Was Robert Maxwell murdered?

John Preston asks this question in today’s Mail, and then proceeds not to answer it over the subsequent thousands of words.

Maxwell with his author cum employer

Since not one of those words is ‘Russia’, it’s no wonder the question only acts as a teaser for Mr Preston to advertise his biography of Maxwell. However, without that key word the question can’t even be properly asked, never mind answered.

Now, I hardly ever recycle my old pieces, but this morning I can’t resist. For almost eight years ago (and doesn’t time fly even when you aren’t having fun?) I wrote an article Cap’n Bob of the KGB on this very subject.

The facts I cited were all real, even if the prima facie evidence of the murder was, and still is, lacking. However, only a court jury requires ironclad forensic evidence to convict. Intellectual inquiry often makes do with a plausible theory, and the one my old article puts forth is very plausible indeed:  

Newly published archival data show that as early as in the 1950s Robert Maxwell was investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Soviet agent. The conclusion was that he wasn’t, yet this conclusion was wrong.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone: both the FBI and MI5 were notoriously inept at flashing out Soviet spies. One of them, Kim Philby, almost became head of the Secret Service; another, Aldrich Ames, ran the CIA Soviet desk for years; yet another, Robert Hanssen, was one of the FBI’s top counterintelligence officers – this list can become longer than anyone’s arm.

The FBI was probably correct technically: Maxwell didn’t “transfer technological and scientific information to the Soviets”. Of course he didn’t. He was much too valuable to risk on such trivial assignments.

Maxwell was what the Soviets called ‘an agent of influence’, perhaps the most important one next to the American industrialist Armand Hammer. Said influence was exerted through both individuals and ‘friendly firms’. One such firm was Maxwell’s Pergamon Press.

Maxwell, a retired captain in the British army, bought 75 percent of the company in 1951 and instantly made it an unlikely success. Actually, it’s also unlikely that a poor Czech immigrant could have found the required £50,000, which was serious money then, about £1,000,000 in today’s debauched cash.

If the original investment miraculously didn’t come courtesy of the KGB, the overnight success did. Maxwell signed a brother-in-law deal with the Soviet copyright agency VAAP (a KGB department) and began publishing English translations of Soviet academic journals.

Making any kind of income, never mind millions, out of that venture would have been next to impossible. On the one hand, Soviet science at the time was hardly cutting edge stuff, and those parts of it that were didn’t publish their findings in journals – they were (and still are) strictly classified. Interest in the Soviet academic press was therefore minimal, while the cost of having it translated and published was immense.

Publishing even English-language academic periodicals is an extremely laborious and low-margin business requiring much specialised expertise. That’s why it’s usually done by big and long-established firms, which Maxwell’s wasn’t. Add to this the cost of translation and one really begins to wonder about the provenance of all that cash.

Subsequent close ties between Maxwell and the Soviets dispel any doubts. He became a frequent visitor to Moscow and a welcome guest in the Kremlin. There he met every Soviet leader from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, and they didn’t just chat about the weather.

As an MP, Maxwell made speeches defending the Soviet 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, bizarrely portraying it as some kind of recompense for the country’s betrayal at Munich. The Soviets were beginning to get their money’s worth.

In the ‘70s Pergamon Press prospered by churning out such sure-fire bestsellers as books by Soviet leaders. On 4 March 1975, Maxwell signed another lucrative contract with VAAP and published seven books by Soviet chieftains: five by Brezhnev, one by Chernenko and one by Andropov, then head of the KGB.

Under a later 1978 contract he also published Brezhnev’s immortal masterpiece Peace Is the People’s Priceless Treasure, along with books by Grishin and Ponomarev, the former a Politburo member, the latter head of the Central Committee’s International Department.

All those books were published in huge runs and, considering the nonexistent demand for this genre, would have lost millions for any other publisher. But Maxwell wasn’t any old publisher and these weren’t any old ventures. The translation, publishing and printing were paid for by the Soviets, who then pulped almost the whole run.

In 1981 the Central Committee of the CPSU passed a resolution authorising direct payments to the French branch of Pergamon Press for publishing English translations of Soviet leaders’ books.

In the ‘80s Maxwell met Gorbachev three times, the last meeting also involving Vladimir Kryuchkov, the KGB boss. As a result, Pergamon Press began publishing the English-language version of the Soviet Cultural Foundation magazine Nashe Naslediye (Our Heritage), along with the writings of both Gorbachev and his wife Raisa (Charles Dickens and Jane Austen they weren’t).

One objective pursued by the Soviets was propaganda, but this could have been achieved with less capital outlay and greater effect. The real purpose was the old Soviet pastime: money laundering and looting Russia in preparation for ‘the collapse of the Soviet Union’. And the core business of Pergamon Press played only a small role in this enterprise.

Between 1989 and 1991 the KGB transferred to the West eight metric tonnes of platinum, 60 metric tonnes of gold, truckloads of diamonds and up to $50 billion in cash. The cash part was in rubles, officially not a convertible currency. But the Soviets made it convertible by setting a vast network of bogus holding companies and fake brass plates throughout the West.

The key figures in the cash transfer were the KGB financial wizard Col. Leonid Veselovsky, seconded to the Administration Department of the Central Committee, and Nikolai Kruchina, head of that department.

The focal point of that transfer activity in the West was Maxwell, the midwife overseeing the birth pains of the so-called Soviet oligarchy. We know very little about the exact mechanics of this criminal activity, perhaps the biggest one of its kind in history. The actual engineers knew too much, which could only mean they had to fall out with the designers.

Specifically, in August 1991 Kruchina fell out of his office window. Two months later Maxwell fell overboard from his yacht. Veselovsky, who handled most of the leg work, managed to leg it to Switzerland, where he became a highly paid consultant. Obviously he knew quite a bit not only about his former employers but also about his new clients, which knowledge enhanced his earning potential and possibly acted as a health insurance policy.

Thus ended Cap’n Bob’s illustrious career, during which he was a Czech immigrant, a British officer, a publisher, an MP, The Daily Mirror owner, purloiner of its pension funds. And a Soviet agent by anyone’s definition but the FBI’s.

We’re all epidemiologists now

Covid isn’t only a deadly contagion but also a symptom of another highly communicative disease: institutionalised idiocy.

“I’m entitled to my ignorant opinion!”

This malaise has its own symptoms, such as distrust of (even contempt for) expert opinion, proud ignorance, smugness, debauched intellectual discipline, and a propensity for saying “I’m entitled to my own opinion” and “Let’s agree to disagree”.

It was Aristotle who first observed, and C.S. Lewis who later repeated, that one unfortunate and unavoidable by-product of democracy is a widespread belief that, because all citizens are equal before the law, they are equal in every respect. And, if they are all equal, then so are their opinions on any subject, no matter how involved or specialised.

Such misconstrued egalitarianism (this is a tautology: all egalitarianism is misconstrued, but we’ll let it slide for now) has been elevated to a cult, a surrogate religion our comprehensively educated masses find easier to follow than any other.

Suddenly the opinion of an illiterate believer in multiple universes becomes as valid as the judgement of a Nobel prize winner in quantum physics. Or even more valid actually: the ignoramus’s mind, unsullied by recondite knowledge, is more open to new ideas.

Generally I avoid citing my own example, but this one is germane to the theme. Anyone who can gain access to the Salisbury Review archives from the early ‘90s will find many of my articles dousing the universal enthusiasm about the ‘collapse of communism’.

What was happening, I wrote, wasn’t a triumph of democracy, but merely a transfer of power from the Party to the KGB, fused with organised crime. In the past few years, dozens of people who read those pieces or simply discussed the subject with me at the time have acknowledged that I was right – the evidence before their eyes is hard to ignore.

But they have conveniently forgotten the vehemence with which they argued with me at the time, upholding their right to their own opinion and insisting that my naysaying was caused by a chip on the shoulder. In that spirit, the publisher of a book of mine was fighting every word I wrote about Russia, to which he used to have an ideological attachment.

Then, a couple of years ago, he admitted graciously if begrudgingly that my guess turned out to be lucky. Not wishing to gloat over a fallen foe, I dismissed the surrender. Yet I could have told him there was neither luck nor guesswork involved. I simply knew more about Russia than he did – and, at the risk of sounding conceited, just about anyone else in this country.

In addition to possessing native knowledge of Russia, whose enigmatic nature is, according to Churchill, impenetrable for outsiders, I’ve probably read more books on the country than most professors of Russian studies. And I’ve been following Russian news sources for decades, without missing a beat.

My publisher’s knowledge of Russia exceeded that of an average passer-by randomly plucked out of a crowd, but he still wasn’t qualified to argue with me on the subject. Yet many chaps who knew even infinitely less than he did screamed their disagreement with me at the time – and some still do, but there we’re talking of clinical cases.

None of this is to say that I’m the ultimate authority on the subject – only that I am indeed an authority, and those who aren’t will argue with me at the peril of coming across as ignoramuses with an infirm grasp of what constitutes knowledge.

Epidemiology is an easier subject to learn than Russia, but it too demands vast experience in acquiring and applying a large corpus of knowledge. Such knowledge lies even deeper beneath the surface than Russian topics do. After all, until a year ago stories about epidemics hadn’t exactly been inundating print, electronic and broadcast media.

And yet a staggering number of people insist on proving that a derided Mr-Know-All has been thoroughly displaced as an enunciator of opinions by a Mr-Know-Sod-All. They open their minds wide, empty them of brains and fill the vacated space with the travesty of knowledge they pick up from Google, newspapers or – at best – articles in popular science magazines.

Suddenly they feel equipped to take on professional epidemiologists in polemical jousts. Rather than asking respectfully what the experts think, they pooh-pooh the experts as being biased, in the pay of the state or Big Pharma or generally corrupt. Laudably, these neophytes bring to the task a complete absence or prejudice or indeed any other judice worthy of the name.

One reads and hears ignoramuses pitting their expertise skimmed off the top of news stories with that of men who have devoted their lives to the study and practice of that discipline. The arguments usually end with the sacramental flagship phrases of modern barbarism: “I’m entitled to my own opinion” and “Let’s agree to disagree”.

The blighters don’t even realise how pathetic they sound. By contrast, a friend of mine is a medical doctor, but not an epidemiologist. Even though he’s highly erudite in every branch of medicine, not just his own, he refrains from voicing strong opinions on this specialised discipline – and he isn’t generally known for such reticence.

It hardly needs saying that we can, indeed must, take experts to task, asking them probing questions and querying about their sources. But we can’t argue with them – unless we too have put in the time studying the discipline with professional dedication.

This isn’t about epidemiology, Russian studies, quantum mechanics or any subject in particular. The problem is wider than any of them, and it has left the domain of epistemology or sociology to penetrate those of ontology and anthropology.

The very nature of modern man is changing before our eyes, with his intellect receding into the background. Coming to the fore instead is ignorant, aggressive rodomontade that in the past would have made most people wince. Today they applaud and cheer.

Is Potus Catholic?

Nothing sleepy about this Joe, let me tell you. Last week I wrote it would take him just a few months, perhaps even weeks, to reverse every one of Trump’s best policies.

The mask didn’t stay on for long

Proving yet again that I’m incapable of keeping pace with progress, Joe made a good start in hours, not in months, weeks or days. Belying his age and dwindling cognitive ability, Potus began to swing his pen like an axe directly he gained access to the White House.

With nary a moment’s hesitation he put his flourish on the executive orders Kamala put on his desk. These will push America back into the Paris Accords, commit the country to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, pave the way to legalising the reputed 11 million illegal aliens, remove restrictions on Muslim immigration, swing the doors of women’s loos open to reidentified men, force schools to admit ex-boys to girls’ athletic events and so on.

No signs of somnolence there, assuming that Joe had actually read the documents he signed. However, observant fans have detected other signs, those of the invisible hand of Catholicism moving Joe’s pen.

Thus Prof. Kate Ward of Milwaukee’s Marquette University, says: “Many of Biden’s stated priorities do align with the Church’s social teaching. These include supporting poor and working families, protecting the environment, and offering a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants.”

Allow me to translate: “supporting poor families” means increasing welfare budgets and squeezing, if not expropriating, productive citizens; “protecting the environment” means damaging the economy in the name of unscientific ecofanaticism; “offering a path to citizenship” means… well, you know what that means without my translation.

I’ll spare you even a cursory foray into theology to show that none of this has anything to do with Catholicism. It has everything to do, however, with the appetites of the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party, which is gradually becoming the Democratic Party.

Many benevolent commentators have pointed out that Biden’s ideas are similar to Pope Francis’s. Inasmuch as His Holiness is a man of the Left, that’s true. Inasmuch as he is still a Catholic, that’s false.

For example, much as the pontiff would probably like to bless homomarriage, abortion and transsexualism, he has so far managed to desist. Each time his viscera demands such a development he remembers at the last moment that he leads a world church, not the World League for Sexual Reform.

No such compunctions for Joe, who not only supports all such things but actively promotes them – to the accompaniment of loud declarations of his faith. Now, a champion of abortion, homomarriage and transsexualism may be many different things, some of them even good. But one thing he can’t be is a Catholic – even (especially?) if his views overlap with this Pope’s take on the Church’s social teaching.

Biden supports abortion not just in theory but in practice. Specifically he plans to provide federal funding for ‘elective’ abortions on a vast scale. What, not for enforced ones?

Oh well, Joe is fast, but he isn’t that fast. Give him a month or two in office. His plans, incidentally, go where even Obama didn’t dare tread – and no one ever accused him of being a Catholic in good standing.

It’s reassuring to see a man who practises what he preaches though. In 2016 Biden signalled his unwavering support for gender-bending by officiating a transsexual marriage.

Inter alia this shows an understated commitment to the sacramental aspect of marriage. Since, to the best of my knowledge, Joe hasn’t yet taken holy orders, as a good Catholic he should have demurred from officiating any nuptials, even normal ones. But religion is but a figure of speech for today’s political figures.

It’s worth mentioning that not all Catholics see Biden as one of their own. For example, a church in South Carolina barred him from receiving communion in 2019. In other words, he was excommunicated, if so far only by a church, not the Church.  

Biden is a ‘moderate’ socialist, who will almost certainly be controlled by immoderate ones. Socialism may at times add the modifier ‘Christian’ to its nomenclature, but that has as much to do with its core tenets as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has to do with democracy, republicanism or indeed the Korean people.

Biden’s other plans, already enunciated but not yet acted upon, include conferring statehood on the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. That’s guaranteed to perpetuate the Democrats’ hold on power, ensuring a triumph of woke socialism.

Oh well, at least Puerto Rico is Catholic. Unlike Potus.

Himmler portrait adorns Berlin police station

How likely is this headline to be true to life? On a scale of zero to minus ten?

Genrikh Himmler

Correct. Even if a German were a crypto-Nazi, he’d never advertise that so blatantly. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell whether he’d be thrown out first, or the portrait.

If, on the other hand, both the cop and his take on interior decoration remained intact, wouldn’t we be justified to draw some far-reaching conclusions not only about him and his immediate superiors, but also about today’s Germany?

This brings me to Alexei Navalny, who was arrested on his arrival in Moscow. The dissident flew in from Germany, where he had undergone extensive treatment after being poisoned with a toxin produced by the FSB poison lab.

That Putin’s junta arrests, murders, maims and in general harasses dissidents isn’t news to anyone who has the minutest of interests in Russia. My interest in it is more than minute, and one would think nothing about that place could still surprise me. Yet something did.

Everybody knew Navalny would be arrested on arrival. No surprises there. It was also predictable that his plane would at the last moment be rerouted from Vnukovo airport, where a crowd of his supporters had gathered, to Sheremetyevo, where he was greeted only by cops and FSB.

Reading about that, I almost had to stifle a yawn. But then I came across a telling detail, of the kind where the devil lives: the wall of the nearby police station where Navalny was taken prominently exhibited a portrait of Genrikh Yagoda, head of the OGPU/NKVD in the 20s and 30s.

It’s hard to compare this ghoulish mass murderer with Himmler on any moral criteria. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. But Genrikh (the Russian version of Heinrich) probably outscored his near namesake in the sheer number of victims.

Heinrich Yagoda

Yagoda became OGPU’s deputy head In 1926, but his boss, Menzhinsky, was permanently incapacitated. Hence it fell upon Yagoda to build that sinister organisation, later known as the KGB and now as the FSB, to its worldwide prominence.

His achievements in that post were numerous, but one of them ties him symbolically to Navalny. For Yagoda supervised the OGPU poison laboratory, which by the looks of it keeps his legacy alive.

Yagoda himself liberally used its products in his daily work. Thus in 1934, on Stalin’s orders, he dispatched Menzhinsky who, though ill, was stubbornly hanging on to life. Yagoda is also widely credited (if this is the right word) with the poisoning of the writer Gorky and his son Max, whose wife was Yagoda’s mistress.

It was then that OGPU became NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs), with Yagoda as its head. So in fact he was in charge of the Soviet secret police for about 10 years until his dismissal in 1936. And, compared to his overall achievements, a few poisonings here or there aren’t even worth mentioning.

During the 1945 Potsdam Conference, Churchill commiserated with Stalin about the millions of Soviet casualties during the war. Stalin waved the condolences away: “We lost more during the Collectivisation”.

He was referring to the effective enslavement of the Russian peasants, whose land was nationalised and who were all attached to collective farms. In the good Russian tradition, the dispossessed and enslaved peasants resorted to jacquerie, with dozens of revolts dotting the country’s map.

It was under Yagoda’s leadership that these were suppressed with inhuman brutality. How many died? No one knows – the Russians aren’t big on actuarial practices. But if Stalin said that the number was greater than the 20-odd million killed in the war, he ought to have known.

As part of this campaign, Yagoda engineered Holodomor, the 1932-1933 artificial famine that didactically killed at least 5,000,000 peasants in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The survivors learned their lesson on the benefits of collectivised agriculture.  

It was Yagoda who turned a few scattered concentration camps into what Solzhenitsyn called the Gulag Archipelago, whose islands densely covered the country. How many millions died there? No one really knows, and in any case I wouldn’t be able to count that high.

Yagoda was the first who spotted the vast economic potential of Gulag as an endless supplier of slave labour, the mainstay of the Soviet economy. One of his most spectacular, but perhaps least significant, coups was the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal built on the bones of the tens of thousands of GULAG inmates.

Add to this massive purges complete with the first show trials, organised and supervised by Yagoda, and the full scale of his toil begins to emerge. But he wasn’t all work and no play.

Unlike the ascetic Himmler, Yagoda was no stranger to the fine things in life. He and his comrades staged regular drunken orgies, where, on top of the usual orgiastic activities, they used priceless icons for target practice. When Yagoda himself was arrested, found in his possession were hundreds of pornographic films, piles of similar literature and a small collection of dildos.

By the time Himmler made his first tentative steps, Yagoda had already established himself as one of the most evil personages in world history. Yet it’s wrong to ascribe all those crimes to his own villainy. For Yagoda wasn’t a free agent – he was an agent to Stalin, a blunt instrument in the tyrant’s hands.

Again, those who follow Russian affairs know that Stalin’s reputation is being gradually rebuilt in Putin’s Russia. His portraits and busts are popping up like mushrooms after the rain, and he’s widely extolled as an empire builder and victor in the war.

Putin’s propaganda portrays Stalin as a harsh but fair leader, who sometimes had to resort to tough measures out of dire necessity. Though it’s impossible to conceal Stalin’s crimes altogether, they tend to be dissociated from him and externalised in his hangmen, such as Yezhov, Beria – and Yagoda.

That’s a variation on the old Russian theme of good-tsar-bad-ministers: the executors of Stalin’s orders are vilified, while he himself is glorified. This is all par for the course.

But the prominent display of a Yagoda portrait at a Moscow police station signals a new development: it’s not just the Butcher-In-Chief but also his junior butchers who are now being put on the pedestal.

That gets me back to my original question. If we’d be hypothetically worried about seeing a Himmler portrait in Berlin, shouldn’t we be worried for real about seeing an actual Yagoda one in Moscow? And shouldn’t those of us who still harbour illusions about Putin’s Russia wake up and smell the novichok?  

Mme Macron against sexual abuse of children

M and Mme Macron

As more and more cases of such abuse in general and incest in particular come to light in France, a campaign to put an end to these crimes is gathering speed.

Specifically, campaigners want to change laws implying that children can give sexual consent.

At present, a child is presumed to have given such consent in the absence of “violence, threat, constraint or surprise”. Campaigners want to end this law, along with a 30-year statute of limitations for sexual abuse of children. A child, they object, can’t consent to sex by definition.

“It’s brave to speak out,” said Mme Macron in a TV interview. “Victims’ silence ‘kills off the act’. So these acts absolutely must be reported and not be stifled.”

It’s even braver of  Mme Macron to speak out. Her support will doubtless add momentum to the much needed campaign. Bien joué, Brigitte.

British Lives Matter

Isn’t that what the acronym BLM stands for? No? There you go then, just goes to show the infinite possibilities of the English Language.

90,000 dead and counting

In any case, the new meaning incorporates the old one because British lives do come in various hues. That makes the acronym more inclusive, and isn’t inclusivity the name of the game, even if it’s sometimes rigged?

British lives do matter and, now that some 90,000 of them have been lost to Covid, it’s time to ponder how much. People do ponder, and two opposite views emerge, one pragmatic, the other libertarian.

The government clearly wishes to save as many lives as it can. The cynics may ascribe this impulse to purely political considerations, the idealists opt for nobler motives, and all of them, cynics and idealists alike, agree that HMG doesn’t go about its task in the most efficacious manner.

However, the pragmatists allow that the overall thrust of its policies is laudable. They ask themselves what they’d do if they were HMG, and tend to accept that it wouldn’t be strikingly different from what HMG is doing.

That some sweeping measures are desirable is proved by Sweden that haughtily adopted a laisser-faire approach to the pandemic. As a result, she ran up a death toll 10 times higher than in her more dirigiste Scandinavian neighbours. King Carl XVI Gustaf even had to apologise publicly for his government’s approach to Covid, which he correctly described as a failure.

Since this is the only European benchmark on which the validity of stringent measures can be assessed, one is justified in believing that their absence in Britain might have increased the death toll by an order of magnitude. That would mean close to a million victims, roughly twice the number of casualties the country suffered in the Second World War.

The libertarians, on the other hand, also have a point or two. First, they say that nothing about the pandemic is known for sure: its aetiology, treatment, prophylaxis, the efficacy of masks, social distancing and lockdowns, the likelihood and duration of immunity, the long-term effect of vaccination.

What is known for sure is that the people’s civil liberties have been severely and intolerably curtailed, to the point of confining Britons to house arrest without due process. This is especially objectionable in the absence of ironclad data clarifying every jot and tittle of coronavirus.

Yes, come back the pragmatists, co-opting Guy Fawkes to their cause. Desperate times call for desperate measures, don’t they? People’s civil liberties were even more curtailed during the Blitz, when a mere 43,000 died. So much more the reason to accept such restrictions now that the death toll is already more than twice as high. And we don’t even have to have blackouts yet.

Neither group invokes Christianity for support, sensing that no religion is relevant to the quotidian concerns of modern man. Progress has left Christianity in its rearview mirror, whereas the view through the windscreen unfolds in all its electronically enhanced beauty, complete with mushroom clouds billowing on the horizon.

However, just to keep the irrelevant record straight, Christ did attach value to every human life, while deemphasising the importance of civil liberties. “Render unto Caesar…” and all that. And when he said “the truth shall make you free”, he didn’t mean the kind of freedom that’s conferred by government decree.

But do let’s get back on the terra firma of unadulterated secularism. I am in general agreement with the pragmatists there, especially since they can also invoke arguments based on the outdated, but to me indisputable, notion of the sanctity of human life. Yet the libertarian argument can’t be dismissed out of hand.

The parallel lines I’ve drawn between Covid and war are long, and they don’t stop once the original reason for them has been eliminated. A trivial illustration of this tendency is the 55mph limit on US motorways introduced in 1974 during the oil crisis.

The crisis soon ended, but the risible speed limit didn’t. On the federal level it survived until 1995 and it still operates in many states. That proves yet again the immutable law of the universe: governments never relinquish everything they’ve claimed.

All modern governments, regardless of their political doctrine, are innately centralising, which means authoritarian at least latently. Authoritarianism means the state divesting the maximum number of people of the maximum amount of power.

Civilised countries have in place any number of checks on the state acting according to this inner imperative, but the state feels time is on its side. It patiently looks out for any pretext to grab more power.

Hence, the state sees an opportunity in any crisis, especially one in which large numbers of people die. Wars are ideal in that respect, but pandemics will do at a pinch.

You’ll notice that state power in Britain (and most other civilised countries) increased exponentially after both World Wars. Emergency measures were introduced during the hostilities, and after the wars ended so did many of the measures – but far from all.

No concession of power to the state can ever be entirely temporary. Even if most emergency powers run through the sieve after the emergency ends, some residual powers permanently settle between the holes.

That’s why Covid, while being the reason for temporary restrictions, may well become a pretext for permanent ones. Putting it bluntly, we may lose some important liberties in perpetuity.

On balance, I support the group I’ve described as pragmatist. But it can’t be gainsaid that a balance exists and it must be considered.

Perhaps the best course of action is to leaven acquiescence with vigilance. Do let’s comply with masks, lockdowns and so forth – while keeping an eye out for a permanent power grab by the state. Believe me, it’s eminently capable of it.      

Putin’s useful idiot rides again

Anyone – especially a Westerner – who disseminates Putin’s propaganda is complicit in his crimes.

Not all democratically elected leaders are legitimate

Cue in Peter Hitchens, who has been reticent on this subject for a while. Even he must realise that, after a spate of poisonings and other murders around the world, extolling Putin’s regime openly has become socially awkward.

But Hitchens’s adoration of the KGB colonel has finally managed to circumvent common decency. True love will find a way, thereby vindicating Virgil’s adage, omnia vincit amor.

Passion makes people do and say insane things, and Hitchens is no exception. Thus, in today’s article he equates the revolting jacquerie in Washington the other day with the 2014 popular uprising in the Ukraine that toppled the Yanukovych government.

In support, the rattling train of Hitchens’s thought has resumed its runs in his one-track mind. His favourite trick is to vindicate his beloved tyrants by first issuing a disclaimer about their nastiness and thereby trying to preempt a charge of bias (or worse) for the subsequent panegyric.

For example, a few years ago he wrote: “[Putin’s Russia] is a sinister tyranny where those who challenge the president’s power or expose his wrongdoing suffer very nasty fates.” But then, in the same article: “Mr Putin’s Russia [is] now astonishingly the most conservative, patriotic and Christian country left in Europe.”

This is a recurrent device, and today it recurs: “The toppled government of President Viktor Yanukovych was ugly and corrupt, beyond doubt. But by the standards of Ukraine’s young democracy, it was still legitimate.”

Hence, toppling it was wrong, as I hope you understand the implication. Quite apart from repeating Putin’s propaganda almost verbatim, this statement shows a foolhardy belief in the redemptive power of the ballot box über alles.

Yet some unpleasant characters have been known to rise to power by democratic means. Springing to mind are, among others, Messrs Hitler, Perón, Mugabe and Macîas Nguema (who then murdered a third of the population of Equatorial Guinea that had voted him in).

Such examples make it hard to argue both the absolute ipso facto virtue of any democratic regime and the absolute ipso facto evil of removing it from power. Call me a moral relativist and a democracy hater, but I think an assassin putting a bullet through Hitler’s head in, say, 1938, would have done mankind a favour.

But what would be hard for you and me to argue is a doddle for a man in the throes of passion. Thus Hitchens: “I found them [the 2014 events in Kiev] repellent and wrong. Almost alone among Western journalists, I argued that this had been a violent putsch.”

That second sentence is another recurrent theme. For while professing contempt for Trump, Hitchens suffers from the same contemptible trait: propensity for tooting his own horn. In practically every piece Hitchens portrays himself as a sort of Don Quixote, singlehandedly charging the windmills of liberalism with the lance of I-told-you-so. Still, one wishes bad taste were his worst fault.

Backtracking, I think calling Hitchens a useful idiot was wrong. An idiot does bad things out of ignorance, but surely even Hitchens can’t be ignorant of the true nature of the Yanukovych government.

It wasn’t just “ugly and corrupt”. It was a stooge to Putin and a high-ranking member of his crime family, to which Yanukovych owed loyalty in preference to the Ukraine’s national interests. That betrayed the country’s sovereignty won in 1991. Under Yanukovych, the Ukraine was independent only de jure. De facto it remained a satrap of Putin’s Russia.

Hence, rather than being a “repellent putsch”, the 2014 events in Kiev were a popular uprising against an evil tyranny. Any decent person of any political persuasion (other than lickspittle sycophancy to Putin, that is) should have rejoiced.

Hitchens’s reaction? “Nice liberal-minded Western governments, especially the American one, along with nice liberal media, rejoice at the outcome of these events, the overthrow of an elected government by unconstitutional means and mass intimidation.”

They resorted to such means because the chances of removing that petty criminal from power democratically were slim to nonexistent. Not to Hitchens though: “Elections were due within a year, which could have removed those in power lawfully. The mob did not wish to wait…”

Allow me to complete this sentence with something truthful for a change: “…for another blatantly fixed election.” If Hitchens is unaware of the near-certainty of such an outcome, he ought to study the records of every Russian poll from 1996, when Yeltsyn was elected fraudulently, onwards.

The Putin junta had refined the appropriate techniques and was more than happy to share the experience with its puppet. Tyrants may rise to the summit by democratic means, but they never fall from it in that fashion. They need to be pushed, or putsched if you’d rather.

This stands in contrast to how things are done in civilised countries, such as the USA. There no need for mob justice exists precisely because constitutional means of redressing grievances are in ample supply.

Hence, comparing the pathetic thugs who tried to take over the Capitol building to the Ukrainian people who rose en masse to regain their independence is morally corrupt, intellectually defunct and borderline insane.

Hitchens’s fiery concluding diatribe against his bogeymen is worth a long quotation:

“So answer me this, all you lofty liberals. I have always despised Donald Trump and the empty-headed movement he created, and I am here quite happy to say that the invasion of the halls of the US Congress by Trump supporters was a grotesque, evil and criminal enterprise, which I utterly condemn without the tiniest reservation.

“But will you, even now, say that the violent putsch in Kiev, six years ago, was just as wrong?

“No, you won’t. Because – as your failure to defend liberty shows – you have no real principles.”

Quite. Anyone who disagrees with Hitchens on anything is an unprincipled lofty liberal. That’s what I am then, even though I’ve seldom been described as either unprincipled or liberal or lofty.

We, the lofty liberals of Hitchens’s febrile imaginings, are sane enough not to mouth arrant, crazy nonsense, such as equating the events in Kiev and Washington. We won’t say the former “was just as wrong” as the latter because it wasn’t.

We repudiate the mob violence in Washington while celebrating the revolution in Kiev precisely because we have principles, among which is the defence of liberty. I may be biased, but to this lofty liberal that beats adulation of evil despots – and especially doing their bidding in the Western press.

Culture vultures are circling overhead

‘Culture vulture’ is often misused to mean ‘art lover’, which, in that sense, is dubious ornithologically. However, the term gains validity as it moves closer to its literate meaning.

The vulture and her culture

Vultures are, after all, scavengers that mainly devour the carcasses of dead animals, but at a pinch will prey on the wounded and the sick. Hence, if you agree that our culture is dead or at least ailing, the dictionary definition snugly fits HMG’s culture functionaries.

Such as Maria Balshaw, director of the Tate galleries and museums, a culture vulture par excellence. For outlanders among you, Tate is one of Britain’s most venerable and important cultural institutions. That’s why its director is appointed by the prime minister personally.

Since Miss Balshaw ascended to that post during Dave Cameron’s tenure, he must have felt she had the necessary qualifications. That’s par for the course.

In my charitable mood I’d call Dave’s own cultural tastes demotic. In my more normal mood I’d call them barbaric.

For example, he names Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as his favourite album of all time. That by itself should have disqualified him from 10 Downing Street – if only because the resident at that address may choose the director of Tate.

If the PM is himself a culture vulture, he can be confidently expected to choose another vulture as his appointee. Birds of a feather… and all that.

To vindicate this proverb, Miss Blashaw implicitly restates her commitment to cultural subversion in every word she utters publicly. She has no regard for the great art of the past and much admiration for modern ‘conceptual’ perversions.

And it isn’t just words. In her previous job as director of Manchester City art galleries, she left her mark on every one of them, including Whitworth. That gallery isn’t blessed with too many masterpieces, but one of them is a The Crucifixion, attributed to Duccio.

Since Miss Balshaw has never seen a masterpiece she couldn’t hate, she mothballed The Crucifixion so thoroughly that today’s staff don’t even know what it is or where it is. Thus nothing could distract grateful visitors from what passes for art these days.

Miss Balshaw is strong on ideology, but her grasp of her field is tenuous. This she proved by her selections on Desert Island Discs, a radio programme first heard in 1942.

Again, if you don’t happen to be British, the programme’s guests are asked to select eight records they would take with them to a desert island, where they could conceivably stay for the rest of their lives.

It’s a jocular proposition, but it can yield serious insights into the guest’s personality. For example, a politician whose selections include the Horst-Wessel-Lied and other works in the same vein may raise legitimate doubts about his fitness for office.

Miss Balshaw’s choices for her insular solitude certainly prove she isn’t fit to lead Tate, In fact, she ought to be barred even from visiting it. For she’s prepared to spend the rest of her life listening to nothing but Ghost Town by The Specials and Crown by Stormzy, with these two albums serving as bookends for six other similar ones.

I have no way of reproducing the neurologically murderous sound of this ‘music’, but I can give you a taste of the lyrics Miss Balshaw would be prepared to hear every day of her life.

Thus Ghost Town:

Some day we gon’ set it off
Some day we gon’ get this off
Baby, don’t you bet it all
On a pack of Fentanyl

And here’s Stormzy’s Crown:

You can’t hold me down, I still cope
Rain falling down at the BRITs, I’m still soaked
Tried put a hole in our shit, we’ll build boats
Two birds with one stone, I’ll kill both (What?)
Pray I never lose and pray I never hit the shelf (Two)
Promise if I do that you’ll be checkin’ on my health (Cool)
If it’s for my people I’ll do anything to help
If I do it out of love…

These verses make sense, don’t they? As much as the music Miss Balshaw enjoys and the art she favours, which leaves me in two minds.

I can’t decide whether her appointment constituted a greater insult to culture or to public administration. What do you think?

The EU hates Orbán and he isn’t even British

Simple logic based on an ancient adage makes Hungary’s PM Orbán Britain’s friend: after all, the EU treats both as enemies. This makes Orbán an interesting object of study – after all, Britain isn’t blessed with a surfeit of friends in Europe.

Neither one is smiling

Orbán comes across as a Hungarian version of Trump: nasty, demagogic, crude, nationalistic, populist, controversial, contemptuous of due process and liberal axioms, suspicious of internationalism – and right on most issues.

The issue on which he isn’t right is his professed choice of role models, such as Turkey, Russia and China, which he often cites, along with Singapore and India, as examples Hungary could profitably follow. That makes one wonder whether Orbán’s commitment to Christian values is as staunch as he claims.

Also, his oft-proclaimed passion for national sovereignty and self-sufficiency seems hard to reconcile with Hungary’s continued membership in the EU, whose passions are diametrically opposite. One has to admit with chagrin that Orbán’s reservations about the EU don’t seem to extend to her handouts, which isn’t the most principled stance in God’s creation.

All this raises legitimate questions about Orbán’s political and human virtues, but these aren’t the questions I’ll try to answer here. What interests me is Orbán’s policies, proposed or already realised.

Many of them hit EU functionaries (and other leftish ideologues) with such force that those golden stars begin to spin kaleidoscopically before their eyes. Just look at his views on immigration.

Orbán champions the Great Replacement theory of mass immigration, which tallies with school maths. Schoolchildren the world over are tortured by problems of communicating vessels, or else swimming pools with two pipes, one filling, the other emptying.

Unlike me, Orbán must have excelled at such problems. He knows that, if the flow rate in the incoming pipe is greater than in the outgoing one, the pool will be filling up, but the water in it will be totally replaced in due course.

Extrapolating from maths to demographics, Orbán states a self-evident fact: if the rate of immigration exceeds the rate of birth in the indigenous population, sooner or later the indigenous population will be replaced. And if the immigrants are culturally alien to European values, then this development will be catastrophic not only demographically but also culturally.

Orbán put this theory into practice during the 2015 migrant crisis, when he had a razor wire fence erected along the Serbo-Hungarian border to stem the inflow of illegal immigrants, many of whom were indeed culturally alien.

This was in marked contrast to the EU policy, which Orbán pointed out: “Europe’s response is madness. We must acknowledge that the European Union’s misguided immigration policy is responsible for this situation.”

Such statements and policies put Orbán on a collision course not only with the EU, but also with that great champion of untrammelled migration, George Soros, who said: “His plan treats the protection of national borders as the objective and the refugees as an obstacle.”

Truer words have seldom been spoken, but where Messrs Orbán and Soros differ is in their assessment of the situation the latter described so epigrammatically. What Orbán sees as a virtue, Soros sees as a vice. That difference has triggered an amply justified outburst of anti-Soros diatribes in Hungary, many regrettably tinged with anti-Semitism.

In general, Orbán and many members of his Fidesz party have been known to express anti-Semitic sentiments, which is abhorrent. However, recent surveys show that Jews feel safer in Hungary than, say, in France. And Orbán has been a good friend to Israel, a distinction not all EU members can claim. I did say he’s controversial, didn’t I?

Then of course there’s homosexuality, which, proceeding from an unimpeachable scriptural base, Orbán regards as contrary to Christian values. Of course, Christian values are contrary to the EU, and that creates another flashpoint.

To begin with, Hungary’s constitution doesn’t recognise homomarriage and specifies that “the mother is a woman, the father is a man.” Just a couple of decades ago, only certifiable nutters would have found this statement objectionable, but times do change, and I can’t honestly say always for the better.

According to Orbán, children are born either male or female, and so they’ll remain for life. “That,” according to him, “ensures the upbringing of children according to Christian culture.” I don’t know about ensuring – such upbringing must have a few other components as well. But this would be a good start.

In the same vein, Orbán also amended Hungary’s constitution to ban same-sex couples from adopting children. I can’t argue against this ban, but the EU can. Its gauleiters don’t seem to mind poor tots being confused about who’s Mummy and who’s Daddy, especially if such parents alternate their roles from day to day.

If Great Replacement is basic maths, this ban is basic common sense. Alas, sense isn’t common within the ranks of the EU, or for that matter in any Western officialdom.

According to some, that commonsensical amendment was somewhat compromised when its author, MEP Jozsef Szajer, was busted in a police raid on a homosexual orgy in Brussels. This is a vivid illustration to the 17th century adage “Do as I say, not as I do”. I hope Mr Szajer objected to his arrest by saying “Hypocritical? Moi?”

But whatever his personal predilections, Hungary’s policies on such matters are sane, whereas the EU’s (and Britain’s) aren’t. Orbán’s government has also banned university courses on gender studies, a subject that in Western European countries is taught at kindergartens. And a ban on legally changing one’s sex was put into effect last May.

The EU and LGBTQ groups are up in arms. Orbán’s policies, they scream, constitute an attack on democracy and the rule of law. These terms are so often uttered in the same breath that one might think they are synonymous and interchangeable. Yet they are often closer to being mutually exclusive than identical.

In this case that doesn’t matter, because Orbán violates neither, at least by the policies mentioned so far. From what one hears, these policies are widely popular in Hungary, meaning that democratic consensus is upheld. As to the rule of law, the last noun should be modified with the adjective ‘just’ for the concept to make sense.

Laws must be respected and obeyed, but only insofar as they are just. For example, telling political jokes was against the law in the Soviet Union, as was being a Jew in Nazi Germany. More honoured in the breach than the observance, wouldn’t you say?

The EU may have laws obligating every country to accept an unlimited number of aliens, to sanctify every perversion under the sun and teach children in that spirit, and to violate every traditional practice based on common decency, common sense and traditional values. But only a mind addled by modern propaganda would regard such laws as just.

Orbán may occasionally overstep the line separating reasonable restraints from tyrannical tethers, and in that sense he is a marginal figure. But one way or the other he represents another fault line threatening a major EU earthquake.

Hence he’s an enemy of the EU and, considering her hostile treatment of Britain, our friend. You aren’t going to take issue with this ancient logic, are you?