Stunned, gobsmacked, incredulous, horrified. All of these adjectives have been expressed around the world at Britain’s decision to quit the European Union. If Britain 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 educated 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?
At a time when the world is wrestling with perhaps it’s greatest humanitarian crisis since World War Two a scenario is developing in the Far East which has the potential to eclipse even the worst that Russian air strikes and President Assad are capable of. It concerns North Korea.
Just when we had managed to convince ourselves that we had reigned in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the ‘Hermit State’ with its mad boy-wonder brags to the world that he has exploded a hydrogen bomb. He then follows this up a short time later by firing a rocket into space demonstrating that he can deliver his terrible toy virtually anywhere in the world.
Quite how his bankrupt state ever got the wherewithal to finance so horrendously an expensive operation as a nuclear bomb programme is something of a mystery (although I suppose starving its people helps) as indeed it is a mystery where he got the techno/scientific expertise to pull it off. Pakistan, in this regard, has a lot to answer for as one of its scientists is said to have sold the essential start up information. If this is so, what a crime against humanity this was. Pakistan itself is highly unstable and many consider that it is only a matter of time before it falls to the Taliban who may then gain access to its own illicit nuclear arsenal.
The bald fact that now confronts the world is that a pitiless, paranoiac delinquent has been allowed to assemble the ultimate weapon of mass destruction as well as the means of delivery. In truth we should have been much less worried about the mad mullahs of Iran acquiring it than Kim Jong-un.
What sort of message does it send out to the world that we have allowed this to happen? There are other states far bigger and more significant than North Korea with its 25 million people who may judge that their status in the world, as well as their ability to intimidate their neighbours, will be mightily enhanced by their possession of the bomb too.
Only the long-established democracies – which have the necessary checks and balances – can properly be trusted to hold such weapons and even then it would be better if none of them held such awesome power. Short of a ground invasion of North Korea, there are only two options available to the world. One is for the United Nations to consider expelling North Korea as a member and applying comprehensive sanctions backed up by a naval blockade, if necessary, to ensure that its strictures are not breached. The other is to call on China to do its duty by the rest of humanity.
North Korea is impervious to the protests of the entire world so long as it has the support of its northern neighbour. The umbilical cord of China is what keeps it going. Without it, it must bend. China, for its part, is fearful that if it cuts this cord it will have a Syria-style rush across its border. It is also fearful that a collapsing North Korea will fall into the arms of its prosperous and powerful neighbour, South Korea, whose armies, alongside its long-standing ally America, will advance to the Yalu river, the boundary between it and North Korea. China must be assured that the latter will not happen.
As it happens, China is furious at Kim Jong-un’s brinkmanship as is North Korea’s other neighbour in the region, Russia. There is now talk of America providing a shield for its allies in the region called THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence) – a new Star Wars – and this absolutely terrifies both China and Russia as they cannot match America in this technology and it threatens to render obsolete their own nuclear arsenals.
So now is the time to get tough, not just with North Korea but with its indulgent backer, China. Either it wishes to curtail nuclear proliferation, which will surely happen if North Korea gets away with it, or it does not. Failure to come on side will spark an arms race in East Asia. With tensions already high in the South China seas over the huge oil deposits contested by six nations, this is the last thing that China must want. It risks a Balkan-style powder keg situation such as led up to the First World War igniting.
Remember Blaire’s apology for the Irish potato famine? Or Brown’s apology for our treatment of the Bletchley Park codebreaker, Alan Turing? How about his apology to the families of the 306 executed ‘cowards’ of WWI? This furore over Cecil Rhode’s Oxford University statue is another prime example of our breast-beating tendencies today. What nonsense it is to maintain that because ethnic minority students walk past a high-up – and out of the way – statue of the arch empire builder they are suffering a form of violence. Let’s grow up a little; this surely is over-egging it.
I am not saying that we should not be aware of what was done by us long ago around the world and, indeed, that much of it was wrong. It was even sometimes brutal. But that is to see it through today’s prism. George Washington was a slave owner and Elizabeth II tortured Catholics. Churchill excoriated Gandhi and the whole notion of Indian independence. He positively gloried in the British Empire. Are all his statues, worldwide, to be taken down, including the one in Parliament Square?
I can list many examples of terrible things done by our nation. I can also quote you many more carried out by other nations. Of course, that doesn’t make any of them right. It is simply to contextualise them.
The retreat from empire in the British case was orderly and largely peaceable. In France’s it was bitter and bloody. The First World War brought about an upsurge of nationalism. The genie was partially put back in the bottle after that war, but it burst out with a vengeance following the Second World War and there was no putting it back. Bankruptcy and the need to rebuild Europe convinced us that the imperial game was up. Others were slower to realise it.
Those undergraduate agitators should pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that their privileged Oxford education came courtesy of one of the undoubtedly good things that Rhodes did with his life: he donated an immense sum to the university. I know his detractors will leap in and say that it was wealth accumulated on the backs of poor, benighted Africans, and to an extent, this is true. But we are where we are and numbers of them are at least seeing some of it coming back to them. The fact is we cannot undo the past.
Nowadays we are much taken to apologising for our forefathers’ misdeeds and though I see no great harm coming from that I have to ask myself where it ends. Should Rome apologise to us for its soldiers flogging our Queen Boudicca and raping her daughters? It may, for all I know, be that it makes a few of our ‘victims’ feel better for our having owned up and taken sack-clothe. Perhaps the idea is not that at all, but to make us feel better about ourselves. The question then is whether we are actually achieving anything meaningful at all. Does it help to rake over old coals and give ourselves an unhelpful guilt complex?
If we were such a shower of cruel oppressors, why are our former colonies so anxious to maintain their links with us? Why do they play an active part in the Commonwealth club and travel from the far corners of the earth for its bi-annual jamboree? It is telling that the French have not been able to form such a club.
It can be argued that while we took much – especially from India in the early years – we also gave much. We irrigated huge swathes of the country which hitherto had never been brought under the plough by constructing 40,000 miles of canals. We gave it, too, the largest railway system in all Asia (another 40,000 miles.) We also built and surfaced roads and constructed the 2,000-mile Grand Trunk Road east-west with trees either side to shield its travellers from the Indian sun. We gave our former subjects throughout the Empire the rule of law. We gave the Indian subcontinent parliamentary government. We also saved myriad constructs and temples, including the Taj Mahal, and its ancient language, Sanskrit, by setting up the School of Oriental Studies. We gave them an education system, which they maintain with all its rigours to this day, and we gave them a free press. Oh, and we also gave them the greatest love of their lives, cricket. It has become the poor boy’s hoped-for route out of poverty; their equivalent of our premier league.
In the last century of our rule there we developed a strong conscience so that, when we stood in mortal peril in the two World Wars, they martialled the largest volunteer armies the world has even known to help us win them.
As well as the profiteers and exploiters of the early years, we later sent the brightest and best that our country has ever produced to govern it. The special public school, Haileybury – set up to train those administrators in the languages and culture of the sub-continent – was second to none with, created in its wake, the Indian Civil Service, the most dedicated ‘sea-green incorruptible’ system ever devised. Its entry examination had no equal on earth.
Without exonerating Rhodes for his excesses, he, like many others of his time, believed fervently that they had a duty to mankind to spread British values across the world. It may seem presumptuous, even arrogant to us today, but because the Industrial Revolution had so changed the face of humanity they believed, with their strong Christian faith, that they were the elect of God, chosen to lead the world to a better future. It was an understandable enough trap to fall into and any country finding itself in that position might well have believed similarly. In truth they did mean well.
So let the callow hot-heads who will take away that priceless Oxford degree show a little humility themselves. They are young and, for the moment, know little of the world. For our part we are content to stand on the record and let history be the judge.
What disordered times we are living though now. What a total mess surrounds us on all sides. You have Islamic terrorism stalking our cities; the European Union buckling under the weight of a tide of ‘refugees’ while at the same time grappling with bankrupt states on its periphery; our own referendum to decide whether we’re going to cut and run; an Opposition in total disarray; an America which refuses anymore to act as the world’s policeman; and failed states lapping Europe’s boundaries which have collapsed into anarchy. As if this all wasn’t enough, the world is still not through the consequences of the biggest financial crash in living memory. What are we to make of it all?
Not so long ago, we faced a foe on the other side of the Iron Curtain. He was an implacable one who had the means to destroy us all. But he didn’t. There were ground rules which we both observed, since he knew that we had the power to destroy him, too. He wore a uniform and he had client states – a great many of them – which he kept in check, as we did ours. There would be stand-offs from time to time and localised bushfire wars, but they were handled within well understood rules which worked. All that is now history and no one knows any longer where they are.
I cannot help but think that a great mistake was made when Communism collapsed. The former enemy was prostrate and needed help, but he didn’t get it. He went through ten years of hell with robber barons (oligarchs) stripping the state of assets and operating a mafia-style regime. To curb it all, but without success, authoritarianism returned to Russia in the form of Vladimir Putin. But he did not see himself to be at odds with the European Union. Indeed, he sought to reach out to it and gain acceptance as a valued partner. He even wanted an accommodation with NATO on joint exercises.
But all these overtures fell on deaf ears and now you have a troublesome bear rampaging through the undergrowth, which has had to be put into the school-equivalent of ‘special measures’ with sanctions applied.
A new opportunity, however, presents itself in the Syrian quagmire to put right some of this damage. Russia is as anxious as we are to bring that murderous conflict to an end. It is equally understanding of the need to play its part in destroying Isis, the most malignant evil since the days of Pol Pot.
Just as important, it accepts that the Syrian dictator, Assad, cannot be part of any long-term solution and that, as long as a face-saving interim arrangement can be made, Putin will go along with it. Assad has, hitherto, always enjoyed their backing; this is because Assad, and before him his father, had allowed Russia to maintain a naval base on the Syrian coast and pretend to a Mediterranean presence.
Provided its interests are protected in any eventual settlement, Russia can be expected to cooperate and play its part in ending the civil war. In so doing and acting in concert with the West, the West can begin the process of undoing the damage which its former cold-shouldering of Russia brought about. The European Union, for its part, can begin to lock Russia into its embrace and give Putin the respectability and acceptance which he originally craved.
Turning to Uncle Sam, we are going to have to accept that he will never again be prepared to shoulder the burden of world peace alone. He made a terrible mistake in withdrawing the last ten thousand troops from Iraq. Had they stayed as an emergency, fire-fighting backup, Isis would never have been able to establish itself.
What is needed now is for the European Union to step up to the plate, militarily, for the purpose of burden-sharing. Were it to do so, Uncle Sam would happily abandon any thoughts of retreating back into isolationism which was a major contributor to World War Two.
It is morally and dangerously wrong for Europe to expect any longer a free ride where security is concerned. It has the wealth and it must use it, along with others, to bolster America. I am sure the United Nations, in the interests of world peace, would welcome such a development. Of course, the European powers would have to make it clear that they seek no territorial advantage and that this is not a fresh round of empire building by the back door. Even Iran must be allowed to play its part, along with neighbouring powers.
I doubt that even if peace, by such a combination of power, can be restored to Syria that in the short term a viable government can be made to work when there is such bitterness on all sides. In that event, a United Nations mandate should be imposed on the country for It has to be accepted that, just occasionally, only the application of overwhelming force can settle the argument. This, I believe, is just such a case
There has been much ado about our kow-towing to the Chinese during the recent visit of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping and talk of our being a puppy in danger of being put on a leash. I believe these worries to be misplaced. China is a fact on the modern world stage with its second largest economy. What it does or does not do impacts all of us.
The first major western power to seriously engage with her will reap a rich reward. She has been unable to achieve this with the country she would most like to, namely the United States, so she turns to the country she regards as the next most significant.
The reason she can make no headway with the US is that Uncle Sam confronts her militarily in East Asia, being locked in a web of alliances with regional powers there. At the core of the dispute is our old friend, oil. Huge deposits have been found in the South China Sea bordering on five East Asian countries that are all insistent that they have rights there. Also, the clamour of protests about job losses to the Chinese and internet piracy is greater there, as is the human rights lobby. Of course, all of these things are important and we would be foolish to ignore them.
But take steel as the most recent example. Just as we cannot manipulate the price of oil, so we are unable to do so with steel. With world demand slowing down – yes, led by China – there is a glut of it. Dumping is an inevitable consequence and we must deal with it.
Steel production is strategic; we cannot therefore lose the industry completely. We must be in a position to fire up those coke furnaces at some point in the future if the situation requires it. China and the rest have to realise that they must take their share of the pain by reducing capacity. Furthermore, it must boost home demand by turning itself into much more of a consumer society. The steel issue is exactly the sort of case in which the clout of the EU could achieve the required result where we alone could not.
Our relationship with China is more longer-standing than that of any other Western nation. They understand that and this is one of reasons they have turned to us. We were the very first to engage with them and introduce them to Western ways all those years ago, when we sent Lord McCartney on a trade mission to the ‘Celestial Kingdom’ in 1793. Famously, he refused to kow-tow, as required, to the ‘Son of Heaven’. Then, 150 years of ruling Hong Kong gave us an understanding of the Chinese psyche not vouchsafed to any other Western power.
They are touchy, to put it mildly, about being lectured by outsiders on human rights or anything else for that matter. They still see themselves as unique among humans. Being crushed in two opium wars by McCartney’s heirs didn’t change that perception. And their conception of human rights has a different slant to ours; they argue that lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty whilst maintaining stability is very much paying attention to human rights. They wonder why the West pays so much attention to them while it sucks up to primitive, atavistic Arab regimes who publicly crucify and behead teenagers. If they are lambasted for the number of executions in their country, remember that they number 1.3 billion. It is a nonsense to say they execute more than Iran or Saudi Arabia when those countries number 70 and 28 million respectively. Proportionately, China is way below them.
I personally take the view that nothing will achieve success, as we would like it, in China than that she become richer. Rich people are not so easily pushed around. The human rights of our own people were once – and not so very long ago – severely circumscribed. But in a thirty-year period in the nineteenth century, per capita income in Britain grew by 500% – a growth rate never before seen in human history. Our people became freer than they had ever been with trades Union rights guaranteeing that the days of gross employer and landlord exploitation were over for ever.
China sees that the soft power that our country enjoys all around the world with its Commonwealth contacts, its EU membership, its command of the world’s number one language and its close, familial association with the US – still the dominant power on the planet – makes us the nation of choice to cultivate. Also not lost on them is the fact that we are now the fastest growing economy in the Western world, with more jobs created last year than the whole of the EU put together. All these things and more confirm our relevance in their eyes. Also our ‘open for business’ outlook on the world goes down very well with them, as do our elite schools, peerless universities and exciting cultural attractions. Even being the home of James Bond makes us more interesting.
My own view is that, if we play our cards right, we and China could have a very exciting future together. Our joining the recently created and Chinese-sponsored Asian Development Bank may have annoyed the US, but it makes a great deal of sense and demonstrates to the Chinese that we are capable of acting independently of our former colony.
Trade enriches the world. It’s what makes it go round. It breaks down barriers and improves our understanding of each other. It makes war less likely with there being too much to lose and it addresses perhaps mankind’s most pressing problem: its ballooning population. No rich country has a high birth rate any more than a poor record on human rights abuses. Trade is what got the West where it is today; truly it is king.
So I am glad that we did Xi Jinping and his lovely wife proud. The splendour of his welcome will be noted and very well received in China. Even Jeremy Corbyn behaved himself.
Soon we will be receiving the Prime Minister of India, in whose land two million of our forefathers lie buried. We can do no less for him. That exotic, cricket loving country has a very special place in our hearts. Because of the institutions we left it with, not least our language, law, and democratic ways, it has a head start on China. I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, it were to outpace China.
What fantastic news it was that there is almost certainly seasonal running water on Mars. While there is a remote possibility of marine life under the ice cap that envelops Europa, one of Jupiter’s larger moons, it is Mars, our so-called sister planet, which is the celestial body in our solar system which has always fascinated us.
In Victorian times we were naive enough to believe in, shall I say, manmade canals on its surface. Just as well there were no men there; had they been anything like us, they might have fancied our planet rather than their own. With Martian surface temperatures rising to never more than freezing and plummeting as low as -139°C – against our lowest of -60°C – the temptation to take over our lovely, benign habitat, would have been great.
But, seriously, it is of huge significance that there seems to be flowing water on Mars. The reason it doesn’t freeze is because of its very high salt content, mixed with sodium and magnesium perchlorate. It is thirteen times saltier than Earth’s seas and flows freely during the Martian summer. It is enough to burn your skin; not too welcoming for a dip and certainly not the sort to get a mouthful of.
The greatest question that has exercised modern humans is whether we are alone in the universe. Just to complicate matters further, it is now thought that there may, actually, be many universes. So how rare is life? We know there must be a whole set of circumstances in place to give it even a chance. Venus – a misnamed planet if ever there was one – has a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead and an incredibly dense and sulphuric atmosphere. It suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. No chance of life there.
We know we are alone in our solar system – at least in the form of ourselves and the other life that surrounds us on Earth – but we also know that, clever as we are, we started as the lowest form of microbial life in the primordial ‘soup’ that once passed for oceans.
No one knows how that first single cell arrived or developed. Maybe it came to us riding on or in an asteroid, or comet. Or, perhaps, a chunk of another planet ricocheting off that heavenly body by an asteroid strike of its own and sent earthwards. And no one knows how that single cell divided into two and began its long journey to us. Perhaps it was a lightning strike into that primordial ‘soup’ that triggered it.
If we can establish that even microbial life once existed on a long ago, much warmer Mars, and is still there, dead or alive, then the probability is that we have companion peoples spread across the infinite reaches of the cosmos. Actually, I personally – for what it’s worth – have never doubted it. Notwithstanding how many the factors must come together to make advanced life possible, the sheer scale of the universe – and never mind the possibility of multiple universes – means that even if the odds were 10,000,000,000,000:1, it will have happened. And many times.
Our first microbial organisms began their evolutionary journey into us around 3 billion years ago. And there must be many habitable planets much older than our own which may have begun their journey into advanced life much earlier than ours. After all, the Big Bang took place nearly 14 billion years ago. If these civilisations managed to survive into maturity, they must be hugely more advanced than us. Imagine where a thousand years will take us from where we are now – and that is just a blink in space time. Then imagine a civilisation a million years ahead.
“So, where are they?” you ask. “Why haven’t we heard from them?” The answer may be that we have, but don’t know it. Or that such smart creature – dare we say considerate – hold to Star Trek’s Prime Directive of non-interference.
Then again, it may be that the sheer immensity of the distances which separate us confound even the most advanced civilisations. “Ah, but,” I hear you say, “what about warp speed and worm holes?” Yes, but they may only be part of our wild and ever-hopeful imaginings. The simple truth could be that even the cleverest of aliens cannot overturn the iron laws of physics. Perhaps one or more of those laws block our pathways to each other for ever.
What is undoubtedly true is that sooner or later SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) will hear from them in a form of encryption that we can understand. But we can never have conversations. Even at light speed, it would take far, far too long for a message to get back to the sender.
I well remember the incredible excitement which surrounded the Apollo missions and, in particular, those steps down the Luna module to make contact for the first time with the surface of an alien world. That was 1969. If only we had kept up that momentum, we would have been on Mars long ago. Instead, we chose to spend our precious resources on foreign wars, defense establishments and ever more fiendish ways of killing each other.
Having said that, I have to acknowledge that it was the Cold War and America’s refusal to be beaten to the moon that pulled off that stunning feat. NASA has shown that the final building block to possible life on Mars is there and that a permanent presence on that planet is possible. China’s interest in the Red Planet may be all that is needs to kick start a fresh race into space. I hope so. I would love to live long enough to relive a similar thrill to that which I enjoyed all those long years ago.
Grateful thanks to Plympton Gardeners’ Association, who dress out Ridgeway’s six concrete tubs (they’ve even painted them white). City parks department could learn a thing or two from this dedicated group, who even do what parks never did… keep it going throughout winter. Parks abandoned their post in their ill-chosen efforts to scrimp, but you’ve stepped into the breech with great panache. Thanks!