Thatcher was right

When, just after winning her third term, Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society”, the bien pensant brigade had a fit.

From Iron Lady to Woolly Gentleman

That only goes to show, they croaked, that the Iron Lady was preaching the 17th century adage of every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. That’s the Tories for you.

But then everything Mrs Thatcher said received the same treatment. Had she observed that the sky is blue, she would have been accused of contaminating meteorology with Tory propaganda.

The bien pensant brigade, alas, includes not only unapologetic lefties, but nowadays also crypt-socialists calling themselves Conservatives. This Boris Johnson proved yesterday, by misinterpreting Mrs Thatcher’s statement in the light of current wokishness.

That 750,000 people, along with 20,000 retired medics, volunteered to help out the NHS, he said, proves that there is such a thing as society. Actually, it proves nothing of the sort.

His statement, on the other hand, does prove that – coronavirus or no coronavirus – Margaret Thatcher’s valiant attempt to return Britain to a semblance of solvency will be stamped into the dirt by Johnson’s populist commitment to a vast, socialist and ultimately ruinous state.

Those 770,000 noble people don’t prove the existence of society. They prove the vestigial existence of charity and solidarity – the same virtues that Margaret Thatcher not only extolled but actively tried to promote.

These are concrete Christian virtues that are part and parcel both of doctrine and the way of life universally accepted, if not always universally followed, in Christendom.

By way of refinement, the post-Christian world came up with the idea of society as part of its general tendency to replace specific notions with nebulous constructs. Society is one such.

To illustrate this point, Adam Smith, the quintessential figure of the Scottish, and generally British, Enlightenment, explained that society “may subsist among different men, as among different merchants, from a sense of its utility without any mutual love or affection, if only they refrain from doing injury to each other.”

One can only repeat Lord Byron’s quip: “I wish he would explain his Explanation.” ‘Society’ thus denotes any group whose members may hate one another but refrain from mass violence for some purely practical reason, such as fear of the police or of retribution.

Smith’s definition is too narrow to mean anything of substance. Today, on the other hand, most people define society too broadly. Society to them is an amorphous term that implies a much wider homogeneity and consensus than anything that exists in real life.

Modernity hates Christianity, with its specific demands on piety and behaviour, but loves loose concepts that can mean anything one could wish to read into them. Another such term is public opinion, which has nothing to do with what the public thinks.

In fact, the public doesn’t think; only individuals do. What’s called public opinion is in fact the opinion of a tiny elite formed by a couple of dozen journalists (mostly broadcast), a couple of dozen politicians, a couple of dozen ‘celebrities’ and perhaps a smattering of academics. Let’s say 100 people all in. A bit thin for public opinion, wouldn’t you say?

Society is another such arbitrary construct. Whenever it means anything at all, which is rare, it stands for a paternal, collectivist state. That’s how, for example, it’s used in today’s jurisprudence, where countless barristers repeat the same mantra on behalf of their thuggish clients: it’s all society’s fault.

That means the state hasn’t pumped enough money into fostering the already vast parasitic class. The essential Christian notions of individual responsibility, self-reliance and free will are as alien to modernity as the ‘mutual love and affection’ Adam Smith discarded as superfluous to society.

Margaret Thatcher’s consciousness was strongly affected by Christianity, specifically its Protestant variety. For her, self-sufficiency, thrift and hard work were cardinal and indisputable virtues.

I don’t know if she read Max Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, but Weber would have approved of every ethical aspect of what’s inaccurately called Thatcherism.

Her remark on society was aimed against reliance on an omnipotent state as the panacea for all social and economic ills. Not only did that statement not preclude mutual assistance, charity and communal spirit, but it ineluctably implied it – just as the Christian concept of subsidiarity presupposes solidarity.

Johnson’s calculated slur on Thatcher wasn’t an offhand remark. It was a signal of a cardinal shift to a post-Thatcher, Cameron-style Conservatism that’s indistinguishable from Blair’s crypto-centristic socialism, with its rampant spivocratic statism.

That such a signal would have to be sent became clear when Johnson’s government unveiled its first profligate budget, a guaranteed road to a shining future of impotent individual and omnipotent state.

The kind of state, in other words, that serves mainly itself, not the public. It’s the operators and mechanics of the state who are the society that Margaret Thatcher railed against.

There are no political forces in the UK to resist this ruinous shift. And coronavirus provides a dense smokescreen behind which transition to, at best, Blairism can proceed apace. This is the public tragedy of coronavirus, standing apart from the individual tragedies of untimely deaths and the immediate economic devastation. ‘

And, while we are on the subject of signals emanating from the government, note the slogan ‘Help the NHS’ prominently exhibited everywhere. Margaret Thatcher would have said ‘Help your neighbour’. But then she came from a different world.

The original virus is communism

Communism is a fanatical ideology, claiming to be the best political system in history, its ultimate fulfilment.

Famine? What famine?

That, however, is demonstrably not the case. Other than murdering more people than any other political system in history, enslaving the rest and creating universal penury, communism has failed in every other endeavour.

To be able to continue making their megalomaniac, self-legitimising claims, communists have to lie. Hence lies aren’t an unfortunate by-product of communism but its very essence.

Communists lie to their own people, they lie to the world, and they lie about everything – even including natural disasters.

Thus, only after I left the Soviet Union in 1973 did I find out about the 7.3-magnitude earthquake that levelled the Turkmen city of Ashgabat in 1948. Of the city’s 198,000 inhabitants, 110,000 died. Yet the tragedy was never reported.

The same goes ten-fold for man-made disasters. Thus, according to the Soviets, no Aeroflot plane ever fell out of the sky – at a time when the airline had the worst safety record in the world, a leadership position it still hasn’t relinquished. As to hushing up and vehemently denying nuclear accidents, I wrote about that the other day.

Lest you might think the Soviet communists held exclusive rights to institutional lies, Chinese communists can match them with room to spare.

For example, Mao’s China denied the scale, indeed the existence, of the famine caused by the 1958-1962 Great Leap Forward. Yet 45 million died and about as many births were postponed, qualifying the famine as the greatest such calamity in history.

Ostensibly, China has changed since then. The Chinese now export things other than AK knock-offs to terrorists. Private enterprise is allowed, albeit under the government’s watchful eye. Most people are still poor, but at least they aren’t dying en masse. Wealthy Chinese tourists are seen around the world toting Gucci bags, rather than Red Books.

But the most important aspect hasn’t changed. China is still a communist, which is to say evil, state. That means the government still stamps out any dissent, suppresses free speech, controls even the intimate-most parts of people’s lives. And it still lies.

It’s only in this context that the coronavirus pandemic can be understood. Its immediate cause is Covid-19. Its real cause is the deadly virus of communism, with barefaced lies as its ubiquitous symptom.

At present, the Chinese communists lie about the scale and virulence of the infection, claiming they have it under control. That lie is neither sweet nor little, for it misinforms health authorities the world over, leading them to wrong conclusions and belated measures.

According to the communists, only 3,300 have died in China, one third the number of deaths in Italy. Yet Wuhan locals know the virus killed 42,000 in that city alone.

The Chinese already knew in early December about a “new viral outbreak”, driving up the number of pneumonia cases and clearly transmitting from human to human. Yet only on New Year’s eve did they notify the WHO about “pneumonia of unknown aetiology”.

Even then they insisted indignantly that no human to human transmission was occurring or indeed possible. The WHO obligingly acquiesced, accepting the lie on face value: “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence…” and so forth – this, after some six weeks into the pandemic.

In fact, the aetiology of the problem was known from the start, at least to Dr Li Wenliang, who was already treating multiple cases in December. As a result of his heroic efforts, he was arrested by the secret police, accused of “spreading rumours” and made to sign a recantation.

Eventually Dr Li Wenliang contracted the virus and died, tending to his stricken patients until his last breath. 

When the pandemic was no longer possible to deny, the Chinese Foreign Ministry tried a new lie. Yes, it acknowledged, an epidemic was indeed under way. But it was created by the US military as an act of sabotage against the best possible political system.

In the time it took the Chinese communists to acknowledge the problem, tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands travelled to and from Wuhan, spreading the infection all over China and eventually the world.

But for the communists’ lies, the problem could have been nipped in the bud, and lives could have been saved – along with the world’s economies. As it is, we are looking at conceivably the worst recession since 1929.

What will the British government learn from the communist aetiology of coronavirus? Precisely nothing.

The moment our house arrest is lifted and loo paper again becomes available, we’ll reopen the valve on the pipeline carrying cheap Chinese goods into the UK. More important, we’ll stand by our decision to buy 5G technology from Huawei, a company that is de facto, though not de jure, owned by the communist government.

Our American allies are understandably nervous about this arrangement, what with its far-reaching strategic implications. The communists will be able to use this arrangement to compromise sensitive intelligence information and, push come to shove, scramble our communications.

But Huawei is cheaper than Nokia, and what else can possibly matter? Our powers that be refuse to accept that communist China (along with the KGB-run Russia) is our deadly enemy.

It’s in our vital interest to keep China at arm’s length, limiting trade to a bare minimum or, better still, cutting it off altogether. However, our government doesn’t think in those terms.

Smartphones costing people a few pounds more may cost our governing spivs the next election, and that’s not the risk they are prepared to take. However, risking people’s lives and the country’s security is perfectly acceptable. First things first.

Statism untethered

Any student of human nature will tell you that it doesn’t really change at a time of crisis. It simply becomes manifest, with everything extraneous falling off and the innate, salient features getting crystallised.

Dirigism on the barricades

The same applies to states. An extreme situation brings their essence out, but the essence is there to begin with.

That’s why it’s pointless to lament the alacrity with which the liberal democratic state has imposed totalitarian measures at the first sign of trouble – and the docile lemming-style resignation with which the people have accepted such tyranny.

Those who throw up their arms in horror and disbelief have been too credulous in heeding the messages of the modern state, too eager to accept its make-believe as real and its vocabulary as valid. They think the state is betraying the liberal democratic ideals, whereas in fact it’s asserting them.

For, stripping it of its mythological shell, one finds that liberal democracy is in fact neither, if we take its etymological promise on faith. Its principal desideratum is to control the demos, not to liberate it – while creating an illusion that the demos governs itself.

All modern states are shot up with an overdose of the growth hormone; all are united in their craving for power; all are governed by a small, typically homogeneous elite. The differences among the three main types of modern states – liberal democratic, authoritarian and totalitarian – aren’t those of principle.

All three types seek to extend their control over the populace into the private, and increasingly intimate, domain. All three wish to assume a paternal role by creating a culture of dependency. They only differ in the methods the elite uses for its ascendance, and in the constraints imposed on its powerlust.

The totalitarian state relies on naked force plus propaganda, the liberal democratic state on subterfuge plus propaganda, and the authoritarian state on a mixture of them all, but easier on the propaganda.

In that, the authoritarian state is typologically closer to the traditional states of Christendom. The difference between, say, the Spain of Philip IV and Franco was trivial compared to, say, the difference between the contemporaneous France of Louis XIV and de Gaulle.

The totalitarian and liberal democratic state both paint and enforce a mendacious picture of themselves that goes against the grain of history, anthropology, culture, experience and plain common sense.

The liberal democratic state tends to be more successful in that endeavour over time, for the same reason that a wily seducer usually runs up a higher amatory score than a brutal rapist. Yet both types are after similar gratification.

The key thing about crises, be they military, economic or epidemiological, is that they loosen the tethers constraining the innate bossiness of the modern state. It gets a ready excuse to slip off the mask of liberalism and put its foot down. It no longer has to pretend.

In that sense, Jeremy Corbyn is justified in claiming that coronavirus proves him right. Push comes to shove, the state puffs itself up with virtual cash and moves closer to the totalitarian ideals of Corbyn’s role models Lenin and Trotsky.

It’s just that Johnson had to wait for the crisis to let the feral statist cat out of the bag, whereas Corbyn was prepared to do so anyway. If Johnson’s government had to keep the prefix ‘crypto-’ before socialism, Corbyn’s would have honestly dispensed with it.

We in the West are too hung up on discussing politicians at the expense of pondering politics. We choose to gloss over the inner logic of the modern state, wherein politicians matter only as much as actors in a play. Some actors are better than others, but the play remains the same no matter what.

Much as I praise Corbyn’s honesty, a trait he shares with Messrs Lenin, Trotsky and Hitler who never concealed their intentions either, I have to rebuke him for his language.

Right and wrong are meaningless concepts in the absence of absolute standards. Athens and Jerusalem had them, but, while claiming to have a foot in both places, modernity ended up at neither, splashing down somewhere in the Mediterranean.

Modernity itself stayed afloat, but both the sagacity of Athens and the morality of Jerusalem sank to the bottom. Truth got fractured into minuscule fragments, with none retaining the characteristics of the whole.

We simply lack a moral and intellectual system wherein the question of right and wrong can be answered, or indeed even asked. At best, we can only wonder what works better or worse. But even if the modern state knows the answer to that simplified question, it won’t let the truth hold it back.

Modernity echoes Pontius Pilate by asking the rhetorical question to which it knows there is no answer: What is truth? And then it continues to emulate Pilate by virtuously washing its hands, just as ordered.

A pandemic is like a war: a tragedy for the people, a boon for the state. The state will emerge stronger and the people weaker – history offers no exceptions to that rule.

This in no way prevents me from wishing Boris Johnson a quick recovery. I’m sure he’ll get over coronavirus – just as I’m sure we won’t.

What’s the world’s best-paying job?

Before I answer this question, I have to disappoint you: there are no vacancies left. And if there were, you wouldn’t qualify.

Mates on the mats

To prolong the suspense even more, sometimes God and life serendipitously join forces to prove my point.

Thus, no sooner had I written yesterday about totalitarian regimes’ cavalier attitude to public health than the news came about a motorway being constructed through a nuclear waste dump in Moscow.

But I won’t hold you on tenterhooks any longer. The world’s best-paying job is that of Putin’s close friend. And none are closer than the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg.

Hence their construction company miraculously wins tenders for many juicy projects, from gas pipelines to the Olympic facilities at Sochi, from the bridge connecting the Crimea with Russia to, well, the motorway in question.

By the Rotenbergs’ standards, the 17-mile, 8-lane stretch is small beer, bringing a mere £527 million into their coffers. But every little bit helps.

Their families won’t live anywhere near the motorway, and neither will Putin’s. However, some 100,000 Muscovites will, and they are up in arms.

When the Moscow Polymetal Plant was built back in the 1930s, it was outside the city. But Moscow has expanded, and now the defunct site sits in a residential neighbourhood.

In the 1960s the plant began to make equipment for nuclear reactors, with 60,000 tonnes of radium, thorium and uranium eventually stored in its waste disposal dump. Even now the radiation levels there are 60 times the norm, and that’s before the site has been dredged by Putin’s mates.

The residents are trying to protest, since the resulting radioactive dust will increase the already sky-high risk of cancer. Moreover, they suspect that contaminated soil will end up in the nearby Moskva river.

However, weak as the Russian authorities may be on responsible environmentalism, they know exactly how to deal with protesters. So far 70 of them have been arrested, and rubber truncheons have seen the light of day.

Moscow’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin doesn’t see what the fuss is all about. Yes, he admits, there are some “insignificant traces of contamination” on the site (to the tune of 60 times the norm). But as construction develops, the waste will be “shipped out” of the city.

Alas, instead of thanking him, along with the Rotenbergs and Putin, for the environmental benefits thereby accrued, those local ingrates charge truncheons and batons trying to hinder the project. There’s no understanding some people.

For Sobyanin at any rate. Yet other Russians understand them very well. They remember rabbits the size of wolves running around the woods near Soviet nuclear power stations and research facilities.

They also remember visiting Japanese scientists who refused to leave their hotel in central Moscow because their Geiger counters were screaming danger. That, at the time when young Putin and the Rotenbergs were practising judo throws in Leningrad.

And what do you know, those Russians cursed with elephantine memory just don’t believe things have changed, not in that department at any rate. Still, in their confrontation with the Rotenbergs, my money is on the latter. So is Putin’s.

Britain is three-quarter racist

That’s how many of us blame China for Covid-19, and racism, according to the liberal Zeitgeist, is the only explanation for blaming any non-Western country for anything at all.

Can’t brame colonavilus on me, gov

However, those of us operating outside the liberal Zeitgeist, and especially those who despise it, might feel the 73 per cent of our population have a point, both specific and general. Moreover, the point they have has nothing to do with racial bigotry.

The specific point is that the virus did spread globally from China. Many epidemiologists make a convincing case that the culprit is both the appalling hygiene at China’s markets and also the nature of their merchandise.

For the Chinese, trained on decades of murderous famines, eat anything that moves, including wild species not manifestly designed for human consumption. If, say, a skunk or a beaver is roadkill to a Westerner, to a Chinese it may well be dinner.

China’s government indirectly admitted guilt. When the pandemic began to spread about a month ago, the ruling (and only) party issued a wholesale ban on eating wild animals.

The general point is perhaps even more informative. Totalitarian governments are notoriously lackadaisical when it comes to protecting life and limb.

That’s hardly surprising, considering that they kill their own people so avidly that they can’t be overly concerned when epidemics or accidents provide some competition in that area.

Take nuclear accidents, for example. In 1957 an explosion at the weapon-grade plutonium plant near Chelyabinsk spread deadly radiation over an area of about 20,000 square miles, eventually killing thousands of people.

The accident was kept secret for years, and even in the immediate aftermath the residents of the nearby villages weren’t informed. Evacuations started belatedly, when thousands had already been exposed to lethal levels of radiation.

The 1986 Chernobyl disaster is better documented, but the Soviet government under Gorbachev also issued indignant denials. Had the Geiger counters not gone haywire in Sweden, 600 miles away, the Russians would still be lying about it.

Even these days, when Chernobyl is mentioned by a Westerner, the Russians immediately invoke the accidents at Three Mile Island in the US and especially Fukushima in Japan. The minor difference is that no one died at either place.

How many thousands died at, and because of, Chernobyl is impossible to assess. Suffice it to say that, when I visited Minsk in 1995 as an observer at the Byelorussian elections, radiation maps were being sold all over the city. Some parts of it were coloured red, indicating deadly levels. All in all, the number of excess cancer deaths is estimated at 27,000.

The Soviets’ record on epidemics is also noteworthy. For example, smallpox had been eliminated everywhere in the West by 1900. Yet in 1958 an epidemic broke out in Moscow, caused by a Russian traveller from India (coincidentally, my mother’s friend). Again, the Soviets lied about the scale of the epidemic and the number of victims.

However, they were alive to the military possibilities. In 1967 Soviet scientists isolated the Indian strain, and by the mid-1970s they had produced 20 tonnes of smallpox weapons.

In 1972 a weapons test gone wrong caused another deadly outbreak of smallpox in Russia, and, true to form, it took the Soviets years to acknowledge it. Since then, some of their stockpile of smallpox weapons is known to have fallen into terrorists’ hands.

Both the Soviet Union (aka Russia) and China poison the environment in ways unimaginable anywhere in the West. Their nuclear plants emit radiation levels exceeding Western standards by orders of magnitude; their industrial emissions in general are unparalleled anywhere in the civilised world.

Totalitarian countries ignore every reasonable environmental and hygienic standard, never mind the madcap ones of Greta Thunberg’s febrile fantasies. The coronavirus pandemic is another evidence of their blood-chilling contempt for human safety and indeed lives.

Whether it was caused by the rodents featuring so prominently in Chinese diets or perhaps, as some insist, by an accident at a bacteriological weapons factory is really immaterial. One way or the other, China is to blame. And if you believe the official data on the number of cases and deaths there, there’s a bridge over the Yangtze up for sale.

When Donald Trump referred to Covid-19 as the ‘Chinese virus’, slings and arrows turned the air dark. Yet the president was amply justified in describing the epidemic by its country of origin.

Coronavirus is a tax on globalisation, and we are all paying it. After all, we share the globe not only with nice countries, but also with evil ones, those whose concern for lives is a great deal laxer than ours.

Yet when this panic blows over, trade with China will proceed apace. The West, corrupted by its newfangled ethos, won’t have the guts to put a moratorium on such trade until China (and similar countries) has learned to run its economy in a civilised way. That would be a very long moratorium, I can tell you that.

P.S. And speaking of globalisation, on my daily walk through the newly and nicely deserted streets of Fulham (the westernmost part of central London) I espied a sticker saying Lazio merda on a lamppost. That faecal reference to a Rome football team had to come from a supporter of its principal rival, Roma. It’s good to witness the cultural benefits of the free movement of people mandated by the EU.

Sweden, traitor for some, hero for others

That placid Scandinavian country full of big-breasted blondes (its only aspect that has remained etched in my memory after a visit some 20 years ago) is betraying the ideals of European federalism.

Sweden, as we know and love her

The most cherished of them is that of uniformity. European countries should become so thoroughly homogenised that they’ll become identical. Greece would get its fair share of big-breasted blondes and Sweden of swarthy beauties, Dutchmen would be pinching women’s bottoms on public transport, Italians would start eating mountains of bland cheese.

That’s why Sweden is risking international – well, certainly European – opprobrium, possibly ostracism. While other countries are desperately looking for something to do about the pandemic of coronavirus, the Swedes have chosen to do precisely nothing, or as near as damn.

All they’ve done so far is ban gatherings of more than 500 people and close universities. Other than that, life goes on: schools are open, bars and restaurants are doing brisk business, as are ski resorts, people are going to work, the economy is ticking along nicely.

And what do you know, so far Sweden (population 10 million) has reported 33 coronavirus deaths. By contrast, 6,000 have died in a quarantined Italy (population 60 million), whose economy is a basket case, just like everyone else’s.

“Sweden,” said Johand Carlson, head of the public health agency, “cannot take draconian measures that have a limited impact on the epidemic but knock out the functions of society.”

What on earth does he mean? Every other country can commit economic suicide and Sweden can’t? Who do the Swedes think they are? Well, let me tell you… sorry, I stopped myself just in time from saying something unprintable.

European governments are both aghast and fearful. Sweden, they say, is playing Russian roulette with people’s lives, staking her hopes on ‘herd immunity’. That’s tantamount to experimenting on humans, Dr Mengele-style.

All well-meaning Europeans are scared – but not because they think the Swedish experiment may fail. They are terrified that it may succeed.

You’ll notice that, ever since the pandemic struck, the EU has insisted that all its members adopt exactly the same measures. This even went for Britain that may be on her way out, but is still technically a member.

They all had to take exactly the same sledgehammer to their economies, incarcerate their populations, close their borders and contribute to the upcoming recession from hell.

Rather than protesting, all Europeans were supposed to genuflect and worship the state, national and especially supranational. All of them were expected to rejoice at the sight of the state hijacking many of the powers that used to belong to individuals.

Such pan-European levelling was never guaranteed to achieve the best results. We’ve never had a pandemic of Covid-19 before, so there are no guarantees. (Come to think of it, there’s no guarantee that Sweden’s experiment will succeed either.)

But that’s not the point. The point of enforced uniformity was to eliminate comparators, countries that would go their own way and conceivably do better than everyone else. If one country refused to adopt what Mr Carlson called ‘draconian measures’ and came out better, or at least not worse, off, that would show the folly of all other governments.

More than that: successful unilateral action would cast doubt on the very legitimacy of European governments. This, though people have been house-trained not to question their rulers’ wisdom too much, not too fundamentally at any rate.

However, looking at the smouldering ruins of their livelihoods destroyed by state action, they might not be able to stifle their screams. You did this, you, Messrs Ministers! And for what!? Just look at… . Well, in this case Sweden.

I pray for the success of the Swedish experiment. Its success would spell the failure of the post-war corporatist model shoved down the throats of Europeans. Sooner or later reflux was inevitable, and it’s possible this situation will act as catalyst.

Putin off the hook

Have you ever noticed how silly, disingenuous and outright wrong TV documentaries are on any subject you know much about? It’s an easy extrapolation that they are just as hopeless on all subjects, especially since one hears similar comments from experts in many different fields.

Sobchak pressing flesh, with Vlad looking on. Cesare Lombroso would have had a field day with his face

That’s why I tend to give documentaries a wide berth. However, the other day I went against my better judgement and watched a Channel 4 offering whose title caught my eye: Putin: A Russian Spy Story.

Though, or rather because, the subject is close to my heart, the effort did little to improve my assessment of the whole genre. That first instalment of a three-part series dealt with Putin’s career in the KGB and then his years in Petersburg, as Deputy Mayor to Anatoly Sobchak.

The documentary correctly described Sobchak as corrupt, while Putin only rated the soubriquet of his ‘fixer’. His principal function, it was alleged, was to keep Sobchak out of prison.

The only oblique reference to Putin himself perhaps not being impeccably pristine was a short sequence of an obsequious Russian journalist asking him if, in his position as Deputy Mayor, he was offered bribes.

Looking shiftier than anyone I’ve ever met, Putin replied that yes, such overtures did occur. “And?” asked the interviewer. “What do you want me to do?” asked Vlad with a mirthless smile. “Acknowledge that I take them?” The hack apologised so profusely that it was clear such a seditious thought had never crossed his mind.

The thought did cross the mind of Marina Salye, the Petersburg councillor who investigated Putin’s own machinations. She compiled a thick dossier of hard documentary evidence proving that, compared to Putin, Sobchak was a babe in the woods.

The Municipal Council was particularly interested in “Putin’s activities in issuing licenses for the export of raw materials.” In particular, the investigation dealt with export licences to barter raw materials, mainly hydrocarbons, for food. Such materials dutifully left Russia. No food came back – that, at a time of severe shortages in the city.

According to documents cited by Russia’s then-Deputy General Prosecutor Mikhail Katyshev, Putin also used the children’s home of Petersburg’s Central Borough to ‘export’ children abroad, a practice outlawed in Britain since 1807.

Then there was the small matter of casino licences that Putin issued only after his palm was greased to the tune of $100,000 to $300,000. From 1992 to 2000 Putin also sat on the advisory board of the German real-estate holding Petersburg Immobilien und Beteiligungs AG, which German authorities have since investigated for money laundering.

The dossier also documents Putin’s naval activities, in cahoots with Vice-Governor Valeri Grishanov, ex-Commander of the Baltic Fleet. Putin had a former naval base converted to a port called Lomonosov. This was used for two-way contraband activities, with various goods entering Russia and natural resources leaving it.

Warships, including submarines, were also sold at bargain prices to unidentified foreign buyers. The organisation nominally in control of the warships didn’t always go along with the racket, as witnessed by the murder of its deputy general manager in 1994.

Sobchak lasted longer: he and his two FSB minders all died simultaneously under mysterious circumstances in 2000, during Vlad’s first presidential campaign. His former mentor knew too much, which in Russia is a condition more fatal than coronavirus.

All in all, Vlad’s own shenanigans in Petersburg earned him a tidy sum conservatively estimated at $100 million, which lay the foundation for his present fortune allegedly falling within the range of 20 and 250 billion dollars.

The higher end looks more realistic, considering that he owns 4.5 per cent of Gazprom, the world’s largest gas producer, 37 per cent of the oil company Surgutneftegas and a majority interest in Gunvor, the world’s fourth largest oil trader.

Until recently, Gunvor operated in Switzerland under the stewardship of Putin’s confidant and former KGB colleague Gennady Timchenko, affectionately known as ‘Gangrene’ to his friends. But Gangrene hastily sold his shares a couple of days before Western sanctions went into effect in 2014 – forewarned is forearmed.

I’ve seen the facsimiles of the documents making the Salye dossier bulge, and a good read they are too. Yet clearly the producers of the documentary didn’t think so, although they had to know the facts. After all, the Russian talking heads appearing on screen (one of which belongs to a chap I know well) could have given them every detail chapter and verse.

Talking about Putin’s years in Petersburg without as much as mentioning the Salye dossier is like talking about Al Capone’s years in Chicago without mentioning organised crime. Something fishy is clearly afoot, but then the Russians have form in cultivating Western media.

Someone ought to investigate our investigative journalists, especially those covering Russian subjects. However, such inquests may well uncover nothing more sinister than staggering incompetence and a slapdash treatment of facts. That’s better than being on the take, but not by much.

World at war?

Displaying the impeccable taste for which he’s so widely known, Donald Trump described himself as a ‘wartime president’.

Triumph of hunger over caution: people queuing up at my local supermarket. No social distancing is anywhere in sight

He thereby claimed a slot in a direct line of descent from Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, all incidentally Democrats. (Republicans Eisenhower and Nixon ended the wars they hadn’t started.)

Since Boris Johnson is marginally less narcissistic and considerably more English, he has so far refrained from drawing a direct parallel between himself and Churchill, resorting to vague hints only. Yet he too routinely refers to the current pandemic as war.

He certainly treats it as such, or actually something worse. For even during Germany’s previous attempt to unite Europe under her aegis, the rights of Englishmen weren’t as severely curtailed as they are under the measures announced last night.

Even so, the government missed a trick, which smacks of irresponsibility. The time-proven wartime measure of total blackout would make it impossible for people to leave home after dark even singly or in twos.

Yes, I know, mocking the government’s measures is easy. But what would you do in Johnson’s place, I hear you ask. To which my resolute and unequivocal reply is, I haven’t a clue.

But then mine is the cosy position of an analyst, not a doer, a man of thought rather than action. That comes with the kudos of scholarly detachment and the attendant ability to spot holes in arguments, both pro and contra.

Libertarians among us are understandably aghast. The problem, they say, doesn’t justify such draconian solutions. We are destroying the economy, empowering the state pari passu.

All those bailouts delivered with virtual-reality cash are tantamount to crypto-nationalisation. The government will either acquire the controlling interest in the companies it saves (as it did, say, with the Royal Bank of Scotland after the 2008 crisis) or will at least exercise de facto control.

Also, most of the small businesses that will go under, thousands of them, will never be able to reopen, which will snap the backbone of a free economy. The slack thus formed will be taken up by vast multinationals working hand in glove with the state. The world will go even more corporatist than it is already.

And for what? The libertarians point out that so far the number of coronavirus deaths from here to China is smaller by an order of magnitude than the casualty list claimed every year by seasonal flu.

Here I smell a logical rat, which is an unfortunate idiom, considering that rats are widely held responsible for the pandemic. For we know how many seasonal flu kills, albeit within a rather wide range. But we don’t know how many coronavirus may kill.

At what cut-off point would draconian measures seem reasonable? 50,000? 500,000? 5,000,000? Are we sure that, in the absence of totalitarian measures, such thresholds won’t be reached? I am not. And neither is anybody else, including the staunchest libertarians.

I feel intuitively that shutting the world down will create a calamity much worse than anything coronavirus could do, even as denominated in mortality rates.

Yet I won’t stake my own life on this intuition, which is why I choose empty streets for my daily walks and cross over to the other side when a passer-by comes my way. Hence, suggesting that other lives should be put at risk would be monstrously selfish and, even worse, intellectually dishonest.

Now we are on the subject of rats, another one I smell comes from Boris-worshippers, who shed tears over the putative hand-wrenching drama the PM had to go through before ordering a lockdown.

Boris, they say, is a life-long champion of our ancient liberties. For him having to stamp them into the dirt is tantamount to driving a stake through his own heart.

And yet he committed this ultimate act of self-sacrifice under the pressure exerted by his cabinet colleagues who’ll go nameless. All right, if you insist, Matt Hancock, in charge of Health, and Michael Gove, in charge of Everything Boris Couldn’t Be Bothered To Be In Charge Of.

Those who have this picture of our government in their minds should erase it immediately. The only thing Boris has been a lifelong champion of is Boris. If that weren’t the case, he wouldn’t have entered politics.

The time of selfless statesmen devoted to bono publico is long behind us. Today’s lot are narrowly committed to their own bono, and the public is seen as a means to that end. Their whole being has crystallised into the need to gain and keep power, which comes down to winning the next election and, ideally, the one after next.

If you have any doubts on that score, just look at this government’s first, blatantly socialist, trillion-pound budget. As a fringe benefit, it represents the bribery of the northerners who uncharacteristically voted Tory in the last general election.

But mainly it’s a massive transfer of power to the state, which, after all, is the real purpose of socialism, once it’s stripped of its mendacious bien pensant slogans. So much for Boris’s commitment to individual liberties.

He probably did come under pressure, but it wasn’t applied from the lofty height of public interest. Messrs Gove, Hancock and no doubt Cummings convinced Mr Johnson that it was in his political interest to be seen as a strong leader sacrificing his own philosophy at the altar of people’s health.

And they were right – witness the message of approval issued by Jeremy Corbyn. All he could muster by way of criticism was a teeth-gnashing whinge that he would have done all the same things a few days earlier.

Even old Jeremy must have sensed that for him to attack the Tories from a libertarian position (the only one really available) would turn him into a global laughingstock. There goes another Labour plank in the next election.

Oh well, I realise that so far I haven’t solved all the world’s problems. I would, but Penelope reminds me I’m otherwise engaged. Must go out for a walk, while that’s still allowed.   

The day after coronavirus

Some experts say we grossly underestimate the pandemic. Other experts accuse them of scaremongering.

Will Boris have to convert to Catholicism to be canonised?

Still others steer the middle course: we’re doing neither too much nor too little, but just the right amount. Hail the PM. You know that empty plinth in Trafalgar Square? That’s where a bronze Boris Johnson will stand proudly for centuries to come.

Every possible epidemiological permutation has its authoritative champions with a whole alphabet of credentials after their names. Do some letters outweigh others? If so, which?

Because of all this uncertainty I find it hard to come down on either – or rather any – side of the argument. As far as I’m concerned, the pandemic may be just as bad as it’s described. Or worse. Or better. It may be over in a month or two. Or in a year or two. Or never. No one really knows.

We do know one thing though. Sooner or later Covid-19 will go its merry way, and the country will return to… what exactly?

Here we leave the realm of conjecture and enter one of near-certainty. For, while we have little basis for assessing coronavirus medically, we do have experience of governments coming out of cataclysmic crises. And, as far as the economy is concerned, this government’s first budget and publicly stated plans provide enough information for confident forecasting.

Alas, there are no reasons for optimism. Not to cut too fine a point, our economy will be wiped out – that, even if the widely predicted run on banks doesn’t happen.

Many businesses will go under, capital investment will plummet, unemployment will soar, as will the size of the social budget. Deficit spending will hit heights never seen, nor indeed imagined, before.

The country will lie in ruins, which will be just as bad as after the Second World War. Or, for being less visible to the naked eye, even worse.

After all, when one sees a destroyed city block, one will know what needs to be done, even if most people won’t know how to do it. However, when the stock market loses half its value, the currency is well-nigh worthless as are people’s investments and pensions, when much of the public purse is used to pay interest on gargantuan loans and never mind repaying the principal, what should the government do?

Well, one model of possible response is provided by post-war West Germany, led at the time by Konrad Adenauer and his economics advisor (later Economics Minister, still later Chancellor) Ludwig Erhard.

Adenauer and Erhard exceeded their authority under the law imposed by the occupying powers to shift the economy away from the Keynesian (that is, socialist) practices mandated by the Anglo-Saxons and free it up in one fell swoop.

They took that plunge on a Sunday, when American and British Keynesians had a day off and were thus in no position to stop them. At the same time, Adenauer and Erhard told the Germans that there would be no huge deficit spending on a Bismarck-type welfare state, not in the immediate future at any rate.

This would come when the economy got up on its feet. Until then the Germans were told to tighten their belts, work hard and count their pfennigs.

The ploy worked to perfection, and within a few years the country climbed to the economic summit where it has more or less stayed to this day, despite the combined ballasts of the reunification and the EU pulling it down.

The other model was British, inspired by Keynesian notions of massive state interference financed by runaway deficit spending. And, even though Britain had not suffered destruction on Germany’s scale (the combined yield of Allied bombing was close to three megatons – the language of the nuclear age), it took the country several decades, not a few years, to recover from the war.

Obviously the analogy isn’t airtight. However, mutatis mutandis, it provides useful guidelines and raises a vital question. Will HMG take the conservative or socialist road out of the impending crisis?

We already know the answer to that one. Even before the pandemic the government unveiled an economic policy that must have made Keynes sit up in his grave and applaud.

Austerity (which never existed in the first place, and which misnomer merely designated promiscuous, rather than suicidal, borrowing) fell by the wayside. A trillion-pound budget leading to a two-trillion sovereign debt was hailed by all and sundry as a long-awaited liberation from the shackles of ‘Thatcherism’.

The government also outlined plans for massive construction projects financed by the Exchequer and an unsustainable increase in social spending. Experience shows that, even when the economy is ostensibly healthy to begin with, such policies will take a year or two to put it in the coffin. Another year or two, and the lid will be nailed shut.

Thus coronavirus may be ruinous for the economy, but for the government it’s a long-term godsend. It’ll be able to use it as an excuse for years to come, using the pandemic to justify its own economic incompetence. Politics will trample economics underfoot, and ruinous borrowing and spending will continue to the accompaniment of hosannas for Boris the Saviour.

In the process, people’s dependence on the state, and therefore the state’s power, will burgeon exponentially. For history shows that not all of the civil liberties suspended in extreme situations return afterwards. The state likes to keep some back as a memento.

As a result, the people will be not only poorer, but also less free. The government will be given carte blanche to create a socialist state (that is, a more socialist one than we already have), while talking hypocritically about the unfortunate necessity for extreme measures.

I look forward to the next couple of years with more trepidation than hope. What little hope I do have is that I’ll be proved wrong.

Light relief from plague

Don’t know about you, but these days I peruse the papers in search of news items that amuse – not disgust, hector or scare.

Kate Osamor, f****** MP

These are possible to find, but you have to know where to look. I’ve found two such items, which I’m pleased to share with you in our new spirit of solidarity.

The first was kindly provided by Labour’s Kate Osamor, MP, the former Shadow International Development Secretary.

Now, whether Miss Osamor delivered a blow for parliamentarism or to it depends on your understanding of that concept. The facts, however, are unequivocal.

Miss Osamor’s son Ishmael was caught with £2,500 worth of drugs and was looking at a stint of porridge. Appropriately, his mother exercised her parental duty by writing a character reference for the upcoming trial.

Reports don’t say what exactly she wrote, but on general principle I doubt she suggested her son was the scum of the earth who ought to be locked up, with the key thrown away. More likely, Ishmael emerged from her prose as a public-spirited young man who never fails to lead an old woman across a busy street, whether or not she needs to go there.

Whatever Miss Osamor wrote, it was strictly her business. What went beyond her remit was the Commons stationery she used for that literary exploit. That suggested that the Mother of All Parliaments was throwing its weight behind Ishmail, which wasn’t the case.

The Commons Committee on Standards rebuked Miss Osamor for that breach of the code of conduct, and the incident understandably attracted reporters on the prowl.

One of them knocked on Miss Osamor’s door, hoping to get a statement. That he got, but not quite the kind he was expecting.

For Miss Osamor was irate and she didn’t care who knew it: “Don’t knock my f****** door,” she shouted. “I should have come down here with a f****** bat and smashed your face open.”

She didn’t specify whether the bat she had in mind was cricket or baseball. The former is native to these shores, but the latter offers better ballistic properties. That may be why British sports shops do brisk business in baseball bats, while selling next to no baseballs.

One way or the other, Miss Osamor was lucky that the hack was made of stern stuff. Since, according to the report of the above-mentioned Committee, he “showed no signs of alarm, fear or distress,” Miss Osamor got away with only having to offer an apology.

I’d say she upheld the fine parliamentary standards, if only those of recent vintage. But the reporter involved disappointed me: he definitely missed a trick.

Unlike Miss Osamor who acted in the spirit of the time, the hack ignored it. He should have claimed to have suffered a lifelong trauma resulting in insomnia, impotence, loss of appetite, uncontrollable fear of female MPs and other dreadful things.

That would have got Miss Osamor in trouble and him in clover. The eyes of any tort lawyer would have lit up had he been instructed to handle the case. A six-digit settlement, with the barrister claiming 40 per cent, was on the cards.

Still, I’m grateful to Miss Osamor for taking my mind off coronavirus. As I am to Vlad Putin for his earth-shattering announcement that 70 per cent of Russia’s population are solidly middle-class.

I must admit that at first my sense of pride in my birthplace was mixed with a touch of incredulity. After all, even Western countries can’t boast such a high proportion.

However, both pride and incredulity were then replaced with mirth. For Vlad defines as middle-class anybody making over €200 a month.

Vlad is on firm statistical ground there, for he’s going by the World Bank’s guidelines, according to which anyone getting more than 50 per cent of the minimum wage is middle-class.

There’ the rub. In France, the minimum wage is €1,521 a month; in Germany, €1,557; in the UK, €1,524. In Russia, however, we’re looking at a different order of magnitude: €133. Thus, true enough, a Russian making €200 a month is a proud, solid member of the middle class.

Now, Moscow is one of the world’s most expensive cities, but in the rest of Russia the euro stretches further. So let’s calculate that €200 euros a month is an equivalent of our €300 in purchasing power, £270 at today’s exchange rate.

That hardly buys what we’d define as middle-class life, does it? Things like a car, travels abroad, eating out, good schools for children? No, not quite. So much more can one appreciate Vlad’s humour.

It’s not quite on a par with Stalin’s slogan “Life has become better, life has become merrier” delivered at the height of the most murderous (and artificially created) famine in history, with millions starving to death and stacks of corpses adorning roadways. But I’m sure Russia’s impoverished populace found Putin’s announcement funny enough.

I certainly did. These days one should be thankful for laughter wherever one can find it. I’m sure those middle-class Russians will agree.