Private pensions and public greed

Socialists loathe everything private except parts, provided they are surgically interchangeable.

Labour economic policy

Such is the nature of socialism, and it’s easier for a tiger to turn into a cuddly kitten than for a socialist to support individual autonomy.

When you strip it of its mendacious share-care-be-aware jargon, socialism of any kind tends towards Mussolini’s terse formula: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”

All modern states gravitate towards this ideal, and their proximity to it defines the type of their socialism. It could be national, international, democratic – almost any modifier will do. But what matters there isn’t the adjective but the noun: socialism.

Its ultimate desideratum is always the same: shifting power from the individual to the state. If the individual still retains some control of his own destiny, it’s only because the state hasn’t yet found a way of stepping in.

In that context, private pensions are a glaring anachronism. If his private pension fund is big enough, the holder will be independent of the state in his later years. If it’s really big, the holder can even retire early, thus slipping out of the state’s clutches when he still has a long life ahead of him.

Yet this anachronism, defying as it does every instinct of our socialist state, used to thrive in Britain. Call it a throwback to sanity, but we used to have excellent provisions for private pensions.

Our state pension is the most miserly in Western Europe, and even at its maximum level it can’t provide for dignified existence. But when people and their employers pay into a private pension fund, the contributions are exempt from taxation, up to certain, quite sensible, limits.

That way, a responsible person on a middle-class income can retire comfortably by keeping up his maximum contributions for, say, 30 years. That, as far as the state is concerned, makes him a fish slipping out of the net. The holes in the net must be way too big.

Thus, when Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997 and started his offensive on traditional Britain, plundering private pensions was his top priority and the first thing he did. His chancellor Gordon Brown immediately imposed a £5.6 billion annual tax on pension funds.

He then boasted that his government “lets people keep more of their money”. First, that was untrue. Second, that was an unequivocal statement of tyranny: you can let someone keep only what’s legitimately yours.

Brown’s statement must be complimented for its honesty, or cynicism if you’d rather. For any socialist (meaning, any modern) state, our money isn’t really ours. It belongs to the state, which can then decide how much of it we’ll be allowed to keep for our families. The bandit raid on pensions was a practical expression of that principle.

As Keir Starmer prepares for government after 13 years of Labour Lite (aka Tory) rule, he lets it be known that Blair’s appetite was far too suppressed. He is planning to force pension funds to transfer 5 per cent of their capital (some £50 billion as things stand) into a so-called ‘growth fund’.

This will be supposed to be used for aggressive investments, and if you believe that, there’s a bridge over the Thames I’d like to sell you. In fact, socialist bureaucrats will have a new pot of money at their disposal, which they’ll be able to dole out as they see fit. It doesn’t take a flight of fancy to realise they’ll use it to feed public – which is to say the state’s – greed.

They’ll be unaccountable to the individual contributors, who will have no say in, nor any knowledge of, how their money is spent. In other words, this is another plundering raid on individual autonomy.

Private pension is a major bugbear of socialists, but not the only one. Inheritance tax is another. The whole idea of dynastic continuity is abhorrent to lefties, and they hate every manifestation of it, from hereditary aristocracy passing titles down the line to wealthy families doing the same with capital.

(This overlaps with their other pet hatred, for the family. The modern state correctly identifies it as its competitor and will do anything to weaken the institution. Inheritance tax thus joins homomarriage, easy divorce and incentives for single motherhood in the arsenal of modernity.)

That’s why the Blair government banned most hereditary aristocrats from the House of Lords, an outrage the subsequent ‘Conservative’ governments have done nothing to correct. And that’s why all our socialist governments, whatever they call themselves, try to push the inheritance tax threshold down.

At present, any inheritance in excess of £325,000 is taxed at 40 per cent. Now, any inheritance tax is immoral – a family is made to pay another tax on money that has been taxed already. But moving from the general to the specific, this threshold is dishonest even on its own terms.

For most British families, property makes up by far the greatest part of their inheritance. And property inflation in the UK outpaces money inflation by a factor of 7, in London as high as 10.

It’s not unusual in London for old people subsisting on meagre income to be living in houses they bought for a pittance 50 years ago, which are now worth a million or more, sometimes much more. That means the sum their heirs will have to pay in inheritance tax will be several times greater than the original cost of the house, inflation-adjusted.

How does the government justify this highway robbery? The answer is, it doesn’t have to – any more than a fox has to justify killing chickens. That’s just what it does.

Starmer is hatching similar plans for capital gains tax, which requires no additional comment. It’s the same combination of greed and powerlust, or rather greed as a mechanism of powerlust, same as with private pensions and inheritance tax.

Hence we should never take on faith any government moaning about the high cost of social care and the dependency culture it fosters. The modern state wants people to be dependent on it for their livelihood – the more the merrier. Every person caught up in the dependency net increases the state’s power, every person slipping out reduces it.

That’s all the state needs to know, the only motive it needs to act. I’ve used a couple of zoological metaphors already, so here’s another: such is the nature of the beast.

Jane and I think alike

The differences between Jane Fonda and me are obvious. She is a woman, I’m a man (as I’m not ashamed to admit, although Jane probably thinks I should be). She is rich and famous, I’m neither. She is ‘liberal’, I’m not.

The eyes have it

The differences are so vast that they overshadow the similarities. Yet similarities do exist, and I’m particularly grateful to Jane for going out of her way to support one of my cherished arguments.

I’ve said a thousand times if I’ve said it once that most of our ‘influencers’ are professional malcontents who hate the West and everything it stands for. Whatever it is, they hate it and will protest against it.

What ‘it’ is doesn’t matter. The underlying principle is “give us a cause and we’ll find a mob” – the same mob in most cases. They all converge on what they hate.

That’s why if a chap says, for example, that ‘our planet’ has 10 years left to live, I don’t have to ask him what he thinks about racism, misogyny, socialism, homomarriage or ‘hate crime’. I already know.

Following Aristotle’s epistemology, I first acquired that knowledge empirically, by perceiving the phenomenon through the senses, mainly those of hearing and sight. I then post-rationalised the findings into the concept I described above, somewhat schematically.

Still, given as I am to self-doubt, I have to wonder if I may be wrong. Am I oversimplifying a complex issue? Not at all, says Jane. She then dispels my doubts by proving me right.

In a recent interview Jane made my point more cogently than I ever could: “Well, you know, you can take anything – sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, whatever, the war. And if you really get into it, and study it and learn about it and the history of it, everything’s connected. There’d be no climate crisis if it wasn’t for racism.”

Everything is indeed connected, and I’m glad Jane confirmed it. Verily I say unto you, she is a walking one-woman mob, which narrows and therefore streamlines the field of study.

In this case, I am especially interested in the link between climate crisis and racism. I realise all such things come together within Jane’s mind, but is there any objective connection?

Yes there is, and I’m embarrassed at not having spotted it. You see, the modern hydrocarbon-based economy has been created mainly by white men.

Since hydrocarbons have put ‘our planet’ on death row, white men are to blame. That’s why Jane thinks they should all be arrested, which I fear may create a logistical problem. After all, there are about 600 million white men in the world, and I’m not sure there exist enough holding cells for them all.

“It is a tragedy that we have to absolutely stop. We have to arrest and jail those men – they’re all men,” says Jane. Then again, she may mean only those directly involved in that criminal activity, which would reduce the number to a more manageable couple of million.

White men are guilty not only of irresponsibility but also of racist perfidy. For they are killing ‘our planet’ not en masse, but selectively, by conspiring to poison specifically the areas inhabited by off-white persons. But I shouldn’t be making Jane’s points for her. She can do so herself, and can she ever:

“This is serious. We’ve got about seven, eight years to cut ourselves in half of what we use of fossil fuels, and unfortunately, the people that have the least responsibility for it are hit the hardest. Global South, people on islands, poor people of colour,” says Jane.

Ergo, “It’s good for us all to realise, there would be no climate crisis if there was no racism. There would be no climate crisis if there was no patriarchy.”

Now, Norway is the biggest oil producer in Europe, this side of Russia. I’m not as widely travelled as Jane, which is why I didn’t realise Norwegians were “poor people of colour”. Now I stand corrected, and perhaps it’s time for me to go shakin’ and bakin’ with them Norse brothers, you feel me?

Actually, if (when?) Labour get elected next year, them Norse bloods will get even richer murdering ‘our planet’. Kier Starmer has committed his party to banning licences for oil and gas production in the North Sea. That will give Norway a monopoly on being poisoned, cos they is all “poor people of colour”.

Hanoi Jane is a woman – sorry, person – after my own heart. That’s why I think I’m entitled to point out a slight inconsistency in her view of the problem.

White racist men have segregated “poor people of colour”, fair enough. But even those perfidious criminals can’t segregate the atmosphere. We all breathe the same air, and if ‘our planet’ only has “seven, eight years” left to live, it doesn’t really matter where the weapons of planetary destruction are sited.

So the dastardly plot hatched by white men is going to backfire. When ‘our planet’ turns into a great ball of fire, we’ll all perish together – poor people of colour, rich albinos of no colour, even North Vietnamese.

I do hope Jane sticks around long enough to see that catastrophe and say “I told you so”. Let’s see, she is 85, so seven or eight years from now she’ll be 92-93. Touch and go, I’d say, but doable. Still, on the balance of probability, I dare say ‘our planet’ will outlive Jane.

Although, of course, her insights are immortal.

The art of the possible

That’s how Bismarck described politics, and that was a good working definition. But it’s backward-looking.

Bismark was so-o-o yesterday

Any number of men, from Sun Tzu to Aristotle to Machiavelli, had said something similar before him, or at least could have done. Pragmatic, slightly cynical realpolitik wasn’t something Bismarck invented.

By contrast, his younger contemporary Lenin uttered a phrase – actually just a fragment of one – that charted a route mankind hadn’t travelled before him, and has been travelling ever since.

The fragment I find so fascinating is “we can and therefore must…”. The great man was talking about robbing the churches of their valuables and shooting most priests, but that lapidary phrase has what chemists would call a high valence – it can attach to anything these days.

Bismarck could have completed his adage by adding: “And anything possible is imperative”. But he didn’t: he lacked Lenin’s scale and prophetic powers.

Bismarck still thought that in many situations ‘we can’ may be separated from ‘we must’ by any number of barriers, mainly moral ones. And even when he was willing to overstep those barriers, others kept him in check.

For example, when Prussian troops besieged Paris in 1870, Bismarck wanted to shell the city and keep doing so until Paris surrendered. But the Prussian high command, headed by the king, vetoed that idea. Such a bombardment, they said, would hurt civilians and violate the rules of engagement.

How retro can you get? If Lenin or any other modern, progressive ruler had been in charge, Paris would have been reduced to smouldering rubble and its population to a charnel house. Have you seen pictures of Dresden or Bakhmut? That would have been Paris, circa 1871.

Yet we don’t have to talk about such apocalyptical possibilities. The principle of ‘can, therefore must’ works hard at every level of modern society, in every walk of life, no matter how rapid or sluggish.

Look at welfare for example. In Britain, social assistance has been on offer throughout my lifetime. Yet in the past, and not all that distant past, many needy people felt embarrassed or even – incredibly! – ashamed to seek it. Those fossils knew they could, but didn’t think they should, get handouts from the state.

If you think such people still exist in any other than negligible numbers, a quick look at our social expenditure would disabuse you of the misapprehension. Moreover, one could prove figures in hand that supply-side economics, somewhat perverted, works there as well.

The supply of a particular benefit generates an ever-growing demand for it. Thus the single-mother benefit produces more single mothers than ever, the disability benefit creates more cripples than Britain had after either World War, the housing benefit is sought by more homeless people than we had during the great urbanisation of the Industrial Revolution.

“Can, therefore must” is hard at work in science and technology too. The other day, an interviewer asked me about artificial intelligence. Its potential  pluses are obvious, but are there any minuses? He suggested growing unemployment as one such.

I agreed there was that danger. However, I added, even if it could be irrefutably proved that AI would produce nothing short of an economic and demographic calamity, its development would still go ahead. “We can and therefore must…”.

Moving some three feet down from the cerebral, one can’t help wondering if Britain is living through a pandemic of gender dysphoria. Stories of young people ‘transitioning’ are filling the papers to the brim, and the leader of His Majesty’s Opposition has opined that Britain already boasts 340,000 women with penises.

That might have been a rhetorical flourish, but anyone with eyes to see will agree that even a generation ago nothing like that was in evidence. Since then, however, the moral philosophy of ‘can, therefore must’ has moved from the brain downwards. “You can”, says the government supported by the modern ethos. “We must,” reply youngsters on cue.

Modernity endlessly extends the boundaries of the allowable, a tendency called ‘progress’ in some quarters. In some other, much smaller, quarters it’s called anomie.

Anomie is the cancer of the mind and, once some cells are affected, the disease ineluctably progresses to Stage IV. So far mankind has come up with only one therapy capable of controlling the disease, and I’d call it ‘DM’, as in Dmitri Karamazov.

That Dostoyevsky character knew exactly what the therapy was, and he loathed its diminishing availability:

“But what will become of men then?” I asked him, “without God and immortal life? All things are permitted then, they can do what they like?”

They can. And if they can, they must. And if they must, they will. The art of the possible is guaranteed to become the art of the obligatory – and not just in politics.

Self-indulgence isn’t a disease

First the dry facts untouched by emotion and unsullied with commentary. The Brentford footballer Ivan Toney pleaded guilty to 232 betting violations and was banned for eight months.

The ‘patient’

That mea culpa wasn’t issued immediately. At first he admitted he liked the odd flutter, but claimed he never bet on football matches. However, crushed by the weight of evidence, Toney finally conceded he had indeed placed such bets through third parties.

Moreover, 13 times he bet on his own team to lose, an outcome he could have facilitated personally, although there is no evidence he actually did so.

In view of that, the FA originally wanted to ban Toney for 15 months. However, they accepted his guilty plea, albeit belated, as a mitigating circumstance and took three months off. They then reduced it further to eight months because – and here it gets interesting – Toney’s lawyers managed to get him diagnosed with gambling addiction.

Thus yet another gross lapse of moral character has been medicalised and partly exculpated. Yet medicalised doesn’t mean legitimately medical – clinically speaking, there is no such thing as gambling addiction. There are only compulsive self-indulgent gamblers incapable of any self-restraint.

Many such people are considerably brighter than Toney, proving this is a failure of character, not of intelligence. Thus, Pushkin, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, arguably Russia’s best writers, were all compulsive gamblers.

When he died in 1837, Pushkin left his widow with debts of 100,000 roubles, $50,000 at the time – a staggering sum, equivalent to $1.7 million today. Much of it was gambling debts.

As a young officer, Tolstoy gambled away his manor house. Later, he tried to bet his whole estate on a single hand of cards and was only stopped from doing so by an older officer. Had Tolstoy lost, his family would have been impoverished.

He retained that compulsion in his older age. Maxim Gorky observed: “He plays seriously, passionately. And when he picks up his cards his hands become so very nervous, as if he is holding live birds, not inanimate pieces of cardboard.”

Dostoyevsky was plagued by gambling debts all his life but, unlike Tolstoy, he didn’t have a vast estate to fall back on. Thus, when he travelled from one European casino to another, he’d often be left penniless.

Dostoyevsky would then write to his brother and friends begging for money, such as in this letter: “I walked up to the roulette table and won 600 francs within a quarter of an hour. That whetted my appetite. Suddenly I started losing; I could no longer restrain myself and lost everything I had with me.”

But in those unsophisticated days people hadn’t yet learned the art of using medical quackery to justify irresponsible behaviour. Those who gambled beyond their means with no regard for the consequences weren’t treated as patients. They were rebuked for their lack of self-control.

The operative phrase was uttered by Dostoyevsky: “I could no longer restrain myself”. Why not? What would have happened to him had he gone cold turkey and merely walked past a casino without going in?

Would he have experienced flu-like withdrawal symptoms, like an addict coming off heroin? A horrendous pain like an alcoholic who abruptly stops drinking? Dizziness, seizures and insomnia suffered by an addict denied barbiturates?

None of the above? Then the right way to describe Dostoyevasky’s inability to stop would have been “I didn’t want to restrain myself”. Saying “I could no longer…” was a trick typical of such people. They wish to convey the notion that their free will is being overpowered by a mighty outside force beyond their control.

For the same reason, genuine addicts tend to exaggerate the severity of their withdrawal symptoms. I found that out first hand some 20 years ago, when I was iatrogenically addicted to heroin having received it for a month through an intravenous drip.

When I no longer needed it post-discharge, I threw away the OxyContin tablets I had been given at the hospital and found out that all I had to contend with was a runny nose and a slightly sore throat. A far cry from the agony of withdrawal described by addicts who simply don’t want to quit.

The modern tendency to medicalise failures of character is quite sinister. It’s a reflection of the general urge to stop treating man as a free agent endowed with free will.

Instead man is depicted – and treated – as a creature at the mercy of some forces, pre-determined and variously mysterious. in fact, modernity has been shaped by three deterministic fallacies, Darwinist, Marxist and Freudian.

It’s the third one of the three that’s responsible for the medicalising trend, my subject today. Freud, who incidentally never had a single therapeutic success, sold mankind a blanket indulgence for the sin of personal irresponsibility. A bog standard lousy mood got to be treated as a medical disorder, only to be remedied by hundreds of hours (and thousands of pounds) spent on an analyst’s couch.

And what a unique medical condition it is, one that can be treated even by people without a medical degree. All a poor chap has to do is pay so much per hour and use that time to talk about his feeling lonely, friendless and dejected (or is it rejected?).

Usually that lamentable situation arises because the ‘patient’ has the kind of personality that repels potential friends. Any sensible doctor would say to him: “Stop wasting our time and your money. Go home and think how you can make yourself more attractive to people. And if you want to screw your Mum, kill your Dad and stick a needle in your eye, just decide not to and leave it at that.”

Yet here we have a millionaire footballer ‘diagnosed with gambling addiction’ he can do nothing about. Hypothetically, would Toney be as powerless if the likely punishment were death, not a few months’ suspension? Or would his ‘disease’ miraculously cure itself?

Far be it from me to advocate such extreme measures, but they do work. That’s how Mao solved the problem of opium addiction in China, by having a few users shot. And hey presto, a miracle: no one smoked opium any longer.

While decrying such draconian punishments, let’s note that this proves the problem isn’t medical: a cancer patient wouldn’t be instantly cured of his disease by a similar therapy. Nor would a man suffering from kidney stones or a woman plagued by cystitis.

All these are genuine diagnoses. “Addiction to gambling” isn’t. It’s hedonism and self-indulgence run riot. A footballer who bets on his own team to lose should be drummed out of the game for ever. Not for a few months.

Many ills in one sentence

No one commits a crime against progress and gets away with it.

Joshua Sutcliffe

Yet another teacher ‘misgendered’ a pupil by using a female personal pronoun rather than the male one the ‘trans’ pupil demanded. That he was sacked hardly needs saying – such punishment is practically mandatory.

However, it came with a lovely new touch: Joshua Sutcliffe was not only sacked from his Oxford school, but also prohibited from his profession indefinitely by the Teaching Regulation Authority (TRA).

The Mail covered the case dispassionately, simply reporting the facts. Yet the absence of a bias is a bias in itself. In such cases, mere neutrality betokens latent sympathy – after all, Mr Sutcliffe sinned against a whole ethos, not just an individual. Hence withdrawing self-righteous wrath is tantamount to ringing endorsement.

However, then came the sentence I promised in the title above. That too sounded like unvarnished reportage, but in fact the paper emphatically, if inadvertently, joined the ranks of Mr Sutcliffe’s executioners (only in his profession, for the time being):

“Joshua Sutcliffe, a 33-year-old who taught maths at The Cherwell School in Oxford, was found to have failed to treat the pupil ‘with dignity and respect’ by addressing them by a female pronoun when they identified as male.”

In any cultural war – and make no mistake, it’s under way – ceding the language positions is tantamount to surrender. When a single person is referred to as ‘they’ or ‘them’, I see a white flag flapping in the wind. The sight is ugly.

That aesthetics is an aspect of ethics was already known to the great Greeks. That’s why Plato described music as ‘a moral law’, and Aristotle decried musical innovation because, he thought, political subversion was bound to follow in its wake.

Ugly form points to the ugly content lurking underneath. For example, one doesn’t have to read Le Corbusier’s articles to know he was a fascist. Just looking at his buildings and plans for urban development should tell anyone everything he needs to know.

I’d argue that a finely tuned aesthetic perception often doesn’t have to rely on religion or philosophy to reach all the right conclusions. Reason can then move in to claim its slice of the epistemological pie, but its function is only to make the intuitive intelligible. Most rationalisation is in fact post-rationalisation.

Whoever wrote that offensive sentence must have had his aesthetic receptors cauterised. That is, if he doesn’t realise how unspeakably ugly that sentence is. That, however, is unlikely. Call me an idealist, but I still cling on to the notion that a professional writer can’t be so deaf to the beauty of English, his bread and butter.

Thus, he knows the sentence is ugly but still feels compelled to write it. If modernity demands unconditional surrender, he is happy to oblige.

The Greeks and Romans saw outward beauty as an unfailing indicator of virtue. Mens sana in corpore sano, wrote Juvenal – a healthy mind in a healthy body. In Western culture, the perception of beauty changed. It got to be understood as a perfect harmony between form and content, but with the content determining the form more than the other way around.

Thus a healthy body (language, in this case) may well mask an ugly content (thought) by way of subterfuge. But imposing ugly, unnatural language on society leaves no room for doubt. Our whole culture is falling victim to subversion on a universal scale.

Ugly is the new beautiful, wrong is the new right, unnatural is the new natural – such are the implicit slogans of that subversion. The few cases of genuine gender dysphoria aside, a woman insisting she is a man is ugly, unnatural and wrong. That, however, is her privilege – people have a right to be ugly, unnatural and wrong. But they have no right to demand that others concur, allowing their aesthetic compass to go haywire.

Yet that’s exactly what modernity demands. Mr Sutcliffe’s crime was refusing to go along. And he exacerbated it by rejecting the penitence demanded by the TRA. Had he agreed to scourge himself and wear a hairshirt from then on, modernity might have gone easy on him.

He recounts: “The TRA has said, you don’t feel enough remorse for not going on with the pronouns. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s the Christian position. I wasn’t going to say: ‘I’m going along with this’. I’d rather die to be honest.”

Oh yes, I should have mentioned Mr Sutcliffe is a Christian. Hence he chose to put his resistance to modern perversions into a Christian framework, which is both commendable and superfluous.

In just about any situation I can imagine offhand, a Christian can argue a case for aesthetic beauty or rational sense without invoking Christianity explicitly. He may believe that God is the origin of all beauty and reason, but these should be able to stand on their own two feet.

They are like children who grow up enough to leave the paternal home and enter life autonomously. Thus Mr Sutcliffe could have made a strong case by simply appealing to the aesthetic demands of English grammar with its pronouns and the rational diktats of genetics with its chromosomes.

In this case, as in so many others, a proposition that’s aesthetically and rationally sound also happens to be Christian. Thus Christianity may well stay in the background, acting as the implicit origin and a silent vindicator of the proposition. So inspired and validated, the idea can then fend for itself – while reinforcing by its own validity the truth of Christianity.

If I were in Mr Sutcliffe’s shoes, I’d do exactly what he did. But the impulse to do so would appear before I even thought of Christianity’s position on the issue. My initial response would be aesthetic rejection, which I would then post-rationalise with appeals to conventions of grammar and physiological realities.

Would I stand any chance of winning the argument? Don’t be silly, of course not. Sane people these days are inferior to even a bull in the ring. He isn’t encouraged to win, but at least he is encouraged to fight. We aren’t.

Whatever works doesn’t work

In today’s Times, Lord Hague unfurls a popular Tory banner saying “Conservatism isn’t an ideology”, and I myself have been known to wave it.

Whatever works is Conservatism to Lord Hague, and whatever doesn’t work isn’t. That’s too empiricist for my taste.

For no ideology shouldn’t mean no principles – and the calculating pragmatism advocated by Lord Hague doesn’t qualify as such, not by itself. If a party lacks or abandons its own principles, it ends up borrowing them from the other side.

This Lord Hague himself proves by insisting that support for homomarriage and ‘non-traditional’ families is a cardinal Tory virtue. Opposition to those things is to him un-Conservative and too American to be British.

In fact, one struggles to see any pragmatic value (other than winning more votes in the upmarket parts of London) in destroying the family as it has been for millennia. In fact, it’s easy to demonstrate, figures in hand, that traditional family reduces crime rates, boosts economic performance and improves public health – physical, mental and moral.

That’s the thing about traditional beliefs and principles: they have survived long enough to become traditional specifically because they work. And nowhere is this confluence of philosophy and pragmatism more evident than in the economy.

What our economists often forget is that economics isn’t a branch of mathematics. It’s a study of human behaviour, which starts from some basic understanding of human nature.

Since human nature is more or less immutable, the same economic principles have always been proved to work – or not. One principle that has always worked is based on a fundamental human trait: aversion to taxes. Thus, the more of their money do people get to keep, the harder they try to make more. That benefits not only them personally but the economy at large.

That’s why low taxation is both a sound conservative principle and a pragmatic idea known to work. Someone like me, a chap ignorant of the recondite interplay of numerals, indicators and indices, can still advocate a sound taxation policy based on that general principle only.

However, by myopically seeking a short-term gain, the Tories discard that traditional principle, claiming instead that their goal is purely pragmatic. However, they fail on both counts.

Take Sunak’s idea of raising corporate tax from 19 to 25 per cent. That clearly goes against core Tory principles – which is why it won’t work. Any short-term gain will be wiped out by an exodus of businesses seeking a warmer economic clime.

Some major foreign corporations have already indicated they now plan to take their business elsewhere. The effect of such withdrawals may not be felt before the next general election, but you can be sure it will be felt soon enough – and it will be devastating.

A simple policy, which Lord Hague would doubtless regard as being obtusely doctrinaire, would be to proceed from first economic principles, ignore the short-term bean counting and lower corporate taxes even further by offering foreign investors and our domestic entrepreneurs far-reaching tax breaks.

Putting Lord Hague’s notion of pragmatism into practice, the Tories are also in the process of ending VAT tax breaks for foreign visitors.

Thus an American tourist shopping in Paris or Milan will get the sales tax refunded. The same American shopping in London won’t. Where do you think he’d be more likely to shop? This is another example of general principles hard at work.

What effect do you suppose this will have on our hospitality and retail industries, which are both significant contributors to Britain’s GDP? You don’t need a calculator to answer this question. Just a set of proven conservative principles will suffice.

Britain’s economic legs are bending under the weight of the greatest taxation burden known in our peacetime history – this after 13 years of Tory government. Or rather zero years of Tory government if one looks at the principles from which it proceeds.

Trying to choose between principles and pragmatism, the Tories consistently choose neither. And if – or rather when – Starmer’s Labour take over, things will get even worse.

Those chaps share the Tories’ evident commitment to beggaring the country and pushing it even further down that road. For example, Britain now offers non-domiciled status, and hence tremendous tax breaks, to wealthy foreigners living here.

This is what Starmer promises to abolish, thereby supposedly adding £3 billion a year to the Exchequer’s coffers. That commitment reflects an underlying strong principle that happens to be wrong.

The principle is that squeezing the rich will improve the lot of the poor. But as often as not the result is exactly the opposite.

Most of those non-doms aren’t wealthy layabouts who spend their time lounging on their estates and yachts. Much as I love England, there are more attractive places in the world for that sort of thing.

With few exceptions, those non-doms are actively involved in increasing Britain’s GDP, and they didn’t choose Britain for the weather. Non-dom status was a major part of their decision to move here.

Since their attachment to Britain typically lacks a strong emotional component, take those tax breaks away from them and they’ll be likely to move elsewhere. How many of them? I suspect most, but I don’t really know and neither does Sir Keir.

Yet if only as few as half of them up sticks, even the immediate effect on tax revenue will be negative. At the moment, the non-doms pay close to £8 billion in annual taxes. Even accepting Sir Keir’s £3 billion prognosis, Britain will still be a billion short. And only a morbidly credulous individual would accept any Labour prediction at face value.

Preparing for power, Labour politicians openly talk about introducing wealth tax and closing all tax loopholes on North Sea oil exploration and production. That would work if the North Sea were the world’s only area rich in hydrocarbons. But it isn’t.

The Exchequer would definitely gain from such measures, but the benefits would last only as long as it’ll take big companies and wealthy individuals to move elsewhere. Which won’t be long.

The conclusion is clear. At that level, pragmatic measures only ever succeed if they proceed from sound first principles. By denouncing what Hague calls ‘ideologies’ but what is in fact a philosophy of life, the Tories invariably end up wearing socialists’ hand-me-downs.

The two parties then compete on which one can beggar Britain the fastest. So far it’s almost neck and neck.

The last refuge of a scoundrel

That was how Dr Johnson described patriotism in a quip that’s often taken out of context. He was talking not about patriotism as such, but about politicians screaming patriotic slogans as a way of gaining power.

Lord Hague knows one when he sees one

Little has changed since then. Patriotism is still often used to dupe the innocent. But in that ignominious function, democracy runs it pretty close.

Assorted scoundrels use it, or more typically its absence, to promote their own desiderata or to vindicate their own pet falsehoods. The usual stratagem is to proceed from a set of demonstrably untrue assumptions.

First, that every democratically elected government is ipso facto legitimate and good. Second, that any government that isn’t democratically elected is ipso facto illegitimate and evil.

Every conclusion emerging from those wrong premises is going to be wrong too. Thus, corollary to those two fallacies are three others: one, deposing a democratically elected government is always wrong; two, keeping a democratically elected government in power is always right, no matter how many crimes it commits.

The third link in that chain is insistence that the absence (or ousting) of a democratically elected government justifies invasion by a foreign power.

Lurking underneath all those fallacies is some kind of self-interest that has nothing to do with democracy or lack thereof. That can’t possibly be otherwise because the case against all those fallacies doesn’t even have to be argued. It can just be shown.

An abbreviated list of democratically elected monsters should put paid to all those idiocies and shift the discussion into a sensible area: Hitler, Perón, Mugabe, Putin, Lukashenko, Ahmadinejad, Yanukovych, Macîas Nguema (who gratefully murdered a third of the population of Equatorial Guinea that had voted him in).

That roll call alone should prove that democratic and good aren’t always coextensive. Hence the right question to ask about a government isn’t whether it’s democratic, but whether it’s just.

If it isn’t, any domestic coup to unseat it is virtuous, however that government gained power. But not any foreign invasion. That can only be justified if it can be credibly shown that the evil government is trying to export its evil, threatening the vital interests of the potential invader. A deficit of democracy alone doesn’t constitute a casus belli.

These home truths are so obvious as to be homespun. Any argument that starts from denying them can only be put forth by a scoundrel – especially if he denies them selectively.

Thus Peter Hitchens correctly regards the 2003 invasion of Iraq as ill-advised, not to say criminal. If you recall, the immediate pretext for that foray was the false claim that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, primed and ready to go at any moment.

But the propaganda offensive behind it, especially in the US, centred around the proselytising mission of carrying democracy to the Middle East, starting from Iraq. That was supposed to provide a moral justification for that calamitous folly.

It’s to Hitchens’s credit that he saw through it. He thus tossed aside the misconception that affection for democracy is a sufficient reason to kill hundreds of thousands of people who have done us no wrong.

He is equally right when observing in today’s column that: “In Cuba, you can vote at 16, but only for the grisly Castro regime.” That’s another fallacy biting the dust: it’s not method of government that counts, but its nature. When all the available candidates are cannibals, the resulting democratic government will indulge in devouring human flesh.

But then Hitchens undoes all his good work by writing, in the same column, this paragraph:  “Lord Hague of Richmond, when he was Foreign Secretary, condoned the lawless overthrow of Ukraine’s legitimate, elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. This was the event which triggered the large-scale violence which has ever afterwards gripped Ukraine.”

This is a scoundrel speaking, a man who for some nefarious purpose stamps into the dirt the very same arguments he himself has just made.

Lord Hague was indeed Foreign Secretary in 2014. Every other word in that paragraph is either a fallacy or, in its second sentence, an outright lie. No large-scale violence has gripped the Ukraine since 2014. The violence was visited on her by the foreign Nazi regime Hitchens adores.

Yanukovych, a career criminal with several convictions on his record, was elected in the predictable turmoil that followed the Ukraine gaining independence. The new democratic institutions were so inchoate and unformed that the country was at sixes and sevens.

Corruption was rife, as it was – and in most cases still is – in all ex-Soviet republics, including the most corrupt one of all, Russia herself. The Ukrainians were happy to have won their sovereignty, but they were still unsure what to do with it.

But it didn’t take them long to realise it was precisely their sovereignty that Yanukovych was betraying. His whole government was infiltrated from top to bottom by Putin’s agents, of whom Yanukovych himself was one.

His government did its best to outdo the corruption of his predecessors and undo the country’s independence. The people could just about live with the former, but not with the latter.

They took at face value Putin’s pronouncements about his mission of restoring the Soviet Union to its imperial grandeur. These weren’t empty words: Putin had already launched sanguinary assaults on Chechnya and Georgia, killing hundreds of thousands and successfully installing puppet regimes in both.

The Ukrainians correctly sensed that the Yanukovych government was trying to deliver their country to Russia by subterfuge. Hence they rose in a popular revolt called the Orange Revolution and ousted the treasonous clique of Putin’s agents.

Since then, power in the Ukraine has invariably been changed by orderly democratic succession, which should satisfy even Hitchens’s passionate, if selective, affection of elective procedures.

Instead he commits all the fallacies I enumerated above – including, by the looks of it, the belief that, if his idol Putin doesn’t like the way politics works in any sovereign neighbouring country, he has the moral right to bomb it to smithereens.

Lord Hague, unlike Hitchens, understood the true nature of Putin’s Russia and correctly identified it as an enemy power, at least potentially. Also unlike Hitchens, he didn’t stand on window-dressing procedure, looking instead at the moral and geopolitical essence of the Orange Revolution.

He saw in it the success of the long-suffering Ukrainian people in asserting their true independence – which Lord Hague considered morally right. He also saw that revolution as a successful rollback of an evil power with imperial ambitions – which Lord Hague considered strategically beneficial.

Hitchens, on the other hand, describes how he kept pestering Hague with written protests, only receiving vague replies or none. Lord Hague was doubtless aware of Hitchens’s unwavering championship of Putin’s regime that long predated any frictions with the Ukraine.

He must have correctly discerned he was dealing with a sympathiser (to say the least) of a malevolent regime with global aggression coded in its DNA. That’s why he fobbed Hitchens off or simply refused to reply to him.

Lord Hague may be many things, but a scoundrel he isn’t. Hitchens is, and he is tireless in his efforts to prove it.

Can the nation state make us better?

No, said John Locke (d. 1704). The state was brought into existence merely to protect private property.

The birth pains of the nation state

Yes, said Edmund Burke (d. 1797). The same God “who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. – He willed therefore the state.”

Locke’s idea sounds too reductive; Burke’s, too grandiose. Both should be treated with caution: in Burke’s time, and certainly in Locke’s, the state was a different entity from what it is now.

At the heart of Locke’s minimalism was his belief in a clear line of demarcation between the realms of state and church. His views on the state were empiricist: he saw it as a social contractual arrangement devoid of any sacral significance. All in all, one can see a direct line of descent from Locke to the French and American Enlightenment and, closer to our own time, liberalism.

Burke’s idea, though more attractive, has seeds of theocracy within it. After all, “perfecting human nature” is the institutional domain of the church, not of the state.

If, as Burke suggested, the state has the same purpose, then it is either redundant or else can act only as an adjunct to the church. Rather than merely keeping an eye on the state’s behaviour and judging it on the basis of Christian tenets, the church would then in effect have to run it.

That’s neither its natural function nor even its doctrine: salvation is individual, not collective. It’s as individuals, not as citizens, that people will be saved.

To what extent the state can be seen as God’s tool of perfecting human nature is thus open to debate. It’s safer to assume that it’s not the state’s function to create paradise on earth. Its purpose is only to prevent hell on earth.

And it’s in this function that the modern nation state has been found wanting. One wonders if Burke still would have persisted in his belief that any state was divinely ordained had he come back in the twentieth century and seen Bolshevik Russia and Nazi Germany in action.

What he did see in his lifetime, the French Revolution, horrified and disgusted him – even before its worst excesses were perpetrated (Burke’s Reflections came out in 1789). That event adumbrated modernity in any number of ways.

Perhaps the most pernicious one was marginalising the church, while attaching an absolute, if strictly secular, value to the nation state. That created the concept of nationalism, which is entirely an Enlightenment construct.

Pre-Enlightenment patriotism was so far removed from nationalism as to be almost its opposite. Patriotism was strictly local and cultural. People loved their own neck of the woods inhabited by those who looked, sounded and prayed the same way they did. They also loved their natural habitat and tended to prefer it to any other.

That was reflected in their political arrangements. Localism trumped centralism, and people pledged fealty to the local squire they knew, not loyalty to the semi-mythical figures in the capital.

The sacralised nation state, that retarded child of the Enlightenment, assumed unprecedented power by subsuming localism into centralism. People’s loyalties were yanked out of their local area and forcibly transferred to the capital, the home of the governing bureaucracy that was far from the local area geographically and even farther conceptually.

People were now encouraged, nay mandated, to think and feel on a large scale. Their love of their neighbours and landscapes got to be treated as merely a quaint subset of their real identity as members of a nation.

A nation’s nature is unifying and centralising, which too is reflected in its indigenous political arrangement. The omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God was by a series of incremental steps gradually replaced with the omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent state – the condensed personification of the nation.

As such, the nation state assumed – or rather subsumed – some of the cultural aspects of localism. But they remain subservient to the overarching political ideology, a term I never use in a positive sense.

The nature of a national political ideology may occasionally sound benign: liberty, democracy, that sort of thing. But even with the best possible intentions, the potential for perversion is both vast and almost guaranteed to be realised.

Any ideology is an intellectual construct, a product of human thought. And that substance tends to be rather fickle and changeable. Think of the universal constants of cosmic life: had they differed from what they are by a minuscule fraction of one percent, life on earth would be impossible.

In theory, it’s possible to come up with a universal ideal of a nation. In practice, however, deviations from the ideal are bound to appear and multiply. The grander the concept – and any national idea is grand by definition – the greater its potential for abuse.

The milk of political and cultural localism was spilled long ago, and it’s no use crying over it. But that cold-blooded statement of fact doesn’t preclude a healthy dose of pessimism about the sacralisation of the nation and nation state.

That’s partly why I regard nationalism (as distinct from patriotism) and conservatism as mutually exclusive – and National Conservatism as an oxymoron.

Hence, like the columnist Stephen Glover, I treated the conference organised earlier this week by an American movement called National Conservatism with suspicion. Unlike Mr Glover, I didn’t attend it. Thus I can have no grounds for disputing his findings that the conference put forth nothing but sound conservative ideas, of the kind Rishi Sunak should listen to, but won’t.

However, he dismisses the ‘National’ part of the movement as merely synonymous with patriotism and antithetical to liberal globalism: “For Hazony [NatCon founder], tradition is paramount. It flourishes in the nation state, sustained by national customs, laws and institutions. Family is the bedrock of society, and religion a valuable influence.”

I vote with both hands for the last sentence. Family is indeed the bedrock of society, and one could say that religion is the bedrock of family. But I emphatically disagree that this tradition “flourishes in the nation state”.

I’m closer to the idea that the congenitally atheistic post-Enlightenment nation state wages systematic war on family as the embodiment and conduit of tradition. No doubt the NatCons will agree with this observation, but they clearly regard it as an aberration, and thus would reject the adverb ‘congenitally’.

That’s where we go our separate ways. The very essence of the Enlightenment – and of all its offshoots, including the nation state, socialism, nationalism, globalism – is the repudiation of tradition. The nation state has squeezed its bulk into the space vacated by the church, and demands the same adulation and loyalty.

But it’s not entitled to them. The paternalistic nation state, even in its benign, Western variants, fosters the wrong parts of human nature by tossing all its traits and aspirations into a giant cauldron and claiming that the resulting uniform stew will be good for you. And, once the meal has been cooked, everyone is forced to subsist on it, even if it produces a gagging effect.

I’m sure all the speakers at the NatCon Conference were as sound as Mr Glover describes them. But – solely from the way he describes them – I’m not sure they’ve considered the relationship between conservatism and the nation state at sufficient depth.

If they had, they would have called their movement something else.  

Good people can love Putin too

It’s easy to dismiss Western Putinistas as crypto-Nazis, people who feel an irresistible longing for the Übermensch at the helm. Since that pagan longing isn’t satisfied domestically, they reach out tropistically for the nearest foreign model.

That human type and that longing aren’t necessarily new. In the past, it was either Hitler or Stalin perched on that totem pole – or both, as any reader of G.B. Shaw’s essays and speeches can confirm.

Both monsters had their prominent champions in the West. When the monstrosity in question became public knowledge, most changed their tune. However, some didn’t.

Not all of them were fanatical Nazis like Unity Mitford or Stalin’s agents of influence like Walter Durante. Most of those champions of evil were simply ignorant simpletons who looked for some personification of their political ideals and were misled into believing that Stalin or Hitler came close – for all their obvious faults.

They had an excuse for their ignorance, not a good one but some. Mass media didn’t reach the masses in those days, certainly not on today’s scale. Unless a man subscribed to several newspapers or was prepared to read books, he might not have realised that Hitler wasn’t just a motorway builder, and Stalin wasn’t just seeking to industrialise the country.

Most of the time ignorance was just an excuse, not the real reason. Typically, those people didn’t know because they didn’t want to know. But at least their excuse was plausible.

But today every fact is at people’s fingertips, those they use to press the keys on their laptops. Using those appendages people can instantly learn… well, perhaps not everything there is to know, but certainly enough to piece together the true nature of Putin’s regime.

And yet many good, literate conservatives cling on to the myth of the “most conservative and Christian country in Europe”, to quote the most consistent British Putinista, whose links with that regime merit a forensic investigation.

That is puzzling. After all, Europe hasn’t had such an unapologetically Nazi regime since 5 March, 1953, the date on which Stalin’s death was announced.

So why do some good people (of whom the pundit in question manifestly isn’t one) repeat Putin’s propaganda verbatim without in any way activating the critical faculties I know they possess? One such man is a good tennis player who took a set off me the other day.

Following an ironclad tradition at tennis clubs around the world, after trying to castrate each other with tennis balls for two hours, we then had a friendly beer and chat. Usually, I steer clear of political subjects after matches, for fear of running out of people to play with.

But since I like this chap I didn’t dodge his direct question: “So what do you make of that situation in Ukraine then?” When I told him what I made of it, which is what I’ve been writing since before anyone even heard of Putin, my tennis friend said: “But isn’t it Nato’s fault?”

He then went on to list all the salient stab points of Kremlin propaganda, those that get a weekly airing in The Mail on Sunday.

He: Putin felt threatened by Nato’s eastward expansion (I: “Do you think Nato was hatching up plans to attack Russia? Does anyone?”)

The Ukrainian government came to power illegally (“Zelensky won a perfectly democratic election.”) Yes, but the 2014 putsch ousted a legitimate government. (“A Putin puppet.”) But Zelensky is a puppet too. (“Whose?”) America’s. (“First, that simply isn’t true. If he were, he would have traded territory for peace long ago, that’s what America wants. And aren’t you invoking the old moral equivalence falsehood? They have the KGB, we have the CIA and MI6, what’s the difference? In any case, the Ukraine is a sovereign country, and whatever her people do is their business, provided they don’t threaten anyone else.”)

And so on, for two beers or so. You see, I have a lot of time for that chap. He is intelligent, kind, well-mannered, always votes the right way, attends conservative conferences, loves Penelope’s playing – the salt of the Tory earth. Yet I’m sure I didn’t convince him, though I hope I made him think.

He made me think too. Why would such a man, and he is far from the only one, stubbornly cling to Putin even after hundreds of thousands have been killed, maimed, left homeless, raped, tortured in his frenzied attack on a West-leaning neighbour?

That is one of those phenomena that escape a casual glance. One has to delve deep in search of any understanding. Such excavation will reveal that Westerners have been conditioned to accept make-believe as real.

Every few years they go to the polls to empower a politician whose rhetoric appeals to them. They know from experience that there is little behind those words – the promises won’t be kept, the projections won’t come true, and even if they do it won’t be because of what this politician has done but rather in spite of it.

But then the same is true of the other candidate too, isn’t it? Yet his rhetoric doesn’t sound as good, so he is out. A few generations of this sort of thing, and people begin to cherish virtual reality, while ignoring the actual kind.

When it comes to someone like Putin, they tend to like his rhetoric more than anything their own politicians say. Putin comes out ahead in the virtual reality stakes, and that’s all that matters. Actual reality is ignored – especially when it’s far away.

Their own actual reality is harder to ignore, and conservative Westerners hate what they see.

Corrupt and vacillating governments, moral fibre tattered to shreds, a systematic creation of a parasitic underclass, countries inundated with illegal aliens, atheist anomie reigning supreme, crime rates climbing, living standards growing sluggishly if at all, education that doesn’t educate, healthcare that doesn’t care for health, little children asked to choose their sex from a long menu of options, increasingly unjust justice – and so on, ad nauseam.

Some Western politicians may take issue with one or two of those outrages, but no one will take them on collectively, as symptoms of a subcutaneous malaise. But Putin does. He and his propagandists loudly castigate the West for all those failings, and Western conservatives discern a kindred spirit emerging out of the fog of virtual reality.

They respond on cue like Pavlov’s dogs: these are the terms in which they’ve been trained to think. They are happy to compare Putin’s rhetoric with Western reality and find the latter distinctly wanting.

They move towards Putin so fast that they can’t stop and shift their thinking into the sphere of actual reality. If they could, they’d see that yes, our governments and societies could do a hell of a lot better.

But at least 90 per cent of our people don’t go undernourished, living in abject poverty on, say, £200 a month. People who disagree with our governments aren’t thrown into prison for 25 years or simply ‘whacked’. We don’t murder foreign nationals we dislike with battle gases and radioactive compounds. We don’t ban free expression, and our TV channels aren’t the state’s lapdogs. We don’t declare other nations to be genetically inferior to us. Our government officials may be corrupt, but they don’t siphon off purloined billions into their personal offshore accounts. Our churches may be failing, but at least they aren’t adjuncts of the secret police. Above all, we don’t pounce on our neighbours like rabid dogs, trying to bomb them out of existence.

None of that happens in the West; all of that happens in Putin’s Russia. Our actual reality is infinitely superior to his any way you look at it: morally, politically, geopolitically, economically, legally, culturally, religiously, aesthetically.

We live in relatively free, just and prosperous countries – not nearly as free, just and prosperous as they should be, but still. The Russians are living in a foul obscenity of a country, in terms of actual reality, that is.

But the virtual reality of Putin’s rhetoric trumps our actual reality in the eyes of some good conservative people. Their brains have been too queered for them to compare our deeds with theirs, not our deeds with their words.

Just as I write this, I peek out of the corner of my eye at the news coming out of that “conservative and Christian” nation. The other day six of Putin’s supposedly unstoppable ‘hypersonic’ missiles were shot down by Ukrainian Patriot systems. Hours later the scientists and engineers who had developed those Kinzhal rockets were arrested and charged with treason. Quarter-century sentences beckon.

If that’s what “conservative and Christian” countries do, I’ll take our awful agnostic Britain any day of the week. Especially on Sunday.

Our children can read but they can’t speak

A global study on 400,000 pupils aged 9 and 10 ranked them for their reading skills.

And what do you know – English tots came fourth in the world, behind only Singapore, Hong Kong and Russia, and way ahead of the rest of Europe and the US.

Rishi Sunak was ecstatic, declaring that pupils and teachers “should be incredibly proud of this achievement”. Incredibly is the right way to describe it: I for one find the results hard to believe.

Then again, the findings are comparative. They don’t necessarily mean that English pupils aren’t functionally illiterate – only that most of the others are even worse.

My incredulity, I hasten to disclaim, is based on little personal experience. It has been a long time since I knew (or had) any children in that age group. But there are many schools in my area, and I hear swarms of tots talking every day, in the street, on public transport, in the parks.

I make a point of listening, what with English being my lifelong love, passion and profession. And I have to admit with some chagrin that most exchanges I overhear don’t resemble the English that has been my lifelong love, passion and profession. In fact, and here my chagrin is replaced with despondency, they don’t resemble anything traditionally known as human speech.

One gets a distinct impression that these children see Mowgli as an aspirational role model. There are no discernible sentences in their speech, and very few discernible words. Mostly they communicate in interjections that only have a semiotic, rather than semantic, meaning.

Whenever an intrepid child does attempt to put a sentence together, it’s done with no regard for any conventions of grammar. As far as I can understand, that is. For whatever they do say is delivered in accents occupying the infra area way below prole speak.

I have no problem whatsoever understanding any British dialect, even those that baffle my English wife. But what I’m talking about is sub-dialectal and sub-phonetic – it’s some kind of oral cipher designed to keep the uninitiated at bay.

Children who read a lot don’t talk that way. Say what you will about some books, but most of them are written in complete and fairly grammatical sentences. A child who devours books has to regurgitate them into at least a semblance of coherent speech.

Of course, the study has only established that our children can read, not that they do read. It’s entirely possible they keep that skill in reserve to take it out later in life, when they have to read the questions in job applications.

I know nothing about those overachieving children in Singapore and Hong Kong, but I do have some idea of their Russian counterparts. After all, I was one of them, if lamentably long ago.

I went to a bog standard Moscow school, in no way an equivalent of a decent public school in England (the way they used to be, at any rate). The entry age was seven, and perhaps only about 10 per cent of the pupils knew how to read and write in first form.

But by the time we reached the same age group as the one involved in the test, everyone could read fluently, even the pupils teetering on the edge of mental retardation. Whether they read and especially what they read are different matters, but they all knew how.

Now, Russian may be a devilishly hard language for foreigners to learn, but reading it comes easily to native speakers because the language is phonetic: most words are spelled the way they are pronounced. English is different, and don’t get me started on Finnish and Hungarian.

So I’m not surprised that Russian pupils came out ahead of their English equivalents. I have no idea how those Russian children talk, other than being sure that adults have no problems understanding them.

But I refuse to believe that children who sound the way they do in our (rather affluent) neighbourhood ever read anything they aren’t forced to at school. I find it much easier to believe other studies, showing that some 75 per cent of our school leavers have reading difficulties.

Again, Descartes did say that all knowledge is comparative. I’m not sure I agree with the whole sweeping range of that statement, but the study in question certainly was comparative. If our children beat the French, it says more about French educational standards than ours.

While we are on the subject of English, I collect solecisms uttered by our sports commentators and from time to time share them with you. I focus on the speech of professional journalists, not ex-footballers.

The latter group grew up only ever using English to swear at referees, and they spent all their school years kicking either balls or their opponents. But sports reporters are my colleagues, people educated and trained to use English professionally.

That’s why, rather than unsportingly picking on the likes of Glenn Hoddle, a midfielder of genius but a walking thesaurus of solecisms, I concentrate on the other chaps in the commentators’ booth.

Two pearls I picked up recently reinforced my conviction that the use of long words must be licensed. First, a commentator spoke of a player who used to be a “young protégé at Chelsea”. Contextually, one has to believe he meant ‘prodigy’ – an easy mistake to make, for functional illiterates that is.

His colleague was talking about another player hitting a pass straight to an opponent who “received the gift gratuitously”. It took me a second to figure out how it’s possible to accept a misplaced pass wantonly or unnecessarily, before I realised that the fellow meant ‘gratefully’.

Admittedly, both ‘gratefully’ and ‘gratuitously’ come from the same Latin word, gratus. But somehow I doubt that hack was led astray by his perusing Virgil and Horace.

He was just providing an illustration to what some unkind philologists call ‘prole drift’ – the urge to use posh-sounding words to appear more sophisticated. My message to him is: “don’t be a bleedin’ smartarse”.

But at least we can take solace in the knowledge that the chap’s children know how to read, although probably not Virgil and Horace.

P.S. It’s not just sports journalists either. Speaking of the Troubles in Ireland, documentary director James Brummel said the English show a “shameful disinterest” in the subject. It’s ‘uninterest’, mate.