Following the award-winning movie on Dunkirk last summer, another blockbuster is to be released on 12th January concerning those testing days for Britain. Called ‘Darkest Hour’, it provides an account of the chaotic and emotional cabinet scenes that surrounded the calls for a negotiated peace with a triumphant, and seemingly unstoppable, Hitler.
In the long period of the 1930s, the appeasers had very largely held the floor. From the top echelons of the political establishment, only the siren warnings of Churchill had interrupted their narrative. Now, in the spring of 1940, Western Europe was ablaze with the British army in headlong retreat and its mighty French ally on the point of collapse. In all of Britain’s long history, no direr situation had ever confronted it. Both Philip II of Spain and Napoleon has posed just as great a risk of invasion, and historians are all agreed that, in both cases, their armies, once landed, would have been successful. But the regimes imposed would have been pussycats compared to the one which a Hitlerite Germany would have delivered, had it been obliged to fight its way into Britain.
Only one man stood out as having the credentials to lead the nation in a government of national unity. Churchill – for all his many flaws – had, since Hitler’s ascent to power seven year earlier, stridently warned of the ‘gathering storm’. He had called for rearmament and condemned the Munich Agreement it as an ‘unmitigated defeat’ for the democracies. It was now patently clear that he was right. Moreover, he alone had held ministerial rank during the previous war. As such, he was acceptable to both opposition parties whereas the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, were not. Neither were deemed credible as war leaders. What was not known – and this is what the movie seeks to make clear – was how very close Britain came to choosing a different path from the one it did. I want to argue that from Britain’s point of view, and indeed the world’s, it chose the wrong path.
Timing is everything. In May 1940, Churchill has luck on his side – even the weather. Fortuitously, as it turned out, he was right to argue passionately that his country should fight on. But he was only just right because, at that time, Britain stood in the gravest danger of losing its entire army on the beaches of Dunkirk. Without it and its French ally, it would almost certainly have been obliged to sue for peace. Even in those circumstances, as I have argued in previous writings, Hitler would have granted what the world would have perceived as an honourable peace. He had no quarrel with Britain and saw war with it as a distraction from his main purpose: the defeat of the Soviet Union. He even admired Britain’s conquests around the world.
Yet by fighting on at that stage, two stunning results were delivered and they strengthened Britain’s arm immeasurably. The first was the miraculous rescue of its all but doomed army, and the second was the defeat of the Luftwaffe over the skies of southern England. Together, they placed Britain in an altogether stronger position vis-à-vis the Nazi juggernaut. Its high command knew at that point that the option of defeating Britain in the short term had been lost. Remaining in its rear would be an enemy with a dagger always at its back. This was the opportunity Britain should have seized.
Britain’s best interests would undoubtedly have been served by negotiating a deal. It would have been a deal between equals, with Germany triumphant on land and Britain equal in the air and, as ever, triumphant at sea. Minus the air, almost an exact parallel could be drawn with Philip’s army in the Low Countries and Napoleon’s at Boulogne.
But with the passage of time – perhaps three years – Britain would have been able to defeat Hitler, and without even the entry of the United States into the war. Immense bloodshed would have been avoided as a result of a much earlier end to the war. Most of the killing outside of Russia took place in its final phases. During that time, of course, the Soviet Union would have been utterly defeated by the Nazis, who came within a whisker of total defeat anyway. With peace in his rear, Hitler would have felt safe to turn his whole war machine against the enemy in the East. Communism would have been destroyed and Central and Eastern Europe spared what happened to it during the years of the Cold War. China, too, would have been spared the horrors of Mao.
The means by which Britain could have defeated the Third Reich unaided was with the atomic bomb. In 1939, when the war broke out, Britain was the most advanced country in the world in nuclear physics. It even had its own atomic weapons programme, codenamed “Tube Alloys”, years before the American Manhattan Project. At this point, Britain was still an immensely rich country with vast overseas holdings, despite all the asset sales of the previous war against Germany.
People will argue that, despite our initial lead, Americans got there first with the atomic bomb. Yes, indeed! But that was because Britain chose to fight Hitler when it did. Had it conserved its wealth and industrial capacity – during what would have amounted to a phoney peace – it could have resumed and accelerated the Tube Alloys programme: a project even further removed from the prying eyes of the Reich than the Manhattan Project in the deserts of New Mexico. Australia would have been the perfect testing ground, as it proved later when Britain did eventually develop and test its own bomb in 1952.
It was principally the gigantic financial and industrial effort needed to create Britain’s vast bomber fleets, along with the warships, tanks and other paraphernalia of war, that robbed Britain of the capacity to take on another major project such as this. It was with government approval, given at the Quebec Conference between Britain and America, that its nuclear physicists decamped en masse to its ally to pursue the work there. Until quite late in the day, the US had shown little interest in the explosive potential of the atomic bomb. It cannot be denied that, had it prioritised the lead it had enjoyed pre-war, Britain would have got to the bomb first.
What would have been the benefit to Britain of a phoney peace of the sort Stalin made with Hitler while it raced ahead to be the sole possessor of the bomb? Well, it would have dictated the post-war peace. Communism would have been eradicated from the world and Britain’s status as a great power preserved or even enhanced. For a period, at least, Britain would have resumed its former position of top dog. It would have avoided bankruptcy and heavy military losses. Although its empire would, in the fullness of time, have been wound down, it would not have happened so precipitously. Its peoples would have had more opportunity to develop fully functioning civic and democratic processes.
During the phoney peace with Hitler, Britain would have been in a position to increase massively its military presence in the Far East and given Imperial Japan pause for thought before confronting it and the United States. Indeed, Japan has admitted that it was only the hugely successful raid by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm on the Italian fleet, as it lay at anchor in Taranto, that emboldened it to believe that it could do much the same at Pearl Harbour. That raid is unlikely to have taken place under the scenario I have outlined. Although ultimately defeated, the humiliations which Japan heaped on Western powers during its six-month rampage through the Pacific destroyed the previous aura of white invincibility and brought about over-hasty rushes to independence. An informed guess would be that fifty- or seventy-five years might have passed before the colonial handovers eventually did take place. We might now be seeing Prince Charles or William globe-trotting the world performing the flag lowering ceremonies.
It is also fair to say that the Holocaust, itself, could well have been avoided. There were no plans to liquidate Jewry in its entirety while Hitler was winning the war. Other solutions were sought, such as shipment to Madagascar or resettlement beyond the Urals as slave labour. Only a mad belief that the power of international Jewry had brought about the war, and that if he was going to go down he would take Jewry with him, fuelled Hitler’s fanaticism into outright genocide. He never seems to have asked himself why, if international Jewry was so over-achingly powerful, it proved so utterly helpless to protect its own when he began his persecutions and eventual descent into genocide. Had the war ended sooner, and he been allowed meantime to conquer the whole of the Soviet Union before he himself faced sudden Armageddon, that terrible blot on humanity might never have happened.
It will be argued by some that there was no guarantee that the bomb would ever work. To that I would counter that a large majority of scientists, including Einstein, were confident it would. There was certainly more chance of it working than ever there was of Britain winning the war on its own without it, and that was the starkness of the choice faced by the war cabinet at that time. Perhaps, in the circumstances, and with the dice so heavily loaded against them, they were irresponsible to take the gamble they did. After all, it was a nation’s very existence they were there to consider. In the event, victory did eventually come, but it came at a terrible cost.
All in all, a powerful case can be made for the alternative narrative: the one which would have bought Britain time, rather than the one that actually did win the day during those heated and emotional exchanges in May 1940. The outcome, in my view, might now be a calmer, happier world than the one we see around us.
Except in America, the state goes to considerable lengths to keep weapons under control – particularly those of mass destruction. It fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to that end. Yet each of us is weaponised in a user-friendly way that cannot be controlled.
The moment we slam the door shut on half a ton of metal and hurtle off at who-knows-what breakneck speed, we are weaponised to an extraordinary degree. Never was this more dramatically rammed home than at Nice last year when over eighty people were crushed to death and untold numbers of others crippled and scarred for life.
Suddenly both we, and our enemies, realised that all around us were ready means of destruction on a massive scale. Worse was the knowledge that the state was powerless in the situation and that you didn’t need bomb factories, ingredients and planning, all of which it did have a chance of monitoring. You simply could step out one morning and kill a hundred people if your vehicle was sufficiently beefy. It was a terrifying realisation.
The car has been a hugely liberating and empowering development in the human story. Up to the eighteenth century, people rarely travelled more than eight miles from the place they were born. Suddenly, their territory was covered in asphalted roads which enabled them to reach the furthest corner of their homeland in incredible time. Journeys of weeks were reduced to hours. Moreover, those freezing weeks of bone-shaking boredom in horse-drawn carriage on rutted, unmade roads were now reduced to hours of warmth and comfort in which people didn’t need to listen to the inane witterings of strangers. Within a short time, we could enrich the airwaves with the finest music our species has created or hear the intelligent musings of the more articulate and entertaining of our people.
Nothing, I suggest, of all the wondrous technological achievements of recent times, including television and the Internet, has been embraced with such enthusiasm. It does, however – as most things do – have a downside. It is partly responsible, I feel, for our failure to engage with our neighbours. Where once our walk to work or the shops brought us into contact, we now take five paces out from our front door into the car and race off. Another downside, which has taken us a hundred years to experience, is that in the hands of a sick fanatic a vehicle can be as devastating as a machine gun. Yet another, and one to which we blissfully give insufficient thought, is that among the myriad things we humans get up to – and in this I include adrenaline sports – nothing puts us at greater risk of killing ourselves. Those same said comforts lull us into a false sense of security. Our constant search for ergonomic improvements has led to ever quieter engines which, when combined with superior suspension systems, can find the car having magicked its speed up to 100 mph with us barely noticing. Not only does this ‘improvement’ bring greater danger to ourselves, but to pedestrians as well. The virtually noiseless electric car is already upon us.
It is a rare person who regards himself as being anything other than a good, safe driver. Most of us regard our skills to be greater than they are. Next to our home and, much more so than our workplace, the car excels as our number two comfort zone. That very factor should give us pause for thought. You are much more at risk of complacency when you’re relaxed in your comfort zone.
We set out each day confident in the belief that our skills will protect us and steadfastly imagine that our safety is almost wholly in our own hands. This, however, completely misses the elephant in the room. Our safety is actually in the hands of strangers. Every time we embark on a journey we rely utterly on every other driver to do the right thing. Hundreds – or even thousands on a long journey – of other drivers whiz by us; if just one of them makes a misjudgement or is distracted, particularly on a bend, we become another statistic – one of over 5,000 who die annually on our roads.
It is a sobering thought that while so many of us are scared of flying, we are many, many thousands of times more likely to die in your nice, comfortable runabout. Just as astonishing is the blind faith we place in strangers to ensure that this does not happen. But having said all this, and despite these undoubtedly serious caveats, the car remains a wonderful thing.
Getting around was once the preserve of the rich: those who had a horse. It stayed that way during the early years of motoring. Then along came Henry Ford with his Model T and the masses joined in the fun. Even a Caesar would have envied what was now available to the least of what would have been his subjects.
Crazy, over-confident drivers are not the only people we should fear on the road. There are those afraid of their own shadow. While we have gained protection to a degree by applying tests both to ourselves and our vehicles, we cannot shield ourselves from the motorist who insists on driving super-cautiously, often well below the permitted speed limit. He or she can so drive fellow motorists up the wall that even the most forgiving can do the unthinkable and precipitate an accident. Nonchalantly blind to the stress levels building up in the queue stretching away to their rear, the slow-coach Sunday driver is a true menace. But hope is on the horizon. Within a generation, most of our journeys will be driverless. Even the slow-coach will have been speeded up. Fatalities on the road will plummet. That should be welcome news to all of us, but think how that prospect will cheer the Greeks and, indeed, all the nations with horrendously worse records than our own. Worldwide, over a decade, millions will live to see old age.
It is often difficult to know what sort of person an individual is. But here again this chariot of the common man excels. Spend half an hour behind anyone, especially in an urban area, and you will have many of the answers which even daily concourse can fail to provide. The way we drive reveals so much about ourselves. Cars expose our true selves in a way so few activities can. They expose show-offs, bullies and chancers. They show whether you’re considerate and polite or, God forbid, indecisive like that slowcoach. And what about the personalised number plate man (as he almost always is a man)? Unthinkingly, he reveals to the world that he’s a narcissist, a man in love with himself. Life is a cabaret and people are supremely adept at hiding their true personality. But put them in charge of a car and all will be revealed, for better or worse.
The year that is now drawing to a close has been a special one for India and Pakistan. Seventy years have passed since they went their separate ways after independence. Few would have thought that they would not have settled their differences after such a period of time, much less fought three wars along the way. Many blame the former colonial power, saying that that a failure to prevent the 5,000 inter-communal deaths which took place in Calcutta a year before independence should have alerted it as to the possible consequences if it failed to deploy the military in the run-up to independence.
At this distance in time, is it possible to take an objective view of the British role of the good, the bad and the ugly of what took place? Perhaps not quite. There are still numbers living whose early lives were traumatised by the unexpectedly bloody partition insisted on by ambitious Hindu and Muslim politicians. Both the government in New Delhi and Gandhi did not want the sundering of a sub-continent, which through guile, able administration – and yes, from time to time, brute force – had worked cohesively for two-hundred years.
Had the colonial power been stronger, and not itself traumatised as well as impoverished by combating German militarism in two world wars, it could have refused those ambitious politicians independence, until such time as they agreed to work together. In other words, it could have said: “We will stay for as long as it takes. You have shown yourselves able to co-exist for two-hundred years and we will not see this good work thrown away.”
What a benefit that would have bestowed, had that been possible. The unified former British India would by now be far and away the world’s largest country. Instead of building up nuclear arsenals, and spending crippling amounts confronting each other, it could have deployed that money to place itself at the forefront of the world technologically. It is difficult to think of a single instance in history where such an opportunity was thrown away. The British had been a strange mix of arrogance, barbarity and enlightenment. Always determined to get their own way – because they considered they knew best – if you buckled down, and accepted what was on offer, they could be good and decent folk to deal with. If not, the consequences could be deadly, and they often were.
Did, then, the sub-continent benefit or suffer from the British experience? It is true that by the time Westerners arrived in any numbers it was enjoying a period of sheer brilliance and prosperity under its Moghul (Muslim) conquerors. Some have estimated that at its height it represented 25% of the world’s GDP. However, a few generations following the arrival of British merchants it had fallen into anarchy. In a remarkably short time, those merchant traders formed themselves into the world’s first multi-national company. Soon the company morphed into the most effective power in the land; it saw opportunities and riches which dazzled, and to protect its developing interests it formed an army (mostly of locals) but officered by its own people.
It had never been The Company’s intention to take over the land. Quite the reverse, such an enterprise seemed to it burdensome. But the alternative guaranteed only a continuance of anarchy, and that was not conducive to making money. In the end you had something unique in human history: a company, not a political power, ruling an entire country – one of the largest, most glittering and most populace lands in the entire world.
So, was the rule of The Company and later The Crown oppressive, even cruel? No more – and many would argue a lot less – than the terrible consequences of the breakdown of Moghul law and order and all that that entailed. So bad did things become that travel between towns became a dice with death. Murderous Thuggees (the term from which we derive the word thug) roamed the land. The new rulers made short shrift of such practices.
Many of the early British arrivals were rapacious chancers. Their sole aim was to get rich quick. Their duplicity broke all records in double-dealing. But, among the newcomers were also men of great integrity, such as Warren Hastings. Such men dressed like Indians, took Indian wives, adopted Indian customs and had no notions of racial superiority. They were hugely interested in India’s past civilisations including its ancient, almost lost, language of Sanskrit which they resurrected. Five universities were set up, one of which became the second largest in the world and the School of Oriental Studies began its work. Great institutions were established along with a free press. Some of the most gifted and dedicated young men ever to leave Britain’s shores were trained at a public school, Haileybury, specially set up to teach them Indian ways as well as languages. It was the alma mater of Clement Attlee himself, the prime minister at the time of independence.
I will not bore you with a full list of the engineering projects; the millions of acres brought under cultivation; the 40,000 miles each of railways and canals; a superior version of our own Common Law tailored specifically to meet Indian needs; the banning of widow burning; the restoration of crumbling architectural wonders, including the Taj Mahal, that took place over the next two centuries; also, the most incorruptible civil service in the world, the ICS, (Indian Civil Service), whose entrance examination equalled that of the Mandarin system in China.
Although a land run by a company for the first half of its existence, it was, undeniably, an empire – an empire in the days when empires were fashionable and, yes, like all empires it was created and ultimately sustained by force. The Indian Mutiny – known to locals as the first war of independence – was put down with a ruthlessness which surprised – and appalled – many back home. Abominations did take place even decades later, such as the almost 1,000 mercilessly gunned down by an out of control colonel at Amritsar in 1919 who feared a new Indian Mutiny. It led to a Commission of Inquiry, with Churchill calling the massacre “monstrous” and widespread British condemnation. But, having said all this, the question remains: could never more than 100,000 Europeans have sustained their position and administered 400 million people for 200 years without a huge amount of local participation and – dare it be said – consent? And what should history make of the 2 million who came to Britain’s aid in two World Wars? It was the largest volunteer army in history.
As empires go, the British version is often said to be one of the better ones. Why else, people argue, would the leaders of 53 countries travel from the ends of the earth every two years to enjoy Commonwealth gettogethers? (There are no such nostalgic gatherings, they point out, for the French, Spanish and Portugese former empires.) And why, with the two exceptions of Canada and Ireland, did they all adopt the British national game of cricket and make it their own? For many, these Test Match contests played around the globe are almost the most exciting item in their calendars.
Today we all accept that no one has the right to impose their systems – however elevated they believe it be – on someone else’s country, but that take is a relatively modern one and we see things now through different eyes. Neither the money-obsessed Georgians, who began it all, nor the Victorians, who believed they were doing God’s work, saw anything wrong in empire-building. That’s what you did in those days if you had the means. It had been going on since time immemorial. With the fall of the Soviet empire – which absurdly it refused to accept was an empire – that phase of human aggrandisement, thankfully, came to an end. Today, with all our international forums, it is safe to say we have seen the last of them.
Press freedom in Britain still cannot shake off the malign shadows of Max Mosley and other celebrities
Celebrities are unable to put behind them the exposure of their peccadillos – and worse – to a sometimes amused, but increasingly exasperated and angry public. Furious that government efforts to control the flow of information concerning them does not seem to be working, the Leveson-inspired Royal Commission on the Press comes back for another bite to the precious, 300-year-old cherry of press freedom.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a genuinely independent press regulator set up and managed by the press itself, is making a perfectly good fist of the job it has taken on. A huge majority of dailies and periodicals support it; only a timorous, browbeaten rump tow the government and Mosley-financed line. However, this is not acceptable to the proponents of government-approved IMPRESS, whose very name smacks of coercion (that is what we called civilians press-ganged from the streets and impressed into the anti-Napoleonic Royal Navy). Perhaps someone in the government service is into black comedy and hopes we ignoramuses will not be smart enough to see how they mock us, nor recognise their superior wit in demonstrating it.
The discredited Royal Commission regulatory body refuses, absolutely, to go quietly into the night and let the press get on with it. It’s as if it is outraged that any non-governmental body should have the temerity to stand up for itself and, worse, insist that it can do the job better and at no cost to the taxpayer. This last, though, would be the least of its concerns. The latest strictures involve tabling an amendment to the Data Protection Bill currently going through parliament, whose effect will be to make it easier for the rich and powerful to avoid being held to account. For all its occasional slip-ups, the venerable, 160-year-old former News of the World remains sadly missed. How many were the truly outrageous scams, scandals and criminal conspiracies uncovered during its long pursuit of wrongdoers?
Something deeply incongruous lies in the fact that, while the governing class is determined to raise the press and broadcasting bar of exposure of wrongdoing higher and higher, the internet is allowed to go on its merry way unregulated. But here’s the rub! Nothing in today’s world of Internet communication can be covered up either by High Court gagging orders or anything else. One lowly, public-spirited, disgruntled or mischievous whistle-blower, anywhere in the world, can blow the lid off at any time. Within minutes the whole farrago goes viral. When will an out of touch governing class realise that muzzling the press simply redirects a desperate-to-know public elsewhere? That elsewhere is the Internet, where pretty much anything can be said.
Perhaps in the Internet there is hope for the press and the public generally. Truth, as they say, will out. Though in times past the rich and powerful often saw to it that it didn’t, that no longer holds true. With the Internet there is no hiding place. Since our world became reliant on this form of communication, no one can ever again feel safe in their dirty little secret.
So last year it was the Panama Papers. This year the Paradise ones. Even our poor Queen has been dragged into the off-Shore expose, though I don’t doubt for a second that she had the least knowledge of what her thoughtless financial advisors were up to. But someone like Bono is different. That haloed advisor to kings and presidents, gullible enough to believe him sincere with something worth listening to, now knows differently. Both the halo and the ubiquitous, trademark shades have slipped. Perhaps at last the movers and shakers will stop paying homage to the Bonos and Geldofs of this world and press them to get back to the only thing they’re good at: their music.
As for the press, we must pray it continues to stand fast. Once the towering beacon of hope to editors worldwide, it is today the most heavily regulated in the democratic world. How typical that in the relatively trivial matter of a few press excesses – almost all later dismissed in the courts – the government jumped in with the sledgehammer of a Royal Commission. Where is the Royal Commission for that vastly more damaging banking scandal that threw so many millions worldwide out of work and from which we are still suffering. Outright criminality was at the heart of it and it involved trillions of pounds. And as for Royal Commissions themselves? They are nothing more than a convenient leftover – handy for a government seeking to show it is doing something – from the undemocratic days of king power.
If these latest amendments to the bill from that paragon of democratic values, the House of Lords, are allowed to pass then Mosley and his crew will have won. Whether or not IPSO’s heroics keep it out of the clutches of the government-approved IMPRESS, the press will be effectively muzzled. Under the guise of Data Protection and personal privacy laws, they will have found the back door to achieve their purpose. This cannot be allowed to happen.
The first story concerns me daydreaming and looking out of my shop window one beautiful summer’s day. A few lines of verse came into my head. Then I thought to myself: why don’t you put this in your window to lift other spirits as they have done your own? I grabbed for a pen before the words vanished.
Using our computer engraving system I did it on a piece of burgundy coloured laminate.
Some time later, a man came into the shop enquiring after something he had seen in the window. It turned out to be the poem I had written. “How much is that selling for?” he asked. Nonplussed, but thinking on my feet, I replied “£12.50”. “Fine,” he said, “I’ll have that for my static holiday caravan.”
Later, the thought occurred to me that that modest sale had, nonetheless, gained me admittance to one of the world’s most exclusive clubs: that of a poet whose work people will pay to read! The words of those few lines are as follows:
Our journey through this life is brief, very brief.
Enjoy the world for the beauty that it offers.
Be kind, show compassion. Be happy.
My second story concerns a veteran who stopped me outside the shop to tell me that a poem I had written to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War was to be read out that Sunday in church by a member of the British Legion. Apparently, it had been adopted by the Legion and was being read out each year. You can imagine how moved I was to learn of this. I think they may have picked up on the poem from the local paper.
I may have posted it on my blog at the time, but just in case I didn’t here is it:
A LAMENT TO WAR
A sea of time has passed us by and still we think of them:
The lives unlived, the dreams curtailed, the legions of our men.
We did not know, we could not tell, what terror lay in store,
As year on year the butcher’s cry demanded more and more.
For full a hundred years and more our power had waxed supreme
And kept large conflagrations low and made us start to preen.
We thought we could control events and stop war in its tracks
With webs of close alliances, diplomacy and pacts.
A maelstrom poured upon our men of iron, steel and fire,
And sent a piteous wail of grief through every town and shire.
We must press on, we told ourselves what now we have begun,
Till British pluck and doggedness did triumph o’er the Hun.
Through mud and ice and poison gas the order was ‘stand fast’;
This trial of strength twixt mortal foes, it surely could not last.
For four long years we stood our ground and bravely would not yield,
Till northern France ran red with blood through every poppy field.
Delusions born of hubris ease had caused us to believe
This war could be no different from the rest we had conceived,
But science changes everything and chivalry was dead,
Midst fire and smoke and strafing planes and mustard gas and lead.
Oh God above, what did we do to vent our foolish spleen,
But sacrifice the best we had on altars of the keen?
How little did we think it through and cry aloud ‘enough’!
But yet preferred to stumble on with bloody blind man’s bluff.
The UK joined the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union, from a position of weakness in the early seventies – the sick man of Europe, so the country was called at the time. The package sold to Britain was that of a trading arrangement. Beyond the inner circle of continental Europe’s political elites, there was little to no talk of the true direction of travel, which has always been a United States of Europe.
The first signs of where the so-called European Project was really headed was the Maastricht Treaty in British prime minister John Major’s premiership. The final curtain raiser, during that of Gordon Brown’s, was the Lisbon Treaty. (Who can forget the unedifying way he waited to be the last to sign and went through the back door so as not to be photographed signing away his nation’s rights?)
Since the Maastricht Treaty, Brits increasingly formed the opinion that they were losing control of their country. As a once trickle of Brussels directives – which took precedence over British law – turned into a flood, Brits began to question the whole concept of EU membership. It was the erosion of sovereignty which I believe formed the bedrock of the opposition which finally stunned the world last year with their decision to quit.
High among the concerns of the Brexiteers, as those seeking to leave the project have come to be known, was their inability to determine who should come to live among them and how many. It was like saying that you had a house but no say in who could pitch up to stay in it and in what numbers. Just like that flood of pettifogging Brussels directives came a new flood, but one that took jobs from the least skilled and most disadvantaged in society. Cheap, plentiful labour was great for the professional and governing classes and, of course, the bosses, but not so great for those struggling to make ends meet.
Then there was the concept that a group of jurists in the European Court of Justice – many with apparent questionable legal experience – could impose their foreign, codified set of laws on the UK’s English common law legal system. English common law, built up assiduously over a thousand years, has become the most common legal system in the world and today covers 30% of the world’s population in 27% of its 320 legal jurisdictions. It should be no surprise then that Brits, with no little justification, were proud of their legal system and took offence at the idea that the European Court of Justice knows best.
This, I believe, was at the heart of concerns over Europe. For sovereignty covers almost everything, including who comes to live among us and who makes our laws.
Much as the British feel free to criticise their own parliament, they still find it objectionable that others from outside their borders can order them around – especially when those others have never subjected themselves to a British ballot box. Where democratic, sovereign nations are concerned, citizens should have the chance to turf their politicians out if there is a failure to perform or if they wish to try something different. There must be accountability.
So can the UK prosper outside the European Union? Although I voted to remain because I believed we could better influence reform of the EU from the inside, I have taken the view nevertheless that we can prosper outside. If there is any nation whose DNA shrieks global trade, it is Britain. The world’s first multinational company was founded by the British in India, growing so prosperous that it had to create its own army to protect its interests. Even the great Napoleon acknowledged that we were a nation of traders (he used the word shopkeepers, but in essence it’s the same).
I can understand why the countries of mainland Europe cleave together with none daring to contemplate a future outside the bloc. Theirs has been a distinct experience from that of the British. All have suffered the horrors of defeat and occupation down the centuries. We have not.
Brits may not bestride the world with hard power in the way they did a hundred years ago. But hard power in today’s world, as our American cousins have come to realise, does not work in quite the way it used to. Soft power is a different matter, however, and Britain has oodles of that. It reaches into every corner of the globe and the widespread adoption of English in official business helps to grease the wheels. The Commonwealth, which represents 31% of the world’s population – united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law – never wanted Britain to join the European Union in the first place. So, yes, it is entirely possible that we can thrive outside.
The same bracing winds which once filled the sails of Britain’s ocean-going merchant fleets may be just the winds needed to force us to raise our already decent game to new levels. We must fervently hope that is the case, for Britain is the one country in Europe whose situation has allowed it to stick two fingers up to the oppressive EU elites with any hope of getting away with it.
I wrote some time ago that the EU was making a big mistake by playing hardball with Turkey’s application to become a member. They fear that the entry of a major Muslim country will have a destabilising effect.
They fear a possible Trojan Horse whose admission could immerse our continent in many of the horrors currently being visited on Turkey’s neighbours, Syria and Iraq. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Turkey is the obvious Muslim country which stands any chance of enabling Europe to gain acceptance throughout the Muslim world as a friend. As a member of the EU, it would send a signal to all Muslims that Europe is not irredeemably prejudiced and could happily work with them to build a better and more secure future. Once a member, you could be sure that Turkey would go after the nihilist maniacs with a sure-footedness that is not open to the rest of us.
Remember that Turkey single-handedly kept order throughout the Near East and North Africa for 500 years right up to modern times. Millions of Turks headed for Germany by invitation during the post-war years of the economic miracle to help rebuild that country’s shattered industries and infrastructure. They were known as ‘Guest Workers’ and the understanding was that, in due course, they would return to their homeland. They were not meant to stay.
So little did they offend their German hosts, however, that they were never asked to leave. Theirs proved to be the face of Islam that Europe never needed to fear. Even with the recent controversial admission of the huge refugee influx triggered by Chancellor Merkel’s off the cuff offer, there is not in Germany the festering resentment among Muslims and, indeed, Germans that exists in France. Two reasons account for this. In Germany, there is not the ghettoisation and lack of jobs as in France. Also, France’s Muslims are, for the most part, of Algerian origin and are the legacy of a bitterly savage colonial war of independence. Neither side fully forgave the other.
All of us can agree that Europe is at a crossroad in its relationship with the Muslim world. An implacable death cult has cast a shadow over all the continent’s urban conurbations and the crowd-gathering events which are staged there. Messaging each other in the new Wild West of the internet in an encryption form harder than Enigma to crack, they can operate in cells or as ‘lone wolves’ with manuals provided to allow them online to acquire and assemble deadly bombs. How the zealots of the IRA must regret that they never had such tools.
The result of it all is that people increasingly live in a fear they have never known before. They know the authorities have no answer, and never can, to the lone operator who can drive a truck or buy a knife across a supermarket counter. Even if we succeed, as we very well might, in taking back the land which Isis has claimed for its new Caliphate, its fighters will disperse throughout Muslim lands and perhaps our own and reappear hydra-headed to continue the mayhem. It is a depressing prospect and one to which we can envisage no end.
My own regular visits to London, its museums and places of interest, have lost their appeal. On a recent visit, I found that the dear old British Museum, an endless source of wonderment to me, had a half-hour long queue for semi airport-like security checks. I took one look and went on my way. In a long life, I had hitherto been able to wander up unmolested and pass through its hallowed portals unchallenged. That soon will become a distant memory. Security everywhere has become the order of the day.
We must resist. Turkey can help us for only it, as a Muslim nation closely allied to the West with NATO’s second largest army, can help us confront the threat ideologically. And that is the only way this death cult can be beaten.
Followers of their own faith must turn on them en masse. Their communities and their own families must place them beyond the pale.
The cowardly recruiters and dissemblers who encourage disaffected youngsters whose lives have gone off the rails to make an end of themselves and carry as many as they can into oblivion with them must be taken out of circulation and denied any platform to propagate their poison. Theirs should be a special place in perdition.
Turkey has already won the hearts, as well as plaudits, from the millions driven from their homes in Syria. Their efforts to provide a refuge from Assad’s killing machine dwarf those of any other nation, including Germany. The camps they have set up are a model of humanitarianism; they provide every conceivable facility and resemble more villages more than camps. Turkey receives scant recognition for her huge efforts and, needless to say, massive expense. And this from a nation which, unlike those in the West, cannot be described as rich.
For all the frequently ill-informed criticisms of Turkey’s president, he has proved himself a man with a heart which is more than can be said of many of the rest who weep crocodile tears. With 14 years of enlightened economic policies, he has also achieved growth rates the envy of all but China and India. In short, until these terrible troubles on his border, Turkey was booming.
My own message is clear: Turkey should be embraced, not scorned. If we continue to reject her overtures she will turn her back on us, and rightly so, with dire consequences for any last hope of getting back to normal and putting terrorism back in the malign box where it belongs.
There is a new term I have stumbled upon which might be said to have sinister undertones. It is called ‘language imperialism’. For myself, I am hugely conflicted because the language in question is my own.
While our legions have long ago been withdrawn from around the world, our language has not. It is good that we have seen the back of imperialism, of course. No country has the right to run the affairs of another, much less to oppress its peoples in order to maintain its dominance. In that regard, this country has much to answer for – though I like to console myself by believing that my forebears seldom employed gratuitous violence to maintain their position.
The world does, however, stand in need of a universal language, one which will allow us to communicate not just information, but, our thoughts, fears emotions and everything between. When you face a person from another culture, almost all of whose habits are alien to your own, there is so much better a chance of reaching an understanding if you have no need of an interpreter and don’t end up lost in translation, as it were. I swear so many past conflicts could have been nipped in the bud had this been the case.
Rome’s reach, great as it was, never extended to giving all Europe – and the Near East – its wonderful language of Latin. Perhaps if it had, we may have avoided many of the miseries we have endured down the centuries and continue to endure to this day. Wouldn’t we be better placed to achieve harmony in the troubled Middle East if we could all talk to one another?
So while I deplore our part in the imperialism of the past – though I will not say no good ever came of it – I cannot deplore the fact that we have succeeded where Rome failed in leaving behind a language which in the fullness of time will play an important part in bringing together the whole human race.
But this second language is in danger of coming at a price. That price is the threat it poses to indigenous languages. Just as here in our small corner of Europe we have not allowed the Irish, Welsh and Scottish languages to die – sadly it appears Cornish is doomed – we must not allow the other home languages of the world to disappear. Imagine what treasure troves they hold of those often-captivating cultures. What would we know of ancient Egypt if we had not cracked hieroglyphics?
People are perfectly capable of continuing to use their home language while becoming totally fluent in another’s; witness French Canadians, Scandinavians and the Dutch. And let’s not forget the Swiss who somehow manage, for the most part, the four languages which make up their own country.
But in India, today, we see an oppression where their languages are concerned of a most worrying kind. So obsessed are the governing classes in pushing English that they refuse to feature local dialects in such things as prescriptions, menus. road warnings and street signs, driving licenses, government forms, medical instructions, ingredient labels or even movie tickets. How crippling is that for the hundreds of millions who do not form part of the elite. Imagine what it’s like not to be able to read your child’s medical instructions. It’s a bit like when Norman French pushed Saxon English into the shadows for 300 years and you had court cases decided in a language you couldn’t understand.
There are laudable reasons why the Indian elite promote English in the way they do. They believe it to be a unifying factor in a land with 150 languages, all with sizeable populations and a total of 1,650 altogether. They also see it as giving them an advantage in business and a world of still increasing globalisation. But it’s tough meantime out in the hundreds of thousands of villages and towns who cannot fathom the language.
There is one good thing about the language, however, which they and the world, by happy chance, have been landed with and which they will eventually master. It is blessed with a massive vocabulary, a rich literature, beautiful poetry, great flexibility and much else besides. Many reasons have contributed to this. It is a fusion of invading settlers, mainly Germanic and Scandinavian in origin. And adding to the mix are those 300 years of Norman French, from which 45% of our words are derived. They carry a high Latin content so perhaps Rome didn’t, after all, lose out completely. She remains with us still.
A week ago I had a rendezvous with twenty students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The meeting had come about after a professor at the distinguished university, Maren Niehoff, who lectures in the humanities, had stumbled upon my book while visiting London’s renowned Foundling Museum last year. She enjoyed my story so much, and found it so relevant to her course, ‘The Individual and Society’, that she decided to make The Last Foundling required reading for her elite students in Jerusalem alongside the meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence. It goes without saying that I was utterly blown away when I learned of the company I was keeping as an author!
Professor Niehoff emailed me following her visit to the museum to ask if I would like to meet her students at the museum on 29th March, following a visit she had arranged to Oxford University, where Maren had studied in her youth, to talk about my experiences growing up in institutional care at the Foundling Hospital with reflections on my struggles adjusting to society after I left it at fifteen.
Known at its inception as the Foundling Hospital, Coram is still committed to improving the lives of the country’s most vulnerable children and young people after nearly 300 years of operation and is, in fact, the world’s oldest registered charity (it was renamed Coram after the institution’s closure). The original Foundling Hospital had been set up by a seafaring philanthropist called Captain Thomas Coram who obtained, after seventeen years of intense lobbying, a Royal Charter from King George II in 1739 to provide for the care and education of illegitimate and deserted children.
I thoroughly enjoyed answering the students’ questions about my story, relating a little of my life through those years of challenge and lovelessness, and I felt it to be a great privilege and honour to meet Professor Niehoff with her wonderful young students. Happily, I was among the very few foundlings who managed to locate their family and enjoy considerable success in the years that followed. I’ve uploaded a collection of photos taken by my younger son, Grant, of the visit below.
In the great debate about immigration, which at long last we are allowed to have, it comes down to a few basics. The grievances the public feel do not primarily concern where immigrants come from, the colour of their skin, their ethnicity or even their religion. It is about numbers.
When the Romans arrived two thousand years ago, it is thought that the population was a little under two million. It took 1,500 years for it to double. Since then – a period of five hundred years, beginning with the first Queen Elizabeth – it has risen sixteen-fold to 65 million. Just imagine if this were to go on. In the same relatively short period, it would have grown to a little over one billion, all packed on to this one small island. Apart from the absurdity of this idea, where would the resources come from to sustain such numbers when we cannot even resource the number we already have and are totally dependent on imports.
When Blair and his cohorts opened the floodgates to the whole world – not just Eastern Europe – he did so surreptitiously by branding anyone who dared to question what was going on a racist. He himself committed what his very own government had passed into law, a ‘hate crime’. Calling someone a racist who is not is just about as bad as it gets.
What, then, are we to do about the escalating numbers? Clearly we cannot continue admitting, annually, the equivalent of a city the size of Coventry or Leicester. Where will we find the money to provide for such numbers? There was never very much slack built into our public services. If we find ourselves struggling in so many areas, may that not be in large part because what slack there was has long since been used up?
Everyone needs access to hospitals, schools, public infrastructure and transport systems, and, yes, a roof over their head. If our young find it next to impossible to get on the housing ladder, it is largely because demand had outstripped supply and forced up prices to unaffordable levels.
I am a great believer in the benefits of immigration, as long as it is managed intelligently. I do not blame immigrants for our problems. I would certainly want to seek a better life for myself within this fortunate continent, especially if I were a member of the huddled, unskilled masses milling beyond Europe’s borders (their desire to come here actually stands as a huge compliment to what Europe has to offer). And isn’t that exactly what we did when we peopled so much of the world with our own, desperate millions?
Many insist that unless we admit large numbers of the young and fecund, we will rapidly have too small a workforce to provide for an aging population that is living longer than ever. There is also an argument to be made that immigrants help to address our refusal to have more babies and so fuel the drive to grow our economy.
But the answer to this must lie elsewhere, namely in raising our productivity. Ours, historically, has been very low and if we get to grips with this and are also selective in admitting clever, qualified people, then we will not need to crack the problem by importing ever more people. One way or another, the inflow has to be reduced. If we fail, then our quality of life will surely fail also. We absolutely have to go down the productivity route. Personally, I find it humiliating that so many abroad outproduce us. It was not always so.
One thing which may come out of this Brexit business is that the cold winds of standing alone again may release in us those forces which have served us so well in times past.
I still cannot get over the bravery it took to defy the massed ranks of the ‘experts’ who told us that we were about to commit the next best thing to suicide. The last time I can recall the experts getting it so horrendously wrong was when 365 economists wrote to Margaret Thatcher predicting doom for her policies. In fact, those very policies made it boom. May not Brexit do the same?
Had the Labour government of the day, when it took the decision to open the floodgates, embarked on a massive programme of infrastructure spending – at a time when we could afford it, 20 years ago – to accommodate the extra demands placed on the system then things would be very different today. But there should, first, have been a national debate to decide whether this was indeed what the nation wanted and whether it was prepared to see its national identity compromised. (There is also the small matter of whether a relatively small island was already crowded enough.) The fact is, the political classes were uncaring of what the public thought about these matters and, actually, were contemptuous of the answers they feared might come back. As always, they thought they knew best. But look at us now!