Tuesday, September 25, 2007

2007 and all that

I was reminded yesterday that I hadn't blogged for a week; was I still alive? Alive, certainly, but busy. I have been painting the back of the house. We have one of those black and white, mock-Tudor houses. It is around 100 years old with the original wooden window frames. When I addressed the problem it was clear that the paint was stronger than the wood. It was necessary to do some remedial work before I could get the paint-brush out. These old houses are very impressive but they do require maintenance.

At the weekend my son visited us. David is an engineer who works for AP Racing. The company made its name by designing and manufacturing the clutch for the Ford Cosworth engine, which for many years was the basis of most car racing. He is an expert on brakes, and designed the brakes on many of the fastest cars on the planet. His role this year is to be the AP representative at the races. He has just returned from Salt Lake City where he covered some sort of racing event, but he had a free weekend to come and visit his ageing parents.

We took a walk on the beach on Sunday morning. The weather was balmy with a south west breeze and very few people around. Seven miles of sand in a long curve with cliffs behind. This is the time to best appreciate Bournemouth. The visitors have gone home, but it is still warm enough to walk in your shirtsleeves. Now the residents can enjoy the scenery without the smell of suntan oil and hot dogs. The cliffs here are covered with vegetation. I picked out wild roses, Michaelmas daisies and evening primrose, but there were many other species that I didn't recognize.

We have been talking about moving from Bournemouth, though it would be hard to leave. This is one of the most pleasant sections of the English coastline. However, we haven't walked on the beach since February and we could achieve that frequency if we lived in Birmingham.

In Bournemouth this week are the Labor Party for their annual Conference. Gordon Brown gave his first Conference speech as Prime Minister. There is talk of an early election so that he can have his own mandate, instead of inheriting Tony Blair's In fact there is no need. He has two and a half years before he need to call an election. This is a parliamentary, rather than Presidential, form of government.

Last night I watched a television program about the making of the film, Billy Eliot. Most of my readers will know that this is the story set against the miner's strike of 1984 of a young working class, miner's son who wants to become a ballet dancer. In the film they used the local ex-miners as extras. They were happy to play the striking miners, but no-one wanted to play the policemen who broke the strike. Not living in such an area I find it hard to appreciate the vehemence with which these communities hates (and still hate) Mrs Thatcher.

My take on British history since the second world war is that 1945 saw an irrevocable change. Workers were no longer content to be led by the 'Officer class'. They had seen for themselves that it was the sergeants who were the real leaders. Sure there were real leaders like Churchill and Montgomery who knew how to fight, but the young men from public schools who were the subalterns and junior officers were in the main no more fit to lead, and often far less so, than the NCOs who were their erstwhile mates. The Attlee government nationalized everything. Post war Britain was all but bankrupt, its industry had been bombed and much of its housing stock destroyed. Although it still had its bright young men and its Nobel prizes (the structure of DNA was discovered in Cambridge in 1953), its industry was old fashioned, the class structure was still ossifying society, and capital was in short supply. The Attlee government was stuffed with effete intellectuals and tough Union leaders. They were not up to the task. On an island built of coal and surrounded by fish they had contrived by 1947 to produce a shortage of both - as Sir Anthony Eden adroitly remarked. Their vision outran their competence.

Churchill's government of the fifties had the advantage of time passing since the war. Economic recovery had begun. But Britain had to come to terms with its new place in the world. As America's largest ally in Korea, it felt itself still to be a great power, but when the conspiracy with France and Israel to attack Suez and retake the Canal failed because America opposed it, the new Prime Minister, Macmillan, had to readjust to the new world. Britain acted quickly to divest itself of its Empire. India had gone in 1947, the White Dominions could stand on their own feet, and the rest was a burden rather than a benefit. Empire became Commonwealth, but Africa had little share in the common wealth. Following the Indian example the African colonies each produced their own Nehru, and endowed with schools, a civil service and the Church of England stepped out towards disaster.

Profumo brought down the Conservatives. Despite relative success of Macmillan's government - they were building 300,000 houses a year, there were new roads and railways, new schools and hospitals were constructed and the exploitation of the African had ended - they were still members of a different class. Profumo emphasized that. While the rest of us were working out butts off for the country, here was a member of the government consorting with call-girls, living it up at a country house and probably spilling secrets as he shared a mistress with a Russian spy. It was too much for Macmillan who fell ill, and when the Tories replaced him with the 14th Earl of Home, our suspicions were confirmed. We wanted one of us to lead us, not one of them.

The sixties were all about young people. The Beatles, the Prague Spring, Paris 68, Jack Kennedy, Viet Nam: Harold Wilson exploited the situation well. He was an Oxford intellectual who pretended to be working class. He affected a broad Yorkshire accent, smoked a pipe and entertained visitors to 10 Downing Street with beer and sandwiches rather than fine wines and French haute cuisine. He declined to send troops to Viet Nam, pursued Keynesian economics, let inflation rip, allowed the Trades Unions to dominate politics, spent taxpayers money on propping up ailing industries and presided over decline. It was like that line of Wilfred Owen's: "A slow drawing down of blinds."

The Tories gave us a Wilson clone in Edward Heath. A one-nation Tory, he pursued much the same economic policies as Wilson. Heath was a bachelor who loved classical music and yachting. His great ambition was to enter the Common Market as it was then known. Everyone envied the German economic miracle and wanted the same for themselves. The French wanted to keep it for themselves. Heath bought his way in. I guess his ambition was colored by the War. He had been a major in the Tank Corps and had been decorated. He saw the European Economic Community as the sure way to end war in Europe.

My view on Europe is different. Cynically, I regard it as a plot by the French to enforce the same sort of reparations on Germany as they did after the first world war. In trying to avoid another Hitler arising they locked Germany into a social arrangement by which German profits would featherbed French farmers while keeping Germany as a good neighbor. Naturally De Gaulle didn't want the British to have a share of the cake. The terms that Heath agreed to were such that the British ended up paying the French too (for having the cheek to save French bacon). Of course America was the real funder through the Marshall plan.

But it wasn't Europe that brought him down, it was the economy. The British economy had been growing at a rather slower rate than the German one, but it had been growing. Despite large numbers of immigrants from Jamaica and the Indian sub-continent there was a shortage of labor and the Unions exploited this. The main industries - coal, steel, automobile, telecommunications, shipbuilding, the docks and the railways had all been nationalized so the Unions had the ability to hold the country to ransom. The Arabs had shown how to do it by raising the oil price. Without fuel the wheels don't turn.

The coal miners went on strike. To save fuel Heath introduced a three day week. Electricity was cut off at regular intervals to spread the pain around. We were lucky; we lived next door to a hospital which was spared. Heath called a snap election on the issue of who rules - the Unions or the Government? But people were sick of the privation and voted Labor.

Wilson was back and his Industry Minister Eric Varley settled with the miners by giving them a 30% pay rise, but Wilson immediately recognized that the Unions had to be tamed. He instructed Barbara Castle to introduce legislation to curb them. "In Place of Strife" was hated by the Unions who mobilized their MPs to fight it. Their chief supporter was Jim Callaghan, a man who has the signal honor of holding the four great offices of state - Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Home Secretary, and failing in every one of them. In a Cabinet revolt he defeated Barbara Castle. The Unions were unfettered, and in a surprise decision, perhaps because he recognized the beginnings of dementia, Wilson resigned.

Callaghan succeeded him and led the country into chaos. By 1979 strikes ruled. The economy had collapsed. The dead remained unburied, garbage was uncollected in the streets and rats had started invading people's house. Callaghan clung on until the last moment.

Then came Mrs Thatcher. It was not easy. To control inflation Geoffrey Howe produced a severely deflationary budget. It was not popular. The mood of the country was against her. Then the Argentinians invaded the Falklands. It was a Godsend. She mounted a task force with an 8000 mile logistic tail that retook the islands. It was difficult; we lost a lot of men, but it proved that low as we had sunk, we were still superior to some jumped up banana republic run by a bunch of Nazis whose heroes cheat at football.

Thatcher was re-elected and made plans to tackle the miners. It was a re-run of 1973-4. Scargill wanted to emulate Gormley, but he was a much nastier piece of work. Thatcher had prepared well. Coal stocks were at an all-time high and many of the power stations were gas-fired. She weathered the storm. Despite violent demonstrations, bullying and bitter enmity between working men, the miners were defeated and the Unions were broken. The great state monopolies were broken up and privatized. Anti-Union legislation reduced their powers. A stronger Mrs Thatcher even renegotiated the terms of EU membership and won a rebate on the punitive cost we were paying the French. She won a third term.

She fell over two issues. She would not pay for recombinant factor VIII for hemophiliacs and she replaced domestic rates (which had become unworkable) by a flat rate tax. This was dubbed the Poll tax by Labor bringing back memories of Wat Tyler. The Tories felt she had outlived her usefulness and brought in John Major who was supposed to lose in 1992. He won. Tempted by Europe to start to merge currencies, his first move was met by a run on the pound. The speculators won and Major was diminished. Not only was he now a lame duck, but he faced Tony Blair, a different kind of Labor leader.

Blair adopted Thatcher's economic policies, resisted the Unions, and to a degree kept the Chancellor's hands off interest rates. The economy boomed. His foreign policy involved interfering in the internal runnings of rogue states. This was successful in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo, but Iraq became a millstone around his neck. His successor, Gordon Brown, is benefiting from not being Tony Blair, and despite being equally to blame for Iraq carries none of the fall-out from it. He has the reputation of a successful finance minister, but so far even the first run on a British bank for 147 years has not harmed him. Can it last?

He appeared in Bournemouth this week in sober suit against a blue (Tory) background and mentioned 'Britain' or 'British' 71 times in his speech. As a Scottish MP he is vulnerable to Scottish nationalism. He is also facing difficulties over Europe. His manifesto promised a referendum on the new European constitution. That was kicked into the long grass by the French and the Dutch, but has been resurrected, only slightly altered as a Treaty. He no longer wants a referendum (which would be lost), but if he calls an election it will become a referendum on Europe. Whatever the polls say, he might lose.


Anonymous said...

Certainly the English should divest themselves of their sorry past and free Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As you know, the people of those countries dislike the British, and the British behaved badly over the centuries in conquering them. Pity the rich Londoners who have (had) country homes in Wales. Perhaps they had an unexplained fire or two.

I do find it somewhat amusing that you write that it was the British who decided to leave India and its other colonies. I guess Mahatma Gandhi and the other Indian leaders just waited around patiently for England to 'divest' themselves of their empire.

Margaret Thatcher was indeed the woman who save England from itself. The question is, did England deserve her?

Terry Hamblin said...

If Scotland became independent England would be much richer. Each Scottish individual receives £5 from the public purse for every £4 received by English people. Half the current British government is Scottish - if they all went back home we would never have another Labor government.

Britain has been extraordinarily generous to its former colony of Ireland since its independence. Irish people have been granted free access to England without a passport. They can vote in English elections and partake of English social security. They have access to a free health service (they have been coming for free abortions since 1967). Despite Mel Gibson's propaganda, the idea of Britain as a colonial oppressor is a travesty.

The British left America because they were defeated in a war, but it should be remembered that the American colonists were in fact British themselves. They picked a fight in Boston because the British government lowered the tax on tea, thus robbing the colonists of the profit they were making from smuggling.

Britain left India because of a political decision by the Attlee government and they left Africa because of a political decision by the Macmillan government. These decisions were taken because colonialism had become politically incorrect. Gandhi and others convinced enough people in the British establishment that colonies were not worth having.

Looking at Africa now most countries would have fared better had the British stayed.

Sonia said...

Crikey! That's some vitriol from anonymous.

As an English person I'd be dreadfully offended if it wasn't for the fact that they seem so very confused about the whole topic.

The blurring of British/English gives the game away!

In actual fact we British are a complete mixed bag, I am half Welsh and half English, my husband is half Scottish and half English. To call for seperation of the union is just plain daft!

As regards Margaret Thatcher, all I can say is that I grew up during her leadership, and if you didn't experience it, I'm not sure you can understand it.

I'm not looking for a fight, I'd just like to point out that things are seldom black and white!

Terry Hamblin said...

The verdict on Mrs Thatcher is a mixed one. To me she was the greatest British Prime Minister of the 20th Century in her first two terms, but in her third term she went mad.

Anonymous said...

Well for one thing, the English were quite active in appropriating humans from Africa and elsewhere and were admittedly quite good in establishing and running a slave trade. How else did Africans get to the Americas? The sugar and rum trade in the West Indies were not start-ups set up by the Africans themselves.

Were not Indians and Asians forced to work as slaves in English enterprises? Of course!

What about the neglect and outright complicity in the deaths of millions during the Irish potato famine? British larders were full, and food sat in ships in English harbors while the Irish simply died of starvation. I'm sure there was much chortling among the English at this since the Irish frequently give the English trouble.

As English minister Trevelyan said in 1847, "[The] problem of Irish overpopulation being altogether beyond the power of man, the cure had been supplied by the direct stroke of an all-wise Providence." So much for English charity.

It has been estimated that between 12 and 33 million Indians died under the brutal yoke of British rule. Colonies such as India existed only to bleed dry. The English did not invade a country to bring democracy and peace to a nation, and then leave. It was to exploit a country, obviously.

Or have you forgotten the East Indian Company, the East African Company, and the Hudson Bay Company?

So exploitation of others was the English (and British) method of interacting with the rest of the world.

The English are not an innocent people. Much native blood was spilled by them. This cannot be denied.

Terry Hamblin said...

Always a mistake to apply 21st Century morality to history. Otherwise the present day Americans would be in the dock for the genocide of the native Americans and for carrying on with slavery long after it had been abolished in the British Empire. Besides most of the historical events you cite have more than one interpretation. Myths arise on both sides of a dispute which color people's views. The Africans who were transported to the Americas were first enslaved by other Africans who then sold them on to Europeans (it was not just the British who were doing the transporting - many were transported under the American flag. It was, however, the British who first abolished the slave trade.

The Irish republic under De Velera was a terrible place; priest-ridden and oppressive to women. The Raj in India had to deal with the horrible practice of widows being thrown on their husbands' funeral pyres and the disgraceful oppression of the untouchables. It is sensible to have some perspective when dealing with history.

Terry Hamblin said...

For those who hate the English it is worth reading Mike Cleary's blog at http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/sport/mickcleary/september07/whyidonthatetheenglish.htm

justme said...

What I Like About England:

1. Parliament and Big Ben
2. Shakespeare
3. British humor
4. Jane Austen
5. Roses
6. Tea with milk
7. Bath, Somerset
8. The Beatles
9. Varied countryside and
10. WWII & Winston Churchill!