As Afghanistan suffers and slips back into darkness, America licks its entirely self-inflicted wounds and Europe stands aghast
America used to proudly boast that it never lost a war, but now Afghanistan joins Vietnam in destroying that boast.
As a ragbag force of 83,000 Taliban sweeps to final victory in a single week over a well-trained, highly equipped government army three times bigger, the US has suffered a humiliation every bit as great as that inflicted by the Vietnamese 45 years ago. Even that jaw-dropping scurry from the embassy roof has found a fresh equivalent.
A geopolitical catastrophe has been inflicted on the West as well as on NATO by a naïve, increasingly inept president and his predecessor. NATO had hitherto been seen as the longest, most successful military alliance in history and, indeed, it was. Now that hard earned credibility has been seriously jeopardised by its leading member. What is so galling is that the forces deployed before the collapse of its mission were minuscule compared to that it had deployed to bring relative order to the country. Yet this tiny force had been sufficient to encourage the Afghan army to do its job and stiffen poor decision making with its ranks. It also gave it state of the art equipment as well as training. Why, then, did the Afghan army fall apart so precipitously and succumb to a hugely inferior enemy?
It did so because of a terrible feeling of abandonment. Also, because its corrupt masters had stopped paying it – pocketing the huge funds its western backers were sending, when a foolish president set a date for withdrawal. The crooks in government knew that a day of reckoning was fast approaching with the austere men with long beards. Those funds went to myriad offshore accounts in the run-up to departure and before the crooks scurried off to their seaside mansions.
Over the course of twenty years, Afghanistan – and particularly its women – have come to engage with the modern world and enjoy its freedoms and opportunities. All this is about to be snatched away. Society will be plunged back into feudalism. Women, again, will become the playthings of men, suffering torment, cruelty and anguish with their Human Rights cut from under them along with education and job opportunities.
Although bringing overwhelming firepower to bear, once the heavy lifting had been done, the West only needed to maintain a fraction of that effort to hold things together. But its guiding light lacked the backbone to see the job through. Sadly, it stands to pay a heavy price for its pusillanimous. Had the Taliban, like the IRA, faced an enemy willing to stay the course, its stomach for a never ending fight would, eventually, have evaporated.
Afghanistan, more and more, would have moved into the modern world and there would have been no turning back. That kind of resolve, demonstrated by NATO over 45 years, eventually broke the back of the mighty Soviet Union. It will have to be summoned up once more to contain the assertive designs of a totalitarian China that binds the human spirit in chains of a sort never before available to tyrants.
Meantime, Afghanistan suffers and slips back into darkness. America licks its entirely self-inflicted wounds and Europe stands aghast. Has our stalwart ally and protector lost the plot, as well as its bottle? Can we rely on it as we always felt we could? We in Europe are half a billion people – rich people at that. Has the time come that we have to look to ourselves, while remaining in closest concert with our Atlantic neighbour? These are urgent questions, and they must be addressed. Meanwhile, laughing in the wings are China, Russia and Iran.
It seems too much to hope that the Taliban Mark 2 has seen the error of its former ways. Even if its now elderly leadership might wish to do things differently, its young foot soldiers out in the countryside can be expected to exact Quranic justice as per its 7th century origins. There are a lot of scores to be settled.
Afghanistan remains a tribal society with animosities that run as deep as did those between Scottish Highland clans. Perhaps one of its warlords will cobble together a challenge to the Taliban, much as the Northern Alliance did successfully. But then, again, perhaps we may all be wrong and it really is a changed Taliban. They certainly won’t want a fresh invasion, which is what they will get if they facilitate renewed terror attacks.
Above all, they crave international recognition for their renewed Emirate and only good – or at least better – behaviour can secure that. They have pledged to eradicate poppy production and appealed to the world to help them replace their narcotic dependency with alternative crops.
Afghanistan developed expectations as a result of thirty years of exposure to a fastmoving world – first the USSR and then NATO. It is just possible that the now weary old men can succeed in reigning in their hothead younger men and settle society down as has been achieved in our own backyard of Northern Ireland.
Margaret Thatcher’s successor, Sir John Major, has declared that however well we perform over the next half century, we will never again be a first-rate power. He says that, economically, we will be overtaken by other powers with much larger populations.
I find it astonishing that a man who has sat at the very centre of power can reveal himself as being so astonishingly myopic. Despite his seven years in power, he failed utterly to pick up on what his country was really all about. His lack of historical perspective is also equally baffling.
Size of economy and population do not in themselves confer on you front-rank power. Very soon, India’s economy will overtake our own and its population overtake China’s. Is anybody saying India becomes more significant than us at that point?
Let me list a few of the reasons why I believe Britain will remain a force to be reckoned with and very much a front-rank power. We are the founder member of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora, comprising ourselves, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. That diaspora formed the cornerstone of the post-war world order and the multitude of organisations and affiliates operating under the auspices of the United Nations – itself a body created by its two leading members. So close and trusting of each other are these five countries that the Five Eyes, as they call themselves, share intelligence to the very highest level and admit no others to their closed order.
The common language these countries share has become so ubiquitous and necessary in the world of international diplomacy, science, medicine, business, the web and the arts that, without any agreement between the world’s 195 nations, it has become the world’s lingua franca.
Britain is the inventor of the modern world. It is a tolerant, law-driven, property-owning, democratic society in which the executive is answerable to the collective will of individuals who maintain a constant watch on what it gets up to through a free media. It remains an incredibly innovative country with a greater number of Nobel laureates relative to its population. It has schools the rich worldwide like to send their kids to and universities that rank among the world’s best.
Also, John Major takes no account of that great empire that formerly straddled the world which has morphed into a free association of nations – fifty-four of them – and forms today such a magnet that some countries which were never part of that empire want to join. That association – or club, as it often likes to refer to itself – seeks to promote democracy and decency among all its members and will reject any state who egregiously fails to meet its standards. In many ways it is like a mini United Nations – though not one which will tolerate tyrants – and it has a touching, almost family aspect to it. All the Commonwealth’s members positively love to meet up every two years and party with no interpreters in sight.
Despite the aberration of the Trump presidency – one quite survivable, as we see, in a democratic society – the United States remains the most dynamic society on earth. The country most admired and trusted by that state enjoys, by definition, a special status as well as an advantage. It has the ear of its best pal as no one else does. Note that, despite a serious difference with Boris Johnson over Brexit and disparaging words spoken earlier about the British prime minister, he was still the first leader Biden picked up the phone to after his confirmation as the president elect.
Then there is our physical proximity, cultural and historical links with the great power which will one day be the United States of Europe. These ties will not go away. We will always need and want each other. Great Britain was just not a proper fit for the EU’s aspirations. Quite apart from this, it would never want to upset us too much for fear that we would retaliate by using our newly repatriated powers to seek economic advantage.
I do believe that Britain has the most polished and effective diplomatic service in the world. This is enhanced by the world’s most respected broadcaster, the BBC. Its World Service is the most trusted of any and listened to avidly even by its enemies. Its documentaries, dramas and period pieces entrance millions.
All these assets come under the heading of Soft Power. It is the only power, realistically, which can deployed in the 21st century. Unlike tanks, planes and warships, it passes under the radar and makes you friends – not enemies. Hard Power is a wasting asset; it is hugely expensive and ruinous to maintain. The ever-increasing restraints of an ever increasingly activist UN make it almost impossible today to go to war without UN authorisation. The war against Saddam Hussein may well have been the last in which that could be done without a mandate.
As for nuclear weapons, the only thing that can be said about them is that they free you from fear of invasion, which is almost certainly why North Korea has impoverished itself to acquire them and their delivery system. Otherwise, they are unusable – so being armed to the teeth is truly a drag anchor. Dynamic as it is, imagine how much more the United States would be capable of were it not burdened with supporting its colossal military-industrial complex. That is the foolish road that authoritarian China is presently going down. While it is true that we ourselves are not free from displaying military muscle – we have submarines that can deliver a nuclear strike anywhere in the world and two aircraft carriers of immeasurable power – we do not let ourselves be carried away.
John Major downplays the country that allowed him, the son of a circus man, to rise to the top – as well as a grocer’s daughter. But among so many other questions, he needs to ask himself what is the attraction of our nation that desperate people will borrow thousands from people traffickers to come and live among us? What makes a man willing to die to reach our shores?
The fact is that we are seen a tolerant nation as well as a successful one. The quality of our judicial rulings brings litigation to London from all over the world. In theatre, drama and music, Britain turns in a matchless performance. Many consider London the coolest city in the world with the City of London the beating heart of an enormous chunk of global financial transactions.
Even the shenanigans of our Royal Family are a source of endless fascination for the entire planet. And when it comes to a state visit, a royal wedding or a funeral, who can put on a show to match one of ours? Brexit may have driven us mad, but the theatre of it all in the mother of parliaments – especially that of its outrageously partisan speaker, Bercow, who so loved the sound of his own voice – made for riveting viewing worldwide. The complexities of the arguments deployed made even the US electoral process look straightforward.
So wake up John Major! You haven’t been right about very much these recent years and you’re certainly not right about this.
Not in living memory has the entire world been gripped by a fear as great as that which holds it in thrall at the present time.
In this COVID-19 crisis, it seems to me that what is needed more than anything is a sense of proportion. In the lifetime of people still walking the earth, a pandemic struck which killed fifty million of the planet’s inhabitants.
I refer, of course, to Spanish flu. It was a nasty, virulent strain which targeted the young – male and female children and those of military age. These were the ones it liked to sink its cellular teeth into. It wasn’t interested in the old.
Furthermore, you were over one hundred times more likely to die of Spanish flu than you are of the current malignancy. The saddest irony was that millions who had survived four years of shell and shrapnel in the trenches fell victim to this unseen killer wearing no uniform and against which they had no defence.
The ones who perished were the ones society could least afford to lose. Much less was known in those days of the nature of viral spread and reproduction and even less on how to combat it. In that much less regulated and interventionist world, no lockdowns took place.
With COVID-19, it was apparent early on that you were at risk – not just by being old, but if you were obese and/or with underlying health issues. The very young would often hardly know that it had come and gone with them.
Any sensible approach should, therefore, have taken these factors on board with targeted policy measures. People in a high-risk category should have had a protective shield thrown around them and the rest left to go about their business, mindful of the dangers while exercising due diligence. Test and Trace should have been an early priority.
Had this been done, it would not have been necessary to inflict such catastrophic economic harm and all the attendant collateral damage associated with these national lockdowns. Nor would we have mortgaged our children’s’ future with debt levels never before seen outside of world wars. It is likely, in the final reckoning, that as many will have died from delayed treatments for heart disease, cancer, strokes and a multitude of other conditions as have succumbed to this coronavirus.
The country in Europe which has come closest to what I regard as a measured and proportionate approach is Sweden. Their one obvious failure, which was joined by our own litany of failures, was not to have protected their care homes. But at least their economy will have emerged largely unscathed and treatments for other more numerous life-threatening conditions continue on track.
The Swedes are, by nature, a calm people – as once we were – and their appeal has been to people’s good sense. The instinct to stay alive has been sufficient to persuade their socially minded people to do the right thing, and they will reap a rich dividend as a result.
Britain’s own unenviable record of the highest death total in Europe can be largely explained by our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, dithering over lockdown and our appalling levels of obesity and associated poor health. It seems no coincidence that our even fatter cousins across the Atlantic lead the field in fatalities.
Our country’s latest catastrophic error was Boris allowing himself to be terrorised by alarmist and grossly exaggerated figures of likely fatalities. Four thousand daily were predicted by 20th December. If this was in anyway plausible, 1,000 daily should be dying at this time of writing. The figure is actually 167. Thus the country will be plunged, on the basis of pure scaremongering and out-of-date prognostications, back into an even more economic and mental misery, predicted by many to be even more damaging than before.
Our prime minister’s scientific advisers, Chris Witty and Patrick Vallance – not to mention the government’s myopic scientific advisory group, SAGE – have so much to answer for. Their blinkered, doom-laden tunnel vision would entertain no opinions other than their own.
The British public are desperate for Boris to be the Boris we elected. He can make a start by respecting the opinions of thousands of medics and Nobel laureates whose credentials are quite the equal to his current advisers in the form of the Great Barrington Declaration.
Banks are the only firms on high streets still consistently causing queues. Why are they continuing to operate short hours while other businesses are opening as normal? And why do they close on Saturdays and insist on cutting their high street presence even further, against huge public opposition?
A little over a decade ago, their scandalous activities drove the world almost to the point of meltdown, yet they have shown no contrition nor gratitude for what the taxpayer did for them nor rendered up any guilty scalps. And notice, please, how no Royal Commission was ever put to work to investigate that most monumental of scandals. Today, in this world of COVID, the banks continue on their merry way.
As a shopkeeper, I need change. I had to wait twenty minutes on my high street to gain entry yesterday and only one out of four counters was operational.
Part of the problem is that Brits are too polite. We stand in quiet acquiescence to the nonsense the banks are subjecting us to. It is not in our nature to make a fuss. Politicians will not come to our rescue because too many of them look to the banks for lucrative jobs when their days at Westminster are over.
One big mistake was not to let a couple of the big banks go down the Swanee as the US did with Lehman Bros. Considering banks ‘too big to fail’ made cowards of us. Now we must force them to accept their social responsibilities. Easy access to money should be a start and right. Abandonments of dreams to make us a cashless, at least for the foreseeable future, should be another. A little humility would also help.
Yesterday, all your troubles seem so far away;
At last, release, and rescue from the endless fray.
A childhood lost to parents’ waring feuds;
Smart thoughts in afterlife so badly skewed.
Great lines and beauty, all to no avail.
My own unhappy start was yet redeemed.
You said I was the lucky of we three:
I think you right, for I was free to see.
There have been world wars, genocides, whole cities obliterated and great economic depressions. There has even been the Black Death. But we can never identify a period when the whole human race has been shut down in the face of an invisible foe with the potential to kill untold millions and perhaps wipe out half of our elderly mothers and fathers.
Had we not become a scientific species which had acquired a keen understanding of how viruses transmit, this may very well have happened. But today, in my country after three months of hiatus, the shops are permitted – under strict conditions – to resume business. This in itself is a first. There are so many of them. Never before have traders countrywide been prevented from plying their wares. But equally, never before had all human activity which involved close contact been forbidden and the entire population placed under what amounts to house arrest.
Because these constraints so obviously impinge on the ability to do business, economic activity has taken a hit greater than any since the arrival of the Black Death seven centuries ago. Billions of humans have been sent on enforced sabbaticals, and in many cases have lost the will to work. In this glorious spring and summer weather, they have actually enjoyed not having to report for work in the early morning and suffer the burden of having to constantly maintain output, work schedules and the annoyance of being bossed around by their superiors.
Society now faces the herculean task of firing up again all these beach-comers and new enjoyers of public spaces ever since they were permitted to exercise and take the air to maintain health and sanity. But just as daunting are the hitherto unheard levels of public debt incurred to keep as many businesses as possible on life support. Governments around the world knew that, despite breaking every record in the economic rulebook, millions of enterprises will never recover and untold millions will find themselves relying on the public purse to survive. This is particularly galling to those governments – including our own – which managed their affairs well and were looking to a golden future. No one knows what the consequences of so much public debt will be, but consequences there surely will be.
In handling this crisis, my own country has been found seriously wanting. While our freshly minted prime minister has won the first big test of his premiership – exiting the European Union – he has failed abysmally on the second, COVID-19. Failing to put the country in lockdown sooner cost tens of thousands of lives. Failure to test, track and trace added to the litany of woes, as did failure to provide personal protective equipment. But perhaps the most scandalous failure was that of not throwing a cordon sanitaire around the people most likely to die: those in care homes. Hospitals sending infected patients into care homes may be said to have reached the bar of criminal negligence, as was the failure to provide protection for those who look after them. But as if these failings were not enough, we must add four more: an insistence that two-metre social distancing be maintained; a mule-like refusal to accept that face masks can make it harder for the virus to jump from person to person; a tardiness in getting the least at risk back to school; and the lunacy of introducing travel quarantining after the horse has bolted.
But beyond these events, there is an important geo-political dimension. Where has the European Union been in all this? Nowhere, so far as anyone can see. Brussels has been criticised by virtually every member state for interfering in matters they say don’t concern it. But here was a life and death issue which affected all of them equally. Would any have complained were the Union to have taken the lead in protecting them? After all, health issues have always been a major concern of Brussels. It extends even to the much maligned bent or undersized banana.
It has been truly absurd that 27 member states ended up doing their own thing. This was never better illustrated than in our own small island, where devolution allowed for four different solutions to the same problem. We ended up in a Kafkaesque world where an Englishman for the first time in eight hundred years could be stopped from entering Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Various national leaders – and none more so than our own – will face a harsh reckoning when the story of this crisis is finally written up. Had the European Union taken responsibility for managing the crisis, those leaders would have avoided all the brickbats that will now come raining down on them in what many consider the great project of our time, the European Union. And had the EU, for its part, acquitted itself well, it would have provided a mighty fillip to those who have always lauded its creation and pine for a United States of Europe.
As we grapple with COVID-19, we are left wondering how we overnight got from a happy confluence of a strong government, a finally successful Brexit exit, a strong economy, a budget which promised to regenerate our country, into a downturn of unimaginable proportions.
A deadly virus had mutated in an ancient land which, despite being at the cutting edge of so many modern technologies, still hangs on to disgustingly unhygienic animal practices more worthy of witch doctor days.
Precious weeks were lost in a miasma of deceit, cover-up and punishment of those who sought to tell the truth. I am not saying that we in the West do not have our share of such practices, but they are the exception rather than the rule. And where our unfettered media ferret out such goings on, things change and frequently heads roll. Those in power – who can be held to account – know this and that is why such happenings are the exception. Democracy is what does it. As Churchill once said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”
No authoritarian, one party state, such as China, would tolerate for an instant the daily press briefings whereby the most powerful man in the land submits himself to a grilling in which he is obliged to answer unscripted questions. Nor would such a state allow its media to tear into its handling of any matter. Furthermore, all such dictatorial states insist on imposing their own narrative to events. They will brook no counterview and punish those who try, often by torture and all too frequently by death. All this makes it galling to the nth degree when the perpetrator of the terrible events which have gripped the world shows no contrition, but rather starts boasting how well it has handled it all. To add insult to injury, it sends hapless foreigners rushed supplies of PPE, much of which is defective.
If China wishes to be admired and respected by the rest of humanity, it must be honest and upfront on issues which affect the entire planet. This is particularly necessary where health and survival of the species is concerned. It has to be said that there was a certain inevitability – given ancient animal practices carried out in live wet animal markets in the Far East – that such outbreaks as coronavirus would be regular occurrences. A family member, not long ago, drew my attention to a YouTube expose of animals being skinned alive in China. It was so horrific that I quickly had to avert my gaze. In those parts of the world where human rights are given short shrift, it is not surprising that those of animals are virtually non-existent. Not until all of us treat each other humanely can we expect those who don’t to extend the same protection to our fellow creatures.
Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – as the US Constitution has it – may even be said to be the right of animals too. As the only part of Creation blessed (some might say cursed) with a mind capable of understanding the issues, we should regard our role as that of a high steward – the ultimate protector of all that has evolved on this orbiting accretion of stardust.
We should regard the outbreak we are currently living through as a wakeup call for the next pandemic coming down the track. And down it most definitely will come. When it arrives, we may not be so lucky as we have been this time with a virus which kills, it is thought, one in a hundred and which largely leaves the young and the fit able to survive it with minimal discomfort. Pity, though, the old and those with health issues.
Deaths worldwide are likely to be under a million from a world population of 7.3 billion. The SARS coronavirus, only a few years ago (also from China), had a mortality rate ten times higher than the COVID-19 coronavirus, but it was somewhat harder to catch and showed symptoms earlier. Luckily it was contained. Spanish flu, on the other hand, one hundred years ago, spared the old and ravaged the young, killing in the region of fifty million out of a then world population of 1.8 billion – a fraction of today’s 7.6 billion. One third of humanity is thought to have contracted the disease. Woe betide us if the next pandemic has the killing power of the Black Death. Then, half the human race vanished.
It is a perennial worry of our species as to what its ultimate fate will be – an asteroid strike, Global Warming, a runaway population explosion (1.8bn to 7.3bn in one hundred years) the exhaustion of the Earth’s raw materials and nuclear annihilation – but pandemics are our biggest enemy. A new, incredibly murderess and fast-moving virus strain against which no antidote can be found before it kills half of humanity or even more.
People think that the world has only recently become interconnected, but the worlds of the middle ages and even antiquity were fully aware of each other’s existence and traded. Albeit their ships were smaller, slow-moving and the overland routes dangerous, but they still pulled it off. It took many months for the Black Death to move from the East to the West – and it never reached the Americas because there were no overland routes and we didn’t even know they were there. Now our coffin-shaped jets – acting like high-flying incubators – can bring it to us in hours. Had China included international air travel when it put a ban on movement in and out of Wuhan, there is every reason to believe the world would have been spared this health and economic catastrophe.
The lessons to be taken from our present travails are speed, transparency and isolation. Also, nations must be obliged to create war chests of PPE, test kits and ventilators, since the failure of any one of them puts the rest of us at risk. Primitive practices such as live, wet markets must be banned worldwide.
If all nations insist on maintaining military establishments with their horrendously expensive tanks, planes and warships, they surely can afford to protect themselves from a potentially greater enemy than any state poses by maintaining health service capability. After all, no neighbouring, hostile state ever enjoyed the advantage of invisibility.
As I write, world leaders are gathering in a European Union country to remember the arrival, 75 years ago, of the Red Army at the gates of Auschwitz to discover a horror unique in the annuls of our tortured species.
Using the tools which a newly industrialised world had created, one of its present member states had set about the extermination of an entire people.
It would be wrong to say that the state in question was unaware of the evil it was perpetrating, as it tried every means possible to hide what it was doing. What it did believe fervently was that, in the fullness of time, when the world woke up to the fact that the twelve million Jews of Europe had vanished, it would ‘applaud the courage’ of the country that had risen to the challenge and done the unthinkable.
What warped form of logic could ever make an otherwise cultured people harbour such thoughts? The answer is simple. If a criminal gang gains control of a country and spends two decades reigniting ancient hatreds using all the means of modern propaganda and pseudo-science, an entire people can be brought to the edge of madness.
Right up to the advent of Hitler, Germany was no more anti-Semitic than any other country in Europe (actually less so than many). Jews fought with distinction for the Kaiser, gaining hundreds of Iron Crosses. They considered themselves safe and at home and loved their Fatherland, the birthplace of Goethe, Beethoven and Schiller.
Had a similar criminal gang gained control of another European country – at a time of acute economic distress and political humiliation following the vengeful Versailles Treaty – and employed the same brainwashing techniques as did the Nazis, that country would have ended up the same. We have only to look at North Korea today to see what brainwashing can achieve.
Two things allowed Nazi Germany to take matters to their logical conclusion. The first was the astonishing rapidity and breadth of its conquests; the second was its industrial might and legendary efficiency.
Only a large and advanced state would have the means to embark on such a programme, and within every country there are people in a criminal class willing to do the really merciless work. So complete and fixated was the determination of the monsters who drove that programme that, even as their resources were stretched to the limit on the battlefield, they still were prepared to risk defeat than redeploy enormous Holocaust resources to the front and perhaps save the day.
Genocides have been a regular feature of our benighted species, but none have so scarred our conscience as that which ended seventy-five years ago. Thankfully, it can never happen again. Our 24/7 news cycle, cameras in every pocket and inability to prevent whistle-blowers and email leaks will make any such repeat effort impossible to conceal from the world.
The United Kingdom was then a world superpower with, by far, the largest navy on the planet and the largest empire known to history. Within a year of my birth, it confronted, on its own, in a Thermopylae-like last stand, the Nazi tyranny which had enslaved all Europe and which was bent on world conquest. It seemed to all to have embarked on a suicide mission.
Roosevelt cabled its war leader in that darkest hour the words of Longfellow:
Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
In these troubled times we do not ask our fellow Europeans to repay this debt of blood and treasure, only to remember that when they needed us most, we were there for them.
It is now five years since King Richard III was re-interred: this time respectfully in Leicester Cathedral with honours appropriate to the last of a dynasty which had ruled England for 331 years. The discovery of his body under a car park proved a worldwide sensation. The confirmation of his terrible injuries as he stood, surrounded by his enemies – a small, spinally afflicted man – fighting like a Viking berserker, evoked pity as well as admiration. Notwithstanding Richard’s lifelong belief in leading from the front, history has judged him both a tyrant and, if Shakespeare is to be believed, a monster – England’s own Ivan the Terrible. It is my belief that this is a false judgement and that it is time to create a more balanced narrative.
The writing of history from the victor’s perspective began with Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars. Such was the genocidal brutality of that campaign that it is estimated a quarter of France’s then population was wiped out. Rather than Veni, Vidi, Vici, it should have read Veni, Vidi, Dedi – I came, I saw, I slaughtered. A thousand years later, William the Conqueror gave his own (literally) coloured justification for usurping the throne of England in the Bayeux tapestry, and on the way to another thousand years Napoleon portrayed his Egyptian campaign as a glorious success when in fact it was an abysmal failure. We must be careful, then, when we show ourselves willing to place undue credence on the winning side’s account.
The England Richard grew up in was convulsed in the domestic bloodletting of the Wars of the Roses. The twists and turns of that brutal struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster – both branches of the Plantagenet family – are immensely challenging, even for historians, who to this day still argue about events. Five kings came and went in the space of twenty-five years. Richard’s Yorkist, elder brother, Edward, gained the crown after the bloodiest and longest battle ever fought on English soil. Fighting the whole day long, on Palm Sunday in 1461 in a snowstorm, twenty-eight thousand perished. That represented almost a tenth of England’s then population.
Richard, therefore, grew to manhood not just in a time of unparalleled violence, but also of disconcertingly shifting alliances. Nobody knew who could be relied on. When we examine Richard’s record following the unexpected death at forty-one of his brother, the king, we really have to think hard on all these things. As well as betrayal from every quarter, much of the violence was gratuitous and mindless.
Richard’s was always with a purpose and that purpose, many would argue, was in the interest of his country as well as the preservation of his own, threatened, life and Yorkist line. As a third son, he never expected to be king and after the death of his brother gave no indication, initially, of a wish to become one. He enthusiastically backed preparations for his twelve-year-old nephew’s coronation. His brother, on his death bed, had appointed the ever-loyal Richard to act as the boy’s guardian during the years of his minority.
At the request of the king, eleven years earlier when he was nineteen, Richard had been sent to the troublesome north with vice-regal powers. He managed not just to pacify but gain the respect and even love of his northern charges. His campaigns against the marauding Scots gained England large tracts of land including the important border fortress of Berwick on Tweed, which has stayed English ever since. With his legalistic mind, Richard proved an able and just administrator which, added to his bravery on the battlefield, made him the ‘perfect prince’. These qualities, it should be noted, were exactly the ones his country needed if it were not to fall back into the miseries of renewed violence under a boy king. The nation wanted nothing more than a continuation of the much-valued peace from what was originally known as the Cousins’ War, which his brother’s stable rule had brought.
Ever mindful of a reversion to the bad old ways, Richard knew that only he had a chance of holding the country together and that it was essential, therefore, for him to carry out his brother’s wishes and govern the realm for the next several years. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that he would not be allowed to. His late brother’s non-aristocratic, but stunningly beautiful, wife with her immense family of hated and ambitious hangers-on gave every indication that they intended to take over. Were this to happen, the country would be plunged back into factionalism and warfare. Just as certain was Richard’s own fate. In those troubled times, he would have been a dead man walking. The low-born late Queen’s family had stirred up great resentment among the ruling magnates by the way they had inveigled their way into the king’s favour, gaining titles, lands as well as high offices of state. Everything that followed, which has been so much portrayed to Richard’s detriment, must be viewed in the light of these circumstances. Richard’s success during his long period of service and vice-royalty in the north had made a great impression on the country. Almost all right-thinking subjects would have preferred him to the upstart Woodvilles, the dowager queen’s family.
Another feature of Richard’s character was his decisiveness. In his present, life-threatening predicament, it would be much needed. He was, in today’s terms, a genuine action man. When he saw how heavily the dice were being loaded against him, he knew he had to act fast and he, being Richard, did exactly that. When he had cleared what was, admittedly, a very fraught path to taking up his duties as Lord Protector, a sermon was preached by the bishop of Wells and Somerset which claimed that both of his nephews – one of whom was the new king Edward V – were the illegitimate offspring of a bigamous marriage. This had been talked about in palace circles for some time. In addition to this, his own brother, the late king, had a questionable pedigree which was rumoured to be the result of a dalliance that his mother had had with a French archer during a period of estrangement from her husband, the king. Certainly, when Richard’s remains were forensically examined after that famous discovery under a Leicester car park, they bore absolutely no brotherly resemblance either in build, height, colouring or facial appearance to the strapping blond, Edward IV.
Richard was a known stickler for legality who, among other things, had long standing views on legitimacy so that when the estates of the realm started to press him to assume what they believed to be his right to the crown, and bring certainty and adult kingship to the realm, he may well have considered that he had a duty to listen to them. If church law held his nephews to be bastards, that made him the undoubted king and not a usurper. As a patriot at a pivotal moment in his country’s history, he would have felt a heavy burden of responsibility to save the realm and his Yorkist line from falling back into the hands of the Lancastrians. His lavish coronation, attended by high and low, bears testament to a will strongly felt generally, and by Londoners in particular, to see a continuation of the stable government that the country, under his brother, had enjoyed for years.
Richard was a hugely pious man. During the two years of his kingship, he enacted a string of measures that can only be described as enlightened, even by today’s standards. He encouraged widespread use of the newly invented printing press, which the powers of the day were highly suspicious of and which acted as a spur to translate the Latin monopoly of the Bible into English. Inevitably, that would have led to the churches’ monopoly of possession of the ‘Good Book’ being broken and the common people gaining their own copies and starting, perhaps, to place their own interpretation on holy writ.
Most incredibly, Richard would brook no censorship in what could be printed. All were encouraged to speak their mind. This hardly speaks of a man with dark secrets. He did away with the ability of the rich and powerful to lock a man up and keep him there awaiting trial, sometimes for years. Bail was introduced. Although a fluent French speaker – having spent part of his early life in Burgundy – Richard insisted that Parliament conduct its business in the vernacular and not Norman French. This same view applied to other agencies of the state. Another of his hates was corruption. Richard attacked and sought to do away with Indulgences, the practice which allowed the rich and powerful to purchase public offices. It was a landmark step towards a well-governed country. Richard, as we have noted, had a great interest in law and would sometime conduct a case in court himself. His passion for justice for the underprivileged may well have had its origins in his own experiences. Suffering, as is known, will often give a person greater empathy for the less fortunate.
Although – somewhat unkindly, I feel – it has been remarked the Richard had ice in his veins, he was observed to weep when his wife died and doubtless he did the same when his infant son – his only heir – did likewise. The calumny that was later put about by the Tudors, that he killed his wife so that he could marry his niece, we know to be false. His wife died of an illness, probably tuberculosis, and he was negotiating the marriage of his niece to the Portuguese royal house. Unlike his handsome, womanising elder brother, the king, Richard kept faith with Anne, his wife, after they married, something unusual for aristocrats right up to modern time.
There was much personal tragedy in Richard’s life. His father died on the battlefield when he was a boy, as did his uncle. His erstwhile older brother, Clarence, who had habitually rebelled once too often against his own older brother, the king, was condemned to death by Attainder. While the king upheld the verdict, Richard begged for clemency. The act is said to have been carried out by the bizarre method of drowning Clarence in a vat of malmsey wine in the Tower of London. Perhaps that’s because Clarence couldn’t stop imbibing on stuff that they held to be the culprit in sending him off the rails. They thought giving him a double dose would be a suitable punishment.
To add to the litany of misfortune which fell upon Richard, at around the age of eleven he was struck down with the debilitating and painful affliction of scoliosis – a warping of the spine. Little allowance has been made for these tragedies in Richard’s young life, but they must have caused him severe distress and had a profound effect on him. Furthermore, as a small man – around 5’6” – he must have felt hugely overshadowed by his magnificent, 6’6”, muscular, blond brother, the king, who to add to the mix was extremely handsome as well a gregarious. Perhaps these were very same attributes that a lonely queen, years before, had found irresistible in a French archer.
Richard must have felt a desperate need to do something to prove that he was a true Plantagenet. That led him – despite his growing disability and a skeletal frame revealed by recent forensic examinations to have female characteristics, particularly his pelvis – to take up battlefield training so that, with a superhuman effort, he eventually morphed into a warrior who could cope with sixty pounds of armour and wield a heavy mace.
In his final dash to cut down Henry Tudor, he came within feet of him, crashing through his bodyguards and taking down Henry’s standard bearer before he himself was surrounded and cut down in a fury of sword and Halbert thrusts. Ten wounds struck the battling Richard through to the bone: two of them lethal. There may have been many more flesh wounds. But most shocking of all, considering that he was an anointed king, there were a series of what are known as ‘humiliation wounds’ – struck after death. There were some to the head and one up through the posterior to the pelvis. Considering the closeness of Henry Tudor to the action, he must have watched this happen and that represents a shocking indictment of him that he permitted such desecration of a crowned monarch.
On the matter of his alleged killing of his nephews – the most damning of all the charges levelled against Richard and the deaths his enemies made the most capital of – it is universally agreed that no prosecutor would ever have gained a conviction against him. There is not a scrap of evidence linking him to their disappearance. Several suspects, beside Richard, are in the frame. My own prime suspect is his sidekick, the Duke of Buckingham, who, having charge of London in his master’s absence far away, may have felt he would do him a favour by carrying out an act which he knew Richard couldn’t. There had already been one attempt to spring the princes from the Tower and there were likely to be more. Buckingham knew that while they lived, they could act as a focus for Richard’s enemies. Their elimination would settle the matter once and for all. When the question is posed, why did Richard not denounce Buckingham on his return, he must have asked himself, who will believe me? Better to let sleeping dogs lie and the mystery of their disappearance remain unsolved.
Another reason why I find it difficult to believe that Richard was culpable is that it would have been profoundly abhorrent to such a devout man. He was an ascetic, almost in the mould of the puritans who would come two hundred years later. He forswore the wearing of gorgeous apparel, which was the mode amongst aristocrats of the time, preferring to dress simply, almost like the common man who was forbidden to wear clothes above his station. He endowed more monasteries and places of learning during his thirty-two years of life than any other monarch. But even if Richard did give the order – and it remains a big if – he would not be the first to kill close to home. History is littered with similar acts. His own brother, the king, had allowed his sibling, Clarence to be killed. Two of history’s ‘Greats’, Peter and Constantine, killed their own sons. Reasons of State, some hold, override everything. Is it not just such a reason as allows us today to square our consciences over the firebombing of German cities and the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima?
Had Richard been victorious at Bosworth, as he would have been but for the treachery of the fence-sitting Lord Stanley and his 2,000 contingents, that would have been the last hope of the Lancastrians. Richard would have gone on to reign unopposed and, judged on past performance, particularly his rule of the north, we might be reading a very different account of him.
As an accomplished warrior, much in the mould of Henry V, I believe he would have taken up the challenge of the recently lost lands in France and won them back for England. The Hundred Years War might well have had a different ending.
When you consider the merits of the man who succeeded Richard, one finds it hard to mount a compelling narrative. It was an increasingly unhappy, even miserable reign. The penny-pinching, grasping and murderous Henry Tudor cannot stand against the principled, brave defender of the law and peoples’ champion, Richard. Henry is even said to have had an opportunity to sponsor Columbus’ voyage to the Americas, but turned it down as being too risky. If so, it was a blunder of titanic proportions. All of the continent, south as well as north, would have accrued to the English crown and the miser filled his boots with its mountains of silver and gold so that he would likely have gone mad at his miraculous good fortune.
The son who went on to succeed the ever-suspicious first Tudor, Henry VIII, would become known on the continent of Europe as Henry the tyrant. He would plunge England into two centuries of bloody conflict with the Catholic church. To fill his own boots with the sale of church lands during the dissolution of the monasteries, untold scores of beautiful Abbeys were destroyed. Had they survived, they would be the glory of our land today and be earning us untold tourist receipts. The wonder is that the second Henry’s butcher and vandal-in-chief, Thomas Cromwell, didn’t turn his attention next to the cathedrals. But he didn’t have time. His master had him begging for the headsman’s axe rather than suffer the fate Henry intended – the grisly end of a traitor. It is as well that the poor man’s mentor and former boss, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey – himself the son of a butcher – had previously died on-route also to face Henry’s vengeance.
So, I come back to the successful character assassination that the Tudors carried out. It has been the accepted version for five hundred years now. To this day, the royal website refers to Richard as the usurper. The first of the new Tudor dynasty’s claim to the throne was so nebulous that it is hardly worth detailing. A whole clutch of aristocrats were better placed in line of succession. Furthermore, what claim Henry Tudor did have came through the normally disallowed female line which was, itself, tainted with illegitimacy. Knowledge of this made both of the Henrys paranoiac; they murdered all the better claimants they could lay their hands on including the frail and saintly, 67-year-old Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, who was raised to sainthood in later centuries. Does Henry’s seizure of the crown by force of arms, and in these circumstances, not make him an undoubted usurper?
It is ironic that the second Henry’s Lord Chancellor, Thomas Moore – another to be beatified – bowed to the royal pressure and lent his much-respected support to the Tudor campaign of Richard vilification. His reward came later on the headsman’s bloc. Henry’s double-crossing of the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace and the lethal vengeance taken afterwards represents yet another chapter in a bloody reign, which attracts nothing of the criticism levelled at Richard.
Finally, to complete the work of the victor writing the narrative the great bard, Shakespeare prostituted his otherwise gifted pen. Seeking to please Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth, he wrote a favourable play concerning her father and a true stinker concerning Richard. Such a fantastic, crowd-pleasing horror story of a play is Richard III, that the world has preferred to believe that this is how it must have been. That tainted version of events included incest, gross deformity, ugliness, usurpation, infanticide and unwarranted, murderess violence. Dogs barked, according to Shakespeare, when Richard went by.
It has taken modern forensics half a millennium to demolish Shakespeare’s caricature of an ugly, limping, hunchback with a withered arm. Richard was not any of these things. Actually, after a reconstruction of the face according to his facial bone structure, he turned out to be quite pleasant looking. Why would the bard’s depiction of Richard’s character traits be any more accurate? It is now the job of historians to do their work; a task which should be evidence-based.
Shakespeare would have won no history prizes at school. Just as Scots are not taught about bad King Macbeth – he was, in fact, so safe on his throne during his 17-year reign that he went on pilgrimage – equally, there is no bad king Richard. We must start teaching something which more closely resembles the truth concerning Richard, not just give him a decent, final funeral.