Doctors strike an important blow for the nation’s health

American doctors are often excoriated for their greed, and, true enough, many of them may be greedy individually. But, thanks to the BMA, British doctors can be greedy collectively.

This pernicious organisation has been agitating for a doctors’ strike for quite some time. Now it looks as if they’re getting their way: some 79 percent of GPs, 84 percent of hospital consultants and 92 percent of junior doctors have voted in favour of industrial action.

The bone of contention is that the retirement age is about to rise from 65 to 68 for NHS doctors, who feel aggrieved as a result. After all, today’s average hospital consultant retires on a meagre pension of £48,000 a year, plus a miserly lump sum of over £140,000. That’s cruel and unusual punishment, as I’m sure most pensioners in the UK will agree. On the other hand, one is beginning to get the impression that our current medical professionals in no way resemble those disinterested, self-sacrificial doctors inhabiting the pages of AJ Cronin’s novels.

But, if experience is anything to go by, the strike is a dark cloud that’s not without its silver lining. If we’re at all like Belgians, perish the thought, we just may do well out of this latest exercise in institutionalised greed, which is as good a definition of modern unionism as any.

In 1964 Belgian doctors stayed on strike for several months, and doomsday prognoses were selling an awful lot of newspapers all over the world. Yet in fact Belgium’s mortality rate significantly dropped during those months, which vindicates the whole concept of iatrogenic (treatment-induced) disease.

It was Florence Nightingale, she of the Scutari fame, who first showed that some diseases, including fatal ones, are caused by doctors. She thus shone her lantern on the reverse side of the profession, and we owe her a debt of gratitude. But the idea became public property only after the 1976 publication of Limits to Medicine by the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich, who subtitled the book Medical Nemesis.  

As was his wont, Illich took Nightingale’s idea and did his usual reductio ad absurdum on it. He claimed that not some, but most diseases were iatrogenic, and he supported this off-the-wall claim with an impressive corpus of statistical data, including the mortality rate during the Belgian strike.

That was going too far, and Illich thereby weakened his case somewhat though, by way of compensation, his book became rather entertaining. But even if Illich was only partially correct, we have little to fear from the one-day strike coming up.

One could perhaps extrapolate the same line of thought to the whole raft of public services, starting with Parliament, and especially the front benches. Though history records nothing like a whole government going on strike, perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. Judging by our government’s record, it’s entirely conceivable that if the honourable (and other) ladies and gentlemen stayed at home for a few months, we’d all stand to benefit.

Surely our government officials must have an axe to grind somewhere? They are, for example, underpaid compared to EU bureaucrats. Nor can they claim anywhere near the same side benefits, perks or, come to that, pensions. As I write this, anger and sympathy are mixing in an equal proportion in my blood stream. How unfair is that? How discriminatory? Very, is the answer.

So come on, Dave, have a go. Are you a man or a mouse? Give us all a break, until Christmas, say. Stand up for your rights and those of your glorious colleagues.

Oh well, he probably won’t. This will go down as yet another pleasure our government will deny us. So much more grateful we must all be to our doctors, who are doing what they can to make our lives better – and possibly longer.



Ken Clarke is a big fait accompli

Ken is one of those mock Tories who adore Conservative votes but hate conservative policies, never mind principles.

He chooses to convey the image of a convivial bloke who likes nothing more than spending an evening in front of the telly, slippers on his feet, a fag in his mouth, a can of lager grafted into his palm. What’s worse is that the image is true to life.

This doesn’t quite go with his much publicised affection for Europe, or wouldn’t if ‘Europe’ in his vocabulary signified a cultural entity, not a political one. As things stand, it’s a perfect fit. Culturally, Ken would be prepared to wear Union Jack shorts in public. Politically, he loves the EU.

This love doesn’t just dare speak its name – Ken is prepared to scream it off the rooftops or into BBC mikes, whichever is on offer. This morning it’s Radio Four that obligingly provided a vent for his outpourings.

Ken began by acknowledging that the government wouldn’t be re-elected if the vote were held today. He didn’t say which party the coalition would lose to, but that doesn’t need saying for it can only be Labour. In other words, in Ken’s political judgment, the government of which he is a member would lose an election to a party that a mere two years ago led the country to the edge of a precipice. And it still remains to be seen whether it was to the edge or over it.

Such a political hara-kiri takes some doing, and the horrible thing is that Ken is probably right. In two short years the British public has decided that Labour would be the lesser evil after all. Ken’s observation seems trustworthy, but what about his analysis? How did the Tories manage first not to score an outright victory over the worst government in British history, and then make the people feel nostalgic for it? Simple. Dave, according to Ken, runs a ‘strong government’, and strong governments ‘do unpopular things’.

Ken ought to know – after all he served in the government of Mrs Thatcher, as she was then. Now that government definitely was strong, and it certainly did unpopular things. Yet it managed to win a few election by increasing margins.

Something here doesn’t add up. Either British people congenitally oppose a strong government that does unpopular things, or they don’t. If they do, then Mrs Thatcher wouldn’t have won those elections. So they don’t. Hence, if the people are prepared to kick out Ken’s fellow mock Tories, then the British don’t necessarily perceive this government as strong – and only a strong government can get away with doing unpopular things.

Such a government would call a referendum on EU membership – it would be prepared to take any consequences to stop the on-going constitutional sabotage destroying Britain as a sovereign state. Moreover, this would be one of the few popular things the government would have done: the People’s Pledge campaign is showing that 89.9 percent are in favour of an in-or-out referendum.

Yet according to Ken, ‘It is the demand of a few right-wing journalists and a few extreme nationalist politicians.’  This means that individuals falling into these two disagreeable groups make up close to 90 percent of the population. The figure sounds improbable, though I’m man enough to admit that I haven’t done my own calculations.

Looking for arguments against the referendum, Ken and his ilk rely on the proven fait accompli stratagem, which they use as an all-purpose weapon against sanity. ‘Like it or not,’ they say or imply, ‘we are in the EU. Leaving it now would [insert your own disaster]. It’s no use arguing whether we should or shouldn’t have joined. We did; our bed is made, now we must lie in it.’

The same argument also sees the light of day whenever the subject of the welfare state comes up, and someone shows, figures in hands, that it’s simply no longer sustainable – financially, morally, socially, culturally or in any other way you care to name. ‘Yes,’ acknowledge Ken’s ideological brethren, ‘you may be right. But the welfare state exists, it incorporates millions. Cutting them off now would produce a social catastrophe.’ In other words, what’s done can’t be undone, so we must do more of it.

The intellectual rigour of such ratiocination neatly complements Ken’s affection for soap operas and lager. It’s there to remind us all that any manifestly idiotic, ideologically motivated initiative of any government must be fought tooth and nail, with civil disobedience if necessary. For once it’s in place, it’ll stay there.

‘I can’t think of anything sillier to do,’ says Ken about the possibility of a referendum. ‘It would settle nothing’.  Oh yes it would. It would settle the issue of Britain’s independence. And, as a bonus, it might drag Ken Clarke out of government and plonk him where he belongs: in front of Coronation Street.





I’ve never figured Nick Clegg for a religious fundamentalist

Dave’s whip isn’t going to see the light of day when Parliament votes on homomarriage. Under pressure from the party he leads but doesn’t really belong to, Dave has decided to give Tory MPs a free vote on the issue. That will please many of his parliamentary colleagues, including some of the front-bench variety, notably Philip Hammond and Owen Patterson.

But, predictably, Nick will have none of that. He’s demanding a whipped vote that would guarantee the easy passage of the measure. No big surprise there: name any Western tradition of long standing, and you can confidently predict Nick will be against it. He can also be counted upon to support any counterintuitive idea, provided it’s subversive enough.

What’s good about Nick though is that he doesn’t beat about the bush concerning his reasons, no matter how asinine. For example, he explained in no uncertain terms that our universities should stop being educational institutions and instead become battlegrounds of class war. To that end, said Nick, they should reject qualified candidates from private schools in favour of manifestly unqualified ones from comprehensives. It doesn’t matter that this kind of social engineering would deliver a coup de grâce to the already moribund British education system, making the country even less competitive and even more of a laughingstock. Such trivialities won’t be allowed to stand between Nick and what passes for his conscience.

And speaking of conscience, Nick’s principal argument against a free Tory vote takes this word in vain. ‘We are not asking people to make a decision of conscience,’ he said. ‘We are not asking any person with religious convictions to sacrifice anything,’ he added, meaning that no priest will be forced to marry homosexuals if he doesn’t want to.

That’s simply nonsense, and even Nick, living proof that expensive education doesn’t always work, must realise it. Surely he knows that our established Church has been like a weathervane, turning every which way depending on where the secular winds are blowing. Without repeating what I wrote on women’s ordination just a couple of days ago, suffice it to say that the Church has evidently surrendered to every secular fad to come round the block. Those who think it’ll stand fast against this particular one are simply deluding themselves. And if a hopelessly traditional vicar demurs, then that’s what we have the European Court of Human Rights for.

Let’s remark parenthetically that laws don’t just prescribe or proscribe certain acts. Often they are on the books simply to express the prevalent attitude in society. Such laws have an important role to play even if they are seldom enforced. The period between 1533, when An Acte for the punysshement of the vice of Buggerie was passed, and 1967, when The Sexual Offences Act decriminalised homosexual acts consenting adults commit in private, saw a steadily decreasing rate of convictions. Some of the more celebrated cases in modern times seldom involved a punishment more severe than a slap on the wrist.

Oscar Wilde, it has to be remembered, was convicted not for homosexuality but for corrupting the morals of a minor – an offence punishable even had the minor in question been a girl. Sir Alec Guinness, though charged with a homosexual offence in 1946, was never convicted. MPs Ian Harvey and Tom Driberg lost their jobs as a result of homosexual scandals, but that was it. In short, even until 1967 the anti-homosexuality laws had largely had merely a symbolic function, there only to communicate society’s feelings on some types of behaviour.

When society’s feelings changed, so did the laws. And so did the attitude of both the Anglican and Catholic Churches to openly homosexual priests and vicars. Nowadays, unless they cause a scandal by public indiscretions, they’re hardly ever censured or even reprimanded. There’s no reason whatsoever to believe that when the homomarriage law goes into effect, the Churches will suddenly become less pliable – especially when threatened with lawsuits for the abridgement of human rights.

That apart, I find Nick’s argument truly fascinating – and would find it even more so if I thought for a second that he understands the meaning of the words he utters. In effect, he is saying that no conscience outside of religion exists, which is a fundamentalist Christian argument if I’ve ever heard one. Judge for yourself: according to Nick, this issue isn’t a matter of conscience because no religious convictions will have to be sacrificed. Ergo, conscience equals religious convictions.

Much as I’d like to jump up and applaud, I still have to observe begrudgingly that, though this simple equation agrees with my religious faith, it doesn’t quite tally with empirical observation. We’ve all met atheists not totally devoid of conscience, and even a few who are guided by it in their daily lives. An argument can be made, and some of my clerical friends will make it, that our conscience has religious antecedents whether we are aware of it or not. Is that what Nick means?

No, he doesn’t – he wants to continue to lead his party after all. What he means is that political expediency demands that all those who oppose homosexual marriage be pigeonholed as religious fanatics. Rather than declaring himself to be an orthodox believer, he is claiming that no opposition to homomarriage is possible this side of Scripture, literally interpreted.

It would be both tiresome and useless trying to explain to Nick that perfectly valid secular objections exist to the debacle that’ll soon be perpetrated on society’s most fundamental institution. If he doesn’t realise that certain conventions that have existed for thousands of years are worth keeping simply because they’ve existed for thousands of years, nothing I say will have any effect.

I’ll simply venture a guess that our politicians see any tradition as a direct threat to their position. In a society organised along traditional lines, the likes of Nick Clegg wouldn’t be elected  proverbial dog catcher. Consciously or unconsciously they see destruction as an essential part of their self-perpetuation.

Never mind that everything around their ministerial chairs lies in ruins. As long as their backsides are firmly attached to the chairs, Nick and his jolly friends will be happy. One wonders though if logic was on the curriculum of St Paul’s school for boys.

Peace or literature: the Prize is Nobel, but it isn’t noble

First, some name dropping, in two groups of writers.

Group 1: Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, Bjornstjern Bjornson, Gabriela Mistral, Jose Echeragay, Giosue Carducci, Rudolf Christoph Eucken, Selma Lagerlof, Paul Heyse, Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Dario Fo.

Group 2: Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Henrik Ibsen, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, Robert Frost.

The writers in the first group are all Nobel laureates. The writers in the second group aren’t. Readily admitting to ignorance, I have to confess that, though I’ve read close to every word produced by the second group, I haven’t read a single one produced by the first. Still, taking a wild stab in the dark, I don’t think it would stretch credibility too much to suggest that the writers in the second group perhaps deserved the accolade a tad more.

Clearly, literary merit, if it’s a criterion at all, isn’t the sole criterion. One suspects that politics has a role to play as well, be that a bias towards Scandinavian writers or those leaning to the left. And the Nobel Committee gives ample grounds for such ugly suspicions.

Borges, for example, was denied the Nobel for his conservative views and his support of General Pinochet. Without getting into tedious comparisons between Pinochet and Castro’s stooge Allende, one could simply recall that the Committee saw fit to award the Prize to Jean-Paul Sartre and Pablo Neruda. Both were admirers and active supporters of Stalin, and Neruda actually ran a communist spy ring in Latin America. Nothing wrong with their politics then.

But it’s the Nobel Peace Prize that’s truly outrageous, listing as it does among its winners the mass murderer Yasser Arafat, along with the Vietnamese communist Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger. The last two gentlemen were jointly honoured in 1973 for having negotiated the surrender of South Vietnam to the communists. When South Vietnam was overrun in 1975, Le Duc Tho at least had the decency to reject the Prize. Dr Kissinger didn’t.

But it’s the story of the 2007 Prize that I find particularly disgusting. Nominated for it was Irena Sendler (née Krzyżanowska), the 97-year-old Polish Catholic who during the war saved the lives of 2,500 Jewish children from Treblinka’s gas chambers. A social worker employed by a Catholic charity, she’d go into the Warsaw Ghetto for the explicit purpose of containing the typhus epidemic. She would then hide children in her pickup truck and take them out of the Ghetto. As a nice touch, Irena Sendler kept a dog in the pickup, to make sure its barking would muffle whatever noises the children might make as she drove through SS checkpoints.

Once the children were out, they were placed with Catholic families, monasteries or convents, and Mrs Sendler supplied them with expertly forged papers. Eventually, the Nazis caught up with this saintly woman. She was brutally tortured, her arms and legs were broken. Mercifully, her charity managed to bribe the German guards taking Mrs Sendler to execution. Her life saved, she lay low for the rest of the war but continued to work behind the scenes, helping to save more Jewish children in Warsaw, Vilnus and elsewhere.

After the war she was persecuted by the Polish communist government, in whose eyes Irena Sendler’s heroism didn’t excuse her links with the underground Land Army and the wartime government in exile. Following the end of communism Mrs Sendler, widely known as ‘the female Schindler’, was awarded Poland’s highest decoration, and similar accolades from Israel and the Vatican.

In 2007, a year before she died, Irena Sendler was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. But she didn’t get it. The Prize went to a much worthier candidate: Al Gore, for his mendacious, factually ignorant, scare-mongering film on global warming.

The Committee was on a roll, and two years later Barak Obama, a month into his presidency, was nominated for the Prize, which he duly received. Though visibly perplexed, the President nonetheless accepted the award, for which he qualified as much as he did for the Prize in physics or medicine.

O tempora, o mores! as Cicero once exclaimed. If he were alive today, he wouldn’t get the Nobel Prize. 



The wife-beating, eye-gouging Church of England

The Rev Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, presumably Freefall for short, tipped to become one of the first female bishops, has delivered herself of a particularly stupid speech. Making idiotic pronouncements on the Church, I hasten to add, isn’t the exclusive prerogative of her sex. Male priests are more than capable of matching their female colleagues in that department, as any reader of Dr Williams’s speeches will testify.

What vexes me about this specific piece of oratory is that it’s symptomatic of the dire state of Christianity generally and Anglicanism in particular. It’s only for this reason that this rant by a silly woman is worth talking about at all.

The Rev Freefall compares the Church of England to chaps who beat their wives and gouge their eyes out. Now I proudly number three vicars among my friends. All three are married, all three wives have a full complement of eyes, none ever bears any signs of physical abuse or other trauma – if one disregards frequent rectal pains caused by the likes of Rev Freefall.

But of course her accusation was figurative, not literal. It’s merely an unfortunate simile, not a police report. Yet what’s behind the simile is even more unfortunate.

The Rev Freefall singles out for opprobrium those of her ‘sexist’ colleagues who have even the mildest of reservations about the consecration of woman bishops. Not about the consecration in general, as I hope you understand, but only about a bishopess performing the full range of liturgical functions before a congregation that’s opposed to it.

The Rev Freefall’s use of the word ‘sexist’ in this or any other narrative places her in the ‘infra’ area beneath criticism. Responding to her harangue seriously would be self-demeaning and, even worse, counterproductive. Instead I’d like to share with you a few thoughts on the consecration of female bishops and indeed on women’s ordination to the priesthood. For few perversions perpetrated by modernity are in my view more egregious – or more destructive to the Church.

First, why suddenly, after 2,000 years of Christianity, has this idea popped up at all? Jesus Christ, after all, didn’t ordain women, even though he clearly venerated them. A woman carried him in her womb, three Marys witnessed his crucifixion, two of them saw his burial, and it was to one of them that he first presented himself after his resurrection. These women, especially the Virgin, and also countless female saints are worshipped, with varying fervour, in every Christian confession. And yet, because he himself was a man, not a woman, Jesus wanted his priests to be not women but men.

This tradition matters infinitely more than anything thrown up in recent years, or even centuries. For a priest is only an ontological entity when he is outside his church. When he performs his liturgical duties, he is truly, in St Paul’s words, ‘neither male nor female’. At the altar a priest isn’t a person – he is merely a medium through which another person, Jesus Christ, makes his presence known; he’s but a synapse carrying the living memory of the Church, a transmitter of tradition. Because Jesus was a man, theologically this function can be performed only by a man.

This part of Christian doctrine doesn’t exist in isolation. Rather it’s attached by an unbreakable umbilical cord to the totality of tradition. A woman appearing at the altar is an affront to the very essence of Christianity: to the nature of the Trinity, creation, fall and its redemption by Christ’s sacrifice, resurrection and immortality.

The issue of women’s ordination, or indeed any other issue of theological import, can only ever be discussed in the context of Christian anthropology as laid down by the Scripture, not that of human rights, ‘sexism’, equality and other harebrained modern shibboleths. These are at best meaningless and at worst subversive even in their natural, secular habitat. In any ecclesiastical environment they are simply foreign and incomprehensible.

As Christ himself taught, his kingdom is not of this world. Bring his kingdom down to earth, and you’ll destroy the divine unity of the two realms – rather than being a God man, Christ will become neither.

This much ought to be clear even to the Rev Freefall. Presumably, at some point she had to study such obscure matters, even though she manifestly neither understands any of them nor believes in their truth. That gets us back to the original question: so why has the manifestly anti-Christian issue of women’s ordination come up at all? In fact, the second half of the first sentence in this paragraph answers the question more or less exhaustively.

The whole problem with the Christian Church is that these days, though it’s still a Church, it’s barely Christian. Gone are the anticlerical believers of yesteryear; their place has been taken by an indigenously modern type, clerical infidels. The Church is no longer the Bride of Christ; it has left him at the altar, to become instead a social service with a slight spiritual dimension. And social services have to respond to social trends. In other words, the Church has surrendered its transcendent soul to transient fads.

One such secular fad is the ‘liberation’ of women from their supposed erstwhile bondage. Obviously, the Church, now purely a parallel structure in the conglomerate of social services, has to mimic this secular trend. Never mind that 2,000 years of Christian theology are thereby cast adrift – the Church has to move with the times. If the times impose new pieties, the Church will respond with new theologies.

Thus real priests have to step aside to let in Freefall and her ilk. Little thought is given to the consequences, in which this lot believe as little as they do in God. One such consequence will be that the Anglican Church will be torn asunder. Those in its Anglo-Catholic part, and many in the other two, won’t accept this new slap in the face of Christianity. They’ll run away from their spiritual home and, hungry for the body of Christ, thirsty for his blood, wander off to the Ordinariate, straight Roman Catholicism, private chapels or simply away from ecclesiastical worship.

Imagine a spiritual desert, with famished, parched multitudes striking out in every direction, knowing that this time no Promised Land awaits at the end. The wind is blowing sand and thistle into their gaunt faces, they stumble every couple of steps, fall, then feebly try to pick themselves up. Then they see a mirage in the distance: Bishopess Freefall, smugly happy and jubilant. She got what she wanted. 



Nick Clegg can think rationally, and you can’t

Somewhere between two-thirds and three-fourths of the British think we should leave the EU with immediate effect. (I realise the figure is imprecise, but it would take a referendum for me to be accurate, and you know we aren’t going to get one.) That, according to Nick, testifies to a collective mental deficiency, something only correctable by clever chaps like him.

Talking about the catastrophic consequences of ‘Grexit’, this voice of reason explained things in a language even silly we can understand: ‘No rational person interested in the wealth and wellbeing of Europe’s citizens could advocate taking such a risk; not with Greece’s future, or our own.’

Meanwhile Dave is in Brussels, antagonising his continental colleagues with pleas to do something decisive about the euro. This is countered with variations on the theme ‘you don’t play the game, you don’t make the rules’, and no, I don’t know the Flemish for it.

Meanwhile, the markets continue to prove that they too are irrational. Yesterday they closed 3.7 percent down in Italy and 3.3 percent in Spain. Our own FTSE 100 was down 136 points, which means our top companies lost 2.5 percent of their value. That may not sound like a lot of percent, but it definitely is a lot of billions.

Irrationality is no longer just an epidemic – it’s a pandemic. The ECB irrationally admits that perhaps Greece exiting the euro wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Not to be outdone in the irrationality stakes, the Greek government says it’s preparing for such an exit. Angela Merkel is irrationally refusing to underwrite Greece’s continuing presence in the EU by issuing eurobonds. And, just to prove that she’s teetering at the edge of madness, Angela claims she can’t understand what’s wrong with the idea of not spending more money than one has. Just goes to show to what depths of lunacy an irrational person can plunge.

But trust Nick to sort them all out. He knows the rational thing to do: throw a few more trillions at Greece to keep her in. And then, once the euro has been stabilised, we’ll be able to join it, which Nick still thinks would be a perfectly sane step to take.

Since on this issue I’m with the irrational majority, I can’t for the life of me follow the logic. That is, I can follow the intermediate steps – it’s the conclusion that defeats me. Yes, of course, Greece heading for the exit may, and probably will, cause a stampede of others trying to get out through the same door. Yes, that’ll spell the end of the euro, which in turn is likely to reduce the EU to the union of France and Germany, giving rise to a new political entity presumably called Germance. What I don’t understand is why such a development would be catastrophic for us.

Obviously, there will be much short-term pain all over the world. The short term may well last until 2015, when Britain will go to the polls, with the likely consequence of Nick’s influence being scaled down to a level commensurate with his share of the vote. So what’s the down side? More important, what’s the alternative?

One realises that expecting a rational politician like Nick to think beyond the next election is like expecting a Labrador retriever to ponder Kant’s categorical imperative. Still, since you and I aren’t planning to stand for public office in 2015, perhaps we should take a longer view, irrational as it may be.

What long-tern consequences would we suffer as a result of the EU’s demise? Or us leaving it? Nick has all the figures on the tip of his tongue: 40 percent or some such proportion of our trade is with EU countries. The assumption is that, should we revert to being governed by laws passed by our sovereign parliament, the remaining EU members will stop doing business with us. They’ll treat us the way we are treating Iran, banging it on the head with sanctions.

But they’ll do nothing of the sort, for that would be cutting off their collective nose to spite their face. The EU has a huge trade surplus with Britain, which means they get more money from us than we from them. Surely they won’t want to lose it at a time when their own house is tumbling down? The notion that a country has to pool its sovereignty with others in order to trade with them is preposterous.

However, even supposing for the sake of argument that the remaining EU members will wish to submit themselves to the aforementioned nasal surgery and start a trade war, we’ll have the means of fighting back. To do so we’ll have to deploy the kind of weapons Nick, rational lad that he is, would probably disavow.

We could eliminate or drastically lower corporate tax, a measure that would instantly attract foreign manufacturers to our shores. We could eliminate the capital gains tax, which would turn London into the world’s second biggest French city (it’s currently seventh). We could get rid of inheritance tax, which would act like a magnet for foreign pension funds. We could turn ourselves into a tax haven for foreign investors, strengthening no end the City of London, whose current strength is already a burr under the EU’s blanket. We could do these and many other things that would improve our long-term prospects.

However, there will be much pain first. A collapse of that magnitude would mean a few lean years, many a twinge where it hurts. But here we should rise and thunder with a conviction that would further testify to our irrationality: no painless way out of this mess exists. Either we suffer for a couple of years in a good cause or we’ll live tortuous lives for ever in a bad cause.

I know what my choice is, and I can guess what yours may be. But then we are irrational.







Two singers, and a sense of proportion, are dead

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died last week. So did Robin Gibb.

The former was one of the most seminal and influential singers of the twentieth century. His recordings of most of the Lieder repertoire, Schubert’s Winterreise and Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion will delight music lovers for as long as there are music lovers. ‘A born god who has it all’ was how Elisabeth Schwatzkopf described Fischer – a slight exaggeration surely, but it came from the heart of another great artist.

Robin Gibb was, with his brothers, a member of a popular pop group the Bee Gees that gave the world such disco hits as Stayin’ Alive and Jive Talkin’, selling 200 million albums as a result. In other words, if Fischer revealed to the world his interpretation of the very essence of the Western spirit, Gibb was a successful purveyor of primitive quasi-musical matter. As an experiment, read the lyrics of any of his songs as you would a poem. They relate to real poetry exactly as their musical accompaniment relates to real music.

Both will be missed – but in a different way and by different people. The word ‘different’ is these days a convenient cop-out, obviating any need for judgment and discernment. One hesitates to say that something is better than something else – just use the word ‘different’ and you’ll imply uncontroversial parity. Bach wasn’t better than John Lennon; they were just different. Rembrandt was different from, not better than, Tracy Emin. You have your taste, I have mine, and who’s to say that one is better than the other? To suggest that some tastes are infinitely more elevated and informed than others is to commit the ultimate heresy of our cultish age.

That’s why it’s only with an infidel’s trepidation that I dare say that Fischer-Dieskau was a musician, and Robin Gibb wasn’t. Fischer was among those who elevate the public taste to the level of mankind’s apex. Gibb was among those who drag the public down to the level of mankind’s nadir.

It has to be said that Gibb’s output, though having nothing to do with music, was generally inoffensive and not without its practical uses. Even the most accomplished of dancers would find it hard to dance to the sound of St Matthew’s Passion; even John Travolta twisted and turned creditably to the sound of Stayin’ Alive. On the other hand, I can’t imagine any post-pubescent individual sitting back, closing his eyes and spending hours listening to How Deep is Your Love and other variations on the same theme – which is the only way to treat Fischer’s work. In short, the difference here is between the functional and the sublime – between mindless entertainment and great art.

How is this difference reflected in the coverage of the two deaths in our ‘quality’ dailies, specifically The Times? One respectful obituary for Fischer-Dieskau; pages upon pages on Gibb, from the editorial to the cover story in Times 2. There’s no doubt which event The Times regards as more momentous.

‘The death of Robin Gibb reminds us how much pop music shapes our lives,’ says the editorial. It’s not something of which one likes to be reminded. Pop ‘music’ should remind us of something else: how a once great culture has been destroyed, how deeply we’ve sunk into the morass of deadened senses, crepuscular minds, undeveloped infantile tastes. It’s true that this junk has shaped our lives, but the same can be said about drugs, street crime and the pandemic of AIDS.

But The Times obviously believes that any shape is as good as any other, and each should be greeted with open arms. ‘A century ago, classical music made up 85 percent of sales of recorded music,’ announces the editorial proudly. ‘Today it accounts for well below a tenth.’ To me this ‘trajectory’ represents a cultural catastrophe. To The Times, it’s a welcome development.

The editorial then quotes Alban Berg, who allayed George Gershwin’s fears that his Rhapsody in Blue wouldn’t be taken seriously by saying, ‘Mr Gershwin, music is music.’ For The Times to use that quote in this context is dealing from the bottom of the pack. The Rhapsody is at the outer edge of what Berg would have recognised as music. To think for a second that he, or for that matter Gershwin, would feel the same way about pop is either dishonest or moronic, you decide which.

‘Pop’s ascendancy is everywhere,’ says The Times. I wonder if they’d say the same thing, with the same inflection, about the spread of drugs, which enjoys a symbiotic relationship with pop. They probably would – it’s the shape of things today and things to come.

By the standards of his chosen field, Robin Gibb was a nice man, and I’m sorry he died so early and with so much suffering. But that shouldn’t prevent us from keeping a sense of proportion when talking about his life and death and those of Fischer-Dieskau.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Robin Gibb, RIP. 

Condolences to Princess Michael on her avoidable bereavement

In Russian business a killing doesn’t just mean making a lot of money. It’s a way of settling disagreements, enforcing contracts, collecting debts or just gaining a competitive advantage.

I don’t know which of those motives inspired the murder of the Moscow furniture tycoon Mikhail Kravchenko, and frankly I don’t care. Life has always been cheap in Russia, and it’s now even cheaper than it was, say, 50 years ago. People these days can be murdered for most trivial reasons, making it hard to second-guess the real one.

I only wish that members of our royal family didn’t get embroiled, however tangentially, in the murky world of Russian gangland. That’s precisely what the Russian business world is – and what it can only be in a country that has little tradition of legality. Without a just, independent and enforceable legal system, free enterprise is gangsterism. To this rule there are no exceptions.

That doesn’t mean that every rich man in Russia is a crime lord. Some are, some aren’t. But even those who aren’t have to play the game whose rules are set by the Mafia, operating under the aegis of that ultimate protection racket, the country’s government.

That’s how it always is everywhere: the dominant system imposes its ethos on all others. Our own NHS and the National School Curriculum exert their gravitational pull even on private medicine and education; otherwise honest Western bankers have to bribe Third-World politicians; the Russian Mafia will bend to its will even those entrepreneurs who ostensibly have nothing to do with it.

I don’t know much about the late Mr Kravchenko. If newspaper accounts are to be believed, he built his chain of furniture stores on the Ikea model. No direct Mafia links have been mentioned, but every Russian millionaire is tainted, if only by association. A pub landlord who pays protection money to the local hoodlum is unwittingly tarred by the same brush.

That’s why those British figures who stand for something other than just themselves should steer clear of any personal association with so-called Russian businessmen. One realises that this would be too much to expect from the likes of Lord Mandelson, whose financial shenanigans even within Britain have twice got him sacked from the government, and who is now friends with the Russian aluminium king Deripaska. But one is entitled to expect probity from members of the reigning dynasty that’s supposed to embody the historical sagacity and virtue of its realm.

Yet Prince and Princess Michael insist on hobnobbing with various Russians whose power and wealth by definition have a dubious provenance. Speculation has been rife that the Princess’s relationship with Kravchenko went beyond the ‘close friendship’ to which she owns up. I really don’t care one way or the other – though most men would be upset if their wives were photographed holding hands with a younger man in Venice. Venice isn’t Milan; one doesn’t go there on business. But let the gossip columns ponder this. For me a ‘close friendship’ is bad enough.

It may be entirely coincidental that Princess Michael’s ‘close friend’ got riddled with bullets during the same week in which it was revealed that Prince Michael had accepted a gift of £320,000 from Boris Berezovsky. Then again, it may not be.

Berezovsky, Putin’s friend and patron in the past, is now his worst enemy. This means that Boris can’t show his face anywhere near Russia and has to live in England with a platoon of bodyguards in close attendance. Occasionally peeking out from his assorted fortresses, he’s still meddling in Russian politics, usually by financing Putin’s opponents.

Berezovsky has claimed that his gift to Prince Michael was just a friendly gesture, offering help to a man in need. The extent of the grace-and-favour royal’s deprivation is neither immediately obvious nor particularly important. What is significant is that, even if the Russian exile had been driven by uncharacteristically noble impulses, the Prince acted imprudently by accepting money whose origin is in some eyes questionable. And Putin isn’t above sending a not-so-subtle message to the princely family: stay away or else.

Nor is it out of the question that this KGB colonel may see the Prince as a potential rival. The monarchist sentiment is strong in Russia, and it’s getting stronger. And Prince Michael has often been rumoured as a possible tsar, what with the immediate Romanov dynasty having been wiped out in 1918.

In all fairness, it has to be said that the Prince does little to dispel such rumours. He doesn’t mind, for example, emphasising his already remarkable resemblance to his second cousin twice removed, Tsar Nicholas II. To that end His Royal Highness has grown a beard styled à la Nicholas and has taken the trouble of learning Russian to a reasonable standard. His consultancy has had business dealings with Russia for many years, and the Prince has been awarded Russia’s Order of Friendship, a decoration for particularly friendly foreigners.

Being friendly to Russia is one thing; being friendly to her ruling regime is quite another. Apart from its transparent criminality, this regime is fickle in its affections. That it awards a medal to the husband today doesn’t at all preclude the possibility that it might ‘wack’ (to use Putin’s favourite word) the wife’s ‘close friend’ tomorrow.

I’m not speculating whether it did or didn’t. All I’m saying is that it’s best not to come in close contact with dirt, for some of it may rub off on one. It’s best to exercise prudence – unless of course the Prince and Princess wish to strike yet another blow for republicanism in Britain.












All play and no work can make Dave an even duller boy

The stories of Dave ‘chillaxing’ during the G8 Summit were heart-warming. That is, they began to perform this thermal function after I figured out what the word meant. My first impression was that it was a transitive verb denoting some particularly gruesome way of committing murder.

But then I looked at the pictures accompanying the stories, and they were indeed worth a thousand words. Dave wasn’t hacking anyone to death. He was doing a faithful impersonation of a football lout, throwing his arms up in the air in front of a telly to celebrate Chelsea’s triumph over Bayern Munich. Considering that Dave was going through that thespian routine in front of the crestfallen Angela Merkel, one can legitimately question his tact, manners and diplomatic skills. But then he gave Angie a hug and let her cry on his shoulder, so it was all right.

Just as legitimately one may wonder about the sincerity of that unbridled joy. Here the choice is straightforward: either Dave, who has always declared his affection for Aston Villa, was truly jubilant at the sight of another English team beating the Germans on penalties, or he was putting it on.

If he was indeed ecstatic, then one can easily believe the information helpfully provided by the same stories on his other ‘chillaxing’ habits, such as spending most of his spare time playing computer games designed for 10-year-olds playing truant from school. But the sceptics among us just might suspect that Dave’s tasteless enthusiasm came not from his heart but from his PR consultants.

Rather than getting a jolt of excitement out of an English team fielding only four English players, coached by an Italian and owned by a Russian, beating Angela’s Bavarians, Dave was trying to counter his image of being posh. No Enoch Powell, he. Dave’s not going to quote Virgil in public or profess his affection for Wagner. He’s a regular bloke, and he doesn’t give a monkey’s who knows it, djahmean?

If that’s the case, then he shouldn’t stop there. And nor should George, who was actually at the match, in a private, globally televised capacity. In case our two leaders are wondering what else they might do to prove to the electorate that they are as common as muck, here are a few helpful suggestions.

Those bespoke suits have to go. Instead, when attending the next EU summit on how to avoid a global economic meltdown, Dave and George should both wear patriotic T-shirts, purchasable from one of the stalls around Stamford Bridge. Dave’s could say ‘If it wasn’t for England, you’d all be Krauts.’ George would look most fetching in one proclaiming ‘Two World Wars, one World Cup, so @£&% off.’

That would communicate to those dastardly continentals that Dave and George will stick up for Britain in the only way they know how: by making empty, and if need be offensive, PR gestures. Dave should also, in my opinion, get a tattoo. After all Samantha already has one, and what can bring a posh politician closer to his flock? He should, however, avoid having ACAB inscribed on his knuckles, as that might communicate an insufficient devotion to law enforcement. Perhaps a heart pierced by an arrow would do the job, but this matter does require serious consideration.

Above all, it’s their speech that needs work, especially those vowels that sound as if they came straight out of Everyman’s English Pronouncing Dictionary by Daniel Jones. That simply won’t do. Dave should prove he’s a true heir to Blair, and didn’t Tony ‘Anthony’ glottal-stop his way to 10 Downing Street? Didn’t he drop his aitches whenever addressing an audience that looked as if it would settle for nothing less? Well then, Dave has his role model, and he should learn from him.

Thus, when his new friend François (who doesn’t yet realise he’s Dave’s friend) suggests that Britain abandon “zat rebate unfair and ‘elp run ze boutique European in ze manner proper”, Dave’s proper response should be, “You wha’, mate?” Then of course he should agree, having satisfied the domestic audience that his blokish credentials are impeccable.

And when George is asked by his German counterpart and new friend Wolfgang Schäuble (the one who got him that ticket for the Chelsea triumph, and what gesture could be friendlier?) to contribute another £50 billion to the Save-the-Euro charity, he must learn to reply, “ ’Ow much?!?!” – and only then pay.

The good thing about 10 Downing Street is that it’s a semi, though it would be much better if it were a couple of miles south of its present location. But have you ever heard this vote-winning fact mentioned anywhere? Dave should slip it into his next interview, by saying, for example, “The other night I was at me semi, in the kitchen, cooking tea for me trouble…”

The next election will be secure. Britain won’t be, but who cares? It’s really important stuff that matters.









Germany bought Europe on credit, and now she doesn’t want to pay

You can see furniture emporia advertising similar deals on sofas upholstered in genuine vinyl: buy now, pay later, 0% interest, while stocks last. That’s how the EU project was sold to those industrious, ordnung-loving, pfennig-pinching Germans.

They saw, with a bit of prompting from the ruling bureaucrats, the economic advantages of a protectionist block touting a single currency pegged to their beloved deutschmark and a single market dominated by German exports. Deutschmark, deutschmark, über alles – even if it’s called something else now. What’s in a name, as that English precursor of Goethe once put it.

However, the ruling bureaucrats didn’t tell them a few other things, which the Germans are finding out the hard way. The economic advantages, as it turns out, weren’t the furniture emporium. They were its advertising campaign.

Advertising never lies; it deceives by omission. This particular campaign omitted the truly critical datum: the purpose behind the EU is political, not economic. And, if modernity has taught us anything, it’s that politics costs. Sometimes it costs a lot of blood, sometimes it doesn’t. One way or the other, it always costs a lot of money.

The economics of the situation are simple, though perhaps too simple for government economists to understand. A monetary union can’t work even in theory, never mind practice, in the absence of a fiscal union. And no fiscal union is possible without a strong central government allocating resources as it sees fit.

That’s how the South of England pays for the North, the North of Italy pays for the South, and California pays for Mississippi. The mayor of Milan doesn’t tell the mayor of Naples to sack half the police force and tell people who’ve never worked to find a job. Milan pays the central government, and the central government then keeps all those unemployed southerners in spaghetti alle vongole.

Extrapolating this proven arrangement to the EU means, in essence, that the Germans have to pay for everybody else, with the possible exception of the Benelux countries and one or two others. Suddenly it dawns on the Germans that to keep the EU going they’ll have to accept a lower standard of living and a higher rate of inflation. Perhaps not so high that they’ll have to take the old wheelbarrow off the mothballs to collect their weekly pay, but something approaching double digits.

They are understandably unhappy about that, and they’ve already communicated their feelings to the government through local elections. On that basis, most commentators have put a simple syllogism into effect. Thesis: Germany will have to pay for everybody. Antithesis: the Germans won’t wear it. Synthesis: the EU will fall apart.

That’s roughly the Aristotelian structure put together by a famous journalist speaking the other day to a mostly UKIP audience. The chap, endowed with much jolly-hockey-sticks charm but next to no intellectual rigour, more or less preached the Dave line. In the process, he gave the impression of someone who’d happily vote for a bull terrier, provided it sported a blue rosette.

The party line, as enunciated by the pundit, is that the EU is on its last legs, and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about what to do next. There’s no point even talking about leaving this megalomaniac abomination. Loose talk may cost Dave a few votes and what for? All we have to do is sit back and watch the EU implode before our very eyes, all by itself.

That’s wishful thinking that betokens a most unfortunate misreading of the problem. The EU would indeed implode if its powers-that-be were solely driven by economic concerns: one can’t think of another recent example of elementary economic theory receiving such a resounding empirical vindication. The EU may still implode, and good riddance to bad rubbish.

But I’m prepared to bet what’s left of my pension fund, that the Germans and their hangers-on will go to any extreme to prevent this. Had they not been prepared to stake all on an emerging federal state, a sort of EUSSR, or Fourth Reich if you’d rather, they wouldn’t have started the project in the first place.

Angela Merkel will pout for a while and whine about good housekeeping, but then she’ll do what politics demands, and damn the economy. She and her friends won’t let the EU bite the dust until they’ve exhausted every means of its preservation. And their feelings about the crisis just may be different from yours or mine.

History teaches that economic (or military) cataclysms are the steroids on which state Leviathans build their muscle mass. That’s why all Western states acquired unprecedented powers after both great wars, or, more appropriately, the Great Depression. Hence, if there’s an opportunity in every crisis, then the eurocrats must feel that they have in Europe today their greatest opportunity ever.

They’ll try to use the abyss into which they’ve pushed Europe as vindication of federalism – not as irrefutable proof that the whole idea was criminally inept. And if it takes trillions of freshly minted euros to fill the abyss, they’ll eventually do so, after much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth.

Meanwhile, the only sane thing for us to do would be to leave this madhouse immediately. Instead of paying the lunatics even more than we’ve already paid them, we should use the vast sums earmarked for this to protect our banks against the asylum collapsing on our heads. And because it’s the only sane thing to do, you know HMG won’t do it.

Instead, they’ll sing from the hymn sheet provided by The Sunday Times editorial today. The lyrics extol ‘the trade advantages’ of staying in the asylum – as if a country has to dissolve itself into others in order to trade with them. Britain did reasonably well in that department throughout her history without becoming part of a German-dominated federation. But that was in the old days, when sound economics wasn’t trumped by deranged politics.

The Germans will pay dearly for their ultimately doomed attempt to unite Europe without resorting to panzers. So, one fears, will we.