The apparat is running scared

Today’s Western countries are governed not by statesmen, nor even any longer by politicians, but by apparatchiks. These jumped-up, faceless, morally and intellectually corrupt nincompoops display the character traits of all their predecessors – regardless of nationality, culture or political system.

Their first loyalty is pledged to themselves, but, aware as they are of their own limitations, they realise they need to pool that loyalty with many similar ones within a system that can serve and protect them all.

Such pools go by the name of Latin origin but Soviet provenance: apparat, a bureaucratic system that transcends ideologies, philosophies and party allegiances.

An apparatchik has no principles. All he has is slogans, and those serve a purely utilitarian purpose. When the purpose changes, so do the slogans. As long as such toing and froing doesn’t endanger the apparat, the apparatchik has much leeway.

But the second the apparat itself is threatened, the apparatchiks close ranks and join forces against the menace. When that happens, even omnipotent dictators are no longer immune.

Stalin, for example, was probably killed by the very apparat he had created. He had been steadily weeding out the undesirable elements within that group, and the apparat was willing to grin and bear it. But when Stalin decided to wipe out the apparat collectively, it wiped him out instead.

Apparatchiks detest mavericks, even those willing to work within the system. Margaret Thatcher, for example, was ousted precisely for that reason: she was no longer perceived as a loyal member of the Tory apparat. The apparat smelled danger and united against it.

It’s against this backdrop that one must view the seemingly violent squabbles between Tories and Labour in Britain, Democrats and Republicans in the US, Gaullists and Socialists in France, Christian and Social Democrats in Germany and so forth.

Those conflicts are neither, God forbid, philosophical nor even political. They are fights for territory within the apparat. All such disagreements are part of a game, with the players exchanging meaningless shibboleths they themselves don’t believe, know that neither does the other side, and know that the other side knows.

None of this matters – until an outsider appears who refuses to play the game. That throws a gauntlet to the apparat, and suddenly it’s no longer a game. Caps come off the lances, and an innocent joust becomes a fight to the death.

Nothing illustrates this tendency better than the deranged, hysterical hatred flung Trump’s way by both sub-divisions of the American political apparat. Set aside are their (already illusory) differences. Forgotten are their party allegiances. Trump is an outsider who clearly flouts the apparat’s code of practice – off with his head.

I haven’t observed anything like that since Nixon, who became a marked man in 1948, when, as a congressional investigator, he nailed the Soviet spy Alger Hiss to the wall. Since then the predominantly ‘liberal’ American press went after him like a pack of bloodhounds.

Finally they got him at Watergate, and there’s no doubt that Nixon had committed a crime. One still suspects that the very same journalists wouldn’t have been quite so principled had a similar transgression been committed by one of the Kennedys.

Yet Nixon was a party man through and through, meaning that, much as he offended some parts of the apparat, he didn’t threaten it as a whole. But for Watergate, he would have happily completed his presidential tenure and retired in peace.

Trump is a different animal altogether. He has no discernible party allegiance and doesn’t even bother to conceal his contempt for the bipartisan apparat. Trump doesn’t recognise the validity of the apparat’s ethos and spurns it at every opportunity.

That earns him spittle-sputtering hatred from all sides, regardless of the intrinsic merits of his policies. Some of them, I’d say most, are quite reasonable, but that’s neither here nor there. What offends the apparat isn’t so much anything Trump does as everything he is: an outsider, someone who mocks the rules, a potential threat.

Trump may well be a one-off figure, a stutter in the workings of the apparat soon to be corrected and never again repeated. But the wishful thinker in me hopes that he represents something truly valuable: one of the sledgehammers knocking out the cornerstone of the apparat.

And not just the American variety. Interestingly, thanks to the advances in communication technology, our world is so globalised that, whatever challenges to the apparat occur, they tend to happen at the same time in many places.

Witness, for example, the brewing dissent against the ultimate perfidy of the apparat, its attempt to self-perpetuate under the shelter of a supranational setup free from even vestiges of accountability.

Anti-EU parties and sentiments are gaining ground across Europe, and I’m not even talking about the Brexit vote that took me by surprise. But the apparat is feeling the pinch everywhere: in France and Germany, Italy and Spain, Hungary and Poland.

In all those places, attacks against the apparat proceed under various sets of slogans, ranging from genuine quest for sovereignty to legitimate concerns about the social, demographic and economic effects of mass immigration; from patriotism to nationalism to xenophobia; from conservatism to socialism to outright fascism.

Yet one detects that underneath it all the revolt transcends all such things, that at base it’s an expression of resentment against the apparat. And pressure is being applied from both inside and outside.

A current example of the former is Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who himself has always been a cog in the workings of the apparat. Hence he’s no more principled, selfless and moral than the rest of them.

But Johnson is smarter than most, which is why he may have discerned the rebellious grassroots tendency I’ve mentioned. Hence he has seemingly recklessly assailed the very apparat he has served for so long both as a hack and a politician.

A cabinet member attacks his institutional superiors at his peril, and Johnson knows this perfectly well. Yet he has publicly taken the PM and Chancellor to task over their Brexit shilly-shallying.

Johnson has clearly hardened his already generally Brexit stance by demanding a clean break with not a single penny in ‘divorce settlement’. The romantic in me hopes his newly acquired intransigence comes from some Damascene experience, but the realist recognises a strong element of opportunism there as well.

If so, it’s much more valuable. When a clever chap like Johnson sees a political opening in scoffing his party leadership, then he may sense something they don’t. The apparat may be tottering, and before long it just may come down with a big thud.

Wholly Russia

Hundreds of thousands of expertly organised patriots have come out to gridlock Russian cities with rallies.

In a show doubtless pleasing our own Putinophiles, this time around the demonstrators are waving not the customary red flags, nor even swastika banners that appear now and again, but posters, icons and gonfalons with visages of saints.

If only we had our own KGB joining forces with the Church to instil as much piety in the British as the counterpart Putinesque fusion has instilled in the Russians. Isn’t that right, Mr Hitchens? Piety is the lynchpin of conservatism, isn’t it?

Of course it is. Yet a more observant and better-educated commentator may discern something peculiar in the Russians’ recently discovered devoutness. So peculiar, in fact, that its public manifestations typologically resemble Nuremberg rallies more than your run-of-the-mill religious processions.

To wit, the poster in this photo says “Matilda is a slap in the face of Russian people”. Now the Matilda in question is the ballerina Matilda Kschessinskaya, who died at the venerable age of 99 in 1971, 46 years ago.

Hence the aforementioned slap must have been delivered posthumously, and so it has. What makes so many Russian cheeks sting is the new eponymous film by the director Alexei Uchitel about the 1890-1893 affair Kschessinskaya had with Grand Duke Nicholas.

By itself this escapade was extraordinary for neither Russia nor Matilda, who favoured the Russian royalty as lovers, husbands, sires of her children and providers of a sumptuous palace in the centre of Petersburg.

Nor were Russian royals ever suspected of having taken the vow of chastity. For example, Grand Duke Nicholas’s father and especially his grandfather, Alexander II, were womanisers of epic proportions, which Nicholas never was.

However he was smitten with the beautiful 17-year-old dancer, and surely a single 22-year-old chap can be forgiven for sowing some wild oats? He who is without sin…and all that.

That’s where we’re stepping on a thorny path. For in 1894, now happily married to a German princess, with Matilda switching to other princes, Grand Duke Nicholas became Nicholas II, Tsar of all the Russias. In 1917 he was forced to abdicate and a year later the tsar and his family were massacred on Lenin’s orders.

And in 2000 Nicholas and his family were recognised as saints by the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) that saw in them “people who sincerely strove to incarnate in their lives the commands of the Gospel.”

Those examining the history of that reign with a dispassionate eye may take exception to that assessment, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that in the same year a five-foot KGB officer Putin became president of Russia.

Or rather that’s one point among several. Another one is that Putin, with an unerring instinct honed in history’s most diabolical organisation, realised that the Russians can’t live without an ideology personified in the figure of a strong leader.

Meek attempts in the previous decade to posit democracy and free enterprise in that role had predictably failed, for such lovely things can’t be mandated from above, certainly not in a major country with no history of them. Sure enough, democracy turned into anarchy, and free enterprise into a kleptocracy to end all kleptocracies.

Yet an ideology was sorely needed to justify the miserable lives the Russians had lived, were living and, as could be confidently forecast, were going to live in eternity.

This is where that KGB experience came in handy. Putin and his ruling oligarchy (85 per cent of whom share his professional background) created a weird cocktail of Russia’s glorious imperial past (critically, not only tsarist but also communist), victory in the very same great war Russia started as Hitler’s ally, militarisation, traditional bellicosity towards Russia’s neighbours – and Orthodoxy.

ROC went along with this stratagem as Putin knew it would. After all, its entire hierarchy, starting with the Patriarch, are career KGB agents, the kind of people Putin could talk to in the spirit of corporate solidarity and guaranteed mutual understanding.

The confidence trick took several years to refine, but it’s now running like a well-oiled machine. Previously removed statues of Stalin are proudly going up again, a statue of one of history’s worst mass murderers Felix Dzerjinsky has just been erected in Kirov, the mummy of Lenin, the teacher of inspiration of those two monsters still adorns Red Square.

And of course Nicholas’s sainthood is never questioned. Somehow he’s being portrayed as John the Baptist to Lenin’s Christ and Stalin’s St Peter, the man who passed on the relay baton of the great empire.

It could be argued, rationally and convincingly, that Nicholas bears the lion’s share of blame for the demise of the pre-communist and relatively benevolent Russian empire.

But we’re not in the realm of rational and convincing propaganda. We’re in the realm of no-holds-barred propaganda, and in that realm Alexei Uchitel has caused great offence. And him, such a great man otherwise.

Rather than being a dissident against Putin’s kleptofascism, Uchitel is its enthusiastic supporter. He welcomed the annexation of the Crimea, the aggression against the Ukraine – and would no doubt welcome even Jewish pogroms, if Putin chose to emulate the sainted Nicholas.

Yet his personal loyalty is immaterial. Matilda shows the sainted tsar as having an extra-, well, pre-marital affair, which no Russian saint is allowed to do. Why, Putin’s stormtroopers have even accused Uchitel of showing the saint’s marital infidelity. That’s why, following multiple threats of blowing up cinemas, many Russian distributors refuse to run the film.

How Nicholas could have been unfaithful to his future wife before he even met her is a question that’s never answered, nor indeed asked. A saint has to remain saintly, against all reason.

One could argue that the libidinous Nicholas had no way of knowing that a century later he’d become a saint. One could even go so far as to suggest that many real saints, such as Augustine and Francis, had been guilty of much worse excesses before embarking on the road to sainthood. But when totalitarian propaganda speaks, reason shuts up.

Out of sheer mischievousness, however, I’d still like to ask a provocative question. If even depicting Nicholas’s dalliance is so offensive, how come the mummy of his murderer Lenin is still worshipped as an imperial relic – on Putin’s direct orders?

A silly question, I know. But perhaps Peter Hitchens can answer it: he seems to understand the laudable logic behind Russian kleptofascism.

Too close to home

The police are treating it as a ‘terrorist incident’. I treat it as a personal attack.

For Parson’s Green is my tube station, a five minutes’ walk from where I live. The District Line train incinerated by an “improvised explosive device” at 8.20 yesterday, is one I or, even worse, my wife could have been on.

The explosive device, wrapped in a Lidl shopping bag and hidden in a bucket, wasn’t improvised very well. It exploded only partially and, while it sent a wall of fire through the train, the blast wasn’t of murderous power.

So far no fatalities have been reported, although some people were badly injured. One woman had all the skin on her legs burnt off, 28 others suffered similar injuries.

The police are looking for the suspect, who is believed to have planted several other similar devices. The suspect’s identity hasn’t been divulged yet, and we don’t know who he is. But we can take a wild guess at what he is.

It starts with an ‘M’ and describes his religion. I’ll give you a clue: he’s not a Methodist, Mormon, Mennonite, Molokan or Mithraist.

The device is similar to those previously used in London, some to greater effect, especially those triggered by suicide bombers screaming “Allahu Akbar!!!” (there, I’ve given you another clue).

The most successful of such attacks were the four staged on 7 July, 2005, that murdered 52 people. The leader of the suicide bombers was named Sidique Khan, not to be confused with the London mayor Sadiq Khan.

Mayor Sadiq Khan, not to be confused with the murderer Sidique Khan, promised that London “will never be intimidated or defeated by terrorism”. Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean the ‘M’ persons will stop trying.

Prime Minister Tessa also had a comment: “My thoughts are with those injured at Parsons Green…”  She got the cliché wrong. It’s supposed to be “my thoughts and prayers…”, MTAP for short.

I don’t know if her leaving prayers out is significant, perhaps testifying to the PM’s incipient atheism. Or else she shares Richard Dawkins’s view that mass murders committed in the name of the ‘M’ faith tar all religions with the same brush.

I also wonder if the choice of a Lidl plastic bag, in preference to one from, say, Sainsbury’s, is a political statement, in this case pro-EU. Why else would an ‘M’ person use a bag from a German-owned supermarket chain?

Don’t be misled by the note of levity you may detect in my prose. This is but a defence mechanism designed to mitigate the shock, and I don’t shock easily.

Terrorist attacks striking elsewhere have a certain impersonal, abstract quality. Hence one’s outrage isn’t concrete but general.

Around the corner from where one lives is different. Call me an egoist, but it feels as if my home has been defiled. If my home is my castle, then its walls have been breached, and the enemy is rushing through the hole.

Bastards! is the first exclamation that comes out; what are we going to do about it, the first question. The exclamation is emotional; the question, rational.

I’m sick and tired of hearing comments such as those above every time ‘M’ persons commit yet another atrocity. The comments are solicitous and sympathetic, such as “MTAP go to… [fill the blank]”, or else defiant, such as that made by Mayor Sadiq Khan, not to be confused with the murderer Sidique Khan, along the lines of we “will never be defeated by terrorism.”

Yes, but what are we doing to defeat terrorism? Reassuring those who crave our blood that we don’t for a second believe all persons espousing the ‘M’ religion are terrorists? What, not every one of the 1.5 billion of them? Crikey. Who could have thought.

But it doesn’t take that many. A few thousand will suffice to turn every great European city into hell, every nice European neighbourhood into a combat zone ruled by fear. Few are nicer than Parsons Green, at the western end of Central London, 3.5 miles from Piccadilly.

You’d never guess it’s that close. It feels as parochial as a neighbourhood can possibly feel so close to the city’s geometrical centre.

Parsons Green is expensive, which keeps riffraff at bay. It’s also monochrome and no ‘M’ religions are practised in the vicinity. All the churches at and around Parsons Green are either Anglican or Catholic, and if a language other than English is ever heard in the streets, it’s usually French. Merde alors is possible; allahu akbar, unlikely.

I realise that describing my home patch in such terms is unfashionable to the point of being almost illegal. I’m risking a charge of racism, xenophobia and bigotry only to impress on you how nice my neighbourhood is – and how violated I feel.

So what are you going to do about this, Mrs May? And you, Mayor Sadiq Khan, not to be confused with the murderer Sidique Khan? Other than offering your sympathies and condolences?

It’s not as if nothing could be done. These people talk about ‘M’ terrorism as if it were force majeure, like one of those Caribbean hurricanes. It isn’t. Terrorism is an act not of God but of people. And people can be either prevented by police work fortified by government decree or, that failing, deterred by indiscriminate punishment.

But first we must acknowledge we’re at war – and not just with those few thousand terrorists, fundamentalists, extremists, call them what you like. They are but the vanguard, those ordered to punch a hole in that wall.

Supporting them physically are tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands manning the infrastructure of terrorism. And then there are millions, possibly hundreds of them, supporting terrorism morally and waiting for the vanguard to succeed so that they could all rush through the breach.

Hence we must wage war against all of them, recognising that, like in any war, there may occur unfortunate collateral damage. And once war has been declared, specific actions will suggest themselves.

They may include mass deportations and internments, stopping all immigration from ‘M’ countries, shutting down every mosque in which one word of sympathy for terrorism has ever been uttered, exacting awful punishment on countries sponsoring, arming and training terrorists.

I’m not an expert in such measures, but I’d like to believe we have enough people who are. They’re the dogs of war, and we must all cry havoc and let them slip. Meanwhile, I hope Parsons Green will recover its irenic charm. But I fear it might not.

That sod Jean-Claude

The title is my feeble attempt to emulate the front-page 100-point headline in The Sun of 27 years ago: UP YOURS DELORS!

‘Claude’ and ‘sod’ aren’t a precise rhyme, but at least it goes the Sun screamer one better by not relying on the mispronunciation of the culprit’s name. Incidentally, later in the piece The Sun referred to Mr Delors’s ethnic origin by telling him to “Frog off”, which these days would qualify as a hate crime.

The Sun invective was caused by Delors’s plans for closer European integration, which caused Mrs Thatcher to outshout The Sun with her shriek of “No! No! No!”

At the time Delors held the post now occupied with distinction by Jean-Claude Junker, or ‘Junk’, as he likes to be called by his friends among whom I proudly number myself.

Now Junk has made a Yes! Yes! Yes! speech that went even further than ‘Up Yours’ Delors in enunciating what the EU is all about.

Junk wishes to be elected as the unequivocal president of the United States of Europe served by a single finance minister who would impose uniform corporate taxes and VAT for all 27 members. Junk also wants to create a pan-European security service, a single European army and just about a single everything else.

Brexit, explained Junk, has removed the last obstacle in the way of this noble goal, and the continent can now heave a collective sigh of relief. Of course, there’s always the danger that the EU might miss Britain’s billions, but Junk is confident he’ll be able to extort enough of those anyway, by way of a divorce settlement.

My friend’s speech has caused a hostile reaction among those hacks and parliamentarians who obtusely refuse to see the advantages of Britain’s effectively becoming a province in the Fourth Reich. To Junk and his other friend Tony these are indisputable, and it took all his will-power not to end his soliloquy with a thunderous Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Präsident!

I’m amazed he was able to restrain himself, for Junk’s friends know how he is when in his cups, which is more or less always. You see, Junk keeps Scotland’s economy afloat almost single-handedly by consuming toxic amounts of Glenfarclas malt whisky, a shared predilection on which our friendship is based.

But restrain himself he did, possibly because that second bottle of Glenfarclas of the day made him too mellow to shout bellicose slogans.

The closest he came to a modified version of the time-proven battle cry was to explain that “Europe would be easier to understand if there was one captain steering the ship.” Even that thought could have been expressed more epigrammatically (Ein Schiff, ein Kurs, ein Kapitän!), but Junk missed the opportunity.

Actually, Europe isn’t all that hard to understand even now, before Junk has laid his shaking hands on the helm he seeks. Junk has simply reiterated, with Glanfarclas-inspired honesty, the founding desideratum of the European Union: creation of a single superstate based on the model of the Third Reich, ideally minus the death camps.

Yet all those Little Englander fossils are up in arms, saying awful things about Junk rather than thanking him for his frankness. After all, too many other EU officials and fans obscure the actual meaning of the EU with lies about its mainly economic aims.

In that they follow the course charted by their illustrious founders, such as Jean Monnet. Back in 1952 he laid down a commandment I love so much I keep quoting it: “Europe’s nations should be guided towards the superstate without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose but which will irreversibly lead to federation.”

In other words, the EU’s fathers, all those Monnets, Schumans, Spaaks, Spinellis and Gaspieris, taught their children both the strategy (creating a single European superstate) and the tactics (lying about it the better to trick Europeans into toeing the line).

So much more refreshing is my friend Junk’s frank statement that the disguise prescribed by Monnet may now be abandoned. No subterfuge is any longer necessary. He wants to be captain of a single European state – full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes.

Junk has already left the British torpedo in his wake, and he seems to be unaware of any others. The combination of his French Christian name and German surname is so symbolic of the EU’s essence that he seems to think that all remaining members see things the same way.

They don’t. The Poles, for example, cordially hate the Germans, which I observed first-hand as a student in Russia. Every summer I used to freelance as interpreter-guide for British and American student groups, who usually stayed at large dormitory-style hostels they shared with similar groups from all over the world.

Tour organisers knew not to put Polish and German tourists on the same floor, for otherwise fights would break out every time. Once my group had to share a coach with several Polish students. Since coach space was at a premium, the organisers decided to fill our three empty seats with German girls.

Yet the Poles grabbed the poor things and bodily tossed them off the coach. When I tried to interfere, they cried: “Don’t you understand? These are Germans!”

That was almost 50 years ago, and the feelings might have become less febrile since then. But recent actions on the part of the Polish (and also Hungarian) government suggest the old flame hasn’t been completely extinguished.

The EU waters are still full of torpedoes, and all it takes is one or two more to sink the ship Junk proposes to captain. But for the time being, he’s a happy bunny, letting Glanfarclas do his talking.

So here’s to you, Junk, you old sod. Enjoy it while you can.

Yesterday’s pros and today’s cons

There are many ways of judging a political system, but surely the most immediate one is assessing the kind of people it elevates to government.

By that criterion, every one of today’s Western governments fails miserably. Every one of them is dominated by today’s foremost sociocultural type: important nonentities.

Using this fact as a starting point, we can then activate a process of Aristotelian induction to try to understand why this lamentable state of affairs has arisen. But first a little comparative illustration.

In 1815, just before the Hundred Days, statesmen from leading European powers met in Vienna to decide the future of a post-Napoleonic Europe. Without passing judgement on their goals and success in achieving them, let’s just get personal. What kind of people were they?

Austria was represented by Prince Metternich; Britain, first by Viscount Castlereagh, then by the Duke of Wellington; Russia, by Count Nesselrode (with Alexander I in close attendance); Prussia, by Prince Hardenberg and the great scholar Humboldt; France, by Talleyrand. These were men of different moral fibre, but no one would ever describe any of them as a nonentity.

Without being too unkind, let’s just observe that the future of today’s Europe (or the West in general) is decided by rather less accomplished personages. Let’s also notice that all the aforementioned gentlemen were aristocrats, most of old lineage.

Is there a causal relationship there? I’m convinced there is.

The prevalent political system before the nineteenth century was hereditary monarchy, whose power was limited to varying extents by parliaments or other legislative and consultative bodies.

The ruling class was almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of aristocracy or at least gentry. Destined to rule by birth, they were systematically prepared for that role from birth by thorough education, and not only of the academic variety.

Their sense of entitlement was married to responsibility, and what was true of the aristocrats was 100 times true of the princes. From the moment they could understand human speech, they were trained for government by the best minds of the time: philosophers, economists, politicians, theologians, generals. In due course, when princes became kings, that group provided their ministers and advisors.

Alas, in this world we aren’t blessed with perfect political systems. These are manned by people, and people are fallible and sinful. Hence not every traditional Western government was an exemplar of sagacity and probity. Some were ineffectual, some corrupt, some downright evil.

The system was designed to produce good government, yet it didn’t always succeed. But as often as not it did. Can we honestly say the same for today’s answers to Metternich and Talleyrand?

By now it should be reasonably clear that, if our unchecked democracy ever elevates to government those fit to govern, this only happens by accident – and even then one doesn’t see many Metternichs or Talleyrands among such overachievers. Unchecked democracy of one man, one vote is designed to spawn mediocrities and, when they do take over, it’s no accident.

Insurance agents, plumbers, electricians, physios, estate agents, social workers can’t ply their trade without a licence, without establishing their professional qualifications. Without wishing to denigrate those occupations in any way, none of them even approaches the devilish complexity of governing a nation.

Yet no licence is required to be a modern president or prime minister. As Donald Trump shows, even political experience is superfluous. The only sine qua non professional qualification required is an uncanny ability to manipulate votes.

Yet by atomising the vote into millions of particles, democracy renders each individual vote meaningless. What has any weight at all is an aggregate of votes, a faceless, impersonal bloc. Consequently, political success in today’s democracies depends exclusively on the ability to put such blocs together.

This has little to do with statesmanship. Coming to the fore instead are such qualities as disloyalty, a knack for demagoguery, photogenic appearance, absence of constraining principles, ability to tell lies with convincing ease, cold disregard for bono publico, selfishness and an unquenchable quest for power at any cost. This list manifestly doesn’t include integrity, intellect, strong character or the charitable desire to serve others.

The upshot of it is that, when a traditional government didn’t attract the right people, it signified the system’s failure. Conversely, attracting mostly nonentities spells a modern government’s success, defined as achieving the desired result.

If traditional governments were run by pros, today’s ones are run by cons. This unfortunate state of affairs has come about gradually, getting steadily worse as modernity moved farther and farther away from Christendom.

These days it’s impossible to suggest that relying exclusively on the ability of the Average Man to elect his leaders is counterintuitive at best – even a smallish company run on this principle would quickly go bankrupt.

Yet people have been brainwashed to ignore the demonstrable incompetence of all our governments. If they notice it at all, they ascribe it to bad luck, rather than the catastrophic failure of the very principle on which modern governments are based.

Arguments in favour of democracy run riot are always lazy, often relying on Churchill’s 1947 quip that, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

This one-liner from the master of the genre is widely quoted not so much for its wit as for its intrinsic truth. Alas, wit can often obscure truth.

Churchill’s idea of democracy was formed at a time when our political tradition hadn’t yet disappeared in the rear-view mirror. Both a staunch monarchist and a committed parliamentarian, Churchill clearly didn’t believe he was living a double life.

To him there was no contradiction in a strong monarchy being balanced by an elected lower house, with the hereditary upper chamber making sure the balance didn’t tip too much to either end. That was the essence of England’s ancient constitution, which pervaded Churchill’s every pore.

It’s not only lazy but also dishonest to evoke his aphorism in the modern context, circumscribed as it is by an impotent monarchy, debauched House of Lords and dictatorial Commons. I’d guess Churchill would be appalled at today’s lot.

If we must quote Churchill, I’d suggest another adage: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” And, may I add, just about any politician.

Is the Pope Catholic?

This question has always been supposed to be facetiously rhetorical. Yet, thanks to Pope Francis, it can now be posed in earnest.

Not only does His Holiness fail to provide the spiritual leadership the Church sorely needs in the face of the massive atheist onslaught, but the Pope also tends to say things that make one doubt his understanding of – and commitment to – doctrine.

This is a serious matter indeed, especially since, when Pope Francis steps outside his immediate remit and into the world of earthly politics, he consistently mouths leftish gibberish, of the sort one would expect from the Bernie Sanderses and Jeremy Corbyns of this world.

In that vein he has attacked President Trump yet again, this time over his decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). This cherished policy of the Obama administration gave a two-year deferral from deportation to some 800,000 people who had entered the country illegally as minors.

I happen to think that Trump was probably right about DACA (as he definitely was about leaving the Paris Agreement, which also gave fits to His Holiness), but offhand I can see possible arguments con as well as pro. Offhand is all I can offer here, for I haven’t studied the issue in sufficient depth to pass an ironclad judgement.

All I have to go by is general respect for the law and general dislike of law-breakers. More specifically, Trump’s action can’t be all bad because it was met with hysterical shrieks from the neocon quarters. The shrieks were incoherent, and all one could discern was their fear that all foreign-born Americans would now be deported, regardless of their legal status.

That sort of thing isn’t merely stupid but completely deranged, so the less said about it, the better. It’s the Pope’s reaction that interests me here, and that also shows signs of ideologically actuated madness.

“The President of the United States presents himself as pro-life and if he is a good pro-lifer, he understands that family is the cradle of life and its unity must be protected,” declared the Vicar of Christ.

From this it doesn’t follow that the US is the only place where families can be reunited. A Mexican family, for example, can rock this ‘cradle of life’ as effectively in Monterrey, Mexico, as in Monterey, California. But never mind the logic, feel the febrile emotion. However, the implied parallel is worth a comment.

‘Pro-life’ is shorthand for anti-abortion. The opposite of that is pro-abortion. Hence the Pope equates deporting illegal aliens with infanticide. This both matches the pitch of the hysterical neocon effluvia and – more important for Catholics – trivialises the Church’s stand against abortion.

That position is unequivocal and not open to debate, just as it was enunciated the other day by Jacob Rees-Mogg. Since a person’s life begins at conception, abortion constitutes infanticide, the arbitrary taking of a sacred human life. Equating it with deportation of illegal aliens is at best vulgar and at worst heretical.

This at a time when the 2016 British Social Attitudes survey found that 61 per cent of British Catholics agreed that “the law should allow an abortion if the woman decides . . . she does not wish to have a child”. An even higher proportion approved same-sex relationships.

Both categories showed sharp increases compared to 2013 – and stratospheric ones compared to 1985. That means that almost two-thirds of British Catholics either don’t understand doctrine or choose to flout it.

In the first case the pontiff’s job is to educate them; in the second, to chastise them. In neither case should he make a mockery of what he’s institutionally obligated to consider infanticide by comparing it to this or that immigration policy, whatever he thinks of it.

We desperately need a pope who can tell every one of us what it means to be a Catholic, a Christian, or simply a decent person. That doesn’t mean His Holiness should steer clear of quotidian concerns, including politics.

On the contrary, as all great popes have done, he should sit in judgement of earthly affairs, shining on them the light of doctrine to see how they measure up. But the task of relating Christian theory with everyday practice is difficult, and it does in fact take a great prelate to cope with it.

On the other hand, bungling attempts at linking heavenly laws with secular ones are bound to cause untold damage – by crushing both sets of laws under the weight of St Peter’s throne.

Sagacity, piety, prudence and subtlety are job requirements there, and I hope my Catholic friends won’t be offended at the suggestion that Pope Francis is lacking in those qualities.

What’s wrong with incest?

Nothing, according to a judge in Australia, provided the partners are “mature adults” who take care not to produce offspring by relying either on contraception or, should that fail, abortion.

Judge Nelson of New South Wales then drew a parallel I find most appropriate, though not in the sense in which he meant it: “If this was the 1950s and you had a jury of 12 men… they would say it’s unnatural for a man to be interested in another man or a man being interested in a boy. Those things have gone.”

They have indeed, evoking the mixed metaphor of the thin end of the wedge being driven into a slippery slope. The judge’s logic is unassailable: legalising first homosexuality and then homomarriage destroys any objections, present or future, to any kind of sexual activity.

Implicitly, His Honour welcomes this development, and the only possible concerns he sees are purely practical, those involving pregnancy. However, as he correctly pointed out, such problems don’t have to arise in our progressive time.

Schoolchildren these days may not learn traditional academic subjects, such as history and philosophy, and they may not even learn how to read properly, but they all take condom classes.

French letters have replaced belles lettres, and then there’s always the fall-back position of an abortion, which, when all is said and done, is but a form of contraception, a surgical equivalent of popping a morning-after pill.

Fair enough, 25 to 50 per cent of children produced by this version of brotherly love develop problems, ranging from idiocy to infertility. However, as a man of the humanities, I’m less interested in statistics than in the moral aspects of such unions.

These, as far as Judge Nelson is concerned, don’t exist. We no longer live in the antediluvian 1950s, when troglodyte laws frowned on sexual perversion, and those who advocated homomarriage were likely to be committed to a loony bin.

We live in the twenty-first century, when morality has been taken out of sex. If two consenting adults want to have some innocent fun, what’s the problem? Who’s getting hurt?

Society, would be the answer to that question, but anyone daring to proffer such a reply would be considered an objectionable fossil – and, if he speaks forcefully enough, possibly even a law-breaker.

When in 2014 our (Conservative!) PM pushed through the homomarriage law, I was writing pieces about both the thin end of a wedge and the slippery slope. Some readers took exception to such unfashionable extremism. Just because two homosexuals in love are now allowed to tie the knot, it doesn’t follow that, say, incest and bestiality will become legal as well.

I put forth all sorts of counterarguments then and could do so now. But there’s no need: Judge Nelson has done it for me.

Remove morality from it, replace it with soulless rationality, and no sane person could argue logically against any form of consensual sex. Siblings (same-sex or otherwise), parents and children – what does it matter, provided the children are grown up and a good time is had by all?

And treating consent as the absence of resistance, even poking farm animals should raise no objections. Did that ewe say no? Of course she didn’t, Your Honour. In fact, she quite enjoyed having her hind legs stuck into a pair of wellies.

This isn’t reductio ad absurdum; in modernity no such thing is possible. Nothing is any longer absurd, and even satire is left for dead. What was absurdly unthinkable or risible even 10 years ago, never mind in the 1950s mentioned by the good judge, is now legal, unobjectionable and even commendable. I’m eagerly awaiting the time when it becomes compulsory.

“Oedipus, schmedipus, as long as he loves his Mum,” we chuckle. And in my French backwater, where incest is rife, it’s referred to as le cinéma des pauvres (the cinema of the poor), much to the mirth of my Parisian friends who, like me, have their country houses here.

Laughter all around, just as Hilaire Belloc observed some 100 years ago: “We are tickled by [the Barbarian’s] irreverence, his comic inversion of our old certitudes and our fixed creeds refreshes us; we laugh. But as we laugh we are watched by large and awful faces from beyond; and on these faces there is no smile.”

Tone deaf

Tony Blair, now there’s a man of principle and single-minded dedication to a noble goal.

The noble goal to which Tone is single-mindedly dedicated is becoming the EU president, a vantage point from which he could watch his millions turn into billions. However, since he’s still nominally British, the goal will never be achieved if Britain leaves the EU.

The upshot is clear: Tone has to apply all his inexhaustible energy and mediocre but perfidious mind to the task of dynamiting Brexit. He doesn’t care how stupid and devious he sounds in the process. Or perhaps he simply lacks any self-critical faculties.

For example, the other day he said something inane without realising it: “Brexit isn’t the way to solve all Britain’s problems.” Really? And there I was, thinking that the King’s Road will instantly become free of potholes the moment we leave.

I don’t know how many Brexiteers Tony knows, but I number many among my friends and have talked to quite a few more. This large group includes MPs, MEPs, UKIP functionaries, priests, professors and simply intelligent people.

Yet not once have I heard anyone suggest that Brexit is the answer to all our problems. No one expects it to be – any more than a man who has paid off his mortgage can expect to get rid of haemorrhoids, stop his wife from bitching about unwashed dishes and finally score with his secretary. The only problem he has solved is those crippling monthly repayments.

By the same token, Brexit is supposed to solve one problem only, that of loss of sovereignty. We won’t become richer, healthier or better-educated as a result. It’s just that, rather than taking orders from Angie and Jean-Claude, we’ll be governed by our own parliament, upholding our own constitution.

Brexit isn’t just the best solution to that problem, but the only one. Hence old Tone is talking in daft non sequiturs, possibly without realising it and definitely not caring. He and his ilk are congenitally alien to the very notion of intellectual rigour and moral probity.

On the latter point, witness Tony’s recent earth-shattering pronouncement on the holiest commandment in the EU canon: free movement of people. By the sound of him, Tony must have met with some unidentified EU officials in a smoky cellar in Brussels or elsewhere. There he made them promise that, if he manages to keep Britain in the EU, they’ll turn a blind eye to us introducing tough immigration controls. Or at least they won’t mind Tony making promises to that effect.

Now it’s useful to remember that, as PM, Tony flung Britain’s doors wide-open not only to EU migrants but also to a million-odd Muslims. According to his trusted accomplice Peter Mandelson, that was systematic policy aimed at diluting the British electorate to a point where it becomes less British and therefore more prone to vote in the likes of Blair and Mandelson.

That is to say that Blair coming out in favour of tightening immigration controls is akin to Dr Shipman campaigning for better care of the elderly, the Wests for parental control in bringing up children and Corbyn for denationalising the NHS.

One would think that Tony would be hard-pressed to explain the cosmic cynicism of this turnaround. But his sleeve is densely stuffed with inanities, and he promptly whipped out another one: “There is no diversion possible from Brexit without addressing the grievances which gave rise to it. Paradoxically, we have to respect the referendum vote to change it.”

Let me see if I get this right: the way to respect the referendum vote is to ignore it. I wonder if Tony had first taken this ‘paradox’ out for a test drive, for example by explaining to Cherie why he ignores her all the time. I’m sure she’d accept this as a sign of respect.

But, quite apart from the sheer stupidity and dishonesty of this ‘paradoxical’ statement, what I find interesting is Blair’s deafness to the rumble among the people he governed for 10 years. This tone-deafness is doubtless caused by the tinnitus of the Remainers’ propaganda, both in Britain and especially in Brussels, Tony’s spiritual home.

If people repeat lies for long enough, they begin to believe them, and Tony is clearly in the grip of self-delusion. He and his accomplices seem to believe that the British voted to shake the EU’s dust off their feet simply because they hate foreigners.

Assuage this prevalent xenophobia by limiting immigration, and they’ll joyously march into the Fourth Reich either run or at least represented locally by its gauleiter Herr Tony. Now Tone doubtless keeps his ear to the ground, but it’s the wrong ground.

One would like to believe that the British voted for Brexit upon careful consideration of the country’s constitutional history and its incompatibility with any outside authority diminishing the power of Parliament and reducing Her Majesty to being merely an EU citizen. But that temptation must be resisted, however reluctantly.

The British made the correct decision to leave the EU largely for the same reason they made the wrong decision almost to get Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street. They’re disgusted with our governing elite, whose spivocratic lies are causing a powerful reflux. In other words, they’re disgusted with spivs like Tony, Dave and Tessa – just as Americans are disgusted with their own spivs inhabiting both parties.

And yes, the British probably prefer their home-grown nonentities to the foreign variety, if only for the empty pleasure of being able to replace one set of their own spivs with another every few years. But limiting the number of Romanians arriving at these shores isn’t going to “address the grievances” that have led to the Brexit vote. Fewer Romanians won’t produce more Remainers.

Removing the likes of Blair from the public eye would be a better idea, but even that wouldn’t quite quell the brewing resentment. The West has sown the wind and it’s now reaping the whirlwind.

The wind is produced by the likes of Blair; the resulting whirlwind may well sweep away not only our corrupt politics but also every semblance of order. But he’s deaf to the sounds of the howling wind – his kind always are.

A touch of nostalgia

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, wrote the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr some 200 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

About 22 years ago, I got to put that theory to a test. In 1995, 22 years after I left Russia, I went back for the first time, partly to report on the first Chechen War. Rummaging through my archives, I ran across a longish piece I wrote on return for a London magazine.

Reading it now, I realise that, to disprove Karr, some details have changed since then. Yet, vindicating Karr, fundamentally things in Russia have indeed remained the same.

Today I’d probably write the same piece differently. But, in re-publishing it here, I haven’t changed a word. Nostalgia must be free of retrospective embellishment.

A month ago I allowed my friend Tony to lay low one of my few remaining resolutions: never to return to Russia, except on the armour of a Nato tank.

Tony seduced me with serpentine skill, using his not inconsiderable charm and, more telling, a promise of genuine adventure. We’d get the chance to go into Chechnya, he said. Well, perhaps not quite into Chechnya, but to Khasavyurt, an area just across the border in Daghestan where there are lots of freshly atrocitied refugees with oodles of baroque stories to tell. Officially, he explained, we’d be part of a team of British observers at the Byelorussian elections. So we’d fly into Moscow, officially, on the 6th, and the next morning the two of us would go on an unofficial detour south, only to come in from the cold and fly to Minsk, officially, via Moscow three days later.

On the official leg of the journey we’d act under the auspices of the Foreign Office; on the unofficial leg we’d be ‘deniable’, in FCO jargon. Something in Tony’s eyes suggested he was just insane enough to go on this trip with or without me, which is to say with or without any ability to communicate with the gun-toting natives. All he can say in Russian is spasibo, which is a polite but inadequate way to respond to someone who looks like he might quite enjoy firing a warning shot through your head.

Our visas and tickets were organised by the Helsinki Human Rights Group, which in Tony’s case was a wasted gesture since he had left his visa at home, 150 miles north of Heathrow, and made an amusing spectacle of himself going through all his pockets, and some of mine, in front of the Austrian Airlines check-in counter. In an ensuing huddle we agreed that the wisest course of action would be for me to go ahead and for him to join me in Moscow the day after, thus moving our itinerary back one day. That would give me ample time to exchange our airline tickets for Daghestan and extend our hotel bookings in Moscow. It also meant I had to return to my native city, after 22 years on the lam, all alone, unfastened by the emotional umbilical of English friends.

Of course, with a prescience born out of other people’s experience, I had taken care of all the petty details in advance. One such detail was a taxi ride from Sheremetievo Airport to my hotel in the centre of Moscow. You see, the advent of soi disant free enterprise led to the demise of not only the soi disant communist government but also of the taxi cab. Or, rather it has turned every vehicle in the land (hearses, ambulances, police cars, snowploughs, lorries, fire engines, all cars) into a potential cab. The problem, as explained to me by a Russian friend, is that when an obvious foreigner hails just any old car, he might end up not in Tverskaya (central thoroughfare) but in Vagankovsky (central cemetery), his identity papers judiciously removed along with all his valuables.

That’s why, having cleared the customs check in Moscow, I shouldered my way through a crowd of Charlie Manson types intoning ‘Taxi, sarr?’ and went straight towards a scruffy unshaven character who was holding up a piece of cardboard with my name on it.

‘Welcome to Moscow,’ he said and flashed a hospitable, toothless smile. ‘There’s a bit of a walk to the car,’ he apologised. ‘The bitches don’t let us park outside.’

The bit of a walk turned out to be about a mile, and the car at the end of it looked even more disreputable than the others we had passed. It was, as Victor the driver explained, built in the same year in which I left Russia and it wasn’t a Mercedes to begin with. The car was a mystery colour, heavily dented and – in the way of interior decoration – featured springs sticking out of the seats and a ganglion of wires hanging loose under the dashboard. ‘Back in the old days,’ explained Victor, ‘I could slip a couple of half-litres to a mechanic and he’d fix it up. Now…’ he made a chopping gesture with his right hand and spat out of the window.

The drive to central Moscow was just as I remembered it, except for the obviously American hoardings advertising products obviously unaffordable to most Russians. One such product was bullet-proof glass ‘for your home or office’, something one rarely sees advertised on London’s A4.

As I was trying to come to grips with the emotional implications of treading my native soil again, Victor went into a long tirade whose more or less exact paraphrases I was to hear from everybody I was to meet on that trip: ‘They say I’m free now, read what you want, go where you want. I need those books like I need teeth in my arse. What I need is a living. And order. Back in the old times I lived like a king. And now… ,’ he spat again, this time on the floor.

The tirade was interrupted by a traffic cop, one of about 50 we had passed on the 5-mile drive. This one would not be passed; he raised his hand, Victor staggered to a stop and jumped out with servile haste. The cop led him into his own car, leaving me alone and – I’m man enough to admit this – in a state of panic. Suddenly, all the pieces of the sinister jigsaw fit together. Tony, never mind his seemingly irreproachable moral character, had set me up. That’s why he pretended he had left his visa at home. Why would he do something like that? Never mind why. He must be in cahoots with them, that’s why. Now I’m going to be tortured, my passport will be confiscated, I’ll not be allowed to leave, I’ll never see Penelope again…’

That line of thought was so engrossing I didn’t notice Victor slip back into the driver’s seat. ‘They’re doing me for appearance.’ Dear oh dear, the Russians must take unshaven faces seriously. ‘The car’s appearance. I tell the bitches, who’s got the money to fix it, right? They say it ain’t their problem, right? I offer them 500 [about £7, a princely sum], they say sorry, we would normally, but we ain’t got our quota of busts for the month, right? So follow us to the pound, like a goodun.’

‘Where does that leave me?’ I was curious to know.

‘Nothing to worry about.’ Easy for him to say. ‘We’ll just drive into that pound, I’ll pay my fine, we’ll be on our way in five minutes.’

As we approached the pound, about two miles off the main road, its armoured steel gate opened. Victor drove in. The gate shut with a clanking thud. There were cops everywhere. Victor went into the office. I rendered my soul to God.

A thought crossed my mind that perhaps I should walk out, if they let me, that is, and lug my suitcase into the street where I could catch a ‘cab’. But the sybarite prevailed over the coward in me and I stayed put. A few minutes later Victor emerged. ‘The bitches are impounding the car,’ he spat. ‘C’mon, I’ll get you a cab.’ We walked out; no one stopped us; I apologised to Tony in my mind; Victor raised his hand; the first car coming our way stopped; Victor gave me the cab fare in roubles; I gave him the agreed fee of $50; 10 minutes later I was in the lobby of Intourist hotel – a quarter of a mile from the house in which I grew up.

The hotel was built about 25 years ago to cater to the foreign trade. It is a Western-looking establishment, used to dealing with truculent outlanders. I flashed my most seductive smile at the middle-aged woman sitting at the desk decorated with an American-made ‘Thank you for staying with us’ sign; she didn’t flash any in return. Upon examining my passport, she grudgingly acknowledged I had a room booked, and that the room had been paid for.

It was time to start acting in my new capacity of an advance team. ‘I’d like to make slight changes in the booking.’ The woman winced, which took some wind out of my sails.

‘Er…,’ I explained. ‘My booking is for one night, but I now need it for two. And my friend couldn’t make it today, so please cancel his booking for tonight and give him a room for tomorrow night instead.’

‘I don’t understand.’ She clearly thought this gap in communications to be my fault.

‘Why? Are we not speaking the same language? Anything wrong with my Russian?’

‘No, you speak without an accent.’

‘Good. Now that we’ve established that,’ some of my old confidence was creeping back, ‘what is it you don’t understand?’

‘I don’t understand how you can stay tomorrow night without a booking.’

‘That’s why I am asking for one. Don’t you have rooms for tomorrow?’

‘We have rooms. Do you have a booking?’

‘No. But I’d like one. And also one for my companion.’

‘You can’t stay here if you don’t pay.’

‘I’m not suggesting that at all. I know we’ll have to pay for the extra night.’

‘You’ll pay then?’

‘Of course.’

‘Cash or credit card?’


‘Okay,’ she relented. ‘That’ll be $310.’

‘Fine,’ I agreed. ‘We’ll pay when we check out.’

‘Check out from where?’

‘From here, where else?’

‘But how can you stay here if you don’t pay?’

‘The same way you stay in any hotel anywhere in the world,’ I was blowing my cool. ‘You book a room, you check in, then pay when you check out.’

‘I don’t understand…’

This circuitous exchange took about 40 minutes and led nowhere. Reinforcements arrived in the person of a manager, another middle-aged woman, for whose benefit I had to state my case another four times. The difference was that this one understood.

‘You can stay,’ she said graciously. ‘We’ve got your passport anyway, so you’re not likely to do a runner.’

Having assured her that, even in the absence of such valuable collateral, the thought would have never crossed my mind, I made my way up to a passable-looking room that had two twin beds arranged head to toes. There was also a writing desk with a heap of useful information in a manila folder. The top sheet was a leaflet advertising the services of ‘specially equiped [sic] bodyguards’, and thank you for staying here. One of the other sheets had the Aeroflot telephone number, which I promptly dialled.

‘I have this little problem,’ I complained, already knowing that no problem was little in Russia. ‘My friend and I are due to fly to Makhachkala tomorrow morning, but we can’t make the flight. Is it possible to exchange the tickets for the day after?’

‘Of course, it’s possible.’ Things weren’t so bad after all.

‘Shall we do it then?’

‘It’s not something you can do on the phone.’

‘Oh, I see.’ There was a catch after all. ‘Where can I do it then?’

‘At any Aeroflot office.’

‘I’m staying at Intourist. Where’s the nearest Aeroflot office?’

‘There’s one in the lobby of your hotel.’

‘Can I do it there now?’

‘It’s closed already.’

‘Are there any other offices nearby?’

‘There’s one at 15 Petrovka. It’s closed as well.’

‘How about tomorrow morning?’

‘The office in your hotel won’t open tomorrow.’

‘And the other one?’

‘It might.’

On this inconclusive note, the conversation ended. I looked out of the window at the Stalinist buildings across Tverskaya, previously known as Gorky Street, previously known as Tverskaya. The statues of muscular workers and collective farmers that adorned their rooftops in my youth had been replaced with a Panasonic logo. On balance, I thought, the statues had looked better – if only because their vulgarity wasn’t illuminated by neon.

The next morning I walked to 15 Petrovka, having already learned that foreigners were charged about three times more than the natives for everything. Reassured the night before that my Russian was still authentic, I decided to turn linguistic prowess into financial gain. At first it worked like a charm. The Aeroflot office was open, and the elegant woman at the desk was good-looking in the earthy, pallid way so typical of Russian women.

‘Do you have tickets for Makhachkala for tomorrow morning?’ I asked, trying to prolong my vowels in a street Moscow accent.

‘We have.’

‘Good. I’ll have two return tickets please.’

‘We don’t do return tickets.’

‘How do I get back then?’

She manifestly wanted to say ‘That’s your problem.’ Instead, she said, ‘You buy return tickets when you’re there.’

‘Will they have them?’

‘I don’t see why not.’

‘Two one-way tickets then.’ There was a note of trepidation in my voice. She promptly wrote out two blue-and-white Aeroflot tickets. ‘How much do I owe you?’

‘50,000 roubles.’ About 65 quid, reasonable, I thought, counting out the uncustomary Russian banknotes. She accepted the money but proffered no tickets.

‘Let’s have it,’ she said.

‘Have what?’

‘Your passport, comrade, that’s what.’ In her anger she used the old-fashioned form of address. The jig was up, and I had to hand out my, alas, very foreign passport.

The woman got cross, indicating that my boyishly disarming smile had failed to work yet again. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were foreign?’ she demanded.

‘I thought it was self-evident.’

‘I’ll tell you what’s self-evident. What’s self-evident is that I’ll have to write you another ticket. Self-evidently.’

Which she proceeded to do, only this time the tickets were red and in English. ‘That’ll be 150,000 roubles,’ she said.

I knew it would be something like that but decided to remonstrate. ‘That means you charge foreigners three times as much! That’s not fair.’

‘Fairness,’ she said with an exasperated smile. ‘There’s no fairness anywhere in the world.’

‘That may be. But if you went to London, you’d pay exactly the same fare to Glasgow as an Englishman would. Or even a Scot.’ The woman chose to ignore the remark, and by unspoken consent we decided not to pursue the matter any further.

‘How about a refund for the tickets I have?’ Back to business now.

‘Go to the Refunds window’, she said, and I walked across the floor to another window.

The woman walked a parallel route on the other side of the counter. ‘How can I help you?’ The slate was clean, as if nothing had passed between us. Different windows, different mores.

‘I have two unused tickets for today. I’d like a refund, please.’

‘Where did you purchase the tickets?’

‘In London.’

‘Then you’ll have to get your refund in London.’

‘But they are Aeroflot tickets. It doesn’t matter where they were bought.’

‘Oh yes, it does.’ She triumphed again.

The next morning Tony, who had managed to negotiate his way through Terminal 2 this time, and I boarded a Vnukovo Air plane at the eponymous airport. There were a lot of quasi-cabbies at the terminal, bitching about the deleterious effect of Clinton’s visit on their trade. Apparently, not to inconvenience the visiting dignitary, whose name they maliciously pronounced as Klitor (I’ll let you guess what that means in Russian), half the streets in central Moscow were to be closed to traffic for the next few days.

I should have their troubles, I thought when we boarded. The airline is one of the more unfortunate results of the Aeroflot break-up. The planes it inherited, most emphatically including the one we were in, would have been written off by Air Ghana 20 years ago. Everything on the plane creaked, stuffing was coming out of every cushion, and when I tried to recline, the back of my chair went back all the way down onto the lap of the man behind me and wouldn’t resume the upright position for the rest of the flight.

Acting in the capacity of a charming air hostess was a burly Spetsnaz sergeant with a sub-machine gun. ‘How different, how very different from our own dear BA,’ I whispered into Tony’s ear.

‘We’re flying into the war zone,’ explained Tony who seemed to be impervious to fear.

The sergeant’s principal function, as we found out, was to make sure the passengers drank only the vodka they bought from him, rather than the vodka they all had in the pockets of their shell suits, the garment of preference for everybody aboard but us. Coupled with the absence of gold teeth (which adorned the mouths of everybody else on the plane), this made us look like paupers in the eyes of our fellow passengers.

I’m not a great flier under the best of circumstances, which these weren’t. The plane felt and sounded moribund, the pilot was indulging his frustrated ambitions as an aerobatics performer, and in the next three hours I died a thousand deaths, while Tony coolly wrote down about as many words for his review of a book on sexual pathology. Or rather he attempted to write, but the bucking plane prevented his pen from making intelligible contact with the notepad consistently enough for this Augean effort to be meaningful.

Finally, we landed in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan. Welcoming us at the stairs were two more heavily armed NCOs, one in Spetsnaz, the other in frontier guards. They examined our visas, where the stated itinerary didn’t include anywhere near to where we had just arrived.

‘What shall we do with them?’ asked the Spetsnaz man who thought foreigners wouldn’t understand either his words or the longing behind them. ‘Ah, let’em go,’ yawned the frontier guard and waved us on with the business end of his Kalashnikov.

As we were walking across the airfield, Tony asked how we’d get to town. Out of interest. The tone of his voice suggested mild curiosity rather than more appropriate concern. We had been warned that while hailing a car in Moscow was mildly dangerous, doing so in Makhachkala was positively suicidal.

‘We’ll go by bus,’ I said hopefully, which hope was dispelled by an airport official who explained that the bus stop was two miles down the road and there was no guarantee there would be a bus coming any time that day. That delivered us straight into the hands of the crowd of serial murderers and homosexual rapists outside. They were all yelling ‘Taxi, Sarr’ in throaty accents and flashing seductive smiles decorated with the entire gold reserves of the Daghestan Republic.

We had to choose one; I told Tony not to betray our true identity by opening his mouth and looked for the least ferocious rapist. There wasn’t much to choose among them in that department, so we chose the smallest one. ‘What’s the best hotel in town?’ I asked.

‘Where d’you come from?’ asked the rapist who discerned something suspicious in the question.

‘Moscow.’ It was only a half-lie.

‘The best hotel is Planeta,’ informed the rapist. ‘But it’s strictly for foreigners.’

‘That’s fine,’ I reassured him. ‘Just take us there. We’ll talk to them.’

The best hotel was a naked concrete prefab halfway to the city. It sat in the middle of what looked like Hiroshima after that unfortunate incident. I walked up the steps into a rather bare lobby and, anticipating an easy victory, flashed my passport at the woman at the desk. ‘That’s all fine and well,’ she commiserated, ‘but you need more than just a foreign passport to stay here. You need a written authorisation from the Prime Minister.’

Grasping defeat from the jaws of victory, I climbed back into the car, where Tony was writing his review in the back seat. ‘I’ve heard of back seat activities, but this is ridiculous,’ I wanted to say, but didn’t, not wishing to blow our flimsy cover by speaking in English. ‘Right,’ I said to the rapist who had a sly I-told-you-so grin on his emaciated swarthy face. ‘What’s the second-best hotel?’

‘That would be Leningrad.’

‘To Leningrad then, and don’t spare the horses.’

Karim, which turned out to be the rapist’s name, drove the way mere mortals drive in Russia: observing every road sign and just under the speed limit. Since the Soviets are the opposite of law-abiding, this extra care betokens a law enforcement system that is rather more ruthless than ours. In this instance, the slower rate of progress was also justified by numerous potholes, whose size evoked bombs, albeit of a smaller yield than the one used in Hiroshima. Karim, along with other local drivers, would almost come to a stop before yet another crater, drive onto the sandy shoulder to get around it, then pull back into the road and accelerate to a hair-raising 25 miles an hour over the next 200 yards, only to repeat the procedure.

‘We have no order no more,’ he said. ‘People are starving; those who still have jobs in factories make 50,000 roubles a month. Can you live on that? We lived like kings in the old days. And now…’ He spat, exactly emulating the gesture of Victor, his Russian colleague.

‘What did you do? In the old days?’

‘I drove, man. I drove the manager of a vegetable distributorship. It was a good job.’

‘What happened to that job?’

‘He got shot, man.’

‘Who shot him?’

‘How would I know? A killer.’

‘So you lived better under Brezhnev?’

‘We lived like kings, man.’ He obviously had only a general idea of the lives of European royalty. ‘Until the bloody Chechens acted up.’

‘What are you?’

‘I’m a Lezghin, man. We hate the bloody Chechens.’

‘But you’re all Muslims?’

‘Yeah, I suppose so.’

‘What kind of Muslims?’

‘What d’you mean? Muslims are Muslims.’

‘Sunni or Shiite?’

‘We’re Muslims, man,’ answered the rapist cum theologian. He then volunteered the information that, if by some magic he could be transferred to the West, he’d be happy to do any lowly job, including driving. On the surface of it, that didn’t sound like too much of a sacrifice considering his present occupation.

The second-best hotel was another prefab box of disintegrating concrete, the dominant architectural style in Makhachkala, which bears no visible signs of being a Muslim city. The lobby featured a naked cement floor, a check-in counter shielded by bullet-proof glass, and two women behind the glass who looked as if that measure had been introduced to protect not them but the guests.

Still, we managed to obtain rooms on the 13th floor without much trouble and went up in the lift which brought back the memories of Vnukovo Air. A cursory inspection of the room revealed insects of about six different species but no soap, towels or loo paper. I knew that might be the case and had brought all the missing items with me. Tony also knew it, but had forgotten to prepare himself and asked if he could borrow some of my roll. He looked indifferent to the meagre furnishings and informed me that the taxonomy of cockroaches used to be a hobby of his.

The absence of telephones was more uncomfortable, as we had to ring the contact Tony had obtained from the BBC: Ali Aliev, a leader of the Daghestany nationalist movement. ‘We can make the call in the lobby,’ I said, demonstrating how out of touch one could get in 22 years. Down we went, and indeed there was a telephone sitting on a small desk next to the lift shaft. A gold-teethed woman sat behind the desk.

‘May I use the phone?’

‘That’s what it’s here for.’ Bliss. ‘Where do you wish to phone?’ Ah-ah.

‘It’s just local.’ Yet another feeble attempt at a conquering smile. Yet another failure.

‘This is for long distance only.’

‘But we need to make a local call.’

‘Not from this phone, you can’t. It’s for long distance only.’

‘Tell you what.’ Over to you, Solomon. ‘We’ll make a local call but pay you as if it was long-distance.’

‘It’s for long distance only.’

‘Fine. Where’s the nearest public phone then?’

‘There are no public phones in Makhachkala.’

In desperation we crossed the lobby to talk to the Gorgon seated behind the bullet-proof glass. ‘Please.’ It was grovelling time. ‘I have this friend I haven’t seen in 20 years. He lives here, that’s why we came. Can we please use your phone? Please?’ There was a human side to the Gorgon – she dialled the number and pushed the receiver through the aperture in the shield.

The man on the other end of the wire instantly agreed to meet us in our hotel the next morning. ‘You’ll have no problem recognising me,’ he reassured us. ‘I’ll be wearing my uniform.’

‘He’ll be wearing his @£$%^& KGB uniform!’ The way I told Tony about this new development must have communicated a certain lack of faith in the quality of his contacts, and for once Tony looked as if he shared my apprehension.

The next morning the crisis of faith was, yet again, shown up to be misplaced, as Ali Aliev, a pleasant man in his 50s, appeared resplendent in his uniform of captain in the Soviet navy. He had retired a few years ago, thanks be to Allah, he told us, to command the Abhasian navy against Russia’s Georgian stooges.

‘We had one purpose-built ship and three converted barges with anti-tank guns screwed to the deck,’ he recalled cheerfully as he led us to a café near the beach. ‘They had 12 purpose-built ships. So they blew us out of the water. I survived, thanks be to Allah, and now the Russians are trying me for being a mercenary. As if fighting on the side of my Muslim brothers qualifies as such.’

Ali may be a Muslim, but he isn’t a fundamentalist Muslim, thanks be to Allah, as he went on to prove at the café. We sat down at a table outside, and a waitress materialised before we had a chance to look around. Captain Aliev clearly commanded a lot of respect. His order was delivered in an all-hands-on-deck tone and instantly brought to the table three cups of coffee, a bar of milk chocolate and a bottle of treacly Daghestany brandy which, for Ali Aliev’s money, was easily superior to the much-touted Armenian competition. In spite of that superiority, Tony’s face reflected slight dismay over that choice of beverage at 9 o’clock in the morning.

‘You’re not going to wimp out on me?’ I whispered into his ear. Tony assured me he wouldn’t leave me having to consume half a bottle at such an ungodly hour, and proceeded to match us shot for shot.

Ali Aliev turned out to be a fascinating man. Until he was 16, he had lived in a mountain village and had never seen a locomotive, never mind a ship. Then he went to study at a naval cadet school, later at the naval academy and never looked forward. A man of broad interests, he satisfied our curiosity about the type of Islam practised in North Caucasus and the languages spoken there. More important, he offered to drive us to Khasavyurt the next morning – and to introduce us to the local Chechens who try to look after the refugees.

As we drove through the roadblocks the next day, we talked about the Chechen fighters who were setting up their last stand in the mountains, preparing to die with dignity. Their families down below, said Ali, who this time was clad in the ubiquitous shell suit, don’t have that option.

Times have changed since 1859 when, after a 40 years’ struggle against Russian colonisers, the third Imam of Chechnya and Daghestan Shamil was captured by Russian troops. By the Czar’s order he was – shot? quartered? No, exiled for a few years. And then released.

A century and a half later Ali’s ancient Lada took us to Khasavyurt, the centre of a region on the south-eastern border of Chechnya. The dusty 3-hour journey, punctuated by Spetsnaz roadblocks, ended after a slalom course around the potholes in the market, where armed Russian soldiers were exchanging their meat rations for vodka. Most of their ravaged faces had never needed a shave. Lord of the Flies re-enacted: it was children’s time, and there were no rules.

Ali dropped us off at a tiny house across the drying river from the market. It was the headquarters of the Salvation Fund set up by the local Chechens to shelter refugees from devastated villages across the border.

‘120,000 people have been settled in Khasavyurt,’ said Chairman of the Fund Umar Jartayev. ‘The first 50,000 went to private houses because the Daghestany government wouldn’t accept them. Those who put them up have now run out of space. So we’ve put the rest up in schools, abandoned factories, barns.’

Western humanitarian aid? ‘Mostly, it doesn’t get through, and the Russians have only supplied 30 tons of flour in five months. Divide it by 120,000 – it’s nothing. But we’re grateful to the World Council of Churches. They gave us money, which saved a lot of lives last winter.’

How much money? ‘$10,000.’ By then we’d learned how to divide by 120,000.

‘A shipment of 10 tons of medicine from Jordan was impounded at the Azerbaijan border. I went there to take possession and was detained for two days by order of General Bolkhovitin, Deputy Commander of Russian Frontier Troops, who’d decided to keep the medicines. When released, I sought recourse in the Military Procurator’s office – only to find that Bolkhovitin held that office as well.’

We went to School No. 11, a dilapidated building whose facade was decorated with pictures of goose-stepping soldiers. The school housed 160 people; first we went into a classroom, 12 by 10 feet, in which 20 people lived on blankets with some rags strewn about. Most were from Binoi, a village where many women and children had been shot. Everyone immediately surrounded us, except an old woman lying in the corner with her eyes wide-open. According to our guides she had been refusing food after what had happened in her village – she just wanted to die.

Zupa Salmanova, who was showing us around, had escaped from her burning house in a nightdress. Her husband had been shot on the spot and her son buried alive. ‘The Russians kill us, then they loot and steal. And they dare celebrate their victory over the Nazis’, she spat. ‘They themselves are worse than the Nazis.’

Another woman cut in: ‘Three soldiers were dragging this young girl off. When her mother screamed and tried to stop them, they fired a sub-machine gun burst across her legs.’

‘They do it all the time – and worse,’ sobbed another woman, Larissa Apakova. ‘They dropped needle bombs on our village; many died. And my granddaughter, just three, stopped speaking after what she saw.’ Larissa herself had partly lost her sight after a flash injury.

On to another room, 25 by 30 feet, in which 30 people lived. When we mentioned we were from the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, they laughed. ‘Human rights? What’s that?’ cried Fatima Suleimanova. ‘I’m from Semashki; my daughter and mother burnt to death. All the men over 12 were led away, and tanks were driven over those who stumbled and fell. They took some people up in a helicopter and dropped them down.’

In the adjacent classroom baby Lenin was smiling from the wall at the 52 people living there. Unlike other refugees in the school, these were malnourished, and all the children, most of them barefoot, had festering scabies. Galia Urmanova of Sajayurt lost her elder daughter when the bombardment started. Hugging her 6-month-old baby, she walked all the way to Khasavyurt. ‘But my breast milk dried up… she was starving… wasting away.’ Finally, they reached the school, where Galia poured a little milk into a spoon and gave it to her baby. The baby reached for the spoon and died.

We then went to a village whose 2,000 inhabitants had taken in 4,000 refugees, and visited several bungalows, each divided into rooms for 50 and broom cupboards for 4. There we met Abu Bakarov, a defiant man in his fifties.

‘The Russians had helicopters hovering over our village, saying that unless all the fighters surrendered, they would bombard us. We had no fighters, they’re all in the mountains, so we ran away, knowing what was to come. The helicopters blew up the village and then strafed us. When we wanted to bury our dead, they demanded 10 million roubles [a good yearly wage] per body, otherwise they wouldn’t release them – and they’d already stolen all our money. What have we done? Why are they doing this to us?’

As we walked towards the car, he asked me if I was a Muscovite. ‘Not for 22 years. I live in London now.’

‘Good,’ he smiled. ‘Because, you know, they sometimes send their agents, in the guise of journalists. I’ll give you my poem then.’ He handed me a yellowing slip of paper, with only some of the lines of the unevenly typed text discernible. ‘A city’s burning at scarlet dawn…; Women’s hysterics; children’s sobbing…  Tanks are roaring and planes are screaming…’  We shook hands. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘Tell them the truth.’

I’m trying, Abu, I’m trying.

Everything today’s lot hate

If today’s Abraham could get God down to just one righteous politician, Britain would be saved – and we’d have Jacob Rees-Mogg to thank for it.

Britain – indeed the modern West – seems as moribund as Sodom once was, and for similar reasons: godlessness, decadence, hedonism, perversion, moral decrepitude.

Our politics reflects that state of affairs, with the electorates unerringly choosing those who reflect their own intellectual and moral failings. Gone are the times when it was accepted that statesmen should tower above the average man in every relevant trait.

Philistine modernity swears by the arithmetic average, with mediocrity seen as having redemptive value. Hence the average level predictably gets lower and lower, until it drops to the abysmal level of Tony-Dave-Jeremy.

We’ve become anaesthetised to the pain of modern politics. We expect politicians to be corrupt, unprincipled, self-serving and not very bright. To their credit, they seldom disappoint.

And then there is Rees-Mogg, who comes across as an envoy from a distant past, when states were governed by statesmen, not spivs. An interesting man, and what’s also interesting is that he’s an MP at all, especially one seen by many as a future Tory leader and perhaps even prime minister.

Not to put too fine a point on it, he’s a conservative in a party that no longer is. He’s also cultured, well-spoken, intelligent, decent, self-made rich and pious – and one would think any one of those qualities, never mind all of them together, would disqualify a man from a career in modern politics.

It certainly disqualifies him from being accepted by our governing politico-journalistic elite, who sputter venom every time Rees-Mogg opens his mouth. The latest occasion was provided by an interview in which he stated his unequivocal opposition to homomarriage and abortion.

Abortion, said Rees-Mogg, is tantamount to homicide because human life begins at conception. He then hedged his bets, proving he’s still a politician. He feels that way, he explained, because he’s a Catholic.

That’s a bit of a copout. The implication is that an exponent of any other religion or none may be excused for having no such compelling reason to oppose infanticide.

Yet even a rank atheist would have to agree that conception is the only indisputable point at which life begins. Any other point is arbitrary and therefore spurious. Anyone arguing in its favour would have to explain why a foetus is still merely a part of a woman’s body at 23 weeks (the legal limit for abortion in the UK), but an autonomous human being at 23 weeks plus one day.

Rees-Mogg seems to be confirming inadvertently the widespread falsehood that no absolute standards of morality exist. He, as a Catholic, rejects abortion; someone else may feel differently. De gustibus… and all that.

That, however, is a minor quibble swept aside by his reply to the next question that the interviewer posed with the perfidy of a practised agent provocateur. What about pregnancy resulting from incest or rape? Daddy rapes his little girl, she conceives, is she still supposed to keep the child?

Now 190,000 abortions are performed in Britain every year. I’d guess that no more than a few hundred of them involve rape or incest. Yet this kind of reductio ad absurdum always comes up, along with equally rare situations, such as the foetus showing signs of a mental or physical disorder. The interviewee is supposed to take that blow on the chin and go down for the count.

Rees-Mogg stayed upright. He rejects abortion, he repeated, under any circumstances. None would in his view justify the arbitrary taking of a human life.

The interviewer knew he had his man bang to rights. It was time to press his advantage. So what about same-sex marriage then? Are you opposed to that too?

I most certainly am, replied Rees-Mogg. Marriage is a sacrament and as such it’s within the remit of the Church, not the state. And the Church states that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.

Let’s forgive him his leaning yet again on the crutch of religion. Of course, marriage is a sacrament, but even a reasonably intelligent atheist (provided such an animal exists) could construct a purely rational argument to the same effect. He could, for example, cite the essential reproductive function of marriage. Or describe marriage as society’s traditional cornerstone.

Referring to a man’s cohabitation with any mammal of his choice as marriage renders the concept meaningless, thereby knocking the cornerstone out. Such playing fast and loose with millennia of tradition will always have dire social consequences – surely even any atheist with a three-digit IQ must see that?

But none of this is the point. The point is that Rees-Mogg challenged the new orthodoxy, thereby branding himself as a heretic.

Never mind that this part of the orthodoxy is of recent vintage, brought about by Dave Cameron. That only happened four years ago, but it doesn’t take long for any legalised perversion to be enshrined in the new canon.

The interviewer flapped his wings in put-on amazement, and the resulting air movement set the wind turbines of malicious idiocy in motion, whipping up torrents of venom and spittle. An Independent hack, for example, wrote an article overflowing with those humours.

Among his many failings, he opined, Rees-Mogg “talks funny”. Now Rees-Mogg talks the way all cultured people talked a few decades ago, and many still do. That’s to say he speaks with a pronunciation that until recently was regarded as received.

This is erroneously associated not with culture but with class, but then everything is for exponents of the neo-orthodoxy. As always, they refute themselves.

Fellows, I thought diversity was the good thing. So can some of us be allowed to speak English properly without attracting derision? For diversity’s sake? Now what if Rees-Mogg said that, say, John Prescott or Diane Abbott speaks funny, which to my ear they do? I can hear teeth gnashing all over Notting Hill.

Then comes another salvo in the class war: Rees-Mogg “cheerfully admits that he has never once bothered to change a single nappy or do a school run despite having six children.” Crikey.

Well, you see, Rees-Mogg did the right thing. Before entering politics, he had made a fortune in the City, meaning he can now afford to hire people to do his menial chores. That also means that he doesn’t regard his political career as a money spinner, the way those revolting Tony-Daves see it.

How dare he? He should be spending his time washing and ironing – even if he doesn’t have to do it. That way he could establish his bogus credentials as a man of the people. And what’s with that ‘Jacob’ business?

There is something fuddy-duddy about Jacob. Such names bespeak obtuse traditionalism; it’s as if today’s Philippe Egalité were to revert to Duc d’Orleans rather than progress to a more likely Phil. Call yourself Jake, Mr Rees-Mogg, to make The Independent happy.

The list of Jake’s transgressions is long. Not only does he believe that Britain should be governed by her own parliament rather than Angie Merkel, but “he doesn’t believe in green energy, he thinks international aid should be abolished in favour of people making charitable donations… and his views on economics are exactly what you’d expect from someone who used to be a slightly less cuddly investment banker.”

The man has no shame. How dare he hold intelligent positions on every current issue? Rees-Mogg is “a throwback from about a century ago”, who simply doesn’t belong in a world where The Independent is a serious paper and Jeremy Corbyn is a mainstream party leader.

But that’s where it really gets interesting. For Rees-Mogg not only belongs in this world but seems to be doing rather well in it. He’s leading in the polls as the next Tory leader and, a throwback though he undeniably and laudably is, seems to attract a large following among many people who are impeccably up-to-date.

It may be just a fluke. The field is sown with transparent nonentities so densely that anyone with a bit of personality is bound to stand out. And what stands out must be cut back – modernity abhors the very diversity it professes to worship.

Then again, it’s possible that Rees-Mogg’s popularity is a sign of some tectonic shifts in public attitudes, a hint that perhaps another revolt of the masses is brewing, in Ortega y Gasset’s phrase.

Such hints are being dropped all over the place. Britain votes for Brexit, confounding the polls. America elects Trump, which would have been impossible even 10 years ago. Extreme parties are making headway throughout Europe. Some EU members openly defy that pernicious contrivance.

Yet one thing about tectonic shifts is that they can’t be controlled. Once those plates have slapped together, an earthquake may ensue, with devastating consequences.

An intelligent, likable young man like Rees-Mogg is someone who, given the chance, may prevent subterranean tremors from bringing the city down. If people are truly looking for an alternative to our corrupt and corrupting spivocracy, he may be able to convince them that such an alternative can only be conservative.

Rees-Mogg has many things going for him, not the least of which is the hatred he inspires in The Independent types. Godspeed to him.