The year that is now drawing to a close has been a special one for India and Pakistan. Seventy years have passed since they went their separate ways after independence. Few would have thought that they would not have settled their differences after such a period of time, much less fought three wars along the way. Many blame the former colonial power, saying that that a failure to prevent the 5,000 inter-communal deaths which took place in Calcutta a year before independence should have alerted it as to the possible consequences if it failed to deploy the military in the run-up to independence.
At this distance in time, is it possible to take an objective view of the British role of the good, the bad and the ugly of what took place? Perhaps not quite. There are still numbers living whose early lives were traumatised by the unexpectedly bloody partition insisted on by ambitious Hindu and Muslim politicians. Both the government in New Delhi and Gandhi did not want the sundering of a sub-continent, which through guile, able administration – and yes, from time to time, brute force – had worked cohesively for two-hundred years.
Had the colonial power been stronger, and not itself traumatised as well as impoverished by combating German militarism in two world wars, it could have refused those ambitious politicians independence, until such time as they agreed to work together. In other words, it could have said: “We will stay for as long as it takes. You have shown yourselves able to co-exist for two-hundred years and we will not see this good work thrown away.”
What a benefit that would have bestowed, had that been possible. The unified former British India would by now be far and away the world’s largest country. Instead of building up nuclear arsenals, and spending crippling amounts confronting each other, it could have deployed that money to place itself at the forefront of the world technologically. It is difficult to think of a single instance in history where such an opportunity was thrown away. The British had been a strange mix of arrogance, barbarity and enlightenment. Always determined to get their own way – because they considered they knew best – if you buckled down, and accepted what was on offer, they could be good and decent folk to deal with. If not, the consequences could be deadly, and they often were.
Did, then, the sub-continent benefit or suffer from the British experience? It is true that by the time Westerners arrived in any numbers it was enjoying a period of sheer brilliance and prosperity under its Moghul (Muslim) conquerors. Some have estimated that at its height it represented 25% of the world’s GDP. However, a few generations following the arrival of British merchants it had fallen into anarchy. In a remarkably short time, those merchant traders formed themselves into the world’s first multi-national company. Soon the company morphed into the most effective power in the land; it saw opportunities and riches which dazzled, and to protect its developing interests it formed an army (mostly of locals) but officered by its own people.
It had never been The Company’s intention to take over the land. Quite the reverse, such an enterprise seemed to it burdensome. But the alternative guaranteed only a continuance of anarchy, and that was not conducive to making money. In the end you had something unique in human history: a company, not a political power, ruling an entire country – one of the largest, most glittering and most populace lands in the entire world.
So, was the rule of The Company and later The Crown oppressive, even cruel? No more – and many would argue a lot less – than the terrible consequences of the breakdown of Moghul law and order and all that that entailed. So bad did things become that travel between towns became a dice with death. Murderous Thuggees (the term from which we derive the word thug) roamed the land. The new rulers made short shrift of such practices.
Many of the early British arrivals were rapacious chancers. Their sole aim was to get rich quick. Their duplicity broke all records in double-dealing. But, among the newcomers were also men of great integrity, such as Warren Hastings. Such men dressed like Indians, took Indian wives, adopted Indian customs and had no notions of racial superiority. They were hugely interested in India’s past civilisations including its ancient, almost lost, language of Sanskrit which they resurrected. Five universities were set up, one of which became the second largest in the world and the School of Oriental Studies began its work. Great institutions were established along with a free press. Some of the most gifted and dedicated young men ever to leave Britain’s shores were trained at a public school, Haileybury, specially set up to teach them Indian ways as well as languages. It was the alma mater of Clement Attlee himself, the prime minister at the time of independence.
I will not bore you with a full list of the engineering projects; the millions of acres brought under cultivation; the 40,000 miles each of railways and canals; a superior version of our own Common Law tailored specifically to meet Indian needs; the banning of widow burning; the restoration of crumbling architectural wonders, including the Taj Mahal, that took place over the next two centuries; also, the most incorruptible civil service in the world, the ICS, (Indian Civil Service), whose entrance examination equalled that of the Mandarin system in China.
Although a land run by a company for the first half of its existence, it was, undeniably, an empire – an empire in the days when empires were fashionable and, yes, like all empires it was created and ultimately sustained by force. The Indian Mutiny – known to locals as the first war of independence – was put down with a ruthlessness which surprised – and appalled – many back home. Abominations did take place even decades later, such as the almost 1,000 mercilessly gunned down by an out of control colonel at Amritsar in 1919 who feared a new Indian Mutiny. It led to a Commission of Inquiry, with Churchill calling the massacre “monstrous” and widespread British condemnation. But, having said all this, the question remains: could never more than 100,000 Europeans have sustained their position and administered 400 million people for 200 years without a huge amount of local participation and – dare it be said – consent? And what should history make of the 2 million who came to Britain’s aid in two World Wars? It was the largest volunteer army in history.
As empires go, the British version is often said to be one of the better ones. Why else, people argue, would the leaders of 53 countries travel from the ends of the earth every two years to enjoy Commonwealth gettogethers? (There are no such nostalgic gatherings, they point out, for the French, Spanish and Portugese former empires.) And why, with the two exceptions of Canada and Ireland, did they all adopt the British national game of cricket and make it their own? For many, these Test Match contests played around the globe are almost the most exciting item in their calendars.
Today we all accept that no one has the right to impose their systems – however elevated they believe it be – on someone else’s country, but that take is a relatively modern one and we see things now through different eyes. Neither the money-obsessed Georgians, who began it all, nor the Victorians, who believed they were doing God’s work, saw anything wrong in empire-building. That’s what you did in those days if you had the means. It had been going on since time immemorial. With the fall of the Soviet empire – which absurdly it refused to accept was an empire – that phase of human aggrandisement, thankfully, came to an end. Today, with all our international forums, it is safe to say we have seen the last of them.
Press freedom in Britain still cannot shake off the malign shadows of Max Mosley and other celebrities
Celebrities are unable to put behind them the exposure of their peccadillos – and worse – to a sometimes amused, but increasingly exasperated and angry public. Furious that government efforts to control the flow of information concerning them does not seem to be working, the Leveson-inspired Royal Commission on the Press comes back for another bite to the precious, 300-year-old cherry of press freedom.
The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), a genuinely independent press regulator set up and managed by the press itself, is making a perfectly good fist of the job it has taken on. A huge majority of dailies and periodicals support it; only a timorous, browbeaten rump tow the government and Mosley-financed line. However, this is not acceptable to the proponents of government-approved IMPRESS, whose very name smacks of coercion (that is what we called civilians press-ganged from the streets and impressed into the anti-Napoleonic Royal Navy). Perhaps someone in the government service is into black comedy and hopes we ignoramuses will not be smart enough to see how they mock us, nor recognise their superior wit in demonstrating it.
The discredited Royal Commission regulatory body refuses, absolutely, to go quietly into the night and let the press get on with it. It’s as if it is outraged that any non-governmental body should have the temerity to stand up for itself and, worse, insist that it can do the job better and at no cost to the taxpayer. This last, though, would be the least of its concerns. The latest strictures involve tabling an amendment to the Data Protection Bill currently going through parliament, whose effect will be to make it easier for the rich and powerful to avoid being held to account. For all its occasional slip-ups, the venerable, 160-year-old former News of the World remains sadly missed. How many were the truly outrageous scams, scandals and criminal conspiracies uncovered during its long pursuit of wrongdoers?
Something deeply incongruous lies in the fact that, while the governing class is determined to raise the press and broadcasting bar of exposure of wrongdoing higher and higher, the internet is allowed to go on its merry way unregulated. But here’s the rub! Nothing in today’s world of Internet communication can be covered up either by High Court gagging orders or anything else. One lowly, public-spirited, disgruntled or mischievous whistle-blower, anywhere in the world, can blow the lid off at any time. Within minutes the whole farrago goes viral. When will an out of touch governing class realise that muzzling the press simply redirects a desperate-to-know public elsewhere? That elsewhere is the Internet, where pretty much anything can be said.
Perhaps in the Internet there is hope for the press and the public generally. Truth, as they say, will out. Though in times past the rich and powerful often saw to it that it didn’t, that no longer holds true. With the Internet there is no hiding place. Since our world became reliant on this form of communication, no one can ever again feel safe in their dirty little secret.
So last year it was the Panama Papers. This year the Paradise ones. Even our poor Queen has been dragged into the off-Shore expose, though I don’t doubt for a second that she had the least knowledge of what her thoughtless financial advisors were up to. But someone like Bono is different. That haloed advisor to kings and presidents, gullible enough to believe him sincere with something worth listening to, now knows differently. Both the halo and the ubiquitous, trademark shades have slipped. Perhaps at last the movers and shakers will stop paying homage to the Bonos and Geldofs of this world and press them to get back to the only thing they’re good at: their music.
As for the press, we must pray it continues to stand fast. Once the towering beacon of hope to editors worldwide, it is today the most heavily regulated in the democratic world. How typical that in the relatively trivial matter of a few press excesses – almost all later dismissed in the courts – the government jumped in with the sledgehammer of a Royal Commission. Where is the Royal Commission for that vastly more damaging banking scandal that threw so many millions worldwide out of work and from which we are still suffering. Outright criminality was at the heart of it and it involved trillions of pounds. And as for Royal Commissions themselves? They are nothing more than a convenient leftover – handy for a government seeking to show it is doing something – from the undemocratic days of king power.
If these latest amendments to the bill from that paragon of democratic values, the House of Lords, are allowed to pass then Mosley and his crew will have won. Whether or not IPSO’s heroics keep it out of the clutches of the government-approved IMPRESS, the press will be effectively muzzled. Under the guise of Data Protection and personal privacy laws, they will have found the back door to achieve their purpose. This cannot be allowed to happen.
The UK joined the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union, from a position of weakness in the early seventies – the sick man of Europe, so the country was called at the time. The package sold to Britain was that of a trading arrangement. Beyond the inner circle of continental Europe’s political elites, there was little to no talk of the true direction of travel, which has always been a United States of Europe.
The first signs of where the so-called European Project was really headed was the Maastricht Treaty in British prime minister John Major’s premiership. The final curtain raiser, during that of Gordon Brown’s, was the Lisbon Treaty. (Who can forget the unedifying way he waited to be the last to sign and went through the back door so as not to be photographed signing away his nation’s rights?)
Since the Maastricht Treaty, Brits increasingly formed the opinion that they were losing control of their country. As a once trickle of Brussels directives – which took precedence over British law – turned into a flood, Brits began to question the whole concept of EU membership. It was the erosion of sovereignty which I believe formed the bedrock of the opposition which finally stunned the world last year with their decision to quit.
High among the concerns of the Brexiteers, as those seeking to leave the project have come to be known, was their inability to determine who should come to live among them and how many. It was like saying that you had a house but no say in who could pitch up to stay in it and in what numbers. Just like that flood of pettifogging Brussels directives came a new flood, but one that took jobs from the least skilled and most disadvantaged in society. Cheap, plentiful labour was great for the professional and governing classes and, of course, the bosses, but not so great for those struggling to make ends meet.
Then there was the concept that a group of jurists in the European Court of Justice – many with apparent questionable legal experience – could impose their foreign, codified set of laws on the UK’s English common law legal system. English common law, built up assiduously over a thousand years, has become the most common legal system in the world and today covers 30% of the world’s population in 27% of its 320 legal jurisdictions. It should be no surprise then that Brits, with no little justification, were proud of their legal system and took offence at the idea that the European Court of Justice knows best.
This, I believe, was at the heart of concerns over Europe. For sovereignty covers almost everything, including who comes to live among us and who makes our laws.
Much as the British feel free to criticise their own parliament, they still find it objectionable that others from outside their borders can order them around – especially when those others have never subjected themselves to a British ballot box. Where democratic, sovereign nations are concerned, citizens should have the chance to turf their politicians out if there is a failure to perform or if they wish to try something different. There must be accountability.
So can the UK prosper outside the European Union? Although I voted to remain because I believed we could better influence reform of the EU from the inside, I have taken the view nevertheless that we can prosper outside. If there is any nation whose DNA shrieks global trade, it is Britain. The world’s first multinational company was founded by the British in India, growing so prosperous that it had to create its own army to protect its interests. Even the great Napoleon acknowledged that we were a nation of traders (he used the word shopkeepers, but in essence it’s the same).
I can understand why the countries of mainland Europe cleave together with none daring to contemplate a future outside the bloc. Theirs has been a distinct experience from that of the British. All have suffered the horrors of defeat and occupation down the centuries. We have not.
Brits may not bestride the world with hard power in the way they did a hundred years ago. But hard power in today’s world, as our American cousins have come to realise, does not work in quite the way it used to. Soft power is a different matter, however, and Britain has oodles of that. It reaches into every corner of the globe and the widespread adoption of English in official business helps to grease the wheels. The Commonwealth, which represents 31% of the world’s population – united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law – never wanted Britain to join the European Union in the first place. So, yes, it is entirely possible that we can thrive outside.
The same bracing winds which once filled the sails of Britain’s ocean-going merchant fleets may be just the winds needed to force us to raise our already decent game to new levels. We must fervently hope that is the case, for Britain is the one country in Europe whose situation has allowed it to stick two fingers up to the oppressive EU elites with any hope of getting away with it.
I wrote some time ago that the EU was making a big mistake by playing hardball with Turkey’s application to become a member. They fear that the entry of a major Muslim country will have a destabilising effect.
They fear a possible Trojan Horse whose admission could immerse our continent in many of the horrors currently being visited on Turkey’s neighbours, Syria and Iraq. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Turkey is the obvious Muslim country which stands any chance of enabling Europe to gain acceptance throughout the Muslim world as a friend. As a member of the EU, it would send a signal to all Muslims that Europe is not irredeemably prejudiced and could happily work with them to build a better and more secure future. Once a member, you could be sure that Turkey would go after the nihilist maniacs with a sure-footedness that is not open to the rest of us.
Remember that Turkey single-handedly kept order throughout the Near East and North Africa for 500 years right up to modern times. Millions of Turks headed for Germany by invitation during the post-war years of the economic miracle to help rebuild that country’s shattered industries and infrastructure. They were known as ‘Guest Workers’ and the understanding was that, in due course, they would return to their homeland. They were not meant to stay.
So little did they offend their German hosts, however, that they were never asked to leave. Theirs proved to be the face of Islam that Europe never needed to fear. Even with the recent controversial admission of the huge refugee influx triggered by Chancellor Merkel’s off the cuff offer, there is not in Germany the festering resentment among Muslims and, indeed, Germans that exists in France. Two reasons account for this. In Germany, there is not the ghettoisation and lack of jobs as in France. Also, France’s Muslims are, for the most part, of Algerian origin and are the legacy of a bitterly savage colonial war of independence. Neither side fully forgave the other.
All of us can agree that Europe is at a crossroad in its relationship with the Muslim world. An implacable death cult has cast a shadow over all the continent’s urban conurbations and the crowd-gathering events which are staged there. Messaging each other in the new Wild West of the internet in an encryption form harder than Enigma to crack, they can operate in cells or as ‘lone wolves’ with manuals provided to allow them online to acquire and assemble deadly bombs. How the zealots of the IRA must regret that they never had such tools.
The result of it all is that people increasingly live in a fear they have never known before. They know the authorities have no answer, and never can, to the lone operator who can drive a truck or buy a knife across a supermarket counter. Even if we succeed, as we very well might, in taking back the land which Isis has claimed for its new Caliphate, its fighters will disperse throughout Muslim lands and perhaps our own and reappear hydra-headed to continue the mayhem. It is a depressing prospect and one to which we can envisage no end.
My own regular visits to London, its museums and places of interest, have lost their appeal. On a recent visit, I found that the dear old British Museum, an endless source of wonderment to me, had a half-hour long queue for semi airport-like security checks. I took one look and went on my way. In a long life, I had hitherto been able to wander up unmolested and pass through its hallowed portals unchallenged. That soon will become a distant memory. Security everywhere has become the order of the day.
We must resist. Turkey can help us for only it, as a Muslim nation closely allied to the West with NATO’s second largest army, can help us confront the threat ideologically. And that is the only way this death cult can be beaten.
Followers of their own faith must turn on them en masse. Their communities and their own families must place them beyond the pale.
The cowardly recruiters and dissemblers who encourage disaffected youngsters whose lives have gone off the rails to make an end of themselves and carry as many as they can into oblivion with them must be taken out of circulation and denied any platform to propagate their poison. Theirs should be a special place in perdition.
Turkey has already won the hearts, as well as plaudits, from the millions driven from their homes in Syria. Their efforts to provide a refuge from Assad’s killing machine dwarf those of any other nation, including Germany. The camps they have set up are a model of humanitarianism; they provide every conceivable facility and resemble more villages more than camps. Turkey receives scant recognition for her huge efforts and, needless to say, massive expense. And this from a nation which, unlike those in the West, cannot be described as rich.
For all the frequently ill-informed criticisms of Turkey’s president, he has proved himself a man with a heart which is more than can be said of many of the rest who weep crocodile tears. With 14 years of enlightened economic policies, he has also achieved growth rates the envy of all but China and India. In short, until these terrible troubles on his border, Turkey was booming.
My own message is clear: Turkey should be embraced, not scorned. If we continue to reject her overtures she will turn her back on us, and rightly so, with dire consequences for any last hope of getting back to normal and putting terrorism back in the malign box where it belongs.
There is a new term I have stumbled upon which might be said to have sinister undertones. It is called ‘language imperialism’. For myself, I am hugely conflicted because the language in question is my own.
While our legions have long ago been withdrawn from around the world, our language has not. It is good that we have seen the back of imperialism, of course. No country has the right to run the affairs of another, much less to oppress its peoples in order to maintain its dominance. In that regard, this country has much to answer for – though I like to console myself by believing that my forebears seldom employed gratuitous violence to maintain their position.
The world does, however, stand in need of a universal language, one which will allow us to communicate not just information, but, our thoughts, fears emotions and everything between. When you face a person from another culture, almost all of whose habits are alien to your own, there is so much better a chance of reaching an understanding if you have no need of an interpreter and don’t end up lost in translation, as it were. I swear so many past conflicts could have been nipped in the bud had this been the case.
Rome’s reach, great as it was, never extended to giving all Europe – and the Near East – its wonderful language of Latin. Perhaps if it had, we may have avoided many of the miseries we have endured down the centuries and continue to endure to this day. Wouldn’t we be better placed to achieve harmony in the troubled Middle East if we could all talk to one another?
So while I deplore our part in the imperialism of the past – though I will not say no good ever came of it – I cannot deplore the fact that we have succeeded where Rome failed in leaving behind a language which in the fullness of time will play an important part in bringing together the whole human race.
But this second language is in danger of coming at a price. That price is the threat it poses to indigenous languages. Just as here in our small corner of Europe we have not allowed the Irish, Welsh and Scottish languages to die – sadly it appears Cornish is doomed – we must not allow the other home languages of the world to disappear. Imagine what treasure troves they hold of those often-captivating cultures. What would we know of ancient Egypt if we had not cracked hieroglyphics?
People are perfectly capable of continuing to use their home language while becoming totally fluent in another’s; witness French Canadians, Scandinavians and the Dutch. And let’s not forget the Swiss who somehow manage, for the most part, the four languages which make up their own country.
But in India, today, we see an oppression where their languages are concerned of a most worrying kind. So obsessed are the governing classes in pushing English that they refuse to feature local dialects in such things as prescriptions, menus. road warnings and street signs, driving licenses, government forms, medical instructions, ingredient labels or even movie tickets. How crippling is that for the hundreds of millions who do not form part of the elite. Imagine what it’s like not to be able to read your child’s medical instructions. It’s a bit like when Norman French pushed Saxon English into the shadows for 300 years and you had court cases decided in a language you couldn’t understand.
There are laudable reasons why the Indian elite promote English in the way they do. They believe it to be a unifying factor in a land with 150 languages, all with sizeable populations and a total of 1,650 altogether. They also see it as giving them an advantage in business and a world of still increasing globalisation. But it’s tough meantime out in the hundreds of thousands of villages and towns who cannot fathom the language.
There is one good thing about the language, however, which they and the world, by happy chance, have been landed with and which they will eventually master. It is blessed with a massive vocabulary, a rich literature, beautiful poetry, great flexibility and much else besides. Many reasons have contributed to this. It is a fusion of invading settlers, mainly Germanic and Scandinavian in origin. And adding to the mix are those 300 years of Norman French, from which 45% of our words are derived. They carry a high Latin content so perhaps Rome didn’t, after all, lose out completely. She remains with us still.
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.