Category Archives: politics
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.
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s First Minister, has now entered the final leg of his seven-year effort to destroy the British Union.
In September of next year he will throw the most almighty spanner into the works of our 300-year-old marriage. If he is successful the English and Scottish nations will be back to where they were in 1707 and the universally acknowledged happiest coming together of two former foes will be over.
Without a single Sassenach anywhere in my bloodline that I am aware of, I very much value things Scottish and have a natural urge to wish her well. On the other hand, having been sheltered by the English for much the greater part of my life I have come to an appreciation of the many fine qualities which reside in that nation. As a consequence I choose to regard myself as an Anglo-Scot. Both nations, before they joined, had boundless potential, but it could never be fully realised while they spent their time and energy, bickering, eyeing each other reproachfully and often leaping at each other’s throat.
When, finally we made a deal to end the lunacy the results were truly astonishing. An industrial revolution was unleashed upon the world and an empire created the like of which had never been seen in the whole of human history. While maintaining their distinctiveness both nations have cut a dash in just about everything they have put their hand to and, along with Wales, have made a wonderfully harmonious union.
Mr Salmond will also find that separation, if he achieves it, will come at an eye-watering cost. All the institutions which form the modern state will have to be disentangled and new ones re-created north of the border, including (absurdly) fresh armed forces. The Scots should not assume that they will gain automatic entry to the EU as, by their own admission, they will be the resurrection of an old state that had never applied to Brussels to join. It is difficult to see how customs barriers and other niggling absurdities could be avoided were Scotland to go its separate way.
We are in the midst of the longest recession since the Napoleonic wars and Scotland would be unwise to take for granted continued English goodwill if she goes ahead. She should be mindful of the fact that it was English money that saved her from implosion during the Royal Bank of Scotland banking crises presided over by Scotsman ‘Fred the Shred’. The Libor manipulation of interest rates, for instance, was pure criminality. Scotland would also do well to remember that when she was poorer than England during the 70s the ‘Barnet Formula’ was invented to balance out incomes. Scotland has long since ceased to be poorer, but the annual payments go on.
They amount to £1,600 more per head of population than England. Justice suggests this arrangement be ended, but the English are not anxious to pick a quarrel with what some believe is their cantankerous neighbour, who can be counted on to resist fiercely. Many will take the view that the ungrateful Scots are biting the hand which feeds them and when exasperation sets in they might start to say that they would be better off without them anyway; at least financially. They do not forget that Scotland is greatly over-represented in Parliament and that it is the Scottish socialist vote that has kept Labour in power for so many years in England and look where that got us all. They will point out that the public sector in Scotland is hugely greater proportionately than in England and more social benefits are handed out there. In addition they get free university education and prescriptions along with free care in old age. I just hope that these salient facts are not too much to the fore as the arguments rage back and forth during the coming months and that insults do not begin to be traded.
My own view is that Alex Salmond is not a man of high principal, but rather one who fancies a grander title than that of First Minister; one like Prime Minister. For the moment, he proposes to keep the Queen as head of state, but then soon might not hubris drive him on to displace her and become president?
In order to whip up anti-English sentiment Salmond has timed his referendum with the 700th anniversary of Scotland’s greatest military triumph over the English at the Bannock Burn. Also he hopes to benefit from the afterglow of chauvinism following the Commonwealth games in Glasgow a few weeks earlier. Lowest and most desperate of all, in my view, is his insistence that 16-year-olds should be allowed to vote. Clearly he believes that these immature minds are easy fodder for his manipulation and will be swayed by all his nationalistic angst. But does anyone, including Salmond, seriously believe that such weighty issues, which have the potential to change our political landscape forever, be properly understood by people with so little experience of the world? As one Scotsman to another I say to Mr Salmond you are a humbug. Now there’s a good old-fashioned word, but one that in my eyes sums him up perfectly.
Those who have not rumbled him already will surely do so when all the arguments are laid before them and they will send him packing. I know, like Tony Blair, he has the gift of the gab and has an answer for everything, but his people have something much more valuable and big going for them: they are CANNY.
I have not written about anything that causes me so much pain as this article does. This is because as a Briton, proud of what my country has achieved down the ages, I am ashamed of the shocking scandal unfolding in what was meant to be our pride and joy: the NHS. Nothing in my experience begins to compare with the sheer magnitude of it all; the needless deaths, through wanton neglect, of almost certainly thousands of people in our hospitals.
Fish rot from the head and any man – and we speak of Sir David Nicholson – who believed that the totalitarian system that was once the USSR was a good thing should never have been put in charge of such an organisation as the NHS. Apparently his hero was the gruesome Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev. It shocked me how readily and swiftly the PM and Heath Secretary sprang to his defence. Perhaps it was because Nicholson had a reputation, when ordered to do things, of carrying out those orders. While that may be so, the consequences, as whistleblowers made clear to Nicholson, was an unfolding tragedy of epic proportions. But orders are orders and Nicholson ploughed on, heedless of the human misery he was unleashing. In order to achieve his purpose and and keep to his ‘good’ name as a man who could be relied on to deliver, a climate of fear was created throughout the NHS. How very USSR-like.
I will not detail the horror stories which have emerged: you are all familiar with them. But instead of being reassured, looked after and returned to health, where possible, people died in their hundreds, indeed – across the NHS – in their thousands. A single hospital stands accused of up to 1,200 deaths.
We all remember the unconscionable time we often waited for routine operations and A&E. The last government decided to do something about it. Everything was done with the best of intentions, but as we all know, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions. When it became apparent that their action plan was not working out, another well known maxim kicked in: the law of unintended consequences. At that point Nicholson and his Labour masters should have paused and taken stock. But they did not.
So what has become of us that we have failed in almost the most fundamental of all our duties, the care of our old? When our troops burst in on Belson concentration camp they found a level of horror – of man’s inhumanity to man – not known in the whole of human experience. We put the perpetrators on trial and hanged them. At their trial they pleaded that they were obeying orders. What they did not plead – though they might have done – was that they had been conditioned for years to see their victims not as human beings, but as the lowest of the low – a sub-species – not worthy of using up precious resources. I fear that when our old people – be they in care homes or hospitals – fall into frailty, incontinence or dementia, something of a similar attitude takes hold in disquieting numbers among those charged with looking after them. Yet in their case they do not even have the excuse of saying that their government had told them their charges were worthless. So, what is it that allows lethal, criminal neglect, which were it directed at a child or even a dog would send us into paroxysms of fury ending in stiff prison sentences but does not do so with our old and helpless? I truly do not understand it!
What is incredible is that the unfeeling apparatchik who presided over it all was not only not held to account, but promoted to the top job in the NHS. How very public sector-like. And this man – would you believe – is judged by himself (and Cameron) to be the best person to sort it all out even though he admitted to a Commons Select Committee that he had no idea what was going on in the wards. Well, it’s a funny kind of CEO – in whom 90 per cent of his own workforce have no faith – that hasn’t a clue what the troops are up to. And even funnier that such a level of incompetence should inspire the political leadership to think that in this broad land of 63 million there is none better.
The Francis Report into the failings of the Mid Staffordshire Hospital Trust wanted to name names, but using, as ever, our money – just like the BBC – the ‘fingered’ individuals engaged the sharpest, most expensive lawyers in the business to threaten Robert Francis with law suits. After three months of arguments and delay, he buckled. It all, thereafter, magically became the fault of ‘the system’. Nothing, said the chastened Francis, was to be gained by ‘scapegoating’. Sorry, Robert, but people did this thing and people must answer. Start with David Nicholson and move down to ward level. It cannot be too strongly emphasised that the whole farrago involves multiple, pitiless deaths which on a head count makes the Harold Shipman outrage look like a trifling matter. And at least Shipman’s victims were despatched painlessly and their road to Calvary travelled with great expedition.
A chief characteristic that distinguishes our species from every other in the animal kingdom is our sense of dignity. From the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go to bed, we carefully nurture the image of how we wish the world to perceive us. Take that away and you have inflicted the cruelest of hurts. So being careless of people’s nakedness and forcing them into adult nappies because it is too much trouble to help them to the toilet is unforgivable; to leave them in soiled, cold, soaking sheets covered in their own dried excrement caked in overgrown nails which nurse graduates feel too grand to cut is beyond my powers of description; to force them to struggle to reach for water and food which is beyond reach is totally criminal.
Death is the single most difficult event that any of us will have to handle. To meet it in squalor, neglect and suffering over a protracted period with all dignity stripped away is impossible to equate with a civilised society. In my view we are all guilty, every last one of us – just as the entire German nation was guilty of the Holocaust. In both cases we allowed it to happen on our watch. We strut the world stage fixated on our favourite hobby horse, Human Rights, lecturing anyone unfortunate enough to cross our path on the virtues of compassion, yet we show nothing of it on too many of our wards. Shouldn’t Charity begin at home?
Those charged with looking after the fathers and mothers who fought two World Wars for us, and whose sacrifices in the years following brought us social security and prosperity, have a sacred duty to perform. They should remember that they were not always the sad, helpless individuals they see before them, but once vibrant men and women who held down jobs and brought up children. If it would help them to understand this, let a photo be affixed to the head of every bed to show their carers how they looked in their glory days and let a caption tell the story of who they were and what they did.
History will not be kind to Tony Blair. He found Britain a prosperous place – having recovered spectacularly from the ERM disaster – and left it virtually bankrupt and mired in two unwinnable wars.
Some might say this is a strange thing to claim concerning a prime minister who won three successive elections and even today is held in sufficient international regard to be appointed by the quartet of EU, USA, Russia and Britain to act as Middle East peace envoy. So why do I take issue with these two salient facts? It is my belief that our former prime minister succeeded in taking in not only ourselves, but a great part of the world beyond.
Blair took little old me in back in 1997. Indeed, if we cast our minds back to that now distant time it seems extraordinary that a government should be thrown out of office when it has got the economy into a rock solid position (so solid, as I recall, that it was starting to pay down the national debt).
Received wisdom tells us that it is the state of national finances that decides elections, yet the ‘grey man’, John Major, went down to a resounding defeat. Why was this? Partly because he was that ‘grey man’ and lacked charisma, whereas his opponent had oodles of it and was young as well as good-looking. And there had also been a series of huge embarrassments for the Conservative government: ‘cash-for-questions’; the armed forces procurement minister having his Paris hotel bill paid by a Arab Sheik; the gaoling of Jeffrey Archer; sexual shenanigans from a government that preached ‘back to basics’ (nobody knew at the time that the PM himself had had a dalliance with Edwina Currie); and then there was the mighty cock up of our ejection from the ERM which did so much to destroy the Tory’s reputation for economic competence.
Often forgotten is the fact that all three parties, along with the CBI, the Institute of Directors and just about everybody else was gung-ho for entry to the Exchange Rate Mechanism. It was therefore rank hypocrisy later for the opposition to use this as a stick with which to beat the government.
But I believe the biggest of all factors in Tony Blair coming to power was the national weariness of seeing the same old faces in place for 18 years. Blair seemed like a breath of fresh air; and how could we know that we were about to embrace the Nigel Havers of politics? But the one factor which still made the nation hesitate was Labour’s own reputation for fiscal incontinence. Indeed, every one of its administrations had gone down in a welter of financial mismanagement. To allay these last remaining doubts, Tony and his glowering, thwarted would-be leader Gordon Brown pledged faithfully to hold to Tory spending plans for the next two years.
So the die was cast and ‘Call me Tony’ took up residency in Downing Street. We used to call him ‘Bambi’ early on as he seemed to have no enemies, promising all things to all men with the most winning smile that had ever beamed out to the nation from Downing Street.
My own doubts began with the squalid Bernie Ecclestone affair very early on when all cigarette advertising was banned from sporting events except – mysteriously – from Bernie’s Formula One. For me it was downhill ever after as sleaze piled upon more sleaze, and all from the man who promised a government that would be ‘whiter than white’.
When the two years of financial rectitude was up, a spending splurge of awesome proportions was announced. There was to be no more ‘fixing the roof while the sun was shining’: it was to be spend, spend, spend.
The national debt went through the roof and no attempt was made to ensure taxpayers got value for money. It was just assumed that if you threw enough dosh at a problem it would go away. Instead, it went largely into the pay packets and pension pots of the new elite – the public sector, which was allowed to expand dramatically.
The upshot of it all is that we find ourselves today in the most dire condition that it is possible to imagine. Even private debt has gone through the roof. The spendthrift ‘Prudence’ Brown at the treasury seemed almost relieved to have someone else join him in the bankruptcy stakes. The growing credit bubble – which Gordon called growth – seemed like a never ending jolly, but like the puppet master in Downing Street it was a cruel illusion – all smoke and mirrors. Every pound Gordon borrowed he insisted was an ‘investment in the future’. Some future!
When he was in Brussels, he liked to turn off his headset so he couldn’t listen to what his peers had to say. But when it was his turn, he couldn’t resist lecturing them – in particular the Germans – on sound economics. All the while his bête noir boss left him to it so he could swan around the world offering his own advice and attempting to nation-build with armed forces Gordon constantly denuded of the equipment necessary to carry out his grandiose schemes. It was all very frustrating for the man who ‘felt the hand of history on his shoulder’.
While it’s fair to say the mess that the world finds itself in today would still be there, even without the contribution of Blair and his Chancellor, it is also fair to say that for us in the UK it would be manageable – as it is for Germany, Canada and others who handled their affairs with Gordon Brown’s once favourite word, prudence.
Bill Clinton, another out of the charisma stable of politicians, started it all back in 1998 when he urged Alan Greenspan, the then Chairman of the Federal Reserve, to help poor Americans become home owners – even those with no obvious means of repaying their debt. Thus began the sub-prime tragedy which spread around the world in concealed financial packages. But what did it for us and turned a problem into a disaster was that wild, decade-long spending jamboree.
As for our Tony, he doesn’t see or acknowledge any of this. He’s lost now in his own little bubble. He wanted to be President of Europe, but instead has settled – uniquely and rather unedifyingly for a Labour leader – on becoming stinkingly rich as well as continuing to offer pearls of wisdom to anyone who’ll listen. It worries me that his current successor in Downing Street is one who will. It worries me also that he has always been one of Tony’s fans, and despite everything remains so. What does this tell us about Cameron? Is this yet another judgement issue of his?
As an avowed Christian, it seemed for a while that faith might intrude on the Blair business of governance. There seemed often to be a touch of messianic fervour to his pronouncements. But his spin master, Alastair Campbell, slapped him down on this one, insisting that New Labour ‘didn’t do God’. Some might argue that Tony’s present ambition (he owns seven homes and counting) to join the mega rich club hinders his ultimate passage to celestial regions, and that he should remember his master’s admonition of how it is ‘easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’.
It is likely that I’m going to ruffle a few feathers here, but before I do I would like to say sincerely that I hope my readers have enjoyed their Christmas. The good news is that there is more celebration to come as New Year looms.
None of us can say whether there will be more good news as the year progresses, however. We know there is unpleasant belt-tightening up ahead. But will our sacrifices start to pay off? I believe they will. We, unlike Uncle Sam, are pressing most of the right buttons, though more on growth is necessary. What we have to do is hold our nerve on shrinking the state’s share of GDP.
An economy cannot take off if the state grabs too much. The great imponderable, apart from said Uncle Sam’s actions – or inactions, which might push him over the fiscal cliff with who knows what consequences for us all – is Europe. Will its terrible economic travails rain seriously on our, hopefully, improving parade? Again, no one can say.
Europe has been sticking its nose in our affairs for a very long time now. It started with the Romans; then it was the Angles, Saxons and Jutes; then the Vikings; and then the Normans (who weren’t actually French at all, but a gang of settled down Vikings). It ended there – at least where foreign occupation was concerned. After that it was our turn; the boot was on the other foot. Indeed, we have been sticking our nose in their affairs now for almost a thousand years – much strengthened, I have to admit, by this mongrel-mixing that we had to endure – and most effective our interference has been.
It has been our cardinal aim never to allow a single dominant country to conquer and overawe the rest, and so present us with an accumulation of power to which, notwithstanding our island status, we would have no answer. Many times we came close to disaster. Philip of Spain – with his Armada – almost overwhelmed us. Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, nearly pulled it off but Churchill’s famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, did for the Sun King and smashed his hopes at Blenheim in Austria. Then came the terrible Napoleon; but Herculean efforts – aided by our burgeoning Industrial Revolution – spread over twenty years, which almost bankrupted us, finally brought him to ruin at Waterloo.
For a hundred years after no power on earth could threaten our supremacy and we went on to build the greatest empire known to man. But nothing lasts forever. A powerful rival in the form of the Kaiser’s Germany came up on us and the accumulated wealth of two hundred years and a bloodletting on a scale never before experienced had to be deployed to frustrate his hopes. Twenty-one years later, what was left of that once incredible wealth, plus more blood, was expended to crush Germany’s revanchist ambitions once and for all. And that is where we are today. We have no more treasure to deploy and we will not send our young men to their doom anymore in such numbers. Luckily, neither will any of the others. All of us have had enough; hence the European Union.
We all wish to prosper in a continent of harmony. We wish to concentrate our energies on getting richer as well as fairer and more compassionate. And as with Japan, the appetite for large-scale war has been successfully eradicated. So far so good.
We on this island, with some understandable difficulty, have come to accept that we cannot any longer play the world’s diva. We are, as a consequence, prepared to join forces with our European neighbours to resurrect Europe’s power and prosperity in the world which it foolishly threw away. But this is conditional on this great union being fully democratic, truly accountable and non intrusive in sensitive areas best handled at home. That is not what we see. This octopus which operates out of Brussels seeks to spread it tentacles into every nook and cranny of our national life. Its servants run a gravy train of quite stupendous generosity and corruption seems to be endemic. For eighteen years its auditors have refused to sign off its accounts. And the worst of it all is that we seem unable to control it. A reckoning is overdue.
Proud nations cannot be dictated to in matters which properly should be decided at national level. In this take on the Union’s shortcomings, we are not alone. We have natural allies in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and, most of all, moneybags Germany. They are desperate for us to stay. Our problem is that with our frustration we allow ourselves to flounce off, with all the terrible risks attendant on being out of the loop.
Outside of the Union, we cannot hope to control which direction it moves in. With such an accumulation of population, wealth and power, its development could be inimical to our interests; and it could even end up threatening us. As the most successful, internationally, of all the European powers, we must have confidence to know that our voice will be heard. Things cannot go on as they are. We have, for instance, finally brought sense to the Common Fisheries Policy which was decimating our fish stocks. Forward now to the Common Agricultural Policy which so harms the poor nations of the world and keeps food prices at home higher than they need be. Forward also with repatriating those many powers which should never have left these shores.
I glory in the diversity of our continent and am confident it will never go away. Italy will always be Italy and France, France. If I mix with the boisterous crowd wearing lederhosen at the Munich Beer Festival, they look (lederhosen excepted) just like me. Our church-driven culture down the centuries has made us – despite our fascinating differences – one civilisation with a single European culture and we cannot, indeed must not, marginalise ourselves and walk away into the sunset. And how gratifying it should be to us that the multilingual family of nations we are fashioning our future with have looked to our language to be their language of choice in order to make our latter day tower of Babel function smoothly. What an advantage that gives us.
So my plea is this: have confidence and believe in yourself. Just as through your earth-shattering Industrial Revolution you touched the face of humanity and left an indelible mark, go out and do the same in Europe. Only please, please don’t be a ‘Little Englander’. It doesn’t become you.
Concerning ‘Thrasher’ Mitchell, the Chief Whip, we seem to have moved backwards in electing ourselves governments of all talents. I am not saying we should discriminate against public school boys, yet at seven per cent of total school population they are grossly over-represented in government comprising over 50 per cent of the cabinet. Sixty years ago the Attlee cabinet was much more representative of the people it governed. But here we are today, all these years on, with one which would not have looked out of place in Downton Abbey days.
Although Cameron is a personable enough chap himself – one you perhaps wouldn’t mind having a pint with – he seems not to have the wit to see any of this. He understands that the nation’s finances are in dire need of sorting out, along with welfare dependency and educational shortcomings, but he seems to think that only a cabinet stuffed full of stinkingly rich public school boys can be relied on to see it through. The irony is that the two crucial success stories of his administration are likely to be the very ones not piloted by his public school chums: welfare reform and education.
The display of petulance, arrogance, threats and not to say downright abuse that the Chief Whip showed his police guardians – in the very week of grief, would you believe, for fallen comrades – opened a window into the mindset of these privileged individuals who really do believe that we are here to serve them, not they us. Theirs, it would seem, is a god-given right to rule and we should get used to it. The public does not like what it sees.
All of this is disastrous to the man who spent years trying to massage the image of the Tory party into a kindlier, voter-friendly mode. In a little over two years’ time he is going to have to asks the ‘plebs’ if they will give him and his pals a fresh run. It is lucky in the extreme that he faces such a deeply unattractive and discredited Opposition, but that won’t necessarily save him. If there is visceral hatred for his class, fanned by the likes of the ‘Thrasher’, that might be enough to sink him.
In addition to all this, Tory foot soldiers have neither forgotten nor forgiven for the fact that Cameron failed to win an outright majority against the most disastrous government of modern times led by the most unpopular prime minister ever. The fact that he failed in these circumstances and was obliged to put himself in hock to a party that hates his own and spends its time sabotaging so many of its most cherished policies rankles still further. And then there are the multiple instances of poor judgement in his appointments. It ill behoves Cameron, therefore, to adopt all too often a high-handed approach with his backbenchers which can be taken a a sign of perceived class superiority. Dollops of humble pie and signs of genuine contrition should be more the order of the day.
But Cameron’s troubles don’t even stop with those outlined; women (half the electorate) have gone off him too. They have concluded that – Samcam excepted – he doesn’t much like them and that Bullingdon attitudes still lurk beneath the surface. There is real anger that he has shortchanged them, having promised them a third of cabinet seats. The recent reshuffle was his last chance to make good on that promise and he failed miserably.
So for the prime minister there is much to do and little time to do it in. It worries me also that he doesn’t seem much concerned at the drip, drip hemorrhaging of his party to UKIP. Had disaffection not driven so many into their camp he may well have had that precious majority at the last election and the process continues apace. As I see it only one thing stands a chance of bringing large numbers of them back into the fold: he must give them an unequivocal pledge, written in blood, that there will be an in/out EU referendum immediately after the election. Then he must make it clear to them that if they do not respond they will have only themselves to blame for a fresh dose of Labour, but with even more of a Leftish lean. That, together with a hopefully recovering economy, troops home from Afghanistan, robust law and order policies and falling immigration should be enough. Welfare and Education success would be the clincher.
In the meantime he must get all his appointments carefully scrutinised beforehand, stop patronising women (or anyone else for that matter) and put the equivalent of a chastity belt on the mouths of certain of his ministers. As for the ‘Thrasher’ himself, he must go – but not before he has has received a damn good thrashing himself, to encourage les autres.
It was always delicious irony that Rugby School (of Tom Brown’s Schooldays fame) should spawn a character who would go on to be known as the ‘Thrasher’ and that that same character would go on to be awarded the Chief Whip’s job in government. That same whip must now be used on him. ‘Flashman’ Cameron is just the man to wield it. He’s got the perfect credentials.
Last week was a disastrous week for the Cameron government, not because of anything the opposition did to it, but what it did to itself. An issue was presented to parliament of such importance that ninety-one of the Prime Minister’s normally loyal supporters could not, in all conscience, back the government line.
The rebellion concerned reform of the House of Lords. Should we get this wrong – as ‘devolution’ has so tragically shown – and all sorts of genies would be out of the bottle which could never be put back. The Lib Dem’s proposed reforms would land us with an unworkable setup between the two legislative houses and a second chamber, stuffed full of third-rate has-beens who couldn’t cut the mustard in the first house: the Commons. Patronage – itself one of our crippling ills – would, as a result, have been reinforced even further.
No one argues that the House of Lords (which, we should not forget, does a surprisingly effective job) does not need sorting out to make it more democratic. But the great conundrum is how, and we have been pondering that question for a hundred years. All we know is that if we get it wrong there will be the most grievous consequences, as we now realise with devolution, which threatens the very integrity of our country.
The Liberal Democrats want the reformed House of Lords to adopt the very system of proportional representation which was so soundly rejected by the public a year ago with – you may not be surprised to learn – beneficial results for themselves.
We would end up with two forms of democracy in our country, with the new one claiming a more genuine mandate. It seems a given that there would be serious clashes between the two house with each claiming the greater legitimacy; we would end up with the same sort of paralysis which so blights the life of Congress and the Senate in the US today.
Why does the PM test his party in the way he does? Why does he not realise that in a matter of such monumental importance he cannot expect party loyalty to override what so many in his party are convinced is for the greater good of the country? Is keeping the Lib Dems onside worth splitting his party for?
Little by little the evidence piles up that our leader – despite his good intentions – is not over-blessed with sound judgement. And the same applies to his chancellor, his deputy and so many more of his appointees. Remember Andy Coulson, the Downing Street photographer, and Liam Fox’s antics?
For a start, it was foolish – when people were feeling incredibly angry at what the moneyed classes had done to them – to stuff his cabinet with millionaires and public schoolboys, some from his own alma mater Eton College. It was Bullingdon brought to Whitehall, as many perceived. Didn’t he realise that his own privileged background raised eyebrows for some, and that to surround himself in cabinet with more of the same sent out the wrong signals? To reinforce this whole perception of privilege was crass in the extreme.
The government we have today is the most out of touch with ordinary concerns since Palmerston was sending out his gunboats. I’d put money on half the cabinet not knowing within 30 per cent the price of a loaf of bread, a pint of milk or a litre of petrol. Indeed, the Deputy Prime Minister was over 50 per cent adrift as to what a pensioner got. What a shower!
The trouble is that hardly any of them have first-hand knowledge of the workaday world the rest of us inhabit. They move seamlessly from Russell Group universities into think tanks and policy institutes before beginning their journey up the greasy pole. Once ensconced in the Westminster bubble they purport to know and understand the issues that concern the rest of us.
They disburse gargantuan sums of public money without suitable qualifications and experience, with none ever having headed up a public company; and they legislate on matters of which, in so many cases, they have no real experience. They live in the British equivalent of walled communities and don’t know within a million miles what it is to live on a sink estate.
On top of these shortcomings, they are too young. Occasionally, a boy like Alexander the Great or Pitt the Younger can confound the norm, but history is exceedingly short on such prodigies. (Both, as a matter of interest, had incredible fathers.) What is needed in our rulers is men of proven ability who have made their mark in the world.
Here, in our neck of the woods, we have such a man in Gary Streeter: son of a farmer, former solicitor and once Chair of Plymouth City housing. In defence of what he saw as an overriding public interest (rejecting the proposed Lords reform) he waved goodbye to any preferment in the Cameron government, which he could reasonably have expected as a senior MP and former Shadow Minister. That’s what I call guts. It is also high-minded and noble.
Everything today is so shallow. We even require our leaders to look telegenic, be bubbly and have a Tony Blair perma-smile, if possible. Say goodbye to ever getting a Churchill or an Attlee again, the miserable sods. May the Lord preserve us! How will we ever get out of the sort of crises they got us through? We could do with one such right now. But remember: he can’t be ugly, fat or have a speech impediment – like Churchill – or a clipped, staccato delivery like Attlee. No, no, they must be of the sort that can entertain us on breakfast television.
There is no better way to get yourself out of the kind of hole we find ourselves in today than to grow your way out.
All the emphasis to date has been on the debt which hangs round our neck like an albatross. But while it was right to worry about this and to take measures to bring it under control, now we must get an engine fired up whose sole purpose is growth.
Where can this growth come from? It is easier first to identify areas where it cannot and should not come from; namely the self-indulgent areas such as we had known for the decade before the credit crunch hit us in 2008.
More than any other sector, the construction industry has taken the brunt of the recession. Once, it was commonplace to see giant cranes at work in every city centre, out of town shopping development and business park. Not anymore.
All is quiet on the Western Front, yet at the same time we have a crisis in housing. Millions of newcomers have flooded into our country and they all need accommodation. And while this moribund industry is virtually at a standstill, millions of our young people cannot get on to the housing ladder because prices are still too high.
Nothing is more likely to bring these prices down than a massive programme of building which closes the gap between supply and demand.
More housing means more carpets to be fitted; more furniture and electrical appliances to be bought; more soft furnishings; more blinds; more kitchen utensils; more visits to DIY stores – the list goes on and on. So here is one area crying out for a massive growth strategy.
With interest rates at an historic low there was never a better time to take out a mortgage, if only the product was there at an affordable price.
What about infrastructure projects to which we are already committed? Surely these could be fast-tracked. The Olympic project has shown us what can be slung up in a remarkably short time frame.
And then there’s Boris Johnson’s pet project: the Thames Estuary Airport to complement Heathrow. The estuary project would not only send a powerful signal to the world that Britain is determined to get ahead of the curve business-wise and continue to host the world’s number one airport; it would also be a faith restoring project as well as, hopefully, the world’s most exciting and, perhaps even beautiful, airport. Even the green lobby would have to have all its boxes ticked.
In our efforts to get energy prices down – a very necessary prerequisite for growth – why don’t we and the rest of the struggling West release a large part of those strategic reserves of oil we all built up to fight the Cold War in the event that it became hot? And why, for that matter, are we pussyfooting about getting up the massive reserves of oil which lie all around the Falkland Islands? At a stroke it would make us oil self-sufficient and even allow us to make the European Union independent of Russian or any other single country’s oil. Imagine what clout that would give us in Brussels!
We could set up ‘Enterprise Zones’ in depressed areas with special tax breaks. There could also be NI exemptions for new start-ups as well as firms employing fewer than 50 who take on new employees.
Yet underpinning it all should be massive, irresistible pressure on the banks to make it all possible. And funnily enough, quite apart from the massive liquidity injected into the banking sector via quantitative easing (money printing), Britain’s big and medium-sized companies are sitting on a huge stash of cash, too frightened to spend it. Rather than wasting political capital debating House of Lords reform or gay marriage, the government must develop a more coherent business strategy to inspire confidence in the business community.
With the pound so much more competitive than before the crisis and historically low interest rates provided by our recapitalised banks, we are in so much better a place than our continental rivals who have yet to bite this most difficult of bullets. Altogether we have very much going for us, if only we could be brought to see it.
Growth can also come from the world beyond Europe which occupies 60% of our export market – some of which in the developing world is not in recession at all. In this regard we have a competitive advantage since much of what we have kept of our once mighty industrial capacity is now at the cutting edge – and consequently difficult for foreigners to poach – such as Rolls Royce aeroplane engines and other high-tech earners such as our renowned computer software sector.
While we do not exercise that hard power that we once deployed around the world any longer, we still deploy plenty of soft power. We punch far above our weight everywhere.
There is a huge amount of warmth and goodwill to be found towards us in the world. You have only to look at that great gathering of the Commonwealth of Nations every four years to see that. Nowadays you even have countries which were never part of the empire applying to join the grouping.
I do not see it as fanciful that one day Uncle Sam himself will wonder why he has not re-joined his original family. Perhaps there is some truth in what George Santayana, the famous Spanish-born American philosopher, poet, and humanist, said when he opined in the nineteenth century: ‘Never since the heroic days of Greece was the world ruled by such a sweet, just, boyish master’.
We are mad not to capitalise on all this. And the wheels have been greased for us by the world choosing to speak our language before any other. We don’t even have to take an interpreter with us.
For society to work we must have people whom we can respect and admire.
Every now and then we need a titan, and if the Nobel prize is any measure we’ve had them in disproportionate numbers. In former times, such people were to be found in the sciences, academia, the Civil Service, town halls, the Westminster village, hospitals, the military, the legal profession, the utilities – and yes, of course, the banks.
Of all of these – and there are still many more – only the military today continues to inspire our admiration. But today even our famed ‘James Bond’ Secret Service has been found seriously wanting (i.e. the spook in the bag scandal).
It is a sad state of affairs when we have come to conclude that they are all in it for themselves and are letting us down in the process. At the heart of it all is a me-me culture leading to the devil take the hindmost outlook. Is it not surprising, therefore, that there is a cynicism about such as we have not known before. The turnout at the recent by-elections does no more than reflect that.
Proposals for elected city mayors and police chiefs – which in ordinary circumstances ought to promise so much – have been greeted by a sceptical public as little more than another devious ploy to distract us and deflect our anger. We are not in a mood for more tinkering, and prefer to leave well alone rather than risk additional mayhem from people whose motives we have come to suspect.
Had these proposals come from leaders we had come to admire and trust, does anyone doubt that they would have been received differently? It would have been more a case of ‘well, if this is what they believe is for the best, then we ought at least to consider it seriously’.
Returning to the subject I covered last week – the continuing offensive behaviour of bankers – we are being forced to watch perfectly good businesses being allowed to go down the swanny because banks won’t help. Refusing to use taxpayers’ money – with which we’ve stuffed their gullets so full they are in danger of constipation – to fulfil their moral obligation to save small businesses from the recession they created, they insist on using it to recover from their gambling-induced hangover to begin another binge anew.
We have gone from the sublime to the gawd blimey. One minute they were throwing money at us as though it was of going out of fashion – we all remember the credit cards once raining down on us like confetti – and the next they are sitting on it like mother hens nursing their eggs. Such extreme gyrations were never going to be anything other than disastrous for the general public.
If business activity and growth are now in a trough of despondency, this is because people have finally wised up to reality and are now anxious to pay down the debts that the banks have profited on so greatly. But now that the party has stopped, the banks are being allowed to have their cake and eat it, too.
Having said all this about the banks, we should not forget our own shortcomings; how eagerly and irresponsibly did we succumb to their blandishments to ratchet up our own personal debt levels by taking out second mortgages and spending much more than we earned. And although many have come to realise they cannot continue living beyond their means, we can only hope and pray that once personal debts have been paid off people will not have lost the habit of spending!
But human nature being what it is – and the average chap being no match for these whizz kids of finance – it is not difficult to see who was going to win the argument of persuasion. This is where the government, and in particular the Bank of England and FSA, should have stepped in.
With personal debt levels higher as a proportion of GDP than any country in the developed world, and house prices rising at a rate much greater than wages, the signals were all on red alert.
With all the gloating over Labour’s local election successes this week, the public must not forget that the last government bears a great deal of responsibility for our present woes. How could ministers warn Joe Public against the dangers of excessive debt when they themselves were the standard bearer of borrowing to the hilt? Had they shown ‘prudence’ – Gordon Brown’s now pricelessly ironic sobriquet – then they could have warned against the dangers and taken measures to restrain it.
But as well as borrowing like there was no tomorrow, the last government increased the burden of the public sector payroll by no less than 64% during its time in office.
All we can say is that these hard times are teaching us some very hard truths. History, however, does show us one encouraging thing: there never was a recession that sooner or later did not yield to better days.
The financial crisis has all given us no end of a reality check. Let’s hope that in so doing it has taught us no end of a lesson.