“Grandpa forgot to take his meds…”

“… He is blabbering.” This is how a Russian viewer commented on what had been billed as Putin’s historic speech. About 80 per cent of the comments were in the same vein.

Rousing finale: Putin and the ‘governors’ of the annexed regions screaming “Ru-ssia! Ru’ssia!”

That sounds about right. I followed the speech in real time, and that was the only real thing about it. (Having said that, as someone who is older than Putin, I take exception to the ‘Grandpa’ bit.)

Everything else was just like that chap said, drivel. Putin started out by reasserting his unwavering commitment to all human rights, specifically the right of nations to self-determination.

Hence he was happy to announce that the people of four Ukrainian provinces had spoken, through the expedient of referendums. They want to be part of Russia, and Vlad is happy to oblige – just at a time when the satanic Anglo-Saxons are trying to turn the whole world into their colony.

From that moment on, Vlad began to show signs of multiple personality disorder. All of a sudden he slipped into the persona of an African anti-colonial demagogue from the ‘60s, Patrice Lumumba perhaps, or Kwame Nkrumah.

The whole history of the West, he explained, is an uninterrupted chain of attempts to subjugate, loot and exploit the whole world, but especially Africa, Asia and – more to the point – Russia. I’m not sure how the Russians feel about their country being put side by side with Uganda and Mali, but that’s up to them.

Actually, continued Putin, it’s not just African countries that those vile Anglo-Saxons turned into their vassals. They are the masters of the Ukraine, to cite one random example.

And not just that. Even Western European countries are their slaves. The offices and homes of their leaders are all bugged, so the Anglos can monitor everything they say the better to control them.

And now they’ve blown up the Nord Stream pipelines to freeze Europeans into toeing the Anglo-Saxon line. Is there no limit to their perfidy?

For centuries now, they’ve been trying to enslave Russia, but their evil designs have been thwarted by the unmatched spirit of that holy nation.

He, Vlad, is proud that the Soviet Union led the global struggle against Anglo colonialism since the 1960s, and it’s because of that noble stance that Washington and London engineered the 1991 tragedy, the breakup of Stalin’s empire.

Having done that to the Soviet Union, they are now trying to do the same thing to Russia, to dismember her into a multitude of tiny Anglo-Saxon colonies.

To that end, they instigated the genocide of Russians in the Ukraine, only stopped by the heroism of Russian soldiers. (I haven’t done a textual analysis of the speech, but it was peppered with the word ‘genocide’, and the same culprits committed it each time.)

Some Russian warriors have, alas, died heroically, and Vlad suggested the noble assembly honour their memory with a minute’s silence. The noble assembly complied on cue.

In general, the whole atmosphere eerily resembled Communist Party congresses of my youth. Whenever the orating leader made a meaningful pause, an ovation broke out. If the last word before the pause had been ‘Russia’, everyone applauded standing up.

Now it’s the Anglos who are responsible for turning Ukrainian cities to rubble, continued Putin, which is what they did to Dresden, Hamburg and Cologne. Almost imperceptibly Vlad switched from the persona of an Idi Amin and into one of Dr Goebbels ranting in March, 1945, about the unprovoked horrors perpetrated on Germany by those Judaeo-Anglo-Saxons.

And let’s not forget that only America has so far used nuclear weapons, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which, explained Vlad, set a precedent. That was the only oblique reference to the nuclear threat in the whole speech, which raised in my mind the odds in favour of his planning to use them.

In general, never once did Putin refer to the Ukraine as Russia’s adversary in the “special military operation”. The enemy is the West, especially its Anglophone part.

Yet Vlad is a sensible man. For all the evil of the Anglo-Saxons, he is ready to cease fire and start negotiations. Provided, of course, that the four new parts of Russia are off the table. There’s nothing to negotiate there: their people, at least 105 per cent of them, have stated – democratically! – their desire to become Russians. Case closed.

Those of his listeners who had remembered to take their meds must have gone through a mental translation exercise.

Vlad’s army is being routed, and even as he spoke the Ukrainians completed the encirclement of Lyman, a strategic centre in one of the areas that were in the Ukraine yesterday and are in Russia today. A large contingent of Russian troops is surrounded and will soon be routed.

A similar situation can be confidently predicted for the whole frontline, and in the near future. Hence Vlad’s offer.

The Ukraine, prodded by Nato, sues for peace, he declares victory and starts rebuilding. In a year or so, a new army a million or two strong will have been sufficiently trained and equipped to obliterate the Ukraine (Vlad’s commitment to the principle of national sovereignty bypasses that country.)

That’s not going to happen and he knows it. President Zelensky has stated in no uncertain terms that, if Russia conducted sham referendums in parts of the Ukraine, no negotiations will be possible – ever.

This whole thing would be funny if it weren’t so fraught.

One can have some nice clean fun at Putin’s expense, along the lines of the title above. But that deranged villain may well resort to nuclear weapons, for he increasingly has nothing else to resort to. Perhaps not tomorrow or next week, but he’ll almost certainly do that when the Ukrainian army gets close to the Russian border.

Tactical nukes wouldn’t have catastrophic consequences. Their TNT yield isn’t appreciably higher than that of some bunker-busting bombs the Russians dropped on Mariupol. And the half-life of their radiation is short. It would be deadly to anyone close to the epicentre, but neither the radius nor the duration of the contamination would be catastrophic.

Strategic weapons are a different horror story. Since Putin identifies his enemies as not Ukrainians but Anglo-Saxons, he may well decide to bang the big door on his way out. Après moi l’annihilation nucléaire, he may think.

The West can retaliate, but it can’t – or rather won’t – prevent. Many commentators hope that some forces inside the Kremlin may stop the med-less Grandpa from acting on his madness.  Yet, considering that the career KGB officer Nikolay Patrushev is seen as the dove in the circle closest to Putin, one can’t easily see who would personify such mystical forces.

I still hope none of this will happen. However, the odds in favour of a nuclear attack must be upgraded from close to zero last week to perhaps 10 per cent strategic and 70 per cent tactical.

Whatever you may think of my bookmaking credentials, we must act fast. Expressions of grave concern and half-hearted supplies of arms to the Ukraine aren’t going to cut much ice any longer.

Warning shot across the Baltic

Russia’s Nord Stream 1 and 2 have four pipelines between them.

Three of them were the other day destroyed by underwater explosions, producing kilometre-wide seabed craters, while releasing $2 billion’s worth of gas and 200,000 tons of methane into the Baltic.

This incident raises many questions, which can be answered within the realm of probability. Certainty can only come after a thorough forensic investigation, and no one knows when that’ll be conducted – and, more relevant, by whom.

Since the explosions were obviously pre-planned and carefully timed, the first questions are the lapidary ‘cui bono?’ and its follow-up, ‘whodunit?’. The Kremlin answered both with certainty: America.

Isn’t that self-evident? Because, by cutting Europe off from Russian gas, America makes the continent wholly dependent on her own liquefied gas. Those Yanks will do anything for money, we all know that.

By way of prima facie evidence the Russians played an early February video of Biden threatening to “bring an end” to Nord Stream 2 should the Russians invade the Ukraine.

Clearly, that dyed-in-the-wool enemy of Russia and everything else that’s good in this life could mean only one thing: blowing up the newly completed pipeline. Send a few frogmen in, or perhaps a sub or two – and kaboom! Europe becomes a slave to American oil companies.

The Kremlin’s line was dutifully echoed by Donald Trump, and I’d desperately love to see the hymn sheet providing the lyrics. He saw fit to replay the same video, adding a verbal endorsement of Putin’s claim: “Wow, what a statement. World War III anyone?”

So Putin and Trump agree that terrorism is exactly what Biden had in mind. You, on the other hand, I hope will agree with me that this version of events doesn’t tally with Biden’s making good on his threat.

This was his instant response to the Russian invasion: “Today, I have directed my administration to impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 AG and its corporate officers. These steps are another piece of our initial tranche of sanctions in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As I have made clear, we will not hesitate to take further steps if Russia continues to escalate.”

“As I have made clear” is a reference to Biden’s threat to “bring an end to Nord Stream 2”. To suggest otherwise betokens, putting it kindly, bad faith.

Nord Stream 2 was, as it were, already dead in the water. Sanctions against it are so comprehensive that it’s inconceivable that the project will ever be reactivated, or at least not within years. Hence the US can’t derive any profit from its alleged plot.

As for Nord Stream 1, the Russians themselves have stopped pumping gas through it, hoping to freeze Europe into submission this winter. That indeed may benefit the American hydrocarbon industry, but it will have Putin to thank for it, not Biden.

The Ukraine isn’t a likely suspect either. The only countries potentially suffering from this terrorist act are her allies in Europe. Even though they aren’t getting Putin’s gas now, those supplies may resume should the Russian regime change. Now the pipelines are out of commission for years, probably for ever.

Barring a sudden pandemic of madness breaking out in the Ukrainian government, this leaves only one possibility: Russia herself. But why would Putin want to destroy the pipeline that almost singlehandedly has been keeping the Russian economy afloat? What is his bono?

The esteemed émigré Russian expert on the hydrocarbon market, Mikhail Krutikhin, offers an answer I find unconvincing.

By failing to supply the stipulated amount of gas to Europe, he says, Russia is in default of ironclad contracts. That means fines to the tune of tens of billions of euros. Yet having destroyed the pipelines, Gazprom can now claim force majeure, thereby avoiding huge lawsuits – especially if no hard evidence of Russian terrorism is found.

This doesn’t quite work for me. First, the Russians had already violated every conceivable contract even before the explosions.

Second, the country is in a war mode, and the war it’s waging is against the world, especially its western part. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine Putin (de jure owner of a big chunk of Gazprom and de facto owner of the whole company) being overly concerned with legal niceties. If he is capable of threatening the world with nuclear annihilation, he is certainly capable of telling Europe what to do with those contracts.

To digress for a second, the nuclear threat has finally elicited a response from that great Putinversteher, Angela Merkel. Having been a major force behind Russia’s growing power in Europe, she had kept stoically silent until yesterday.

However, sensing that her Freund Vlad needed some extra weight behind his threats, Angie had to come to his aid. “You must take his words seriously,” she said. “Taking them seriously, rather than dismissing them as a bluff, is by no means a sign of weakness. It is a sign of political wisdom that helps protect room for manoeuvre.”

Taking Putin’s words seriously, thereby displaying political wisdom, can in this context only mean forcing the Ukraine to capitulate. Has Freund Vlad issued a personal guarantee to Freundin Angie that he would then desist from further conquests? If so, she shouldn’t be bashful about sharing this with us.

But back to Nord Stream. What does Putin stand to gain from destroying it? Isn’t that a case of cutting off his gas nose to spite his economic face?

One critical thing to understand here is that neither Putin nor his acolytes care about the Russian economy or indeed the Russian people. If they did, they wouldn’t be spending trillions for the privilege of turning those people into cannon fodder.

They do care about their personal economies, but after the first 20 billion sitting in an offshore bank such concerns lose urgency. However, to hold on to those billions they have to win this war – or at least not to be seen to have lost it.

They specify, with commendable honesty that they are fighting not just the Ukraine but above all the West, so it’s the West that has to be vanquished. Since it’s clear to everyone that a military victory over the West is beyond Russia’s capabilities (they can’t even defeat a weak Eastern European country getting but a tiny fraction of the West’s arsenal), they have only one way out: scaring the West into submission.

This can be done with a nuclear threat, but the Russians have gone to that well so often for so many years that the West has stiffened its spine, which even recently was still tilting forward.

US Secretary of State Blinken (seen as an anti-Putin hawk) and National Security Adviser Sullivan (historically a Putinista dove) delivered two speeches speaking in one voice: any use of any nuclear weapons will have deadly consequences for Russia and, more important, Putin personally.

Assuming that Putin takes them at their word, that leaves only one arrow in his quiver of threats: one aimed at Europe’s infrastructure, much of which criss-crosses the seabed. By blowing up their own pipeline, which was already barely functional anyway, Putin may be sending a signal to Nato, most immediately to Britain.

If you persist in your foolhardy resistance to his aggressive designs, he has the will and the means to destroy the intricate network of undersea cables and pipes, those vessels through which blood flows into the body of British energy grids, industry, banking, financial services, communications.

Running parallel to Nord Stream are two pipelines connecting Norway to Britain, through which we get a third of our gas. Much of our own hydrocarbon production is also close to Norwegian waters. All these facilities are under threat, and the terrorist act committed by Russia – as you must have surmised, I don’t doubt that it’s Russia that committed it – is a reminder of the danger.

This is either a replacement of Putin’s nuclear blackmail or a complement to it. One way or the other, I hope he’ll be told in no uncertain terms that, whichever threat he acts on, the consequences will be equally cataclysmic.

If destroying a country’s vital infrastructure isn’t a casus belli, I don’t know what is.

No apology necessary, Miss Huq

People who dare speak the truth publicly ought to be commended, not censured. And they certainly shouldn’t be forced to apologise.

Is he really black?

Yet those misfortunes have befallen Labour MP Rupa Huq who both confirmed and illustrated my cherished view on race (and also sex). Rather than being a biological concept, it has become almost exclusively political.

Belonging to a certain race is no longer a matter of a chromatic incident. It’s upholding and practising the behavioural, cultural and political aspects associated with that race in the public, especially ‘liberal’, mind.

I know this – and much to her credit Labour MP Miss Huq knows it too. Which is why she is no longer a Labour MP, having been suspended by the party, and downgraded to independent status, for her remarks about Kwasi Kwarteng, our new Chancellor.

Mr Kwarteng, whose parents emigrated to Britain from Ghana, looks black to me and no doubt to Miss Huq. But her X-ray vision can penetrate beneath the surface to expose Mr Kwarteng for the impostor he is.

“Superficially he is a black man,” she readily acknowledged, thereby proving that her eyesight is of 20-20 acuity. But only superficially, she added with the benefit of her X-ray capability.

“He went to Eton, I think, he went to a very expensive prep school – all the way through the top schools in the country,” she explained. “If you hear him on the Today programme, you wouldn’t know he is black.”

Negritude, in other words, is an exclusive club for whose membership one must qualify. And colour itself is not a sufficient qualification. The aspiring candidate must also walk the walk (pimp roll for preference) and talk the talk (gangsta patois). If he doesn’t, he’ll be blackballed, as it were.

He must also be a behavioural black: dealing and using drugs, mugging old ladies, sporting the entire gold reserves of smaller republics in his ears, nostrils, on his fingers and around his neck and wrists, driving a car with oversized speakers, shooting hoops – and hating whitey (crackers, honkies?). A few criminal convictions to his name are desirable, but not essential.

Mr Kwarteng doesn’t meet these requirements. As Miss Huq espied with her eagle eye, he did go to Eton. He also speaks four languages, has a PhD in economic history and was on a winning University Challenge team (a trivia contest where most questions take me out of my depth).

He is easily the brightest and most erudite Chancellor we’ve had for a long time. That doesn’t mean he’ll be one of the best of course. It takes more than academic knowledge and a high IQ to be a statesman. A candidate aspiring for that club must have a strong character and much common sense.

I’m not sure to what extent Mr Kwarteng’s decision to increase borrowing at a time when interest rates are going up, and with them the price of every pound borrowed, shows that most uncommon of qualities, common sense. We’ll have to wait and see. For all we know, his veneer of competence may be as superficial as, according to Miss Huq, is his negritude.

I wonder if she herself can be regarded as a real Pakistani. After all, she doesn’t wear a burka, she doesn’t pronounce ‘thing as ‘ting’, and she doesn’t run a corner shop. Since that brings her own racial identity into question, she should leave her own glass house before throwing stones at ‘superficial’ blacks.

Is she really Pakistani?

Was she was inspired by Joe Biden who also knows that blackness has nothing to do with skin pigmentation? During his 2020 electoral campaign he addressed a predominantly black audience with a lucid explanation of his view on race: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump,” said Biden, “then you ain’t black.”

Negritude therefore presupposes support for the Democratic party, ideally for its left wing. A different political affiliation disqualifies a person from the race into which he was born.

Replace race with sex, and exactly the same happens. Because Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a Leftist feminist, she wasn’t accepted by them as a woman. I think Liz Truss will soon have a hard time proving her sex credentials too – and I do hope she won’t cite the affair she had with a fellow MP a few years ago as evidence.

Meanwhile, I’m grateful to the superficially Pakistani Miss Huq for vindicating my observation that politics has squeezed its bulk into the space previously occupied by, well,  everything. And I am sorry she had to apologise – although the nature of her apology reinforces my faith in her.

She only regretted her “badly chosen words”, but implicitly not the deep thought behind them.

Economies aren’t just about economics

In 1952, when the EU was still barely a twinkle in the eyes of former Nazi and Vichy bureaucrats, one of its godfathers, Jean Monnet, gave posterity an important insight:

“Europe’s nations should be guided towards the superstate without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose but which will irreversibly lead to federation.”

I’m not going to launch into one of my customary diatribes against the EU. My point today is that Monnet laid down a blueprint for modern states in general, especially when run by Leftist governments (and I can’t think of too many others these days).

They all pursue strictly political and ideological ends, using economic arguments for diversion only. Their rationale is as sound as it is underhand.

For most people their money is reality, whereas ideological abstractions are meaningless soundbites. They’ll happily swap them at dinner parties, only to go back to the rough-and-tumble reality the next morning.

One deadly sin, avarice, is the natural destination for this view of life, although some people stop short of it. Fewer people, though, are exempt from another cardinal sin, envy.

Combine the two, and they desperately want to get richer. But, barring that, they’ll make do with their wealthier neighbours getting poorer. Such are the psychological mechanisms activated by today’s politicians.

And taxation is one toggle switch at their disposal. If our economies were just about sound economics, taxes would be half of what they are now. The most successful economies never pump more than 20-odd per cent of GDP into the public sector – and everybody knows that.

Everybody also understands why that’s the case. When people exchange their labour for money, the more money they get to keep, the more and better labour they’ll offer. After all, economic performance is simply an aspect of human behaviour – not the devilishly recondite amalgam of curves, models and paradigms peddled by self-serving economists.

If lower income taxes encourage industry and self-sufficiency, lower business taxes encourage enterprise. Moreover, competitive rates of corporate tax and few government regulations will act as a magnet not only for domestic start-ups, but also for foreign companies seeking broader horizons.

All this means that, in purely economic terms, low taxation and loose regulations are a godsend. They stimulate people to work hard for the benefit of their families and, by ricochet, the whole society.

Alas, the other target sin of government policy, envy, will remain unassuaged, and all modern governments, regardless of their declared politics, are keenly aware of this. That’s why they take economics out of economies, replacing it with parasitical politics and pernicious ideologies.

Taxation policy, one of the most effective mechanisms of economic control, veers away from stimulating and careers towards punishing. Punitive taxes are imposed to mollify corrupted electorates baying for revenge – and all taxation systems in all modern Western states are punitive as their primary function.

Their secondary function is to create a vast underclass of those dependent on government largesse, and thus a broader electoral base for power-crazy spivs. (Mass immigration of culturally incompatible and economically useless aliens can serve the same purpose, as Tony Blair’s boy, Peter Mandelson, once explained in one of his few frank moments.)

The on-going Labour conference has made a special effort to vindicate these comments from its very first day. In fact its slogan told us all we needed to know: “For a Fairer, Greener Future”.

This is an economic suicide note. ‘Fairer’, for those of you whose political jargon is rusty, means higher taxes, bigger state, redistributive policies instead of commitment to growth, and hence as much state control as is achievable this side of concentration camps.

‘Greener’ means eliminating fossil fuels by 2030 (less than eight years from now!). That’s guaranteed to put the economy six feet under all by itself, even without similarly suicidal policies to be pursued in parallel.

This would be the case even if the world were in a state of serene bliss, and energy were cheap, plentiful and easily available. Contemplating such measures at a time of deadly turmoil betokens either hatred of Britain or catastrophic idiocy.

Sir-Comrade Keir Starmer (how on earth can a socialist be a knight of the realm?) caused unrest in the Labour ranks by insisting that the Conference be opened with a rendition of God Save the King, rather than the customary Internationale.

I can see the protesters’ point. The usual song has the benefit of honesty. It’s befitting for today’s Labour members to continue their fine tradition by unfurling the red flag and singing: “Arise ye workers from your slumbers/ Arise ye prisoners of want/ For reason in revolt now thunders…” and so on, in the same vein.

But “God”? “Save our gracious king?” Really. How two-faced can they get?

Mercifully, I’m sure they didn’t sing the second verse: “O Lord our God arise,/ Scatter our enemies,/ And make them fall!/ Confound their politics,/ Frustrate their knavish tricks,/ On Thee our hopes we fix,/ God save us all!” Or maybe they did – they just have a different definition of enemies.

In his opening remarks Sir-Comrade Keir viciously attacked the newly announced Tory economic policy. That’s unobjectionable in itself: there is much to criticise there. There is, however, much to praise as well.

A cut in the top tax rate from 45 to 40 per cent is one such commendable policy, and reversing the planned rise in corporate taxes is another. It’s open to argument whether or not such policies can succeed in the absence of a parallel cut in state spending. I fear they may not, but hope they will, given time.

But time is precisely what Sir-Comrade Keir denies even such modest tax-cutting. When Labour takes over, he vowed, it’ll restore the higher tax rates. Some, albeit flimsy, rationale for that pledge could have been provided by a little conditional clause: “… if the lower ones fail to invigorate the economy”.

But Sir-Comrade Keir never uttered that clause. Never mind that the Tory policy of lower taxation, fewer regulations and a commitment to growth may still become a rip-roaring success. Labour will still reverse it on principle. The economic effect doesn’t even play second fiddle there. It’s not in the orchestra at all.

Thank you, Sir-Comrade Keir, for illustrating my points so helpfully. Socialist economies (and even the proposed Tory economy will remain socialist, if marginally less so) aren’t about economics. They are about punishment, envy and runaway state control.

Everything that followed his speech was redundant, if also helpful. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves added a few lines to the aforementioned economic suicide note. The point of the higher tax rates, she explained, is to make sure the better-off pay “their fair share”.

At the moment, the top 10 per cent of UK taxpayers contribute over 60 per cent of tax receipts. That looks more than fair to me. But my definition of fairness is different from the socialist one (see above).

Having thus dug Britain into an economic hole, Comrade Reeves continued to dig deeper: “The next Labour government will introduce a genuine living wage.”

That’s ideological corporatist economics at its most foul. Companies will be told how much they must pay their employees, even if that commitment beggars them. The next step will be around the corner: telling them how much they should charge for their products.

The net effect of such policies will be higher unemployment: rather than getting “a genuine living wage”, more people will be getting none. But hey, it’s the principle that counts. And the principle is the burgeoning state control that will result.

When economics is taken out of the economy, before long politics will be taken out of governance. It will be replaced with out-and-out tyranny, and if you think today’s West is immune to that sort of thing, you played truant at too many history lessons.

Beware immigration demagoguery

As Georgia Meloni is about to become the prettiest prime minister in Italian history, I have to admit that my interest in Italian politics as such is tepid at best.

Nice melons, Georgia

But her success raises interesting issues that are worth pondering in a broader geographical context.

Such as immigration, which is already a bugbear throughout the West, and will soon become even more so, what with so many Russians and Ukrainians getting on their bike.

In her recent speech Meloni made it clear that immigration wasn’t her be all and end all:

“Yes to the natural family, no to the LGBT lobby, yes to sexual identity, no to gender ideology… no to Islamist violence, yes to secure borders, no to mass migration… no to the bureaucrats of Brussels!”

Reading that litany I found myself nodding after every comma and ellipsis. But then my innate cynicism and acquired experience kicked in. Both lead to me to believe that it’s not enough for a politician to have good ideas. He, or in this case she, should also have them for good reasons. Immigration is a case in point.

Only a rank xenophobe will insist that no immigrants should ever be admitted for any reason. For sensible people, a lot depends on what kind of immigrants – and what kind of reasons.

The US prides itself on being a nation of immigrants but, historically, every major nation is just that, to various extents. Indigenous Britishness, for example, is a mishmash of Germanic inputs (the term Anglo-Saxon is a dead giveaway), and also Celtic, Roman, Scandinavian, Scandinavian French, unalloyed French, and I’m sure I’ve left some out.

More recently we had mass influxes from the Commonwealth, né British Empire, and more recently still from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. When Britons talk about immigration, they usually mean these groups, not the Norman conquerors or French Huguenots, 50,000 of whom settled in England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Neither do today’s Italians look much like Etruscans or ancient Romans. Arabic inputs are more immediately obvious, especially in the South.

Few people I know support unlimited immigration and most think the flow must be tightly controlled. There are many good reasons for this view, and also some bad ones.

Liz Truss announced the other day that our shortage of labour is so dire that we must loosen restrictions on immigration.

All those Polish plumbers have repatriated, leaving behind thousands of leaky taps. Pubs and restaurants are closing down for lack of staff. Shops are running out of assistants, many of whom couldn’t assist anyway because they didn’t understand English. Hospitals are short of both doctors and nurses, although the supply of homegrown Directors of Diversity is still strong .

In other words, our PM is making an economic case for immigration, and it’s a valid one. However, it’s not straightforward.

For immigrants swell not only payrolls but also welfare rolls – and crime statistics, let’s not forget that. Their presence in large numbers puts an extra strain on public services, which are already creaking. And even when a country adheres to strictly pragmatic quotas, things may not work out quite so well.

Germany found that out the hard way back in the 1960s, when their Economic Miracle (Wirtschaftswunder for short) was running out of manpower to sustain it. In 1961 the country struck a deal with Turkey and admitted about a million Gastarbeiteren, young men to work in coal mines and factories.

Initially their family members weren’t admitted, and the men were only supposed to stay for two years, to be replaced by another million. Neither part worked out as expected.

Now 2.5 million Turks live in Germany, and their contribution to the crime rate exceeds their relative number by a factor of four. The same imbalance exists in the groups receiving social assistance.

I don’t know what that does to the net economic effect, but in any case a society doesn’t live or die by economics alone. Economics is only one strain feeding the social and cultural pool.

A nation has to retain its cultural personality developed over centuries, not to say millennia. That personality may well be enriched and made more dynamic by foreign implants. But if these are too numerous and remain too alien, they can well turn into weeds suffocating the field.

Muslims in particular, it has to be admitted with chagrin, don’t seem to adapt to Western mores easily or, for that matter, willingly.

For example, a few years ago, two Germany footballers, both second-generation Turkish immigrants, publicly swore allegiance to “our president” Erdogan. And many Muslim children born in Britain don’t even realise it’s not an Islamic country.

Miss Truss didn’t specify which groups she saw as suited for immigration, which made me fear that she didn’t even consider any factors other than an immediate economic benefit. If so, this is yet another example of what I call totalitarian economism, assigning a paramount, almost exclusive importance to the economy. That approach to life is Marxist at base, even if it yields non-Marxist results.

I’m not proposing to solve the problem here and now. My purpose is more modest: to highlight the lines along which the issue can be discussed. However, many people draw their lines in other places.

They oppose immigration simply because they fear and dislike foreigners, especially those of off-white races. This is a natural human impulse, and few of us are totally immune to it – even among those who preach unswerving commitment to multiculturalism run riot (literally, in many cases).

People tend to be suspicious of outsiders, at least at first. If newcomers keep their heads down and try to adapt, they will eventually be accepted, after a fashion. But one wrong step, and the words “there goes the neighbourhood” begin to roll off people’s tongues with a well-oiled ease.

Such sentiments shouldn’t be demonised, certainly not for ideological reasons, but – and here we come back to Miss Meloni – neither should they be fostered for different ideological reasons.

A politician can, in fact should, make a firm stand against illegal immigration simply because it’s against the law. A strong argument can also be made against even legal immigration when it’s not kept down to a sensible level.

But moving this issue to the top of the list appeals to the less laudable parts of human nature. Thus encouraged, such sentiments can spin out of control – and all the way towards unalloyed evil.

This sort of appeal is easy because suspicion of aliens is close to the surface of mass consciousness. Also, during economic downturns especially, migrants are accused of taking ‘our jobs’ and driving down ‘our wages’. But recent history – of Italy, among other places – shows how evil the spirit thereby released from its bottle can turn out to be.

Pushing the xenophobic button has catapulted many a fascist or fascisoid demagogue to the top, and decent people ought to hear alarm bells whenever they espy such a stratagem – or indeed its opposite extreme.

After all, both ‘right-wing’ nationalism and ‘left-wing’ internationalism have caused more misery in the past 100-odd years than the combined 5,000 years of previous recorded history managed collectively.

Miss Meloni’s Brothers of Italy has its roots in Mussolini’s Republican Fascist Party, a genealogy she has been trying to downplay for electoral gain. Yet the cat tends to claw its way out of the bag, and from time to time Meloni can’t desist from screaming Mussolini’s slogan “God, fatherland and family”.

Her two coalition partners, Berlusconi and Salvini, are both champions of Russian fascism – to a point where they make a credible impression of being Putin’s agents. Meloni has tried to distance herself from that wickedness, and for all I know she may even be sincere.

But most of her party supporters are closer to Berlusconi and Salvini than to her on that subject. This means that the EU’s third largest economy will be run by fascisoid allies of the frankly fascist regime threatening the survival of the world.

Alas, the rise of similar parties throughout continental Europe shows that it’s not only the social democratic model that appears defunct, but also genuinely conservative opposition to it.

It’s that evil of two lessers that comes into play. When Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy are the only counterweight to Leftist subversion, it doesn’t really matter which end of the seesaw will eventually shoot up.

Good causes abound in Meloni’s rhetoric. Yet I for one am concerned about her bad reasons.

Old lies told anew

Those who ‘understand’ Putin or support him outright (a certain Mail communist comes to mind) may be Right, Left or centre. But they have one thing in common. They lie.

A lie differs from any old falsehood by being knowing and deliberate. Thus the people I’m talking about know the pertinent facts as well as I do. Hence they reach manifestly dishonest conclusions by distorting the facts – knowingly and deliberately. They are liars. They don’t just have a different and equally valid opinion. They lie.

The columnist in question keeps rehashing his lies in a repetitive monotone, doubtless believing that repetition is indeed the mother of all learning. That may be. But it’s also the father of all tedium.

Open today’s Mail, and you’ll get another whiff of that rancid, unpalatable concoction. Old lies with a few curlicues designed to dress them up and make them look different from what they really are. Lies.

Lie 1: Putin’s bandit raid was provoked by the westward expansion of Nato because he feared for Russia’s sovereignty.

That would be valid if Nato had any designs on Russian territory or statehood. But it doesn’t. Rather than threatening Russia’s sovereignty, that purely defensive alliance was set up to prevent Russia from threatening the sovereignty of others.

If anyone understands this not just intellectually but viscerally, it’s the people of Eastern European countries who suffered unspeakable misery at the hands of their Russian slave masters.

When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, they knew something Western analysts didn’t. Whatever their eastern neighbour is called, be that Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation, it remains at heart an imperial predator red in tooth and claw.

That’s why Nato didn’t have to coerce or even invite them to join. The moment they found a window of opportunity, they begged for admission – of their own free will. Nato, being an association of free countries, welcomed them.

It’s that F-word, free, that provoked Putin. He doesn’t want Russia to be an East Germany or a North Korea, a poor boy with his nose pressed to the window of a ballroom where free, prosperous people ostensibly no different from the Russians are enjoying themselves.

He has neither the inclination nor the ability to help his own people join the party. The only thing he can try to do is drive a sewage truck up to the window, stick the hose in and drown that metaphorical ballroom with ordure.

Lie 2: Putin was provoked by the ousting of the Yanukovych government (‘putsch’ in the jargon of that Mail columnist), as a result of which the Ukraine became independent de facto, not merely de jure.

Implicitly this is bemoaning the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent sovereignty of each of its 15 constituent republics. Yet Russia has no more right to reclaim ownership of them than Britain has to reclaim sovereignty over the US or, going back further, Aquitaine.

When former colonies break away from the metropolis, there is always some weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in some quarters. Tough. Once their new status is recognised in international law, there is nothing anyone can do about it – other than naked aggression. Like it or hate it, but there is no legal or moral option other than accepting it.

Yanukovych was a career criminal whose government was both Putin’s puppet and his doppelgänger. It was as thoroughly corrupt, as criminalised and as tyrannical as Putin’s own. Unlike the Russian government, however, it was perceived by the population as a Quisling gang whose real loyalties lay elsewhere.

Hence it was overthrown by a genuine popular uprising, the Ukraine’s first instalment to buy a ticket for the aforementioned metaphorical ball. That’s what Putin – and, alas, his Western stooges – hated. Those who say his grievance is legitimate are liars.

Lie 3: Since our national interests aren’t threatened by Putin’s bandit raid, we have no business arming the Ukraine at the risk of nuclear escalation.

Here I can only repeat what I’ve said before: listen to what evil dictators say. Since they aren’t accountable to anyone, be it parliaments, free press or the people in general, they usually eschew subterfuge.

Lenin, Hitler, Mao all told the world what they were going to do and then scrupulously did exactly that. Westerners didn’t take them at their word because they were used to making allowances for politicians’ pronouncements.

Certain things, they knew, are said just for show, for political effect. Certain promises are made with no intention of keeping them – that’s how the game is played and we all know the rules. Except that evil dictators play a different game, and for them there are no rules.

Putin has said a thousand times if he has said it once that the Ukraine is only the first battlefield of his war on Nato, the EU, the US, the West in general and the whole architecture of the post-1945 world order.

Restoring the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire to its past grandeur will have to follow victories on that and other battlefields, whose exact geography is unspecified but which clearly go beyond the Ukraine.

Poland and other former Soviet colonies got the message. So did Finland and Sweden. Those countries’ memories of what Russia can do are still fresh. Yet the same message falls on the deaf ears of our Putinversteheneren – they continue to lie that this is strictly a domestic fight in which we have no dog.

That lie is sometimes reinforced by the perceptive observation that “we have no common border with the Ukraine.” That too is a lie for the meaning of ‘we’ is maliciously narrowed. It’s our civilisation that has a common border with Russian barbarism. That frontier, and not the Channel, is the demarcation line to our east.

Lie 4: Our intransigence makes Putin resort to nuclear threats.

Those who have followed the Russian media and the pronouncements of Russian politicians for years will know this lie for what it is. A threat of nuclear annihilation is ever-present in Russian rhetoric at every level.

Gleeful descriptions of the US turning into “radioactive ash” and then into the “Stalin Straight” between Canada and Mexico, or of the British Isles sinking to the bottom of the sea are standard fare on Russian TV.

These are complete with animated diagrams showing the trajectory of Russian nuclear missiles from launch to inferno. Masses of technical details are also provided, validating Russia’s capacity for blowing the West to kingdom come.

Putin has even told his subjects not to fear retaliation in kind. Yes, we’ll be destroyed too, he admitted with characteristic frankness. But there’s a difference, comrades… oops, ladies and gentlemen. Those Westerners will go straight to hell, whereas the saintly Russians will join Jesus in heaven.

Such threats haven’t been made publicly since Mao (d. 1976) and Khrushchev (d. 1971). Even they didn’t wave the nuclear cudgel in the later years of their lives, and neither did they invoke theological motifs. Effectively the West hasn’t been threatened with nuclear holocaust for 60 years, since the Cuban crisis.

Hence it’s not our stubbornness that’s responsible for Putin’s threats but the evil nature of his regime. He is trying to blackmail the West, and consequently the Ukraine, into surrender.

Lie 5: We must do all we can to impose peace as quickly as possible.

This requires a revival of my old translation skills, for the liars aren’t saying what they really mean. Since Putin’s hordes have grabbed a great chunk of the Ukrainian territory that, following bogus referendums, they now claim as their own, for the Ukraine to sue for peace now would be tantamount to surrender,

This would mean that the horrendous devastation visited on the Ukraine would have been all suffered in vain. Evil would conquer, emerging emboldened as a result.

The liars want us to withdraw our aid to the Ukraine, leaving her whole population at the mercy of Putin’s murderers, rapists and looters. This is the only way for us to ensure the Ukraine’s capitulation (‘peace’, in the jargon of Putin’s stooges).

Tacitus described such lying legerdemain as “they make a desert and call it peace”. So the concept isn’t new, and neither is sycophantic adulation of evil.

Good to see Russia is learning from us

No, not parliamentarism – that lesson remains unheeded in Russia. Nor has constitutional monarchy found any traction there.

The press gang

Independent judiciary hasn’t fared much better either, and neither has the rule of law. Even such a mundane practice as putting money in the bank without laundering it first has been derisively ignored.

So much more grateful should we be for Russia reviving a fine British tradition that has been dormant in its native land for over two centuries. I’m talking of course about mobilisation by impressment, known colloquially as the ‘press gang’.

The term describes taking men into the army or, in Britain, especially the navy by compulsion. This could be done either by summons or simply by rounding up strapping lads in the streets.

The practice was widespread in Britain for about 150 years starting from the mid-17th century, when crewing the ships for the growing Royal Navy and merchant marine presented a constant problem. Impressment was one way of solving it.

People liable for press-ganging were described as “eligible men of seafaring habits between the ages of 18 and 55 years”. Such men often displayed understated enthusiasm for being yanked off the street and sent off to sail into broadsides. Public opposition was also strong, and the practice was abandoned when Napoleon was defeated in 1815.

It was then revived by the Somali dictator Siad Barre (d. 1995) and a few other African tinpot despots. And now by Russia, circa 2022.

First Putin and then his Defence Minister Shoigu briefed the nation on the progress of the “special military operation”. Things are going swimmingly, just as planned, they said.

Yes, they admitted mournfully, the Russian army has suffered some losses. Nothing compared to the Ukies’ 100,000 KIA, but still – almost 6,000 Russians have given their lives to protect the Motherland from Nato.

That left some holes in the manpower requirements, and these need plugging. To that end, Putin announced a “partial mobilisation”. How partial?

Funny you should ask. “Military service will apply only to citizens who are currently in the reserve, especially those who have served in the armed forces, have certain military professions and relevant experience,” explained Shoigu.

What sort of numbers are we talking here? Here comes the good news: according to Shoigu, the mobilisation reserve of Russia is about 25 million. But that’s the overall number of those eligible for conscription should the need arise. At present, the need has arisen to draft a mere 300,000, just over one per cent of the possible total.

I, along no doubt with many of those directly affected, did some mental arithmetic and was baffled by the result. Why is it necessary to conscript 300,000 to replace 6,000 dead and some wounded, 90 per cent of whom are, according to Shoigu, back in the ranks already? Such are the vagaries of the mysterious Russian soul that so fascinate Dostoyevsky aficionados.

If the Russian chieftains lost touch with the facts of life so much as to believe that the news would be met with enthusiasm, they got an instant reality check. Queues 20 miles long instantly formed – not at recruitment centres but at airports and border crossing points.

The price of a one-way airline ticket out of Russia quickly jumped to $10,000, paid eagerly by those able to do so. The paupers drove their bangers to the border with Georgia, Mongolia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Mars… just kidding about that last one.

When it became clear that it would take days to get to the top of the queue, many dumped their cars and hired more nimble scooters. Anything not to have to defend the Motherland.

Others discovered they didn’t have to travel that far. Simply moving to a different region within Russia would throw the mobilisation bureaucracy out of kilter. Suddenly, men began to acquire an urgent need to travel hundreds of miles for business or pleasure.

Conscription summonses rained on the population, and in numbers much greater than 300,000. The powers that be know they need a hefty safety margin.

There’s not enough time to train the recruits properly, not enough weapons to arm them, not enough clothes to protect them from cold, not enough body armour – even not enough officers. The way the Russian army is run, it takes over 40,000 officers to command 300,000 men.

Even assuming that some retired veterans could be taken off the mothballs, how effective would they be if they haven’t uttered a word of command in decades? Not very, is everyone’s educated guess.

The important thing to understand is that the desired 300,000 is the difference of subtraction, not the product of addition. The ‘partial’ subscription is planned to proceed in several waves, at least three.

The first batch of ill-trained, ill-equipped and ill-led cannon fodder will be served up to be processed by Ukrainian artillery in short order. Then a second wave will come in, and a third one after that. The hope is that those who survive will indeed add up to 300,000, but it’ll take twice as many body bags to get to that number.

That’s why the mobilisation order has a secret clause, evoking the nice memory of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Inside sources say that the number specified there is 1,000,000 recruits, which supports the three-wave concept.

Far from being ‘partial’, the mobilisation is already total covertly and soon will be overtly. Russian men are facing a stark choice, and they know it. Either they flee, which is becoming increasingly difficult and in a few days will become impossible, or accept a 10-year prison sentence for draft evasion – or turn into lambs led to slaughter.

Meanwhile the conscription juggernaut has gone straight into top gear, skipping the lower ones. Crowds of Russians accepting the summonses with characteristically Russian servile meekness, are being loaded on to buses and taken to destinations unknown.

Alas, the current estimate is that relying just on such obedient individuals would make the 300,000 quota short by about 270,000. Draft evaders are that good. That’s why the press gang has begun.

Recruitment parties bang on people’s doors at night, pick up the men and take them away. Street raids are also proceeding apace. No one cares whether the men have any military experience or regulation specialities mentioned by Putin. No one cares even if they have medical deferments. Their job is to die, and only the numbers matter.

Yet, to use the Americanism, Putin may be dumb but he ain’t stupid. Press-ganging is under way not in Moscow, Petersburg and other major cities, where inquisitive foreign correspondents may roam (the home-grown ones have been brought to heel).

Men are being rounded up in faraway regions, mostly ethnic. Some villages in Buryatia, for example, have already lost all their men to recruitment parties.

So far few public protests have augmented private escapes. But there have been some, though not in the ethnically pure Russian provinces.

For example, riotous public demonstrations broke out in the Babayurt region of Dagestan, where the federal motorway has had to be blocked. As to Chechnya, its women screamed they wouldn’t let their husbands and sons go off to be killed or, if they are lucky, crippled.

The Chechen dictator Kadyrov, who increasingly resembles a loose cannon hoping to roll all the way to the Kremlin throne currently occupied by Putin, agreed. Chechnya, he said, had already exceeded its quota of conscripts by a wide margin. There would be no more, thank you very much.

As all this fun is going on, I for one am happy that at least the Russians have learned something from the British. Not perhaps the best thing, but hey – at least they are trying.

Tory Whig at Number 10

The nebulous nature of our political vocabulary is one of my pet themes. ‘Conservatism’ is one of the especially tenuous terms, whether or not spelled with the initial capital.

Lower-case conservatism evades the grasp of precise definition with eel-like agility. But even the upper-case version, meaning simply support for Tory policies, is far from straightforward. Neither are Tory policies, which is of course the nature of the confusion.

Cameron, for example, said that his take on Conservatism could be summed up in three letters: NHS. I’m not going to discuss the merits and demerits of that putative quintessence of conservatism, other than saying that the current Health Secretary has identified the shining ideal he hopes to achieve as patients not having to wait more than a fortnight for a GP appointment (non-British fans of socialised medicine, take note).

However, its efficacy, or rather lack thereof, aside, the NHS is a state-owned, tax-fed Leviathan that is already the biggest employer in Europe – and one of its most socialist institutions. Thus Cameron’s Conservatism could be more profitably summed up not in three letters but in nine: s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-m.

That continued the party’s long tradition (only interrupted for a few years by Margaret Thatcher) of winning elections in the name of conservatism by being as Labour as Labour, and sometimes more so. This political transvestism thrived under the two post-Cameron PMs, who both swore by the NHS, net zero and a big state able to solve all the little problems of life.

The word ‘society’ was bandied about with alacrity, but that term also deviated from its acknowledged semantics. Those Tory PMs were using it in the sense of the welfare state claiming to level up, but in fact guaranteed to level down.

Much as I hate reducing the entire complexity of governance to acronyms, slogans and other shibboleths, one slogan does encapsulate the essence of Toryism exhaustively: ‘God, king and country’ – in that order.

Yet it ought to be plain to anyone with eyes to see that this brand of Conservatism bit the dust a long tome ago. If it survives at all, it’s only as the object of insincere and increasingly rare lip service, mostly at various ceremonial functions.

The only meaningful opposition to Tory socialism is Tory Whiggery. Its most illustrious champion was Margaret Thatcher, and, as her first budget proves, is now Liz Truss.

According to a Number 10 insider, her iconic three letters are ‘GDP’, as in growth thereof. And in the good Whig tradition, with a spoonful of modern libertarianism added for good measure, she seems to realise that economic growth is best achieved by making the state smaller, taxes lower and regulations fewer.

This isn’t alien to the traditional Tories either. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries the differences between them and the Whigs were merely a matter of accent, not irreconcilable, mutually exclusive beliefs.

If the Tories were God, king and country plus free economy and small state; the Whigs were free economy and small state, plus God, king and country.

The notion of individual liberty flows out of the founding tenets of our civilisation as naturally as wine out of a bottle. A Western man weaned on the Judaeo-Christian tradition knows that, whereas he is transcendent, the state is transient. He is the end, the state only the means.

That’s why he finds it hard to accept the diktats of a giant central state that inevitably ends up upholding its own interests at the expense of his own. A Western man is much more comfortable with local associations patterned on his own family: parish, guild, township and so forth.

His intuitive love of, and daily devotion to, tradition remains the primary part of his life. His views on the economy and politics are merely its natural and unavoidable derivatives. The core of his personality is thus more Tory than anything else. But at the periphery his views on the economy and politics aren’t far from the Whigs’.

For them such views are more central than peripheral, and the Whigs have arrived at them by a parallel but different route. Yet the two groups know that what unites them is bigger than what keeps them apart.

Alas, such friendly equanimity went the way of all flesh when the world went ideologically secular and therefore thoroughly, hysterically politicised. At present, the only realistic antidote to Tory socialism isn’t traditional Toryism but traditional Whiggery, brought into modernity by an addition of libertarianism.

This, by the way, is what Americans mean by conservatism. Looking at the traditional Tory triad, they have eliminated ‘king’, downgraded ‘God’ to a marginal private matter and promoted ‘country’ to a deified status.

The economy thus becomes, not to cut too fine a point, the be all and end all. Take care of the economy, and everything else will fall into place – such is the dominant (though not the only) premise of American conservatism.

I call this unswerving faith in the primacy of the economy ‘economic totalitarianism’. The Bible of this creed is Hayek’s book The Road to Serfdom, which lays down its commandments with unequivocal clarity.

As Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng prove with their first budget, this is roughly how they see life too. Yes, they will go to the financial markets with their hands outstretched, but they seem to see that as only an emergency, indeed wartime, measure.

At the heart of their policies lies a small (or rather smaller) state, low (or rather lower) taxes and deregulation (or rather less regulation). And they seem intent on going through with all that even though they know that decades of socialism have corrupted the public so much that it’s unlikely to jump up and salute.

Somehow many Britons have been indoctrinated to believe that it’s perfectly fine to remain poor as long as the rich get less rich. The notions of supply side, trickle-down economics grate their thoroughly corrupted sensibilities – as, paradoxically, does the idea of lower tax rates.

It’s a matter of arithmetical fact that lower tax rates are bound to benefit more those in the higher tax brackets. And that’s exactly what our brainwashed masses abhor.

You can explain to them till the economists come home that, when the rich pay less in taxes they invest more in the economy, which ultimately benefits everyone. Recipients of our comprehensive education and watchers of our Leftie television may accept such arguments in their heads but never in their hearts.

And yet, if economic growth is the desired end, then supply side reforms are the means – but not unequivocally so. This may be sound economics, but these days it’s always likely to be defeated by unsound politics.

I wonder if Liz Truss has read the 1986 book The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed. It was written by David Stockman, Reagan’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget, called upon to reshape the economy along the supply side lines worshipped by his boss.

However, when it came to the nitty-gritty, Stockman found out that a drastic reduction in taxation didn’t work unless accompanied by a concomitant reduction in public spending. Having realised that, he began to bang his head against the stone wall of departmental fiscal profligacy, only to find that wall impregnable.

I fear that Liz and Kwasi will suffer similar concussions. So far they haven’t uttered a single word about reducing the state’s share of the economy, which is politically wise.

A politician campaigning for a cut in, say, the NHS budget will remain in his job only until the first airing of BBC Morning News – plus the hour or two for the public to start braying for his head and for him to write his resignation letter.

That’s why I don’t have much hope for the Truss administration and especially the next general election, to be held just over two years from now.

I like Liz’s rhetoric, given the impossibility of my ever hearing things I really like. However, unless she does deliver the growth she adores within the risibly short time she has at her disposal, Britain will be cursed with at least a decade of ruinous, unvarnished socialism.

The political pack is stacked against her. She’ll have to keep her budget commitments by increased borrowing, the cost of which is going up steeply. Our political mandarins and other fruits will be fighting her tooth and nail, either by open warfare or underhand sabotage, and they even got Maggie Thatcher in the end.

Still, a Whig Liz Truss may be, but I wish her success. If she succeeds, so shall we.

Computers for pros and cons

As someone who has been writing on a computer for almost 40 years, I have a lot to be grateful for.

Hans Niemann, the prodigal prodigy

In the old days, when I did most of my writing on holidays, I had to lug suitcases full of reference literature to various European destinations. Now I can get all the same information from a device that fits in my pocket.

My Macs (one in London, one in France, one for in-between) not only give me facts, but they also make it easy to process them into text. Granted, they don’t prevent errors of judgement, but at least they correct errors of typing.

I’m telling you this by way of a disclaimer: I’m no computer Luddite. I am, however, a man who has learned the hard way that everything in life, no matter how seemingly wonderful, has a downside.

The important chess theorist Siegbert Tarrasch (d. 1934) put that piece of homespun wisdom into the context of his game. “Even good moves,” he wrote, “are at the same time bad. For, while taking control of some new squares, the moved piece relinquished control of the old ones.”

Chess itself vindicates such prudent sagacity. Computers burst into it in the 1980s, and by the late ‘90s they reached grandmaster strength. In 1997 the engine Deep Blue beat world champion Kasparov, regarded by some as the best player of all time.

Now, 25 years later, a top grandmaster has as much chance of beating a top computer as I have of beating a top grandmaster. That’s why major computer engines only ever play one another. Human players use them the way I used reference literature, for background research.

Push a button, and you get every game your next opponent has ever played since infancy. Another button, and the computer will helpfully point out gaps in his opening repertoire, along with the best ways of exploiting them.

A laptop computer contains an opening library greater than any physical library every did. An amateur learning the game or a professional expanding his horizons has an invaluable tool at his disposal. All good?

Eh, not quite. For many chess lovers will agree that computers have hurt chess more than they have benefited it. And this chess lover, who played his last competitive game 35 years ago, believes they have killed chess.

The way tournament chess used to be played, each player was given a certain amount of time to make a certain number of moves. At grandmaster level, the usual time control was 2.5 hours each for the first 40 moves.

Assuming that the allocated time was used up, the game would take five hours to that point. If it still remained unfinished, it was adjourned to be finished the next day. The players would then spend hours analysing the adjourned position, trying to find the best strategy.

Those who had coaches, seconds, or simply friends eager to help, used their assistance. That was considered above board, although Bobby Fischer used to complain, justifiably, that the whole Soviet chess establishment pooled their resources to analyse adjourned games between Bobby and one of their own.

See where I’m going with this? Computers make adjournments impossible because the position would be analysed by two computer engines, not two players.

When the Soviet world champion Botvinnik adjourned a difficult position against Fischer in 1962, it took him and half a dozen other Soviet grandmasters a whole night to find the drawing sequence. Today, Botvinnik would push a couple of buttons and go to sleep.

Since games can’t be adjourned, they have to be finished in one sitting. This means that five hours for the first 40 moves simply isn’t on. What if there are another 40 moves to play? Take it from someone who used to fritter away his life in this manner: a few 10-hour games in a row is a shortcut to a loony bin or a cemetery.

Hence more and more tournaments are played at faster time controls, with as little as one hour, half an hour or even ‘blitz’ five minutes for the whole game. When I was a youngster we played a lot of blitz for fun. Now top grandmasters are playing it for hefty cash prizes.

Reduced time tends to lead to reduced quality, and not only in chess. I can write most 1,000-word articles in an hour, but they usually turn out better if I take a little longer. The same goes for chess: the faster it’s played, the more blunders there are, and the less depth of thought.

Then there’s cheating, the laws of human nature still not having been repealed. Grandmasters have been known to claim a call of nature and then play with their mobile phones in the lavatory – either to tap the position in or to call a friend waiting in front of his computer screen at home.

Those were the early days in the battle between fair play and modern electronics. The current cheating scandal erupting in professional chess shows we’ve come a long way since then.

A fortnight ago, the 19-year-old American grandmaster Hans Niemann was accused of cheating when he thrashed one of history’s best players, Magnus Carlsen. In the preceding few months, Niemann’s rating had skyrocketed at an unlikely pace, going up by 200 points.

In tennis terms that would be like a county player becoming a top-tenner within a season – well-nigh impossible. In Niemann’s case it wasn’t just statistical improbability that raised doubts. The precocious youngster had some previous: he had already been caught cheating electronically twice, first at age 12, then four years later.

When he trounced Carlsen, everyone, including the great man himself, was sure Niemann had cheated. In fact, when Carlsen next had to play Niemann the other day, he demonstratively resigned after one move in protest.

The cheating charges are backed up by a fair assessment of the breath-taking advances in computer technology and electronic communications. Tournament organisers are trying to counter with spot checks and even body scans. For today’s miniature electronic receivers can be implanted into various crevices and even the flesh itself.

In Niemann’s case the suspicion is that he inserted a vibrating radio receiver into his anus, raising questions about both his integrity and sexual orientation. That way he is alleged to have been in direct rectal contact with a computer engine operated by a friend off-premises.

As a result, random pat-downs and body scans have been augmented by devices monitoring radio wave frequencies around tournament halls.

So far the idea of employing part-time proctologists (or, in women’s tournaments, also gynaecologists) hasn’t been mooted, although it’s the first one coming to my dirty mind. I wonder how a player entering a tournament hall would react to the command “bend over and spread’em”.

Just in case, Niemannn offered to play naked from now on, in a sealed room equipped with electronic signal scramblers. Kinkier and kinkier, as Alice didn’t say.

I’ll leave it for the experts to argue whether or not Niemann cheated, this time around. Let’s just say that the net effect of computers on the ancient game isn’t unequivocally positive.

And not just on the ancient game. The epistolary genre, for example, is moribund, being ousted by your LOLs, Smileys, OMGs and – presumably – FUs.

Youngsters growing up with computers don’t learn how to write and add up for there is no need. And even if they know how to read, which isn’t to be taken for granted these days, their minds are only tuned to snippets of a few sentences at best. And even those are ungrammatical and typically incoherent.

Computers make our lives easier, which isn’t always a good thing. They can also make our lives miserable by encouraging fraudsters, hackers and trolls – and that’s even before we’ve considered the possibility of a computer error unleashing a nuclear holocaust or, on a smaller scale, guiding our airliner into a mountain.

By trying to iron out some human imperfections, computers may in fact encourage many others. In any case, a tool is only as good as its operator. Computers are like a knife: in the hands of a surgeon it can save a man; in the hands of a criminal, it can kill him.

I wonder what Siegbert Tarrasch would have to say about the modern state of the game he loved. “Das ist verrückt”, would be my guess.

Nuclear war four steps closer

That’s how many Ukrainian provinces will hold referendums within a week, announced the Kremlin.

Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhe and Kherson, all partly occupied by Russia during the bandit raid, will treat the world to sham spectacles staged and directed by Russian troops.

The question posed to the population will be simple: Do you wish to be incorporated into the Russian Federation?

Nobody knows how the votes will be cast, but everybody knows how they will be counted: 90 per cent, give or take, in favour. One wonders how many voters (and commentators) realise that the question could be usefully paraphrased: Do you wish your area to be at the epicentre of a nuclear exchange?

Once the Duma has magnanimously agreed to heed the voters’ wishes and incorporate the four provinces, they will become parts of Russia. That means the Ukrainian troops routing Putin’s hordes won’t be reclaiming their own land but trying to grab someone else’s.

The Ukraine will thus become the aggressor threatening the survival of Mother Russia. That will turn the coyly named ‘special military operation’ into a holy, patriotic war, officially declared. The Kremlin will issue the same battle cry made popular in 1941: “Citizens! The motherland is in danger!”

Russian law, such as it is, provides for two wartime measures, and each will have horrendous consequences for the world. First, the government will be able to declare a mobilisation, possibly total but probably partial.

Second, Russian military doctrine explicitly states that, when fighting a defensive war (and it goes without saying that Russia only ever fights defensive wars), the country is justified in using any weapons at her disposal, including nuclear ones.

The lengths to which the Russians will go in implementing either measure are still a matter of conjecture. But the decision to hold those sham referendums shows they will indeed be implemented, for otherwise there would be no point in burning the bridges.

That’s what the referendums will be tantamount to, for President Zelensky has stated unequivocally that, should Russia go ahead with that obscene show, no peace negotiations, never mind treaties, will ever be possible. The shooting will stop when only one side is left standing.

As the Ukrainian advance is gaining momentum, it is becoming evident that the Russian army can only slow it down, not stop it in its tracks. Military experts are predicting that the cities of Lugansk, Donetsk and Kherson will fall to the Ukrainians within a few weeks. That would spell the end – of Putin’s war, Putin’s regime and quite possibly Putin’s life.

Yesterday the Duma announced a raft of wartime laws stipulating severe punishment for evading conscription, insubordination, damaging military property and so on. These are widely seen as a prelude to mobilisation, but there’s a snag there.

Even if the entire male, and some of the female, population of Russia is conscripted, it will take months before all those mobs can be armed, trained, formed into combat units and deployed. And months is the kind of time Putin may not have.

He needs to stop the Ukrainian offensive within days, weeks at the outside. And the only way he can do that is by using tactical nuclear weapons.

According to the aforementioned military experts, that would indeed ward off the Ukrainian advance. But the political effects of such escalation would be more significant than the military ones by a long nuclear-tipped shot.

Nato, and Biden specifically, have threatened dire, if unspecified, consequences should Putin take that desperate step. Since an all-out Dr Strangelove scenario is too baroque to contemplate, one wonders what kind of consequence they have in mind.

Expressions of grave concern would go without saying – Western leaders have form in that sort of thing. However, brushing those aside, as Putin certainly would, what would be an effective response?

Stepping up the supplies of conventional armaments to the Ukraine wouldn’t enable the Ukrainians to resume their offensive. After all, if the first few battlefield nukes prove effective, what’s to prevent the Russians from firing their remaining 2,000 weapons of this type? These would trump Nato-supplied HIMARs with room to spare.

The only effective response at Nato’s disposal would be one in kind. Either retaliating with tactical nuclear weapons of its own or, more likely, providing such weapons for the Ukrainians to use.

Anything except that would force Zelensky to trade territory for peace. And that would both spell Putin’s victory and whet his appetite for further aggression.

Putin was supposed to deliver a speech ad urbi et orbi last night, but something held him back. We can only guess what that was… Hold on a moment.

Just as I write this, the Führer in the Kremlin has finally spoken. His speech lacked the pathos of Stalin’s radio broadcast on 3 July, 1941: “Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters! Fighters in our army and navy! It is you I address, my friends! The treacherous attacks on our motherland launched by Hitler’s Germany on 22 June is going on!”

But what it lacked in style, Putin’s speech made up for in chilling content. Vindicating my first prediction a few paragraphs above, he announced a “partial call-up” of reservists.

And he hinted that my second prediction just might have been valid as well. The “special military operation”, he said, was thwarted by the dastardly West committed to “the disintegration of Russia.”

However, his country “would use all means at its disposal to defend Russia if its territorial integrity was threatened.” And Putin agreed with me that, when all is said and done, “all means at its disposal” boils down to nuclear.

With cynicism worthy of a composite of Stalin and Hitler, he added: “Those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction.”

So far the only party using nuclear weapons for blackmail purposes has been Russia. The Ukraine couldn’t have done so for the simple reason that she has no such weapons.

And no Western leader has ever issued a public threat of that kind, which of course doesn’t preclude the possibility that a hint at it might have been made in private. One way or another, I am scared that the predictions with which I began this article will soon come true.

The other day I accused another pundit of nuclear scare-mongering. I hope you don’t think that’s what I am doing now. I am just trying to analyse the possibilities – and it’s not my fault that they are becoming scarier by the day.