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.
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.
How might the world have looked but for that cataclysmic conflict which began almost a hundred years ago? Mighty different, I can tell you. It is highly unlikely we would have a United Nations since only a catastrophe on a planet-wide scale could have caused countries to submit themselves in the future to a supra-national authority.
There would be no Arab-Israeli conflict and, as a result of that, no 9/11. We would be boarding aircraft in pretty much the relaxed way we used to, with none of the demeaning scrutiny and security measures we have now. There would have been no Cold War and as a consequence of that no mad rush to be the first to land a man on the moon. Because the Second World War was the unfinished business of the first, rocketry was given priority by the Germans as a possible war-winning technology and without that impetus space technology would be way, way behind where it is today. We might not even have those satellites circling the earth which give us GPS, satellite television and so much else. Computer technology – also hastened by war – would still be in its infancy and the World Wide Web would be non-existent. The whole business of electrical miniaturization on which just about everything today depends received a major shot in the arm by the space effort. Of course we would have got there in the end but it would have been at a much more leisurely pace.
In geopolitical terms, the landscape would be just as dramatically different. There would be no European Union since it was only the trauma of the two World Wars which caused Europeans to think there had to be a better way. We would probably still rule India and most of the other European empires would be staggering on, though under rising pressure for emancipation along with us. Russia would have evolved from a tsarist autocracy into a fully fledged democratic state. All the fallen monarchies of Europe – the Hapsburgs of Austria/Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, he Tsar of Russia and even the Sultan of Turkey would still be in place along with a clutch of Balkan princlings. It is likely, though, that most of them would have had their wings clipped democratically.
But the Emperor of China would still be gone. He went three years before the Great War started, discredited by his inability to prevent China’s humiliations by the European colonial powers. But the new China would have had a Japanese experience; it would have taken the Japanese approach of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and industrialised like mad. Today, most probably, it would be the top economic as well as military power in the world with Uncle Sam as No. 2. It would have avoided the trauma of the Mao experience and be like Japan, a democratic state. Britain’s colossal overseas investments – all lost to war – along with her staggering land holdings around the world would have been deployed to who knows what ends. They might even have allowed her to stay top dog.
All in all it would have been an utterly different landscape from the one we see around us today. It would not necessarily have been a better world since many of the less salubrious features of the old world would not have been swept away and there would have been umpteen disputes leading to what may be described as bush-fire wars.
As for no conflict with the Muslim world, that is because there would be no state of Israel. If there was any conflict it would be with their Ottoman overlords – it would be them, not us, taking the flak. It was Britain’s seizure of Palestine and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire along with its foreign secretary’s promise to allow a home for Jews in the Holy Land which made the creation of Israel possible. He had no idea it would lead to the dispossession of millions of Arabs from their ancestral lands. This, above all else, is what drives the Jihadists today along with Western military intervention in Muslim affairs. They take the view that it was not a kind-hearted act on the part of Britain regarding Jews – which in fact it was – but a calculated move to plant a Trojan Horse in their midst which would do the West’s bidding and help it keep control of them.
One of the consequences of the two World Wars was to so weaken and discredit the European powers that it hastened the end of their empires. Had the people of the various empires gained their freedom at a more leisurely pace – perhaps as much as a century later – there would have been more time to prepare cadres of their people and put institutions in place which could have avoided the shambles we saw following the rush to independence after the war. Africa, today, with its boundless resources, might perhaps be a well-governed and prosperous continent
But war did hasten the end of deference – à la Downton Abbey – and dispose, in the process, of autocratic monarchies. Only in the victor or neutral states did they survive. Interestingly, not a single state which abolished its monarchy has had a change of heart and reinstated it. I suppose that is our fate when something cataclysmic comes along one day to discredit our own monarchy.
Apart from the most obvious ones – the advancement of science, the UN and the EU – the other major beneficiary of war has been the emancipation of women. Oddly, it was not the dictatorships with their powers of compulsion (the USSR was an exception) which were the earliest and most successful in harnessing the abilities of the fair sex, but the elective dictatorships of the West. Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, was always bemoaning the Reich’s slowness in this crucial field to his boss.
It is likely that I’m going to ruffle a few feathers here, but before I do I would like to say sincerely that I hope my readers have enjoyed their Christmas. The good news is that there is more celebration to come as New Year looms.
None of us can say whether there will be more good news as the year progresses, however. We know there is unpleasant belt-tightening up ahead. But will our sacrifices start to pay off? I believe they will. We, unlike Uncle Sam, are pressing most of the right buttons, though more on growth is necessary. What we have to do is hold our nerve on shrinking the state’s share of GDP.
An economy cannot take off if the state grabs too much. The great imponderable, apart from said Uncle Sam’s actions – or inactions, which might push him over the fiscal cliff with who knows what consequences for us all – is Europe. Will its terrible economic travails rain seriously on our, hopefully, improving parade? Again, no one can say.
Europe has been sticking its nose in our affairs for a very long time now. It started with the Romans; then it was the Angles, Saxons and Jutes; then the Vikings; and then the Normans (who weren’t actually French at all, but a gang of settled down Vikings). It ended there – at least where foreign occupation was concerned. After that it was our turn; the boot was on the other foot. Indeed, we have been sticking our nose in their affairs now for almost a thousand years – much strengthened, I have to admit, by this mongrel-mixing that we had to endure – and most effective our interference has been.
It has been our cardinal aim never to allow a single dominant country to conquer and overawe the rest, and so present us with an accumulation of power to which, notwithstanding our island status, we would have no answer. Many times we came close to disaster. Philip of Spain – with his Armada – almost overwhelmed us. Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, nearly pulled it off but Churchill’s famous ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, did for the Sun King and smashed his hopes at Blenheim in Austria. Then came the terrible Napoleon; but Herculean efforts – aided by our burgeoning Industrial Revolution – spread over twenty years, which almost bankrupted us, finally brought him to ruin at Waterloo.
For a hundred years after no power on earth could threaten our supremacy and we went on to build the greatest empire known to man. But nothing lasts forever. A powerful rival in the form of the Kaiser’s Germany came up on us and the accumulated wealth of two hundred years and a bloodletting on a scale never before experienced had to be deployed to frustrate his hopes. Twenty-one years later, what was left of that once incredible wealth, plus more blood, was expended to crush Germany’s revanchist ambitions once and for all. And that is where we are today. We have no more treasure to deploy and we will not send our young men to their doom anymore in such numbers. Luckily, neither will any of the others. All of us have had enough; hence the European Union.
We all wish to prosper in a continent of harmony. We wish to concentrate our energies on getting richer as well as fairer and more compassionate. And as with Japan, the appetite for large-scale war has been successfully eradicated. So far so good.
We on this island, with some understandable difficulty, have come to accept that we cannot any longer play the world’s diva. We are, as a consequence, prepared to join forces with our European neighbours to resurrect Europe’s power and prosperity in the world which it foolishly threw away. But this is conditional on this great union being fully democratic, truly accountable and non intrusive in sensitive areas best handled at home. That is not what we see. This octopus which operates out of Brussels seeks to spread it tentacles into every nook and cranny of our national life. Its servants run a gravy train of quite stupendous generosity and corruption seems to be endemic. For eighteen years its auditors have refused to sign off its accounts. And the worst of it all is that we seem unable to control it. A reckoning is overdue.
Proud nations cannot be dictated to in matters which properly should be decided at national level. In this take on the Union’s shortcomings, we are not alone. We have natural allies in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and, most of all, moneybags Germany. They are desperate for us to stay. Our problem is that with our frustration we allow ourselves to flounce off, with all the terrible risks attendant on being out of the loop.
Outside of the Union, we cannot hope to control which direction it moves in. With such an accumulation of population, wealth and power, its development could be inimical to our interests; and it could even end up threatening us. As the most successful, internationally, of all the European powers, we must have confidence to know that our voice will be heard. Things cannot go on as they are. We have, for instance, finally brought sense to the Common Fisheries Policy which was decimating our fish stocks. Forward now to the Common Agricultural Policy which so harms the poor nations of the world and keeps food prices at home higher than they need be. Forward also with repatriating those many powers which should never have left these shores.
I glory in the diversity of our continent and am confident it will never go away. Italy will always be Italy and France, France. If I mix with the boisterous crowd wearing lederhosen at the Munich Beer Festival, they look (lederhosen excepted) just like me. Our church-driven culture down the centuries has made us – despite our fascinating differences – one civilisation with a single European culture and we cannot, indeed must not, marginalise ourselves and walk away into the sunset. And how gratifying it should be to us that the multilingual family of nations we are fashioning our future with have looked to our language to be their language of choice in order to make our latter day tower of Babel function smoothly. What an advantage that gives us.
So my plea is this: have confidence and believe in yourself. Just as through your earth-shattering Industrial Revolution you touched the face of humanity and left an indelible mark, go out and do the same in Europe. Only please, please don’t be a ‘Little Englander’. It doesn’t become you.
Scotland deserves better than the opportunistic, smarmy Alex Salmond. He may be hard to pin down on television and have an answer for everything, but he is deceitful and disingenuous.
You do not lightly throw away something which took 300 years to build. And for what? A bunch of self-serving wide boys (and girls) bent on power, privilege and self-aggrandisement; people who care little for the greater good of the people living in these islands.
It is true to say that the take-off point for Great Britain was the union of the crowns followed, a century later, by the union of the parliaments. It set aside animosity and warfare that stretched back to Roman times and seriously weakened both countries. Under the new dispensation, and together with Wales and Ireland, it burst upon the world scene in a frenzy of technological, cultural, inventive and, yes, military/maritime brilliance. It changed the world forever ensuring that the language we all spoke became the lingua franca of the whole globe.
It was disgraceful that under history-lite New Labour the 300th Anniversary of that Union – the most successful ever established – was allowed to pass without national celebrations of any kind, not even a national holiday. So much for Gordon Brown banging on about the virtues of Britishness. He even suggested that more of us should take up the American liking for flying the flag in our gardens. How little New Labour knew about us. That kind of showy patriotism is not the British way. Our love of country runs deeper than they could ever imagine: it is almost spiritual in depth.
Politicians today seldom look to the big picture. They concentrate on short-term advantage, mainly economic. Very well then, let us go down that myopic road a little distance. In 2008 an independent Scotland would have found itself in the position of Iceland: bankrupt and humiliated. Bailing out The Royal Bank of Scotland alone would have been beyond their capabilities, never mind HBOS as well. Only the combined financial power of the United Kingdom saved it from the mad follies of Fred the Shred. Alex Salmond’s silly talk of an arc of ‘Tiger Economies’ stretching from Ireland through Scotland to Iceland would have been shown to be the ludicrous nonsense that it was.
I feel myself to be in a good position to see the merits of both sides. My Scottish mother turned to an English charity to care for her illegitimate baby when Presbyterian bigotry would offer her no shelter in her own country. For fifteen years that charity cared for me, and its influence – along with the many years spent living in England – have turned me into what might be described as an Anglo-Scot.
I see the English as a tolerant, fair-minded people who will resist to the utmost their hackles being forcibly raised. How else do you account for their tolerance of the Barnett Formula which allocates annually £1,624 more per head to the Scots than the English? It was introduced to balance out poorer regions over the more affluent ones. But Scotland today has moved up-scale and no longer qualifies, though England continues to nod through the payment with little more than a sigh. It does not wish to cause an argument with its sometimes feisty neighbour. And how else also do you explain England’s tolerance of free Scottish university places which are even extended to foreigners but not to the English? Or free prescriptions or free care home provision? All that, and much else besides, is courtesy of the 85% of tax payers who are English (yet feel they cannot afford these desirable benefits for themselves).
Slippery Alex Salmond’s sinister game is to ratchet up the ante, slyly and incessantly, so as to provoke the English and set them against their northern neighbour. He is even intent on using the squalid device of timing the referendum to coincide with Scotland’s most famous victory over the English at the Bannockburn 700 years ago so that he can whip up sentiment against the ‘auld enemy’. Imagine if England were to do the same in an argument with the French by resurrecting Agincourt, or in the case of the Scots the Battle of Dunbar! It is all so juvenile, but dangerous nonetheless. Some might regard Salmond as a traitor and it would be easy to sympathise with that view.
The British state is now a venerable institution and its Scottish sons were happy to serve in its glory days in disproportionate numbers as pro-consuls and even prime ministers. Do they feel no affection for the long journey we have made together, nor care for the blood we have jointly shed? Is Britain’s diminished state no longer appealing to them? Did they only want to belong to it while the world was in awe of it?
I think the Scots are bigger than Salmond supposes. He uses a precious gift – an articulate tongue – to low and unworthy ends. And the worst of it all is that he knows perfectly well what he is summoning up: it is called nationalism. And among that scourge’s many defects (some terrible) is his doubtless desire to create lucrative jobs for the boys: Scottish Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, you name it – a carbon copy of the entire Westminster set-up. But let us not forgot that nationalism has been the curse of Europe and indeed much of the world. It has propelled us into the two most destructive wars in human history and is what the European Union was designed to eradicate forever. In this the EU has been triumphantly successful and I, for one, am mighty grateful that my generation has been spared the blood-letting of the recent past. So in this regard, too, we need to think carefully before we go down the separatist road.
In two weeks time my wife and I will travel north to Newark to attend a Burns Night Supper. After pestering me for years for me to join him, my brother has finally got me to make the effort. I am sure I will have a good time, though with my English accent and no kilt I worry about looking a tad conspicuous – despite being more of a Scot (my father was also of the tartan) than any of the be-kilted Sassenachs pretending to Scottish antecedents. My brother and brother-in-law have lived and worked in England for many years and have never felt disadvantaged or witnessed prejudice. I wish I could say the same about Englishmen working in Scotland.
The English will always root for the Scots in any sporting event in which they themselves have been knocked out, but oh how I wince when the Scots root for the foreigner, even when, during the Cold War, that foreigner was a communist. I understand how minorities have to make rather more noise than their numbers would justify in order to be heard above the din in a union. But the truth is that most Englishmen would actually quite like to be able to boast some Scottish ancestry. When will my fellow Scots stop girning, knock away that chip from their shoulder and acknowledge that they, almost more than anyone, have done quite well out of the union, and continue to do so. They are renowned for being canny. Let them show this admirable trait in the coming referendum.
It is alarming that the markets have given a thumbs down to the Obama/Congress deal. And now we hear that they are seriously doubtful of Italy’s ability to grow its way out of the enormous debt it holds.
What with Spain teetering on the brink, and Greece, Portugal and Ireland considered lost causes, we have what amounts to ‘the perfect storm’. Yet we British have retained the market’s confidence; our willingness to bite the bullet allows us to borrow at the same rate as the Germans. But sadly that won’t save us. We absolutely have to sell our goods and services to the New World as well as the old.
43% alone of our output goes to the European Union, and another huge chunk to North America. The US Republicans – led by the Tea Party – refuse to aid a deficit cutting programme by including tax increases, even though the Federal Government’s tax take is barely half the European average. What right-minded system in today’s world allows Western drivers to fill up at not much more than half of the EU average?
Alas, Americans (and to be fair we) have been living high on the hog for too long. We in the West – especially the Americans with their consumption-driven economy – have been sating ourselves on China’s cheap goods, fueling its mind-blowing year-on-year 10% growth at the expence of increasing their own competetiveness. Industries have gone down like ninepins and jobs exported; they have allowed China to get away with a grossly undervalued currency and not to conform to World Trade Organisation rules. Perhaps most alarming of all, China stands accused of commercial and military espionage on a industrial scale by hacking into the West’s computer systems. This amounts to war by other means. So either the US treats balancing its budget almost as though it were a wartime priority, or it can say goodbye to being the world’s leading economy. Hello, China. Hello, India.
We may have been sold the idea that somethings are too big to fail, but believe me: a whole nation can fail – even the US if it hasn’t the stomach to put its house in order. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have done for the United States what the Kaiser and Hitler wars did for us… nigh bankrupted it. The difference is that in our case it was a noble struggle that simply had to be faced; a militaristic Germany bent on world conquest was a cause worth sacrificing even the British Empire for.
As far as the Euro is concerned, no matter how many sticking plasters they try to put over the crisis, nothing can hide the fact that the patient neeeds surgery. Greece and the others – the so called PIIGS – can’t service the debts they already have and provide for growth. And how does it help to foist more loans on them and push their service charges even higher? It’s the economics of the madhouse. They must all be cut loose; free to set their interest rates at the appropriate level; free to make a mess of things if they can’t get their act together without dragging everyone else down with them and also free to rejoin if they get their house in order and meet the strict criteria of membership, which they were meant to meet in the first place but never did.
The only alternative is for the sound economies of the north to take fiscal control of the hopeless cases in the south. In other words, a Fiscal Union to add to the unworkable existing Monetary Union. In the long run the PIIGS would all be better off. But would they stand for it? Proud, broken Greece would find it exceedingly hard to take the teutonic medicine that Frankfurt would insist they swallow.
As for poor old Britain, we are left dangling in the wind, waiting on events over which we have no control, but which are certain to turn all our lives upside down. I would hazard a guess, however, that if the Euro is reformed so that only successful economies can belong, then perhaps a very good case could then be made for us to join
There are huge advantages to be had in belonging to a truly powerful currancy bloc that might well take over as the world’s Reserve Currency. I fear the dollar’s day may be done, but I wouldn’t underestimate Uncle Sam’s recuperative powers and his legendary can-do approach when fired up. But please, please don’t let the Reserve Currency be the Yuan if Uncle Sam can’t make it.