Category Archives: politics
What are we to make of the police’s decision not to proceed against the former Minister of State for Europe and ex-chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee?
The police dropped their investigation into Labour MP Keith Vaz, known to his parliamentary colleagues and the wider public as “Vazeline” for his extraordinary ability to extricate himself from any hole, despite his behaviour clearly being reprehensible in the extreme and questionable as to its legality.
One of the things which most shocked us about the MPs’ expenses scandal was the sheer mean-spiritedness and hypocrisy of it all. Here were lawmakers happy to break the law even in the most mundane and petty of matters. All the time they wanted the rest of us to hold them in high esteem and believe them virtuous. That, indeed, is what we wanted to believe and the reason we were so shocked. We wanted to feel that they represented the best of our country: men and women whose examples we should strive to emulate.
All this is what draws me back to Keith Vaz, a man whose whole career has been mired in a succession of questionable activities. This last episode concerning rent boys is only the latest. Vaz is a man puffed up beyond belief who thinks nothing of intruding on private grief to gain publicity for himself or doing all manner of weird and wonderful things to get into our newspapers and onto our small screens (remember him turning up at Luton airport to welcome Romanian arrivals on the day they could seek work in Great Britain?). Yet for all his grandstanding, ingratiating behaviour – particularly to speaker Bercow whom he relies on to give him excessive Commons airtime – and smarmy talk he is held in the highest esteem by his parliamentary colleagues.
On the very first sitting of his Commons chums following those sensational disclosures concerning drugs and rent boys, he was warmly received when he waltzed in as though nothing had happened. Brazenness cannot begin to describe such an entrance. There were mutterings of sympathy and even back-slapping by various of his colleagues. Indeed, the whole atmosphere seemed resonant of a witch-hunt by a pitiless media out to destroy a good man.
One could almost be forgiven for thinking that many in that chamber may themselves have shared Vaz’s predilection for rent boys.
Few of us will ever have witnessed such a shameful and squalid performance by members who like to address one another other as “Honourable”. For all that, I do not believe that any one of the other 649 members would have had the effrontery to show themselves on that particular day. But this is Vaz. Having bare-facedly brazened it out in the Commons so soon after the story broke, it was to be expected that he would do the same a few weeks later at Labour’s annual party conference. And so he did. It will be interesting to see if his Leicester East constituents show their distaste for the way he has let them, and above all their faith, down by pricking his massive bubble of self-esteem and deselecting him.
As news of the scandal broke, Vaz was Chair of the influential Home Affairs Select Committee which recently had been deliberating on prostitution. That conflict of interest in his febrile moment of exposure was too much even for Vazeline to escape. He stood down.
But squalid and undignified as his exploitation of young, vulnerable rent boys was, something even worse was revealed. At the very time he was heading up the committee investigating harm caused by illegal Class A drugs, he solicited a Romanian prostitute to trot off and bring back some Class A drugs. He even offered to pay for them. Now, if that doesn’t constitute criminal activity I’d like to know what does. Isn’t “aiding and abetting” a crime? Vaz was complicit both before and after the fact. The whole affair was confirmed by video footage – prima facie evidence if ever there was. (Vaz’s wealth has long been a matter of public curiosity. He is rich beyond what his parliamentary stipend would suggest and it would be interesting to learn where his unaccounted for wealth comes from.)
Shameless Vaz, with amazing sangfroid, sees absolutely nothing untoward about what he has done to his family, the House of Commons and the wider public. Incredibly, within weeks of stepping down as Chair of the Home Affair Select Committee he put himself forward for the Justice Select Committee. Did this prove too much, or at least too soon, even for his normally indulgent parliamentary chums? You bet it didn’t. Now he’s back pontificating in his own inimical, self-important way on what is just and what is not. Pomposity begins and ends with Vaz. To use a clichéd but in this case totally justified phrase, you really couldn’t make it up.
Am I alone in thinking that Vaz’s parliamentary colleagues, by continuing to indulge his fantasies, display a huge contempt for what the rest of us think?
The police must re-examine the evidence. Are they afraid of the establishment? Do they need to be dead like Janner and Savile before they will act? Perhaps it is that same kind of reluctance which caused them to hold back for so long in the Rotherham grooming of young girls; maybe Vaz’s faith and ethnicity has acted as a protective shield. That, perhaps – and the establishment’s own efforts to defend one of their own – may explain why this most terrible of scandals has slipped below the radar.
Brexit, Cameron’s demise, Trump, Europe’s travails and, most of all, the terrible tragedy unfolding in Syria have all fortuitously come to Vaz’s aid by moving the spotlight away from him. No better time, from the police’s point of view, to bury bad news.
Are we to stand by and let Vazeline get away with it again? For all our sakes we must hope not. Our Mother of Parliaments deserves better than that. The one I feel most sorry for in all this is Vaz’s poor wife. He felt so little love for her that he thought nothing of endangering her life by having unprotected sex with a male prostitute.
Quite apart from the scandal of no police action, with all this and more known by his ‘honourable’ parliamentary colleagues and the institution of parliament being brought into disrepute in a serious infringement of its rulebook, how is it that he has not been suspended from the Commons?
Trump has called Hillary many things in times past. He maintains she is ‘crooked’ and can never be straight with the American people, either in her business dealings or her period as Secretary of State. He believes, as we Brits like to say, that she is not a ‘fit and proper person’ to have charge of the destiny not just of her own nation, but that of the entire free world. He also holds that she represents the dark heart of the politico-economic system that he believes so oppresses the American nation. Now The Donald has found his ace in the hole: her very fitness to govern in the literal sense.
When called to the colours long ago as a humble National Serviceman, my countrymen proposed putting a gun in my hand with a license to use it against our country’s enemies – of which at that time there were many. But first they were going to ensure my competence, both mentally as well as physically. To that end I had to undergo a rigorous medical. They needed to know that I would be up to supporting my comrades, whose lives might depend on my actions. Any suspicion that I could fail at the crucial moment would have disqualified me.
The President of the United States operates on an altogether different plane. He or she, as Head of State as well as Commander-in-chief, has the lives and well-beings of countless millions as a responsibility. Physical as well as mental health is a crucial job requirement. The finger that hovers over the nuclear button must be up to it.
After this weekend, Hillary Clinton would be foolish to think that she can wave it all away with an unfunny joke, as she has done in the past over health issues. She is asking, on the strength of her say-so, that the American people trust her in the matter.
These are perilous times we are living through. The end of the imagined peace dividend that victory in the Cold War would bring us now seems a distant chimera. An ever more assertive Putin in the Kremlin is joined by an almost deranged Kim Jong-un in North Korea, who in quick succession last week loosed off three ballistic missiles, while Syria burns. Hillary has been gung-ho for years to impose a no-fly zone over that country. While that might have made sense three years ago, with Russian jets now crisscrossing its skies daily such an imposition at this time could unleash a big power conflagration. The stresses of such a build -up of tensions would almost certainly bring on one of Hillary’s fits.
The truth is that it is just not good enough that the Americans and all the rest of us should have such worries concerning one individual’s health and fitness for purpose. Hillary must be prevailed on to submit herself to an independent panel of health experts or, at the very least, make her very latest, up-to-date medical records available for inspection.
In my view it is an open question whether she can survive the next two incredibly gruelling months of presidential campaigning. I said as much back in May when I wrote about Hillary and her questionable health on my blog. Now it is out in the open. If she steps down, or is forced to do so, who will take her place? Would good ol’ Joe Biden, Obama’s Vice President, step up to the plate to save the nation and possibly all the rest of us? Although there was talk of him throwing his hat into the ring during the primaries, I wouldn’t bet on that one. Bernie Sander’s devoted and almost messianic followers would be incandescent with rage were that to happen. Quite rightly, they would argue that, democratically, their man is the heir apparent. So Ultra-Left Bernie – the US’s own Jeremy Corbyn – would end in the ring against The Donald.
In that event would anyone care to place a bet against the world waking up one November morning, just a few weeks from now, to a President Donald Trump?
Amidst all the who-ha over Ken Livingstone’s assertions about Hitler being a Zionist, one thing seems to have escaped the commentariat: he appears to be absolving Hitler from responsibility for the crimes committed after his election success in 1932. He does so by claiming that “Hitler supported Zionism” in 1932 “before going mad” following his entirely legal and success pursuit of power. The clear implication here is that we must accept that Hitler didn’t know what he was doing when he launched World War II or secretly ordered the lethal eradication of European Jews.
Across the entire world it is accepted that an insane person cannot be held responsible for his or her actions, however heinous. To be culpable, humanity has long held the view that a person must know the distinction between right and wrong – goodness and evil. That is why, also, there is a limit in a child’s case of criminal responsibility (in our case 10 years of age). If Livingstone is to be believed, even if we had captured Hitler we could not have put him on trial because he was a victim of a diseased mind. He was crazy. Perhaps Livingstone has convinced himself that the enormity of what Hitler did is in itself proof positive that he was mad. If that yardstick were to be applied more generally, then we were wrong to put Serbia’s tyrant, Slobodan Milosevic, on trial. Such a yardstick would also have excused Pol Pot of Cambodia and just about any other tyrant who ever lived.
The fact is that Hitler was the leader of a criminal gang of misfits who knew perfectly well what they were doing. Look no further than their efforts to conceal their murder of the Jews. This tells you that they knew what they were doing was wrong. Indeed, not one single paper relating to the Holocaust bares Hitler’s signature. All was communicated to his underlings verbally. This great and meticulous nation of record keepers kept no record of the biggest crime in human history. Livingstone’s own crime is to act as an apologist for such a man as Hitler.
How can we explain the ‘Collective’ madness that has taken over the Labour Party? I have just returned from lands of former Collectives (mega farms set up by the Communists) in Latvia and Lithuania, and I can tell you that Jeremy Corbyn’s much admired legacy to those once Communist countries is a nightmarish one.
The man might come across as a sincere idealist – not at all like the serried ranks of the career politicians so many disdain today – but the likes of Jeremy are the ones to fear the most. They are the zealots, cast in the mould of that ‘sea-green incorruptible’, Maximilien Robespierre, of the French Revolution. While on the subject of the quiet, softly spoken, hard-to-rile idealist, was not ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin exactly that sort of man? He, however had a term for the likes of sweet natured, but for us dangerous, men like Jeremy Corbyn; useful idiots.
And while an old geezer, myself, isn’t it a bit odd that so many young people appear so much in love with old geezer Corbyn? It’s all a little perplexing. If I were to make a guess as to part of the reason – and in life there are, more often than not, many reasons – I would say it is illustrative of the depth of public disenchantment with the political class. And when a man comes forward, however misguided, who is clearly a man of conviction and seems authentic, the young grab at him.
Another factor, surely, is the complete absence in the Labour leadership contest of what we like to call the ‘big beasts’. They’re all minnows. Alan Johnson might have qualified for that sobriquet, but he doesn’t want to know. Perhaps he’s canny enough not to risk losing his sanity in trying to bring together such a disparate band of brothers in what he might view as a poisoned chalice.
Then there’s that totally toxic Blair legacy. We won’t speak of the horrors of the Iraq war or the dodgy dossier that deceived us into sanctioning an illegal war, but there is such a litany of other failed measures that found their way on to the statute book that I might cause you to develop apoplexy half way through were I to attempt to list them all.
His favourite ‘Blair Babe’, Tessa Jowell, loves pontificating and acting as cheer leader for the Bambi project, but she would be better advised finding some stone to crawl under. It was she, who as Culture Secretary, allowed round-the-clock drinking, which has turned all of our city centres into no go areas for the majority of people at weekends. Worst of all the things she did was to promote online casino gambling – that egregious, family-wrecking Act which flies in the face of everything the titans of Old Labour stood for. These titans were high-minded men of probity, who among their other fine and compassionate qualities was a determination to uphold individual dignity and family life. Gambling was anathema to them.
Despite Corbyn’s phenomenal rise against the odds, one or other of his pigmy opponents may yet come through in the race to succeed disastrous Ed Miliband. But even if that were to happen, what does the whole business tell us about the present state of the Labour Party? Could a split prove terminal?
We have grown so used to a duopoly of political power that we could be forgiven for thinking that Tories and Labour are a permanent part of the political landscape. But even in the 20th century this was not the case. The party of Lloyd George seemed just as permanent on the eve of World War One. For much of the previous century, that Liberal giant of principled government, William Gladstone, bestrode the political firmament. Then, after Lloyd George, the party became an irrelevance. Following their brief re-appearance and engagement with power under the recent Coalition, they have again sunk back into irrelevance. Is it now, as a result, a return to business as usual? Not necessarily.
Whether Corbyn succeeds or not, what his extraordinary success has shown is the deep schism within the Labour Party. It may prove unbridgeable. Certainly it will take more than any of the lightweights on offer to heal the wounds of what is turning out to be a bitter, acrimonious fight. Tories may gloat over what is going on, but they would be wrong to do so. Any properly functioning democracy needs an effective Opposition. You cannot expect the media to perform this role alone, splendid though it is in exposing maladministration and wrongdoing. (How incredibly right it was to resist Leveson’s proposals to muzzle it. Do you seriously think the establishment would have allowed itself to be investigated for child abuse had those proposals gone through?)
There is now, as I see it, a chance for a regathering of the forces of the sensible Left to challenge an overweening government. Essentially the Liberal Democrats are a left-of-centre party. Were they to throw their lot in with similarly minded elements in the Labour Party, it could consign forever to the dustbin of history that Trotskyite wing of Labour that so bedevils its chances of regaining the trust of the British people.
It might, in the process, appeal to those many citizens north of the border and in Wales who still have faith in a Union which has shone so brightly for so long and raised us, a small people, so high among the nations of the earth.
How to explain last Thursday? Reading people’s minds is far from the exact science the pollsters would like to pretend they have made it. And reading British people’s intentions may be the toughest nut of them all to crack. G.K. Chesterton had it right when he wrote:
Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget,
For we are the people of England, that never has spoken yet.
Hells bells, the people spoke alright last Thursday. They did it in the privacy of the polling booth. It was almost in the nature of a raised finger to those battalions of know-it-alls who told them how they were going to vote. There may also have been an element of bloody-mindedness in that decision which ended up stunning the world. Yet it wasn’t, in my view, an innate shyness to tell or an enjoyment of being a spoiler that was at work, but a cold hard appraisal of what was at stake.
Harold Wilson may have said that “a week is a long time in politics,” and so it is. But for all that, people weren’t readily going to forget an event of even six years before – when the cash points were within forty-eight hours of running dry and salary transfers could not have been made to banks. It was as dire a situation as it is possible to imagine. That same government of Gordon Brown had not long before given them an almighty fright by getting into a dispute with tanker drivers so that food, itself, was also within forty-eight hours of running out in the supermarkets. We got to realise, for the first time, how slender were the stocks they held and how utterly dependent they were on a fast turnaround.
Now they were being asked to give their trust to the same group of people who were at the helm at that time and who had gone on to display a level of fiscal incontinence unique in British politics. They thought about the man who was asking us to make him prime minister and the Damascene conversion he had made at the last minute to fiscal rectitude. The difficulty was that they had trouble believing him; he was still so purblind that, to the very end, he couldn’t bring himself to concede that the previous government, in which he had played an important part, had borrowed too much (it was all the fault of those damned foreigners he intoned ad nauseam… the worldwide credit crunch and all those wicked bankers). Every country had suffered, so he maintained.
The problem was that those countries which had not got themselves into debt were able, largely, to cope with the crisis without massive programmes of austerity. These and many other thoughts went through voters’ minds in the run up to the big day and even in the polling booth itself. A huge question mark hung over Miliband in particular as he just did not seem prime minister material – and certainly not when compared to the smooth, polished Cameron. This perception was reinforced by his opportunistic and silly decision to go and talk to Russell Brand. That garrulous, machinegun-like spouter of nonsense was the last person in the world calculated to reassure a worried public. And then there was that Ed Stone. ‘Oh, dear,’ thought the electorate. Where were the armies of special advisors that let that one go through?
It may have been some silly Yank’s idea, but gullible, unworldly Ed thought it a great one. What was he thinking? Talk about hubristic presumption. It must have been ordered weeks before it was unveiled, all 2.6 metres and £30,000 worth of it. And the monster wasn’t going to be installed at Labour party headquarters, but in the rose garden of Downing Street, for God’s sake.
Did he seriously think that future prime ministers – and, hell, we had not made him that yet – would want their lovely, sweet-smelling roses cast into perpetual shadow by such ‘monumental’ nonsense? And what about planning permission? Had he thought about that? After all, Downing Street is a listed building. Perhaps after he’d brow-beaten them into submission he intended to take it with him at the end of his long, glorious term of office and have it installed on the unused plinth at Trafalgar Square. How the episode plays to the blog post I once wrote 3 ½ years ago about the fall of Dominic Strauss Kahn titled ‘The Foolishness of Clever Men‘.
At the end of the day the great British public saw no sense in imperilling the undoubted progress that had been made in stabilising the economy, and they certainly didn’t want a cantankerous tartan army descending on London, gurning all the time about how hard done by they were and demanding ever more Danegeld. Nor did that public relish the thought of the slippery, cocksure Alex Salmond appearing once more out of the Scottish mists like the ghost of Banquo. It would have been unbearable were he to have ended up de facto deputy prime minister, slipping in and out of Downing Street at will and browbeating a hapless Miliband.
Finally, in an ever more competitive world people did not see that it made sense to drift back into left-wing policies that had been tried umpteen times and always found wanting. Not a single Labour administration had ever left office without the public finances being in an unholy mess. The people understood that, for the security of their jobs and the wellbeing of their country, a business-friendly mind-set was key.
So convinced was I, as well as another member of my family, that these ‘neck and neck’ polls were nonsense that we placed a £50 bet each on a clear Conservative majority (at 15:2 odds) and won a total of £830. Our mantra should always be to trust the people; they get it right most times, whether it be General Elections, Strictly Come Dancing or X-Factor.
It is a strange thing to reflect on the fact there were once people who would have killed me if they could and that as a young man I was shot at. It was the last lot of the ‘Troubles’ with the IRA before the final bout broke out which ended with the ‘Peace Process’. Then civilians were not targeted – just the police and the military – and I was a National Serviceman.
After that I returned to the cut-throat world of commerce (managed to get sacked three times) before, at twenty-seven, going into business on my own and remaining there to the grand old age of seventy-five whence I am still contributing my penny’s-worth. In that period before I struck out on my own, I worked for nine different employers.
What causes me to return to those times is what strikes me as the glaring contrast between my own round-the-block experience, shared in varying degrees by many (though not perhaps the shooting and sackings) and the utter lack of worldliness between us and the very many callow people who govern us. Apart from having, in so many cases, little to draw on, they come up with plans to spend umpteen billions of pounds in a manner that suggests our money is almost monopoly money. Few, if any, have any serious costing experience, much less have run large companies be it their own or other people’s.
In my ideal world no person should be able to put themselves forward for public office such as an MP below the age of thirty-five nor do so without experience of a genuine job outside the world of politics. No person could, for instance, become Minister of Defence without a military background, nor Chancellor of the Exchequer without accountancy skills, nor Health Minister without medical or health service expertise, nor take charge of education if he or she knows nothing of the world of academia. Strangely, the one area where we do apply such thinking is the law. Lord Chancellors, Attorney Generals and Justice Ministers have all had to be lawyers.
What I would never allow to happen is for a student of politics or any other university discipline to be parachuted straight into the Westminster bubble of a think tank, policy unit, special advisor or any other similar make-work prop. Most bizarrely, as many people thought at the time, we once had a transport minister (Barbara Castle) who didn’t know how to drive. I realise that such rarefied thinking may be thought by many to be unattainable, unrealistic and even naive, but it seems sensible to me to aim towards drafting people into a job who are already half way to understanding it and who have acquired hard-won expertise in the field.
If they come to the job with the right background, they should be left to get on with it. Constant reshuffles – which have been a feature of governments of all hues – is inimical to rapid progress. In this respect Cameron’s administration has been unusual. Real expertise has been built up in many important departments of state with ministers left in situ for an entire parliament. Look at the long-serving and successful Theresa May at the Home Office, long regarded as the graveyard of the aspirant politician. See, too, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and Ian Duncan Smith, the Minister of Work and Pensions. Then there is Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, and most famously the Chancellor, George Osborne. Even the controversial Michael Gove at education was left long enough to get on top of his brief and effect his own mini revolution.
Considering the constraints which coalition government by their nature impose, it is surprising how much has been achieved. Welfare, education and the economy – with the independent Office of Budgetary Responsibility – can be said to be entering a new era.
What do the government’s opponents have to offer? The latest is rent control. I am no friend of landlords, but I have to accept that we can’t do without them and that, in fact, rental forms an essential cog in our housing needs. Ed Miliband’s populist wheeze here is a busted flush. It’s been tried before and it doesn’t work. First it sets up a whole new expensive bureaucracy and all to no avail since his proposals can be easily circumvented. His interference in the market would, however, be guaranteed to worsen the situation of the very people he purports to help, in the same way as his capping of energy bills when oil and gas was at an all-time high. It was like when Gordon Brown sold off half our gold reserves only to see the price of gold double within months. Socialists, sad to say, are not strong on economics even if their hearts, in most cases, are in the right place.
As for Miliband himself, he daily reveals himself to be in the Michael Foot mould. Just look at the ridiculous stone monolith he plans to erect in the garden of Number 10, no doubt inspired by his new anti-capitalist pal Russell Brand. Perhaps it was all those years at the knee of his Marxist father who turned his house into a debating parlour for Communism, inviting the likes of Foot, Benn, Eric Hobsbawn as well as the traitorous – as it later turned out – union baron, Jack Jones, who was in the pay of the KGB.
David Cameron is lacking in many things, but he’s much less dangerous to the economic wellbeing of our country than the unreconstructed son of the LSE Marxist lecturer whom we rescued from the Nazis (he was Jewish) and who then went on to warp the thinking of a generation of young people including, it appears, his own son.
No one has better reason to hate the heartlessness, secrecy and institutionalised privileges of the ruling classes of this country than I do, but I’ll tell you this: if we place our future in the hands of such a master opportunist and dissembler as Ed Miliband then we will have taken leave of our senses. He refuses, even now, to concede that the government in which he played an important part borrowed too much. (I am not interested in how he looks or sounds; we have had great leaders who scored on neither front.)
My own business has been punished grievously and, after twenty-one years, I find myself holding on by the skin of my teeth. We do not want, nor can afford, left-wing experiments at a time like this, especially when we have so narrowly escaped a catastrophe which he and his master’s policies inflicted on us only five short years ago and which have been the cause of so much suffering.
I will finally, and unapologetically, make this observation: I do not think it was outrageous that a minister made reference recently to the younger Miliband’s behaviour towards his brother. It was what most people thought and the ‘appalled’ reaction of Labour apologists as well as certain sections of the media I consider was entirely contrived. There are not many brothers who would do to their sibling what he did to his. In my view it speaks of something I do not find edifying. It had a devastating effect on their aging mother and he must have known that would be the case.
It seems to me that we have no other credible option but to return the current government to power in May. The alternative imperils the undoubted progress that has been made and just seems too much like a leap in the dark. As to whether we return the Conservatives with a working majority or oblige them to seek an accommodation with their present partners… that, for the moment, cannot be predicted. They may be forced – hold your breath on this one – to seek an accommodation with Labour if that party, as seems likely, is obliterated in Scotland. Oddly, for a coalition, it has been surprisingly radical in the hot potato issues it has tackled. The Liberal Democrats may have helped keep the more swivel-eyed Tories in check and were certainly right in making it a condition of signing up that the lower paid be taken out of tax altogether. It was always an affront to justice that tax was levied at such an obscenely low level of income. But now we learn that the fully converted Tories are planning to take the process a step further in the forthcoming budget and steal some of the Lib Dem’s clothes by taking the same people out of National Insurance contributions and paying for it by reducing concessions to better off pension contributors. That looks like a surprisingly egalitarian measure which will help allay the perception that the Tories only look after the rich.
If it is true that elections are decided first and foremost on the state of the economy, then we would be hard put to gainsay the achievements of the present incumbents. They came to office in about as dire a situation as it possible to imagine. In fact the country was teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe.
For years we had allowed ourselves to live beyond our means, forgetting that age-old truth that you cannot spend more than you have the guts to raise in taxation. A balanced budget was never, so to speak, a lifestyle choice and sound money should always have been at the heart of any government’s considerations. Once it has taken care of these then it should go hell for leather for an enterprise economy.
In thinking where we are to cast our vote in May, let’s take a look at some of the core issues and see if we can make a balanced judgement. Business is not everything, but it is something we have to get right if we are to become prosperous enough on a personal level and yet have enough left over to fund a compassionate society.
Recently the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – one of the world’s most respected forums – positively gushed at our efforts, lavishing praise on the economic turnabout we have enjoyed over the past five years. Far from being the basket case that our perilous situation seemed set to consign us to, we are, so it seems, a “textbook” example for economic success: the most go-ahead enterprise economy currently in the developed world.
Moreover, it isn’t just the OECD saying these things – it’s just about everybody, including the International Monetary Fund. Christine Lagarde, its CEO, has said that “Britain is an example to the world and is leading it in a very elegant and convincing way.” That’s praise indeed, especially coming from the woman who only two years ago trembled at the possible consequences of what the Chancellor was doing. So gutsy ‘Boy George’ has been vindicated and proved right all along. I don’t remember so many economic pundits getting it so wrong since 364 wrote to Mrs Thatcher predicting certain doom for her policies back in the early eighties.
And balancing the books? Well, we’ve got some way to go on that but the direction of travel is the right one and the deficit is on the way to being halved. With business confidence soaring and GDP expanding, tax receipts will balloon and we will find ourselves in a virtuous circle in which even paying down the national debt will become easy.
What about our currency? Well, it doesn’t get more trusted than when you have convinced the money markets that you are a “textbook” example and “leading the world both elegantly and convincingly”. In these circumstances your purchasing power remains strong and national borrowing costs nosedive, along with the dole queue. Against all received wisdom, job creation in the UK has leaped ahead during this recession, with jobs created running at twice the rate of lay-offs in the public sector. Here, again, Osborne’s prediction has confounded critics. Perhaps the most graphic proof that you now enjoy a strong currency is to be found when you next go abroad. Your money will go an unbelievably long way. Also, the imported goods you buy will mysteriously start getting cheaper as less and less of your precious dosh needs to be handed over to Johnny Foreigner. And all this hasn’t been brought about – as it usually has been – at the price of being forced by poor management of the economy to hike your interest rates. Indeed, the reverse is true: they are at an all-time low and likely to remain so for some time yet.
Then there’s the ever important matter of inflation. Like all the rest, we are in a very good place here. And while some people worry about the dangers of deflation, this seems unlikely to happen in our case. The reason is that pay rises are now running – thank goodness – well ahead of inflation (six times) and this will edge inflation up and so prevent a downward spiral of falling prices which cause people to hold back purchases in the belief that things will get cheaper still. In Europe, with growth remaining stagnant, only a minority in the efficient north is getting a pay rise (and then not much) and so there is not the pressure from this direction to force inflation to rise. While ours can be said to be a virtuous circle, theirs is a vicious one.
So, in all these extraordinary circumstances, why is the governing party not seeing the benefit in the polls? It is a very great mystery. On the face of it, getting re-elected should be a shoo-in. In normal circumstances, economic success translates into electoral victory. However, these are not normal circumstances and this is not an iron rule. Ask John Major. When he faced Tony Blair in 1997 we were doing so well we were even paying down the national debt and – until Gordon Brown sold off half at fire sale prices – our gold reserves stood almost at a post-war high. Gold, then, had hit rock bottom, but within no time had shot through the roof. What made the man do it? Nobody knows and Brown won’t tell us. Perhaps we should ask the would-be Chancellor, Ed. Balls. Ed was his hatchet man at the time. Anyway, the upshot of it all was this little exercise cost us billions.
Before that happened – and when New Labour took over – their inheritance was, in the truest sense of the word, a golden one. Blair and his surly, Heathcliff-like Chancellor, then proceeded to throw it all away. To reassure the country and the City to trust their fiscal rectitude, they pledged to keep to Tory spending plans for two years. When, later, New Labour called time on that irksome arrangement, Brown, together with his side-kick – who hopes to move into the Treasury again in May – went on an epic spending spree. Borrowing like never before, they displayed a level of fiscal incontinence rarely if ever seen in British politics.
With unmatched hubris, Brown – the man who doubled the size of the Revenue and Customs guide book so that only the largest and most expensive accountancy firms could fathom its complexities – shouted to the rafters, budget after budget, that he had solved one of the economic cycle’s greatest mysteries: how to avoid boom and bust. Later on he would let slip in the Commons how he had ‘Saved the World’ during the time of the credit crunch. The wonder is that some fool in Scandinavia didn’t find a Nobel Prize to award him… one as daft as that Save the Children award to Tony Blair, which was, actually, hugely insulting.
While we may find much to criticise in the ‘posh boys’ who make up much of the present cabinet, they have in most respects delivered. Quite apart from the economy, we all knew that the welfare system was a busted flush in desperate need of root and branch reform. It had encouraged a malaise of worklessness in which many had come to believe that they had a perfect right to live off their neighbour’s taxes if they were daft enough to get up on a cold winter’s morning and go off to graft for the stinking, exploitative capitalists. It also turned a goodly proportion of fundamentally honest people into cheats and fraudsters. Then, again, in education we each knew that our parents had enjoyed a sounder education in the basics than we had, and that all the certainties which had made that possible had been thrown out of the window by the fanciful, misguided notions of the teachers’ training colleges and their ilk. Discipline was also a casualty of all that trendy thinking. Meanwhile our kids slipped ever further down the international league table of academic excellence.
Another thing we all knew was that an insatiable public sector was not only looking after itself too well at the rest of the nation’s expense, but that it was gobbling up an unsustainable amount of its wealth.
It therefore is a puzzle that a government which has successfully bitten so many unpalatable bullets is struggling to get its message across. They were bullets so toxic that no government before had had the balls to bite on them. Perhaps the coalition was stiffened in its resolve to do so by the opportunities presented by the worst recession in 100 years.
Finally… what about fixed term parliaments? Another of the measures brought in by this unexpectedly reformist government. They may have many drawbacks, but one decided advantage is that there is ample time to examine the record and forensically explore the proposed alternatives. Springing a surprise election when things are temporarily looking good, but you know they are not going to stay that way was an old trick. A three-week campaign denies your opponents the time needed and allows you to work a flanker. That ruse is now firmly off the table.
Conspiracies abound and conspiracy theorists make a good living pandering to our natural suspicions. The vast majority, including those surrounding Marilyn’s and Diana’s deaths, are nonsense. They persist because we find it hard to accept that famous people are subject to the same chance, and often malign, forces as the rest of us.
But that there are out there a fair few I have no doubt. I believe them to be almost a part of the human condition – from the tiny trader, like myself, who might wish for a private arrangement with a fellow trader not to undercut each other to a mighty conglomerate who might wish to do the same. OPEC is a perfect example. It has also to be accepted that the great majority are successful and that, as a result, we never get to hear about them.
I am a natural born sceptic – which perhaps has something to do with being called Thomas – and while I try to maintain an open mind, I have to admit that some theories are outlandish to the point of being funny. A couple which immediately spring to mind are that the pyramids were built by aliens and that the photos of the moon landings were trick photography.
I do, however, believe that the universe is teeming with ETs. With 100,000 galaxies in this universe – and science is starting to believe that there may be many universes – it surely is down to numbers. However rare may be the incidence of all the important factors coming together to make life possible – the so-called Goldilocks Effect – I find it inconceivable, with such numbers, that it only happened once. Furthermore, I believe that when these factors do coalesce, sooner or later, life is the inevitable consequence.
But returning to Earth and our penchant for conspiracies, I believe I have cottoned on to one which may go a long way to explaining why, when there is a clear need for many more houses, it never seems to happen. It is because the politicos are terrified of bringing about a downward spiral in the value of houses. It is not a conspiracy in which a handful of people have got together, but rather an acknowledgement that one’s home is typically his only significant asset.
Meantime, millions languish in rented, overcrowded and often substandard accommodation, desperate to buy their own homes but unable to do so because house price inflation has advanced at three times the rate of general inflation and as a result the deposit required is beyond their reach.
No one can argue against our desperate need to build more houses. Unlike Japan with fewer divorces, a falling birth rate and zero immigration, we are high on all three; people splitting from their partners need separate homes, a rising birth rate requires more houses (down the line), and millions moving to your country will require places to live.
During the recession the construction industry was the hardest hit. Didn’t it strike you as odd that its legions of unemployed were not put to work building this extra accommodation? The 100k houses built last year was less than half of what was required. What would happen if supply at long last rose to meet demand? The iron law of economics says prices would fall. What pushed house prices up to their present level, racing ahead of general inflation at a crazy rate? Easy credit and too many would-be buyers chasing too few houses. The real question is: if all the political parties are agreed on the need for more houses, why doesn’t it happen? After all, builders would set-to with a gusto and buyers would have not just a house but one at a more affordable rate.
Cameron and Osborne promised a relaxation of planning laws in 2010 and pledged to free up more land for development, but this government has so far failed miserably to deliver. Why is this? The answer, I fear, is that present mortgage holders have an interest in not just maintaining prices but contriving to force them up still further. They love a situation in which they are getting richer by doing nothing. Many are making more on their house annually than they are getting paid, with the difference being that living eats into their salary while nothing eats into their unearned capital gains. So just let a politician come along who threatens this nice little arrangement. That greatest of all feel-good factors would disappear down the plughole. To prick that love affair with rising wealth would make them incandescent with rage.
But in many ways crazy house prices might be compared to fools’ gold. Unless you’re going to flee abroad to a cheaper domicile or downsize, which most don’t want to do, then there are no tangible benefits. So how do the politicos keep them happy in this delusional state and excuse themselves from doing their duty to the homeless? First they acquiesce in keeping planning laws fiendishly difficult and listening too much to the ‘not in my back yard’ arguments. Then they waffle on ad nauseam about converting brown field sites. Then they pedal the greatest fiction of all: that our island is in danger of being concreted over.
Next time you fly over our green and pleasant land, look down and see what proportion of our lovely acres remain green. The Office for National Statistics have produced some very interesting figures on this. I invite you to read a BBC News article titled ‘The great myth of urban Britain‘. You will be happily stunned by the stats provided. It turns out only 2.27% of England’s landscape is built on. Just look out of your airplane window if you’re in any doubt.
I am glad the government has banned that sinister-looking council vehicle going round with a camera on the top. We all had deep misgivings about Google trundling round photographing everything in sight, but at least that wasn’t a means of filching money out of our ever more depleted pockets and there were many clear positives to the whole operation.
Ours is the most spied on country in the whole world and, to our shame, that includes N. Korea. What is it about those in authority over us that they treat us as they do? Is it that they don’t trust us? They’ll have plausible answers of course – they always do. Not the least of them is that catch-all one of ‘combating terrorism’. But we combated IRA terrorism for thirty years without compromising our essential liberties.
We have to be very careful about going down the path of the surveillance state. The powers-that-be, including the town halls, seem to relish lording it over us – watching our every move, socially engineering us, politically correcting us, and nannying us with a patronising ‘you know it’s all for your own good… don’t get yourself worked up’ sort of attitude. The fact is we are right not to trust them; all the time they are taking liberties with our liberties.
The Cameron government promised more openness. ‘Transparency’ was the word. And all the while the Court of Protection – another Blairite invention – continues on its merry way (except that it isn’t at all merry). Terrible injustices are daily taking place behind closed doors with social workers being treated as if they are expert witnesses and who, in too many cases, are themselves operating behind closed minds. Even the President of the Family Court has expressed his extreme disquiet and called for less secrecy, but still the injustices go on.
David Cameron has called for Magna Carta to be taught to every kid. Is this the same David Cameron who wanted recently, for the very first time in English jurisprudence, to hold a trial so secret that even the very fact that there was to be a trial at all was not to be disclosed? Magna Carta, indeed. Who can forget that cringe-making, toe-curling interview with America’s most famous interviewer, David Letterman, in which the British PM didn’t know what Carta stood for. Eton educated, was he? With a first-class honours degree from Oxford thrown in for good measure? Something went badly wrong there. Even little old me, educated in the Foundling Hospital and at work at fifteen, knew that. Perhaps it is the years in Downing Street that have addled his brain. That hothouse of intrigue and backstabbing must take its toll.
But don’t think me ungracious to our Dave. For all his many deficiencies, he has turned the economy round and we must give him credit for that mighty achievement. There is also a real chance that our kids will stop sliding down the international education league tables and begin the climb northwards. Then there’s that pernicious client state of welfarism that Gordon Brown positively pushed which is being dismantled and a sensible one – such as the Welfare State’s founder, William Beveridge, wanted – being reinstated (but still in a far more generous form than ever he envisaged). So each of these important areas which will determine our nation’s future we must give the present incumbent of Down Street credit for.
Yesterday we buried a titan and she was a woman. Not since Churchill’s bravery when he took the awful decision to sink his French ally’s fleet in WWII, rather than let it fall into enemy hands, have we seen such a brave leader. I even think that Churchill might have blanched at the idea of sending the hugely depleted Fleet that Margaret Thatcher had at her disposal to rescue the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles away.
But her bravery extended well beyond the battlefield – something that Churchill’s did not. She took on and defeated ‘the enemy within’, as she called them: the Arthur Scargills, Derek Hattons and Ken Livingstones of this world. ‘Union Barons’, one by one, fell upon her lance until the wheel had turned full circle and we had the fewest strikes in all Europe.
Churchill had his own bitter enemies among the working classes as well as the establishment, but somehow their vehemence had faded under the glow of his magnificent conduct of the war and the glory of his rhetoric in its early days, urging his countrymen to stand fast and not be seduced by peace ‘with honour’ offer which he knew would turn out to be humiliating. But Margaret Thatcher’s enemies never left her in peace, not even in death. Whole swathes of industrial England, Scotland and Wales died on her watch. Most of them were dying anyway (as they had been under Labour), but she did nothing to slow the process.
Yet much the same was happening all over the industrialised West. Mines were closing and shipyards were losing out to cheap labour in the East; steel was being produced in the same areas at Mickey Mouse prices. Long-established and close communities who had come to rely on a single industry became a wasteland. Standing guardian over these nationalised and loss-making industries was a union hierarchy more powerful, many argued, than the state itself. It was said that no law could be enacted without their approval.
Thatcher believed herself to be on a mission to restore Britain’s governance, finances and greatness. She believed she saw a very sick patient whom only surgery could cure. The medicine, she knew, would be bitter and the recuperation hard. But she insisted it would be all be worth it. Some said she was stubborn, and she was. But she could be flexible when she needed to be; she could duck and dive with the best of them in politics, but on core issues, as she saw them, she would not budge. You don’t stay on the way to twelve years at the top (almost as long as Hitler’s Reich) without heavy doses of pragmatism.
Also she was not above using her sex either to get her way. Flirtatious Mitterrand, the French president, thought her coquettish and remarked that she had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” He fell in love with her ballroom dancing skills. In another world he would have had her – or at least tried.
For all this, Thatcher was an earnest woman, almost devoid of humour (jokes had to be explained to her). She had an almost childlike certainty that she knew what to do to lift the economy out of the pit of despondency into which it had fallen. When 360 of the country’s leading economists signed a letter to tell her that her policies were doomed, she ignored them. Once she was the boss she would brook no backsliders. She was dictatorial, but luckily she was compelled to operate within the constraints of a liberal democracy. But she got the essentials right and, remarkably, that army of doomsayers were proved wrong.
Personally, she was very kind to her staff and to the little people, the ones without power – but she could be brutal to those who wielded it. However, her all-consuming ambition made it impossible for her to be a hands-on mother; perhaps that wasn’t her style anyway. But in her extreme old age she did feel pangs of guilt. She shed more tears over her lost boys in the South Atlantic than ever she did for her own children. It is said that she never went to bed during the three months of the Falklands conflict, dozing instead on a chair, waiting to hear the telephone ring to tell her of more boys lost in the latest sinking. She took it all very personally. Churchill seldom did. An eyewitness told of her sobbing for 40 minutes non-stop when news reached her that another ship had been hit by a missile. When her own torpedo slammed into the cruiser Belgrano and sent Argentina’s sailors to the bottom of the icy south Atlantic, I have no doubt that her mother’s heart felt for those other mothers in far away Argentina. But if ‘cruel necessity’ – Cromwell’s justification for cutting off his own king’s head – called for its sinking to save her own precious boys, she would not hold back.
She was tough beyond belief – far tougher than any of the men who surrounded her. She would not yield to IRA hunger strikers, no matter what. It was a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It took ten emaciated corpses before the IRA conceded defeat. They repaid her by destroying her hotel and almost her.
Her toughness and certainty of the correctness of her policies followed through to the economic woes which beset the country; her monetarist measures brought record inflation to low levels; her privatisation of loss-making, nationalised industries stopped the haemorrhaging and put shares into millions of pockets, becoming a model for virtually the whole world; her sell-off of council houses made property owners of millions; her ‘Big Bang’ financial liberalisation in the City made London the world’s leading capital market; and her curbing of restrictive union practises such as flying pickets and the closed shop brought order to the factory floor. It is an impressive list and there is more.
But she made mistakes. She believed too much in the service economy and failed to realise sufficiently the importance of manufacturing. She was plain stupid in doing a dry run of the Poll Tax in, of all places, prickly Scotland – even though its principals were sound. (She never had any admirers in that part of the kingdom and still doesn’t.) And she should never have allowed herself to be talked into signing up to the ERM at a rate that shadowed the Deutschmark. Her earlier signing of the Single European Act cost her many of her cherished powers of veto. Also her closure of Grammar Schools exceeded even that of her Labour predecessors. It infuriated great numbers of her own followers.
Too long in power, and with the inevitable hubris setting in she finally gave the game away when she used the ‘royal we’ to announce the birth of a grandchild. Her patronising treatment and her public put-downs of her loyal chancellor and foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, were not pretty to watch and her hectoring style got worse the longer she remained in office.
But for all her faults and mistakes, she was nevertheless a force of nature that moved the economic firmament. There was no going back, even for an incoming Labour government. She also moved the political centre ground. It might be said that if you seek her monument, as Sir Christopher Wren once famously stated, “look around you”.
Nothing is the same. She was not interested in spin doctors, focus groups, think tanks, legions of special advisers or even the nasty things the papers said about her. She had a job to do and she would do it come what may. There is a certain courage here also. But if we still have difficulty in recognising her greatness then we have to cast our eyes around the world. All of its leaders are in awe of her achievements. They know a colossus when they see one. They were not distracted by the smoke and din of battle as we were here at home. They could see more clearly where she was headed. Their universal opinion was that Great Britain was a more respected nation than it had been at the start of her reign. Flags flew in many countries at half mast when her death was announced and most of all across the broad expanses of North America. There her name, alongside Ronald Reagan, is revered – as it is too across Eastern Europe, as the liberator from Communism. It was she who brought Gorbachev in from the cold and told her friend, the president, “this is a man we can do business with”. Together, their steely resolve and willingness to do whatever it took, brought the Cold War to a triumphant end. It might justly be said that had she accomplished nothing else, that alone would stand as a fitting testament.
Finally there is the no small matter of a grocer’s daughter – a woman – scaling the heights of a man’s world to achieve the highest office in the land. Women everywhere, and that encompasses the whole world, owe it to her that she has for all time proved – with her competence, drive, bravery and vision – that women are truly the equal of men and that there is no office of state that they cannot handle. In the great scheme of things I do believe that history will place her before Churchill – who, after all, was born to privilege – as our greatest 20th century premier.