Category Archives: UK
I recently visited the Little Harbour Children’s Hospice in Cornwall with my son, Grant, who has been giving his own time on weekends to teach staff and children how to use their new 3D printer.
Having spent my own childhood in care at the Foundling Hospital in more disciplinarian times, it was wonderful to see a real-life example of how childcare should be delivered. Unlike the children of my institution, who enjoyed good health in the main, tragically all of the young people passing through Little Harbour’s doors are afflicted with a range of life-limiting conditions. However, thanks to the love and dedication of the staff there, and the truly wonderful facilities and activities made available, these unfortunate children are enabled to live to the absolute full within the limitations of their conditions. The loving staff provide stimulating activities and organise daytrips for the children, and parents are able to stay there too for respite.
Little Harbour, along with many other children’s hospices, benefits from no state funding. The whole operation depends entirely on the generosity of members of the public. This generosity began at Little Harbour with a farmer who donated several of his precious acres to the cause of enhancing life-limited children’s quality of life.
I will be following this blog post up with a more in-depth look at the very fine work that takes place at Little Harbour, made possible by its many benefactors. In the meantime, if you are contemplating donating to a worthwhile cause, you really could do no better than Children’s Hospice South West.
Now that the Parliamentary Standards Committee has concluded that the allegedly sick Keith Vaz is restored to health, we hope it can get a move on in investigating his predilection for rent boys. He has, after all, been happily, and by all accounts healthily, swanning around the world while his case has been put on hold.
There never was, with the possible exception of Cyril Smith, a grosser example of a parliamentarian letting that august institution, his constituents and most of all his wife and family, down. The jury in this case can hardly be said to be out when there is video evidence to confirm the whole squalid affair.
Here is a middle-aged man who was assiduous in cultivating a caring, wholly decent image of himself while habitually engaging with young men barely out of their teens for sex. It’s ironic that the young men captured in the recordings were from the same country, Romania, that Vaz rushed to welcome off the plane in 2014 in that much-publicised photo op.
Every aspect of the case appals. The sex was unprotected so that, in selfishly gratifying himself, Vaz put at risk of life-threatening disease his unsuspecting wife. He lied about who he was, passing himself off as Jim, an industrial washing machine salesman. Then, in what I believe to be a serious criminal offence, he encouraged the youngsters to obtain Class A drugs, even offering to pay for them – as long as they hurried up as he declared himself anxious in the recordings to “get the party started”. That, in my book, is known as aiding and abetting.
Most of us want to believe that our parliamentary representatives are high-minded and honourable people. Certainly they like to be addressed as such. But what are we to make of a situation when, against all expectations, following the shocking revelations concerning him that weekend, Vaz nonchalantly and brazenly waltzed into the chamber of the House of Commons the next working day as though nothing had happened. Equally shocking was the reception he received. Instead of a hushed, disbelieving House, there were words of consolation and even back-patting. Were these from understanding and perhaps like-minded colleagues?
Vaz’s smarmy, polished mode of delivery speaks of someone anxious to be thought a thoroughly establishment, Anglicised figure. Unusually for someone born into a Muslim family, his father chose a galaxy of non-Muslim first names. Did dad think that his little boy would more easily gain acceptance by being called Nigel Keith Anthony Standish Vaz? It’s clear Keith never felt any embarrassment as he carried the pretentions and posturing to new heights with his obsessive grandstanding, networking and search for the photo op.
Vaz represents a constituency with one of the highest proportion of Muslims in Britain, Leicester East. In the light of this new scandal, how do his constituents square their faith with their unwillingness to deselect an MP who has betrayed them so outrageously?
And let’s not forget that, as Vaz was engaging in sordid, illegal activities, he was chairing the House of Commons Select Committee on Home Affairs while it was considering changes to the law relating to prostitution and drugs. Was there ever a case more screaming for the Mother of Parliaments to divest itself of an individual who has brought it into such disrepute? Judging from the welcome Vaz received that Monday morning in the Commons, it seems not.
As for that not-small-matter of the police ignoring prima facie evidence of ‘Aiding and Abetting’ a crime, is it that they’re running scared of going after a high-profile figure, especially if he’s not white, a Muslim and an MP? Does Vaz enjoy the same kind of immunity that has served rogue elements of his fellow Muslims so well in the sex grooming scandals in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxford and Telford (and who knows where else)?
Amazingly, in view of all the many shenanigans of recent times starting with the expenses scandal, we still want to hold onto that long-standing belief that British parliamentarians are a cut above the rest: men and women with the highest of principles who believe in setting an example. But how can we hold onto these hopes when such a character as Vaz is still not only tolerated, but welcomed and indulged in parliament as “the Honourable Member for Leicester East”?
We are currently embarked on a route and branch investigation of sexual abuse in all its forms. We are also determined, once and for all, to deal with sexual exploitation of women and men in the workplace. One gets the impression that parliament would like, in its own case, for this nasty, criminal business concerning Vaz to go away. But we must not allow it. The man has taken us all for fools. We have allowed him to stretch the limits of our patience to an extraordinary extent. The time is long overdue to stop indulging him. The police should reopen its file, his Leicester East constituency party should examine itself and Parliament should get on with booting Vaz out.
I voted to remain in the referendum of 2016. I did so because I believed that reform of the European Union would inevitably come and that, as a heavyweight insider, we would be one of its principal drivers. I believed that the world was moving towards bigger and bigger power blocks until all, in a distant future, morphed into a world government. I still consider, provided we manage not to self-destruct, that to be the likely outcome.
So why do I now believe that Brexit must be made the best of? First, it was the democratic will of the people. Second, for anyone with an understanding of history, there is no reason to believe that Brexit will be Britain’s undoing; indeed, it may very well achieve the reverse and force it to raise its game. Third, it is the one country in Europe which, because of the peculiarity of its circumstance, could take such a step with a better than reasonable chance of making a success of it. It may not seem so right now, but there is a self-confidence that exists nowhere else among its neighbours. Not one of them would dare contemplate a life beyond Mother Europe. Its perceived embrace smothers them to the extent that they will endure endless pain, à la Greece, and still cling to its coattails.
Why do I take this view? The reason is that Britain’s development has been significantly different. We are an island nation, much like Japan. While influenced hugely by what has happened on our adjacent continent – indeed, regularly interfering to prevent what we perceived as overmighty tyrants developing on our doorstep – we have insisted, nevertheless, on keeping our distance, once the business was done.
Europe’s strength, and its half-millennia dominance of the world, began when it broke the monopoly of the Silk Road’s route into and out of the continent to trade goods. It did this by acquiring maritime expertise and building ships which could withstand three-year voyages and the heaviest seas the natural world could throw against them. This allowed it to trade goods in bulk and without umpteen middlemen taking extortionate cuts along the way stations of the overland route. While this was going on, its fiercely competitive nation states benefited from an overarching and temporising religion, as well as a cultural and scientific breakout led by the city states of Italy which it called the Renaissance. Also, the creation of centres of learning in the universities along with their independence helped speed the process towards the Age of Reason. The rivalry between those city states held much in common with the rivalry that propelled the city states of classical Greece to greatness.
The race across the oceans to explore new riches and bring home old ones naturally favoured the countries with easy access to the Atlantic. That explains why the great maritime empires which came about consisted only of them: Portugal, Spain, England, Holland and France. The next race was to see which of them could become top-dog. In turn it was each. When the dust had finally settled it was England – now fortuitously called Great Britain because of its union with Scotland – which emerged triumphant.
With a revolution in both industry and commerce, a population explosion, vast trading networks and a navy which could see off all others, it is not surprising that Britons came to see themselves as a case apart. Because of their island protection, they had escaped the continental upheavals of rampaging armies and had become quite distinctive – again, much like Japan.
One of Britain’s great strengths is that it was always a pragmatic country. If it worked, adopt it; if it didn’t, ditch it. It was never much interested in dogma or political theorising. That is why it returned to monarchical government after the eleven miserable years of the Cromwell republic. But it made sure that the royal power knew, as a condition of its return, it could never again step out of line in the way the previously executed king had. The lesson was well learned.
Britain’s relative isolation, which fostered evolutionary rather than revolutionary progress – allied to its Protestant work ethic – was one of the reasons its efforts at establishing new countries was so much more successful than its Latin rivals. Compare, for instance, the outcomes for Spain and Portugal’s South American colonies to those of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Even when Britain went to work on existing countries, the institutions and infrastructure it left behind outclassed anything the Latins left in place, and that includes France.
Above all, Britain’s language had become ubiquitous, as had its ‘Beautiful Game’. That game, however, struggled in the heat of the Indian plains so another British game, cricket, is now played in many hotspots instead. Its playtime activities proved almost as alluring as the rest.
All of these and many more are reasons why we Britons should embrace our new future with optimism. Our forebears have sown an amazing legacy. Now is the time to harvest it.
Press freedom in Britain still cannot shake off the malign shadows of Max Mosley and other celebrities
Celebrities are unable to put behind them the exposure of their peccadillos – and worse – to a sometimes amused, but increasingly exasperated and angry public. Furious that government efforts to control the flow of information concerning them does not seem to be working, the Leveson-inspired Royal Commission on the Press comes back for another bite to the precious, 300-year-old cherry of press freedom.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a genuinely independent press regulator set up and managed by the press itself, is making a perfectly good fist of the job it has taken on. A huge majority of dailies and periodicals support it; only a timorous, browbeaten rump tow the government and Mosley-financed line. However, this is not acceptable to the proponents of government-approved IMPRESS, whose very name smacks of coercion (that is what we called civilians press-ganged from the streets and impressed into the anti-Napoleonic Royal Navy). Perhaps someone in the government service is into black comedy and hopes we ignoramuses will not be smart enough to see how they mock us, nor recognise their superior wit in demonstrating it.
The discredited Royal Commission regulatory body refuses, absolutely, to go quietly into the night and let the press get on with it. It’s as if it is outraged that any non-governmental body should have the temerity to stand up for itself and, worse, insist that it can do the job better and at no cost to the taxpayer. This last, though, would be the least of its concerns. The latest strictures involve tabling an amendment to the Data Protection Bill currently going through parliament, whose effect will be to make it easier for the rich and powerful to avoid being held to account. For all its occasional slip-ups, the venerable, 160-year-old former News of the World remains sadly missed. How many were the truly outrageous scams, scandals and criminal conspiracies uncovered during its long pursuit of wrongdoers?
Something deeply incongruous lies in the fact that, while the governing class is determined to raise the press and broadcasting bar of exposure of wrongdoing higher and higher, the internet is allowed to go on its merry way unregulated. But here’s the rub! Nothing in today’s world of Internet communication can be covered up either by High Court gagging orders or anything else. One lowly, public-spirited, disgruntled or mischievous whistle-blower, anywhere in the world, can blow the lid off at any time. Within minutes the whole farrago goes viral. When will an out of touch governing class realise that muzzling the press simply redirects a desperate-to-know public elsewhere? That elsewhere is the Internet, where pretty much anything can be said.
Perhaps in the Internet there is hope for the press and the public generally. Truth, as they say, will out. Though in times past the rich and powerful often saw to it that it didn’t, that no longer holds true. With the Internet there is no hiding place. Since our world became reliant on this form of communication, no one can ever again feel safe in their dirty little secret.
So last year it was the Panama Papers. This year the Paradise ones. Even our poor Queen has been dragged into the off-Shore expose, though I don’t doubt for a second that she had the least knowledge of what her thoughtless financial advisors were up to. But someone like Bono is different. That haloed advisor to kings and presidents, gullible enough to believe him sincere with something worth listening to, now knows differently. Both the halo and the ubiquitous, trademark shades have slipped. Perhaps at last the movers and shakers will stop paying homage to the Bonos and Geldofs of this world and press them to get back to the only thing they’re good at: their music.
As for the press, we must pray it continues to stand fast. Once the towering beacon of hope to editors worldwide, it is today the most heavily regulated in the democratic world. How typical that in the relatively trivial matter of a few press excesses – almost all later dismissed in the courts – the government jumped in with the sledgehammer of a Royal Commission. Where is the Royal Commission for that vastly more damaging banking scandal that threw so many millions worldwide out of work and from which we are still suffering. Outright criminality was at the heart of it and it involved trillions of pounds. And as for Royal Commissions themselves? They are nothing more than a convenient leftover – handy for a government seeking to show it is doing something – from the undemocratic days of king power.
If these latest amendments to the bill from that paragon of democratic values, the House of Lords, are allowed to pass then Mosley and his crew will have won. Whether or not IPSO’s heroics keep it out of the clutches of the government-approved IMPRESS, the press will be effectively muzzled. Under the guise of Data Protection and personal privacy laws, they will have found the back door to achieve their purpose. This cannot be allowed to happen.
The UK joined the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union, from a position of weakness in the early seventies – the sick man of Europe, so the country was called at the time. The package sold to Britain was that of a trading arrangement. Beyond the inner circle of continental Europe’s political elites, there was little to no talk of the true direction of travel, which has always been a United States of Europe.
The first signs of where the so-called European Project was really headed was the Maastricht Treaty in British prime minister John Major’s premiership. The final curtain raiser, during that of Gordon Brown’s, was the Lisbon Treaty. (Who can forget the unedifying way he waited to be the last to sign and went through the back door so as not to be photographed signing away his nation’s rights?)
Since the Maastricht Treaty, Brits increasingly formed the opinion that they were losing control of their country. As a once trickle of Brussels directives – which took precedence over British law – turned into a flood, Brits began to question the whole concept of EU membership. It was the erosion of sovereignty which I believe formed the bedrock of the opposition which finally stunned the world last year with their decision to quit.
High among the concerns of the Brexiteers, as those seeking to leave the project have come to be known, was their inability to determine who should come to live among them and how many. It was like saying that you had a house but no say in who could pitch up to stay in it and in what numbers. Just like that flood of pettifogging Brussels directives came a new flood, but one that took jobs from the least skilled and most disadvantaged in society. Cheap, plentiful labour was great for the professional and governing classes and, of course, the bosses, but not so great for those struggling to make ends meet.
Then there was the concept that a group of jurists in the European Court of Justice – many with apparent questionable legal experience – could impose their foreign, codified set of laws on the UK’s English common law legal system. English common law, built up assiduously over a thousand years, has become the most common legal system in the world and today covers 30% of the world’s population in 27% of its 320 legal jurisdictions. It should be no surprise then that Brits, with no little justification, were proud of their legal system and took offence at the idea that the European Court of Justice knows best.
This, I believe, was at the heart of concerns over Europe. For sovereignty covers almost everything, including who comes to live among us and who makes our laws.
Much as the British feel free to criticise their own parliament, they still find it objectionable that others from outside their borders can order them around – especially when those others have never subjected themselves to a British ballot box. Where democratic, sovereign nations are concerned, citizens should have the chance to turf their politicians out if there is a failure to perform or if they wish to try something different. There must be accountability.
So can the UK prosper outside the European Union? Although I voted to remain because I believed we could better influence reform of the EU from the inside, I have taken the view nevertheless that we can prosper outside. If there is any nation whose DNA shrieks global trade, it is Britain. The world’s first multinational company was founded by the British in India, growing so prosperous that it had to create its own army to protect its interests. Even the great Napoleon acknowledged that we were a nation of traders (he used the word shopkeepers, but in essence it’s the same).
I can understand why the countries of mainland Europe cleave together with none daring to contemplate a future outside the bloc. Theirs has been a distinct experience from that of the British. All have suffered the horrors of defeat and occupation down the centuries. We have not.
Brits may not bestride the world with hard power in the way they did a hundred years ago. But hard power in today’s world, as our American cousins have come to realise, does not work in quite the way it used to. Soft power is a different matter, however, and Britain has oodles of that. It reaches into every corner of the globe and the widespread adoption of English in official business helps to grease the wheels. The Commonwealth, which represents 31% of the world’s population – united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law – never wanted Britain to join the European Union in the first place. So, yes, it is entirely possible that we can thrive outside.
The same bracing winds which once filled the sails of Britain’s ocean-going merchant fleets may be just the winds needed to force us to raise our already decent game to new levels. We must fervently hope that is the case, for Britain is the one country in Europe whose situation has allowed it to stick two fingers up to the oppressive EU elites with any hope of getting away with it.
In the great debate about immigration, which at long last we are allowed to have, it comes down to a few basics. The grievances the public feel do not primarily concern where immigrants come from, the colour of their skin, their ethnicity or even their religion. It is about numbers.
When the Romans arrived two thousand years ago, it is thought that the population was a little under two million. It took 1,500 years for it to double. Since then – a period of five hundred years, beginning with the first Queen Elizabeth – it has risen sixteen-fold to 65 million. Just imagine if this were to go on. In the same relatively short period, it would have grown to a little over one billion, all packed on to this one small island. Apart from the absurdity of this idea, where would the resources come from to sustain such numbers when we cannot even resource the number we already have and are totally dependent on imports.
When Blair and his cohorts opened the floodgates to the whole world – not just Eastern Europe – he did so surreptitiously by branding anyone who dared to question what was going on a racist. He himself committed what his very own government had passed into law, a ‘hate crime’. Calling someone a racist who is not is just about as bad as it gets.
What, then, are we to do about the escalating numbers? Clearly we cannot continue admitting, annually, the equivalent of a city the size of Coventry or Leicester. Where will we find the money to provide for such numbers? There was never very much slack built into our public services. If we find ourselves struggling in so many areas, may that not be in large part because what slack there was has long since been used up?
Everyone needs access to hospitals, schools, public infrastructure and transport systems, and, yes, a roof over their head. If our young find it next to impossible to get on the housing ladder, it is largely because demand had outstripped supply and forced up prices to unaffordable levels.
I am a great believer in the benefits of immigration, as long as it is managed intelligently. I do not blame immigrants for our problems. I would certainly want to seek a better life for myself within this fortunate continent, especially if I were a member of the huddled, unskilled masses milling beyond Europe’s borders (their desire to come here actually stands as a huge compliment to what Europe has to offer). And isn’t that exactly what we did when we peopled so much of the world with our own, desperate millions?
Many insist that unless we admit large numbers of the young and fecund, we will rapidly have too small a workforce to provide for an aging population that is living longer than ever. There is also an argument to be made that immigrants help to address our refusal to have more babies and so fuel the drive to grow our economy.
But the answer to this must lie elsewhere, namely in raising our productivity. Ours, historically, has been very low and if we get to grips with this and are also selective in admitting clever, qualified people, then we will not need to crack the problem by importing ever more people. One way or another, the inflow has to be reduced. If we fail, then our quality of life will surely fail also. We absolutely have to go down the productivity route. Personally, I find it humiliating that so many abroad outproduce us. It was not always so.
One thing which may come out of this Brexit business is that the cold winds of standing alone again may release in us those forces which have served us so well in times past.
I still cannot get over the bravery it took to defy the massed ranks of the ‘experts’ who told us that we were about to commit the next best thing to suicide. The last time I can recall the experts getting it so horrendously wrong was when 365 economists wrote to Margaret Thatcher predicting doom for her policies. In fact, those very policies made it boom. May not Brexit do the same?
Had the Labour government of the day, when it took the decision to open the floodgates, embarked on a massive programme of infrastructure spending – at a time when we could afford it, 20 years ago – to accommodate the extra demands placed on the system then things would be very different today. But there should, first, have been a national debate to decide whether this was indeed what the nation wanted and whether it was prepared to see its national identity compromised. (There is also the small matter of whether a relatively small island was already crowded enough.) The fact is, the political classes were uncaring of what the public thought about these matters and, actually, were contemptuous of the answers they feared might come back. As always, they thought they knew best. But look at us now!
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?
On both sides of the Atlantic there is a dangerous disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. That is why, I suspect, such unlikely characters as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have confounded all expectations and caused us to believe that, in the current febrile atmosphere, virtually anything in politics can happen. The same disconnect can be said of the unelected and unaccountable gnomes of Brussels. At the moment we are cynically digesting the latest piece of hyperbole concerning the coming EU referendum and await with trepidation the next shocking apocalyptic revelation.
Genocide and war, they tell us, is a possible consequence if we make the wrong decision, as is a five-million rush to these crowded shores to swell our already ballooning numbers. The ten plagues of Egypt must surely be in the pipeline as the next possible item on the agenda. Which side will jump in with its own 21st century version of these horrors to scare the living daylights out of us is anybody’s guess. Is the public buying any of this nonsense? I suspect not.
Forecasts are notoriously unreliable. We spend billions worldwide trying to predict the weather and still we get it wrong. In the seventies, National Geographic featured scientists forecasting another ice age. In the 1920s, economists were convinced that a return to the gold standard would cure our economic woes. It made them worse. When Mrs Thatcher proposed her remedies, 364 leading economists signed a letter to say they would not work. They did. When the three party leaders, the entirety of the establishment and almost all the chattering classes said we should join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s, the ERM, they were wrong again. Many of the same group of know-alls also wanted us sign up to the euro and predicted doom if we did not. How lucky for us that we declined to listen to them. “We would be able to do our business in Afghanistan without loss of life,” said the defence minister. Nearly 500 died. 13,000 would come to us from Eastern Europe, said Labour. Over 1,000,000 did. When George Osborne proposed austerity, Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, rushed in saying he was “playing with fire.” We ended up with the highest growth rate in the western world and over 2 million new jobs created. The governor of the Bank of England said it would be necessary to put up interest rates when employment fell below 7%. It was not.
So much for the “experts” knowing what will happen. Why should we take any of their forecast seriously?
Referendums may seem like a good idea and, doubtless, they have their place in a working democracy, but they have a way of polarising society in a manner that general elections do not. Perhaps it is because they concern huge and generational issues, the results of which cannot be unpicked five years down the line when you realise you got it wrong. Whatever the reason, they seem to generate a level of bitterness unique to themselves. Remember the nastiness of some of the SNP zealots in 2014? Had I been a unionist at that time, I certainly would have thought it prudent to keep my head down and definitely not put a poster in my Glasgow flat window.
The truth is that whatever is decided on 23rd June, the show will go on and the good ship Great Britain Plc. will plough on much as it did throughout all those centuries before the European Union was even heard of.
At this moment in history it cannot be denied that the EU is going through a rough patch. The euro may yet implode; even moneybags Germany has not enough to save beleaguered Spain, never mind troubled Italy if the markets call time on them. The single currency was certainly ill-conceived and has massive problems which have yet to be addressed. As for the Schengen Zone – that great leap of idealism – it poses a huge security risk in this volatile, post-9/11 world and it could be dynamite, literally. The EU’s policies are driving extremism in Europe leading to the rise of neo-Fascist parties. In terms of job creation, the EU is currently a disaster area and its growth rates is abysmal (on both of these counts we are an exception). A good case, you might argue for the Brexit. Why cling to a loser?
At the same time, you might equally argue that to cut ourselves loose might be to put ourselves on the wrong side of history. As well as staying at peace, a continent united is obviously going to be able to make its voice heard loudly in the world and its trade deals carry enormous clout.
Europe’s whole history since Rome fell apart has been to find a way of getting back together again. Various of its more powerful states have sought to do it under their own hegemony, but that has been unacceptable to the rest. Europe’s glory, and you have to say achievement, today is that it has found a way of doing so largely by consent rather than by coercion. Yet unfortunately in many important areas it has messed up and its democratic credentials are seriously flawed.
Perhaps a vote to leave might provide the system with the jolt it needs to make it acceptable, not just to us but to others who do not wish to see their identity subsumed in a monolithic super state which wishes to homogenise them all into a blandness and make all Europe seem the same. If Europe is to succeed a way must be found to preserve its charming idiosyncrasies as well as a meaningful level of sovereignty for its nation states.
The Europe which we put our signature to almost two generations ago is not the Europe we are being asked to vote on in a few weeks’ time. Then it was all about trade, except that is wasn’t.
The European Common Market began its life as something of a confidence trick. The political classes knew from the very beginning that it was a political project designed to relegate the nation states of Europe to a subservient role. They had concluded that they were nothing but trouble and were the biggest single cause of its terrible wars.
Just the same they knew that the peoples of Europe were, almost without exception, lovers of the lands which bore them and felt a deep attachment to the cultures which had developed within their borders. Talk at that stage of a European Union might have frightened the horses and run the risk of it being still-born. So they had to tread carefully. A mighty trading bloc though? Well, who could object to that? We all want to improve our standard of living.
Thus was born the Common Market. Europe had always been strong on markets and the use of that word was perfectly designed to allay suspicions. They were content to play the long game. Stage one was to lock the lot in lucrative trade arrangements, recognising that nations doing the bulk of their business with each other could not, thereafter, easily break free.
Actually, the whole business had begun even before the Treaty of Rome with the creation of the Iron and Steel Community of France, Germany and the Benelux countries. The idea there was that you couldn’t go charging off with a secret re-armament programme, as Hitlerite Germany had done, if all your iron and steel came from a common source.
Europe had had enough of war and a system, so they reasoned, had to be created whereby future outbreaks would be next to impossible. Although there was nothing wrong about that, hadn’t the setting up of NATO nine years earlier achieved that? As Europe grew richer – helped in no small part by the generosity of Uncle Sam with his Marshall Aid programme – it became safe to move on to stage two of the project and chuck overboard that boring old, and grudgingly conceded title, Common Market. Now it became the European Community.
Still no feathers were ruffled, but the more discerning of us could see where the project was headed. Not long afterwards came the great European Union and all was plain to see. With that came the burgundy coloured passports that let us all know – in case naively, a few of us nursed any continuing illusions of national independence – that we were now part of a burgeoning superstate. The Euro was meant to be the final brick in the wall.
The reason all the member states, with the exception of Britain, had been so accepting of the project was that they believed that the nation state, through its inability to protect them from the ravages of war, had been discredited. Only Britain’s island status had saved it from occupation. It therefore had no reason to lose faith in the nation. It stood proud of its institutions and the fact that its Industrial Revolution had changed the face of humanity. Also its exalted former position as the world’s greatest empire made it harder for it to become just another brick in the wall.
But now we must decide: do we cut loose and regain that independence which has been lost, or do we stick with it and with the confidence of a major player work within the system to bring it to the democratic accountability which we Anglo Saxons insist on? We are far from being alone in wishing this.
The world is increasingly moving in favour of what may be called the Anglosphere with our language and business models reigning supreme. I do not doubt that Britain PLC could cut a swathe in the world, but do we want a mighty power on our doorstep which we are unable to influence?
Nevertheless, worries abound concerning immigration, which apart from putting all our public services under strain, has the power to change the character of our country forever. Much of the fury and distrust of the political class which drives the Trump presidential campaign in America is at work here in Britain. They never asked us, say the doubters, about immigration and they never asked us if we were willing to cede sovereignty. They seem only interested in looking after themselves. And as to what Europe was really all about that, well that too, was founded on a lie.
Although the EU was a work of the utmost deceit, we are where we are and we should not necessarily quit because of that. Perhaps the best reason to stay is a geopolitical one. Out of the EU, however brilliantly we handle our affairs, with a population of 64 million ours might end up being a forlorn voice crying in the wilderness.
It is not an easy choice to make. But then who ever said life was easy?
Remember Blaire’s apology for the Irish potato famine? Or Brown’s apology for our treatment of the Bletchley Park codebreaker, Alan Turing? How about his apology to the families of the 306 executed ‘cowards’ of WWI? This furore over Cecil Rhode’s Oxford University statue is another prime example of our breast-beating tendencies today. What nonsense it is to maintain that because ethnic minority students walk past a high-up – and out of the way – statue of the arch empire builder they are suffering a form of violence. Let’s grow up a little; this surely is over-egging it.
I am not saying that we should not be aware of what was done by us long ago around the world and, indeed, that much of it was wrong. It was even sometimes brutal. But that is to see it through today’s prism. George Washington was a slave owner and Elizabeth II tortured Catholics. Churchill excoriated Gandhi and the whole notion of Indian independence. He positively gloried in the British Empire. Are all his statues, worldwide, to be taken down, including the one in Parliament Square?
I can list many examples of terrible things done by our nation. I can also quote you many more carried out by other nations. Of course, that doesn’t make any of them right. It is simply to contextualise them.
The retreat from empire in the British case was orderly and largely peaceable. In France’s it was bitter and bloody. The First World War brought about an upsurge of nationalism. The genie was partially put back in the bottle after that war, but it burst out with a vengeance following the Second World War and there was no putting it back. Bankruptcy and the need to rebuild Europe convinced us that the imperial game was up. Others were slower to realise it.
Those undergraduate agitators should pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that their privileged Oxford education came courtesy of one of the undoubtedly good things that Rhodes did with his life: he donated an immense sum to the university. I know his detractors will leap in and say that it was wealth accumulated on the backs of poor, benighted Africans, and to an extent, this is true. But we are where we are and numbers of them are at least seeing some of it coming back to them. The fact is we cannot undo the past.
Nowadays we are much taken to apologising for our forefathers’ misdeeds and though I see no great harm coming from that I have to ask myself where it ends. Should Rome apologise to us for its soldiers flogging our Queen Boudicca and raping her daughters? It may, for all I know, be that it makes a few of our ‘victims’ feel better for our having owned up and taken sack-clothe. Perhaps the idea is not that at all, but to make us feel better about ourselves. The question then is whether we are actually achieving anything meaningful at all. Does it help to rake over old coals and give ourselves an unhelpful guilt complex?
If we were such a shower of cruel oppressors, why are our former colonies so anxious to maintain their links with us? Why do they play an active part in the Commonwealth club and travel from the far corners of the earth for its bi-annual jamboree? It is telling that the French have not been able to form such a club.
It can be argued that while we took much – especially from India in the early years – we also gave much. We irrigated huge swathes of the country which hitherto had never been brought under the plough by constructing 40,000 miles of canals. We gave it, too, the largest railway system in all Asia (another 40,000 miles.) We also built and surfaced roads and constructed the 2,000-mile Grand Trunk Road east-west with trees either side to shield its travellers from the Indian sun. We gave our former subjects throughout the Empire the rule of law. We gave the Indian subcontinent parliamentary government. We also saved myriad constructs and temples, including the Taj Mahal, and its ancient language, Sanskrit, by setting up the School of Oriental Studies. We gave them an education system, which they maintain with all its rigours to this day, and we gave them a free press. Oh, and we also gave them the greatest love of their lives, cricket. It has become the poor boy’s hoped-for route out of poverty; their equivalent of our premier league.
In the last century of our rule there we developed a strong conscience so that, when we stood in mortal peril in the two World Wars, they martialled the largest volunteer armies the world has even known to help us win them.
As well as the profiteers and exploiters of the early years, we later sent the brightest and best that our country has ever produced to govern it. The special public school, Haileybury – set up to train those administrators in the languages and culture of the sub-continent – was second to none with, created in its wake, the Indian Civil Service, the most dedicated ‘sea-green incorruptible’ system ever devised. Its entry examination had no equal on earth.
Without exonerating Rhodes for his excesses, he, like many others of his time, believed fervently that they had a duty to mankind to spread British values across the world. It may seem presumptuous, even arrogant to us today, but because the Industrial Revolution had so changed the face of humanity they believed, with their strong Christian faith, that they were the elect of God, chosen to lead the world to a better future. It was an understandable enough trap to fall into and any country finding itself in that position might well have believed similarly. In truth they did mean well.
So let the callow hot-heads who will take away that priceless Oxford degree show a little humility themselves. They are young and, for the moment, know little of the world. For our part we are content to stand on the record and let history be the judge.