On the mighty dam men guarding it knew
That a reckoning was coming by air;
The hum, it grew, as the terrified crew
Followed the bomber with which it was paired;
Never was a venture as bold as this,
To blow up a thing so massive and strong;
Only a plan with a devilish twist,
At the centre of which was a bouncing bomb;
Flyers were needed with critical skills,
Matched with a bravery few could muster;
Then with much luck they could go for the kill,
Bestowing on them well-deserved luster;
Ruhr workshops were on the hit-list that day:
Much ordinance for the war they did make;
Across factory floors would floodwaters lay:
German war efforts would falter and shake;
Destruction was wrought on a frightening scale:
Nigh half the flyers would never come home;
’Twas a mission beside which others would pale:
Their glory written on tablets of stone.
As a country which abhors state sponsored killing and the grisly process of snuffing out a human life, I find it perplexing and distressing that the British Government will not lift a finger to save a British grandmother facing death by firing squad in Indonesia. I will not get into the details (she was a drugs mule) of why she finds herself in her present situation. But she acknowledges her foolishness and offered full co-operation to the authorities.
As for the men who put her up to it, they have received light sentences. Many aspects of the trial were deeply flawed so that any examination will show that a death sentence was totally uncalled for. An appeal funded by legal aid would almost certainly highlight this, but our own authorities will not grant this.
They are more than willing to provide legal aid to umpteen tycoons – millionaire Asil Nadir springs to mind, as does that property developer reputably worth £400m who is hiding his money from his ex wife. And, of course, there is unlimited funding at taxpayers’ expense for any number of foreign nationals who wish us harm and for their never ending appeals under the Human Rights Act for permission to stay amongst us.
Ours is a nation they despise, whose culture and laws they wish to overthrow. Yet they are happy to take advantage of its lifestyle and the benefits system which makes that possible. The reason why these expensive appeals by self-proclaimed Jihadists so often succeed is that we are unwilling to send them back to their homeland in case they are mistreated there. Yet here is the ultimate case of mistreatment – death by firing squad – and it is happening to a British born woman who has lived most of her life here.
There may well be millions living in our country who have no legal right to be here. Any one of them, before they could be deported, would be able to throw themselves on the mercy of our courts and run us up huge legal costs before we could send them home. Where, I ask myself, is the logic or consistency which allows us to say no to a British grandmother and yes to one of them?
All this reminds me of the cold-hearted, honourless attitude of the Gordon Brown government when it would not allow Gurkhas, who had frequently put their lives on the line for us, to settle in our country at the end of their service lives. It took the redoubtable Joanna Lumley to help that government change its mind.
But right now there is another ongoing scandal which this time concerns the Cameron government. It relates to interpreters in Afghanistan. Two hundred or so who have risked their lives working for us in that benighted country are to be abandoned as next year begins the drawdown of our presence in that country and thus our need for linguists. They are fearful of what will become of them and their families once we are no longer there to protect them. The answer seems a simple one: let them come back with us. But shamefully that is not the response of our authorities. The interpreters are being told they must remain and take their chances. How truly inhuman is that? When the presently contained Taliban presence in Afghanistan is augmented by floods more coming in from Pakistan, once we are gone these interpreters are dead men walking. The Jihadists will take a terrible revenge. They will not care a hoot that the whole Afghan operation was authorised by the UN. Anyone who assisted, as they see it, the foreign invaders, can expect their special brand of punishment. What is at issue here is not just the saving of lives of people who have risked all for us, but the very honour of our country. The idea that we can happily grant asylum to countless others who have no claim on us is beyond comprehension.
Present day Russia is very much a gangster society led by an authoritarian government claiming to be democratic. But in one important area it puts us to shame. That is where honour is concerned. My Lithuanian wife’s father was a colonel in the Russian military. When the thirteen countries which formed the Russian empire – which it chose to call the USSR – broke away and gained their independence the Russian state could quite easily have washed its hands of obligations to the nationals of those newly independent states who had served it for their pensions and other rights. But it did not. My wife’s father receives a full and generous pension from Moscow.
How did we handle a similar situation when our own legions and public servants came home from our far flung colonies? We abdicated the duty to pay their pensions. We turned to the new rulers of India, Burmah, Ghana, Malaysia and the rest and said to them: “It’s up to you, old boy. You must pay their pensions”. If later they reneged or found they couldn’t afford it or felt they had been blackmailed to get their independence and stopped payments then that was that. Our attitude was tough. “Your quarrel,” we said to the poor man who had sweated all his life under the tropical sun, “is with the new rulers”.
Honour is a noble thing and it grieves me to think that my country has been short on it in so many instances. I hope Cameron will do the right thing where those brave Afghan interpreters are concerned and that he will intervene, before it is too late, over that wretched grandmother.
It seems clear to me that a major link-up between the two top Teutonic powers of Europe – Britain and Germany – along with lesser like-minded powers to the north and east is taking place. The tectonic plates of Europe are on the move in a way that may prove irreversible. This will certainly be viewed with horror in Paris.
That invitation from Angela Merkel for David Cameron to come and visit her at her home north of Berlin a few weeks ago and to bring his wife and children has, I believe, great implications. She even wheeled out her hermit husband for the weekend soiree.
It had all the characteristics of a love-in. No other European leader has had such an invitation or been accorded such warmth and hospitality. It is known that the pastor’s daughter holds Cameron in the highest esteem – perhaps that Eton grooming helps – and it will have been reinforced, I’m sure, by the shy, but charming, Sam Cam – and her equally delightful children. Such personal chemistry and bonhomie really does matter. The invite, in my opinion, speaks volumes.
But equally importantly her whole philosophy of life gels with that of the foreign leader she is said to have once described as her “naughty, but charming, nephew”. Naughty because, at a time of huge difficulty for her beloved Euro Project, he has rocked the boat by demanding fundamental changes to the way the EU goes about its business.
It is not as if she disagrees with much of what he committed to put before the British people in a 2017 Referendum, should he retain power, but because it’s complicated and will take a lot of what she does not have: time. As it happens, most of her fellow countrymen agree with David Cameron. They, too, dislike much of what is coming out of Brussels and would like to see things done differently. But she wants to keep her eye on the Euro ball, whose solution – if there is one – is also complicated. She feels she cannot afford the distraction of a major renegotiation of EU treaties at this time. There is also the added factor that she is up for re-election in September and has all that circus ballyhoo to worry about. Cool and detached, as Angela famously is, she is in danger of becoming stressed and Davy boy, right now, isn’t helping.
What with France’s weak and hopelessly left-leaning ‘leader’ – distracted as he is with woman problems and who cannot see the necessity for tough measures in France – she is at her wits’ end. The Franco-German axis, which has been the engine of the EU since its beginning, is unravelling.
France, under Hollande, seems destined to be the flag-bearer of a southern rim of EU countries which will put up with no more belt-tightening. Merkel admires little Ireland’s heroic acceptance of the need to pay off its debts, but she is fast losing patience with the other PIGS (Portugal, Greece and Spain, that is). She is full of praise for Cameron’s recognition that sound money and balancing the books is central to everything. Also his open trading outlook and market philosophy equates exactly with her own. She has no truck with spending your way out of debt. She sees David Cameron as an economic soul mate.
Germany herself has still not shaken off the terrible legacy of WWII and she is unwilling to take the lead in Europe on her own for fear of cries of a Fourth Reich being hurled about. She feels she has to have a partner who is ‘respectable’ and can front up everything diplomatically while she can make the running economically. France, for fifty years, has been that partner. Yet now the dice have rolled in another direction and an alignment of Teutonic powers seems in the offing. Is this a good thing? It certainly will not seem so in Paris, which will be outraged at its relegation and see the hand of perfidious Albion at work all over again. As virtually the creator of the EU, which she saw primarily as a means of controlling German ambitions, she has seen her dominance slide inexorably. That is why, originally, she was so keen to keep ‘interfering’ Britain out. But this proved impossible in the end, especially when you had a British leader, in Edward Heath, who was prepared to sell the pass and demean himself as a wretched supplicant, to get in.
Now, more and more countries have been allowed to join the original Club of Six – chiefly at the instigation of Britain – and France’s position has weakened with each new entrant. Most infuriating of all, they seem to want to use English in preference to French in the corridors of Brussels power! Once you could not get a job anywhere – even a lowly one – if you were not fluent in French, but now the point had been reached in which the Brussels power brokers actually had the audacity to appoint a Union foreign minister who spoke no other language but English. That was the ultimate insult.
I have no doubt that Europe has the capability to become the dominant power in the world if only it can get its act together. Its GDP is already way ahead of Uncle Sam’s and it will only widen. In terms of any numbers you care to look at, it is perfectly within its reach to see off competition from the east for the rest of this century. I look to the day when Russia itself comes knocking at the EU door. It is essentially a European country.
Europe’s cultural dominance is already unassailable: its music; its art; its literature; its universities; its history; its multiplicity of matchless ancient cities. Even its science is on a par with the US. I see no reason for us to be downcast. All things come to an end, including this wretched recession.
So will David Cameron get his deal, which will persuade enough Britons to back him in the referendum? I think he will. Angela will see to that, one way or another, and she will be assisted by Britain’s many other friends in Europe. France will be incandescent. Germany does not wish to lose a country which she sees as pivotal to Europe’s future; one that has played so crucial a role in its past. America will be delighted, for she will feel that in the coming difficult world, where after 500 years a resurgent east threatens to displace a weary west, a half a billion people, all speaking its own language – as a back up – and mentored by his closest ally and friend, will be there to stiffen its own resolve. And that same Europe may well be a Europe fashioned after the Anglo Saxon model – one very much to the US liking. Rest assured, too, that Uncle Sam himself is far from finished. He will come bouncing back, I am sure, with all that energy we are so familiar with. Together with Europe, it will be a bloc more than capable of looking after itself in a fast-changing world.
Yesterday we buried a titan and she was a woman. Not since Churchill’s bravery when he took the awful decision to sink his French ally’s fleet in WWII, rather than let it fall into enemy hands, have we seen such a brave leader. I even think that Churchill might have blanched at the idea of sending the hugely depleted Fleet that Margaret Thatcher had at her disposal to rescue the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles away.
But her bravery extended well beyond the battlefield – something that Churchill’s did not. She took on and defeated ‘the enemy within’, as she called them: the Arthur Scargills, Derek Hattons and Ken Livingstones of this world. ‘Union Barons’, one by one, fell upon her lance until the wheel had turned full circle and we had the fewest strikes in all Europe.
Churchill had his own bitter enemies among the working classes as well as the establishment, but somehow their vehemence had faded under the glow of his magnificent conduct of the war and the glory of his rhetoric in its early days, urging his countrymen to stand fast and not be seduced by peace ‘with honour’ offer which he knew would turn out to be humiliating. But Margaret Thatcher’s enemies never left her in peace, not even in death. Whole swathes of industrial England, Scotland and Wales died on her watch. Most of them were dying anyway (as they had been under Labour), but she did nothing to slow the process.
Yet much the same was happening all over the industrialised West. Mines were closing and shipyards were losing out to cheap labour in the East; steel was being produced in the same areas at Mickey Mouse prices. Long-established and close communities who had come to rely on a single industry became a wasteland. Standing guardian over these nationalised and loss-making industries was a union hierarchy more powerful, many argued, than the state itself. It was said that no law could be enacted without their approval.
Thatcher believed herself to be on a mission to restore Britain’s governance, finances and greatness. She believed she saw a very sick patient whom only surgery could cure. The medicine, she knew, would be bitter and the recuperation hard. But she insisted it would be all be worth it. Some said she was stubborn, and she was. But she could be flexible when she needed to be; she could duck and dive with the best of them in politics, but on core issues, as she saw them, she would not budge. You don’t stay on the way to twelve years at the top (almost as long as Hitler’s Reich) without heavy doses of pragmatism.
Also she was not above using her sex either to get her way. Flirtatious Mitterrand, the French president, thought her coquettish and remarked that she had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” He fell in love with her ballroom dancing skills. In another world he would have had her – or at least tried.
For all this, Thatcher was an earnest woman, almost devoid of humour (jokes had to be explained to her). She had an almost childlike certainty that she knew what to do to lift the economy out of the pit of despondency into which it had fallen. When 360 of the country’s leading economists signed a letter to tell her that her policies were doomed, she ignored them. Once she was the boss she would brook no backsliders. She was dictatorial, but luckily she was compelled to operate within the constraints of a liberal democracy. But she got the essentials right and, remarkably, that army of doomsayers were proved wrong.
Personally, she was very kind to her staff and to the little people, the ones without power – but she could be brutal to those who wielded it. However, her all-consuming ambition made it impossible for her to be a hands-on mother; perhaps that wasn’t her style anyway. But in her extreme old age she did feel pangs of guilt. She shed more tears over her lost boys in the South Atlantic than ever she did for her own children. It is said that she never went to bed during the three months of the Falklands conflict, dozing instead on a chair, waiting to hear the telephone ring to tell her of more boys lost in the latest sinking. She took it all very personally. Churchill seldom did. An eyewitness told of her sobbing for 40 minutes non-stop when news reached her that another ship had been hit by a missile. When her own torpedo slammed into the cruiser Belgrano and sent Argentina’s sailors to the bottom of the icy south Atlantic, I have no doubt that her mother’s heart felt for those other mothers in far away Argentina. But if ‘cruel necessity’ – Cromwell’s justification for cutting off his own king’s head – called for its sinking to save her own precious boys, she would not hold back.
She was tough beyond belief – far tougher than any of the men who surrounded her. She would not yield to IRA hunger strikers, no matter what. It was a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It took ten emaciated corpses before the IRA conceded defeat. They repaid her by destroying her hotel and almost her.
Her toughness and certainty of the correctness of her policies followed through to the economic woes which beset the country; her monetarist measures brought record inflation to low levels; her privatisation of loss-making, nationalised industries stopped the haemorrhaging and put shares into millions of pockets, becoming a model for virtually the whole world; her sell-off of council houses made property owners of millions; her ‘Big Bang’ financial liberalisation in the City made London the world’s leading capital market; and her curbing of restrictive union practises such as flying pickets and the closed shop brought order to the factory floor. It is an impressive list and there is more.
But she made mistakes. She believed too much in the service economy and failed to realise sufficiently the importance of manufacturing. She was plain stupid in doing a dry run of the Poll Tax in, of all places, prickly Scotland – even though its principals were sound. (She never had any admirers in that part of the kingdom and still doesn’t.) And she should never have allowed herself to be talked into signing up to the ERM at a rate that shadowed the Deutschmark. Her earlier signing of the Single European Act cost her many of her cherished powers of veto. Also her closure of Grammar Schools exceeded even that of her Labour predecessors. It infuriated great numbers of her own followers.
Too long in power, and with the inevitable hubris setting in she finally gave the game away when she used the ‘royal we’ to announce the birth of a grandchild. Her patronising treatment and her public put-downs of her loyal chancellor and foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, were not pretty to watch and her hectoring style got worse the longer she remained in office.
But for all her faults and mistakes, she was nevertheless a force of nature that moved the economic firmament. There was no going back, even for an incoming Labour government. She also moved the political centre ground. It might be said that if you seek her monument, as Sir Christopher Wren once famously stated, “look around you”.
Nothing is the same. She was not interested in spin doctors, focus groups, think tanks, legions of special advisers or even the nasty things the papers said about her. She had a job to do and she would do it come what may. There is a certain courage here also. But if we still have difficulty in recognising her greatness then we have to cast our eyes around the world. All of its leaders are in awe of her achievements. They know a colossus when they see one. They were not distracted by the smoke and din of battle as we were here at home. They could see more clearly where she was headed. Their universal opinion was that Great Britain was a more respected nation than it had been at the start of her reign. Flags flew in many countries at half mast when her death was announced and most of all across the broad expanses of North America. There her name, alongside Ronald Reagan, is revered – as it is too across Eastern Europe, as the liberator from Communism. It was she who brought Gorbachev in from the cold and told her friend, the president, “this is a man we can do business with”. Together, their steely resolve and willingness to do whatever it took, brought the Cold War to a triumphant end. It might justly be said that had she accomplished nothing else, that alone would stand as a fitting testament.
Finally there is the no small matter of a grocer’s daughter – a woman – scaling the heights of a man’s world to achieve the highest office in the land. Women everywhere, and that encompasses the whole world, owe it to her that she has for all time proved – with her competence, drive, bravery and vision – that women are truly the equal of men and that there is no office of state that they cannot handle. In the great scheme of things I do believe that history will place her before Churchill – who, after all, was born to privilege – as our greatest 20th century premier.
With the approach of the weekend I fret about what topic I can try to interest the reader in next week. But it seems the answer is clear: the Philpott case. A bit like the immigration issue, if you mentioned it you were in immediate danger of being labelled a closet racist, but now we can have an open and honest discussion. So it was too with Welfare.
In that case you were a stony-hearted – boot on the neck – oppressor of the poor. In both cases the bleeding hearts hoped by such calumnies to shut down the discussion and for generations they succeeded. Now Philpott has breached the dyke in magnificent fashion and the second of these taboo subjects has fallen to the dictates of rational argument.
If Philpott has done nothing else positive in his whole miserable, outrageous life he has, at least, opened the floodgates for a full scale debate on the whole meaning of Welfare. Now, let us be clear from the beginning: all right minded people pity the poor and disadvantaged and are prepared to move heaven and earth to ease their plight. But just as vehemently we feel a mighty anger at those who pretend to be in that category.
Long ago (1988) the British Shoe Corporation closed on me after years of pursuit for the back rent and balance of a 14-year lease for a business whose premises they rented to me. I had sold it in Glasgow six years before. You see, in legal parlance, I was ‘The Leasee of Last Resort’. It is a practice now banned by Parliament. What had happened was that the man I had sold my health club to had got into business and matrimonial difficulties and had done a runner to Australia. Muggins, here, was left to pick up the pieces. The Shoe Corp was finally advised by its sharp lawyers in London that the best way to force my hand was to take out an order in bankruptcy. At that time I was coming to the end of my 21-year lease for my Plymouth city centre health club and was making preparations for a new line of business – the ski centre – and I knew that if they made me bankrupt that was never going to happen. I was forced, as a result, to liquidate all my assets and that included two houses.
As a now homeless person with three children I ended up in a housing association property, but I was enabled, with the help of investors, to continue the ski project and drive it forward to completion.
The reason I tell you all this is that I saw at close quarters the benefits system in action – or at least two significant parts of it. My neighbour on one side was on disability benefit. There was a brand new disability car on the driveway. You can imagine my shock when later I saw that same person’s photo in a local newspaper, having completed a half marathon. My neighbour on the other side used to get up at 5.30am for his six o’clock work start. He told me that out of about 60 housing association properties only three were paying the rent. He felt a deep rage at this. The rest were claiming either to be one-parent families, disabled or unemployed. There were a few pensioners. Daily we could see the so-called unemployed going off to their cash-in-hand jobs or the fellas of the so called one-parent families parking their cars down the road and sneaking in through the back door to spend the night. So let’s not pretend that there is not widespread abuse.
The burden, especially during the longest recession in 200 years, has become intolerable as well as unsupportable and its effects are deeply pernicious.
Next year is a special year for me: I will have been at work for 60 – yes, 60 – years. I did not celebrate my 70th birthday – particularly, as I felt that in today’s world, unless you are unlucky, 70 is no big deal. But the thought has recently occurred to me that next year is different: it represents my own little Diamond Jubilee. You see, I am old school; I am deeply proud of not being a burden to my country and blessed with health that allows me to continue contributing my penny’s worth to its well being. I get up in the morning and walk the mile to work and there I meet the public – to whom I must continue to be nice and disavow what some would say is a normal right to be a grumpy old man. I set to, repairing shoes, cutting keys, servicing watches, engraving trophies, making wooden house and other signs and framing pictures. None of these things could I do before the age of 55, so I think I may have disproved that old dictum that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.
When I was about to leave school at 15, the idea of not working was not on the radar. There weren’t benefits as we know them today. My foster parents took the view they had done their bit and it was up to me to do mine. Three years after starting I got hauled off to the Army to do my bit there for two years as a National Serviceman and I managed to get shot at by the IRA. Quite sobering it was. But the point of all this is about being useful to society if you can. I was 21 when I heard President Kennedy’s famous line in his inaugural speech when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. Did Philpott ever think such thoughts? I think not. Nor, unfortunately, do multitudes of others. That is the trouble. It was right that William Beveridge, in his famous report, sought to abolish the evils of want, hunger, idleness, ignorance and disease. It was wrong that noble concept was hijacked by scroungers and the workshy. We – all of us – are culpable for the stupidity we displayed when we allowed it to happen. Naively we believed in peoples’ essential goodness and probity. Yet it has turned otherwise honest folk, who saw their neighbours getting away with it, into dishonest scroungers themselves. Now, perhaps, the party is coming to an end and we can begin the long climb back to our core values. We may, in the process, start to balance the national books.
As for Philpott himself, he represents all that is despicable in our species. He was a bombastic, narcissistic bully with a deeply cruel streak who even imagined he was fast becoming a celebrity, perhaps eventually a national treasure. He thought he could lead the media by the ears believing it to be something else he could control. He was also very stupid. Did it never occur to him that fire is not so easily controlled as the hapless women who came into his orbit? He may continue to try to play the big man as he has done all his life, particularly with women, but that won’t last five minutes under the rigours of the prison system. I shudder to think what might happen if his fellow inmates gain access to him. Prisoners are infamous for exacting their own kind of primitive justice, especially where crimes against children are concerned. A speedy visit to that same eternity to which his lunatic actions consigned his six innocent children might well end up being a much sought after escape.
Banks are not to be trusted. That is the shocking message the Troika of the European Central Bank, the EU and the IMF have sent out when they seized up to 60 per cent of the deposits of their wealthier customers in tiny Cyprus.
Governments have attempted to get themselves out of holes in years past by raising money in all sorts of unlikely places, some of them truly bizarre. But never, until now, had they felt themselves entitled to raid peoples’ bank accounts and plunder them. That island state of 1.2m people may only represent 0.02% of Euroland’s GDP, but the action of its powerful masters to curb Cypriot excesses has sent shock waves not just across Europe, but the entire world. The reason is simple: if you can’t lodge your money in a bank account without feeling that it is safe, where on earth can you put it? Under the bed, perhaps, or in a biscuit tin? For all the derisory interest savings have attracted in recent years, that might not seem such a bad idea. The trouble is that almost no one has a pay packet anymore – it has to go straight into the bank – and we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the convenience of the hole in the wall that we can no longer contemplate anything else.
What has happened to Cyprus, however, should make all of us take stock. It has breached what hitherto has been held as a sacred principal: that you cannot help yourself to something which has been placed in your safekeeping.
People have believed that in an uncertain world their humble bank deposit was at least safe from predators. Just the same, what is to be done with a bank which has got itself into a mess? Is it fair that people – i.e. taxpayers – who did not even sign up to that bank should be compelled to ride to its rescue? Those taxpayers are even more innocent (if you want to use that emotive term) than the lowly deposit holders who did sign up.
What is clear is that we can never again allow ourselves to be held to ransom as we were with the 2008 rescue of British Banks. We have suffered as a result of that rescue for coming on five years now and there is no end in sight to the misery that it has inflicted. High Street banks – the ones we need most to trust implicitly – must be ring fenced against the sometimes crazy risk takers in their investment arms.
In view of the banking industry’s unique capacity to bring the whole system down – even discrediting capitalism itself – they must all be closely monitored. Had this been done it is arguable the catastrophe which has overwhelmed us could have been avoided, or at least mitigated. In addition to all this we must enact laws that permit us to send bankers to jail, where reckless conduct and dodgy practices puts all our livelihoods at risk. Amazingly, there was no law in place that could hold ‘Fred the Shred’, to account: he broke no laws. This must change.
What really sticks in the public craw is that not a single banker is behind bars. Even members of the political class including peers, have ended up sporting prison blue. Their crimes, by comparison with the enormity of what the bankers did and are still doing, is of no consequence. Soon, no doubt, those numbers will be swelled by overzealous newspaper hacks and policemen who have had the temerity to keep them in the picture, even where no money has changed hands. Everybody – ministers included – it seems, can be jailed except ‘fat cat’ bankers. But even before consideration is given to criminalising certain banking activities, the Libor manipulation was an actionable crime. Why then is there no move to bring those fraudsters to justice? Their scams involved tens of billions of pounds worldwide. That question is doubtless answered by recently released figures which showed that access to Downing Street by bankers was of an order of ten times greater than that of anyone else – captains of industry and their like. Meantime the bonus culture continues on its lucrative way rubbing salt into our wounds and insulting us. These ‘gentlemen’ really are laughing all the way to the bank.
It has to be said that the Germans were unfairly treated by the hot-headed Greek Cypriots when they lampooned them as Nazis. The Germans had not wished for deposits to be seized from small depositors: that was a decision by their own Cypriot ruling class. They were fearful of upsetting all that hot money – much of it illegally acquired in Russia and stashed in Cypriot banks. It now seems that a benchmark has been set that only big investors and that, regrettably – since not all are crooks – is how it should be. If you have big holdings you should have the sense to see that when banks are offering returns out of kilter with banks generally there is likely to be a catch somewhere. If still you are prepared to take that risk, then so be it. You cannot look to others to save you from your own folly. Also you should not expect careful Fritz, who does pay his taxes and beavers away in a cold climate, along with other diligent north Europeans, to bail you out. At least the so called PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) have the inestimable luxury and consolation of making a living under the Mediterranean sun. It tells you everything you need to know – that whereas Germans over the last two decades have voted themselves a 20% pay rise, the French have voted 90%.
Apart from anything else it was an affront to north European taxpayers that they should be expected to protect the ill-gotten gains of Russian oligarchs and the like and that a Euro country was being used to launder money. But you could say much the same about Luxembourg except that with more rigorous stewardship its banks have not gone belly up.
As for the future of the Euro itself, on which our own recovery is so heavily dependent, the storm clouds refuse to go away. This is because of the disparities between the economies of the north and south and the huge differences in competitiveness between them. It is so great that it has built up debt levels in the Club Med countries that are unsustainable. My belief is that the Euro will survive, but the weaker members, which never qualified for entry in the first place, will be let go. If only those rules of entry had been applied, so much of the pain currently being felt could have been avoided. But, as is so often the case, politics triumphed over sound money and we are all left with the consequences.
The bones of King Richard III are now awaiting disposal. When permission was sought for the highly speculative dig to uncover them from the Leicester city car park – where they had lain undisturbed for 528 years – the Ministry of Justice gave the nod and indicated that, if authenticated, they should be reinterred in the city’s cathedral.
First of all, I have to ask: who has rights over a monarch’s remains? I doubt very much if the Ministry of Justice, or indeed any of the secular authorities, have such rights. Were they to exist anywhere – excepting a ‘finders, keepers’ argument – I would have thought they rested with the monarch of the day, under perhaps advice from the ecclesiastical authorities. So, prime minister, please butt out!
Richard III, we now know, was a genuinely good king. Apart from being anointed, and therefore a totally bona fide one with a genuine claim to the throne – unlike his successor – he carried out a whole range of enlightened measures during his two short years as monarch. And forensic examination of the skeleton has told us a great deal – much of it extraordinary. He was neither a freak, as Shakespeare wrote, nor was he ugly (or ‘evil-looking’) as the Bard also insisted. He certainly died violently, but in view of his very slight – almost female-like – frame and physical disabilities, his final sortie into a melee of armoured knights to cut down his usurper rival would have won him a posthumous Victoria Cross in today’s world. So, a hero too!
Let us look at his personality and character – again, hugely disparaged by Shakespeare. Shrinks have examined his whole conduct throughout the thirty two year of his life and they paint a most sympathetic profile. They point to a sad and difficult childhood which, nevertheless, led to an empathetic man with loyal instincts who most certainly knew the difference between right and wrong – and who was extremely pious. Goodbye, we have to say, to the idea that such a man could have murdered his two young nephews, the ‘princes in the tower’.
Nowadays Richard’s disability – his scoliosis and sideways-bent spine – would have evoked great sympathy. Then, however, poor Richard would have been regarded as a pitiable object of scorn rejected by God. But his disability would only have been known to his family – and doubtless the aristocracy (people like to titter) – but not, I suspect, to the general public. Medieval attire of the time, with its raised and puffed-up shoulders, would easily have camouflaged the lower-than-other shoulder. The deeds attributed to this “accursed of God” Richard have him to be a schizophrenic psychopath, yet modern medics insist he was nothing of the sort. Clearly we are going to have to re-write our history books.
We may continue to enjoy Shakespeare’s play for its powerful drama but dismiss its history content. We should do exactly the same with Scotland’s much maligned king, Macbeth. But at least the Bard proved himself even-handed in rubbishing the kings of both kingdoms. (History, we have to acknowledge, was not Shakespeare’s forte.)
As for Richard’s treatment after his heroic death in action, on that occasion the victor, Henry Tudor, let himself down very badly. No chivalric generosity from him to his fallen foe brought down by treachery, but vilification and humiliation. When was ever a king of England stripped naked and slung over an ass for all to see on a fifteen-mile journey from the battlefield to the nearest town, in this case Leicester? Along the way, ignorant locals were encouraged to insult the former king and one went so far as to plunge his dagger so deep into the king’s buttock that it went right through and damaged the pelvis. And when was a king of England was dumped unceremoniously into a hastily dug hole without so much as a shroud to cover his nakedness, much less a coffin? I am sure that the friars who attended had never seen a burial quite like it in their friary – or anywhere else for that matter – and would have wished it otherwise. But they would have been scared stiff of the mailed ruffians who dumped the body on them and of showing the proper respect which was due. They obviously were told to get rid of it quickly and were not minded to disobey or show any form of reverence. Just a few whispered words of the sacraments would have been permitted. Only such a scenario could account for the utter disrespect of it all.
We have much to apologise for to that fallen monarch whose character we then went on to impugn for a full five hundred years with a litany of the most dreadful lies. But now we have a God-given opportunity to make amends, and the eyes of the world are on us.
The dig’s success has excited a worldwide level of interest, with some saying it is among the greatest archaeological finds in the last hundred years. No English king since Richard the Lionheart is better known abroad, and unlike the alleged wickedness of the third Richard, the first (Lionheart) really did do terrible things – like massacre hundreds of Muslim children. There’s an element of black comedy here: one is seen as a hero (he’s even got a statue outside Parliament) and the other as a villain. Yet the truth is that the Lionheart cared little for his English kingdom and preferring his French realm. He didn’t even speak English, and out of his eleven-year reign he spent only months in England. On the other hand, Plantagenet Richard was a first-class administrator who set to with gusto in making England a much more agreeable place for the common man to live.
It seems to me that our Queen is the one best placed to set the seal on this final verdict of history. She is, after all, his successor, and a devout Christian, like him. It will not do for a lesser royal than her to attend the re-interment. To do so would be to suggest that she does not accept the forensic and psychiatric evidence which has exonerated Richard. That would be ungracious, to say the least – even unwise. I feel she is duty-bound to close this final chapter with the dignity it deserves. 538 years is a long time for her ancestor to stand falsely accused.
When the murdered Tsar’s remains were found, the Russian state decided to do right by him by ceremoniously re-interring the bones in the St. Petersburg home of Russian Tsars and the then president, Boris Yeltsin, attended. England can do no less for the last of the Plantagenets, its longest reigning dynasty. This great saga of English kingship can only be brought to a fitting conclusion, in my view, by burial in Westminster Abbey – the most ancient and hallowed resting place of England’s kings and where most of Richard’s ancestors lie. A final, powerful argument for the Abbey is the fact that his beloved wife and Queen – Anne Neville – whose loss he is said to have caused him to cry at her funeral (strange behaviour for a psychopath!) is buried there.
Our Queen is said to have not much liked the Duchess of Windsor, and her mother positively loathed her. But neither denied her right to have her body brought back from exile and laid to rest beside that of her husband, the former Edward VIII. Richard has that right, too.
Finally, the Richard III Society are to be congratulated for their steadfastness over the generations in believing that England never had such a wicked king and that Richard was a good man with the right instincts. Most of all, the young woman who spearheaded the efforts to find Richard, Philippa Langley, is the true heroin of it all.
I have not written about anything that causes me so much pain as this article does. This is because as a Briton, proud of what my country has achieved down the ages, I am ashamed of the shocking scandal unfolding in what was meant to be our pride and joy: the NHS. Nothing in my experience begins to compare with the sheer magnitude of it all; the needless deaths, through wanton neglect, of almost certainly thousands of people in our hospitals.
Fish rot from the head and any man – and we speak of Sir David Nicholson – who believed that the totalitarian system that was once the USSR was a good thing should never have been put in charge of such an organisation as the NHS. Apparently his hero was the gruesome Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. It shocked me how readily and swiftly the PM and Heath Secretary sprang to his defence. Perhaps it was because Nicholson had a reputation, when ordered to do things, of carrying out those orders. While that may be so, the consequences, as whistleblowers made clear to Nicholson, was an unfolding tragedy of epic proportions. But orders are orders and Nicholson ploughed on, heedless of the human misery he was unleashing. In order to achieve his purpose and and keep to his ‘good’ name as a man who could be relied on to deliver, a climate of fear was created throughout the NHS. How very USSR-like.
I will not detail the horror stories which have emerged: you are all familiar with them. But instead of being reassured, looked after and returned to health, where possible, people died in their hundreds, indeed – across the NHS – in their thousands. A single hospital stands accused of up to 1,200 deaths.
We all remember the unconscionable time we often waited for routine operations and A&E. The last government decided to do something about it. Everything was done with the best of intentions, but as we all know, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. When it became apparent that their action plan was not working out, another well known maxim kicked in: the law of unintended consequences. At that point Nicholson and his Labour masters should have paused and taken stock. But they did not.
So what has become of us that we have failed in almost the most fundamental of all our duties, the care of our old? When our troops burst in on Belson concentration camp they found a level of horror – of man’s inhumanity to man – not known in the whole of human experience. We put the perpetrators on trial and hanged them. At their trial they pleaded that they were obeying orders. What they did not plead – though they might have done – was that they had been conditioned for years to see their victims not as human beings, but as the lowest of the low – a sub-species – not worthy of using up precious resources. I fear that when our old people – be they in care homes or hospitals – fall into frailty, incontinence or dementia, something of a similar attitude takes hold in disquieting numbers among those charged with looking after them. Yet in their case they do not even have the excuse of saying that their government had told them their charges were worthless. So, what is it that allows lethal, criminal neglect, which were it directed at a child or even a dog would send us into paroxysms of fury ending in stiff prison sentences but does not do so with our old and helpless? I truly do not understand it!
What is incredible is that the unfeeling apparatchik who presided over it all was not only not held to account, but promoted to the top job in the NHS. How very public sector-like. And this man – would you believe – is judged by himself (and Cameron) to be the best person to sort it all out even though he admitted to a Commons Select Committee that he had no idea what was going on in the wards. Well, it’s a funny kind of CEO – in whom 90 per cent of his own workforce have no faith – that hasn’t a clue what the troops are up to. And even funnier that such a level of incompetence should inspire the political leadership to think that in this broad land of 63 million there is none better.
The Francis Report into the failings of the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Trust wanted to name names, but using, as ever, our money – just like the BBC – the ‘fingered’ individuals engaged the sharpest, most expensive lawyers in the business to threaten Robert Francis with law suits. After three months of arguments and delay, he buckled. It all, thereafter, magically became the fault of ‘the system’. Nothing, said the chastened Francis, was to be gained by ‘scapegoating’. Sorry, Robert, but people did this thing and people must answer. Start with David Nicholson and move down to ward level. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that the whole farrago involves multiple, pitiless deaths which on a head count makes the Harold Shipman outrage look like a trifling matter. And at least Shipman’s victims were despatched painlessly and their road to Calvary travelled with great expedition.
A chief characteristic that distinguishes our species from every other in the animal kingdom is our sense of dignity. From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go to bed, we carefully nurture the image of how we wish the world to perceive us. Take that away and you have inflicted the cruelest of hurts. So being careless of people’s nakedness and forcing them into adult nappies because it is too much trouble to help them to the toilet is unforgivable; to leave them in soiled, cold, soaking sheets covered in their own dried excrement caked in overgrown nails which nurse graduates feel too grand to cut is beyond my powers of description; to force them to struggle to reach for water and food which is beyond reach is totally criminal.
Death is the single most difficult event that any of us will have to handle. To meet it in squalor, neglect and suffering over a protracted period with all dignity stripped away is impossible to equate with a civilised society. In my view we are all guilty, every last one of us – just as the entire German nation was guilty of the Holocaust. In both cases we allowed it to happen on our watch. We strut the world stage fixated on our favourite hobby horse, Human Rights, lecturing anyone unfortunate enough to cross our path on the virtues of compassion, yet we show nothing of it on too many of our wards. Shouldn’t Charity begin at home?
Those charged with looking after the fathers and mothers who fought two World Wars for us, and whose sacrifices in the years following brought us social security and prosperity, have a sacred duty to perform. They should remember that they were not always the sad, helpless individuals they see before them, but once vibrant men and women who held down jobs and brought up children. If it would help them to understand this, let a photo be affixed to the head of every bed to show their carers how they looked in their glory days and let a caption tell the story of who they were and what they did.
Managing human population growth will be one of the biggest challenges of this century. Two years ago, I remember being alarmed to learn that, somewhere, the seventh billion human being had been born.
When we are struggling to provide work and homes – even in this still rich country – for our own British young people, how are we going to provide similarly for such numbers in its poorest regions? Even more worrying is that some pundits estimate the planet’s population will not level off until 14 billion has been reached (even in the best scenario, it is said to level off at around nine to 10 billion in the 2060s). Even David Attenborough has expressed his concern in a recent interview, describing the human race as “a plague” on the planet.
Ukip’s 2nd place finish in the recent Eastleigh by-election has been attributed by many to the party’s focus on immigration. And with the expected influx of Romanian and Bulgarian workers next year certain to add pressure to our already stretched public services, the British public has a right to be concerned.
Our own island serves very well as a microcosm of what is happening beyond our shores. When the Romans arrived here 2,000 years ago, it is thought that between 1.5 and 2 million people lived here. It took the whole fifteen-hundred-year period, right up to the reign of Elizabeth I, for that number to double. Yet in just the next 500 years it grew fifteen fold. If we already have a housing problem with strains on public services such as hospitals, schools, transport, only a person in denial would dispute that the expected influx of Eastern Europeans would not further exacerbate it greatly.
Like other developed countries around the world, the UK has a demographic time bomb about to explode; many would argue that a smaller and smaller workforce supporting a larger and larger retired sector is an even more alarming problem than that posed by rising immigration. Yet if Britons’ birth rate is insufficient, they say, we must bolster it with fecund young people from abroad. This, we have to admit, is a cogent argument.
What was needed (and still is) was a national debate in which all these issues could be thoroughly aired. But we didn’t get it. What we got from the Blair government instead was a sly and silent opening of the floodgates, which resulted in a totally unfocused rush towards this country of people with minimal skills and often a hostile outlook towards us. The flood was greater than any known in our history before. It was, in fact, a scandal, perhaps even a crime. What was actually needed was a measured import of those high in skills of the sort this country could have benefited from economically. What was not needed was what amounted to an assault on the working classes by importing people who would work for next to nothing and take the jobs which otherwise would have been theirs. The crime, as I see it, is here.
Yet I believe there was also another crime in pursuing a policy which has the capability, perhaps, of changing the character of our nation forever without securing the consent of the people.
I believe in being open and accommodating to people of all races. After all, no people on the planet have had greater experience of rubbing along with people from other cultures. Ours was the most benign, dynamic and just of all the European empires. Indeed, a local Algerian shopkeeper once told me he saw his own father shot dead before him by the French during their war for independence. Better, he said, had Algeria belonged to the British Empire. “Why? I asked. “Well, they were gentlemen,” he replied.
I’m not saying we never did terrible things: consider Amritsar in the Punjab in 1919, when Ghurkhas under a rogue British brigadier shot dead 400 people at an illegal protest gathering. But at least there was a hell of a public hullabaloo, and a court of inquiry afterwards.
Yet despite such isolated incidents, none of the other former empires have been able to inspire such warmth and a feeling of togetherness. We therefore have no need to take lessons from anyone in how to treat people from other lands. Except, perhaps, from that other former colony of ours which feels the greatest warmth of all to us, but which, strangely, does not belong to the Commonwealth: the United States. There, if you want to make that country your home you have to accept all its values; citizenship comes as a complete package. You must be an American first, and a Hispanic, Japanese or Pakistani second. The U.S. does, however, have problems with its own burgeoning population. But at least it enjoys the luxury of having 32 times more space than we have.
It seems certain that whatever measures the world takes, it cannot hope to stop that seven billionth baby being joined by another three billion others before this century is halfway through. But I believe that human resilience will win through in the end. This has to be by raising living standards in the Third World. Only by spreading prosperity will you put effective brakes on population growth. Show me a First World country with an out of control birth rate (except, that is, where out of control immigration has been allowed).
The greatest service we could do for Africa is to get rid of the protectionist and cruel Common Agricultural Policy. Our chance to do that is coming soon when the Euro nations need our agreement for treaty amendments in the years ahead. Plus, we must bite the bullet where GM foods are concerned. Contrary to what Prince Charles may believe, only with vastly increased yields will we have any hope of filling all those extra hungry mouths.
History will not be kind to Tony Blair. He found Britain a prosperous place – having recovered spectacularly from the ERM disaster – and left it virtually bankrupt and mired in two unwinnable wars.
Some might say this is a strange thing to claim concerning a prime minister who won three successive elections and even today is held in sufficient international regard to be appointed by the quartet of EU, USA, Russia and Britain to act as Middle East peace envoy. So why do I take issue with these two salient facts? It is my belief that our former prime minister succeeded in taking in not only ourselves, but a great part of the world beyond.
Blair took little old me in back in 1997. Indeed, if we cast our minds back to that now distant time it seems extraordinary that a government should be thrown out of office when it has got the economy into a rock solid position (so solid, as I recall, that it was starting to pay down the national debt).
Received wisdom tells us that it is the state of national finances that decides elections, yet the ‘grey man’, John Major, went down to a resounding defeat. Why was this? Partly because he was that ‘grey man’ and lacked charisma, whereas his opponent had oodles of it and was young as well as good-looking. And there had also been a series of huge embarrassments for the Conservative government: ‘cash-for-questions’; the armed forces procurement minister having his Paris hotel bill paid by a Arab Sheik; the gaoling of Jeffrey Archer; sexual shenanigans from a government that preached ‘back to basics’ (nobody knew at the time that the PM himself had had a dalliance with Edwina Currie); and then there was the mighty cock up of our ejection from the ERM which did so much to destroy the Tory’s reputation for economic competence.
Often forgotten is the fact that all three parties, along with the CBI, the Institute of Directors and just about everybody else was gung-ho for entry to the Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was therefore rank hypocrisy later for the opposition to use this as a stick with which to beat the government.
But I believe the biggest of all factors in Tony Blair coming to power was the national weariness of seeing the same old faces in place for 18 years. Blair seemed like a breath of fresh air; and how could we know that we were about to embrace the Nigel Havers of politics? But the one factor which still made the nation hesitate was Labour’s own reputation for fiscal incontinence. Indeed, every one of its administrations had gone down in a welter of financial mismanagement. To allay these last remaining doubts, Tony and his glowering, thwarted would-be leader Gordon Brown pledged faithfully to hold to Tory spending plans for the next two years.
So the die was cast and ‘Call me Tony’ took up residency in Downing Street. We used to call him ‘Bambi’ early on as he seemed to have no enemies, promising all things to all men with the most winning smile that had ever beamed out to the nation from Downing Street.
My own doubts began with the squalid Bernie Ecclestone affair very early on when all cigarette advertising was banned from sporting events except – mysteriously – from Bernie’s Formula One. For me it was downhill ever after as sleaze piled upon more sleaze, and all from the man who promised a government that would be ‘whiter than white’.
When the two years of financial rectitude was up, a spending splurge of awesome proportions was announced. There was to be no more ‘fixing the roof while the sun was shining’: it was to be spend, spend, spend.
The national debt went through the roof and no attempt was made to ensure taxpayers got value for money. It was just assumed that if you threw enough dosh at a problem it would go away. Instead, it went largely into the pay packets and pension pots of the new elite – the public sector, which was allowed to expand dramatically.
The upshot of it all is that we find ourselves today in the most dire condition that it is possible to imagine. Even private debt has gone through the roof. The spendthrift ‘Prudence’ Brown at the treasury seemed almost relieved to have someone else join him in the bankruptcy stakes. The growing credit bubble – which Gordon called growth – seemed like a never ending jolly, but like the puppet master in Downing Street it was a cruel illusion – all smoke and mirrors. Every pound Gordon borrowed he insisted was an ‘investment in the future’. Some future!
When he was in Brussels, he liked to turn off his headset so he couldn’t listen to what his peers had to say. But when it was his turn, he couldn’t resist lecturing them – in particular the Germans – on sound economics. All the while his bête noir boss left him to it so he could swan around the world offering his own advice and attempting to nation-build with armed forces Gordon constantly denuded of the equipment necessary to carry out his grandiose schemes. It was all very frustrating for the man who ‘felt the hand of history on his shoulder’.
While it’s fair to say the mess that the world finds itself in today would still be there, even without the contribution of Blair and his Chancellor, it is also fair to say that for us in the UK it would be manageable – as it is for Germany, Canada and others who handled their affairs with Gordon Brown’s once favourite word, prudence.
Bill Clinton, another out of the charisma stable of politicians, started it all back in 1998 when he urged Alan Greenspan, the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to help poor Americans become home owners – even those with no obvious means of repaying their debt. Thus began the sub-prime tragedy which spread around the world in concealed financial packages. But what did it for us and turned a problem into a disaster was that wild, decade-long spending jamboree.
As for our Tony, he doesn’t see or acknowledge any of this. He’s lost now in his own little bubble. He wanted to be President of Europe, but instead has settled – uniquely and rather unedifyingly for a Labour leader – on becoming stinkingly rich as well as continuing to offer pearls of wisdom to anyone who’ll listen. It worries me that his current successor in Downing Street is one who will. It worries me also that he has always been one of Tony’s fans, and despite everything remains so. What does this tell us about Cameron? Is this yet another judgement issue of his?
As an avowed Christian, it seemed for a while that faith might intrude on the Blair business of governance. There seemed often to be a touch of messianic fervour to his pronouncements. But his spin master, Alastair Campbell, slapped him down on this one, insisting that New Labour ‘didn’t do God’. Some might argue that Tony’s present ambition (he owns seven homes and counting) to join the mega rich club hinders his ultimate passage to celestial regions, and that he should remember his master’s admonition of how it is ‘easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’.