Category Archives: UK
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.
How can we explain the ‘Collective’ madness that has taken over the Labour Party? I have just returned from lands of former Collectives (mega farms set up by the Communists) in Latvia and Lithuania, and I can tell you that Jeremy Corbyn’s much admired legacy to those once Communist countries is a nightmarish one.
The man might come across as a sincere idealist – not at all like the serried ranks of the career politicians so many disdain today – but the likes of Jeremy are the ones to fear the most. They are the zealots, cast in the mould of that ‘sea-green incorruptible’, Maximilien Robespierre, of the French Revolution. While on the subject of the quiet, softly spoken, hard-to-rile idealist, was not ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin exactly that sort of man? He, however had a term for the likes of sweet natured, but for us dangerous, men like Jeremy Corbyn; useful idiots.
And while an old geezer, myself, isn’t it a bit odd that so many young people appear so much in love with old geezer Corbyn? It’s all a little perplexing. If I were to make a guess as to part of the reason – and in life there are, more often than not, many reasons – I would say it is illustrative of the depth of public disenchantment with the political class. And when a man comes forward, however misguided, who is clearly a man of conviction and seems authentic, the young grab at him.
Another factor, surely, is the complete absence in the Labour leadership contest of what we like to call the ‘big beasts’. They’re all minnows. Alan Johnson might have qualified for that sobriquet, but he doesn’t want to know. Perhaps he’s canny enough not to risk losing his sanity in trying to bring together such a disparate band of brothers in what he might view as a poisoned chalice.
Then there’s that totally toxic Blair legacy. We won’t speak of the horrors of the Iraq war or the dodgy dossier that deceived us into sanctioning an illegal war, but there is such a litany of other failed measures that found their way on to the statute book that I might cause you to develop apoplexy half way through were I to attempt to list them all.
His favourite ‘Blair Babe’, Tessa Jowell, loves pontificating and acting as cheer leader for the Bambi project, but she would be better advised finding some stone to crawl under. It was she, who as Culture Secretary, allowed round-the-clock drinking, which has turned all of our city centres into no go areas for the majority of people at weekends. Worst of all the things she did was to promote online casino gambling – that egregious, family-wrecking Act which flies in the face of everything the titans of Old Labour stood for. These titans were high-minded men of probity, who among their other fine and compassionate qualities was a determination to uphold individual dignity and family life. Gambling was anathema to them.
Despite Corbyn’s phenomenal rise against the odds, one or other of his pigmy opponents may yet come through in the race to succeed disastrous Ed Miliband. But even if that were to happen, what does the whole business tell us about the present state of the Labour Party? Could a split prove terminal?
We have grown so used to a duopoly of political power that we could be forgiven for thinking that Tories and Labour are a permanent part of the political landscape. But even in the 20th century this was not the case. The party of Lloyd George seemed just as permanent on the eve of World War One. For much of the previous century, that Liberal giant of principled government, William Gladstone, bestrode the political firmament. Then, after Lloyd George, the party became an irrelevance. Following their brief re-appearance and engagement with power under the recent Coalition, they have again sunk back into irrelevance. Is it now, as a result, a return to business as usual? Not necessarily.
Whether Corbyn succeeds or not, what his extraordinary success has shown is the deep schism within the Labour Party. It may prove unbridgeable. Certainly it will take more than any of the lightweights on offer to heal the wounds of what is turning out to be a bitter, acrimonious fight. Tories may gloat over what is going on, but they would be wrong to do so. Any properly functioning democracy needs an effective Opposition. You cannot expect the media to perform this role alone, splendid though it is in exposing maladministration and wrongdoing. (How incredibly right it was to resist Leveson’s proposals to muzzle it. Do you seriously think the establishment would have allowed itself to be investigated for child abuse had those proposals gone through?)
There is now, as I see it, a chance for a regathering of the forces of the sensible Left to challenge an overweening government. Essentially the Liberal Democrats are a left-of-centre party. Were they to throw their lot in with similarly minded elements in the Labour Party, it could consign forever to the dustbin of history that Trotskyite wing of Labour that so bedevils its chances of regaining the trust of the British people.
It might, in the process, appeal to those many citizens north of the border and in Wales who still have faith in a Union which has shone so brightly for so long and raised us, a small people, so high among the nations of the earth.
How to explain last Thursday? Reading people’s minds is far from the exact science the pollsters would like to pretend they have made it. And reading British people’s intentions may be the toughest nut of them all to crack. G.K. Chesterton had it right when he wrote:
Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget,
For we are the people of England, that never has spoken yet.
Hells bells, the people spoke alright last Thursday. They did it in the privacy of the polling booth. It was almost in the nature of a raised finger to those battalions of know-it-alls who told them how they were going to vote. There may also have been an element of bloody-mindedness in that decision which ended up stunning the world. Yet it wasn’t, in my view, an innate shyness to tell or an enjoyment of being a spoiler that was at work, but a cold hard appraisal of what was at stake.
Harold Wilson may have said that “a week is a long time in politics,” and so it is. But for all that, people weren’t readily going to forget an event of even six years before – when the cash points were within forty-eight hours of running dry and salary transfers could not have been made to banks. It was as dire a situation as it is possible to imagine. That same government of Gordon Brown had not long before given them an almighty fright by getting into a dispute with tanker drivers so that food, itself, was also within forty-eight hours of running out in the supermarkets. We got to realise, for the first time, how slender were the stocks they held and how utterly dependent they were on a fast turnaround.
Now they were being asked to give their trust to the same group of people who were at the helm at that time and who had gone on to display a level of fiscal incontinence unique in British politics. They thought about the man who was asking us to make him prime minister and the Damascene conversion he had made at the last minute to fiscal rectitude. The difficulty was that they had trouble believing him; he was still so purblind that, to the very end, he couldn’t bring himself to concede that the previous government, in which he had played an important part, had borrowed too much (it was all the fault of those damned foreigners he intoned ad nauseam… the worldwide credit crunch and all those wicked bankers). Every country had suffered, so he maintained.
The problem was that those countries which had not got themselves into debt were able, largely, to cope with the crisis without massive programmes of austerity. These and many other thoughts went through voters’ minds in the run up to the big day and even in the polling booth itself. A huge question mark hung over Miliband in particular as he just did not seem prime minister material – and certainly not when compared to the smooth, polished Cameron. This perception was reinforced by his opportunistic and silly decision to go and talk to Russell Brand. That garrulous, machinegun-like spouter of nonsense was the last person in the world calculated to reassure a worried public. And then there was that Ed Stone. ‘Oh, dear,’ thought the electorate. Where were the armies of special advisors that let that one go through?
It may have been some silly Yank’s idea, but gullible, unworldly Ed thought it a great one. What was he thinking? Talk about hubristic presumption. It must have been ordered weeks before it was unveiled, all 2.6 metres and £30,000 worth of it. And the monster wasn’t going to be installed at Labour party headquarters, but in the rose garden of Downing Street, for God’s sake.
Did he seriously think that future prime ministers – and, hell, we had not made him that yet – would want their lovely, sweet-smelling roses cast into perpetual shadow by such ‘monumental’ nonsense? And what about planning permission? Had he thought about that? After all, Downing Street is a listed building. Perhaps after he’d brow-beaten them into submission he intended to take it with him at the end of his long, glorious term of office and have it installed on the unused plinth at Trafalgar Square. How the episode plays to the blog post I once wrote 3 ½ years ago about the fall of Dominic Strauss Kahn titled ‘The Foolishness of Clever Men‘.
At the end of the day the great British public saw no sense in imperilling the undoubted progress that had been made in stabilising the economy, and they certainly didn’t want a cantankerous tartan army descending on London, gurning all the time about how hard done by they were and demanding ever more Danegeld. Nor did that public relish the thought of the slippery, cocksure Alex Salmond appearing once more out of the Scottish mists like the ghost of Banquo. It would have been unbearable were he to have ended up de facto deputy prime minister, slipping in and out of Downing Street at will and browbeating a hapless Miliband.
Finally, in an ever more competitive world people did not see that it made sense to drift back into left-wing policies that had been tried umpteen times and always found wanting. Not a single Labour administration had ever left office without the public finances being in an unholy mess. The people understood that, for the security of their jobs and the wellbeing of their country, a business-friendly mind-set was key.
So convinced was I, as well as another member of my family, that these ‘neck and neck’ polls were nonsense that we placed a £50 bet each on a clear Conservative majority (at 15:2 odds) and won a total of £830. Our mantra should always be to trust the people; they get it right most times, whether it be General Elections, Strictly Come Dancing or X-Factor.
It is a strange thing to reflect on the fact there were once people who would have killed me if they could and that as a young man I was shot at. It was the last lot of the ‘Troubles’ with the IRA before the final bout broke out which ended with the ‘Peace Process’. Then civilians were not targeted – just the police and the military – and I was a National Serviceman.
After that I returned to the cut-throat world of commerce (managed to get sacked three times) before, at twenty-seven, going into business on my own and remaining there to the grand old age of seventy-five whence I am still contributing my penny’s-worth. In that period before I struck out on my own, I worked for nine different employers.
What causes me to return to those times is what strikes me as the glaring contrast between my own round-the-block experience, shared in varying degrees by many (though not perhaps the shooting and sackings) and the utter lack of worldliness between us and the very many callow people who govern us. Apart from having, in so many cases, little to draw on, they come up with plans to spend umpteen billions of pounds in a manner that suggests our money is almost monopoly money. Few, if any, have any serious costing experience, much less have run large companies be it their own or other people’s.
In my ideal world no person should be able to put themselves forward for public office such as an MP below the age of thirty-five nor do so without experience of a genuine job outside the world of politics. No person could, for instance, become Minister of Defence without a military background, nor Chancellor of the Exchequer without accountancy skills, nor Health Minister without medical or health service expertise, nor take charge of education if he or she knows nothing of the world of academia. Strangely, the one area where we do apply such thinking is the law. Lord Chancellors, Attorney Generals and Justice Ministers have all had to be lawyers.
What I would never allow to happen is for a student of politics or any other university discipline to be parachuted straight into the Westminster bubble of a think tank, policy unit, special advisor or any other similar make-work prop. Most bizarrely, as many people thought at the time, we once had a transport minister (Barbara Castle) who didn’t know how to drive. I realise that such rarefied thinking may be thought by many to be unattainable, unrealistic and even naive, but it seems sensible to me to aim towards drafting people into a job who are already half way to understanding it and who have acquired hard-won expertise in the field.
If they come to the job with the right background, they should be left to get on with it. Constant reshuffles – which have been a feature of governments of all hues – is inimical to rapid progress. In this respect Cameron’s administration has been unusual. Real expertise has been built up in many important departments of state with ministers left in situ for an entire parliament. Look at the long-serving and successful Theresa May at the Home Office, long regarded as the graveyard of the aspirant politician. See, too, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and Ian Duncan Smith, the Minister of Work and Pensions. Then there is Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, and most famously the Chancellor, George Osborne. Even the controversial Michael Gove at education was left long enough to get on top of his brief and effect his own mini revolution.
Considering the constraints which coalition government by their nature impose, it is surprising how much has been achieved. Welfare, education and the economy – with the independent Office of Budgetary Responsibility – can be said to be entering a new era.
What do the government’s opponents have to offer? The latest is rent control. I am no friend of landlords, but I have to accept that we can’t do without them and that, in fact, rental forms an essential cog in our housing needs. Ed Miliband’s populist wheeze here is a busted flush. It’s been tried before and it doesn’t work. First it sets up a whole new expensive bureaucracy and all to no avail since his proposals can be easily circumvented. His interference in the market would, however, be guaranteed to worsen the situation of the very people he purports to help, in the same way as his capping of energy bills when oil and gas was at an all-time high. It was like when Gordon Brown sold off half our gold reserves only to see the price of gold double within months. Socialists, sad to say, are not strong on economics even if their hearts, in most cases, are in the right place.
As for Miliband himself, he daily reveals himself to be in the Michael Foot mould. Just look at the ridiculous stone monolith he plans to erect in the garden of Number 10, no doubt inspired by his new anti-capitalist pal Russell Brand. Perhaps it was all those years at the knee of his Marxist father who turned his house into a debating parlour for Communism, inviting the likes of Foot, Benn, Eric Hobsbawn as well as the traitorous – as it later turned out – union baron, Jack Jones, who was in the pay of the KGB.
David Cameron is lacking in many things, but he’s much less dangerous to the economic wellbeing of our country than the unreconstructed son of the LSE Marxist lecturer whom we rescued from the Nazis (he was Jewish) and who then went on to warp the thinking of a generation of young people including, it appears, his own son.
No one has better reason to hate the heartlessness, secrecy and institutionalised privileges of the ruling classes of this country than I do, but I’ll tell you this: if we place our future in the hands of such a master opportunist and dissembler as Ed Miliband then we will have taken leave of our senses. He refuses, even now, to concede that the government in which he played an important part borrowed too much. (I am not interested in how he looks or sounds; we have had great leaders who scored on neither front.)
My own business has been punished grievously and, after twenty-one years, I find myself holding on by the skin of my teeth. We do not want, nor can afford, left-wing experiments at a time like this, especially when we have so narrowly escaped a catastrophe which he and his master’s policies inflicted on us only five short years ago and which have been the cause of so much suffering.
I will finally, and unapologetically, make this observation: I do not think it was outrageous that a minister made reference recently to the younger Miliband’s behaviour towards his brother. It was what most people thought and the ‘appalled’ reaction of Labour apologists as well as certain sections of the media I consider was entirely contrived. There are not many brothers who would do to their sibling what he did to his. In my view it speaks of something I do not find edifying. It had a devastating effect on their aging mother and he must have known that would be the case.
I have written four articles on the ‘King under the Car Park’ – Richard III – and this must surely be my last. The juxtaposition between a car park and a medieval king is a strange one. In his wildest dreams the dead king could not have imagined such a scenario. For a start, neither he nor anyone else at that time could have got their heads round car parks, much less the horseless carriages which were stabled there. As for those carriages being able to hurtle forward at unimaginable speeds, it would all have been too much for him. Just as amazing would be the fact that almost all the future subjects of his realm would own one and would be able to travel in perfect comfort and quiet on surfaced roads from one end of his kingdom to the other in hours. His bumpety, bump, clacktity, clack journey would have taken weeks.
It was the longest of long shots that led Philippa Langley, the Scottish Secretary of the Richard III Society, to Leicester’s city centre car park. For years she had obsessed about finding the only English king with no known burial place. They knew he wasn’t buried on Bosworth Field, the battlefield where he was cut down following his Victoria Cross-like heroics. His body was stripped naked and slung over a horse and paraded the fifteen miles to Leicester. That much was known.
Rumour had it that he may have been interred in a long vanished monastery. Others said that his body had been thrown in the river Stour. Yet more, that it was a mystery which would never be solved.
Philippa Langley – the hero of our tale – backed the monastery theory. I imagined she reasoned that although they weren’t going to give him a king’s funeral – usurper and murderer of his child nephews as they alleged him to be – they were most likely to hand his brutalised remains over for burial in consecrated ground such as a monastery.
Furthermore, Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian winner of the battle that unseated him, knew that if he was going to keep his newly won crown he would need to reach an accommodation with the Yorkists. Denying one of their own, a Yorkist prince of the realm – and an anointed king at that – a Christian burial was going to make that next to impossible. There would have been outrage in the Yorkist camp. Even a sinner, if that is what he was, was entitled to the sacraments and Richard’s frenzied, pitiless killers knew that. And even the meanest in the land took their Catholic faith extremely seriously at that time. Hell and damnation awaited anyone who offended against God’s law in a matter like that.
So Philippa’s hunch had a good chance of being the right one. By great good fortune the whereabouts of the monastery – although it was entirely gone – was known to the city authorities. By equally great good fortune – since it was city centre – it had no buildings over the site. That would have totally scuppered any excavation.
Philippa set about raising the considerable sums needed for a major archaeological dig. She also set about rallying the support of city authority who owned the car park, as well as its university which had the disciplines in all the relevant fields to cover the extensive research needed if she was to succeed in finding and authenticating the missing king.
It was all not so much a ‘whodunit?’ as a ‘where is it?’ affair. Both Leicester City and the university realised that success would bring massive rewards in terms of PR and tourism and put both on the map worldwide like nothing they had ever done before.
Even so, a very big if hung over the whole enterprise and a fiasco seemed much the likeliest outcome. Heavy industrial plant moved in on the site ready for the opening day of the dig. All stood prepared to excavate the entire car park if necessary. Every square metre of ground material would have to be carefully sifted. No one expected a quick result. All were steeled for plentiful egg on their faces.
Step forward our hero. “Where shall we begin?” asked the foreman of works. “There, where it says R,” indicated Philippa, pointing her finger. She had months before said, “the first time I stood in that car park the strangest feeling washed over me. I thought I am standing on Richard’s grave.”
In a particular part of the car park was a bay with a big R for reserved marked on it and it seemed as good a place as any to begin. Minutes passed after the tarmac was lifted and the subsoil carefully brought up. And like something yanked straight out of fiction, that very spot yielded a result. At only about three feet down a femur came into view. Though gratifying, that in itself was not cause for jubilation. The evidence was strong that this was where the monastery had been and that this was the area where bodies most likely had been laid to rest.
Following the sighting of the femur, more earth was removed. This time not by plant but gingerly by trowel. Then more excitement as the spine came into view. As the troweling moved up the spine from its base, a shriek was heard. The spine was veering off to one side from the vertical. It carried all the hallmarks of scoliosis – a curvature of the spine – just like Richard was said to have.
This was all too good to be true, even though their hopes were tempered by the knowledge that scoliosis was not that rare. They had managed to establish that it was a man. But did this man die violently? Then the skull was reached and there was exultation. Clear, unmistakable signs revealed that the deceased had died in battle. It was a Eureka moment for everyone, but most of all for Philippa. Tears welled up in her eyes.
Much had yet to be done forensically to authenticate beyond all question, but she had no doubt that her long search was over. A man, born in Canada, would later prove through DNA that the skeleton was of Plantagenet origin. The rest is history. One of the greatest hunts in all of archaeology had come to an end.
Four days of ceremonies will begin on 22nd March. There will be an honour guard of mounted soldiers and a 21-Gun Salute at the battlefield; two hundred children will display medieval, pennants they’ve designed; and four horses will draw the brake on its final journey to the cathedral where it will go on display before the final laying to rest of a monarch who fell in battle 530 years before. How the Tudors would have hated it all.
As for the TV broadcaster covering the event, it has gone bonkers. It’s been said there will have been nothing quite like it since television hit the airwaves. Britain’s reputation for eccentric, yet moving, theatre will have received a mighty shot in the arm. Quite what the rest of the world will make of it no one knows. They’re gobsmacked at it all, yet captivated. And they’ll all be watching.
The present monarch should have attended the reinterment. That much will be very apparent when she sees how her people have risen to the occasion. Richard’s own vile treatment in death will at least have been washed away by a £2.5 million effort of repentance by a remorseful people.
It seems to me that we have no other credible option but to return the current government to power in May. The alternative imperils the undoubted progress that has been made and just seems too much like a leap in the dark. As to whether we return the Conservatives with a working majority or oblige them to seek an accommodation with their present partners… that, for the moment, cannot be predicted. They may be forced – hold your breath on this one – to seek an accommodation with Labour if that party, as seems likely, is obliterated in Scotland. Oddly, for a coalition, it has been surprisingly radical in the hot potato issues it has tackled. The Liberal Democrats may have helped keep the more swivel-eyed Tories in check and were certainly right in making it a condition of signing up that the lower paid be taken out of tax altogether. It was always an affront to justice that tax was levied at such an obscenely low level of income. But now we learn that the fully converted Tories are planning to take the process a step further in the forthcoming budget and steal some of the Lib Dem’s clothes by taking the same people out of National Insurance contributions and paying for it by reducing concessions to better off pension contributors. That looks like a surprisingly egalitarian measure which will help allay the perception that the Tories only look after the rich.
If it is true that elections are decided first and foremost on the state of the economy, then we would be hard put to gainsay the achievements of the present incumbents. They came to office in about as dire a situation as it possible to imagine. In fact the country was teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe.
For years we had allowed ourselves to live beyond our means, forgetting that age-old truth that you cannot spend more than you have the guts to raise in taxation. A balanced budget was never, so to speak, a lifestyle choice and sound money should always have been at the heart of any government’s considerations. Once it has taken care of these then it should go hell for leather for an enterprise economy.
In thinking where we are to cast our vote in May, let’s take a look at some of the core issues and see if we can make a balanced judgement. Business is not everything, but it is something we have to get right if we are to become prosperous enough on a personal level and yet have enough left over to fund a compassionate society.
Recently the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – one of the world’s most respected forums – positively gushed at our efforts, lavishing praise on the economic turnabout we have enjoyed over the past five years. Far from being the basket case that our perilous situation seemed set to consign us to, we are, so it seems, a “textbook” example for economic success: the most go-ahead enterprise economy currently in the developed world.
Moreover, it isn’t just the OECD saying these things – it’s just about everybody, including the International Monetary Fund. Christine Lagarde, its CEO, has said that “Britain is an example to the world and is leading it in a very elegant and convincing way.” That’s praise indeed, especially coming from the woman who only two years ago trembled at the possible consequences of what the Chancellor was doing. So gutsy ‘Boy George’ has been vindicated and proved right all along. I don’t remember so many economic pundits getting it so wrong since 364 wrote to Mrs Thatcher predicting certain doom for her policies back in the early eighties.
And balancing the books? Well, we’ve got some way to go on that but the direction of travel is the right one and the deficit is on the way to being halved. With business confidence soaring and GDP expanding, tax receipts will balloon and we will find ourselves in a virtuous circle in which even paying down the national debt will become easy.
What about our currency? Well, it doesn’t get more trusted than when you have convinced the money markets that you are a “textbook” example and “leading the world both elegantly and convincingly”. In these circumstances your purchasing power remains strong and national borrowing costs nosedive, along with the dole queue. Against all received wisdom, job creation in the UK has leaped ahead during this recession, with jobs created running at twice the rate of lay-offs in the public sector. Here, again, Osborne’s prediction has confounded critics. Perhaps the most graphic proof that you now enjoy a strong currency is to be found when you next go abroad. Your money will go an unbelievably long way. Also, the imported goods you buy will mysteriously start getting cheaper as less and less of your precious dosh needs to be handed over to Johnny Foreigner. And all this hasn’t been brought about – as it usually has been – at the price of being forced by poor management of the economy to hike your interest rates. Indeed, the reverse is true: they are at an all-time low and likely to remain so for some time yet.
Then there’s the ever important matter of inflation. Like all the rest, we are in a very good place here. And while some people worry about the dangers of deflation, this seems unlikely to happen in our case. The reason is that pay rises are now running – thank goodness – well ahead of inflation (six times) and this will edge inflation up and so prevent a downward spiral of falling prices which cause people to hold back purchases in the belief that things will get cheaper still. In Europe, with growth remaining stagnant, only a minority in the efficient north is getting a pay rise (and then not much) and so there is not the pressure from this direction to force inflation to rise. While ours can be said to be a virtuous circle, theirs is a vicious one.
So, in all these extraordinary circumstances, why is the governing party not seeing the benefit in the polls? It is a very great mystery. On the face of it, getting re-elected should be a shoo-in. In normal circumstances, economic success translates into electoral victory. However, these are not normal circumstances and this is not an iron rule. Ask John Major. When he faced Tony Blair in 1997 we were doing so well we were even paying down the national debt and – until Gordon Brown sold off half at fire sale prices – our gold reserves stood almost at a post-war high. Gold, then, had hit rock bottom, but within no time had shot through the roof. What made the man do it? Nobody knows and Brown won’t tell us. Perhaps we should ask the would-be Chancellor, Ed. Balls. Ed was his hatchet man at the time. Anyway, the upshot of it all was this little exercise cost us billions.
Before that happened – and when New Labour took over – their inheritance was, in the truest sense of the word, a golden one. Blair and his surly, Heathcliff-like Chancellor, then proceeded to throw it all away. To reassure the country and the City to trust their fiscal rectitude, they pledged to keep to Tory spending plans for two years. When, later, New Labour called time on that irksome arrangement, Brown, together with his side-kick – who hopes to move into the Treasury again in May – went on an epic spending spree. Borrowing like never before, they displayed a level of fiscal incontinence rarely if ever seen in British politics.
With unmatched hubris, Brown – the man who doubled the size of the Revenue and Customs guide book so that only the largest and most expensive accountancy firms could fathom its complexities – shouted to the rafters, budget after budget, that he had solved one of the economic cycle’s greatest mysteries: how to avoid boom and bust. Later on he would let slip in the Commons how he had ‘Saved the World’ during the time of the credit crunch. The wonder is that some fool in Scandinavia didn’t find a Nobel Prize to award him… one as daft as that Save the Children award to Tony Blair, which was, actually, hugely insulting.
While we may find much to criticise in the ‘posh boys’ who make up much of the present cabinet, they have in most respects delivered. Quite apart from the economy, we all knew that the welfare system was a busted flush in desperate need of root and branch reform. It had encouraged a malaise of worklessness in which many had come to believe that they had a perfect right to live off their neighbour’s taxes if they were daft enough to get up on a cold winter’s morning and go off to graft for the stinking, exploitative capitalists. It also turned a goodly proportion of fundamentally honest people into cheats and fraudsters. Then, again, in education we each knew that our parents had enjoyed a sounder education in the basics than we had, and that all the certainties which had made that possible had been thrown out of the window by the fanciful, misguided notions of the teachers’ training colleges and their ilk. Discipline was also a casualty of all that trendy thinking. Meanwhile our kids slipped ever further down the international league table of academic excellence.
Another thing we all knew was that an insatiable public sector was not only looking after itself too well at the rest of the nation’s expense, but that it was gobbling up an unsustainable amount of its wealth.
It therefore is a puzzle that a government which has successfully bitten so many unpalatable bullets is struggling to get its message across. They were bullets so toxic that no government before had had the balls to bite on them. Perhaps the coalition was stiffened in its resolve to do so by the opportunities presented by the worst recession in 100 years.
Finally… what about fixed term parliaments? Another of the measures brought in by this unexpectedly reformist government. They may have many drawbacks, but one decided advantage is that there is ample time to examine the record and forensically explore the proposed alternatives. Springing a surprise election when things are temporarily looking good, but you know they are not going to stay that way was an old trick. A three-week campaign denies your opponents the time needed and allows you to work a flanker. That ruse is now firmly off the table.