Category Archives: history
I recently watched a BBC interview with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor – a very rare event since she has only once before given an interview to the foreign media.
The interview represented a considerable feather in the cap of the BBC, further confirming its status as the world’s premier broadcaster.
The interviewer, Newsnight’s Gavin Esler, wanted to get inside the head of the person who will largely determine the future of the eurozone and, to some degree, the rest of the world.
The visual aspect of TV makes it very difficult for an interviewee to ‘fake it’; to pass himself off as someone else. His body language and emotions are often plain to see; and when his face occupies most of a 42″ screen in your living room, you feel you can almost look into his soul. TV greatly assists in our quest to sort out the wheat from the chav.
Merkel came over as a pleasant, but no-nonsense, woman – interested more in getting the job done than in sound bites. Astute as she was with thoughtful responses, she seemed genuine.
And there was more than a little guile there too (but you don’t get to lead the most powerful economy in Europe without a level of that).
It was not difficult to understand why she had taken a shine to our own prime minister – the polished, well-mannered product of England’s leading public school. She may even have fancied the younger man a little, or perhaps felt a tad motherly, seeing him as the archetypal English gentleman as opposed to the coarse, bling-loving French president who wants to smother her at every opportunity with Gallic kisses. The contrast is stark.
Cameron is a most courtly emissary from a fellow Teutonic power which, from early childhood, she had come to respect. Yet despite its bombing of large areas of her beloved homeland almost back to the Stone Age only a generation or two before, it is apparent that – in economic terms at least – Merkel regards Britain as a natural ally and one she is most unwilling either to offend or marginalise.
The BBC was right in picking Gavin Esler as the interviewer, since Paxo might have been too adversarial by adopting his characteristic ‘master inquisitor’ approach.
But what I really gleaned from the interview is an appreciation of the lengths to which Germany will go to save the single currency.
Up to now, Angela Merkel has, understandably, played hardball. The German taxpayer is not going to throw his money at profligate nations which show an unsatisfactory willingness to change their ways.
The Germans want a new economic order in Europe so that nations act responsibly in the future; and to this end they want robust systems in place in the form of a fiscal union.
Germany is not interested in imposing a German jackboot, but wants the whole exercise to be seen as a pan-European affair – even though a fiscal union would result in all 17 eurozone nations’ budgets being overseen by EU officials: a fact masked by a Byzantium-level of cunningness or ingenuity (call it what you will).
I came away from that interview convinced that the German political elite do not want a single member – not even Greece – to drop out of the eurozone. And when push comes to shove, they will do everything in their power to see that this does not happen. They see the loss of a single country as the trigger that will begin the unravelling of the entire single currency and, more than that, of the whole ‘European Project’ to which it is so utterly and irredeemably committed.
So now, it would seem, it is down to the individual eurozone member states to do what is necessary. Only time will tell whether the eurozone’s peripheral countries’ impoverished citizens will – or even can – stay the course.
Pain levels in Greece – and now, more alarmingly, Spain – are at breaking point. A pistol shot to the head outside the Greek Parliament of a 77-year-old retired pharmacist has a terrible resonance with that pistol shot long ago at Sarajevo which set in motion the chain of events which led to the First World War.
Germany has to understand that PIGS’ (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) citizens can take little more pain. While it was necessary to start the austerity drive and change PIGS’ spending habits, it is clear that austerity alone is fast becoming counter-productive.
If Germany wishes them to hold on, she must give them hope – and this can only mean a plan not just for cuts, but for growth. She must put together and spearhead a new Marshall Plan of aid – such as saved Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Germany does not wish to be cast as the villain all over again; the one who did wrong by Europe for a third time, only now by economic, rather than military, might.
Now that we have all come to understand that we must stop living beyond our means, and that the social model we have developed is unsustainable, we are in a position to go forward.
Only by means of growth and a smaller state sector have we a chance of paying down our debt.
Fearful and envious as we may be of the developing countries – and that includes the oil producers – they are as one in wanting us to succeed; for if we go down the pan, we are as likely as not to drag them down with us – and they know this.
They might even feel that it is in their interest to involve themselves in such a rescue plan. But they will not do so if they see north Europe, and in particular the Germans, sitting on a pot of gold but refusing to use it to kick start their own salvation.
God, as they say, helps those who help themselves.
This was a dismal week thirty years ago.
A very nasty military junta, which had already killed over 20,000 of its own people – many thrown out of helicopters over the open ocean – had seized a far away British territory and made it its own. We were in shock.
And so the Falkland Islands burst upon the world scene and became a cause celebre – at least for the British nation.
Of all the many campaigns our assertive little country has ever fought, this had to be the bravest of them all… some said almost suicidally so; certainly foolhardy in the extreme, said others.
Our connections with the south polar regions have always been very great. Cook sailed into them in his search for the great ‘southern continent’ before he became almost ice locked and was forced to turn tail. The intrepid Ernest Shackleton almost made it to the pole and our very own Plymouth hero Captain Scott was mourned again this very week on the 100th anniversary of his poignant and tragic death.
It has always been a very great puzzle to me as to why Argentina obsesses, as it does, about the Falkland Islands and why it believes it has a better legal claim to them than we do.
It was, after all, the English navigator John Davis who first discovered them in 1592. And the British first established a permanent settlement as long ago as 1765 – over seventy years before Argentina came into existence.
In today’s world, the United Nations makes the wishes of the inhabitants of a disputed territory the deciding factor. Does anybody doubt for a second what those wishes would be?
Iceland is not a great deal more distant from Britain than are the Falklands from Argentina. What would the world say were we to state that Iceland should rightfully belong to us?
And what about the Channel Islands, only 10 miles from France and 90 miles from us? I don’t hear the French playing up about them.
My thoughts on the Falklands are simple: history is on our side, as well as that little matter of possession being nine-tenths of the law. What’s more, we’ve paid in blood to overturn Argentine aggression.
They stay ours until the inhabitants decide otherwise.
While blood can never be redeemed, expenses can; and to secure them against future aggression, they have been huge. So get up that oil and quickly!
Our balance of payments deficit can be mightily relieved by a bonanza hugely greater than the north sea.
Should Argentina be so foolish as to try to intimidate the oil companies already operating there then the British Government should state unequivocally to underwrite any risks that such silly threats are thought to pose to those operations.
Long ago – thirty years in fact – I made an attempt to summarise that heroic conflict in verse. This might seem a good moment to share the thoughts I had at that time with my readers.
The last of the colonial wars
Was strangely in a noble cause:
A far off people, few but strong,
Knew in their hearts where they belonged;
Their island home to most unknown
Would tug at Albion like a bone:
Assaulted for its wind-lashed bogs,
Its distant owners viewed as dogs;
Sad days for Argentina, these:
How could its despots seek to please
A tortured land in Fascist claws?
But rouse them in a long-lost cause,
The British state seemed not to care:
Its woes so great its chest would bare;
Now was the time to strike and win,
And quell its people’s clamorous din!
The world awoke that April day
To find that Spain’s child now held sway;
A stunned and humbled Britain gasped:
Depression reigned but would not last;
A steely thought ran through the land
That such an outrage must not stand;
The empire’s day it knew was done,
But never did its soldiers run;
The islanders sought firm redress;
Their injured pleas brought dire distress:
They were not Latin folk in chains,
But free-born Brits they stoutly claimed;
At any other time but this,
The men in London would resist
A rescue from across the world;
But now was firm defiance hurled:
A Boudicca was come to power,
Though some around would only cower;
At lightning speed her ships set forth,
To 50 South from 50 North;
Long years of cringing fell away
As Britons cheered them on their way;
Then silence fell as weeks progressed,
With fearful thoughts and risks assessed;
Its one-time child, the USA,
Could only look on in dismay:
A war between its two allies
Could rupture one of these two ties;
How hard she tried to arbitrate,
Then left the despots to their fate;
For Latin pride stood in the way
And now was come the time to pay!
Ships at length reached southern waters:
Skull and Crossbones meant no quarter;
The pride of Argentina’s fleet
Went plunging to the icy deep;
Now did the blood begin to flow
As combat raged with woe on woe;
For freedom comes at heavy price:
The toll is death when fools play dice;
Malvinas?… now read Falkland Isles:
The settlers there could once more smile;
In Latin parts more despots fell:
Their foul regimes consigned to hell.
More tears for our brave boys in Afghanistan last week. The sorrow was exacerbated by the knowledge that the ‘soft underbelly’ problem in armoured vehicles was identified more than four years ago and remains unfixed. We fought World War One in that time span.
Had our boys been in an American vehicle, there is every likelihood they would be alive today.
On a cost-benefit basis, both Afghanistan and Iraq have been a disaster. The Romans were more savvy when they built Hadrian’s Wall. They could have crushed the Scots had they wished. But what did Scotland have to offer them? A miserable climate – especially for an Italian – a constantly restive and warlike people (just like some others on the north bank of the Rhine – the Germans) and next to no natural resources.
As a pragmatic people they decided to leave them both to stew. So both missed out on a whole range of benefits which a more advanced civilisation had to offer. The whole of this can be said to apply to Afghanistan today.
Much of America’s financial woes can be traced back to the horrendous cost of the Vietnam war. After all, it was then that it was forced off the Gold Standard. Does anybody doubt that if the untold billions spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars had been sitting in the US treasury today that things would be looking very different? Yet exactly the same could be said about us.
Wars are expensive. From a position of incredible wealth as a country, it took just two of them to ruin us and rob us of our leading position in the world by 1945.
Afghanistan was always said to be the ‘graveyard of empires’, and no one knew this better than we did. We launched no fewer than three ill-fated forays into that country in the days of the Raj. In one of them, an entire column of 16,000 perished in the snows of the Hindu Kush on the retreat back from Kabul to the Indian frontier.
Prime Minister David Cameron would spend a long time reading out their names in the Commons. So, more than anyone else, we should have known better.
Of course it was right to go into that country to flush out Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for harbouring them, but having done so we should have got out and stayed out. We, in our heyday, were never defeated in the field by the Afghans any more than NATO has been, or, for that matter, the Russians.
But the Afghans do not heed good advice to mend their medieval ways (especially when that advice comes from foreigners) so they must be left to marinate. Just be thankful that you are not a woman in that benighted country.
It is unlikely that if the Taliban return to power after NATO’s exit – which is probable – they will ever again allow Al Qaeda to set up training camps. They are canny enough not to go down that road a second time, helped by Bin Laden’s death. While he was their guest, there was never a snowball’s chance that they would have handed him over, even when we threatened to invade. Muslim law on hospitality absolutely forbade that.
It is always important to have an exit strategy. But it is equally important to keep the date of exit to yourself. Had we held to our original statements that ‘we are here until the job is done’ – even if you had a date in mind – then there is every likelihood that the same weariness which brought the IRA to the negotiating table would have done so in the case of the Taliban.
Why hold on, they would have said to themselves, and stay a fugitive forever and as likely not die in the struggle? Let’s do a deal.
The Afghans have always been known as the world’s greatest wheeler-dealers. Now they are going around saying ‘the West have the watches, but we have the time’. So now that we have revealed our hand, we must make every effort to equip and train the home-grown Afghan forces to look after themselves when we are gone.
Who knows, they might even pull it off, despite everything. And our boys, in the interim, must degrade the Taliban to the maximum extent possible. A weakened force might just be more amenable to a greatly strengthened home army. But the deeply corrupt Afghan government will make this an uphill struggle. We can only hope our fears are misplaced.
We have just reached the end of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Today we enter its 71st. I believe that of all the titanic battles of WWII, this was the one which determined its outcome. Though tiny in terms of the numbers of combatants involved, it was massive in high-tech: it did not get more massive in this regard for those times. Brilliant machines and brilliant fliers – on both sides – and a ground-breaking British structure of command and control. Without this system, which was put in place during the year which the much-maligned Chamberlain gained us after the Munich Pact, we would have lost the battle.
Churchill said that upon its outcome depended the survival of Christian civilisation and, indeed, the whole world. Lose it and we would all descend into “a new dark age made more sinister and protracted by the lights of perverted science”. He was surely right.
After the fall of France, Hitler sought peace with Britain. The war which his invasion of Poland had precipitated had been the one gamble which misfired. All the others – the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss (union) with Austria and the annexation of Czechoslovakia – had all succeeded, bloodlessly. He did not realise we had, at last, rumbled him and hereon would fight him. Hitler even entertained fanciful notions that as a fellow Teutonic power – one he hugely admired – we would join him in his crusade against Bolshevik Russia.
His plan to invade us was born of the lover’s pangs of anger and frustration: unrequited love they call it. Some in the Royal Navy have said that even if we’d lost the Battle of Britain they could still have sunk Hitler’s landing barges.
But we saw time and again as the war progressed how vulnerable surface ships were to air attack. After all, we crippled the Italian fleet at Taranto as did the Japanese the American at Pearl Harbour.
Interestingly, the Japanese commander said that they would never have thought of it but for what we did at Taranto. Then there was the loss of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales off Malaysia and the Bismark in the Atlantic.
Tirpitz also succumbed to aerial assault. No one doubts that had the Wermacht been able to make a landing in force it would have been game over for Britain.
After the debacle at Dunkirk, three months earlier, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) survivors were without vehicles, heavy ordnance and even the majority of their small arms. Britain would have been forced to give in to its own powerful ‘peace party’. What then would have been the result of Britain’s withdrawal from the war? A free run for the Nazi juggernaut. Hitler would have been able to hurl his entire armed might against Soviet Russia. The many divisions locked up facing a still belligerent Britain would have been released to powerfully augment that effort in the east.
As it was he came within a whisker of success. Death would have then been guaranteed to Stalin’s regime. Master, then, of the entire Eurasian landmass, Hitler’s dream of world conquest would have been complete. Only success in the race to develop the atomic bomb could have reversed that verdict. But the US Manhattan Project would have been impossible without the help of British scientists who were well ahead of their US counterparts in their understanding of the physics involved.
These are the reasons which cause me to believe that the battle which kept Britain in the war was the one which spelt Hitler’s ultimate defeat. On the 50th Anniversary, I wrote a poem to commemorate that extraordinary feat of arms and I am greatly honoured that it has found a home in the Battle of Britain museum. I hope the reader feels that I have done justice to those wonderful, boyish heroes of “our finest hour”.
You were young and you were brave:
You a nation had to save;
Scrambled from your aerodrome,
Test those skills so freshly honed;
Whirling in your fighter high:
Fought your duels across the sky;
Like the famous knights of old,
You were fearless, keen and bold;
Never did a fate so grim
Threaten all with mortal sin:
Never did so very few
Save so great a multitude;
Spurn a deal that would have saved
All that men of empire made;
Chose the path of blood and debt:
Know that honour’s fully met;
Far beyond your nation’s shores,
All humanity took pause:
For it knew that you alone
Could for misspent time atone;
Be the first to best the Hun:
Yours a famous victory won;
Boyish banter in the sky,
Where you were so soon to die;
Almost out of school you came,
There to die in battle’s flame;
Fire and smoke and cannon’s roar,
Trapped within your cockpit door:
Feel the searing heat around;
See the fast approaching ground:
Time to dwell but fleetingly
On that love on mother’s knee;
Bought you time that others might
Join you in that fateful fight;
Lift the terror, set men free:
Save them from base tyranny!