Pandemics don’t just kill people

They can also kill civilisations, and only the naïve think that ours is somehow immune.

The Black Death, as seen a century later

All civilisations are held together by visible or invisible ties, and these can in extreme circumstances be stretched to and beyond breaking point.

The vertical ties are those between the people and authorities, however these are defined. Recognised and accepted authority can be vested in institutions or individuals, and their nature changes from one civilisation to the next.

One characteristic of our age is the weakening of all authority (other than that projected by celebrity), be it political, intellectual, cultural, social or especially religious. This is a function of democracy’s ineluctable expansion beyond the purely political sphere.

“Democracy,” wrote Aristotle, “makes people believe that, because they are equal in some respects, they are equal absolutely.” And the perception of absolute equality makes any authority suspect at best and impossible at worst.

Even political authority loses some of its legitimising aspects, those that don’t rely on coercion. But at least it’s grudgingly accepted – unlike just about any other.

However, come a murderous pandemic, political legitimisation may totter. For governments are on a hiding to nothing: damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

If the current pandemic subsides quickly, the government will be blamed for the economic devastation caused by its draconian measures. If people continue to die in large numbers, the government will be blamed for its measures not being draconian enough. One way or the other, it’ll be blamed.

Since our modern civilisation defines itself mainly in political terms, as a champion of liberal democracy above all else, it’ll be dealt a blow. How severe, we don’t know. But it’s conceivable that the blow may be powerful enough to deliver a knockout.

If you don’t believe a pandemic can destroy a civilisation, or at least greatly contribute to its destruction, let history be your guide. For the great civilisation of medieval Christendom never recovered from the Black Death, the murderous pandemic that struck Europe in 1348-1349.

If parliament is the nerve centre of today’s West, in those days that role was played by the Church, and its authority was at its height in the late Middle Ages. That, however, changed overnight because the Black Death advanced the incipient humanist cause no end.

Epidemiologists still argue about the exact nature of that disease (bubonic plague and haemorrhagic fever are mentioned most often), but there is no arguing about its far-reaching effects. More than a third of Europe’s population perished, which tragedy went beyond the simple death statistics.

For one thing the Church could no longer administer the burial rites, one of the key sacraments, to all the deceased. With millions of deaths on their hands, and with many priests themselves catching the lethal infection from the dead and the dying, the church simply couldn’t cope.

Yet the bereaved families didn’t care about its problems – sacraments were a serious matter to them, and the thought of their relations being denied salvation was unbearable. Thus, through no fault of its own, the Church laid itself open to the charges of indifference and lack of sympathy.

Also, when everyone had to suspect that everyone else might be a likely carrier of deadly contagion, the social cohesion of society was bound to be undermined. Treating every stranger as a potential killer could hardly have promoted cordial community relations.

People tended to keep themselves to themselves (‘self-isolate’ in today’s parlance), which was illustrated by Boccaccio’s Decameron, whose ten protagonists spin their ribald and anticlerical yarns in isolation from the outside world. It’s conceivable that the atomising nature of modern society can be traced back to that time.

Theodicy, the defence of God, was put under a strain. People were asking all the usual facile questions, later reiterated by Hume: If God is merciful and good, then how did he allow such a catastrophe? If that was beyond his control, then how omnipotent is he? And if he didn’t know what was going on, is he really omniscient?

The Church didn’t always field such queries with sufficiently persuasive power, and the embers of humanism began to glow redder. The world that emerged after the watershed of the Black Death wasn’t the same as it had been before the calamity.

A realist can confidently predict that, regardless of how long coronavirus runs and how many lives it claims, it’ll change our world too. And a pessimist may doubt the change will be for the better.

For, as I never tire of saying, the pandemic is a test, and we are failing. The unconscionably selfish, savage behaviour of our nation of hoarders is a visible sign of invisible fault lines.

These are like the symptoms of tuberculosis in the pre-antibiotic age: when they show, it’s too late to do anything about the disease. And the fault lines are indeed beginning to show: tectonic shifts are producing jagged cracks.

However, writes my Italian reader, things are better in his country: “The behaviour here (in Rome ) has been quite exceptional given the circumstances. Supermarkets are rarely short of anything… and Italian comportment – civility and courtesy has been the norm here, as it is always, but especially since the lockdown last week – should serve as a model for everyone else.”

So perhaps there’s hope for our civilisation yet, in some pockets at least. One can only wish that Britain were one of them.

A nation of shop raiders

The British spirit of commercial enterprise, which inspired Napoleon’s original putdown, has been diverted from keeping shops to storming them.

Napoleon didn’t get it quite right

Every morning a human monsoon sweeps through every supermarket in the land, leaving the shelves empty and late risers desperate. Before long hoarders will start selling their surplus in the black market: “Hey, mate, wanna buy a bog roll? Ten quid, seeing it’s you…”

In the background one hears a steady hum of hopeful predictions, along the lines of Britain emerging at the other end of the pandemic a kinder, more cohesive nation. That vindicates Bertie Russell’s famous – and wrong – postulate that the sun having risen yesterday is no guarantee it’ll rise today.

In other words, neither the past nor, in this case, the present offers any indication of what the future will bring. On the other hand, wishful thinking going contrary to every available piece of evidence is supposed to be fool-proof.

If the hacks promise that heartless, selfish hoarders will eventually turn into charitable, self-sacrificial angels soaring above human wickedness in the spirit of universal solidarity, then that’s how it’s going to be.

Anyone who still believes, for old times’ sake, that assertions must be substantiated can only say one thing to that bien pensant nonsense: Humbug! (Decorum prevents the use of a more gonadic word in this space.)

Coronavirus has served up a test – and we are failing. By ‘we’ I don’t just mean the British: all Europeans are acting the same way. Our French neighbours are telling us that the local supermarkets are emptying out at the same rate as in London, and essential supplies are becoming scarce.

It ought to be clear to anyone whose mind isn’t wholly warped by modern ideologies that, by getting rid of the universal basis for morality, we have got rid of morality. Oh, to be sure, some restraints to beastliness survive in the still waters of philistine comfort, provided they remain still. But when the waters get rough, civilised restraints sink to the bottom.

No human documents, all those constitutions, declarations, bills of rights or what have you, can keep the social fabric from being shredded to tatters by an acute crisis. It takes an authority transcending human agency to do that, and no such authority is any longer recognised.

If the coronavirus test lasts as long as the pessimists are suggesting, then the best predictor of mass behaviour will come from William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. We’ll all turn into feral children, and there won’t be any rules.

Whether or not the crisis is to a large extent manufactured is immaterial. I suspect it might be, but that doesn’t matter one way or the other. What does matter is that most people take it as real and behave accordingly.

Financial experts are talking about a spate of wholesale bankruptcies lurking just round the corner, and true enough: the economic consequences of the world shutting down for months will be dire. But much more catastrophic is the moral bankruptcy driving to the wall not just individuals or businesses but what passes for the whole modern civilisation.

And for this kind of bankruptcy the state can provide no relief. It can only make things worse – this regardless of who is in charge. We are indeed a sorry lot.

Meanwhile, class war rages on

“Isn’t there something cruel, not to mention fallacious, about judging a person’s intellect by their accent and bearing?” asks The Times‘s Matthew Syed rhetorically.

Wayne, before his hair transplant

Perhaps. But judging a hack’s competence on the basis of that one sentence is perfectly legitimate – and the judgement is damning.

Mr Syed lacks both the taste not to follow a singular antecedent with a plural personal pronoun and the basic technique to get around the mythical problem he feels in his wokish bone marrow.

If his fingers go on strike at the very possibility of typing ‘his’, why not write ‘people’s’ instead of ‘person’s’? Or bite the bullet and provide a ready excuse for using the offensive pronoun by replacing ‘person’s’ with ‘man’s’? Especially since the subject of his lament is indeed a man, the footballer Wayne Rooney.

I maintain that no one capable of writing the sentence above can ever say anything worthwhile. However, I’m grateful to Mr Syed for writing – however inanely – on a subject other than coronavirus.

It’s not only the apparel but also the language that oft proclaims the man, and Mr Syed’s grammar is in harmony with his message. He takes issue with those who poke some good-natured fun at Rooney, who has just been given a column at The Sunday Times.

In the good tradition of class warfare, Mr Syed contrasts Wayne’s humble origins with the privilege of “a privately educated rower with a posh voice [who] is instantly hailed as Sir Isaiah Berlin in Lycra.”

“Wayne Rooney speaks in a Scouse accent,” admits Mr Syed. “… His grammar is not always as polished as it could be. These observations are often used to infer that he is – how can I put this? – a thicko.”

If Wayne’s grammar isn’t as polished as even Mr Syed’s, his readers are in for a treat. But it’s not Wayne’s grammar that interests me here, but Mr Syed’s spirited defence of his accomplishments that amply justify Wayne’s journalistic elevation.

First, he takes a swipe at those who equate a regional accent with stupidity. Thereby Mr Syed swings at a target that simply isn’t there.

I’ve never met anybody who judges a person’s intelligence on the basis of his accent alone, in the absence of any other markers. One of the most brilliant men I know, for example, speaks with a Yorkshire accent, and nobody has ever doubted his intelligence because of that.

Every qualified football commentator speaks in some kind of patois, and some of them are worth listening to. Jamie Carragher, for example, has a Scouse accent so thick that even some Englishmen have trouble understanding him. And his co-presenter Gary Neville emphasises the phonetic diversity of England by pitching in with his broad Lancashire vowels.

Yet both men (if you’ll pardon the offensive word) are a joy for football lovers to follow: their comments are thoughtful, lucid, knowledgeable – and undeniably intelligent.

Yet Wayne is different, at least for those who haven’t had Mr Syed’s good fortune of knowing him personally. From the time he made his professional debut at 16, Wayne has presented a particularly feral visage to the world.

At that tender age, he was already given the task of using his good right hand to ‘sort out’ uppity opponents. If Solskjaer, another ManU striker, was known as a ‘baby-faced assassin’, Rooney quickly acquired the reputation of an ‘assassin-faced baby’.

His subsequent career, especially off the pitch, did little to dispel the image. Rooney consorted with hookers his mother’s age, brawled and in general presented an unsavoury image. Nor do I recall him ever making incisive comments about his chosen field, other than “it was a team effort” and “what matters is the three points”.

Though he has conspicuously mellowed with age, to a point where one wouldn’t automatically cross over to the other side of the street on seeing Wayne approach, the evidence of a budding intellect is so far lacking.

So much more amusing it is to follow Mr Syed’s arguments, those designed to counteract the jokes cracked at Wayne’s expense by assorted comedians. Thus, for example, Frankie Boyle: “How the f*** did he manage to get married? Probably because ‘I do’ sounds quite a lot like ‘oooh, oooh’.”

Mr Syed is aghast. Rooney, he writes, excelled at school, even though his attendance record was under 50 per cent. In fact, his teachers issued a ringing accolade: “Works hard and is hardly ever in trouble”. (I like that ‘hardly ever’. Is trouble defined as a custodial sentence?)

What else? Oh yes, Rooney wasn’t just a great technician of the game, but he was also able to absorb “the more strategic demands of tactical alignment.” That’s true – as long as we acknowledge that those strategic demands are rather basic. I’m sure Rooney could get his head around the need to drop between the lines or go for the far post, but such aptitude doesn’t require a three-digit IQ.

Mt Syed then indignantly confronts those who claim that Wayne’s columns will be ghost-written. His argument is a resounding “Yes. So what?” Many others, he says, have been known to use ghost writers.

True. But the fact that Rooney will merely sign, rather than write, his columns doesn’t quite work as proof of his intellect (which isn’t to say he has none).

“Rooney was a fine player and will make for an incisive pundit,” predicts Mr Syed presciently. “The real monkeys, dare I say it, are those without the brains to see it.”

Quite. However, brainless monkeys like us depend on journalists to prove us wrong. If Mr Syed feels he has done that, he’s about as qualified to be a columnist as Wayne is.

Treatment worse than disease?

Every conversation about coronavirus, including one with doctors, begins and ends with the same disclaimer: “We don’t really know…”

Even doctors don’t really know

We don’t. We don’t know what caused the virus, though Putin’s media blame Britain, specifically those villainous Britons who poisoned Litvinenko with polonium and the Skripals with novichok.

President Trump, on the other hand, blames China and actually refers to COVID-19 as a ‘Chinese virus’. That intensifies Chairman Xi’s desire to smash the ‘dog head of American imperialism’, which under normal circumstances he keeps to himself for fear of losing US markets.

Much as I hate to lump Putin and Trump together, let’s just say that neither of them really knows, although Trump must be closer to the truth here.

We don’t know how fast the virus will spread. So far the rate has been well-nigh exponential, but there are signs it’s slowing down. Some epidemiologists believe the signs, some don’t. In either case, we don’t really know.

We don’t know whether people who survive the infection will develop immunity to it. Some experts are saying that, unless the virus is allowed to run its course, it may come back in a year or two. But they don’t really know.

Some things we do know. Most old people who contract the infection will die from it – with or without intensive care, ventilators, vital sign monitors and so on. The numerical value of ‘most’ depends on the underlying condition, age and general robustness or lack thereof. But most experts agree on the range between 85 and 95 per cent, with the lower level starting at 70+ and then growing towards and beyond 80.

Moreover, even those old people who get the virus and don’t die shouldn’t count themselves lucky. They are almost guaranteed to develop cognitive disorders, which is a polite way of saying ‘turn into vegetables’. Bad news all around, in other words.

Another thing we know with a fair degree of certainty is that the way governments have responded to coronavirus is guaranteed to cause a global economic disaster. Thousands of businesses, and not necessarily just small ones, will go to the wall; millions will lose jobs; financial markets will hit rock bottom and will take years to recover.

That situation, dire as it will be in itself, will also have far-reaching medical ramifications. It’s impossible to put a number on them, but many people will die – they always do when the economy takes a dive. How many, I don’t know.

This morning a friend of mine, who is both a writer and a medical doctor, was writing an article about coronavirus. He rang me to find out if I had any bright ideas, and was disappointed to find out I didn’t.

That gave me a start: normally, he doesn’t seek out my views before writing his pieces, especially on medical subjects. This time, however, he didn’t really know the answers any better than I did.

However, there’s knowledge and knowledge. Neither of us can come up with a rational panacea for the crisis – we just don’t know enough, and neither probably does anyone else.

Yet there’s also such a thing as intuition, and intuitively we both feel that governments are overreacting and therefore causing more damage than the virus would do on its own. Those who doubt government action can make things worse, should recall the 1939-1940 Phoney War, the period between the declaration of war and the first Luftwaffe raids.

Once war was declared, the British government immediately introduced blackouts throughout the country. As a result, 600 people died in road accidents before the first Soviet-made Nazi bombs fell on Britain.

The reasons for the blackout doubtless made sense, as do the measures currently being taken by HMG. However, those 600 people could have lived.

This isn’t a fool-proof analogy, only a reminder that governments can be ham-fisted when tackling problems. And when they are, they are perfectly capable of making the problems worse.

P.S. As lavatory paper is disappearing from our shops, I can offer an ingenious solution to the looming hygienic crisis. The Guardian should drastically increase its print run and start using a lighter stock.

Let’s not lapse into fascism

Any crisis, financial, military or medical, is a test. The question posed can be paraphrased depending on the circumstances, but in essence it’s always the same:

Parallels, parallels…

Can our society and institutions survive as our society and institutions? Or will they transmogrify into something alien and unpleasant?

Judging by the plan put forth by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, our score on this test is near to failing. If Mr Hancock gets what he wants, within a couple of weeks everyone over 70 will be confined to house arrest, euphemistically called quarantine, and kept there for at least four months.

Any wrinklie venturing outdoors will be summarily arrested, confined to detention and fined some draconian amount. This, irrespective of the person showing the symptoms of any condition other than old age.

Now, fascism is an emotionally charged word bandied about by all and sundry, often with no taxonomic rigour. However, if understood as the state arbitrarily exercising despotic powers, the term fits Mr Hancock’s plan like a glove.

I’m not defending a libertarian rampart here. At a time of plague, it’s sensible to isolate as many carriers of the contagion as possible, even if that means suspending essential civil liberties. When the country is in danger, the interests of the many have to take precedence over the interests of the few. The utilitarian argument carries the day.

However, this isn’t the situation here. For the state isn’t out to protect many from few. It’s planning to impose tyrannical measures to protect the few from themselves. Rather than isolating the subjects of infection, those who spread it, the government is planning to isolate its objects, those on the receiving end.

There’s absolutely no evidence that the old spread the infection faster or wider than the young. On the contrary, the young are much more likely to carry the virus without showing any symptoms, whereas those whose immune system is weakened will be instantly identifiable as ill.

It’s true that the death rate is much higher among the old, and they should be made aware of the risks. However, that done, they should then make their own decisions on how best to protect themselves, and I’m sure most of them would welcome helpful advice.

The state’s function isn’t that of a strict but fair father spanking his wayward son for an imaginary transgression to the accompaniment of the ubiquitous mantra: “It’s for your own good, and it hurts me more than it hurts you.” A state that assumes that role thereby takes on a fascist trait – and where there’s one of them, there eventually will be many.

Amazingly, the little matter of civil liberties hasn’t had as much as a mention. Worked up as we are about the sacred right of women born as men to impregnate men born as women and then turn public lavatories into freak shows, we’re placidly lackadaisical about millions of Her Majesty’s subjects being locked up in solitary confinement on a whim.

One wonders how our powers that be see the ensuing practicalities. How will the new law be enforced?

Will the army move in, patrolling the streets, stopping everyone with grey hair and demanding at gunpoint to see proof of age? How will the virtual prisoners, millions of them, feed themselves? (And don’t tell me they could rely on delivery services – those are already failing to meet the still-moderate demand.)

Provided they display civil disobedience – as any self-respecting person must in the face of naked tyranny – do we have enough prisons, or hospitals converted to prisons, to hold all resisters in anything other than concentration camp conditions?

Slopes don’t get much slippier than that, nor tests much tougher. I hope we won’t let the bastards get away with this outrage.

P.S. Even at my decrepit age, I can still wipe the tennis court with our youthful PM, who fancies himself a player.

God bless the NHS

When it comes to coronavirus, I’ve got bad news and good news.

The bad news is that, at 6.6, we have fewer intensive care beds per 100,000 population than not only Germany (29.2) and France (11.6), but even such economic powerhouses as Cyprus (11.4) and Latvia (9.7).

Altogether Her Majesty’s realm possesses merely 4,250 such beds. Thus, should coronavirus claim more patients at the same time, doctors will have to claim God-like powers and decide who lives and who dies.

One suspects they aren’t going to assess the agglomerate of each person’s human qualities before drawing lots. Their decisions are more likely to be based on actuarial factors only, such as age, medical history, life expectancy and so on.

Hence we can confidently look forward to a wholesale cull of wrinklies, especially those in dodgy health. One suspects that people with deformities and learning difficulties also have much to fear.

But rejoice, for here’s the good news. We have the NHS, a fully socialised system of medical care that none of those other, backward countries can boast.

Hence we lead them by a wide margin in such vital job descriptions as directors of diversity, facilitators of optimisation, optimisers of facilitation, administrators, administrative assistants, multiculturalism consultants et al.

That’s why I have it on the good authority of popular mythology that all those foreigners, swarthy or otherwise, envy us something rotten. So far they’ve managed to contain such feelings enough not to imitate the NHS – but give them time.

Once they’ve seen how expertly all those directors of diversity usher old people towards the morgue, they’ll come round to our way of thinking. Isn’t the NHS grand?

Just how united is the EU?

It’s not just people who move freely within the EU. Infections have a field day too, imposing a stiff tax on borderless spaces.

Good riddance

It’s useful to remember that the two deadliest pandemics in European history occurred in the 14th century, when national borders were nonexistent, and in 1918-1920, when they had been crumbled by a world war.

The first happened too far in the past for any useful parallels to be drawn, but the second occurred only a century ago, allowing comparison. And it’s telling.

No centralised, coordinated response was possible to the Spanish flu: Europe was in disarray, yesterday’s enemies were becoming today’s friends and vice versa, rancour was in the air, along with mutual resentments and recriminations.

No pan-European institutions existed, although there were movements under way clamouring for their founding. As always in the wake of internecine carnages, people sought order and were desperate about not getting it.

It’s in bad taste even to mention coronavirus in the same breath as that pandemic. The scale is smaller by orders of magnitude, and the virulence is nowhere near as high.

Moreover, isn’t most of continental Europe now one family, united in its craving for a single federated state offering to exchange protection for allegiance? In fact, the state craved for is already there to all intents and purposes, and it’s wisely guiding Europe through the crisis.

Right. And if you believe this, I have a couple of bridges across the Danube and the Meuse for sale. For all its bluster and grandiose claims, the EU is amply proving yet again that the bubble of ideology bursts when touched by real life.

Ursula von der Leyen, the better-looking and more sober answer to Juncker, is screaming herself hoarse, urging unity: “The European Union can withstand this shock. But each member state needs to live up to its full responsibility and the EU as a whole needs to be determined, coordinated and united.”

Quite. And I’d like to be young, tall, rich and out on a crowded date with all of Weinstein’s victims.

For, push come to shove, all European countries are acting unilaterally. Every land for itself, and the devil take the hindmost – along with the beautiful idea of European unity.

In this context, some of the claims routinely claimed by and for the EU are shown for the humbug they are. We no longer need Nato and the American nuclear umbrella, say the federalists. If Russian tanks sweep across the plains, all European states as one will close ranks and… well you know the rest.

Yet a few thousand old people dying across Europe is enough for EU members to start acting in their own selfish interests. Ursula can flap her wings all she wants about the detrimental and useless effects of travel bans – she’s widely and predictably ignored.

The Danes, Poles, Czechs, Italians, Spanish, Belgians have already closed their borders or as near as damn. Panic is spreading all over Europe like brushfire, and the EU is helpless to do anything substantive or encouraging about it.

Many European states are on the brink of open revolt against that impotent and pernicious organisation. They managed to feign some lukewarm affection for it as long as money kept coming in and things were more or less on an even keel.

Yet the first sign of pressure and out goes affection. In comes defiance, resentment and particularism.

All this was entirely predictable. In fact, it was predicted by everybody who understands that ideological contrivances are at best useless and at worst catastrophic. Yet no one can outshout an ideology, and no one can make it listen.

As you watch EU flags disappear from Westminster, give thanks.

Beware of political activists

In the fashionable spirit of openness, I have a confession to make: I dislike revolutions – and especially revolutionaries. And I’m always wary of single-issue activists, even if I happen to agree with the single issue.

Mary Richardson’s handiwork

For example, although I despise the EU, opposed joining it and did what I could to help us leave it, even in the heyday of the Leave campaign I shunned those who hung their entire worldview on the peg of that one issue.

This is in no way to denigrate good people whose energy promotes good causes. It’s just that there’s usually something about them that strikes me as off-centre and therefore unbalanced.

Such people’s efforts are essential to achieving immediate objectives, but, however worthy the goals, their unsmiling vulgarity can cause lasting damage. That’s why a conservative activist is an oxymoron: conservatism presupposes prudence, taste and an ability to see things in interconnection.

Activists possess an undepletable reservoir of bubbling energy that needs a constant outlet. Once they get what they want, the energy seeks another cause to animate.

Alas, even if the original cause might have been worthy, or at least widely perceived as such, the next one may be less so. That may explain the fate of those who perpetrated both the French and the Russian revolutions, for all their original, if short-lived, popularity.

The activists’ demonic ardour was essential to the success of their cause. However, once the revolutions triumphed, the revolutionaries’ erstwhile comrades put them down like rabid dogs.

Robespierre and Trotsky, Saint-Just and Zinoviev, Danton and Bukharin – all of them were killed by their colleagues. My guess is that, if syphilis hadn’t got Lenin, Stalin would have killed him too.

By way of illustration, take MeToo and modern feminism in general. Its roots go back to the militant suffragette movement of the early 20th century, which, as the name suggests, championed women’s rights, especially the one to vote.

That I have a dim view of that cause is irrelevant to my theme here. However, the key personalities involved do elucidate my point nicely.

Mary Richardson (d.1961), Mary Allen (d. 1964) and Norah Elam (d. 1961) were all close associates of Emmeline Pankhurst and as such participated in the militant activities of the movement she had founded. Together with their disfranchised sisters, they smashed windows, tossed bombs and assaulted police officers.

While Pankhurst was in prison, Richardson slashed Velasquez’s painting known as the Rokeby Venus, in the National Gallery.

“I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history,” she explained, “as a protest against the Government for destroying Mrs Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history.” Opinions on that designation were, and still are, divided.

Mary Allen also made a career of smashing windows and then going on hunger strikes in prison. Some of the windows she smashed belonged to the Inland Revenue, which must have brought a smile on the face of many a respectable squire.

Norah Elam, a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, was thrice imprisoned for terrorist offensives inspired by her commitment to a wider suffrage. Like the other two, she presaged today’s obsession with dieting by going on hunger strikes. Unlike today’s dieters, she was sometimes force-fed.

To illustrate my point, the three ladies didn’t settle to a quiet life somewhere in the shires once women got their coveted vote. They transferred their red-hot consciences to the good offices of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and reached prominence within its ranks.

They admired Hitler, and Mary Allen even got the chance to discuss feminism with the führer in person. Since Hitler’s attitude to women was rather agricultural, similar to the feelings cow breeders have for pedigreed heifers, Allen’s enthusiasm might have seemed hard to explain.

Or would be, if we forgot that, whatever their pronounced aims, revolutionaries are energumens who reach out for any source of demonic energy, however sinister. Feminism yesterday, fascism today, animal rights tomorrow – it really doesn’t matter.

Thus, once the fascist cause was defeated, the three ladies in question (actually, Allen was indeed a questionable lady: she always wore men’s uniforms and liked to be known as ‘Robert’) became animal rights activists and militant anti-vivisectionists. If they were alive today, they’d doubtless be cheering the draconian sentence Harvey Weinstein received in a travesty of justice.

Having reached an age at which one can get away with offering avuncular advice, here’s mine: however you feel about a cause, beware of its fervent champions.

Ever wonder who won the general election?

If you do, don’t. Judging by this government’s first budget, Labour scored a resounding victory.

Messrs Johnson and Sunak, celebrating their budget

No, not that, unelectable Labour. The victors were photogenic exponents of the same ideas lightly camouflaged with mock-Tory cant.

Today’s papers are full of encomiums for Chancellor Sunak’s budget speech. He’s praised for his brio, inspired (and phonetically demotic) rhetoric and Blairesque charisma. Mr Sunak is already talked about as Johnson’s successor – all on the basis of his one month in office and one rousing speech.

Personally, I’d prefer a droning delivery of sound economic policy to yesterday’s histrionic rendition of an economic suicide note. For, rather than offering, as he claimed, any new answers, Mr Sunak ignored all the answers provided and amply proved by the whole history of economics.

His speech had nothing to do with economics and all to do with politics. By enunciating socialist economic policies, his Labour Lite effectively defanged Labour Full Strength.

The Tory budget will increase our sovereign debt to at least £2 trillion by 2025. What’s Labour Full Strength going to offer now? Another trillion? Two?

The new budget is designed for immediate political effect, and in that sense it is indeed a masterstroke. A combination of runaway spending and promiscuous borrowing strikes an optimistic note at crisis time – it’s a fiscal feast in the time of plague. 

The rationale provided for this orgy of borrow-spend-tax is that borrowing is now cheap because the interest rates are at an all-time low. Now, unless Mr Sunak has a direct line to the god of money markets, how can he be sure that interest rates will stay that way?

Did he learn anything from the 2008 crisis, largely precipitated by a glut of cheap mortgages on subprime rates that all went into default when the interest rates edged up? Taking the economy with them? No, apparently not.

And even assuming that the rates do stay low for the lifetime of this parliament, the absolute sums of repayments are staggering. Taxes will have to go up, with the economy heading in the opposite direction, as it always does when squeezed by state extortion.

A great deal of the trillion-pound budget proposed by the government has to do with ‘investment’ in infrastructure. Effectively that means punitive taxation on the productive Peter in the economy and a transfer of the funds to the incompetent Paul.

For governmental meddling in the economy is incompetent by definition. “The moment that Government appears at market, all the principles of market will be subverted,” wrote Burke, and he has been vindicated by the subsequent 200-odd years of economic history the world over. A state doesn’t invest – it spends, and the money for this exercise is siphoned out of the economy.

If the chancellor is inspired by Roosevelt’s TVA and Hoover Dam or Hitler’s autobahns, he should analyse those vast ‘infrastructure investments’ more closely. He’ll find out that their ‘boosterism’ (today’s Tory neologism) spelled strictly short-termism.

No one will begrudge the chancellor the £30 billion, effectively a blank cheque, allocated to fighting the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Desperate times, desperate measures and all that. At a time of national emergency, all hands ought to be on deck, not on the abacus.

It is, however, useful to remember that the modern state seldom relinquishes what it has claimed. Grabbing extra powers for itself in the time of war, economic crisis or murderous pandemic, it tends to keep hold of those powers after the situation improves.

The statist policies adopted by most Western states in the wake of the two world wars, the Great Depression or the Spanish flu pandemic persevered in the aftermath. The result has been a gradual but ineluctable transfer of power to the central state at the expense of local bodies and individuals.

That, if we ignore the attendant bien pensant waffle, is the essence of socialism. And, this side of concentration camps, its prime power tool is a tax-and-spend economy, diminishing individual enterprise and therefore increasing dependence on the state.

The claim that adding a few seconds to our broadband connections or subtracting an hour from a London-to-Manchester train ride would boost productivity is irrelevant if true.

Actually, I doubt it’s true because a highly educated and motivated workforce is a sine qua non for a marked rise in productivity. And such a force is created by education that educates, rather than providing an arena for social engineering.

That is demonstrably lacking in Britain. However, even assuming against logic and historical evidence that the government ‘investment’ does produce a 2-3 per cent increase in productivity, the effects will take a full generation to trickle down into the economic mainstream. By that time the economy, emaciated by Tory (or subsequent Labour) socialism will be a basket case.

So forgive me if I don’t add my voice to the chorus of panegyrics for Mr Sunak and his budget. It’s not so much an economic plan as a recipe for disaster.

Russia keeps us amused

We’ve all met some naturally funny people, those who make us laugh even when they aren’t trying to. Russia proves that countries can be like that too.

Vlad has been appointed supreme ruler for life. Canonisation in the Russian Church is sure to follow

Three bits of news prove this rare talent. Moving from the ridiculous to the gor blime, the first involves two Russian pranksters nicknamed Vovan and Lexus, who ring foreign dignitaries, pass themselves for someone else (Putin, prime minister of Armenia et al.) and dupe their marks into saying ridiculous things.

The list of their victims includes Elton John, Boris Johnson, Erdogan, Bernie Sanders and many others. The pair are known to be the stand-up extension of the FSB, and the very fact that they easily get all those private phone numbers proves the connection.

This time it was Prince Harry’s turn. Vovan and Lexus, posing as Greta Thunberg and her father, had two long conversations with the prince, making him sound even dumber than God originally made him.

That Harry isn’t the sharpest chisel in the toolbox is seldom denied. But this time he outdid even himself.

Harry readily offered that, because President Trump’s commitment to saving ‘the planet’ is less febrile than Greta’s, he “has blood on his hands”. And the prince was delighted to hear the fake news that Greta is distantly related to the Swedish royal family and thus, at a few removes, to himself.

‘Greta’ then suggested that her cause could be advanced by a dynastic marriage. One candidate for such nuptials was Prince George, Harry’s nephew. Harry offered his help in making future arrangements with enough alacrity to suggest that perhaps starting a matchmaking service may be on his extensive list of business opportunities.

Now, I haven’t heard the tapes yet, so I can’t imagine how a thirtyish man can impersonate a teenaged girl, but they train them well at the FSB. Then again, Harry probably doesn’t take a lot of duping.

The next news items aren’t immediately funny, but there’s a comic payoff down the road, about which later.

First, a trial is under way in the Hague of four Putin thugs directly responsible for the 2014 downing of Malaysian Flight MH 17 over the Ukraine, which killed all 298 people onboard.

The trial is held in absentia, for the defendants neglected to turn up, as everyone knew they would. In an equally obvious but less widely predicted development, all the witnesses in the trial have to remain anonymous because there’s evidence that Putin’s death squads are trying to track them down.

That approach to legal procedure isn’t new, but traditionally it has been associated with crime syndicates both rather smaller than Putin’s Russia and lacking the firepower that only nuclear weapons can provide.

Now, unlike old soldiers, Mafia godfathers never fade away. They do die though, but until that demise they stay put. The next news item shows that in this too Putin follows the same pattern.

The Russian situation stipulates only so many presidential terms, and Putin’s last is set to expire in 2024. However, a few years ago parliamentary speaker Vyacheslav Volodin offered a simple formula making that highly undesirable.

“If there is Putin,” he said, “there’s Russia. No Putin, no Russia.” Hence it would be Russia expiring in 2024, not just Vlad’s tenure. And Putin himself once extended the formula by adding that if Russia goes so will the whole world.

In other words, a cataclysmic event with global implications is on the cards, and it has to be preempted at all cost. The solution came to the Duma by a serendipity reminiscent of Archimedes in his bath.

If the old constitution spells the end of Putin, Russia and the world, it should be replaced with a new one, thereby resetting the timer and giving Vlad two more terms to last until 2036, when he will be 83.

The actual eureka moment was provided by Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space and now an MP. “Comrades,” she said, “why are we tying ourselves in knots? Since we can’t survive without Putin, we must either remove all limitations on the number of presidential terms or to make it possible for the acting president to be re-elected in accordance with the new constitution.”

So moved, so voted – so to be rubber-stamped by the constitutional court. Russia has tossed aside the last pretence of democracy and appointed the KGB colonel the supreme ruler for life. That means that the malignant sore on the world’s body will continue to fester, with us teetering on the edge of deadly conflict for as long as Vlad lives, and he’s in rude health.

So what’s so funny about this, I hear you ask. Where’s the humour in any of the three items? Thought you’d want to know.

None of this is funny in itself, not even Harry’s idiocy so brutally exposed or rather confirmed. Not the Hague trial, where the gangster regime will get a mild slap at best and won’t admit its guilt. And certainly not the lifelong entrenchment of the world’s most dangerous dictator openly waging war on the West.

The comedy will be provided by the repulsive sight of Putin stooges in the West bending over backwards in their attempts to justify an evil that doesn’t even bother to justify itself any longer. As they surely will.