Have you ever been stopped dead by a headline?

“Were these diamonds mined by child labour, Madame?”

As a former copywriter, I appreciate newspaper headlines that land with knockout force. Two examples spring to mind.

One is from The New York Post of decades ago: HEADLESS BODY FOUND IN TOPLESS BAR. Another was a front-page single-word line in The Sun during the 1982 Falklands War, when a British submarine sank the Argentine cruiser Belgrano: GOTCHA!

Those two headlines stopped me all right, but they didn’t shock me. They didn’t make me sit up and say “Excuse me?!?” or “You can’t mean that!” That’s why I am grateful to The Mail that yesterday achieved all those feats with a 32-word headline.

The story was about King Charles’s visit to France, and specifically the banquet in his honour in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors. Even more specifically, the subject was the menu prepared by some of France’s top chefs. So here goes:

Insiders reveal the food King Charles has BANNED from French state visit banquet – and the reasons why (but mushrooms are on the menu because they remind him of Queen Elizabeth II)

It was the parenthetic phrase that went through me like a jolt. Really, Your Majesty? I understand that generational tensions exist in many families, and the royal one is no exception. But practically calling Her late Majesty a mushroom in public does take the brioche.

What exactly did the king mean? That his late mother was kept in the dark and fed on dung? Or something even worse? I’ve heard of lèsemajesté, but this is outrageous.

However, I must admit the headline had plenty of stopping power. It certainly stopped me, making me read the piece.

Thankfully, I was then able to heave a sigh of relief. The only sense in which mushrooms reminded His Majesty of his late mother was that she liked them. That’s why he endorsed a cep gratin, while at the same time vetoing some other suggestions.

I’ll let you in on a secret: I wasn’t really shocked by that headline. I instantly recognised it as an unfortunate turn of phrase, typical of today’s newspapers that seem to have dispensed with sub-editors and copy readers.

It’s King Charles’s vetoes that I found shocking. Had that happened before he acceded to the throne, I wouldn’t have been surprised. Prince Charles, as he was then, tilted to wokery so steeply that I’m amazed he never keeled over to his left.

However, since his accession Charles has shown few signs of his erstwhile leanings. He has deported himself with dignity and restraint, making me happy that my worst suspicions haven’t come true. Well, let me tell you: I rejoiced too soon.

First, His Majesty issued a royal interdict against foie gras, which featured on the proposed menu. He is deeply bothered by cruelty to ducks and geese that are force-fed to make their livers bigger and oh so delicious.

I wonder how the French swallowed that insult to their culinary tradition. Foie gras is their staple, as far as I can judge on the basis of my friends’ dinner parties. My French friends may not be perfect – who among us is? – but they are certainly not callous sadists who spend their time pulling wings off flies.

They don’t ponder the moral implications of some foods. Instead they are eternally grateful to God (or, barring that, to Joëlle, the best cook in our circle) for what they are about to receive.

The only thing they – and I – won’t eat out of principle is human flesh, and that’s how it should be. Imposing ethical standards that outdo the Biblical ones in severity goes hand in hand with flouting those that are actually mentioned there.

Yes, if you think about it, forcing corn down a bird’s gullet through a tube is cruel. So it’s best not to think about it – there exist much more momentous subjects for us to ponder. Such, for example, as the sustained effort to promote animal worship and revert to the darker periods of paganism.

As a result, half of our public school pupils, whose parents shell out up to £100,000 a year in tuition fees, think eating meat would make them fascists. Hunting, that traditional British sport, has been practically banned out of soppy concern for the wellbeing of foxes.

Speaking of which, King Charles has been shooting throughout his life. He’d have to explain to me why blowing a duck to bits with lead pellets or, even worse, winging the bird is less cruel than force-feeding it. I’m sure there must be a valid difference, but my moral gauge isn’t calibrated finely enough to perceive it.

One has to admit with some chagrin that the king’s injunction against foie gras is nothing but woke grandstanding designed to appeal to the very people who would destroy our monarchy in a second, given the chance.

Another item King Charles banned from the menu was asparagus. Can you guess why? Is it because the French prefer the white variety produced by growing the vegetable without sunlight? After all, keeping those stems in the dark may well be regarded as cruelty in some quarters. Imagine how asparagus must suffer and weep.

A good guess, that, but a wrong one. You see, asparagus is out of season in France. That’s why the delicacy would have had to be flown from elsewhere, at a terrifying cost to ‘our planet’.

Hence one has to assume that Their Majesties swam across the Channel and then walked from Calais to Versailles to attend the reception. No? They flew? I sob, thinking of the massive carbon footprint their plane left on ‘our planet’.

While we are at it, the £500 wines served at the banquet were between 10 and 20 years old. Just think of all the steel and fossil fuels that went into the machinery for planting and tending the vines, think of the electricity expended on keeping the wines at just the right temperature, of the trees that had to be felled to make the barrels, the glass factories polluting the atmosphere… .

His Majesty draws the line in such funny places that the seditious word hypocrisy refuses to leave my mind. Also, I wonder if his French hosts were offended by such pickiness. If they were, they certainly didn’t show it.

Other than that, the visit was a great success. His Majesty delivered a toast in a French that I had to admit was miles better than mine. And he was greeted with genuine enthusiasm everywhere he went.

That didn’t surprise me. The French, especially those of a certain class, are obsessed with our royalty. One detects a touch of envy there – by comparison any French president, and certainly the current one, comes across as a power-grubbing chancer devoid of the natural grandeur and dignity conferred by the throne. A bit like our prime minister, in other words.

Any conversation with our French friends and acquaintances inevitably gets to the royal family sooner or later. One senses that they find something missing in their post-revolutionary republic, although I doubt many of them would support the restoration of the Bourbons.

Years ago, when Sarkozy stood for president, I had an interesting exchange at our local market in France. A socialist activist tried to thrust a leaflet into my hand, which I rejected with disdain.

“So who are you going to vote for?” she asked with palpable hostility. “Sarkozy?” The way she asked that question suggested that such a choice would be morally identical to voting for Heinrich Himmler. When I said “non”, she was perplexed. “Who then?”

“Les Bourbons,” I replied, just to see that look on her face. Alas, that option wasn’t on the ballot. And I can’t vote in French elections anyway.

Britons are brainwashed green

In recent polls, Britons signalled their unwavering commitment to the 2050 net zero target set by Boris, or rather Carrie, Johnson.

Two thirds of us are deeply worried about climate change. Half think the government isn’t doing enough about it, while only 12 per cent find our policies too green.

Why do you suppose that is? Is it because some 50 million Britons have analysed reams of historical data on climate, read yards of books written by scientists who advocate global warming and those who regard it as a pernicious swindle? Have they then found the arguments pro more convincing than those con?

Don’t make me laugh. Given the truly egalitarian nature of our public education, most Britons don’t know their carbon dioxide from a holding midfielder. What the polls show isn’t the output of rational, educated minds. It’s yet another success of massive, cradle to grave indoctrination.

Whatever the colour of brainwashing – red, brown, rainbow or green – it will always succeed, given enough time, cash and all-out effort by our lumpen intelligentsia. At the moment, red and brown are applied only in their lighter hues. But lurid rainbow and green are being poured onto British brains by the bucketful, with the washing machine on full cycle.

Most British brains are scoured of any possibility of critical judgement on green policies. Hence our version of focus group democracy makes it impossible for any politician to attack the global warming swindle for the unscientific, ahistorical, ideologically inspired rubbish it is.

If any politician mentioned in Parliament that ‘our planet’ was warmer 2,000 years ago, when there were few SUVs about, and therefore anthropogenic factors have next to no effect on climate, that would be the last speech he’d ever make in that august institution. The opposition wouldn’t even have to bother. His own party would drum him out.

Now Rishi Sunak is a clever lad, and I’m sure he knows all that. That’s why he didn’t propose anything that would put an end to beggaring the country for the sake of a fad that wasn’t there yesterday and won’t be tomorrow.

By all means, he said, do let’s reduce Britain to penury if that’s what the people want. But not just yet. Let’s prolong the process, like cutting off a dog’s tail piece by piece, rather than all at once. This crude simile sums up his proposals.

Home Secretary Braverman explained that: “We are not going to save the planet by bankrupting the British people.” Not yet anyway, she forgot to add. She did say something that amounted to the same thing though: the government’s commitment to net zero “remains undimmed”.

The proposed steps include banning all petrol and diesel cars by 2035, not 2030, as Boris-Carrie promised. Phasing out not 100 per cent of all gas boilers (that is, most boilers in the country) but merely 80 per cent for now. Postponing new recycling laws that would make households use seven different bins. Not yet forcing people into car sharing and vegetarian diets.

Hardly revolutionary stuff, you’d think. But you’d think that only if you ignored the deafening outcry emanating not just from all the predictable sources but also from Mr Sunak’s own party.

Joining the chorus of indignant clamour is the motor industry, and I can understand its frustration. Many Britons felt the same way when the government first encouraged them to switch from petrol cars to diesel and then decided to penalise them for it.

In anticipation of the 2030 cut-off point, car companies, especially the American ones, have taken steps to phase out their production of IC vehicles, replacing them with electric ones. Now it turns out they jumped too soon.

As Lisa Brankin, chairman of Ford UK put it, “Our business needs three things from the UK Government, ambition, commitment, and consistency … a relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”

My heart bleeds for them. But perhaps if car companies had joined forces to stop all that Boris-Carrie nonsense in the first place, we wouldn’t find ourselves in the present situation.

Many MPs in Sunak’s Tory Party are also aghast. They are accusing him of seeking short-term political gain by trying to separate the party from Labour.

Perish the thought. Doesn’t Sunak realise that the ideal of modern democracy is a single-party state?

Parties should differ only in the names they assign to themselves and in the specific people they wish to see in power. God forbid they should differ in their political and moral philosophies, their understanding of public good.

That way some parties may deviate from the only true teaching, which is to say the only current teaching. From the general line, in other words, to persevere in the use of Stalinist terminology that suddenly feels so apposite.

Poor Rishi tried to defend himself by appealing to pragmatism and common sense. He even had the gall to say that delaying the cull of IC cars until 2035 would put Britain in line with EU policy.

But some Tory MPs would have none of that. We don’t want to be in line with the EU. We must race to the loony bin ahead of it, in this area if no other.

Lord Goldsmith put that in so many words:  “Around the world, one of the few areas where the UK really is looked up to is on climate and the environment. Today Sunak is dismantling that credibility, not by accident but by choice.”

Quite. Greta Thunberg will now think less of Rishi. There she was, hoping Britain was a smidgen better than the rest, only to find out it’s as committed to profiting from obliterating ‘our planet’ as all the other villains.

And Hilary McGrady, chief executive of the National Trust, said: “This would be a deeply depressing step. From flooding to wildfires we’re facing the impacts of climate change here and now. We need to step up ambition, not water it down.”

Watering down wildfires strikes me as a sound idea, but perhaps I’m missing something. Yet I do understand that Mrs McGrady and her ilk are ideologically committed to the notion that, before SUVs and aerosol sprays, flooding and fires never happened.

Never mind history and all that nonsense. Facts don’t matter; only ideology does. And ideology mandates that we must ignore all the great floods (starting with the one described in Genesis) and devastating fires that have always ravaged ‘our planet’.

Has Mrs McGrady heard of 1666? Perhaps not, come to think of it. Basic education would disqualify her from running the National Trust.

Glad I’ve got that off my chest before I have to go and cook the dinner. I’ll enjoy my roast collar of pork even more knowing that by eating it I’m doing irreparable damage to ‘our planet’.

What isn’t a joking matter?

What if someone told you that Jesus Christ was originally supposed to be named Gary, but then Mary stubbed her toe? Would you laugh?

Let’s face it: the joke is funny, and there is no reason for a non-Christian not to laugh. But what about a Christian?

To find out I’ve conducted a poll with one respondent, Penelope, and 100 per cent of my sample laughed quite sonorously. But afterwards the same 100 per cent regretted they – well, she – laughed at such a blasphemous quip.

Actually, the protagonist of that joke didn’t seem to mind such humour: “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.”*

Since the joke doesn’t mention the Holy Ghost, both I who told it and Penelope who laughed at it seem to be off the hook in that instance – ecclesiastically speaking. But forgetting eglesia for the time being, let’s return to the original question.

Is there anything that should be off-limits for humour? What shouldn’t be a joking matter? Anything?

Had you asked me this question 50 years ago, immediately after I left the Soviet Union for pastures free, I would have said no without thinking twice.

Growing up in constant need of protecting oneself against history’s most awful tyranny made one rely on humour as the only defensive bulwark. Since I left Moscow, I have never again witnessed such a profusion of jokes, both stock and impromptu.

Most conversations among Muscovites started with the words “Have you heard the one about…”. The joke to be unveiled could have been about anything, from Lenin and Stalin to the Holocaust or God.

The picaresque novels Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf (commissioned by the GPU from two very talented writers) were by far the most read – or certainly the most quoted – books. If a thesaurus of quotations existed in Russia, then those two titles would figure in it more densely than Shakespeare does in the English-language version.  

The novels’ main character was an inexhaustible font of funny lines. At a guess, at least one of them appeared in any conversation between two Muscovites within the first minute.

Add to this their original waggery, and one could be forgiven for believing that Muscovites were incapable of taking anything seriously. This though one could easily lose one’s career (in the previous generation, one’s life) for a political joke told within earshot of a KGB informer.

The line “it’s not a joking matter” was hardly ever heard (unless a known KGB informer was present), and I certainly never uttered it. So yes, my answer to the question in the title would have been a resounding “nothing”. There are no jokes, I would have explained, that are too rude, too blasphemous or too offensive. Jokes can only be either funny or unfunny. That’s all.

Would I give the same reply today? Probably. But with so many qualifications that the enquirer would regret he ever asked. So let me play devil’s advocate and argue against myself, as I was 50 years ago and even to some extent still am.

We may not show it, but every one of us has at least one sore point that could hurt if touched by a mocking line. Notice I said ‘could’, not ‘would’. Yes, some people wear such impenetrable armour at all times that they can’t be hurt by a joke.

Thus someone, say, whose daughter has died of anorexia may still laugh at a joke about anorexics (there exist plenty of those). Yet I’d suggest that beneath the laughter there would be some real pain that the man tried to mask with his mirth.

Even jokes at one’s own expense could hurt others. For example, when I was treated for a rather advanced cancer years ago, I said in mixed company that I was “trying to win the oncological argument”. However, there was a chap present who was going through the same ordeal, and he found the pun offensive. He called me a callous cynic, which I don’t think I am. (Both of us survived, by the way.)

Indeed, each of us does have at least one sore point we’d prefer to keep beyond the reach of humour. The problem is that this point is different for all of us.

Thus I could joke about cancer, even – especially – my own, but my interlocutor was hurt by such jokes. So perhaps I was wrong to apply my own standards to others.

This brings into question the Golden Rule, the one about doing unto others as you’d have others do unto you. Yes, but what if your tastes differ?

“A gentleman is a man who never gives offence unintentionally,” as Oscar Wilde could have said, but didn’t. If you accept this definition, then hardly anyone I know, especially myself, is a gentleman. My friends and I crack jokes all the time, thereby running the risk of offending someone unintentionally.

Moreover, my writing friends and I are perfectly capable of levity when broaching extremely serious subjects, such as first principles and last things. We assume that levity works better than gravity to make serious subjects palatable, yet I am sure that some unsmiling tight-arsed puritans may feel upset.

How, how often and when to joke are questions that should make us ponder the nature of art, in this case that of conversation and writing. Like all other arts, these rely heavily on a proper sense of balance.

Wax all ponderous, and you’ll bore people, especially when you are already taxing their mental resources by tackling highly involved subjects. Overdo humour and, even if no one is offended, you won’t be taken seriously. People won’t take a profound message from a clown.

If you accept that both conversationalists and writers are artists, then, just like in any other genre, there are good ones and bad ones. The good ones have an intuitive sense of balance, the bad ones don’t. Yet both should offend other people’s feelings only if they really mean to.

I’d suggest that, as one grows older, wiser and kinder, the legitimate targets for humour ought to get fewer and narrower. But God help us all if they disappear altogether – this world would become intolerable.

Alas, Britain is beginning to resemble the Soviet Union in that one can get into serious trouble over an inopportune joke.

For example, Russell Brand is the greatest problem the world seems to face today – so great it is that I was tempted to write a piece about him. I desisted though, feeling unable to add anything to the millions of words being disgorged every minute, both pro and mostly con.

Though Brand (one of the slimiest sleazebags I’ve ever had the misfortune to clap my eyes on) has never been convicted of any crime, nor even charged with one, he has already been tried and found guilty by ‘public opinion’, meaning social and other media.

The charges vary from sexual assault to out and out rape, and that revolting creature strikes me as capable of both. Still, I’ll withhold my judgement until he has been found guilty in a court of law.

But, germane to my subject today is one of the accusations that involves variously idiotic jokes with which Brand is supposed to have offended some especially sensitive individuals.

One would think that accusing a supposed rapist of a lousy sense of humour is like charging a murderer with jaywalking. Yet this is par for the modern course.

A rape is a crime committed against individuals or, if one listens to Brand’s detractors, several of them. On the other hand, a joke about, say, homosexuals strikes at the core of the modern ethos. Hence it stands to reason that it should claim pride of place next to seemingly more serious indictments – hell has no fury like the modern ethos scorned.

Oh well, enough of that. Have you heard the one about an Irishman, a Jew and a Pole walking into a bar…

* You may have noticed that all my scriptural quotes come from the King James Version, which is after all Protestant and I am not. It’s just that I think that, if we can’t read the Bible in the original, we should read it in the most beautiful English we can find – and never mind denominational squabbles.

Cull off the dogs

“Does this look like I’m smiling?”

If it’s true that dogs reflect their owners’ personalities, then the streets of Britain are overrun with latent murderers inclined to cannibalism.

Last year there were 22,000 cases of dogs causing injuries, 10 of them fatal. One plastic surgeon in Slough (p. 158,000) says he treats an average of two people mauled by dogs every week.

He isn’t talking about cosmetic bites either: the injuries inflicted by dogs were like “gunshot wounds”, with bone, muscle and tendons “hanging out all over the place”.

The surgeon singled out American Bully XL dogs as the principal culprits, and three days ago two of them justified that distinction by mauling a man to death.

That breed is responsible for some 70 per cent of dog-related fatalities, but other breeds do their level best too. Staffordshire bull terriers, pit bulls and rottweilers also score high, and even good old Dobermans, no longer employed as death camp guards, make their modest contribution.

In response to the latest fatal attack, PM Sunak said American Bullies would be banned before the end of the year, which announcement had a distinct taste of déjà vu about it. It was back in 1991 that the Dangerous Dog Act was passed, with the Home Secretary at the time, Kenneth Baker, vowing to “rid the country of the menace of those fighting dogs”.

In the intervening 32 years the menace in question has increased exponentially, as has the number of dogs specifically bred for violence. That reinforces my suspicion that most laws passed by modern governments actually encourage the activity they are supposed to eliminate.

Lord Baker, still going strong, has responded to the latest lethal attack by insisting that all American Bullies should be “neutered or destroyed”, with those left alive muzzled at all times.

Personally, I think that, once the news value of the most recent fatality has diminished, nothing of substance will be done. The fact that Lord Baker still pronounces on this subject 32 years after the Act establishes a continuity of inactivity, and there is little to suggest that the government will mend its ways.

In fact, rather than having their savage beast neutered, some owners inject them with steroids to make them even more murderous. This reminds me of a National Rifle Association bumper sticker: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”.

Since such dogs are clearly meant to be weapons, they should be treated as guns whenever they cause an injury. Unlike guns, however, they may kill on their own initiative, which makes them even more objectionable.

For that reason I suggest that all breeds known to have been guilty of lethal attacks be summarily culled. The case for such a measure is much stronger than for banning firearms, which after all don’t fire unless someone pulls the trigger.

Laws against dog violence should be directed not just at the dogs but also at their owners. Anyone whose dog causes an injury should be convicted of assault. If the injury is serious, the charge should be GBH; if a death results, murder.

The next obvious measure would be a law making it obligatory that all dogs – and not just the most dangerous ones – must be muzzled and on a lead in public places. Even the cuddliest of puppies can inflict wounds, and I have a scar on my finger to prove the point.

All dogs, and not just those bred for this purpose, are dangerous, but what really interests me here is the mentality of their owners. Why would most Britons want to own a dog?

Some 85 per cent of us live in towns and cities. I’d venture a guess that most of our urban dwellers reside in flats or terraced houses, and even those few who live in detached houses typically don’t have large gardens. Hence dogs have to be taken walkies, typically in crowded streets.

That creates a target-rich environment for the dogs and a rather unpleasant duty for their owners. But picking up dog excrement off the pavement is only one payment for the pleasure of owning a dog.

Dogs reduce the owners’ mobility because it’s impossible to take a dog on most trips. The upkeep of a dog is also jolly expensive, running to thousands every year, and that’s even before we consider the vet bills.

Nor can it be much fun for the animals themselves, especially the bigger ones. Rather than running through fields, woods or at least large gardens, they stay cooped up indoors all day, totally dependent on their owners for food and water or a breath of fresh air, and in general unable to look after themselves.

A recent poll provides a worrying explanation of why a third of UK households share their quarters with a dog. Two out of three respondents say their dog is their best friend, and a quarter prefer their pet to their other half. Asked why they felt that way, 60 per cent said that, unlike their spouses or lovers, dogs don’t judge and like to cuddle.

On that criterion, an old tweed jacket can do just as well. It’s warm, cuddly and wouldn’t even think of judging anyone living in mortal fear of being found wanting.

Since I don’t like dogs, I wouldn’t mind in the least if all them were put down. But I realise that some people may regard this solution as too radical. Then again, some dogs have a legitimate job to do: they can guide blind people through the streets, do guard duties, retrieve the ducks or grouse their owners shoot.

Dogs have always abounded in Britain, as any number of old paintings can testify. But until recently, when people stopped fearing the judgement of God and began to fear the judgement of other people, most dogs worked for a living.

They certainly used not to be treated with soppy sentimentality, with which modern people replace true sentiment. In fact, some of my good friends have been known to use dogs, emetically, as surrogate children. But none of such dogs had a killing pedigree. They were all dachshunds, Yorkies, Jack Russells or some fluffy creatures no bigger than a large rat.

Those of my friends who shoot, some of them compulsively, use dogs bred for that activity, mostly Golden Retrievers. These people treat their dogs better than the other group, training and disciplining them without ever trying to indulge in foreplay.

Yet in my lamentably long life I’ve never known anyone who owned a fighting dog, which suggests that group is drawn from a different social stratum. In fact, whenever I see such an animal in the street, its owner invariably sports tattoos and a feral expression to match his pet’s.

That, I suspect, is why nothing has been – nor will ever be – done about violent dogs, for all the laws to that effect. Any enforced ban would be seen as directed specifically against the downtrodden, which would escalate the class war waged in the media.

Any American Bully owner wishing to keep his dog could emphasise his humble origins and also claim homosexuality, gender fluidity and some racial admixtures. He could then inject his pets with steroids and watch it maul another victim with impunity. “It’s all society’s fault, M’lord”.

Just how free is our free enterprise?

Walter Rathenau got his wish

The other day a reader of my piece on China commented, correctly, that enterprise in China isn’t really free. Yes, but is ours?

For one thing, unlike conservative economists, men at the cutting edge of free enterprise don’t believe in competition. Quite the opposite, they’d like to nip it in the bud by bankrupting every business but their own.

A free entrepreneur par excellence can exist today only in a start-up mode, or else at the level of a corner sandwich shop. Once his business has become successful, his thoughts gravitate towards putting an end to competitive activity. He wants to put competition out of business.

At that end of economic thought he is greeted with a fraternal embrace by his brother the democratic bureaucrat who, for his part, used to believe in pluralism while he was clawing his way up the party ladder. Now he has reached the top, pluralism means only one thing to him: a threat to his position. The modern brothers recognise their kinship and have no difficulty in striking a corporatist partnership.

For all the Sherman Acts and Monopolies Commissions in the world, big business has to gravitate towards monopoly – one of the few things Marx got right. That is, he was right in his observation but not in his explanation.

Class has no role to play here – one of the many things Marx got wrong. Modernity prays at the altar of uniformity, and it melts down any class differences until they are reduced to quaint idiosyncrasies. Every modern class tends to gravitate towards an amorphous middle.

What drives the modern businessman towards monopoly is the same utilitarian impulse that paradoxically drives many aristocrats towards socialism: they know that putting the clamps on the socially dynamic strata of the population will prevent any serious competition appearing.

Here the businessman’s longings converge with those of his employees who tend to act as a collectivist bloc and have a vested interest in keeping companies as big as possible.

Their motivation is old-fashioned envy coupled with the deep-seated belief that it’s possible for some to rise only at the expense of others falling. By the same token, the ruling political bureaucracy also has a vested interest in keeping businesses as large, and consequently as few, as possible for this will make control easier and more total.

In short, the only people who do believe in unvarnished free enterprise are big businessmen waiting to happen, those who are still climbing towards the summit and don’t want their rope cut. Once they have got to the top, they will realise the error of their ways and start acting accordingly.

Another dynamic at work here is a tendency towards the globalisation of business, closely mirroring a similar trend in modern politics. Like modern life in general, business tends to lose its national roots. In the absence of protectionist tariffs, known to be counter-productive at least since the time of David Ricardo, an aspiration to monopoly drives a big business towards foreign expansion ad infinitum, which is another form of protectionism but one that doesn’t provoke retaliation in kind.

This megalomania, along with a tendency to dissipate ownership by financing expansion through stock market flotation, leads to a situation where ‘free enterprise’ becomes neither. The ‘capitalist’, Marx’s bogeyman, is eliminated in modern Western societies as efficiently as he used to be shot in communist ones.

Most international corporations are neither run nor controlled by capitalists, if we define the breed as the owners of capital (or of ‘the means of production’). That type, rather than having been created by the Industrial Revolution, was killed by it, albeit by delayed action.

Today’s captains of industry don’t necessarily own the capital of which they dispose, and they don’t live or die by their success or failure. The risks they venture are usually taken with other people’s money, and they stand to gain untold fortunes by achieving success, while personally risking next to nothing in case of failure. If they fail, they take the king’s ransom of redundancy and either move on to the next bonanza or, should they so choose, retire to a paradise of philistine comfort.

Qualities required for a rise through modern corporations are different from those needed in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. They are, however, close to those required for careers in government bureaucracies.

This is partly due to the growing disparity between the ever-expanding outlook of the management and the ever-narrowing outlook of the specialists who make the products. In the old days, someone who designed bridges could advance to the next rung in his company by demonstrating ability. Once he got there, he continued to design bridges, but with added responsibilities.

People at the top rung thus came from the same stock as those several steps below, although their duties were different. Not so modern corporations.

Growing specialisation creates a different situation: the people in production represent a different breed from those in the boardroom. The latter are hardly ever drawn from the former. Most leaders of giant modern corporations come from legal, sales or marketing, rather than manufacturing, backgrounds.

Curiously, when Marx wrote Das Kapital, the gulf between workers and management could still be bridged by hard work and ingenuity. The industrial conditions imagined by Marx were in fact a self-fulfilling prophecy: it’s only when some of his ideas were acted upon that an unbridgeable chasm appeared between the corporatist management and the narrowly specialised labour force.

Even as modern governments grow more corporatist, so, tautologically, do actual corporations. A new élite is thus formed, and it’s a homogeneous group whose members are indistinguishable from one another regardless of whether their original background was business or politics. Witness the ease with which they switch from the corporate to the government arena and back, especially if they come from the international end of either.

The spiritual father of the breed was Walter Rathenau, Managing Director of German General Electric and also Foreign Minister in the early 1920s. One of the leading theoreticians and practitioners of corporate socialism, he prophesied that, “The new economy will… be… a private economy [which] will require state co-operation for organic consolidation to overcome inner friction and increase production and endurance.”

Here was the original politician cum businessman, and it was poetic justice when he was murdered in 1922, 11 years before his dream became a reality in Germany, and by the same people who made it so.

As their budgets begin to rival Belgium’s GNP, international corporations forge even closer links with financial institutions. The latter form part of the corporatist-government world not just by inclination but by statute, having to forge a unity with the quasi-independent set-ups that control the money supply.

Organisations like the Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, Deutsche Bank and Banque de France are more independent of their national governments than they are of one another. Like modern businessmen and politicians, they don’t feel they owe loyalty to their people, much less to any moral principles. Their loyalty is pledged to the international élite that increasingly supersedes national interests.

All this goes to show yet again how woefully inadequate our customary terminology is to the task of describing modernity. ‘Capitalist’, ‘socialist’, ‘Right’, ‘Left’ – and yes, ‘free enterprise’ have become imprecise anachronisms.

A new glossary is needed, and my starter for 10 was in my book How the West Was Lost, from which much of today’s article is taken.

Elon Musk’s principle$

Dr Lambroso would have a field day

It’s good to see that Elon Musk doesn’t limit his interests simply to his day job, piling billions one on top of another.

In fact, he not only holds firm opinions on a broad range of foreign policy issues, but also translates words into actions. That goes beyond his obvious remit, but who says the world’s richest man should do anything obvious?

A few weeks ago, for example, he refused to allow the Ukraine to use his Starlink satellite internet system for an attack on the Crimea, which slowed down the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Such an attack, explained Mr Musk, would “start a major war”, something it was his duty to prevent.

A lesser man would have been tempted to coordinate that decision with his government. But fair enough, the US government itself seems to have an ambivalent position on any serious Ukrainian advances.

Where it is unequivocal is in its commitment to Taiwan’s independence. How firm that commitment will remain if tested by China’s military action is open to debate, but the official position is unmistakable.

Yet Musk is, or at least perceives himself to be, above such incidentals. He endorses China’s claim to Taiwan, and does so in the exact language of Chinese communists.

Talking to the FT a year ago, he opined that Taiwan should become a “special administrative zone” of China, like Hong Kong. And the other day he expanded on that position in a speech.

“Their policy has been to reunite Taiwan with China,” he said. “From their standpoint, maybe it is analogous to Hawaii or something like that, like an integral part of China that is arbitrarily not part of China mostly because the US Pacific fleet has stopped any sort of reunification effort by force.”

Now Hawaii is a state in the American Union, not its “special administrative zone”. Thus Mr Musk has hardened his pro-China stance into insisting that Taiwan shouldn’t even rate a quasi-independent status.

He is right that it’s mainly the US military muscle that has so far checked communist aggression in the region, although Taiwan itself is no slouch in matters martial. The lines are drawn in the sand, or rather the Strait. The US and the rest of NATO are on one side, communist China on the other. There’s little doubt of which side Mr Musk is on.

Before I comment on the little typographic trick in the title above, let’s look at some possible metaphysical reasons for Mr Musk’s seeming affection for today’s two most pernicious dictatorships.

I’ve known several magnates who have built major companies from the ground up, although none of them was an empire builder on anywhere near Musk’s scale. They were different men in many respects. But one trait they all had in common, apart from an insatiable ambition to succeed, was dictatorial tendencies.

Those men all achieved great power within their own bailiwicks, sometimes even beyond them. And worship of power, accompanied by the reluctance to share even a particle of it, either became their distinguishing character trait or had been just that from the beginning.

I don’t know if Musk is Left or Right, I’m not sure he knows it himself. In the past two elections he voted for Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, though these days he mostly supports the Republicans. But he clearly extends his suspicion of pluralism from business to politics.

Psychologically, he must feel kinship with men who exercise raw power, without wasting time on counterproductive chinwags. If he could run a Western country, such as the US, that’s how he’d prefer to run it.

This, however, is only a guess, a homespun attempt at psychological profiling. What is a fact – and this is where the title above gets clear – is that China manufactures some 75 per cent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries and about 50 per cent of all Teslas.

Amicus Xi, sed magis amica pecunia, to paraphrase the well-known saying ever so slightly, although I doubt Musk wastes too much of his valuable time on bowdlerising Latin adages. Given his intimate business links with China, I suspect he’d be parroting China’s policy statements even if they didn’t strike a chord in his heart. Xi may be his friend, but money is a greater one.

Now, a catastrophic nuclear war can break out for any number of reasons and in any number of places. But by far the greatest two threats to the survival of the world are Putin’s Russia, with her aggression against the Ukraine, and communist China, with her hunger to gobble up Taiwan.

At this time, China is undergoing an unprecedented military build-up in the region, with one of her two aircraft carriers detected 60 miles from Taiwan. For an American, even one of recent vintage, to make pro-communist and anti-Taiwan statements at this time is borderline treasonous, but then Musk is a law unto himself.

For a man who self-admittedly suffers from the Asperger syndrome, he certainly has a broad range of interests. Thus Musk has seen few conspiracy theories he couldn’t love, Covid in particular having caught his fancy in recent time.

Musk sees global warming as the greatest threat to humanity, with AI and declining birth rates running in hot pursuit. Hence he advocates a universal carbon tax, obviously feeling that hoi polloi are grossly undertaxed at present.

I’m not sure what he intends to do about AI, but his proposed solution to the ongoing depopulation of “our planet” strikes me as somewhat illogical. For one thing, seeing that the world’s population has increased by two billion in the past 20 years, one has to question how bad the depopulation problem really is.

But then what Musk proposes is to turn our civilisation into an interplanetary one by taking millions of people and putting them on Mars, which, as Musk correctly observes, “has zero human population”. One reason for this is that it may not be fit for human habitation, but in any case Musk’s proposal of removing large numbers of people to Mars would reduce the world’s population, not increase it.

Obviously, even his multiple businesses aren’t big enough to contain Musk’s ego. He wants to be a world, or even interplanetary, statesman. Best of luck to him, but I’d hate to live in a world set up according to Musk’s ideas. But that’s only me.

Our unions miss the Soviet Union

Mike Lynch on the barricades of class war

Three major unions opposed the motion to condemn Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. That yet again makes one wonder about the validity of our political taxonomy.

According to it, most Western supporters of Putin’s brand of fascism straddle the far Right edge of politics. Now, whatever else our unions in general and the three dissenting ones in particular can be accused of, right-wing sympathies aren’t it.

In fact, the leaders of the Transport Union (RMT), the Education Union (NEU) and the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) would fit as snugly at a congress of the Soviet Communist Party as they do at our own Trade Union Congress.

I don’t subscribe to the theory that opposites attract. When they do, they aren’t really opposites, even if they seem that way. It’s just that the common thread running through them may be hard to discern.

The lunatic fringes at either end of the political spectrum are opposite only terminologically. In essence, they are ideological twins, united by their common hatred of the West and hence common adoration of any foreign enemy. For example, in France both the extreme, Trotskyist Left of Mélenchon and the extreme fascisoid Right of Le Pen are dedicated Putinistas.

In this case, the three extreme Left union leaders repeat word for word the pronouncements of supposed right-wingers or even such self-proclaimed conservatives as a certain Mail columnist. And both groups sing from the hymn sheet composed at the Kremlin.

Thus the three unions, fronted by RMT leader Mike Lynch, castigated the “imperialist interests” on “both sides”, which is why we shouldn’t be arming the Ukraine’s “far right”. Now, what we must remember about extremists of any kind is that even those few capable of thinking before talking never take the trouble to do so.

That Russia is bent on imperialist expansion is indeed self-evident. But can Mr (Comrade?) Lynch name a single action of the Ukraine or a single statement by her government that testifies to imperialist ambitions? He can’t – nobody can.

Britain arms the Ukrainian people – regardless of their politics – desperately fighting for their country’s survival. Suggesting it’s only the “far right” that’s opposing Russian fascism would be a sign of ignorance if it weren’t one of visceral subversiveness.

FBU representative Jamie Newell added that: “We do not believe the escalation of war offers anything to the working class in Russia and Ukraine.

“Whilst the motion mentions opposition to imperialism and imperialist interests, they exist in both sides of this conflict… During this year’s congress, we’ve heard about the rise of the far right – these elements exist in both Russia and Ukraine.

“We oppose these groups and we do not support arming them now only for them to become a threat in the future.”

Mr Newell seems to see the war of Russian aggression as an extension of the eternal struggle between proletarians and capitalists. I appreciate that this lot can only think in Marxist terms, but applying them to the situation in hand is simply cretinous.

The motion to condemn Russia, explained Mr Newell, must be rejected because it would “only serve to line us up with a Tory Government who is waging class warfare against our people…” Mr Marx, call your office.

Such an impassioned oration deserved a rousing finale, and it duly arrived: “Common interests of Ukrainian and Russian people are not served by our country providing military and practical aid. Remember that a bayonet is a weapon with a worker at both ends.”

Ukrainian and Russian people, Mr Newell, have no common interests, certainly at this time, when Russian fascists are murdering hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in a war of naked aggression.

And where in the history of modern warfare did he find proof of only workers being at the end of a bayonet? In fact, during the First World War, the greatest civilisation catastrophe of the West, the British upper classes suffered disproportionately higher casualty rates.

Modern wars, unlike those of the past, involve the whole nations. If the West stops arming the Ukrainian nation, it will be overrun by the Russian one. Would that be in the interest of the Ukrainians?

Mike Lynch, when he isn’t busy paralysing the country with crippling transport strikes, peddles Putin’s propaganda with gusto, without even bothering to change the exact words. In a recent interview, he explained that the EU “provoked a lot of the trouble in Ukraine”, which caused the Russian invasion.

And – be ready to throw up your arms in horrified disbelief – “There were a lot of corrupt politicians in Ukraine. And while they were doing that, there were an awful lot of people [there] playing with Nazi imagery… and all that.”

The parties that attract chaps playing with Nazi imagery poll between one and three per cent in the Ukrainian elections and between 20 and 25 per cent in Russia. And yes, the Ukraine does have her fair share of corrupt politicians, as does Russia.

The difference is that all Russian politicians are corrupt and evil because they condone and promote an evil war. Their Ukrainian counterparts, on the other hand, are inspiring and leading the noble effort of keeping Russian fascism at bay, defending not only their country but all of Europe against the invasion of barbaric hordes from the east.

This brings me back to my original point about extreme right and extreme left converging to such an extent that one has to consider abandoning our political terminology. The real confrontation isn’t about Right and Left, Tories and Labour, Republicans and Democrats.

It’s about good and evil, which seldom exist in undiluted form. Today’s West, for example, for all its moral decadence, cultural death wish and intellectual vacuity, is still relatively good – and certainly good in what Aristotle called potentiality.

Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, represents pure, unalloyed evil – as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Mao’s China did in the past, as North Korea and Xi’s China do at present. And in any clash between relative good and absolute evil, all decent people must be on the right side.

That category, by the looks of it, doesn’t include some of our union leaders. They provide one of many arguments in favour of abolishing the unions, as a clear anachronism at odds with modern economies. But we’ll discuss this at some other time.

A friend in need

As Xi is looking on…

Kim Jong-un and Putin met at Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Far East, and it was a meeting of minds and souls.

After a record-breaking 40-second handshake, Kim promised Putin his unwavering support in Russia’s “sacred fight” against the West. He was “sure that the Russian army and people will win against evil”, and he was eager to form with Russia a single “anti-imperialist” front.

There is nothing new about this phraseology. It comes straight from the communist phrasebook in circulation since the early 1950s, when the West began to live in fear of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets.

Now the language is back, as is the situation that inspired it. Russia is no longer communist, technically speaking, North Korea still is, as is China. Yet the word “evil” used by Kim should emphasise how meaningless political nomenclatures are.

‘Communism’, ‘socialism’, various brands of ‘democracy’, ‘capitalism’ – none of these rubrics comes close to designating the subcutaneous reality of the modern world. That is the never-ending clash between good and evil, in which no compromise is possible and no middle ground exists.

In this case, the ultimate confrontation is between the West, good relatively speaking, and the new axis of absolute evil: fascist Russia and communist North Korea, both increasingly controlled by communist China. Kim’s view of who plays the evil part is different, but he understands the dichotomy.

Alas, the West no longer thinks in such absolutist categories. That’s a mistake, for not knowing where the battle lines are drawn puts one at a disadvantage.

I’m sure Kim Jong-un feels like a top dog, being mentioned as an equal in that company. Although, considering his people’s culinary preferences, he probably wouldn’t use this particular canine expression.

For decades North Korea has been a client state of the Soviet Union and China, a poor relation totally dependent on the adjacent evil empires for her supply of weapons, food and just about everything else. Yet now Putin, heir to the USSR, comes to Kim with an outstretched hand, begging for artillery shells and anti-tank missiles. Kim must be puffed up with pride, with the puffing up hard to miss in his photographs.

He also has enough animal smarts to know he is in a unique bargaining position, vis-à-vis not only Russia, but also the West. I can almost hear Kim’s singsong: “That’s gonna cost you…”

It’s definitely quid pro quo. If Korean weapons are the quid, then what’s the quo? In addition to the cash on the nail payment for the weapons, it’s almost certainly transfer of Russian nuclear and rocket technology. Since Kim already brags about having an ICBM that can reach the American coast, Putin could equip it with a rather nasty payload.

The traditional Western diplomacy based on sanctions has always been ineffective and in this case it’s especially impotent. Kim doesn’t fear sanctions because he is already under every conceivable one. And the Russians, though undoubtedly hurt by Western sanctions, have learned to get around them, with a little help from their Chinese friends.

Hence Kim can now send a quiet message to the West: if you don’t want me to replenish Putin’s stockpiles, remove the sanctions.

I wouldn’t put it past our craven leaders to accept such a deal, which would enable Kim to develop nuclear weapons even without Putin’s help. One way or the other, places like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan may soon become too dangerous for human habitation.

There is room in foreign relations for nuanced attempts to explore various hues between black and white. But there also ought to be room for not doing so. Ronald Reagan understood that, which is why he openly spoke of the axis of evil.

Today’s Western leaders think they can talk their way out of trouble, find a path to lasting peace so far unexplored. But they are wrong about that: the path of appeasement or at best half-hearted resistance is well-trodden.

The only way to start dealing with the current evil the way it should be dealt with is supplying the Ukraine with everything she needs to win this war. Should that happen, Putin’s regime would probably collapse. Russia would no longer need Kim’s ordnance, and he wouldn’t be able to blackmail the West.

That is relatively easy, or would be if Reagan and Thatcher were still around. The problem of China is much more serious, and it’s all the West’s fault. We have systematically built up China, turning it into a monster with realistic ambitions to dominate the world.

Part of it was the West’s inertia, not to say cowardice. Yet also coming into play was the problem I mentioned earlier: the inability to comprehend the nature – indeed the existence – of unvarnished evil.

Coupled with that was the misplaced belief in the redemptive power of free enterprise. The West believed that, once China privatised much of her economy and began to compete in the free market, she would become a country just like us. She would remain communist only nominally, the way Britain is Christian.

All those decades of confrontation with communism taught no lesson to the West, but then history never does. We still refuse to acknowledge the evil nature of any communist regime, with or without free enterprise. And evil regimes pursue evil ends – history serves up no exceptions to this rule.

When China began to adopt a pragmatic, that is deceptively pro-Western, approach to the economy, sighs of relief were heard throughout Western governments. The Chinese are like us, hedonistic, money-mad chaps free of any ideology, whatever language they use in domestic communications.

Although we had a vested, vital interest in keeping China as weak as possible, we have systematically built her up to her present status of a global power with far-reaching imperial ambitions.

Disengaging China from the world economy now would be practically impossible. Instead the West has to pump all the profits made from trade with China, multiplied by orders of magnitude, into arming itself against the Chinese threat. For all I know, it may already be too late, and in any case no appetite for such an effort is discernible.

‘Pragmatic’ voices in Washington, London and other Western capitals are talking about creating a new, Sino-Western, world order. They want to sup with the devil, forgetting that no spoon will ever be long enough.

China is effectively turning both Russia and North Korea into her vassals, thus gaining immense geopolitical clout. She is already getting Russian natural resources at half the price, and she is already colonising the Russian Far East and Siberia at an ever-increasing pace.

North Korea can act as China’s stormtroopers, ready to pounce on designated enemies when China decides the time is right. And meanwhile Kim is talking on even terms with Putin, the luxury his grandfather, Kim I, couldn’t afford when talking to Khrushchev or Brezhnev.

We live in fraught times, ladies and gentlemen. It’s time we began to do something about that in earnest before we find out exactly how fraught.

Guess where I was yesterday

You aren’t going to win any prizes: the west façade of Reims Cathedral is unmistakable.

For what it’s worth, I find it the most beautiful west façade in Christendom. Its perfect proportions and stylistic unity testify to the advantages of building the whole thing at roughly the same time.

Unlike, say, Rouen Cathedral, Reims was built over a few decades of the late 13th, early 14th century, rather than passing from one generation of builders and stonemasons to the next for centuries on end.

Other than its aesthetic aspect, Reims Cathedral plays a vital role in Western history. French kings were traditionally crowned there – including the Merovingian king Clovis, generally regarded as the first French monarch because he brought all the Frankish principalities together.

Actually, Clovis (d. 511) was crowned in the original church on the same site that was destroyed by fire in the 13th century. More important, it was there that Clovis converted himself and proto-France to Christianity in 496 AD.

In common with many European princes, he was browbeaten into conversion by his wife, Clotilde. In general, Christianity owes its universal spread to women at least as much as to men, perhaps even more so.

Men like Clovis stubbornly clung to their paganism because it suited their temperaments better. It took the gentle, civilising touch of women like St Clotilde to lead them to Christ. Characteristically, Clotilde was officially canonised, but Clovis never was – it was only by popular acclaim that he got to be known as St Clovis.

(There is an argument there somewhere that women don’t have to be ordained to play a vital role in Christianity. But that’s for another day.)

Like most great Romanesque and Gothic buildings, Reims Cathedral bears the stigmata of modernity. In fact, the medievalist Régine Pernoud estimates that some 80 per cent of all such buildings were destroyed in France during the Revolution and – which is less known – the following century. Add to that the Reformation before and the two world wars after that mayhem, and it’s amazing that any great architecture is left standing.

One can only imagine what France would look like if we could admire 100 per cent of the beauty that keeps us spellbound even after such attrition. That’s what I invariably tell my friends who badmouth the French, a popular sport in both England and the US: the people who created such treasures can’t be all bad. And don’t get me started on their wine and cheese…

Reims Cathedral didn’t escape its share of barbaric destruction: the Germans heavily shelled it several times during the First World War, and it took much intricate restoration to return the cathedral to its original splendour.

But not quite: the expertise required to replace the smashed stained glass with replicas had been lost. Rather than simply putting in plain glass, as a reminder of modern vandalism, the powers that be invited Marc Chagall to create his own version of stained glass. That produced a jarring visual dissonance, suggesting that the French had lost not only their ability to make stained glass but also much of their taste.

After the war, the Germans staged a show of regret, putting it all down to an accident. But it wasn’t; they were acting in character. Those cannoneers were Modern Men, the sociocultural type brought about by the hatred of Christendom and everything it produced.

This kind of hatred was trenchantly described by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, whose testimony of modern Germany under and before the Nazis is exceptionally moving. In his book Diary of a Man in Despair, he recalls General Ludendorff, effectively in command of the German forces in the First World War, ordering the destruction of Coucy castle.

That priceless treasure of Western past had no military significance to either side. And yet Ludendorff ordered the castle razed. “He hated Coucy,” writes Reck, “because he hated everything which lay outside his barracks view of life – spirit, taste, elegance, everything that gives distinction to life.” Everything produced by Christianity, I would have been tempted to add.

This kind of hatred must be capable of releasing immense energy, for it produced Modern Man and weaned him to maturity on the congealing red liquor that is his favoured sustenance. And lest you may think I have it in specifically for the Germans, they aren’t the only culprits.

Again one has to go no farther than France to find proof of that. Towards the end of July, 1944, when the Allies enjoyed air supremacy on the Western front, the RAF bombed and seriously damaged the 11th century cathedral at Nevers, in our part of France. (Alas, it was never restored as seamlessly as Reims.)

That was a low-altitude daytime raid, and yet the pilots explained they had mistaken the cathedral for the railway junction several miles away. I’m no expert in aerial bombardment, but it seems to me a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral looks rather different from a smallish railway station even from a couple of thousand feet.

In fact, those pilots neither loved nor even respected the culture that celebrated itself, God and humanity by erecting that magnificent structure. The “bombs away” command was a scream of hatred for Christendom and all its creations.

Such thoughts flashed through my mind yesterday, as Penelope was taking the touristy shot above. I had no time for more involved thought – we still had 300 miles to go, and all that wine at lunch was making me sluggish.

Amsterdam, twinned with Sodom and Gomorrah

Window shopping, anyone?

One man’s freedom is another’s man’s licence; one man’s licence is another man’s degeneracy. Where does one end and the other begin? If you ever wonder about this, Amsterdam can provide a useful visual aid.

Some 23 million overnight tourists will have visited the place this year, and one is tempted to compliment their good taste.

The city has some of the world’s best residential architecture, a beautiful frame for the picturesque canals. The Rijksmuseum’s collection is a pilgrimage site for lovers of 17th century art. The Van Gogh Museum is a magnetic attraction for lovers of, well, Van Gogh. The nearby Keukenhof tulip farm is a revelation for lovers of exuberant floral creativity.

No wonder all those lovers of 17th century art, Van Gogh and tulips flock to Amsterdam in such numbers. Those highlights are simply not to be missed.

Oh well, they do flock. But in nowhere near such numbers, and any compliments on the tourists’ good taste would be premature. For the 23-million horde is mainly made up of dissipated youngsters attracted by the window brothels of Amsterdam’s red light district and the drugs freely served in designated cafés.

Walk through the Oudekennissteeg, the oldest part of central Amsterdam, and a parade of variously hideous half-naked prostitutes will be smiling at you seductively from every window. They do get plenty of custom, though their commitment to fair trade is distinctly understated.

As a former colleague of mine found out the hard way, or not so hard as the case was, what you see in the window isn’t necessarily what you get when you step inside (I’ll spare you the details). In fact, those scantily clad young ladies often relate to the actual goods the way an ad for a cheap car relates to its road performance.

I started going to Amsterdam more or less regularly some 35 years ago, to visit friends. Yet even back then, during a more hormonally active period of my life, I couldn’t imagine being attracted to such tawdry promises of gratification.

But then I wasn’t what admen call the target audience. That group, on purely visual evidence, consists of young, tattooed, facially-metalled chaps either drunk or high on drugs or typically both. Judging by their accents, most of them come from Britain’s northern counties, although I can’t claim access to the relevant statistics.

Once, again in the company of my advertising colleagues, I peeked into one of those coffee shops that specialised in things other than coffee. My visit lasted about a minute, which is how long it took me to make a mental note that the place looked just like the opium dens Sherlock Holmes patronised.

The barely lit room was full of people, mostly but not exclusively under 40, smoking cannabis or munching hash cookies. They were like spooky mirages floating in and out of the dense smoky fog. Even if I used drugs, which I never did, I wouldn’t have wanted to do them in such a place, for the same reason I wouldn’t have wanted to partake of the goods advertised in window brothels.

My problem with such places isn’t so much moral as aesthetic. They are fine to look at from afar, as a way of satisfying one’s morbid interest in skirting around the seedy part of life. Yet no one with a modicum of taste would want to swap the role of casual spectator for that of active participant.

Prostitution and drugs inevitably become the foundation on which a vast criminal superstructure is built. Pimps, thuggish bouncers, pushers of harder drugs than cannabis, muggers, pickpockets all buzz around the red light district like bluebottles around a cowpat.

That creates an air of decadence cum degeneracy, so much more jarring against the background of beautiful terraces of 16th and 17th century houses lining scenic canals. Harm and charm fighting each other, with the former winning.

My friends who live there hate seeing their city overrun with mobs of drunk, drugged up Britons howling through the night and throwing up on the towpaths of the scenic canals. Yet my friends accept that outrage with stoic acquiescence: such things just are. The way of the world, in Amsterdam at any rate, or in any other port city.

Yet Femke Halsema, the mayor of Amsterdam, has found a solution, or so she thinks. She wants to get the prostitutes out of the windows and put them all into an ‘erotic centre’ skyscraper elsewhere in the city.

That would act as a sex factory or one-stop shopping centre for prostitution, pornography, erotic aids, pole dancing, live sex shows and everything else a juvenile vulgarian may desire. All very modern, industrialised, centralised, privately owned but state-controlled – a sort of exercise in below-the-belt corporatism.

The idea isn’t without its merits, especially if that complex is built somewhere in the outskirts. At least the oldest part of Amsterdam would be less befouled with herds of tattooed youngsters who can’t get laid in any other way, nor obtain drugs without courting trouble with police in their native habitat.

Nevertheless, there is something too orderly and, well, Germanic about this project. In general, whenever Northern Europeans start out doing eroticism, they end up doing sleaze. And institutionalised sleaze is somehow even sleazier than the chaotic variety.

Still, that’s the Amsterdammers’ problem. They are the ones living there, whereas we have the option of going elsewhere for a weekend.

Yet the city does raise certain thoughts about the paradoxical conflict between liberty and libertarianism, with the latter sometimes leading to the denial of the former. Libertarians have a simple solution to all problems: let the people do what they want, provided they don’t hurt others.

Alas, the problem with many simple solutions is that they are simplistic and therefore not especially clever. Actions have consequences, and when it comes to complex social organisms, most consequences are unforeseen.

Hayek used that fact as an argument against an activist, meddling state: since no one can calculate the outcome of any action, it’s best to do nothing unless absolutely necessary. But this argument also works the other way because letting people do as they please may also produce unpredictable ricochets — not least by denying people’s right to live in a clean, safe place.

For example, how do you calculate the social consequences of legalising drugs and prostitution? The libertarian argument would be that a wide demand for a commodity will guarantee its steady supply even if it’s illegal.

Indeed, the inability to stem the flow of drugs even in prisons, in conditions of maximum unfreedom, would suggest that’s indeed the case. And female prison guards happily break every regulation by copulating with male inmates – and vice versa.

So yes, drugs and sex will be sold even if such activities are banned. But laws aren’t there just to stop an undesirable practice. For even if they are unenforced and unenforceable, they also express society’s attitudes; they draw the lines society sees as uncrossable.

If drugs and prostitution are legalised, they can become more or less widespread – I don’t know, though I’ve heard arguments either way.

But I am certain that such legalisation causes great moral and aesthetic damage, for it’s society’s way of saying all is permitted, nothing is immoral, tawdry and tasteless. That cauterises the finer sensibilities of one generation after another by smudging the line between beauty and ugliness, taste and tastelessness, morality and immorality.

And then great cities are turned into dens of iniquity, with their whole atmosphere reeking of dissolution and depravity. If you don’t believe me, visit Amsterdam, see what you think.