Author Archives: tomhmackenzie
I recently visited the Little Harbour Children’s Hospice in Cornwall with my son, Grant, who has been giving his own time on weekends to teach staff and children how to use their new 3D printer.
Having spent my own childhood in care at the Foundling Hospital in more disciplinarian times, it was wonderful to see a real-life example of how childcare should be delivered. Unlike the children of my institution, who enjoyed good health in the main, tragically all of the young people passing through Little Harbour’s doors are afflicted with a range of life-limiting conditions. However, thanks to the love and dedication of the staff there, and the truly wonderful facilities and activities made available, these unfortunate children are enabled to live to the absolute full within the limitations of their conditions. The loving staff provide stimulating activities and organise daytrips for the children, and parents are able to stay there too for respite.
Little Harbour, along with many other children’s hospices, benefits from no state funding. The whole operation depends entirely on the generosity of members of the public. This generosity began at Little Harbour with a farmer who donated several of his precious acres to the cause of enhancing life-limited children’s quality of life.
I will be following this blog post up with a more in-depth look at the very fine work that takes place at Little Harbour, made possible by its many benefactors. In the meantime, if you are contemplating donating to a worthwhile cause, you really could do no better than Children’s Hospice South West.
Now that the Parliamentary Standards Committee has concluded that the allegedly sick Keith Vaz is restored to health, we hope it can get a move on in investigating his predilection for rent boys. He has, after all, been happily, and by all accounts healthily, swanning around the world while his case has been put on hold.
There never was, with the possible exception of Cyril Smith, a grosser example of a parliamentarian letting that august institution, his constituents and most of all his wife and family, down. The jury in this case can hardly be said to be out when there is video evidence to confirm the whole squalid affair.
Here is a middle-aged man who was assiduous in cultivating a caring, wholly decent image of himself while habitually engaging with young men barely out of their teens for sex. It’s ironic that the young men captured in the recordings were from the same country, Romania, that Vaz rushed to welcome off the plane in 2014 in that much-publicised photo op.
Every aspect of the case appals. The sex was unprotected so that, in selfishly gratifying himself, Vaz put at risk of life-threatening disease his unsuspecting wife. He lied about who he was, passing himself off as Jim, an industrial washing machine salesman. Then, in what I believe to be a serious criminal offence, he encouraged the youngsters to obtain Class A drugs, even offering to pay for them – as long as they hurried up as he declared himself anxious in the recordings to “get the party started”. That, in my book, is known as aiding and abetting.
Most of us want to believe that our parliamentary representatives are high-minded and honourable people. Certainly they like to be addressed as such. But what are we to make of a situation when, against all expectations, following the shocking revelations concerning him that weekend, Vaz nonchalantly and brazenly waltzed into the chamber of the House of Commons the next working day as though nothing had happened. Equally shocking was the reception he received. Instead of a hushed, disbelieving House, there were words of consolation and even back-patting. Were these from understanding and perhaps like-minded colleagues?
Vaz’s smarmy, polished mode of delivery speaks of someone anxious to be thought a thoroughly establishment, Anglicised figure. Unusually for someone born into a Muslim family, his father chose a galaxy of non-Muslim first names. Did dad think that his little boy would more easily gain acceptance by being called Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz? It’s clear Keith never felt any embarrassment as he carried the pretentions and posturing to new heights with his obsessive grandstanding, networking and search for the photo op.
Vaz represents a constituency with one of the highest proportion of Muslims in Britain, Leicester East. In the light of this new scandal, how do his constituents square their faith with their unwillingness to deselect an MP who has betrayed them so outrageously?
And let’s not forget that, as Vaz was engaging in sordid, illegal activities, he was chairing the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs while it was considering changes to the law relating to prostitution and drugs. Was there ever a case more screaming for the Mother of Parliaments to divest itself of an individual who has brought it into such disrepute? Judging from the welcome Vaz received that Monday morning in the Commons, it seems not.
As for that not-small-matter of the police ignoring prima facie evidence of ‘Aiding and Abetting’ a crime, is it that they’re running scared of going after a high-profile figure, especially if he’s not white, a Muslim and an MP? Does Vaz enjoy the same kind of immunity that has served rogue elements of his fellow Muslims so well in the sex grooming scandals in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford and Telford (and who knows where else)?
Amazingly, in view of all the many shenanigans of recent times starting with the expenses scandal, we still want to hold onto that long-standing belief that British parliamentarians are a cut above the rest: men and women with the highest of principles who believe in setting an example. But how can we hold onto these hopes when such a character as Vaz is still not only tolerated, but welcomed and indulged in parliament as “the Honourable Member for Leicester East”?
We are currently embarked on a route and branch investigation of sexual abuse in all its forms. We are also determined, once and for all, to deal with sexual exploitation of women and men in the workplace. One gets the impression that parliament would like, in its own case, for this nasty, criminal business concerning Vaz to go away. But we must not allow it. The man has taken us all for fools. We have allowed him to stretch the limits of our patience to an extraordinary extent. The time is long overdue to stop indulging him. The police should reopen its file, his Leicester East constituency party should examine itself and Parliament should get on with booting Vaz out.
For as long as politicians can guarantee the best for their own children, we will always have education inequality
Of all the great achievements of the post-war Labour government, the one, more than any other, which would have cemented its reputation as the greatest reforming government of all time would have been the abolition of privilege in education. If the rich and powerful knew that their sons and daughters depended on the state, they would pretty soon ensure that the same standards they themselves had enjoyed were established under the new dispensation. This would have been a major step in the direction of a more classless society.
That Labour failed to abolish private education following WWII – which many had begged it to do – is not a criticism of that heroic government. It was, quite simply, a bridge too far. All its other reforming zeal left it with insufficient headwind to tackle this greatest of all bastions of privilege. Had it done so, it should have included faith schools since education should only concern itself with empirical facts.
Britain will have to wait for its next cataclysmic event to enable it to deal with this most entrenched of all its inequalities. Only when the governing classes are themselves traumatised, along with the rest of us, will they yield this most precious of all their privileges. Then, and only then, will we be close to enjoying equal opportunities.
Meantime we must pray that the traumatic event required does not extend to another world war, such as before the great Labour government reforms, or a financial crash of the sort that 2008 threatened, which might very well have been 1929 all over again but for the great engine of Far East growth. But, just the same, it will have to be something quite dramatic.
While we wait, the political classes should make good on their constantly trumpeted willingness to send their own offspring to the country’s state schools. It is rank hypocrisy for the politicos of both the Right and Left to extol the virtues of state schooling, while at the same time lambasting the private sector in the process, and then go on to send their own children to fee-paying schools. Great numbers have done this, including one of Labour’s shrillest advocates for social justice, Diane Abbott. The fact she represents one of London’s most deprived boroughs, Hackney, didn’t stop her sending her son to a private school.
There is, too, something deeply troubling about the numbers who make it to the top, be it in politics, the military, the judiciary, the Civil Service, finance and business, who were once part of the Oxbridge set up. That needs also to be urgently examined. Elitism seems to be at the very heart of Britain’s privileged classes, almost as though it is in their DNA. It’s the ‘Old Boys’ network writ large. A closed shop par excellence.
There was a time, in 2013, when Obama declared his red lines, and before Russia and Iran intervened, when western intervention could well have sent the then tottering Assad on his way. But an opportunistic British Labour leader, Ed Miliband, reneged on his promised support and the British Parliament gave Obama the excuse he was looking for not to intervene.
Instead of western planes commanding the skies over Syria, grounding Assad’s air force, Russian planes took to the air with the results which we now see. Had the pusillanimous Obama followed through, there would have been no need for western boots on the ground, apart from special forces. The land war against ISIS and Assad’s forces would have been wrapped up by the Kurds, massively assisted by a hugely encouraged opposition under the protection of western planes.
But that was then and this is now.
It looks as if now we’ll have to get used to the blood-soaked Assad winning this long war.
Where did it all go wrong, apart from that duplicitous Ed Miliband volte face? It first went wrong with that messianic, Saviour of the World former boss of Miliband, Tony Blair, and his sycophantic support for the American president, George W. Bush. That ill thought out intervention, with no exit strategy in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, began the unravelling of that powder keg of an area which can be likened in Europe to the Balkans for the complexities of the issues involved.
Now we see the three principal western allies punishing Assad for reintroducing chemical weapons against the opposition. So much for Russia promising to keep these internationally banned weapons out of the Syrian conflict.
The attack from the West will not tilt the strategic balance away from Assad, but it does have the potential to drag it further into the Syrian quagmire. That is not to say that retribution should not be taking place. For the West not to act – especially after the Trump tweets – would have held it up to ridicule and made it appear toothless. Putin would have loved every minute of it.
The reality of the situation is that is Putin who is toothless. He heads up an economy the size of Italy’s (half the size of California’s) and his military assets are Lilliputian compared to NATO’s. He may be a thug masquerading as a statesman, but he knows that a united West – and that’s exactly what he’s achieved – can wreak havoc with his fragile economy if it is provoked enough. He will, I believe, avoid putting it to the test. Moreover, if he were to allow things to get really nasty he would have to whistle goodbye to that cherished dream of his to host the world cup. That in itself would be a crushing humiliation. So many opportunities for self-aggrandisement are handed to whoever hosts that, second only to the Olympics extravaganza.
As for talk of military clashes involving Russian fatalities leading to a third world war, that is arrant nonsense. Anyone suggesting such a development reveals their lack of geopolitical understanding. Russia, and Iran in particular, need to start worrying about where their adventurism might very well soon lead them; and it isn’t just a question of a serious confrontation with the West, militarily as well as economically. A worried Israel, which has already launched one air strike into Syria, is close to being added to the volatile mix.
Netanyahu, perhaps the most hawkish prime minister that Israel has ever had, will find the prospect of Iran establishing itself militarily on its border an unbearable one. That country has sworn to wipe his state off the map. Only a short time ago two countries, Syria and Iraq, and a thousand miles of territory, separated the two hate-filled adversaries. Now the Iranians are at the foot of the Golan Heights and are eyeball to eyeball with the Israelis. It is one short step from there to a full-scale military clash. Israel itself, if that were to happen, could provide the decisive push which would finish Assad off and in the process send all the Iranians in Syria packing.
Putin has a very great deal on his plate right now. His economy is a mess and getting worse. His Syrian ally promised it would destroy all its chemical stocks and it did not, poking him in the eye by using the weapons again. Then there is the incredible backlash following Putin himself resorting to a similar illegal substance against one of his own enemies. He never for one moment imagined the odium that would rain down on him as a result and the massive worldwide support that would rally to what he saw as an isolated Brexit Britain.
All in all, it is a situation that must be giving him sleepless nights. Trump poured scorn on Obama for his weakness and, as a macho opposite, felt obliged to demonstrate his own virility. The missiles are coming, he said. With a carrier task force on its way to the Syrian coast, not to make good on that hasty tweet would have been a humiliation too far. For Trump and his image, it had to happen. So much for the love-in that he imagined he could achieve with the former KGB operative.
In my view, Trump’s willingness to confront Moscow must surely now dispose of that much talked about compromising bedroom material alleged to have been acquired when he paid a visit that once grim, but now glitzy gangster-run capital.
I voted to remain in the referendum of 2016. I did so because I believed that reform of the European Union would inevitably come and that, as a heavyweight insider, we would be one of its principal drivers. I believed that the world was moving towards bigger and bigger power blocks until all, in a distant future, morphed into a world government. I still consider, provided we manage not to self-destruct, that to be the likely outcome.
So why do I now believe that Brexit must be made the best of? First, it was the democratic will of the people. Second, for anyone with an understanding of history, there is no reason to believe that Brexit will be Britain’s undoing; indeed, it may very well achieve the reverse and force it to raise its game. Third, it is the one country in Europe which, because of the peculiarity of its circumstance, could take such a step with a better than reasonable chance of making a success of it. It may not seem so right now, but there is a self-confidence that exists nowhere else among its neighbours. Not one of them would dare contemplate a life beyond Mother Europe. Its perceived embrace smothers them to the extent that they will endure endless pain, à la Greece, and still cling to its coattails.
Why do I take this view? The reason is that Britain’s development has been significantly different. We are an island nation, much like Japan. While influenced hugely by what has happened on our adjacent continent – indeed, regularly interfering to prevent what we perceived as overmighty tyrants developing on our doorstep – we have insisted, nevertheless, on keeping our distance, once the business was done.
Europe’s strength, and its half-millennia dominance of the world, began when it broke the monopoly of the Silk Road’s route into and out of the continent to trade goods. It did this by acquiring maritime expertise and building ships which could withstand three-year voyages and the heaviest seas the natural world could throw against them. This allowed it to trade goods in bulk and without umpteen middlemen taking extortionate cuts along the way stations of the overland route. While this was going on, its fiercely competitive nation states benefited from an overarching and temporising religion, as well as a cultural and scientific breakout led by the city states of Italy which it called the Renaissance. Also, the creation of centres of learning in the universities along with their independence helped speed the process towards the Age of Reason. The rivalry between those city states held much in common with the rivalry that propelled the city states of classical Greece to greatness.
The race across the oceans to explore new riches and bring home old ones naturally favoured the countries with easy access to the Atlantic. That explains why the great maritime empires which came about consisted only of them: Portugal, Spain, England, Holland and France. The next race was to see which of them could become top-dog. In turn it was each. When the dust had finally settled it was England – now fortuitously called Great Britain because of its union with Scotland – which emerged triumphant.
With a revolution in both industry and commerce, a population explosion, vast trading networks and a navy which could see off all others, it is not surprising that Britons came to see themselves as a case apart. Because of their island protection, they had escaped the continental upheavals of rampaging armies and had become quite distinctive – again, much like Japan.
One of Britain’s great strengths is that it was always a pragmatic country. If it worked, adopt it; if it didn’t, ditch it. It was never much interested in dogma or political theorising. That is why it returned to monarchical government after the eleven miserable years of the Cromwell republic. But it made sure that the royal power knew, as a condition of its return, it could never again step out of line in the way the previously executed king had. The lesson was well learned.
Britain’s relative isolation, which fostered evolutionary rather than revolutionary progress – allied to its Protestant work ethic – was one of the reasons its efforts at establishing new countries was so much more successful than its Latin rivals. Compare, for instance, the outcomes for Spain and Portugal’s South American colonies to those of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Even when Britain went to work on existing countries, the institutions and infrastructure it left behind outclassed anything the Latins left in place, and that includes France.
Above all, Britain’s language had become ubiquitous, as had its ‘Beautiful Game’. That game, however, struggled in the heat of the Indian plains so another British game, cricket, is now played in many hotspots instead. Its playtime activities proved almost as alluring as the rest.
All of these and many more are reasons why we Britons should embrace our new future with optimism. Our forebears have sown an amazing legacy. Now is the time to harvest it.
What is there to be said about a terrible man like Tom Jones? To be blessed by great good luck, and the fortune that goes with it, and yet not lift a finger to help a child of his in distress is beyond contempt. Knowing that his child is reduced to sleeping rough on winter streets and yet still remaining indifferent beggars belief . It plumbs the depths of human callousness. How can he sleep at night?
When, despite everything, that child forgives all the years of needless suffering inflicted on him by the self-centred narcissist; writes letters and begs only for his father to extend a hand of warmth, friendship and recognition; yet is met only with icy indifference, then the contempt I feel is total.
Jones’ one night stand had the same consequence as Boris Becker’s, but how differently Boris faced up to his responsibilities. For Jones, his sense of responsibility is zilch. He poses as a warm-hearted, fatherly figure on the BBC’s The Voice when he is nothing of the kind. Indeed, he is the antithesis of a father.
It is time people like Tom Jones were exposed and cast into the wilderness of public esteem.
Following the award-winning movie on Dunkirk last summer, another blockbuster is to be released on 12th January concerning those testing days for Britain. Called ‘Darkest Hour’, it provides an account of the chaotic and emotional cabinet scenes that surrounded the calls for a negotiated peace with a triumphant, and seemingly unstoppable, Hitler.
In the long period of the 1930s, the appeasers had very largely held the floor. From the top echelons of the political establishment, only the siren warnings of Churchill had interrupted their narrative. Now, in the spring of 1940, Western Europe was ablaze with the British army in headlong retreat and its mighty French ally on the point of collapse. In all of Britain’s long history, no direr situation had ever confronted it. Both Philip II of Spain and Napoleon has posed just as great a risk of invasion, and historians are all agreed that, in both cases, their armies, once landed, would have been successful. But the regimes imposed would have been pussycats compared to the one which a Hitlerite Germany would have delivered, had it been obliged to fight its way into Britain.
Only one man stood out as having the credentials to lead the nation in a government of national unity. Churchill – for all his many flaws – had, since Hitler’s ascent to power seven year earlier, stridently warned of the ‘gathering storm’. He had called for rearmament and condemned the Munich Agreement it as an ‘unmitigated defeat’ for the democracies. It was now patently clear that he was right. Moreover, he alone had held ministerial rank during the previous war. As such, he was acceptable to both opposition parties whereas the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, were not. Neither were deemed credible as war leaders. What was not known – and this is what the movie seeks to make clear – was how very close Britain came to choosing a different path from the one it did. I want to argue that from Britain’s point of view, and indeed the world’s, it chose the wrong path.
Timing is everything. In May 1940, Churchill has luck on his side – even the weather. Fortuitously, as it turned out, he was right to argue passionately that his country should fight on. But he was only just right because, at that time, Britain stood in the gravest danger of losing its entire army on the beaches of Dunkirk. Without it and its French ally, it would almost certainly have been obliged to sue for peace. Even in those circumstances, as I have argued in previous writings, Hitler would have granted what the world would have perceived as an honourable peace. He had no quarrel with Britain and saw war with it as a distraction from his main purpose: the defeat of the Soviet Union. He even admired Britain’s conquests around the world.
Yet by fighting on at that stage, two stunning results were delivered and they strengthened Britain’s arm immeasurably. The first was the miraculous rescue of its all but doomed army, and the second was the defeat of the Luftwaffe over the skies of southern England. Together, they placed Britain in an altogether stronger position vis-à-vis the Nazi juggernaut. Its high command knew at that point that the option of defeating Britain in the short term had been lost. Remaining in its rear would be an enemy with a dagger always at its back. This was the opportunity Britain should have seized.
Britain’s best interests would undoubtedly have been served by negotiating a deal. It would have been a deal between equals, with Germany triumphant on land and Britain equal in the air and, as ever, triumphant at sea. Minus the air, almost an exact parallel could be drawn with Philip’s army in the Low Countries and Napoleon’s at Boulogne.
But with the passage of time – perhaps three years – Britain would have been able to defeat Hitler, and without even the entry of the United States into the war. Immense bloodshed would have been avoided as a result of a much earlier end to the war. Most of the killing outside of Russia took place in its final phases. During that time, of course, the Soviet Union would have been utterly defeated by the Nazis, who came within a whisker of total defeat anyway. With peace in his rear, Hitler would have felt safe to turn his whole war machine against the enemy in the East. Communism would have been destroyed and Central and Eastern Europe spared what happened to it during the years of the Cold War. China, too, would have been spared the horrors of Mao.
The means by which Britain could have defeated the Third Reich unaided was with the atomic bomb. In 1939, when the war broke out, Britain was the most advanced country in the world in nuclear physics. It even had its own atomic weapons programme, codenamed “Tube Alloys”, years before the American Manhattan Project. At this point, Britain was still an immensely rich country with vast overseas holdings, despite all the asset sales of the previous war against Germany.
People will argue that, despite our initial lead, Americans got there first with the atomic bomb. Yes, indeed! But that was because Britain chose to fight Hitler when it did. Had it conserved its wealth and industrial capacity – during what would have amounted to a phoney peace – it could have resumed and accelerated the Tube Alloys programme: a project even further removed from the prying eyes of the Reich than the Manhattan Project in the deserts of New Mexico. Australia would have been the perfect testing ground, as it proved later when Britain did eventually develop and test its own bomb in 1952.
It was principally the gigantic financial and industrial effort needed to create Britain’s vast bomber fleets, along with the warships, tanks and other paraphernalia of war, that robbed Britain of the capacity to take on another major project such as this. It was with government approval, given at the Quebec Conference between Britain and America, that its nuclear physicists decamped en masse to its ally to pursue the work there. Until quite late in the day, the US had shown little interest in the explosive potential of the atomic bomb. It cannot be denied that, had it prioritised the lead it had enjoyed pre-war, Britain would have got to the bomb first.
What would have been the benefit to Britain of a phoney peace of the sort Stalin made with Hitler while it raced ahead to be the sole possessor of the bomb? Well, it would have dictated the post-war peace. Communism would have been eradicated from the world and Britain’s status as a great power preserved or even enhanced. For a period, at least, Britain would have resumed its former position of top dog. It would have avoided bankruptcy and heavy military losses. Although its empire would, in the fullness of time, have been wound down, it would not have happened so precipitously. Its peoples would have had more opportunity to develop fully functioning civic and democratic processes.
During the phoney peace with Hitler, Britain would have been in a position to increase massively its military presence in the Far East and given Imperial Japan pause for thought before confronting it and the United States. Indeed, Japan has admitted that it was only the hugely successful raid by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm on the Italian fleet, as it lay at anchor in Taranto, that emboldened it to believe that it could do much the same at Pearl Harbour. That raid is unlikely to have taken place under the scenario I have outlined. Although ultimately defeated, the humiliations which Japan heaped on Western powers during its six-month rampage through the Pacific destroyed the previous aura of white invincibility and brought about over-hasty rushes to independence. An informed guess would be that fifty- or seventy-five years might have passed before the colonial handovers eventually did take place. We might now be seeing Prince Charles or William globe-trotting the world performing the flag lowering ceremonies.
It is also fair to say that the Holocaust, itself, could well have been avoided. There were no plans to liquidate Jewry in its entirety while Hitler was winning the war. Other solutions were sought, such as shipment to Madagascar or resettlement beyond the Urals as slave labour. Only a mad belief that the power of international Jewry had brought about the war, and that if he was going to go down he would take Jewry with him, fuelled Hitler’s fanaticism into outright genocide. He never seems to have asked himself why, if international Jewry was so over-achingly powerful, it proved so utterly helpless to protect its own when he began his persecutions and eventual descent into genocide. Had the war ended sooner, and he been allowed meantime to conquer the whole of the Soviet Union before he himself faced sudden Armageddon, that terrible blot on humanity might never have happened.
It will be argued by some that there was no guarantee that the bomb would ever work. To that I would counter that a large majority of scientists, including Einstein, were confident it would. There was certainly more chance of it working than ever there was of Britain winning the war on its own without it, and that was the starkness of the choice faced by the war cabinet at that time. Perhaps, in the circumstances, and with the dice so heavily loaded against them, they were irresponsible to take the gamble they did. After all, it was a nation’s very existence they were there to consider. In the event, victory did eventually come, but it came at a terrible cost.
All in all, a powerful case can be made for the alternative narrative: the one which would have bought Britain time, rather than the one that actually did win the day during those heated and emotional exchanges in May 1940. The outcome, in my view, might now be a calmer, happier world than the one we see around us.
Except in America, the state goes to considerable lengths to keep weapons under control – particularly those of mass destruction. It fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to that end. Yet each of us is weaponised in a user-friendly way that cannot be controlled.
The moment we slam the door shut on half a ton of metal and hurtle off at who-knows-what breakneck speed, we are weaponised to an extraordinary degree. Never was this more dramatically rammed home than at Nice last year when over eighty people were crushed to death and untold numbers of others crippled and scarred for life.
Suddenly both we, and our enemies, realised that all around us were ready means of destruction on a massive scale. Worse was the knowledge that the state was powerless in the situation and that you didn’t need bomb factories, ingredients and planning, all of which it did have a chance of monitoring. You simply could step out one morning and kill a hundred people if your vehicle was sufficiently beefy. It was a terrifying realisation.
The car has been a hugely liberating and empowering development in the human story. Up to the eighteenth century, people rarely travelled more than eight miles from the place they were born. Suddenly, their territory was covered in asphalted roads which enabled them to reach the furthest corner of their homeland in incredible time. Journeys of weeks were reduced to hours. Moreover, those freezing weeks of bone-shaking boredom in horse-drawn carriage on rutted, unmade roads were now reduced to hours of warmth and comfort in which people didn’t need to listen to the inane witterings of strangers. Within a short time, we could enrich the airwaves with the finest music our species has created or hear the intelligent musings of the more articulate and entertaining of our people.
Nothing, I suggest, of all the wondrous technological achievements of recent times, including television and the Internet, has been embraced with such enthusiasm. It does, however – as most things do – have a downside. It is partly responsible, I feel, for our failure to engage with our neighbours. Where once our walk to work or the shops brought us into contact, we now take five paces out from our front door into the car and race off. Another downside, which has taken us a hundred years to experience, is that in the hands of a sick fanatic a vehicle can be as devastating as a machine gun. Yet another, and one to which we blissfully give insufficient thought, is that among the myriad things we humans get up to – and in this I include adrenaline sports – nothing puts us at greater risk of killing ourselves. Those same said comforts lull us into a false sense of security. Our constant search for ergonomic improvements has led to ever quieter engines which, when combined with superior suspension systems, can find the car having magicked its speed up to 100 mph with us barely noticing. Not only does this ‘improvement’ bring greater danger to ourselves, but to pedestrians as well. The virtually noiseless electric car is already upon us.
It is a rare person who regards himself as being anything other than a good, safe driver. Most of us regard our skills to be greater than they are. Next to our home and, much more so than our workplace, the car excels as our number two comfort zone. That very factor should give us pause for thought. You are much more at risk of complacency when you’re relaxed in your comfort zone.
We set out each day confident in the belief that our skills will protect us and steadfastly imagine that our safety is almost wholly in our own hands. This, however, completely misses the elephant in the room. Our safety is actually in the hands of strangers. Every time we embark on a journey we rely utterly on every other driver to do the right thing. Hundreds – or even thousands on a long journey – of other drivers whiz by us; if just one of them makes a misjudgement or is distracted, particularly on a bend, we become another statistic – one of over 5,000 who die annually on our roads.
It is a sobering thought that while so many of us are scared of flying, we are many, many thousands of times more likely to die in your nice, comfortable runabout. Just as astonishing is the blind faith we place in strangers to ensure that this does not happen. But having said all this, and despite these undoubtedly serious caveats, the car remains a wonderful thing.
Getting around was once the preserve of the rich: those who had a horse. It stayed that way during the early years of motoring. Then along came Henry Ford with his Model T and the masses joined in the fun. Even a Caesar would have envied what was now available to the least of what would have been his subjects.
Crazy, over-confident drivers are not the only people we should fear on the road. There are those afraid of their own shadow. While we have gained protection to a degree by applying tests both to ourselves and our vehicles, we cannot shield ourselves from the motorist who insists on driving super-cautiously, often well below the permitted speed limit. He or she can so drive fellow motorists up the wall that even the most forgiving can do the unthinkable and precipitate an accident. Nonchalantly blind to the stress levels building up in the queue stretching away to their rear, the slow-coach Sunday driver is a true menace. But hope is on the horizon. Within a generation, most of our journeys will be driverless. Even the slow-coach will have been speeded up. Fatalities on the road will plummet. That should be welcome news to all of us, but think how that prospect will cheer the Greeks and, indeed, all the nations with horrendously worse records than our own. Worldwide, over a decade, millions will live to see old age.
It is often difficult to know what sort of person an individual is. But here again this chariot of the common man excels. Spend half an hour behind anyone, especially in an urban area, and you will have many of the answers which even daily concourse can fail to provide. The way we drive reveals so much about ourselves. Cars expose our true selves in a way so few activities can. They expose show-offs, bullies and chancers. They show whether you’re considerate and polite or, God forbid, indecisive like that slowcoach. And what about the personalised number plate man (as he almost always is a man)? Unthinkingly, he reveals to the world that he’s a narcissist, a man in love with himself. Life is a cabaret and people are supremely adept at hiding their true personality. But put them in charge of a car and all will be revealed, for better or worse.
The year that is now drawing to a close has been a special one for India and Pakistan. Seventy years have passed since they went their separate ways after independence. Few would have thought that they would not have settled their differences after such a period of time, much less fought three wars along the way. Many blame the former colonial power, saying that that a failure to prevent the 5,000 inter-communal deaths which took place in Calcutta a year before independence should have alerted it as to the possible consequences if it failed to deploy the military in the run-up to independence.
At this distance in time, is it possible to take an objective view of the British role of the good, the bad and the ugly of what took place? Perhaps not quite. There are still numbers living whose early lives were traumatised by the unexpectedly bloody partition insisted on by ambitious Hindu and Muslim politicians. Both the government in New Delhi and Gandhi did not want the sundering of a sub-continent, which through guile, able administration – and yes, from time to time, brute force – had worked cohesively for two-hundred years.
Had the colonial power been stronger, and not itself traumatised as well as impoverished by combating German militarism in two world wars, it could have refused those ambitious politicians independence, until such time as they agreed to work together. In other words, it could have said: “We will stay for as long as it takes. You have shown yourselves able to co-exist for two-hundred years and we will not see this good work thrown away.”
What a benefit that would have bestowed, had that been possible. The unified former British India would by now be far and away the world’s largest country. Instead of building up nuclear arsenals, and spending crippling amounts confronting each other, it could have deployed that money to place itself at the forefront of the world technologically. It is difficult to think of a single instance in history where such an opportunity was thrown away. The British had been a strange mix of arrogance, barbarity and enlightenment. Always determined to get their own way – because they considered they knew best – if you buckled down, and accepted what was on offer, they could be good and decent folk to deal with. If not, the consequences could be deadly, and they often were.
Did, then, the sub-continent benefit or suffer from the British experience? It is true that by the time Westerners arrived in any numbers it was enjoying a period of sheer brilliance and prosperity under its Moghul (Muslim) conquerors. Some have estimated that at its height it represented 25% of the world’s GDP. However, a few generations following the arrival of British merchants it had fallen into anarchy. In a remarkably short time, those merchant traders formed themselves into the world’s first multi-national company. Soon the company morphed into the most effective power in the land; it saw opportunities and riches which dazzled, and to protect its developing interests it formed an army (mostly of locals) but officered by its own people.
It had never been The Company’s intention to take over the land. Quite the reverse, such an enterprise seemed to it burdensome. But the alternative guaranteed only a continuance of anarchy, and that was not conducive to making money. In the end you had something unique in human history: a company, not a political power, ruling an entire country – one of the largest, most glittering and most populace lands in the entire world.
So, was the rule of The Company and later The Crown oppressive, even cruel? No more – and many would argue a lot less – than the terrible consequences of the breakdown of Moghul law and order and all that that entailed. So bad did things become that travel between towns became a dice with death. Murderous Thuggees (the term from which we derive the word thug) roamed the land. The new rulers made short shrift of such practices.
Many of the early British arrivals were rapacious chancers. Their sole aim was to get rich quick. Their duplicity broke all records in double-dealing. But, among the newcomers were also men of great integrity, such as Warren Hastings. Such men dressed like Indians, took Indian wives, adopted Indian customs and had no notions of racial superiority. They were hugely interested in India’s past civilisations including its ancient, almost lost, language of Sanskrit which they resurrected. Five universities were set up, one of which became the second largest in the world and the School of Oriental Studies began its work. Great institutions were established along with a free press. Some of the most gifted and dedicated young men ever to leave Britain’s shores were trained at a public school, Haileybury, specially set up to teach them Indian ways as well as languages. It was the alma mater of Clement Attlee himself, the prime minister at the time of independence.
I will not bore you with a full list of the engineering projects; the millions of acres brought under cultivation; the 40,000 miles each of railways and canals; a superior version of our own Common Law tailored specifically to meet Indian needs; the banning of widow burning; the restoration of crumbling architectural wonders, including the Taj Mahal, that took place over the next two centuries; also, the most incorruptible civil service in the world, the ICS, (Indian Civil Service), whose entrance examination equalled that of the Mandarin system in China.
Although a land run by a company for the first half of its existence, it was, undeniably, an empire – an empire in the days when empires were fashionable and, yes, like all empires it was created and ultimately sustained by force. The Indian Mutiny – known to locals as the first war of independence – was put down with a ruthlessness which surprised – and appalled – many back home. Abominations did take place even decades later, such as the almost 1,000 mercilessly gunned down by an out of control colonel at Amritsar in 1919 who feared a new Indian Mutiny. It led to a Commission of Inquiry, with Churchill calling the massacre “monstrous” and widespread British condemnation. But, having said all this, the question remains: could never more than 100,000 Europeans have sustained their position and administered 400 million people for 200 years without a huge amount of local participation and – dare it be said – consent? And what should history make of the 2 million who came to Britain’s aid in two World Wars? It was the largest volunteer army in history.
As empires go, the British version is often said to be one of the better ones. Why else, people argue, would the leaders of 53 countries travel from the ends of the earth every two years to enjoy Commonwealth gettogethers? (There are no such nostalgic gatherings, they point out, for the French, Spanish and Portugese former empires.) And why, with the two exceptions of Canada and Ireland, did they all adopt the British national game of cricket and make it their own? For many, these Test Match contests played around the globe are almost the most exciting item in their calendars.
Today we all accept that no one has the right to impose their systems – however elevated they believe it be – on someone else’s country, but that take is a relatively modern one and we see things now through different eyes. Neither the money-obsessed Georgians, who began it all, nor the Victorians, who believed they were doing God’s work, saw anything wrong in empire-building. That’s what you did in those days if you had the means. It had been going on since time immemorial. With the fall of the Soviet empire – which absurdly it refused to accept was an empire – that phase of human aggrandisement, thankfully, came to an end. Today, with all our international forums, it is safe to say we have seen the last of them.
Press freedom in Britain still cannot shake off the malign shadows of Max Mosley and other celebrities
Celebrities are unable to put behind them the exposure of their peccadillos – and worse – to a sometimes amused, but increasingly exasperated and angry public. Furious that government efforts to control the flow of information concerning them does not seem to be working, the Leveson-inspired Royal Commission on the Press comes back for another bite to the precious, 300-year-old cherry of press freedom.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a genuinely independent press regulator set up and managed by the press itself, is making a perfectly good fist of the job it has taken on. A huge majority of dailies and periodicals support it; only a timorous, browbeaten rump tow the government and Mosley-financed line. However, this is not acceptable to the proponents of government-approved IMPRESS, whose very name smacks of coercion (that is what we called civilians press-ganged from the streets and impressed into the anti-Napoleonic Royal Navy). Perhaps someone in the government service is into black comedy and hopes we ignoramuses will not be smart enough to see how they mock us, nor recognise their superior wit in demonstrating it.
The discredited Royal Commission regulatory body refuses, absolutely, to go quietly into the night and let the press get on with it. It’s as if it is outraged that any non-governmental body should have the temerity to stand up for itself and, worse, insist that it can do the job better and at no cost to the taxpayer. This last, though, would be the least of its concerns. The latest strictures involve tabling an amendment to the Data Protection Bill currently going through parliament, whose effect will be to make it easier for the rich and powerful to avoid being held to account. For all its occasional slip-ups, the venerable, 160-year-old former News of the World remains sadly missed. How many were the truly outrageous scams, scandals and criminal conspiracies uncovered during its long pursuit of wrongdoers?
Something deeply incongruous lies in the fact that, while the governing class is determined to raise the press and broadcasting bar of exposure of wrongdoing higher and higher, the internet is allowed to go on its merry way unregulated. But here’s the rub! Nothing in today’s world of Internet communication can be covered up either by High Court gagging orders or anything else. One lowly, public-spirited, disgruntled or mischievous whistle-blower, anywhere in the world, can blow the lid off at any time. Within minutes the whole farrago goes viral. When will an out of touch governing class realise that muzzling the press simply redirects a desperate-to-know public elsewhere? That elsewhere is the Internet, where pretty much anything can be said.
Perhaps in the Internet there is hope for the press and the public generally. Truth, as they say, will out. Though in times past the rich and powerful often saw to it that it didn’t, that no longer holds true. With the Internet there is no hiding place. Since our world became reliant on this form of communication, no one can ever again feel safe in their dirty little secret.
So last year it was the Panama Papers. This year the Paradise ones. Even our poor Queen has been dragged into the off-Shore expose, though I don’t doubt for a second that she had the least knowledge of what her thoughtless financial advisors were up to. But someone like Bono is different. That haloed advisor to kings and presidents, gullible enough to believe him sincere with something worth listening to, now knows differently. Both the halo and the ubiquitous, trademark shades have slipped. Perhaps at last the movers and shakers will stop paying homage to the Bonos and Geldofs of this world and press them to get back to the only thing they’re good at: their music.
As for the press, we must pray it continues to stand fast. Once the towering beacon of hope to editors worldwide, it is today the most heavily regulated in the democratic world. How typical that in the relatively trivial matter of a few press excesses – almost all later dismissed in the courts – the government jumped in with the sledgehammer of a Royal Commission. Where is the Royal Commission for that vastly more damaging banking scandal that threw so many millions worldwide out of work and from which we are still suffering. Outright criminality was at the heart of it and it involved trillions of pounds. And as for Royal Commissions themselves? They are nothing more than a convenient leftover – handy for a government seeking to show it is doing something – from the undemocratic days of king power.
If these latest amendments to the bill from that paragon of democratic values, the House of Lords, are allowed to pass then Mosley and his crew will have won. Whether or not IPSO’s heroics keep it out of the clutches of the government-approved IMPRESS, the press will be effectively muzzled. Under the guise of Data Protection and personal privacy laws, they will have found the back door to achieve their purpose. This cannot be allowed to happen.