Who now believes that rights are all very well for Englishmen but not for the lesser breeds? Who now says that the emancipation of women is essential for white-skinned women in the West but not brown-skinned women in the East? Who, in short, is the inheritor of the old imperialist double standard?
Go to any university and you will hear stark warnings about “imposing Western values” on different cultures. You will be told loudly that it is “inappropriate” to argue against Afghan women wearing the burka, even when Afghan men have forced them to wear it. Try to say that all gays should enjoy the right to sexual equality, and Muslim regimes that impose the death penalty on homosexuals must be fought, and you will be accused, as my friend Peter Tatchell was accused, of being an “Islamophobe”, “racist” and “collaborator with the extreme Right”. Maintain that freedom of speech is a universal human right that no cleric can restrict, and you will hear that you are allowing the incitement of racism and may well be a racist yourself. Say that we must show solidarity with feminists and trade unionists fighting theocrats, and you will be told, as I have been told, that they are “native informers” of the West.
From Sweden’s Axess magazine
Edward Snowden’s revelations have shocked the world. So great was the anger at the allegation that the German secret services helped the US National Security Agency spy on German citizens, it looked for a moment as if it could stop Angela Merkel retaining power. Vladimir Putin, the greatest hypocrite of our age, has taken the opportunity to give Snowden asylum and denounce the US abroad, while cracking down on what freedoms remain at home. Even in the US, a large and angry minority in Congress wants to limit the power of the increasingly Nixonian Obama administration.
There is uproar everywhere from France to Brazil – everywhere, that is, except Britain. The nonchalant lack of concern baffles foreigners. The scandal is as much a British as an American affair. The Guardian – and I should declare an interest and say that I work for the Guardian’s parent company – showed that the Americans paid the British surveillance agency GCHQ to spy on their behalf. More worryingly, the Guardian quoted one happy GCHQ lawyer boasting, “We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”. What he meant was that the British could be bugged without a warrant from an independent judge with far greater ease than Americans could. Surely, that should bother Parliament and public.
British police then used anti-terrorist legislation to arrested David Miranda, the boyfriend of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist covering the Snowden story, at Heathrow airport. Miranda is not a terrorist, but the police did not care and took his phone and laptop anyway. Every lawyer I know describes their behaviour as illegal.
The reaction of the British press was telling. Most of the newspapers refused to defend Miranda. In part, this was because of deep hatreds, which have left British journalism at the mercy of the state. The Guardian exposed the tabloid hacking scandal, and cheered on the Leveson inquiry as it proposed statutory controls on press freedom. The authorities have arrested over 100 tabloid journalists and their contacts as a result. Their colleagues would not defend the Guardian when the police pulled in the boyfriend of one of its reporters. The right wing press wants the state to punish the left wing press and vice versa. Basic freedoms in my country are the first casualty of their civil war.
But there is more to it in that. I have said before that if Swedes want to understand British attitudes, you must remember that Britain fought and won the Second World War. Neither the Nazis nor the communists invaded. We were victorious and our decline as a world power was slow and relatively quiet, rather than the consequence of catastrophic defeat.
Our history explains our tolerance of spies. Collaborators never compromised the reputation of the British state. Unlike Germany, we never experienced the Gestapo or the Stasi. We do not have an inbuilt suspicion of spies who want to bug us without tight legal controls. Despite their disastrous failure to understand that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction, most Britons still assume that our spies are “good chaps” who mean well.
For reasons that are not always obvious, British decline has bolstered the spies’ prestige. Britain’s alliance with America is at heart an intelligence alliance. In return for diplomatic support, America gives Britain access to information we could never hope to collect ourselves. It allows us to look as if we are a great power, even though we are nothing of the sort.
That desire to “keep up appearances” – to use a very British phrase – explains a deeper reason for Britain’s reverence for spies. It is no accident that the spy novel was invented and developed by British writers – John Buchan, Ian Fleming, John le Carré. For when a country no longer has mighty armies and factories, it can still believe that its clever spies will allow it retain its status as a great nation by plotting and scheming. We may not have military or economic superiority but we want to believe that our superior intelligence will allow us to continue to manipulate the world.
The British love their spies because they allow us to live an illusion. I see no sign that the affair or the illusion will end.
For Sweden’s Axess magasin
The greying of Europe is changing the politics of Europe, although all people want to talk about now is how it is changing the continent’s economy. It is, of course, always worth asking whether society can afford to spend more on pensions and healthcare. But what kind of society we are becoming is a more important question still.
In Britain, the rise of the UK Independent Party to become the third most popular party in the country has given us a foretaste of a future dominated by an elderly population. Established politicians do not know what to make of it. Leftists denounce Ukip as a “far right” party. But although all kinds of extremists have joined, the label is a libel, as Ukip has no connection with the European fascist tradition. Meanwhile Conservatives do not know whether to cheer it for shifting British politics to the right or to worry that it will split the right-wing vote. In their happier moments, they say Ukip supporters will realise that only the Conservative Party can deliver the tough measures against immigration and the European Union they want, and vote for David Cameron. But they may be deluding themselves.
While it is true most who vote UKIP are against the EU and immigration, their main motive is a nostalgia for lost order of the mid-20th century the metropolitan Cameron will find hard to satisfy. As I keep saying, Britain is distinct from the rest of Europe. The communists and the Nazis never invaded. There were no collaborators here. Unlike Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland, Britain not only avoided occupation, but fought and won the Second World War on the victorious side. This fact alone explains why the British are more reluctant than most submerge themselves in the European Union. Our past is not tainted – or so we like to think.
In my youth in the 1970s, television, film and the press still ensured that the Second World War and the values that saw Britain through to victory were everywhere. I grew up under their long shadows. But all shadows fade, and a socially and economically liberal elite – the children of the 1960s – replaced the old patriotic order. If you are under 50, the values of mid-20th century Britain are unlikely to make a great deal of sense.
When a wealthy British Conservative paid for a huge poll of Ukip voters, he found they possessed a deep suspicion of the modern world. They told the market researchers that politically correct institutions sneered at their patriotism and Christian faith. Liberals stopped schools from producing nativity plays for fear of upsetting Muslims, and treated England’s national flag as a racist emblem. You couldn’t even smack your children these days without being arrested, or get social housing unless you were an immigrant.
As it happens, there are no laws against nativity plays or flying the flag. But Ukip’s persecution complex is not wholly paranoid. Broadcasting, academia and the progressive bureaucracy have no sympathy with their traditional patriotism. An established order, which once supported their values, now rejects them. Ukip supporters feel as if they have given their loyalty to the British state only for the state to turn round and say, after a lifetimes of service, that it despises them.
So what, you might ask. The old always find the new frightening. But the old are growing in number and staying with us for much, much longer. Britain now has twice as many pensioners (12 million) as 18 to 24-years-olds (5.9 million). Those pensioners are also far more likely to vote.
UKIP will never form a government. It may never even win a seat in Parliament. But all political parties want the votes it attracts. Politicians are already cutting benefits for the young but leaving pensioner entitlements alone for fear of the electoral consequences. They will bend the knee many more times before the power of the grey vote.
Britain’s future will not be far right, but suspicious and cantankerous. I cannot see a way out of it.
Equally, I cannot see how an arthritic country in an arthritic continent can do anything other than decline.
The European Union has had one incontestable advantage that is hard to describe without using babyish language. It is “nice”. It is “good”. To be against the European project makes you a prejudiced nationalist at best and a supporter of the wars and genocides that destroyed Europe in the 20th century at worst. If you think I am exaggerating, recall the advert Dutch supporters of European project produced, which implied that opponents of ever-greater union endorsed Auschwitz and Srebrenica.
To be in favour of the Euro, by contrast, is morally uplifting. All at once, you announce that you are a supporter of peace, cooperation and mutual understanding.
Who would not want to be a good person rather than a bad person? Support for the European Union has become the 21st equivalent of going to church and saying your prayers. A failure to pay homage proves your wickedness.
I had no objection with that view until the invention of the Euro. For people trying to escape the legacy of fascism in western Europe, of fascism and communism in eastern Europe, and the small but squalid dictatorships of Spain, Portugal and Greece in southern Europe, the European Union was indeed a salvation. A bit bureaucratic and boring, but the experience of the 20th century taught us that there is a great deal to be said for boring bureaucracies.
The worst thing the European Union did was to take the idealism and hope for a better world the peoples of Europe gave it and throw it away on a cruel and unworkable currency union. As the elite experiment of forcing a straitjacket over the continent produces ever-greater misery, I wonder how long the default view that the European Union is a benign institution last – particularly on the European left.
For the moment, defending the Euro remains the position of otherwise sensible centre-leftists. When I last visited Paris, I reduced a room to pained silence when I criticised the Euro. My doubts automatically made me a right-wing crank, and possible neo-fascist. I have spoken to Greek left-wing politicians, who fought the dictatorship of the colonels in the 1970s, and still cannot admit that the European project they saw as a blessing is now a curse.
Their faith surely cannot last. From a left-wing point of view, the Euro is doing the right’s work for it. The Eurozone denies countries the ability to devalue their currency or to increase demand by printing money. The only option it leaves for its weaker members is “internal devaluation”. They must cut workers’ wages and cut back on welfare states to restore competitiveness. To put it another way, the Eurozone is tearing up protections European social democrats have struggled for a century to achieve, all in the name of solidarity and progress.
Youth unemployment in Greece stands at 64 per cent. In Spain there are two million household where every member of the family is out of work. When the regional government in Andalucía tried to stop the banks seizing homes, the European Commission told local politicians that they may be violating the terms of Spain’s EMU bank bail-out. “If that is so, it is not worth being part of Europe,” said Jose Antonio Grinan, Andalucia’s socialist leader.
The moment of the EU’s greatest danger will come when other left-of-centre leaders belatedly reach the same conclusion. The European left is not in a strong state, but it retains a powerful capacity to moralise and to damn. Until now it has supported the European project with a religious fervour. Soon I suspect that same fervour will be turned against it.
Respectable opinion is less keen on pointing out that the old certainties no longer apply. As my colleague Dan Boffey reports on the Observer’s news pages, this recession is different. Not just because of globalisation or technological change but because of the decisions of leaders who have been so captured by the financial elite that they no longer put the interests of the broad mass of people first.
Since 2010, 38,000 more high-fliers have moved into the £150,000-£500,000 wage band. Six thousand more have pocketed between £500,000 and £1m. And 8,000 more have received salaries of more than £1m. Britain can now boast that it has more people in the £1m-plus bracket than at any time since records began. Good luck to them, one might have said, if their wealth were trickling down. But barely a drop is falling. The rising tide, which once promised to lift all boats, has ebbed – and left the majority stranded.
During one of the royal pageants that periodically choke the streets of London, a conservatively dressed American approached me.
“You must be so proud,” she trilled, and she became quite truculent when I told her I felt nothing but shame. “How can you hate your country?” she snapped. “What’s the matter with you?” “I don’t hate my country,” I replied, “and there’s nothing the matter with me. Like you, I am a republican.”
Foreigners rarely realize that British republicans have always opposed monarchy because they love their country and want to end the humiliation of a Hanoverian state’s smothering our best democratic impulses.
When I heard that Niall Ferguson had said that JM Keynes advocated reckless economic policies because he was gay and childless, and hence had no concern for the future, I wrote: ‘If true, this represents Ferguson’s degeneration from historian to shock jock’.
The reports were true, but I was wrong. There has been no degeneration. Ferguson has always been this crass and crassly inaccurate.
Here is something those who rely on political commentators will not have expected to see. The latest poll from TNS BMRB has the Tories down to just a quarter of the vote: CON 25% (-2), LAB 40% (+3), LD 10% (nc), UKIP 14% (-3). The Opinium/Observer online poll had LAB 38, CON 28, UKIP 17, LD 8% at the weekend. YouGov for the Sunday Times on the same day had CON 30, LAB 40, LD 11, UKIP 13. (The Tories were just 1% above their low point with firm.)
How can this be? All these polls were taken during the raging welfare debate. Commentator after commentator wrote articles assuring us that Labour was on the wrong side of public opinion, and the Tories had at last found an issue that would move the voters their way.
The right’s folly lies in its inability to understand that bankers have not been bashed. Indeed, they have barely been slapped. The courts have jailed no one responsible for the crash. Instead of “a never-ending trial for financial war crimes”, there have been no trials whatsoever. No one has sought to compensate the taxpayer by confiscating the bonuses taken in the bubble. The Financial Services Authority has barred only a handful of bankers from working in the UK financial sector. This palpable injustice allows me to summarise the coalition’s failure to convince the public that “we are all in this together” in a paragraph.
The taxpayer injected about £65bn into RBS and HBOS in share capital. Those shares are currently showing a loss of £20bn. The overall cost to taxpayers is incalculably higher because we must now manage in a zombie economy with a crippled banking system that can’t send credit to where it’s needed. Yet rather than punish those responsible, the coalition has cut their taxes.
To say that a populist is not like other politicians is therefore to say next to nothing. What matters are the policies.
Is Johnson in favour of keeping Britain in the EU or taking it out? Does he want to let immigration rip and spend more on housing benefits, or cut both? It all depends on who he is talking to, and what they want to hear. Johnson is far closer to the stand-up comedian, who advances his career by tailoring his material to suit his audience, than the leader with a programme for national renewal Britain needs.
I am sure he can act the part as he can act so many other parts. But for how long would he be able to maintain the pretence?