A week ago I had a rendezvous with twenty students from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The meeting had come about after a professor at the distinguished university, Maren Niehoff, who lectures in the humanities, had stumbled upon my book while visiting London’s renowned Foundling Museum last year. She enjoyed my story so much, and found it so relevant to her course, ‘The Individual and Society’, that she decided to make The Last Foundling required reading for her elite students in Jerusalem alongside the meditations of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence. It goes without saying that I was utterly blown away when I learned of the company I was keeping as an author!
Professor Niehoff emailed me following her visit to the museum to ask if I would like to meet her students at the museum on 29th March, following a visit she had arranged to Oxford University, where Maren had studied in her youth, to talk about my experiences growing up in institutional care at the Foundling Hospital with reflections on my struggles adjusting to society after I left it at fifteen.
Known at its inception as the Foundling Hospital, Coram is still committed to improving the lives of the country’s most vulnerable children and young people after nearly 300 years of operation and is, in fact, the world’s oldest registered charity (it was renamed Coram after the institution’s closure). The original Foundling Hospital had been set up by a seafaring philanthropist called Captain Thomas Coram who obtained, after seventeen years of intense lobbying, a Royal Charter from King George II in 1739 to provide for the care and education of illegitimate and deserted children.
I thoroughly enjoyed answering the students’ questions about my story, relating a little of my life through those years of challenge and lovelessness, and I felt it to be a great privilege and honour to meet Professor Niehoff with her wonderful young students. Happily, I was among the very few foundlings who managed to locate their family and enjoy considerable success in the years that followed. I’ve uploaded a collection of photos taken by my younger son, Grant, of the visit below.
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?
Trump has called Hillary many things in times past. He maintains she is ‘crooked’ and can never be straight with the American people, either in her business dealings or her period as Secretary of State. He believes, as we Brits like to say, that she is not a ‘fit and proper person’ to have charge of the destiny not just of her own nation, but that of the entire free world. He also holds that she represents the dark heart of the politico-economic system that he believes so oppresses the American nation. Now The Donald has found his ace in the hole: her very fitness to govern in the literal sense.
When called to the colours long ago as a humble National Serviceman, my countrymen proposed putting a gun in my hand with a license to use it against our country’s enemies – of which at that time there were many. But first they were going to ensure my competence, both mentally as well as physically. To that end I had to undergo a rigorous medical. They needed to know that I would be up to supporting my comrades, whose lives might depend on my actions. Any suspicion that I could fail at the crucial moment would have disqualified me.
The President of the United States operates on an altogether different plane. He or she, as Head of State as well as Commander-in-chief, has the lives and well-beings of countless millions as a responsibility. Physical as well as mental health is a crucial job requirement. The finger that hovers over the nuclear button must be up to it.
After this weekend, Hillary Clinton would be foolish to think that she can wave it all away with an unfunny joke, as she has done in the past over health issues. She is asking, on the strength of her say-so, that the American people trust her in the matter.
These are perilous times we are living through. The end of the imagined peace dividend that victory in the Cold War would bring us now seems a distant chimera. An ever more assertive Putin in the Kremlin is joined by an almost deranged Kim Jong-un in North Korea, who in quick succession last week loosed off three ballistic missiles, while Syria burns. Hillary has been gung-ho for years to impose a no-fly zone over that country. While that might have made sense three years ago, with Russian jets now crisscrossing its skies daily such an imposition at this time could unleash a big power conflagration. The stresses of such a build -up of tensions would almost certainly bring on one of Hillary’s fits.
The truth is that it is just not good enough that the Americans and all the rest of us should have such worries concerning one individual’s health and fitness for purpose. Hillary must be prevailed on to submit herself to an independent panel of health experts or, at the very least, make her very latest, up-to-date medical records available for inspection.
In my view it is an open question whether she can survive the next two incredibly gruelling months of presidential campaigning. I said as much back in May when I wrote about Hillary and her questionable health on my blog. Now it is out in the open. If she steps down, or is forced to do so, who will take her place? Would good ol’ Joe Biden, Obama’s Vice President, step up to the plate to save the nation and possibly all the rest of us? Although there was talk of him throwing his hat into the ring during the primaries, I wouldn’t bet on that one. Bernie Sander’s devoted and almost messianic followers would be incandescent with rage were that to happen. Quite rightly, they would argue that, democratically, their man is the heir apparent. So Ultra-Left Bernie – the US’s own Jeremy Corbyn – would end in the ring against The Donald.
In that event would anyone care to place a bet against the world waking up one November morning, just a few weeks from now, to a President Donald Trump?
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.
Amidst all the who-ha over Ken Livingstone’s assertions about Hitler being a Zionist, one thing seems to have escaped the commentariat: he appears to be absolving Hitler from responsibility for the crimes committed after his election success in 1932. He does so by claiming that “Hitler supported Zionism” in 1932 “before going mad” following his entirely legal and success pursuit of power. The clear implication here is that we must accept that Hitler didn’t know what he was doing when he launched World War II or secretly ordered the lethal eradication of European Jews.
Across the entire world it is accepted that an insane person cannot be held responsible for his or her actions, however heinous. To be culpable, humanity has long held the view that a person must know the distinction between right and wrong – goodness and evil. That is why, also, there is a limit in a child’s case of criminal responsibility (in our case 10 years of age). If Livingstone is to be believed, even if we had captured Hitler we could not have put him on trial because he was a victim of a diseased mind. He was crazy. Perhaps Livingstone has convinced himself that the enormity of what Hitler did is in itself proof positive that he was mad. If that yardstick were to be applied more generally, then we were wrong to put Serbia’s tyrant, Slobodan Milosevic, on trial. Such a yardstick would also have excused Pol Pot of Cambodia and just about any other tyrant who ever lived.
The fact is that Hitler was the leader of a criminal gang of misfits who knew perfectly well what they were doing. Look no further than their efforts to conceal their murder of the Jews. This tells you that they knew what they were doing was wrong. Indeed, not one single paper relating to the Holocaust bares Hitler’s signature. All was communicated to his underlings verbally. This great and meticulous nation of record keepers kept no record of the biggest crime in human history. Livingstone’s own crime is to act as an apologist for such a man as Hitler.
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.
There has been much ado about our kow-towing to the Chinese during the recent visit of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping and talk of our being a puppy in danger of being put on a leash. I believe these worries to be misplaced. China is a fact on the modern world stage with its second largest economy. What it does or does not do impacts all of us.
The first major western power to seriously engage with her will reap a rich reward. She has been unable to achieve this with the country she would most like to, namely the United States, so she turns to the country she regards as the next most significant.
The reason she can make no headway with the US is that Uncle Sam confronts her militarily in East Asia, being locked in a web of alliances with regional powers there. At the core of the dispute is our old friend, oil. Huge deposits have been found in the South China Sea bordering on five East Asian countries that are all insistent that they have rights there. Also, the clamour of protests about job losses to the Chinese and internet piracy is greater there, as is the human rights lobby. Of course, all of these things are important and we would be foolish to ignore them.
But take steel as the most recent example. Just as we cannot manipulate the price of oil, so we are unable to do so with steel. With world demand slowing down – yes, led by China – there is a glut of it. Dumping is an inevitable consequence and we must deal with it.
Steel production is strategic; we cannot therefore lose the industry completely. We must be in a position to fire up those coke furnaces at some point in the future if the situation requires it. China and the rest have to realise that they must take their share of the pain by reducing capacity. Furthermore, it must boost home demand by turning itself into much more of a consumer society. The steel issue is exactly the sort of case in which the clout of the EU could achieve the required result where we alone could not.
Our relationship with China is more longer-standing than that of any other Western nation. They understand that and this is one of reasons they have turned to us. We were the very first to engage with them and introduce them to Western ways all those years ago, when we sent Lord McCartney on a trade mission to the ‘Celestial Kingdom’ in 1793. Famously, he refused to kow-tow, as required, to the ‘Son of Heaven’. Then, 150 years of ruling Hong Kong gave us an understanding of the Chinese psyche not vouchsafed to any other Western power.
They are touchy, to put it mildly, about being lectured by outsiders on human rights or anything else for that matter. They still see themselves as unique among humans. Being crushed in two opium wars by McCartney’s heirs didn’t change that perception. And their conception of human rights has a different slant to ours; they argue that lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty whilst maintaining stability is very much paying attention to human rights. They wonder why the West pays so much attention to them while it sucks up to primitive, atavistic Arab regimes who publicly crucify and behead teenagers. If they are lambasted for the number of executions in their country, remember that they number 1.3 billion. It is a nonsense to say they execute more than Iran or Saudi Arabia when those countries number 70 and 28 million respectively. Proportionately, China is way below them.
I personally take the view that nothing will achieve success, as we would like it, in China than that she become richer. Rich people are not so easily pushed around. The human rights of our own people were once – and not so very long ago – severely circumscribed. But in a thirty-year period in the nineteenth century, per capita income in Britain grew by 500% – a growth rate never before seen in human history. Our people became freer than they had ever been with trades Union rights guaranteeing that the days of gross employer and landlord exploitation were over for ever.
China sees that the soft power that our country enjoys all around the world with its Commonwealth contacts, its EU membership, its command of the world’s number one language and its close, familial association with the US – still the dominant power on the planet – makes us the nation of choice to cultivate. Also not lost on them is the fact that we are now the fastest growing economy in the Western world, with more jobs created last year than the whole of the EU put together. All these things and more confirm our relevance in their eyes. Also our ‘open for business’ outlook on the world goes down very well with them, as do our elite schools, peerless universities and exciting cultural attractions. Even being the home of James Bond makes us more interesting.
My own view is that, if we play our cards right, we and China could have a very exciting future together. Our joining the recently created and Chinese-sponsored Asian Development Bank may have annoyed the US, but it makes a great deal of sense and demonstrates to the Chinese that we are capable of acting independently of our former colony.
Trade enriches the world. It’s what makes it go round. It breaks down barriers and improves our understanding of each other. It makes war less likely with there being too much to lose and it addresses perhaps mankind’s most pressing problem: its ballooning population. No rich country has a high birth rate any more than a poor record on human rights abuses. Trade is what got the West where it is today; truly it is king.
So I am glad that we did Xi Jinping and his lovely wife proud. The splendour of his welcome will be noted and very well received in China. Even Jeremy Corbyn behaved himself.
Soon we will be receiving the Prime Minister of India, in whose land two million of our forefathers lie buried. We can do no less for him. That exotic, cricket loving country has a very special place in our hearts. Because of the institutions we left it with, not least our language, law, and democratic ways, it has a head start on China. I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, it were to outpace China.
What fantastic news it was that there is almost certainly seasonal running water on Mars. While there is a remote possibility of marine life under the ice cap that envelops Europa, one of Jupiter’s larger moons, it is Mars, our so-called sister planet, which is the celestial body in our solar system which has always fascinated us.
In Victorian times we were naive enough to believe in, shall I say, manmade canals on its surface. Just as well there were no men there; had they been anything like us, they might have fancied our planet rather than their own. With Martian surface temperatures rising to never more than freezing and plummeting as low as -139°C – against our lowest of -60°C – the temptation to take over our lovely, benign habitat, would have been great.
But, seriously, it is of huge significance that there seems to be flowing water on Mars. The reason it doesn’t freeze is because of its very high salt content, mixed with sodium and magnesium perchlorate. It is thirteen times saltier than Earth’s seas and flows freely during the Martian summer. It is enough to burn your skin; not too welcoming for a dip and certainly not the sort to get a mouthful of.
The greatest question that has exercised modern humans is whether we are alone in the universe. Just to complicate matters further, it is now thought that there may, actually, be many universes. So how rare is life? We know there must be a whole set of circumstances in place to give it even a chance. Venus – a misnamed planet if ever there was one – has a surface temperature hot enough to melt lead and an incredibly dense and sulphuric atmosphere. It suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. No chance of life there.
We know we are alone in our solar system – at least in the form of ourselves and the other life that surrounds us on Earth – but we also know that, clever as we are, we started as the lowest form of microbial life in the primordial ‘soup’ that once passed for oceans.
No one knows how that first single cell arrived or developed. Maybe it came to us riding on or in an asteroid, or comet. Or, perhaps, a chunk of another planet ricocheting off that heavenly body by an asteroid strike of its own and sent earthwards. And no one knows how that single cell divided into two and began its long journey to us. Perhaps it was a lightning strike into that primordial ‘soup’ that triggered it.
If we can establish that even microbial life once existed on a long ago, much warmer Mars, and is still there, dead or alive, then the probability is that we have companion peoples spread across the infinite reaches of the cosmos. Actually, I personally – for what it’s worth – have never doubted it. Notwithstanding how many the factors must come together to make advanced life possible, the sheer scale of the universe – and never mind the possibility of multiple universes – means that even if the odds were 10,000,000,000,000:1, it will have happened. And many times.
Our first microbial organisms began their evolutionary journey into us around 3 billion years ago. And there must be many habitable planets much older than our own which may have begun their journey into advanced life much earlier than ours. After all, the Big Bang took place nearly 14 billion years ago. If these civilisations managed to survive into maturity, they must be hugely more advanced than us. Imagine where a thousand years will take us from where we are now – and that is just a blink in space time. Then imagine a civilisation a million years ahead.
“So, where are they?” you ask. “Why haven’t we heard from them?” The answer may be that we have, but don’t know it. Or that such smart creature – dare we say considerate – hold to Star Trek’s Prime Directive of non-interference.
Then again, it may be that the sheer immensity of the distances which separate us confound even the most advanced civilisations. “Ah, but,” I hear you say, “what about warp speed and worm holes?” Yes, but they may only be part of our wild and ever-hopeful imaginings. The simple truth could be that even the cleverest of aliens cannot overturn the iron laws of physics. Perhaps one or more of those laws block our pathways to each other for ever.
What is undoubtedly true is that sooner or later SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) will hear from them in a form of encryption that we can understand. But we can never have conversations. Even at light speed, it would take far, far too long for a message to get back to the sender.
I well remember the incredible excitement which surrounded the Apollo missions and, in particular, those steps down the Luna module to make contact for the first time with the surface of an alien world. That was 1969. If only we had kept up that momentum, we would have been on Mars long ago. Instead, we chose to spend our precious resources on foreign wars, defense establishments and ever more fiendish ways of killing each other.
Having said that, I have to acknowledge that it was the Cold War and America’s refusal to be beaten to the moon that pulled off that stunning feat. NASA has shown that the final building block to possible life on Mars is there and that a permanent presence on that planet is possible. China’s interest in the Red Planet may be all that is needs to kick start a fresh race into space. I hope so. I would love to live long enough to relive a similar thrill to that which I enjoyed all those long years ago.