What is a crime to us is merely an infraction to the French

Francophones will recognise that I’m playing on language differences here. Un crime in French describes only a felony punishable by at least 10 years in prison. Everything else is called une infraction.

So my comment in the title is just a joke, like rendering French speech in English by ending every sentence with ‘but no?’, or English in French by beginning every sentence with ‘Je dis!’. No serious divergences implied. Or are they? 

Courtesy of the Channel Tunnel, the drive home from chez nous only takes about seven hours. Add to that three hours for lunch along the way, and Penelope and I have plenty of time to discuss the differences between us and our French friends.

Inevitably gossiping about individual idiosyncrasies turns into generalised comments about the dissimilarity between the two nations, which we usually agree runs deeper than Europhiles think.

Such an exercise in comparative ethnography can be triggered by something as trivial as the French serving cheese before pudding, and the British the other way around. Or, as it was yesterday, it can be prompted by the differences in our laws. (Experience suggests that such topics are best covered before the stop for lunch: it’s not so much drinking as drinking and philosophising that makes driving dangerous.)

The legal topic came up because the other night we had dinner with a couple of dear French friends both of whom are high-flying lawyers. As friends, we have much in common; as British and French we also have differences, which the husband pointed out after his fourth glass of wine and my fifth.

French courts, he explained, are interested in establishing the truth, while the Brits are only out to observe casuistic legalities. Thus a French judge instructs jurors to look deep into their hearts to decide on the verdict. A British judge merely instructs them to determine whether the evidence presented by the prosecution proves the case beyond a reasonable doubt, and never mind their hearts.

You mean yours is a court of justice and ours is a court of law, I suggested, and my friend agreed readily. If only it were as simple as that, and looking into the details of the two systems will only scratch the surface.

The French system isn’t adversarial like ours, but inquisitorial. Collecting evidence in a French Court of Assizes (the one trying les crimes – no other court uses the jury system) is done not by prosecution and defence but by investigating magistrates, children of the Napoleonic Code. After the evidence has been presented in court by the troika of the presiding judge and two associates, the former then tells the jury to look deep into their hearts and act on their conscience.

The jury of nine includes three professional judges, there to explain to their randomly selected  colleagues how to translate conscience into justice. (‘Yes I know, Jean-Pierre, he’s vraiment nasty, but this doesn’t legally make him a murderer, n’est ce pas?)

Contrary to the widespread misconception, a French defendant isn’t considered guilty until proven innocent, and even the notion of proof beyond reasonable doubt isn’t alien to their system.

Presumption of guilt did exist in the bad old days, mainly for the benefit of Victor Hugo who otherwise would have been unable to come up with a plot for Les Misérables. But these days the classical justice of Roman jurisprudence has crowded out some of the revolutionary afflatus communicated in the 1789 Declaration of Rights. How well presumption of innocence is served by the French inquisitorial system is a different matter, and not one I’m really qualified to judge.

My interests lie elsewhere: the ethos behind our respective legal systems. Clearly neither one is, nor can be, perfect: we aren’t blessed with ideal collective systems in this world, so we should still try to be good individually.

The French system perhaps places more stress on punishing the guilty and ours on protecting the innocent, and this is more than a matter of accents. Preference of protecting society rather than the individual points at the innate collectivism of the French, implanted into their DNA by the Enlightenment. Hence also their tendency towards statism, both national and supranational, as embodied by the EU. In law too the revolutionary pathos of the Declaration hasn’t been entirely superseded by Roman impartiality.

Interestingly, though all our French friends dislike the Revolution, few of them see anything fundamentally wrong with the Enlightenment of which 1789 was the culmination. The essence of the Enlightenment was humanism, elevating man to a God-like status, which was later constitutionally enshrined by France’s perverse laïcité.

England is these days as secular as France is, but our revolutionaries have so far been unable to destroy every Judaeo-Christian premise of British institutions, though not for any lack of trying. The chief premise is that man is fallible because he is fallen.

Hence our Common Law relies not so much on the jurors’ hearts as on legal minutiae emerging through centuries of precedent. Human reason alone is deemed unreliable unless bolstered by institutionalised prudence: only God is perfect, contrary to what the Déclaration des droits de l’homme implies. The Age of Reason is indeed the age of treason – to every formative tenet of our civilisation. The philosophy based on this understanding is conservatism, which doesn’t really exist in France, even though the word was coined by a Frenchman.

I agree with my friend: the French system is cleverer than ours. He, on the other hand, probably won’t agree with me that ours is wiser. Vive la différence, I say.

Lady Thatcher and Dave – what a difference

Dave would love to be just like Margaret Thatcher, but only in one respect: her ability to win three straight elections outright.

But he’ll never match Lady Thatcher in this respect because he’s unlike her in every other. One demonstrable difference is that he isn’t a real statesman – in fact, he isn’t a real anything other than a power seeker. Margaret Thatcher wanted power too, but not for its own sake. Power was for her but the vehicle; the good of the country, the destination.

Unlike Dave, she had convictions and the courage of them. Mind you, I for one am not entirely sure Lady Thatcher’s convictions, honest and commendable as they were, were entirely Conservative or indeed conservative. Her policies, and above all her instincts, were more Whig than Tory, and instincts always provide a more accurate clue. It was the former Tory leader Lord Hailsham, among many others, who postulated that conservatism wasn’t so much a philosophy, much less an ideology, as an attitude to life, some sort of intuitive predisposition.

That’s why it’s spurious to separate, as many like to do, political conservatism from social or cultural kinds. If we accept, as I do, Hailsham’s definition, they’re all branches of the same tree, and apple blossoms aren’t going to grow on an oak.

For example, it’s hard to imagine a true political conservative preaching, as John Major once did when he was still prime minister, the social delights of classless society. Nor should a man get a free ride when claiming to be a social liberal but a fiscal conservative, which presumably means he loves the welfare state but would rather not pay for it.

On the other hand it’s usually possible to guess a man’s political views without ever bringing up politics during, say, a dinner-table chat. For example, it’s highly unlikely that a staunch political conservative would express enthusiasm for pop music, conceptual sculpture, garden cities, vegetarianism, same-sex marriage, facial metal or body art, and it’s impossible to imagine that in writing he’d ever choose BCE and CE over BC and AD.

Neither is it probable that someone on the left of the political spectrum would dismiss out of hand any music amplified by electric or electronic appliances. Nor can one easily imagine any kind of conservative sporting a tattoo (other than a naval one), say ‘ACAB’ on his knuckles. Such telltale signs may of course mislead, but not often.

Lady Thatcher was the only successful and honourable politician who deviated from Hailsham’s definition without in any way compromising her integrity. Her political and especially economic instincts were Whiggish, or perhaps, to use a more up-to-date term, libertarian, but she had learned to fit them seamlessly into the framework of the Tory Party. That meant conforming to a large extent with its ethos and style, and she managed to do so perfectly organically, defying Lord Hailsham.

That’s why Lady Thatcher was confused, as Robin Harris recalls so amusingly, when introduced at a party to a young man sporting an open-neck shirt and jeans. When told that he was about to become the next leader of the Tory Party, Lady Thatcher couldn’t believe her ears. She smiled at Dave and asked: ‘So you want to become a Conservative MP?’

You see, Lady Thatcher had found a way of reconciling her Whiggish instincts with the Conservative style. But it never occurred to her that conservatism could also coexist with cheap, unprincipled populism expressed not only politically and rhetorically, but also sartorially. Most of her cabinet colleagues might have been intellectual and moral nonentities, but at least they dressed like Tories.

It’s not as if Dave, who likes to be photographed with his shirt hanging out of his denim trousers, feels uncomfortable wearing proper prime-ministerial clothes: the chap was practically born in a Savile Row suit. But precisely because of that he wants to come across as someone born pre-tattooed.

That makes perfect sense to Dave, and in a way one can sympathise with him. He wasn’t going to become prime minister the way Maggie Thatcher had, was he? By showing the mind and character of someone who could lead his party to victory and his country out of the doldrums? Of course not. And since his hunger for power was ravenous he had to rely on tasteless tricks. No wonder Lady Thatcher was confused.

If you want to know why the Tories – and Britain – were so much  more successful under Maggie than under Dave, just compare their human qualities. Or for that matter their attire. Lady Thatcher was hardly ever photographed wearing casual clothes, never mind those associated with pimply adolescents raised by a single mother on a council estate. She wanted to be popular because she made peoples’ lives better, not because she pandered to their lowly tastes.

Dave, on the other hand, wants to become popular with the underprivileged by pretending to be just like them. Alas, they see through the pretence. They also realise that in parallel he only pretends to be a statesman.

Kohl proves that a little self-knowledge is a dangerous thing

We’ve all said in the past things we’d rather others didn’t remember at present. Some of those things were silly, some ignorant, some reflected our understanding as it was then but no longer is now.

The ability to look back at one’s past pronouncements and either wince or smile self-deprecatingly is a good human trait. It reflects a capacity for unbiased self-analysis and therefore a potential for self-improvement.

Some people have more of this ability, some less, and some are Germans. I hope you won’t think me a bigot if I were to suggest that, among the many indisputably great talents the Germans possess, one for dispassionate self-assessment doesn’t figure very prominently. That’s why they’re eminently capable of saying mutually exclusive things a few years apart without even realising that’s what they are.

Helmut Kohl, Germany’s longest-serving post-war Chancellor, is a case in point. Commenting on the death of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest-serving post-war prime minister, he mournfully admitted they hadn’t been the best of friends.

Displaying both the grace and the self-awareness for which the Germans are so justly famous, Herr Kohl blamed that unfortunate situation on the deceased: ‘Margaret Thatcher was difficult, just as our relationship was difficult.’

Of course, not only was Lady Thatcher difficult as a person but, especially, she failed to see the blinding federalist light shining out of Herr Kohl’s various orifices: ‘[She] wanted Europe, but a different Europe from that wanted by most of her European colleagues and me. From our point of view, this antagonism characterises British policy on Europe to this day.’

It’s all Maggie’s fault then. I wonder if, before looking for a mote in Margaret Thatcher’s eye, Herr Kohl had ever pondered whether perhaps there was a log in his own. Probably not, considering both his personal and national traits.

However, another interview given by Kohl in 2002 but kept under wraps until this week could possibly throw some light on Maggie’s recalcitrance and also Britain’s antagonism to the European ‘project’.

‘I knew that I could never win a referendum in Germany,’ he said. ‘We would have lost a referendum on the introduction of the euro. That’s quite clear. I would have lost and by seven to three.’ That is why ‘In one case – the euro – I was like a dictator…,’ Kohl admitted, adding by way of self-vindication, ‘The euro is a synonym for Europe. Europe, for the first time, has no more war.’ Yugoslavia doesn’t count as part of Europe then.

That old chestnut about the EU being the reason, indeed even a reason, for peace in Europe is so stupid and mendacious that it’s hardly worth a comment. This isn’t so much an argument as an attempt to dupe the gullible, those who are unaware of the decisive role NATO, mainly the United States, played in the post-war balance of power.

What is worth a comment, however, is that Kohl felt justified in assuming dictatorial powers to abandon the hugely effective Deutschmark and push through the euro. We all know what a resounding success the single currency has been since, strangulating as it is Europe’s economies, especially those encompassing people who speak languages derived from Latin and Old Greek.

In passing it’s worth mentioning something that Herr Kohl modestly left unsaid: the euro project involved not only bossiness, his own and Germany’s, but also lies. Today’s federasts routinely admit to having cooked the books in order to make countries like Italy and especially Greece look as if they satisfied admission criteria. They – and the rest of Europe – are paying a steep price for that sleight of hand, and we haven’t seen anything yet.

Could it be that Kohl’s 2002 interview explains the laments he saw fit to voice this week? Could it be that ‘the different Europe’ Margaret Thatcher wanted was that of independent, sovereign states living in peace and trading with one another as equals? Could it be she was appalled by the prospect of yet another German dictator lording it over the continent?

No, surely not. She was just ‘difficult’.    



Sex, pardon me, gender as a political persuasion

A woman was a sphinx without secrets to Oscar Wilde. God’s second mistake to Friedrich Nietzsche. Someone who’d rather be right than reasonable to Ogdon Nash. Then physiologists took over and described a woman as someone with XX chromosomes.

These days the first three definitions would be widely regarded as frivolous, condescending, possibly fascistic. And the fourth one isn’t just insufficient but quite possibly wrong.

For example, feminists never accepted that, say, Golda Meir, Jeanne Kirkpatrick or Margaret Thatcher were women, even though they manifestly satisfied the chromosomal requirement. Granted, if pressed, feminists would agree that the three politicians were indeed female, but only technically speaking. However, they fell short of the only definition that matters, the political one.

All three only got to be regarded as women posthumously, when they could promote the feminist cause by being female after all and could no longer hurt it by not being feminists. When still alive, they simply didn’t qualify for the cherished minority status (in case you didn’t know this, women are a minority even though there are more of them – go figure, as Americans say.)

None of the three was a victim; two of them were perceived to be rightwing, possibly fascistic; all three were bellicose towards what we’re mandated to believe are oppressed minorities; two actually led their countries to war. Against this background, the seven children the three non-women had between them would be regarded as annoying factual irrelevancies that always seem to interfere with really crucial considerations.

It is from this sex, pardon me, gender angle that the legacy of Lady Thatcher is being evaluated by so many. She may have been the most popular prime minister of the 20th century, but that’s unimportant. What really matters is that she is the sole female prime minister, even if she only became a card-carrying woman at death, having before been a reactionary, possibly fascistic affront to all progressive personkind.

Yesterday I was served, to accompany my morning coffee, a demonstration of this tendency by Sky News. Commissioned to comment on the deceased were two young women, each holding the mystery title of Women’s Editor, one at the Telegraph, the other at the Guardian.

Now I can understand, indeed welcome, a woman Editor, but a Women’s Editor? Especially at the Telegraph? Whatever next? By inference the two papers pursue a separate editorial policy aimed at women, which is nothing short of chauvinistic if you ask me. Possibly even fascistic.

Before the two young women opened their mouths I made a satisfied mental note that ours was better-looking (not being blessed with a public office, I shan’t do an Obama and apologise for this disgraceful, possibly fascistic remark). Then again, she wore horn-rimmed spectacles and, contrary to Dorothy Parker’s assertion, I do, or rather used to, make passes at girls in glasses.

Alas, the fanciable editor immediately let the side down by being conspicuously less well-spoken than her leftie counterpart. When a conservative journalist uses the glottal stop and a socialist one doesn’t, you know it’s the end of the world.

However, the two ladies immediately went on to prove that such notions are hopelessly obsolete, lamentably ill-informed and possibly fascistic. For, in spite of any divergence of appearance and diction, their grasp of political realities in general and Lady Thatcher’s legacy in particular was remarkably similar.

Both female persons remarked approvingly on Lady Thatcher being a successful woman, indeed politically the most successful one in British history. Then the Guardian person suggested that, though successful in having become prime minister at all, Margaret Thatcher failed miserably in the main mission of her life, that is of bringing more women into politics.

I must admit that I never realised this was Lady Thatcher’s aim in life, and neither I’m sure did Lady Thatcher. But the Guardian female person backed up her assertion with hard evidence: a risible 22 percent of our MPs are currently women.

If I expected a counterargument from her Telegraph counterpart, I didn’t get one. She agreed mournfully that this lamentable statistic did prove that Lady Thatcher had failed. And why was the statistic so lamentable and the failure so conspicuous? Because, explained the well-informed editor of our conservative broadsheet, our House of Representatives should represent, meaning faithfully reflect, the demographic makeup of the electorate.

That she clearly doesn’t understand the meaning of parliamentary representation didn’t make me gasp with horror – she is a modern person after all, so what matters to her is undoubtedly not what she understands but what she feels. But even in our educationally disadvantaged times, one would expect someone holding a high post at a major national newspaper, especially a conservative one, to know that the lower chamber of our Parliament is called the House of Commons, not of Representatives.

Perhaps my ear had deceived me, and the lovely bespectacled pundit was actually American? For the next minute or so I concentrated on how she spoke, rather than what she said. No, it was all there, the glottal stop, the odd dropped ‘h’ – the female person was not only British but identifiably London, or at least Estuary.

Perhaps then Lady Thatcher, may she rest in peace, did fail in her life’s work, in some way. But not in the way the two silly girls meant.


P.S. I had already posted this comment, when Glenda Jackson, formerly a hideous actress and now an even more hideous Labour MP, declared in the House of Commons (Representatives?) that Lady Thatcher was ‘a woman, but not on my terms.’ Miss Jackson’s terms are of course defined both politically (see above) and aesthetically, by ill-advisedly posing nude for the film camera. Lady Thatcher falls short on both criteria. Thanks, Glenda, for helping me make my point.    







Nil nisi bonum: Left ghouls prove yet again they’re barbarians

Far be it from me to hold myself up as a model of anything. It’s just that, when looking for an illustration to a point made or about to be made, it takes less time to look up one’s own piece than someone else’s.

So on 16 December, 2011, a couple of days after Christopher Hitchens died, I wrote, without naming him, about his views on religion, which, along with his views on just about anything else, I find morally repulsive and intellectually feeble. However, I withheld such adjectives. This is what I wrote towards the end:

 ‘And yet, I’ve been unable to mention Hitchens by name throughout this article. I can’t claim that I’ve suddenly acquired respect for him or his thoughts. I haven’t. But I do respect death, and the scathing remarks that would have rolled off my pen two days ago are refusing to come out. Instead, I’d like to offer my sympathy to the family of the deceased.

Most civilised people, which group, properly defined, includes few who’d agree with Hitchens on anything, would have written something along those lines. For death has its own dignity, which it confers on the deceased, regardless of how one feels about the life just ended.

That’s why I don’t recall any jubilation within conservative ranks upon the death of, say, Harold Wilson, Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan or Anthony Crosland, men for whom not many conservatives felt any excessive warmth.

Compare this to the response to Margaret Thatcher’s death publicly expressed by both leftwing celebrities and also the rank-and-file.

‘Tramp the dirt down,’ tweeted MP George Galloway, who a few days ago refused to share a debating platform with a Jew. And a couple of hours later, ‘May she burn in the hellfires.’

The first sentiment was actually a quotation from a most gentlemanly song by Elvis Costello, which included lyrics like ‘When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam.’ And, even better, ‘Cos when they finally put you in the ground, they’ll stand there laughing and tramp the dirt down.

‘She did make war on a lot of people in Britain, and I don’t think it helped our society,’ commented Tony Benn, former Labour minister, who was unable to contain himself.

‘After the disservice she did to the country, I won’t be shedding any tears,’ added Chris Kitchen, secretary for the National Union of Mineworkers.

Her tenure, according to former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, ‘was an unmitigated disaster’.

Former London Mayor Ken Livingstone opined that Lady Thatcher was responsible for ‘every real problem’ we face today.

Rather than attempting to emulate such penetrating analysis, Derek Hatton, a Liverpool Labour councillor, spoke from the heart: ‘The issue isn’t about whether she is now dead. I regret for the sake of millions of people that she was ever born.’

Lindsey German, of the Stop The War Coalition, approached Maggie’s career from the geopolitical angle: ‘Margaret Thatcher laid the basis for policies which wrecked the lives of millions in Britain. But she should also be remembered as a warmonger. She led alongside Ronald Reagan the escalation of the Cold War.’

A Marxist posted a tweet, saying ‘Margaret Thatcher is (finally) dead. Good f—ing riddance too… That horrible old witch was 87. May she rot in hell.’

The mob is braying all over the Internet: ‘This lady’s not returning,’ ‘How are you celebrating?’

Well, most enthusiastically, is the answer to that one. ‘Thatcher death parties’ were held late into the night all across the country. The festivities featured all the usual accoutrements: smashed shop windows, paint bombs, attacks on police.

In Liverpool, flares and fireworks were set off; in Bristol, seven police officers were injured – one seriously – after being pelted with bottles and rubbish bins by a street party.

A massive rally in Glasgow had hundreds of champagne drinkers out in the street, shouting, ‘Rejoice, Thatcher is dead!’ A rabble-rouser was screaming through a megaphone, ‘Maggie! Maggie! Maggie’, and the ghoulish crowd rejoiced, as ordered: ‘Dead! Dead! Dead!’

As I always say, the Left aren’t just misguided – they are barbaric and evil. And they aren’t even clever enough to conceal that. Whether or not you are weeping for Margaret Thatcher, you should cry for our country. And our civilisation.






We are all Thatcherites today

The news of Margaret Thatcher’s death brought a tear to my eye, and the demise of no other politician has ever had such an emotional effect on me.

Tributes from politicians and journalists are streaming in, and I’ve been listening to them on Sky News. Any of those people are much better qualified to write a proper obituary than I am, and many of them will do so. Such a task should indeed be entrusted to those who knew this remarkable woman, not to someone like me who only bumped into her at a couple of functions.

I could perhaps attempt an exegesis of Lady Thatcher’s political life, but this would require a less emotional frame of mind than mine is at the moment.

All I’m capable of now is a few sketchy notes on how Margaret Thatcher affected my life. For she was one reason I emigrated from America to Britain 25 years ago.

In those days I was a much more political creature than I am now, or perhaps I was more likely to see politics in strictly binary, us or them, terms. Thatcher was definitely us. A lifelong Anglophile, I would have gone to Britain much earlier had I not been put off by its suicidally socialist policies. It was Margaret Thatcher’s first nine years at Downing Street that convinced me that there was hope for this country yet.

I admired her then and I still do, even though in the intervening years I grew disillusioned with many of her policies and much of her legacy. I could talk in detail about her signing the Single European Act, her ill-advised downgrading of British manufacturing, her contributing to the future mortgage crisis, her general over-reliance on the economy as a sufficient remedy for the country’s ills, her misunderstanding of the process known as ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union’ – but I won’t, not today.

Such gripes may have value on any other day, but today they would be petty. For it is in my view irrelevant that Margaret Thatcher was the only woman prime minister in British history – let those obsessed with newfangled pieties bring that to the fore. What is much more important is that she was unquestionably the greatest post-war prime minister and, right or wrong, possibly the last true statesman ever to occupy that office.

Yes, she was a very womanly woman, with much feminine warmth belying her Iron Lady image. And it was not in spite of her femininity but because of it that she became such an effective statesman. For Maggie brought to the task her talent for good housekeeping that so many women possess, translating it into successful managerial careers.

Margaret Thatcher brought to the service of her country that very talent, which in her was big enough to make her a great manager of her country, not just her family. Come to think of it, the two were inseparable in her mind: her country was her family, and she served it with selfless devotion and self-sacrificial abandon.

She had so much more to give Britain when her political career was cut short by faceless, self-serving nonentities staging a vicious, cowardly coup. That brought an end not only to Maggie’s tenure, but to statesmanship in our government: from then on we’ve been governed by spivocratic pygmies, whose moral and intellectual inadequacy is so much more visible in the bright light she shone and will continue to shine.

I didn’t like some of her policies, though I respected most of them. I don’t think that her legacy is invariably positive, though most of it is. But I loved her as a person, and the country’s loss is also mine, keenly felt and deeply mourned. Our lives were changed by Maggie, and without her they’ll never be the same. God bless her.

Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven, RIP.



Cap’n Bob of the KGB

Newly published archival data show that as early as the 1950s Robert Maxwell was investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Soviet spy. The conclusion was that he wasn’t, yet this conclusion was wrong.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone: both the FBI and MI5 were notoriously inept at flashing out Soviet spies. One of them, Kim Philby, almost became head of the Secret Service; another, Aldrich Ames, ran the CIA Soviet desk for years; yet another, Robert Hanssen, was one of the FBI’s top counterintelligence officers – this list can become longer than anyone’s arm.

The FBI were probably correct technically: Maxwell didn’t ‘transfer technological and scientific information to the Soviets’. Of course he didn’t. He was much too valuable to risk on such trivial assignments.

Maxwell was what the Soviets called ‘an agent of influence’, perhaps the most important one next to the American industrialist Armand Hammer. Said influence was exerted through both individuals and ‘friendly firms’. One such firm was Maxwell’s Pergamon Press.

Maxwell, a retired captain of the British army, bought 75 percent of the company in 1951 and instantly made it an unlikely success. Actually, it’s also unlikely that a poor Czech immigrant could have found the required £50,000, which was then serious money, about £1,000,000 in today’s debauched cash.

If the original investment miraculously didn’t come courtesy of the KGB, the overnight success did. Maxwell signed a brother-in-law deal with the Soviet copyright agency VAAP (a KGB department) and began publishing English translations of Soviet academic journals.

Making any kind of income, never mind millions, out of that would have been next to impossible. On the one hand, Soviet science at the time was hardly cutting edge stuff, and those parts of it that were didn’t publish their findings in journals – they were (and still are) strictly classified. Interest in the Soviet academic press was therefore minimal, while the cost of having it translated and published was immense.

Publishing even English-language academic periodicals is an extremely laborious and low-margin business requiring much specialised expertise. That’s why it’s usually done by big and long-established firms, which Maxwell’s wasn’t. Add to this the cost of translation and one really begins to wonder about the provenance of all that cash.

Subsequent close ties between Maxwell and the Soviets dispel any doubts. He became a frequent visitor to Moscow and a welcome guest in the Kremlin. Specifically, he met every Soviet leader from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, and they didn’t just chat about the weather.

As an MP, Maxwell made speeches defending the Soviet 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, bizarrely portraying it as some kind of recompense for the country’s betrayal at Munich.

In the ‘70s Pergamon Press prospered churning out such sure-fire bestsellers as books by Soviet leaders. On 4 March 1975, Maxwell signed, on his own terms, another contract with VAAP and published seven books by Soviet chieftains: five by Brezhnev, one by Chernenko and one by Andropov, then head of the KGB.

Under a later 1978 contract he also published Brezhnev’s immortal masterpiece Peace Is the People’s Priceless Treasure, along with books by Grishin and Ponomarev, the former a Politburo member, the latter head of the Central Committee Ideology Department.

All those books were published in huge runs and, considering the nonexistent demand for this genre, would have lost millions for any other publisher. But Maxwell wasn’t just any old publisher and these weren’t any old publishing ventures. The translation, publishing and printing were paid for by the Soviets.

In 1981 the Central Committee of the CPSU passed a resolution authorising direct payments to the French branch of Pergamon Press for publishing English translations of Soviet leaders’ books.

In the ‘80s Maxwell met Gorbachev three times, the last meeting also involving Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB boss. As a result Pergamon Press began publishing the English-language version of the Soviet Cultural Foundation magazine Nashe Naslediye (Our Heritage), along with the writings of both Gorbachev and his wife Raisa (Charles Dickens and Jane Austen they weren’t).

One objective pursued by the Soviets was propaganda, but this could have been achieved with less capital outlay and greater effect. The real purpose was the old Soviet pastime: money laundering and looting Russia in preparation for ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union’, which in effect was the transfer of power from the Party to the KGB. And the core business of Pergamon Press played only a small role in this enterprise.

Between 1989 and 1991 the KGB transferred to the West eight metric tonnes of platinum, 60 metric tonnes of gold, truckloads of diamonds and up to $50 billion in cash. The cash part was in roubles, officially not a convertible currency. But the Soviets made it convertible by setting a vast network of bogus holding companies and fake brass plates throughout the West.

The key figures in the cash transfer were the KGB financial wizard Col. Leonid Veselovsky, seconded to the Administration Department of the Central Committee, and Nikolai Kruchina, head of that department. Putin, who ‘left’ the KGB at that time, took a modest part in the looting of Russia in his capacity of Deputy Mayor of Leningrad.

The focal point of that transfer activity in the West was Maxwell, the midwife overseeing the birth pains of the so-called Soviet oligarchy. We know very little about the exact mechanics of this criminal activity, perhaps the biggest one in history. The actual engineers knew too much, which could only mean they had to fall out with the designers.

Specifically, in August 1991 Kruchina fell out of his office window. Two months later Maxwell fell overboard from his yacht. Veselovsky, who handled most of the leg work, managed to leg it to Switzerland, where he became a highly paid consultant. Obviously he knew quite a bit not only about his former employers but also about his new clients, which enhanced his earning potential.

Thus ended Cap’n Bob’s illustrious career, during which he was a Czech immigrant, a British officer, a publisher, an MP, The Daily Mirror owner, purloiner of its pension funds. And a Soviet agent by anyone’s definition but the FBI’s.

Why don’t they hit them first?

Occasional fisticuffs were unavoidable in the neighbourhood where I grew up. After a few useful if painful lessons, one usually grasped the cardinal rule of street fighting: get the first punch in and keep punching, especially when facing a known bully.

On the somewhat larger scale of global politics, this sort of thing is called ‘pre-emptive strike’, but the principle is the same: hit’em first and hit’em hard. Chances are the first strike will also be the last.

The strategic benefits of this approach were demonstrated most clearly by the Germans in the summer of 1941, when they beat the Soviets to the punch, wiped out the regular Red Army within a couple of months and almost succeeded in taking Moscow. This in spite of the Soviets’ seven-fold superiority in tanks (infinitely better ones than anything the Germans had at the time), five-fold superiority in warplanes and in (much better) artillery – to say nothing of their vastly greater numerical strength.

The USA enjoys not just a superiority but indeed supremacy over North Korea in firepower of every description and also in the quality, experience and training of its armed forces. Yet the Koreans are allowed to get away with their aggressive stance, threatening both American Pacific bases and South Korea, America’s ally. The first threat is probably perceived as being trivial: US antimissile defences should be able to negate it. The second threat isn’t just real but, considering that Seoul sits only 30 miles from the border, deadly.

Nevertheless, after their original tough response the Americans seem to be softening their position and making vaguely conciliatory noises. The reasons for this aren’t immediately clear, considering that the nature of North Korea’s deployment and the belligerent pronouncements of its leaders would have been justly regarded as casus belli at any point in history.

Moreover, dithering at this point may create a situation where a nuclear response would become the only one available. On the other hand, a powerful first strike with conventional weapons could probably reduce the North’s military capability to ruins, nipping war in the bud.

So back to the original question: why not strike first? Part of the reason may be the way the Americans approach such situations historically. The second Gulf war is the only one I can think of in which they attacked without either waiting for the other side to make the first move or provoking it into doing so.

The USA got into the First World War by openly assisting the Allies, especially Britain, while staying technically neutral. The House of Morgan floated British war loans, and a steady trans-Atlantic traffic in arms left the Germans no choice but to engage in submarine warfare (not that they needed much provoking). Eventually the Lusitania was sunk, and Woodrow ‘He-kept-us-out-of-the-war’ Wilson was able to swing the public and legislative opinion towards the war he craved.

The other day I commented on a similar stratagem used by Roosevelt to get America into the Second World War by provoking Japan into the raid on Pearl Harbour. And in the 1950s and ‘60s both the Korean and Vietnam wars were legitimate responses to communist aggression. So what’s going on now?

One explanation of American shilly-shallying could be the viscerally dovish nature of their socialist president who, in accord with his ideology, has to believe in the good nature of his fellow men, even those who aim ICBMs at his country.

Another reason may be that Americans trust their ironclad intelligence showing that North Korea isn’t really planning an attack. Instead it’s indulging in empty posturing designed to soften the sanctions against it.

I don’t know what exactly American intelligence services have done to deserve such trust. After all, their most recent coup was to provide incontrovertible evidence that Saddam was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. I’d treat their information with a pound, as opposed to a mere grain, of salt, but I’m in no position to know for sure.

It’s also possible that America’s prolonged and ill-advised involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has sapped its will even to contemplate muscular action elsewhere.

Yet another possibility is that the Americans actually want a war to break out in earnest and escalate to a major, possibly nuclear, conflict. It’s conceivable that this is the only way they have of steering their economy out of its dire straits.

I don’t know which of the four guesses, and that’s all they can be, is true. All I know is how to act when being bullied in a bad neighbourhood. And the Far East, what with the North Korean sabre-rattling and growing tensions between China and Japan, is as rotten a neighbourhood as they come at the moment.

If America wants to prevent a major war, now is the time either to act or to pray that the communists don’t mean what they say. If America actually wants a war, God save us all.





Did George W. Bush learn his philosophy from Brezhnev?

Political leaders often have a weakness for spiffy aphorisms, which is partly why so many are attributed to them. Another reason may be that a politician’s saying is nowadays more likely to be preserved for posterity.

A brief scan of The Thesaurus of Quotations will show precious few coming from politicians predating the 19th century – the Bible and Shakespeare will dominate. But come modern times, and politicians begin to hold their own against writers and philosophers, with Churchill setting the tone.

Some politicians, however, are quoted not for the sagacity of their aphorisms but for their inanity. America’s previous president George W. ‘The French Have No Word For Entrepreneur’ Bush claims the leadership of this category, but his position isn’t uncontested.

I’ll let you judge exactly where the recently published sayings of Leonid Brezhnev belong. Here’s a brief selection (in case your Russian is a bit rusty, I provide some parenthetic translations):

‘Any Soviet man has a right to a powerful car.’ [This means that someone has an obligation to provide one.]

‘Only time can correct some mistakes.’ [Particularly time served in a concentration camp.]

‘A Soviet policeman must be a bit of a doctor’ [To conceal the effects of his interrogation techniques.]

‘Our dream is to feed all people. The American dream is to turn them into gluttons.’ [That may be, but the Americans are succeeding where the Russians aren’t.]

‘The kinder the boss, the more worried the subordinates.’ [Logically, the sterner the boss, e.g. Stalin, the more serene the underlings.]

‘A man is different from a machine in that he can’t work without understanding the meaning of his work.’ [Obviously Leonid never had the pleasure of meeting our Dave.]

‘A factory is a much more precise model of the modern world than a theatre is.’ [Yes, it’s noisy, smelly and ugly-looking.]

‘Everyone wants to be friends with the nuclear bomb.’ [A friendship either made in heaven or leading there, I’d say.]

‘A good Jew is a Soviet Jew.’ [By inference, a non-Soviet Jew is bad – Ed Miliband, beware.]

Dubya’s primacy in the aphoristic stakes is clearly under threat. Before long the present Soviet – pardon me, I mean Russian – leader will follow suit by expanding his aphoristic legacy beyond the now proverbial ‘whack’em in the shithouse’ (or the bathroom, as the case may be). Actually, he already has:

‘Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart.’ [I agree, it takes a heartless animal not to miss the concentration camps.]

‘Nobody and nothing will stop Russia on the road to strengthening democracy and ensuring human rights and freedoms.’ [Except perhaps its government.]

‘You must obey the law, always, not only when they grab you by your special place.’ [And if you don’t, we’ll whack you in the shithouse, or the bathroom, as the case may be.]

‘Russia needs a strong state power and must have it. But I am not calling for totalitarianism.’ [It would be silly to call for something that’s already there.]

‘I believe that the presidential term should be limited.’ [Presumably to the president’s lifespan.]

The sterling standards of intellectual attainment, rhetorical brilliance and erudition thereby set by Russian leaders are trickling down to the population at large. A recently posted internet video shows an interviewer approaching at random some well-dressed young people in the centre of Moscow, where all the best schools are.

One question dealt with Anna Karenina, and how the currently playing film may have distorted Gogol’s original. The youngsters countered by suggesting that this is par for the course: the 21th century imposes its own ethos even on the classics. They knew the value of relativism – what they didn’t know is that it wasn’t Gogol who wrote the book.

Another question dealt with the outrage of one Soviet writer, Pushkin, killing another Soviet writer, Lermontov, in a duel. The interviewees agreed that this was indeed deplorable; none let on he realised that the implied chronology was about a century out of kilter – or that, while both writers were shot in a duel, they didn’t fight each other.

Next time we feel like castigating the risible level of our leaders or the Mowgli-like savagery of our youngsters, we should remember all those poor people around the world who are at least as disadvantaged as we are. I’m man enough to acknowledge that this suggestion goes for me too.






Why do Americans support the EU?

The question came from a good-looking French girl, which focused my mind in ways similar queries posed by my fellow old codgers never would.

Why indeed? One of the explicit aims of the EU from its inception has been to counter America’s economic power. To that end the Union has been designed as a protectionist bloc… sorry, I mean as a free-trade area.

It’s funny how modern words denote not just something different from their original meaning, but indeed something diametrically opposite, and I know I keep banging on about this. In their day the French revolutionaries convinced the populace that martial law was liberty, the cull of the upper classes was fraternity and conscripting the whole male population was equality.

Now EU ideologues are portraying protectionism as free trade. They impose tariffs on America, Americans impose tariffs on them – trade suffers and so especially do consumers who ultimately pay all those levies at the till in their local supermarket or department store.

And yet it’s true that all US administrations since Wilson’s have been ecstatic about the idea of a pan-European, ideally world, state. Why? Are they out to cut off their economic nose to spite their face? Do they welcome obstacles to doing business because they see them as a character builder?

It would take a longer format than I have here to answer this question in all its complexity. But, off the top, the USA has been pursuing imperial ambitions for over a century now. It’s reasonably clear that the American establishment sees the EU, for all its protectionist churlishness, as something advancing such ambitions, rather than holding them back.

They may be right too, as far as it goes. For history shows that any modern federation, or any other multinational entity, will eventually be dominated by its most dynamic member. Prussia bossed all of Germany after 1871. Serbia bossed all of Yugoslavia after 1918. Russia bossed the Soviet Union from 1923 onwards. Germany is bossing the EU, running it into the ground. More to the point, the mercantile North got to dominate the USA after defeating the agricultural South after 1865.

Learning from these historical lessons, Americans seem to believe that, tariffs or no tariffs, the EU will sooner or later fall under their sway. For one thing, in their desperate attempts to keep this moribund abortion afloat for a while longer, the eurocrats are steadily disarming all Europeans countries, in spite of an extremely volatile situation in the world. This means they’ll depend on American protection even more than in the past.

In American streets and public bars one hears a lot of laments about their country having to spend a fortune on defence, just because Europeans won’t pull their own weight. But in Washington office buildings no one is complaining. The situation, as far as they are concerned, resembles the protection racket: retailers pay off big hoodlums to keep smaller ones at bay. Before long the charges become unaffordable, and the gangsters take over the business.

I’m not equating the US with the mafia in any moral or legal sense. But tactically the arrangement with the EU does bring such parallels to mind.

This, as I said, is off the top. There are deeper reasons as well, dealing with the very nature of our times. For over a hundred years now, America has been a champion of modernity – it’s not for nothing that the publisher Henry Luce spoke of ‘the American century’, meaning the twentieth.

Modernity is animated by a quest for both creation and destruction. The former deals with things of the body, the pursuit of ‘happiness’, which is to say philistine, gadget-laden comfort for the whole family (including those families where no one has had a job for three generations). The latter aims at eliminating every survival of the world in which happiness was defined in different terms, those springing from the soul.

While the creative impetus of modernity is universally recognised and lauded, its destructive animus is hardly ever commented upon. And yet it’s at least as strong, for in order for modernity to scribble its vulgar message, the slate has to be wiped clean.

This is where American politicians must sense, not necessarily in their minds but in their viscera, that their interests converge with the European Union’s. Hence their support for this abomination, which is particularly noticeable among the more aggressive members of the American establishment, those who describe themselves as neoconservative.

I don’t know if this answers to her satisfaction the question asked by my lovely interlocutor. I hope so, for I want to stay in her good books. If not, I’m sorry. It’s the best I can do in under 1,000 words.