all alone with a policeman at his door.
If there was criminality at work it is that of the British and Spanish states in sanctioning the separation of a desperately ill five-year-old from the only people in a position to provide comfort and love. While his siblings, too, were included in the no contact ban his parents languished in a Spanish gaol three hundred miles away in Madrid whence they were whisked from Malaga at dead of night.
Sounds like a modern day horror story, doesn’t it? But this is the reality when a heavy-handed, insensitive, all-powerful state apparatus gets to work when it believes its aims are being thwarted. Just think for a moment. Here is a five-year-old child in the grip of a life-threatening condition who has never for a moment been without the comfort of his loving family. Suddenly they are ripped apart and he is adrift in a world of foreign voices which he does not understand. What is he to make of it except to feel blind terror and abandonment? This, in my view, is where the true criminality lies.
As for his grandmother’s flat, how very incredible – and stupid, I might add – that plod should think he had a good chance of coming upon incriminating evidence there. What this case illustrates so perfectly is the excessive use of state power and the mindless, blundering way it often goes about exercising that power. We saw it in action with Cliff Richard recently. In the process grieves and sometimes irreparable damage can be done. Which of us can forget that dawn descent on a Scottish island in 1991 when nine children were taken into care on a false abuse premise (satanic rites were mentioned) and kept separated from their parents for years, in one case five?
With regard to today’s Hampshire couple, it looks very much as though no law was broken. The parents had custody of the child and had a perfect right to take him back into their care – just as that daughter recently was minded to remove her father from the unhappiness of a care home. What does come across in all this is the arrogance of a medical profession furious that its judgement should be called into questioned and, even worse, defied. For long years it has enjoyed operating in an unquestioning world of miasma in which the patient often has little understanding of what is going on and feels compelled to bow to their expertise and superior intellect.
But now an enormously valuable communications tool has come to the patient’s rescue – the Internet – and they don’t like it. Patients can now consult world-renowned, leading authorities in the field and often find that they have been misdiagnosed or that there are other solutions to their problems out there. In other words, for the first time in history the patient has been empowered. It is no longer possible to bamboozle him in quite the way they had grown accustomed. Now the frustrated medics, who see themselves as authority figures, turn to another arm of the oppressive state – the police – who are only too respectfully eager to spring into action on their behalf. They, in turn, turn to another arm – the judiciary – who tell them to involve another arm – the town hall who can get a custody order from one of its judges who will then get yet another arm – the Crown Prosecution Service – to issue a European Arrest Warrant.
What chance does the little man have in the face of such an accumulation of state power? Only a free press – which that same power would dearly like to muzzle – can cause an outraged public, whose vote the man at the top will shortly need in the coming election, stand a chance of getting him to call off the hounds.
Thankfully common sense and human kindness have finally prevailed and these terrible events have now been resolved. We must hope now that the little boy wins through and is able once again to regain health and happiness.
While we all luxuriate in the afterglow of a fabulous summer and await the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum – as well ponder the rise of Ukip and how it will all pan out at the coming General Election – a much more terrible set of conundrums lap at Europe’s borders. Far to its east, the post-war settlement is under threat.
Already an annexation has taken place. On Europe’s southern flank a militia banditry reigns in the land we helped free from Gadhafi. Across the desert sands of the Sahara the black flag of Muslim extremism makes many of the states there close to ungovernable. Sweep east and the heroes of Tahir Square have seen a military dictatorship annul all their efforts and seize power in Egypt to stop that pivotal Arab state falling to the excesses of the Muslim Brotherhood. Go south into the land of the former Queen of Sheba (Yemen) and more turmoil reigns. Across the narrow straits from our former colony of Aden and into Somalia more of the same flourishes, not just on land but at sea, where a scourge which our navy had long ago cleansed the world of has broken out again: piracy. Travel north into the desert fastnesses which Lawrence once traversed and you are upon Gaza and Syria. Again, more chaos. Go east and you have reached Iraq where the most bestial activities of all are currently taking place. Further east and you are upon the hapless land of Afghanistan where we await the outcome of our ten-year effort when we leave next year. The signs are not good. If a new Iraq breaks out there it may very well take down a nuclear armed Pakistan with it.
While all this is going on, we in the West fret about our petty goings on – though certain goings on, such as splitting our country apart and leaving the EU are not, admittedly, petty – and we worry about what our responses should be to these ugly canvasses which are unfolding all around us. It is my concerned belief that we are about to see years, if not decades, of strife before an exhausted Islam settles down to enjoy the sort of order which descended over Europe with the 17th century ‘Peace of Westphalia’ following the terrible bloodletting of the Thirty Years War. That, too, was about religion – the Protestant/Catholic schism which has echoes of the present Sunni/Shia split.
But things could have been different if the US had had a partner as militarily powerful as itself with whom it could have shared the burden. It would have made it possible for us to save our Muslim brothers from themselves and spare them the miseries we endured in that long-ago conflict. That partner should have been us, the Europeans. We have no longer any interest in colonising anybody, but we do have an interest in maintaining stability, especially when it is on our doorstep.
Just as the victorious Western Allies were able to work the miracle of creating and sustaining a democratic and peaceable West Germany after the horrors of Nazism, so we could have rendered the same service to the fractious Muslim world if we in Europe had pulled our weight in world affairs and not left it all to an ever more fed up and weary Uncle Sam.
But even now it is not perhaps too late. First of all we must stop distracting ourselves by fragmentation – starting with ourselves. If Scotland separates, it will send Spain into paroxysms of worry as its most prosperous region, Catalonia, ups the ante for independence. Then the Basques, another – prosperous area – will do the same. Belgium, itself – the heart of the European Union – may very well split in two, with the French-speaking south and Dutch-speaking north going their own ways. There is plenty more potential for further fragmentation in the always volatile Balkans. And who’s to say that Wales and Northern Ireland might not catch the contagion.
Cameron’s job – in which, as far as I can see, he has done mighty little that is visible and hence Douglas Carswell’s defection to Ukip – is to get busy on those re-negotiations with Europe and make them meaningful. Europe needs reform, and most of its members know it. If he can get it into their thick heads that they really are in danger of losing one of their biggest players then I think there is a chance that he may come home with a package that most of us can accept. Meantime, he should go public and tell them (and the country) that unless this is so he will have to recommend our departure.
If Europe can weather this British-made storm which lies ahead and stop attempting to reduce its nation states to regional entities, then it can forge ahead and exert the kind of muscle on the world stage – both diplomatically and militarily – as will act as an adrenalin shot to Uncle Sam. No longer will he feel alone. He and his new partner will dispose of such power as will make all others think twice, including little Putin with his old-world adventures in the east. Europe will have come into its own and will have demonstrated to the world that its interests lie not only in enriching itself but in helping an increasingly impotent United Nations maintain a stable and just world.
It is not often you get to bury a king of England. The last time we did so was sixty two years ago. The next one will be in seven months’ time when the whole world’s eyes will be on Leicester cathedral. Then we will be burying, in befitting manner, a monarch who died 530 years ago – the only one with no known resting place; who was the last true English king; the last to lead his soldiers from the front and die as a consequence; the last of a 330-year dynasty and the last king of the Middle Ages. We speak, of course, of Richard III, Shakespeare’s ‘crookback Dick’.
More controversy has swirled around this king than perhaps any in our island’s long history. When he was originally buried by monks, they were so frightened and intimidated by the people who had killed him – and under such compulsion to get a move on – that they had no time even to find a coffin. Imagine that. A king of England who, earlier that day, had been their anointed sovereign dumped naked in an unmarked grave like so much flotsam. Minutes before, the badly hacked about, naked body had arrived on a donkey after a fifteen-mile journey from the battlefield of Bosworth and the populace had been invited to abuse it as it went by. One had even driven a dagger deep into an exposed buttock, striking the pelvic bone.
Richard died in 1485 in what we regard as the last of the many battles of the thirty-year dynastic struggle known to us as the Wars of the Roses. He was thirty-two years old. No monarch in all of English history has been so thoroughly traduced and demonised. What has led to this? We know he was utterly loyal to his brother Edward IV – a Yorkist – fighting his battles fearlessly and with great distinction. So trusted was he that at the age of nineteen he was asked to govern the turbulent north of England as a virtual Vice-Roy, which he did so successfully for the next eleven years that they came to love him and regard him as one of their own, hence York Minster’s own fierce battle to have him interred amidst its ancient cloisters.
That total trust of his brother, the king, even extended, when he was dying, to asking Richard to look after his two infant sons rather than their mother. The princes were housed in what was then a royal palace, the Tower of London, and it is their later disappearance which has landed Richard with the heinous charge, even for those brutal times, of murdering his own nephews, aged nine and twelve, in order to usurp their right to the throne. This has been the justification for the victor of Bosworth to set about vilifying Richard for posterity. But what are the facts?
Unfortunately for Richard’s detractors there is not one scrap of evidence to show that their deeply religious and loyal uncle killed them. Yes, he had the opportunity, but then so did several others. What if when Henry Tudor, after killing Richard, had arrived at the Tower to find the boys still alive? He would have been appalled. Rumour had it that they were dead and Henry would certainly have wished it so. Their continued existence would have posed a terrible threat to his rule, in fact it would have removed all legitimacy. May it not be that, when he made a show of looking for the bodies, he knew that they were not there but felt it necessary to make it look as if he believed they were by digging around? Murder, later of the princes, would have been his only option. Strange it was, if Richard was the killer, that Henry never did find the decomposed bodies. That would have damned Richard for all time and been perfect justification for Henry taking the throne. As it happened they were later discovered under a staircase, one of the first places to look, one would have thought. It would have suited Richard’s successor, Henry Tudor, very well on taking over to have found the decomposed bodies as it would have totally validated his killing of the king.
The fact of the matter is that Henry Tudor had a much stronger motive for disposing of the boys than their uncle. While they lived there was no way he could rightfully claim the kingship. His closeness in the line of succession was so remote it was almost laughable. One genealogist has placed him 16th in line.
Now comes the reason why Richard had no great reason to kill the boys. Rumour had widely circulated for years that they were illegitimate – that the king had married bigamously. Then, after he had died, the bishop of Bath and Wells came right out and, like another bishop would do, hundreds of years later, concerning the Duke of Windsor’s affair with Wallace Simpson, he blew the whistle and preached this openly in a sermon. The evidence was that strong for him to do so. The upshot was that Richard, as a consequence, was the rightful heir.
The entire nobility as well as the church rallied behind Richard. Apart from anything else they wanted no boy king. They had the good of the nation to think about. After thirty years of turbulent bloodletting they wanted a wise and proven administrator, a man of action to settle the affairs of state. England had been torn apart during those years and the aristocracy decimated. In one battle alone, Towton – fought during a blizzard – 28,000 men had been slain, the greatest number ever to fall on English soil. It represented 8% of the country’s population, as high a percentage in a single day as four years of World War l clocked up. No wonder there was enthusiasm for Richard. His coronation was the best attended in the whole of the Middle Ages.
The Tudors, after their victory at Bosworth, knew they had an uphill struggle to gain legitimacy in the face of Richard’s watertight claim to the 330-year Plantagenet line. History, as we know, gets largely written by the victors and finally, after a hundred years, the Tudors had the Bard, no less, to finish the job for them; and my, how he did it with his Richard III! ‘Crookback Dick’ became England’s true devil incarnate – and a twisted and deformed one at that; one even dogs barked at as he went by.
Unfortunately for the propagandists, after five hundred years, the wheel has come full circle and the truth is out. He was not a hunchback and he had no withered arm. He did have curvature of the spine (scoliosis), but people would have barely noticed the condition – just a slight stoop to one side. But what forensic science has also shown with this incredible find of the king under the car park is that Richard battled a painful infirmity just as heroically as he fought his brother opponents in battle. It is truly remarkable that he was able to function well under the weight of over sixty pounds of armour and wield a massive broadsword. His slight frame conformed more to that of a woman and his height was barely 5’5”. In today’s world, we would have nothing but praise for such magnificent stoicism. He would at all times have been in acute arthritic pain and, because of compressed lungs, only capable of short bursts of maximum energy before he became breathless.
When he finally succumbed in battle to his enemies, he did so in such a manner – and with so many witnesses – that even the great Tudor propaganda machine could not hide the truth of his incredible bravery. It was Victoria Cross stuff. He came within inches of killing Henry Tudor, having charged him from a thousand yards away, hacking his way to the pretender and cutting down his standard bearer, England’s leading jouster, a massive beast of a man. No English king in history ever led such a heroic charge – not even the magnificent Henry V or Richard the Lionheart – but even in this his detractors still had to have a dig, saying that it was really the mad frenzy of the defeated devil at work. But now time and science have laid bare the truth and it should be spoken loud and clear. Perhaps the Bard’s work should not be performed in future without a disclaimer along the lines of ‘Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely co-incidental…’ Certainly we must rewrite our history books.
There is, however, one note of puzzlement to me in all this. In view of the massive interest both here and abroad, how is it that we have not, to my knowledge, heard a single word from any of the royals? Are they not in the slightest interested? He was, after all, one of their own and an anointed head of state. Is it their intention to boycott the internment? We must hope not. That would be an act of the crassest folly. A proper response would be for the present sovereign to pay her respects and acknowledge that a terrible wrong has been done to her ancestor. It would be a way of saying sorry on behalf of all of us.
Today we long for the certainties of the Cold War, when the prospect of nuclear Armageddon kept us all in order and expulsions from embassies of so-called ‘trade envoys’ and exchanges of spies at Checkpoint Charlie was pretty much all there was to get excited about. The enemy lay over there, just behind the Iron Curtain and he wore a uniform.
He had got as much of the world as he could persuade to side with him and we did the same. Those who cried ‘a plague on both your houses’ liked to call themselves the non-aligned. Among our cheer leaders, we had some real bastards (outright tyrants like Saddam Hussein during the Iran/Iraq war) but – as one American famously said – they were, at least, our bastards.
In that halcyon, far-off time, an old man like me could pass through airport controls without being ritually humiliated and he had no fear of being blown out of the skies by a Ukrainian nutter or taken on a one way flight into the Shard. These, I am sure, are the thoughts of many people – and some of these same people will even think further back to a time when the whole world was kept in a form of order by the great European empires.
“What fool,” they are now asking themselves, “said at the collapse of Communism that it was the ‘end of history’”? But foolishness was not confined to him. The so called ‘Peace Dividend’ was lauded by almost all and caused developed nations around the world to think that they could safely slash their defence budgets. Now those same nations find themselves powerless to intervene with overwhelming force when a bunch of wild jihadists – too wild even for Al Qaeda – set up a terrorist state in the most volatile region of the world, from which we gain most of our energy supplies. They even taunt us with their social networking and media skills by flashing up images of their barbarities, virtually in real time.
The truth of the matter is that the ‘good guy’ always needed to keep up his guard, As President Theodore (‘Teddy’ of Teddy bear fame) Roosevelt said: “Walk softly but carry a big stick”. My complaint is not that Uncle Sam is not pulling his weight, but that his collectively richer European partners are not pulling theirs. Had they not scrambled to save pennies on their defence budgets – preferring, self-indulgently, to leave it all to him – they would have been in a position to buttress him and not leave him the lone, isolated figure he is today, carrying the burdens of the world. We, more than anyone, know how thankless and onerous a task it is being the world’s policeman. No wonder, after Korea (which he still shoulders), Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan he is now weary of it all and contemplates increasingly withdrawing into isolationism. God helps us all if he does.
My argument is that if you are rich you carry responsibilities. Europe, in my view, shirks its. This is an area where the EU really could do something useful. That something is to get all member states to agree a percentage of their GDP to defence and hold them to it. Furthermore, it could make a portion of that defence capability available to the UN to give it teeth to deploy forces to troubled areas as and when the need arises. Peace keeping may then move forward to peace making so that, eventually, when enough other countries have pledged similar support, the world’s only legitimate superpower will be the UN.
Right now an arc of terror embraces huge swathes of Africa – right on Europe’s doorstep – and extends thousands of miles eastwards to the major oil producing countries of the world. It may soon extend thousands more if Afghanistan, as seems likely, falls once more into terrorism when NATO leaves next year. Adjacent Pakistan – always a perennially unstable country – may quickly follow suit and that is a state with a nuclear armoury which may very well fall into hostile hands.
To say that the unfolding situation is worrying is to put it mildly. The very first step is to give the well organised and heroic Kurds the capability to smash the ten thousand or so ISIS fanatics. If the new government of Iraq can get its act together, so much the batter. It too can help, so long as they don’t run away again and leave more state-of-the-art stockpiles of weapons to their opponents.
After that, Palestine – the kernel of all Middle East problems – must be addressed. Israel, the one shining light of openness and democracy in a darkening region, must shine that light throughout the troubled Middle East. Unlike the Red Indians, the Maoris, the Incas, Aztecs and so many others, Israelis have at least got their ancestral land back. The rest never will, even though they lost them just a few hundred years ago, never mind two thousand. They should be happy for that and we can take some credit for that happening with our 1917 Balfour Declaration.
But Israel should avoid the deadly sin of greed by being thirsty for more land, personified by the never-ending building of fresh settlements on land they acknowledge not to be theirs. They should show pity for the dispossessed as they themselves were so mercilessly dispossessed down the centuries. The price the Palestinians have paid for Israel regaining its historic land which had been Palestinian for two millennia has been a heart-breaking one. Surely Israel, of all countries, can see that.
Only the victor is in a position to show magnanimity and in all the terrible circumstances now prevailing let Israel show just that. It might be surprised at the response such action elicits. Included in any settlement must be the lifting of the awful siege of Gaza. If a settlement can be achieved between Jew and Arab – who are, after all, ethnically the same people and who both through their holy books revere the same prophets – then much of the ground will have been cut from beneath the feet of the Muslim extremists. Gaza has shown what the alternative is: a legacy of bitterness and hatred which will fester into a new generation.
What we’ve seen these last few days has not been pretty. It has been the very antithesis of the bible story in which little Israel in the form of the boyish David took on the monstrous brute, Goliath. Now in the most disheartening of role reversals, Goliath has become the mighty, clanking war machine which is Israel and David, little, smashed-up Gaza. Interestingly, Goliath did actually come from Gaza, then known as Phoenicia.