Spain’s Seville is not considered one of the great metropolitan cities of Europe, though with almost 700,000 inhabitants it has much to fascinate and a climate you can only to dream of. But four centuries ago it was such a city and all Europe stood agog at its magnificence and, more particularly, at the stupendous wealth unloaded at its quaysides. For it was here that the treasure ships from the newly discovered Americas disgorged their plundered cargoes of gold, silver and precious gems.
To my great delight, I recently spent three days discovering the city and took a cruise down its river of former opulence, the Guadaíra. I am a man who likes his city breaks and I have visited scores of Europe’s great cathedrals, but none overwhelmed me in quite that way that Seville’s did. It was vast and held aloft by columns twice the width of mighty Karnak’s, the Egyptian temple at Luxor.
As I wandered round I was struck by the sheer quantity of gold, silver and precious stones displayed – so much more than any of the other cathedrals I had visited – and it got me thinking.
Though never a Marxist, I have long believed that that he was not so far wide of the mark when he opined that religion was the opiate of the masses. Humanity needed relief, not to say hope, against the terrible catastrophes which regularly decimated its numbers.
Almost certainly, that cathedral’s enormous structure and its accompanying wealth came courtesy of those grateful mariners and, in particular, their captains for surviving the perils of the deep and coming safely home. Ocean going in those days was enormously risky. Of the five ships that Ferdinand Magellan set out with on the first circumnavigation of the planet, only one, worm-eaten leaky vessel made it home with eighteen half-dead souls out of an original complement of 260. That number did not include its captain. Our own Francis Drake was the first commander to survive such a voyage but he, too, lost four of his five vessels. Fortuitously, among Magellan’s lucky survivors, was a man whose job it was to keep a journal of the incredible events and sufferings of that epic voyage.
So surviving mariners had much to be thankful for. They were also mindful of the appalling deeds inflicted on the indigenous peoples they encountered. Those early conquistadors would not only have been anxious to give thanks for their god’s protection, but also to seek his forgiveness for their cruelty. How better than to bestow a portion of that plundered wealth on his house, the great cathedrals. Its priests would have been only too happy to encourage such a belief and provide absolutions, along with an assurance that continuance of such largesse would secure a safe passage to the hereafter.
If the forces which play havoc with man’s safe existence – droughts, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, lightening and tsunamis – had been absent from the early Earth and it had been a big, beautiful all-providing planet, I do not believe humans would have felt the need to come up with gods. As it was, we had no understanding of the dark forces (as we saw it) ranged against us, what created them and, more to the point, what abated them. In man’s view, those forces had to be the work of all powerful gods. When those gods vented their spleen, it had to be because they were angry with us.
It made sense, in those circumstances, to appease them. Sacrifices, even human ones, might seem the answer. An original multiplicity of gods was eventually honed down to one and, despite all of science’s unravelling of the mysteries which so terrified early man, that god is still with us.
Man’s first societies needed no rulers, but as they began organising and learned to work together cities came into existence which vied with other cities. Soon rivalry erupted into violence. The most dynamic of the citizenry thrust themselves forward to take control. The era of power politics had arrived along with kingdoms. But kingdoms had to be secured at the point of the sword. It was a case of “might made right”. If somebody came along later with more might – just like in the animal world – then the incumbent’s legitimacy was lost.
This was the point at which fresh players arrived on the scene. The Christian priesthood offered the pagan Roman emperor, Constantine, a deal: if he would take the cross and make it the official religion of the empire, they would lend their support to his regime and sanctify it. It would not henceforth be relying on brute force alone, but it would have the kingship legitimised by the god of the new faith. The priesthood would put together a service (coronation) and have the ruler anointed in God’s name. He and his heirs would then rule by divine right. Those seeking to unseat him by violence would be deemed usurpers. It was a brilliant arrangement and rulers everywhere after Constantine bought into it.
Even weak or useless rulers who, in earlier times, would have been quickly toppled, were often enabled to live out their reigns. Such was the mysticism of the coronation ceremony that the population was driven to accept the monarch as God’s anointed. And God was not to be taken lightly. Faith in the teachings of the church was all pervasive and ruled every aspect of daily life.
As for the church’s power and its own desire for riches, both of which ran counter to the founder’s tenets, its appetite grew exponentially. The mighty cathedrals, designed to overawe, represented its own rival palaces to those of the monarchs. Emulating royal pretensions, they even managed to get themselves officially declared ‘princes’ of the church. And in order to impress, and again copy the sovereigns, they designed for themselves rich vestments quite distinct from the laity. The elite – the bishops – fashioned crowns (mitres) modelled on those of the pharaohs, those most ancient and superior of all monarchs.
It was all a far cry from the open-air simplicity of their founders’ teachings, which abhorred the pursuit of wealth and needed no churches. It wasn’t long before the head of it all, the Pope, came to consider himself lord even to the sovereigns and that his authority outranked that of all the kings of Europe, whom he insisted drew their legitimacy from him.
The faith continues to attract widespread, though diminishing, support. In an age of incredible science, when we are close to revealing the Theory of Everything, kings still reign – though in fewer numbers – and priests still wave their incense and pronounce their benedictions. Though we understand now the origins of the forces which once were so inexplicable and destructive, certain of us still cannot bring ourselves to cut loose from the old superstitions – though Christendom is closer to it than Islam. In India, multiple gods still haunt the Hindu imagination.
As I walked away from the great cathedral, which housed Columbus’ tomb, I understood for the first time how this non-capital city held such riches. It was the first landfall of those treasure ships and the place where mind-blowing wealth was disgorged. My thoughts turned to those unkempt, near-naked mariners carrying armfuls of gems and bullion down the gangplanks and the overjoyed priests who would rush to greet them. Was ever a house of God better located?
An earthquake is about to hit the continent of Europe. The scene is set so that in a little over four months from now a party, which until recently was regarded as neo-fascist, has a chance of taking control of France. I personally believe it will.
The ramifications of success for Marine Le Pen and the National Front will be as great for that country, and indeed for Europe, as the triumph of Trump in the United States.
Let me try and explain my thinking. France today is in a sorry mess. Any disenchantment felt by Brits before Brexit could be multiplied threefold in her case. Always sensitive to what she perceives should be her exalted place in the world, she has seen her stature sink to the point where, at times, the rest of the world viewed her as a laughing stock.
Who can forget that absurd sight of France’s president scurrying away in the early morning on the back of a scooter after a night-time tryst with his young actress mistress? The sight of that hard hat, perched on the unlovely head of the president of the French republic, was the stuff of pure slapstick. Before him there was the bling, miniature Sarkozi who used to pack as high a heel as he could manage to get himself somewhere near the height of his dollybird former pop star/actress girlfriend who smartly jumped into the void left by his fed-up wife who dumped him. Before that there was the venal, priapic Chirac who, along with Sarkozy himself, came under investigation for corruption. Chirac was convicted and Sarkozy is not yet off the hook.
All this France might have been able to bear had the French economy held up and France remained the world’s fifth largest economy with jobs aplenty and growth to match. But neither is the case. To make matters worse, historic rival Britain has shoved her out of fifth place and enjoys good growth and half her unemployment.
All the while the situation worsens with the banking sector also in a calamitous state. As if all this was not enough, the country feels itself especially targeted by suicidal jihadists and has endured fourteen months of a State of Emergency.
Now out of the shadows and riding seemingly to the rescue is a handsome, clever, blue-eyed blonde with flowing hair who has forsworn her father’s Holocaust denial legacy and promised a bright and proud again future for France. Some even chose to regard her as a latter-day Joan of Arc, given the dire circumstances of the country.
What agenda does Marine Le Pen propose should she win the May election? It is as radical as Trump’s is for America.
She will enter talks with Brussels for six months, after which she will hold a referendum on France’s membership of the European Union. On pain of not getting her way, she will recommend withdrawal from the EU and she would get it – “Frexit,” as it will become known.
What are her terms? First, she wants a return to a Europe of free and independent nations. Furthermore, she wants a return of monetary and territorial sovereignty and control of borders. Aren’t these the very issues that Cameron was mandated to secure when he limp-wristedly chased around Europe and got next to nothing for his troubles? As it happened, and unlike Le Pen, he already had monetary freedom since his country did not use the Euro.
The shock to Brussels would be seismic. At a stroke, to accept Le Pen’s demands would be to shatter the cherished dream of a United States of Europe. It would be back to the old Common Market, the package which was artfully sold to us as being a no-strings-attached trading arrangement. Can you see Brussels rolling over? Actually, I can.
The reason is that the alternative would be the exit of France from the EU altogether which, after the body blow of Brexit, would be terminal for the whole European Project. One interesting aspect of all this is that had such a deal been offered to us, there would have been no Brexit. The fact is, however, that virtually all of Europe, with the exception of Brussels itself, accepts that the project, if it is to survive, needs radical surgery. Perhaps Le Pen’s scalpel is just what the doctor ordered.
As we haven’t yet begun our own two-year withdrawal period and, since we would know the answer to these conundrums by December, we would be in a position to pull out of pulling out if we so wished. Would we? I somehow think we would not. Every indicator confounds what the doomsayers predicted. As a result, many are getting so hyped up at the wonderful prospects which lie before us out there in that big, beautiful world beyond the EU that I think we would prefer to take our chances on becoming again that great trading nation that so dazzled the world in times past.
For if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that we only went for Europe in the first place because, post-WWII, we had lost our confidence and were such a basket case economically. Now we have bounced back and are defying all predictions, Britain Plc is the fastest growing economy in the G7 with the Commonwealth queuing up to do business and the mightiest economy on earth keen to fast track us to a deal.
Are these all wild imaginings of mine? The figment of an overactive punditry gland? Well, I did get it right over Cameron’s general election win, Brexit (in which I voted to stay, since I believed that you could better argue your case for reforms from the inside than out) and Trump. Between the three, William Hill had to pay me £2,450 and the same amount to my son. Let’s see!
What are we to make of the police’s decision not to proceed against the former Minister of State for Europe and ex-chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee?
The police dropped their investigation into Labour MP Keith Vaz, known to his parliamentary colleagues and the wider public as “Vazeline” for his extraordinary ability to extricate himself from any hole, despite his behaviour clearly being criminal in nature.
One of the things which most shocked us about the MPs’ expenses scandal was the sheer mean-spiritedness and hypocrisy of it all. Here were lawmakers happy to break the law even in the most mundane and petty of matters. All the time they wanted the rest of us to hold them in high esteem and believe them virtuous. That, indeed, is what we wanted to believe and the reason we were so shocked. We wanted to feel that they represented the best of our country: men and women whose examples we should strive to emulate.
All this is what draws me back to Keith Vaz, a man whose whole career has been mired in a succession of questionable activities. This last episode concerning rent boys is only the latest. Vaz is a man puffed up beyond belief who thinks nothing of intruding on private grief to gain publicity for himself or doing all manner of weird and wonderful things to get into our newspapers and onto our small screens (remember him turning up at Luton airport to welcome Romanian arrivals on the day they could seek work in Great Britain?). Yet for all his grandstanding, ingratiating behaviour – particularly to speaker Bercow whom he relies on to give him excessive Commons airtime – and smarmy talk he is held in the highest esteem by his parliamentary colleagues.
On the very first sitting of his Commons chums following those sensational disclosures concerning drugs and rent boys, he was warmly received when he waltzed in as though nothing had happened. Brazenness cannot begin to describe such an entrance. There were mutterings of sympathy and even back-slapping by various of his colleagues. Indeed, the whole atmosphere seemed resonant of a witch-hunt by a pitiless media out to destroy a good man.
One could almost be forgiven for thinking that many in that chamber may themselves have shared Vaz’s predilection for rent boys.
Few of us will ever have witnessed such a shameful and squalid performance by members who like to address one another other as “Honourable”. For all that, I do not believe that any one of the other 649 members would have had the effrontery to show themselves on that particular day. But this is Vaz. Having bare-facedly brazened it out in the Commons so soon after the story broke, it was to be expected that he would do the same a few weeks later at Labour’s annual party conference. And so he did. It will be interesting to see if his Leicester East constituents show their distaste for the way he has let them, and above all their faith, down by pricking his massive bubble of self-esteem and deselecting him.
As news of the scandal broke, Vaz was Chair of the influential Home Affairs Select Committee which recently had been deliberating on prostitution. That conflict of interest in his febrile moment of exposure was too much even for Vazeline to escape. He stood down.
But squalid and undignified as his exploitation of young, vulnerable rent boys was, something even worse was revealed. At the very time he was heading up the committee investigating harm caused by illegal Class A drugs, he solicited a Romanian prostitute to trot off and bring back some Class A drugs. He even offered to pay for them. Now, if that doesn’t constitute criminal activity I’d like to know what does. Isn’t “aiding and abetting” a crime? Vaz was complicit both before and after the fact. The whole affair was confirmed by video footage – prima facie evidence if ever there was. (Vaz’s wealth has long been a matter of public curiosity. He is rich beyond what his parliamentary stipend would suggest and it would be interesting to learn where his unaccounted for wealth comes from.)
Shameless Vaz, with amazing sangfroid, sees absolutely nothing untoward about what he has done to his family, the House of Commons and the wider public. Incredibly, within weeks of stepping down as Chair of the Home Affair Select Committee he put himself forward for the Justice Select Committee. Did this prove too much, or at least too soon, even for his normally indulgent parliamentary chums? You bet it didn’t. Now he’s back pontificating in his own inimical, self-important way on what is just and what is not. Pomposity begins and ends with Vaz. To use a clichéd but in this case totally justified phrase, you really couldn’t make it up.
Am I alone in thinking that Vaz’s parliamentary colleagues, by continuing to indulge his fantasies, display a huge contempt for what the rest of us think?
The police must re-examine the evidence. Are they afraid of the establishment? Do they need to be dead like Janner and Savile before they will act? Perhaps it is that same kind of reluctance which caused them to hold back for so long in the Rotherham grooming of young girls; maybe Vaz’s faith and ethnicity has acted as a protective shield. That, perhaps – and the establishment’s own efforts to defend one of their own – may explain why this most terrible of scandals has slipped below the radar.
Brexit, Cameron’s demise, Trump, Europe’s travails and, most of all, the terrible tragedy unfolding in Syria have all fortuitously come to Vaz’s aid by moving the spotlight away from him. No better time, from the police’s point of view, to bury bad news.
Are we to stand by and let Vazeline get away with it again? For all our sakes we must hope not. Our Mother of Parliaments deserves better than that. The one I feel most sorry for in all this is Vaz’s poor wife. He felt so little love for her that he thought nothing of endangering her life by having unprotected sex with a male prostitute.
Quite apart from the scandal of no police action, with all this and more known by his ‘honourable’ parliamentary colleagues and the institution of parliament being brought into disrepute in a serious infringement of its rulebook, how is it that he has not been suspended from the Commons?
I cannot move into another week without recording my thoughts concerning the one which has just passed. Something astounding happened.
A man was democratically elected to the most powerful job on the planet who defied all the norms of what is considered to be acceptable behaviour. This man made no concessions whatsoever to the sensibilities of the electorate he was appealing to and came right out to lay before it his brazen take on the world. In view of the outrage caused in so many quarters, how did such a man persuade that electorate to set aside the shock of his message and, most of all, the way it was delivered? He has now not only been handed the keys to all our futures, but he will be given the nuclear codes as well.
The story goes back a long way, perhaps half a century. At that time a world existed of nation states and of families within those states. Most had functioned for a long time – Germany was the exception – and people had grown surprisingly fond of them. They saw them as an extension of their own, close family and it gave them a strong sense of belonging. Almost without exception they were immensely proud of them. When troubled times came, it turned out they were prepared to die for them, much as a mother would die for her child.
Then came those two terrible world wars which, with the help of perverted science, made war deadly to the point of being suicidal. Humanity recoiled in horror and said never again. Agencies were put in place, starting with the United Nations and followed up by a multitude of other such as the World Bank, IMF, WTO, various NGOs, NATO and many, many more, all designed to govern the conduct of man and his disputes in a peaceable manner.
The bogeyman identified as being behind past conflicts was the selfish, jingoistic nation state. That, along with its borders, had to be downgraded and erased, over time, into irrelevance. Europe began the charge with what morphed, with the utmost stealth, into the European Union.
Also a new, more humane way had to be found to deal with individual misfortune and the Welfare State was born. The old were to receive decent pensions and they, along with everybody else, were to be medically cared for. The four great plagues of want, idleness, poverty and disease identified in the Beveridge Report were to be tackled wholesale for the first time.
But this was not enough. The architects decided that they must complete the work with what became known as political correctness. They must criminalise beastliness towards minorities – all minorities – however obscure. Eventually this extended to the very utterances which people made. A revolution was in the making and, like all revolutions, it needed its cadre of zealots to force it through. Step forward to carry out this work the intellectuals, the academics, the lawyers, the industrialists, the politicos, the entertainment luvvies and eventually the bulk of the media itself. Oh, and don’t let’s ever forget, perhaps the most culpable of the lot, the bankers.
The EU proved the perfect vehicle for making this revolution possible. It also made it respectable even though, indeed, most of it was anyway. While noble in its concept, the EU began the process of subsuming its patchwork of nation states into a homogenised whole. Globalisation and multiculturalism became the new buzzwords and the developed world was urged to indulge in an orgy of consumerism. This had the effect of ratcheting up debt to unsustainable levels and soon the bubble burst with the financial crisis of 2008 – the worst in living memory. Luckily lessons had been learned from the last catastrophic crisis, the 1929 Wall Street crash, and a much more joined up world was able to climb out of it with a fraction of the misery of before.
But, like all things, it came at a price and that price is the one which propelled Trump to power and is propelling us out of the EU. The little man who had listened to his “betters” for fifty years had had enough. He had developed a deep and bitter antipathy for those whose greed had brought the misfortune upon him yet walked off smelling of roses and richer than ever. He had watched, with silent rage, the power brokers ship his jobs to sweatshops abroad and saw his warm and loving communities decimated and turned into wastelands. All the while the men who had done it grew richer by the billion while the poor bloody infantry saw their wages frozen and their living standards plummet. Adding salt to the wound, as the little man saw it, was the multiculturalism which the know-alls had forced on him.
What unites the two seismic events of Trump and Brexit is a deep disdain, felt by many ordinary people in the Western world, for a ruling class which, without consultation, sought to change forever the very nature of their societies. But it has not gone unnoticed that this privileged elite have never been an active or even visible part of the societies they are busily changing. Theirs is a cloistered world of high gates and security guards where the hoi polloi are well and truly kept at arm’s length.
Their insular world now trembles before the forces currently ranged against it. But watch this space: Trump and Brexit are only the beginning. Fresh earthquakes can be expected right across Europe in the months ahead.
The race for the US presidency is now coming into its final furlong and, against odds which would have seemed impossible even six months ago, Donald Trump is within a whisker of entering the Oval Office. It is therefore incumbent upon on us to ask what sort of presidency we would be looking at were this to happen.
First, let us be clear about one thing: this admittedly bizarre man is a man gifted with huge abilities. Yes, he is a showman of the most extraordinary kind; a loudmouth, many would argue, yet also thin skinned. He is capable of cruel invective and even crueller put-downs. He also espouses policies – his great wall and ban on Muslims – which would be sudden death to any conventional politician. But then again he isn’t a conventional politician. He is a businessman and a very successful one at that. He says things that are thought by many but are unsayable by the Washington elite. And it is that Washington elite that most fears his arrival in the White House.
“I’m going to drain the swamp,” is Trump’s colourful yet terrifying promise. In classical terms, that’s a vow to ‘clean the Augean Stables’, the definition of which is to ‘clear away corruption’ or to ‘perform a large and unpleasant task that has long called for attention’. Hercules is the one said to have carried it out so perhaps that’s where we get the term ‘the labours of Hercules’.
Anyway, Trump says that the little man is trodden underfoot and his interests are completely subordinated to those of the ruling classes. By these he means the politicians, the bankers, the captains of industry and, indeed, all the country’s decision makers – be they in the law, the military, the town or county halls, academia or even the church. There is, he says, a vast gang-up by all those he considers view themselves as superior, a cut above the common herd. We may have arrived, he argues, after centuries of struggle at a one person, one vote system of government in a system where the movers and shakers have contrived to make it seem otherwise.
Once upon a time, the people who put themselves forward for public office were high minded – or at least seemed so – and were driven by factors other than those of enriching themselves. More often than not they were worldly people, middle-aged and sometimes old who had already proved themselves in their chosen field and were esteemed by their peers. Among their successors, however, venality reigns supreme and you have the spectacle of presidents and prime ministers – Tony Blair is a case in point – using the prestige of their former office to tout for business among the world’s most unedifying rulers and all to join the ranks of the mega-rich themselves.
It is a moment of high irony that the dragon which threatens to slay this cabal of self-servers is as rich as Croesus himself. Yet he has never viewed himself as part of the mega-rich’s charmed circle and they, despite his riches, would never have admitted him to it. His brash vulgarity, no-holds-barred rhetoric and giant ego did not lend itself to their view of the world. That view might be one that tolerated all manner of low-life activities – business or otherwise – but they had to be masked in a veneer of respectability and kept from the public view. It was many of Trump’s sentiments which drove our own recent Brexit campaign.
So what are we to make of a looming Trump presidency? Should we fear this devil-may-care outsider, who threatens to hit the establishment like a tsunami? I think not. There are so many checks and balances in the world’s greatest democracy that, were he to run amok – which he has not done in business – he could be contained. And there is just a chance that he could succeed and ‘make America great again’. (Actually, in my view it has never ceased to be great.) In spectacular fashion with this latest Hillary FBI expose, a 10-point Clinton lead has narrowed in two days to one point.
This crazy election of two incredibly flawed candidates is now Trump’s to lose. If he stays on message for one week, avoids scandals of his own and puts a zip on his mouth he might just do it.
Trump has called Hillary many things in times past. He maintains she is ‘crooked’ and can never be straight with the American people, either in her business dealings or her period as Secretary of State. He believes, as we Brits like to say, that she is not a ‘fit and proper person’ to have charge of the destiny not just of her own nation, but that of the entire free world. He also holds that she represents the dark heart of the politico-economic system that he believes so oppresses the American nation. Now The Donald has found his ace in the hole: her very fitness to govern in the literal sense.
When called to the colours long ago as a humble National Serviceman, my countrymen proposed putting a gun in my hand with a license to use it against our country’s enemies – of which at that time there were many. But first they were going to ensure my competence, both mentally as well as physically. To that end I had to undergo a rigorous medical. They needed to know that I would be up to supporting my comrades, whose lives might depend on my actions. Any suspicion that I could fail at the crucial moment would have disqualified me.
The President of the United States operates on an altogether different plane. He or she, as Head of State as well as Commander-in-chief, has the lives and well-beings of countless millions as a responsibility. Physical as well as mental health is a crucial job requirement. The finger that hovers over the nuclear button must be up to it.
After this weekend, Hillary Clinton would be foolish to think that she can wave it all away with an unfunny joke, as she has done in the past over health issues. She is asking, on the strength of her say-so, that the American people trust her in the matter.
These are perilous times we are living through. The end of the imagined peace dividend that victory in the Cold War would bring us now seems a distant chimera. An ever more assertive Putin in the Kremlin is joined by an almost deranged Kim Jong-un in North Korea, who in quick succession last week loosed off three ballistic missiles, while Syria burns. Hillary has been gung-ho for years to impose a no-fly zone over that country. While that might have made sense three years ago, with Russian jets now crisscrossing its skies daily such an imposition at this time could unleash a big power conflagration. The stresses of such a build -up of tensions would almost certainly bring on one of Hillary’s fits.
The truth is that it is just not good enough that the Americans and all the rest of us should have such worries concerning one individual’s health and fitness for purpose. Hillary must be prevailed on to submit herself to an independent panel of health experts or, at the very least, make her very latest, up-to-date medical records available for inspection.
In my view it is an open question whether she can survive the next two incredibly gruelling months of presidential campaigning. I said as much back in May when I wrote about Hillary and her questionable health on my blog. Now it is out in the open. If she steps down, or is forced to do so, who will take her place? Would good ol’ Joe Biden, Obama’s Vice President, step up to the plate to save the nation and possibly all the rest of us? Although there was talk of him throwing his hat into the ring during the primaries, I wouldn’t bet on that one. Bernie Sander’s devoted and almost messianic followers would be incandescent with rage were that to happen. Quite rightly, they would argue that, democratically, their man is the heir apparent. So Ultra-Left Bernie – the US’s own Jeremy Corbyn – would end in the ring against The Donald.
In that event would anyone care to place a bet against the world waking up one November morning, just a few weeks from now, to a President Donald Trump?
Stunned, gobsmacked, incredulous, horrified. All of these adjectives have been expressed around the world at Britain’s decision to quit the European Union. If Britons doubted that theirs was still a nation of consequence, they need only consider the world’s reaction to the referendum result last Friday.
I have to say that I can think of no braver an act of the working man since 1940 when, faced with what seemed like the overwhelmingly successful Nazi juggernaut, he chose to stand and fight rather than accept what many of his leaders considered to be an honourable and generous peace.
This time it was not military might that he defied, but the massed ranks of the political, business, banking and academic classes who told him that he would be committing economic suicide to quit the EU. Though he did not put his person at risk, he certainly – if they were to be believed – put his job and his family’s finances on the line.
But he is a stubborn creature, the British working man, and he is not easily cowed. Over the years he has developed an increasing distrust and deep antipathy to those who consider themselves his better. And as the fanciful figures were daily trotted out to warn of the doom which awaited him, he did not harken to their warnings but instead dug in his heels even further and effectively defied them to do their worst. Magnificent, I call it, even though I voted to remain. It reminds me of Churchill’s snorted response when he was invited to deplore a well-known military man’s alleged act of buggery: “In this weather! Good God, man, it makes you proud to be British!”
Not in over a hundred years has British politics been in such a state of turmoil. Civil war rages in the Labour Party while the Conservatives are in disarray with their leader, the prime minister, forced to quit fourteen months after winning a stunning electoral victory. In the other party, the leader has had two thirds of his shadow cabinet walk out and 170 of his MPs back a ‘No Confidence’ motion with him retaining the loyalty of a mere 40. A hundred-plus-year-old party is, as a result, on the brink of oblivion.
All this is taking place at a time when, like in 1940, it is us now against the world as a result of Brexit casting us adrift into uncharted waters. As if this isn’t enough mighty England has been ignominiously put out of the UEFA European Championship by the minnow, Iceland, playing for the very first time in the tournament.
What are we to do? What has become of us? First, let us remind ourselves of those many centuries when we operated as an independent, sovereign nation. Did we make a decent fist of it? I’ll say we did! We became the richest nation on the planet. We pioneered free trade, set up the first factory systems, launched the Industrial Revolution, carried our products to the far corners of the earth and along the way saved Europe from tyranny in two world wars which we could have stayed out of. It ill behoves, therefore, those ingrates across the water to forget this.
So it can fairly be said, in answer to my question, that we did pretty well for ourselves as Britain plc and we can do so again. My own feeling is that what we have done will encourage others to champion their rights, which are in danger of being subsumed in a Brussels despotism. Meantime, the shadow of an ever more assertive Germany hangs over Europe. Nothing, it now seems, can be done without first clearing it with Berlin.
I have no doubt that other nations will, as a result of Brexit, be encouraged to call for their own referendums. This will be the point at which Brussels will take a long hard look at itself. What it fails to recognise is the incredible pride and patriotism which exists in each of its member states. You only have to look at the flag waving at Eurovision and other such gatherings to catch a glimpse of this. Being subsumed and having their national identities eroded is not what they want.
When a new Europe emerges we may be prepared to look again at re-joining. There is no objection to Europe punching its weight in this emerging world of giants, but it must do so in a less intrusive, respectful and democratic way.
On both sides of the Atlantic there is a dangerous disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. That is why, I suspect, such unlikely characters as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have confounded all expectations and caused us to believe that, in the current febrile atmosphere, virtually anything in politics can happen. The same disconnect can be said of the unelected and unaccountable gnomes of Brussels. At the moment we are cynically digesting the latest piece of hyperbole concerning the coming EU referendum and await with trepidation the next shocking apocalyptic revelation.
Genocide and war, they tell us, is a possible consequence if we make the wrong decision, as is a five-million rush to these crowded shores to swell our already ballooning numbers. The ten plagues of Egypt must surely be in the pipeline as the next possible item on the agenda. Which side will jump in with its own 21st century version of these horrors to scare the living daylights out of us is anybody’s guess. Is the public buying any of this nonsense? I suspect not.
Forecasts are notoriously unreliable. We spend billions worldwide trying to predict the weather and still we get it wrong. In the seventies, National Geographic featured scientists forecasting another ice age. In the 1920s, economists were convinced that a return to the gold standard would cure our economic woes. It made them worse. When Mrs Thatcher proposed her remedies, 364 leading economists signed a letter to say they would not work. They did. When the three party leaders, the entirety of the establishment and almost all the chattering classes said we should join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s, the ERM, they were wrong again. Many of the same group of know-alls also wanted us sign up to the euro and predicted doom if we did not. How lucky for us that we declined to listen to them. “We would be able to do our business in Afghanistan without loss of life,” said the defence minister. Nearly 500 died. 13,000 would come to us from Eastern Europe, said Labour. Over 1,000,000 did. When George Osborne proposed austerity, Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, rushed in saying he was “playing with fire.” We ended up with the highest growth rate in the western world and over 2 million new jobs created. The governor of the Bank of England said it would be necessary to put up interest rates when employment fell below 7%. It was not.
So much for the “experts” knowing what will happen. Why should we take any of their forecast seriously?
Referendums may seem like a good idea and, doubtless, they have their place in a working democracy, but they have a way of polarising society in a manner that general elections do not. Perhaps it is because they concern huge and generational issues, the results of which cannot be unpicked five years down the line when you realise you got it wrong. Whatever the reason, they seem to generate a level of bitterness unique to themselves. Remember the nastiness of some of the SNP zealots in 2014? Had I been a unionist at that time, I certainly would have thought it prudent to keep my head down and definitely not put a poster in my Glasgow flat window.
The truth is that whatever is decided on 23rd June, the show will go on and the good ship Great Britain Plc. will plough on much as it did throughout all those centuries before the European Union was even heard of.
At this moment in history it cannot be denied that the EU is going through a rough patch. The euro may yet implode; even moneybags Germany has not enough to save beleaguered Spain, never mind troubled Italy if the markets call time on them. The single currency was certainly ill-conceived and has massive problems which have yet to be addressed. As for the Schengen Zone – that great leap of idealism – it poses a huge security risk in this volatile, post-9/11 world and it could be dynamite, literally. The EU’s policies are driving extremism in Europe leading to the rise of neo-Fascist parties. In terms of job creation, the EU is currently a disaster area and its growth rates is abysmal (on both of these counts we are an exception). A good case, you might argue for the Brexit. Why cling to a loser?
At the same time, you might equally argue that to cut ourselves loose might be to put ourselves on the wrong side of history. As well as staying at peace, a continent united is obviously going to be able to make its voice heard loudly in the world and its trade deals carry enormous clout.
Europe’s whole history since Rome fell apart has been to find a way of getting back together again. Various of its more powerful states have sought to do it under their own hegemony, but that has been unacceptable to the rest. Europe’s glory, and you have to say achievement, today is that it has found a way of doing so largely by consent rather than by coercion. Yet unfortunately in many important areas it has messed up and its democratic credentials are seriously flawed.
Perhaps a vote to leave might provide the system with the jolt it needs to make it acceptable, not just to us but to others who do not wish to see their identity subsumed in a monolithic super state which wishes to homogenise them all into a blandness and make all Europe seem the same. If Europe is to succeed a way must be found to preserve its charming idiosyncrasies as well as a meaningful level of sovereignty for its nation states.
Amidst all the who-ha over Ken Livingstone’s assertions about Hitler being a Zionist, one thing seems to have escaped the commentariat: he appears to be absolving Hitler from responsibility for the crimes committed after his election success in 1932. He does so by claiming that “Hitler supported Zionism” in 1932 “before going mad” following his entirely legal and success pursuit of power. The clear implication here is that we must accept that Hitler didn’t know what he was doing when he launched World War II or secretly ordered the lethal eradication of European Jews.
Across the entire world it is accepted that an insane person cannot be held responsible for his or her actions, however heinous. To be culpable, humanity has long held the view that a person must know the distinction between right and wrong – goodness and evil. That is why, also, there is a limit in a child’s case of criminal responsibility (in our case 10 years of age). If Livingstone is to be believed, even if we had captured Hitler we could not have put him on trial because he was a victim of a diseased mind. He was crazy. Perhaps Livingstone has convinced himself that the enormity of what Hitler did is in itself proof positive that he was mad. If that yardstick were to be applied more generally, then we were wrong to put Serbia’s tyrant, Slobodan Milosevic, on trial. Such a yardstick would also have excused Pol Pot of Cambodia and just about any other tyrant who ever lived.
The fact is that Hitler was the leader of a criminal gang of misfits who knew perfectly well what they were doing. Look no further than their efforts to conceal their murder of the Jews. This tells you that they knew what they were doing was wrong. Indeed, not one single paper relating to the Holocaust bares Hitler’s signature. All was communicated to his underlings verbally. This great and meticulous nation of record keepers kept no record of the biggest crime in human history. Livingstone’s own crime is to act as an apologist for such a man as Hitler.
The Europe which we put our signature to almost two generations ago is not the Europe we are being asked to vote on in a few weeks’ time. Then it was all about trade, except that is wasn’t.
The European Common Market began its life as something of a confidence trick. The political classes knew from the very beginning that it was a political project designed to relegate the nation states of Europe to a subservient role. They had concluded that they were nothing but trouble and were the biggest single cause of its terrible wars.
Just the same they knew that the peoples of Europe were, almost without exception, lovers of the lands which bore them and felt a deep attachment to the cultures which had developed within their borders. Talk at that stage of a European Union might have frightened the horses and run the risk of it being still-born. So they had to tread carefully. A mighty trading bloc though? Well, who could object to that? We all want to improve our standard of living.
Thus was born the Common Market. Europe had always been strong on markets and the use of that word was perfectly designed to allay suspicions. They were content to play the long game. Stage one was to lock the lot in lucrative trade arrangements, recognising that nations doing the bulk of their business with each other could not, thereafter, easily break free.
Actually, the whole business had begun even before the Treaty of Rome with the creation of the Iron and Steel Community of France, Germany and the Benelux countries. The idea there was that you couldn’t go charging off with a secret re-armament programme, as Hitlerite Germany had done, if all your iron and steel came from a common source.
Europe had had enough of war and a system, so they reasoned, had to be created whereby future outbreaks would be next to impossible. Although there was nothing wrong about that, hadn’t the setting up of NATO nine years earlier achieved that? As Europe grew richer – helped in no small part by the generosity of Uncle Sam with his Marshall Aid programme – it became safe to move on to stage two of the project and chuck overboard that boring old, and grudgingly conceded title, Common Market. Now it became the European Community.
Still no feathers were ruffled, but the more discerning of us could see where the project was headed. Not long afterwards came the great European Union and all was plain to see. With that came the burgundy coloured passports that let us all know – in case naively, a few of us nursed any continuing illusions of national independence – that we were now part of a burgeoning superstate. The Euro was meant to be the final brick in the wall.
The reason all the member states, with the exception of Britain, had been so accepting of the project was that they believed that the nation state, through its inability to protect them from the ravages of war, had been discredited. Only Britain’s island status had saved it from occupation. It therefore had no reason to lose faith in the nation. It stood proud of its institutions and the fact that its Industrial Revolution had changed the face of humanity. Also its exalted former position as the world’s greatest empire made it harder for it to become just another brick in the wall.
But now we must decide: do we cut loose and regain that independence which has been lost, or do we stick with it and with the confidence of a major player work within the system to bring it to the democratic accountability which we Anglo Saxons insist on? We are far from being alone in wishing this.
The world is increasingly moving in favour of what may be called the Anglosphere with our language and business models reigning supreme. I do not doubt that Britain PLC could cut a swathe in the world, but do we want a mighty power on our doorstep which we are unable to influence?
Nevertheless, worries abound concerning immigration, which apart from putting all our public services under strain, has the power to change the character of our country forever. Much of the fury and distrust of the political class which drives the Trump presidential campaign in America is at work here in Britain. They never asked us, say the doubters, about immigration and they never asked us if we were willing to cede sovereignty. They seem only interested in looking after themselves. And as to what Europe was really all about that, well that too, was founded on a lie.
Although the EU was a work of the utmost deceit, we are where we are and we should not necessarily quit because of that. Perhaps the best reason to stay is a geopolitical one. Out of the EU, however brilliantly we handle our affairs, with a population of 64 million ours might end up being a forlorn voice crying in the wilderness.
It is not an easy choice to make. But then who ever said life was easy?