There have been world wars, genocides, whole cities obliterated and great economic depressions. There has even been the Black Death. But we can never identify a period when the whole human race has been shut down in the face of an invisible foe with the potential to kill untold millions and perhaps wipe out half of our elderly mothers and fathers.
Had we not become a scientific species which had acquired a keen understanding of how viruses transmit, this may very well have happened. But today, in my country after three months of hiatus, the shops are permitted – under strict conditions – to resume business. This in itself is a first. There are so many of them. Never before have traders countrywide been prevented from plying their wares. But equally, never before had all human activity which involved close contact been forbidden and the entire population placed under what amounts to house arrest.
Because these constraints so obviously impinge on the ability to do business, economic activity has taken a hit greater than any since the arrival of the Black Death seven centuries ago. Billions of humans have been sent on enforced sabbaticals, and in many cases have lost the will to work. In this glorious spring and summer weather, they have actually enjoyed not having to report for work in the early morning and suffer the burden of having to constantly maintain output, work schedules and the annoyance of being bossed around by their superiors.
Society now faces the herculean task of firing up again all these beach-comers and new enjoyers of public spaces ever since they were permitted to exercise and take the air to maintain health and sanity. But just as daunting are the hitherto unheard levels of public debt incurred to keep as many businesses as possible on life support. Governments around the world knew that, despite breaking every record in the economic rulebook, millions of enterprises will never recover and untold millions will find themselves relying on the public purse to survive. This is particularly galling to those governments – including our own – which managed their affairs well and were looking to a golden future. No one knows what the consequences of so much public debt will be, but consequences there surely will be.
In handling this crisis, my own country has been found seriously wanting. While our freshly minted prime minister has won the first big test of his premiership – exiting the European Union – he has failed abysmally on the second, COVID-19. Failing to put the country in lockdown sooner cost tens of thousands of lives. Failure to test, track and trace added to the litany of woes, as did failure to provide personal protective equipment. But perhaps the most scandalous failure was that of not throwing a cordon sanitaire around the people most likely to die: those in care homes. Hospitals sending infected patients into care homes may be said to have reached the bar of criminal negligence, as was the failure to provide protection for those who look after them. But as if these failings were not enough, we must add four more: an insistence that two-metre social distancing be maintained; a mule-like refusal to accept that face masks can make it harder for the virus to jump from person to person; a tardiness in getting the least at risk back to school; and the lunacy of introducing travel quarantining after the horse has bolted.
But beyond these events, there is an important geo-political dimension. Where has the European Union been in all this? Nowhere, so far as anyone can see. Brussels has been criticised by virtually every member state for interfering in matters they say don’t concern it. But here was a life and death issue which affected all of them equally. Would any have complained were the Union to have taken the lead in protecting them? After all, health issues have always been a major concern of Brussels. It extends even to the much maligned bent or undersized banana.
It has been truly absurd that 27 member states ended up doing their own thing. This was never better illustrated than in our own small island, where devolution allowed for four different solutions to the same problem. We ended up in a Kafkaesque world where an Englishman for the first time in eight hundred years could be stopped from entering Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Various national leaders – and none more so than our own – will face a harsh reckoning when the story of this crisis is finally written up. Had the European Union taken responsibility for managing the crisis, those leaders would have avoided all the brickbats that will now come raining down on them in what many consider the great project of our time, the European Union. And had the EU, for its part, acquitted itself well, it would have provided a mighty fillip to those who have always lauded its creation and pine for a United States of Europe.
I voted to remain in the referendum of 2016. I did so because I believed that reform of the European Union would inevitably come and that, as a heavyweight insider, we would be one of its principal drivers. I believed that the world was moving towards bigger and bigger power blocks until all, in a distant future, morphed into a world government. I still consider, provided we manage not to self-destruct, that to be the likely outcome.
So why do I now believe that Brexit must be made the best of? First, it was the democratic will of the people. Second, for anyone with an understanding of history, there is no reason to believe that Brexit will be Britain’s undoing; indeed, it may very well achieve the reverse and force it to raise its game. Third, it is the one country in Europe which, because of the peculiarity of its circumstance, could take such a step with a better than reasonable chance of making a success of it. It may not seem so right now, but there is a self-confidence that exists nowhere else among its neighbours. Not one of them would dare contemplate a life beyond Mother Europe. Its perceived embrace smothers them to the extent that they will endure endless pain, à la Greece, and still cling to its coattails.
Why do I take this view? The reason is that Britain’s development has been significantly different. We are an island nation, much like Japan. While influenced hugely by what has happened on our adjacent continent – indeed, regularly interfering to prevent what we perceived as overmighty tyrants developing on our doorstep – we have insisted, nevertheless, on keeping our distance, once the business was done.
Europe’s strength, and its half-millennia dominance of the world, began when it broke the monopoly of the Silk Road’s route into and out of the continent to trade goods. It did this by acquiring maritime expertise and building ships which could withstand three-year voyages and the heaviest seas the natural world could throw against them. This allowed it to trade goods in bulk and without umpteen middlemen taking extortionate cuts along the way stations of the overland route. While this was going on, its fiercely competitive nation states benefited from an overarching and temporising religion, as well as a cultural and scientific breakout led by the city states of Italy which it called the Renaissance. Also, the creation of centres of learning in the universities along with their independence helped speed the process towards the Age of Reason. The rivalry between those city states held much in common with the rivalry that propelled the city states of classical Greece to greatness.
The race across the oceans to explore new riches and bring home old ones naturally favoured the countries with easy access to the Atlantic. That explains why the great maritime empires which came about consisted only of them: Portugal, Spain, England, Holland and France. The next race was to see which of them could become top-dog. In turn it was each. When the dust had finally settled it was England – now fortuitously called Great Britain because of its union with Scotland – which emerged triumphant.
With a revolution in both industry and commerce, a population explosion, vast trading networks and a navy which could see off all others, it is not surprising that Britons came to see themselves as a case apart. Because of their island protection, they had escaped the continental upheavals of rampaging armies and had become quite distinctive – again, much like Japan.
One of Britain’s great strengths is that it was always a pragmatic country. If it worked, adopt it; if it didn’t, ditch it. It was never much interested in dogma or political theorising. That is why it returned to monarchical government after the eleven miserable years of the Cromwell republic. But it made sure that the royal power knew, as a condition of its return, it could never again step out of line in the way the previously executed king had. The lesson was well learned.
Britain’s relative isolation, which fostered evolutionary rather than revolutionary progress – allied to its Protestant work ethic – was one of the reasons its efforts at establishing new countries was so much more successful than its Latin rivals. Compare, for instance, the outcomes for Spain and Portugal’s South American colonies to those of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Even when Britain went to work on existing countries, the institutions and infrastructure it left behind outclassed anything the Latins left in place, and that includes France.
Above all, Britain’s language had become ubiquitous, as had its ‘Beautiful Game’. That game, however, struggled in the heat of the Indian plains so another British game, cricket, is now played in many hotspots instead. Its playtime activities proved almost as alluring as the rest.
All of these and many more are reasons why we Britons should embrace our new future with optimism. Our forebears have sown an amazing legacy. Now is the time to harvest it.
Nothing has filled me with despair recently so much as the news that that tired old retread John Prescott is to throw his hat into the ring to become the new Sheriff of Uddersfield. You come up with a good idea, and who leaps in to ruin the whole concept but the man we all thought had been finally put out to pasture: the former prize fighter/deputy prime minister.
The idea of elected police chiefs is for us to get a form of payment by results. That is to say, the chief increases the clear up rate of crime, brings order to our streets and thus enables us to sleep easier in our beds. And in return for performing this valuable service, he or she is awarded (and paid) with a fresh mandate and a continuance of his (or her) £70,000 stipend. It does sound like a good arrangement to me to me! So let’s look at this particular applicant’s CV.
He’s certainly been a busy boy during his long career – although, at 72, I worry a bit that that it’s just too long. His cheeky-chappie approach would undoubtedly go down well with the binge drinkers of a Friday night (the same people he’s promised to sort out). And his beer belly should also appeal to many, allowing him to empathise – always a most important consideration in this touchy-feelie age. But against this there’s the risk that if he’s provoked he might strike out. After all, he has got form in this department and a GBH charge is not something that would sit well on a police commissioner’s record.
But let’s get serious for a moment and look at Two Jags’ actual record. It is acknowledged that he was appointed deputy prime minister not just as a sop to the unions, but in order to keep peace between the warring prime minister and his chancellor… a sort of honest broker. Ten years of backstabbing and plotting between the two made a mockery of that and proved even beyond Prezza’s giant abilities.
Ever resourceful, and looking for something meaningful to do, he came up with the idea of regional authorities. What an ineffectual and horrendously expensive exercise in futility that turned out to be. But not to be deterred, he pressed on.
His next idea was to knock down street upon street of houses right across the land which his office deemed not fit for human habitation. It later emerged that they could have been renovated for a fraction of the cost of replacements and kept vibrant communities from disintegrating. But Two Jags, as he will freely acknowledge himself, was never very good at sums in school.
He wanted more development, so his next ‘Big Idea’ was to allow rejected planning applications (often sent back for good reasons) to be sent to his office where his expert eye could peruse them and tell whether the planners had got it wrong. As a result, large numbers of outrageous appeals were sent back to the planners with instructions to allow the development. Prescott could never leave it – nor for that matter some of his office staff – alone. He could never accept that he was, in fact, a man of limited talents.
It adds to the gaiety of nations for every administration to have its own court jester, and ‘Prezza’ was happy to fulfil that role for New Labour – although he never fully understood how much they were all taking the you-know-what.his own side included.
His opposite number in the Tory Party is Boris Johnson. But there is one very big difference between the two of them: Boris is superbly educated. Plus he comes up with ideas like getting rid of London’s hated bendy buses and returning to the much-loved jump on/jump off version. Then there’s freezing of congestion charges and, best of all, the world-beating, environmentally friendly replacement for Heathrow: the Estuary Airport. Most of his ideas make a lot of sense and are in accord with the public opinion. I’m personally looking forward to Boris stepping forward as Master of Ceremony for the London Olympics. Quite what Johnny Foreigner will make of him I wouldn’t like to guess, but I think there’s a good chance that, like so many of us, they’ll love him. At the very least we can be sure that he’ll create a sensation of some sort.
But returning to the hoped-for revolution in policing: this is a once in a lifetime chance to get the system sorted. The last thing we need is for a plethora of failed has-beens to prove all over again how useless they are; it is desperately important that we have people of proven track record and of the highest calibre if we are to have any chance of success.
We have strayed so far from policing as we would like it to be, and in many respects the Force no longer commands the respect which should be its due. We spent well over a million pounds on a state of the art police station in my suburb of Plymouth just a few years ago and it’s not any longer open to the public. You can only visit by appointment. Many officers, sad to say, couldn’t even give chase to a baddie. With all their Inspector Gadget accessories and body-armour weighing them down – not to mention their Prescott-style waists which so many seem to be developing – it’s small wonder police chiefs recently dismissed a move to introduce compulsory annual fitness tests for serving officers.