Another thirteen long miles. We plod through boggy, plowed-up, often clay-based fields, where the adjacent river banks are strewn with rusted barbed wire that would do the Somme battle fields proud. Often we face impassable “pedestrian” access points smothered in brambles. I imagine an overarching statement from the council hanging there: “Why not stay away and watch telly?” to send us swearing on our way.
We end with an easy three mile walk along the Grand Union Canal that connects London and Birmingham.
I was deeply relieved to see our hosts, old friends, a retired Admiral and his wife who are effortlessly hospitable. My host gave me a gin and tonic so strong I wanted to sing the Hallelujah Chorus. It’s amazing what a hot bath and a good night’s rest will do.
One statistic that may be of interest is that out of the many people we have met, only two voted “Remain.” And after careful questioning none of those who voted “Brexit” were concerned about immigration but instead they were deeply bothered by the erosion of democracy.
God Save the Queen
Last week I met a number of other friends who were distraught at the hiatus surrounding the Brexit vote.
“Woe is us!” they cried as they lamented the fact that the dice have been thrown, and that nothing will ever be the same again. There is now no turning back. The change is absolute and heralds the total destruction of all that Ted Heath laboured for all his political life. The faint sound of rustling is the sound of the poor man revolving in his grave in Salisbury Cathedral.
Why does the UK handle domestic crises so well? In a mere couple of weeks the pace of change was furious while the UK gave the world a master class in how to handle the rattling train when the wheels fall off.
The Show Must Go On
British voters decided to vote “Brexit” in total opposition to the solemn advice given by an all-star campaigning team headed by the prime minister, David Cameron, and all the usual establishment suspects – from John Major, the head of the CBI, the Governor of the Bank of England, and the World Bank to Chancellor Merkel and her EU chums. An overwhelming team of the great and the good chipped in, including various generals, leaders of all the political parties, much of the media, and President Obama. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury gave his views, although why anyone would think his opinion was even vaguely relevant beats me (the chief Rabbi wisely remained silent). All Justin Welby did was to irritate at least half of CoE members for no gain at all.
Then the referendum took place and to everyone’s total incredulity the establishment and its advice was given a vigorous two fingers. The prime minister honourably resigned, and within a week a new PM was in place, a fresh cabinet had set to work and the beginnings of Brexit were underway.
Why are we so good at this sort of thing? The UK has been in crisis mode before of course, although the Brexit vote is undoubtedly far more important than anything else that has happened politically since the end of the Second World War. Cast your mind back to the defenestration of Maggie in the middle of the Gulf War in 1991. It passed surprisingly smoothly – for everyone but Mrs T – as the government dusted itself down and we started all over again.
Now to the USA, which has a fundamentally different political system. In 1973, the USA ousted President Nixon after the ghastly Watergate debacle. What an upheaval! Even nearly half a century later, memories of the pain of that incident are still so acute that scar tissue is only just forming. It was the Nixon scandal that had the authorities reluctantly deciding that they simply couldn’t go through that process yet again when President Clinton arguably behaved just as badly over the Monica Lewinski affair. When he insisted “I didn’t have sex with that woman”, everyone knew he was lying.
I submit that if both men had been British prime ministers, the men in grey suits would have torpedoed them within a week: game over.
What’s the difference between our political system and that of the USA? When Thatcher was “replaced”, or when the Cameron referendum blew up in his face and Labour entered meltdown, the “technical” repository of all power in the UK remains vested in our good Queen Elizabeth II. As the dust flies up around her, she continues to sit on her throne while the “here today, gone tomorrow” politicians scrabble around far below.
Of course the queen would never dream of interfering: but the point is she could – she is the head of state, not the prime minister.
When Nixon and Clinton imploded, they were both heads of state and supreme “Hail to the Chief” of the forces. That’s why the scars of the Nixon impeachment were so hard to heal, and it’s why they “forgave” Clinton.
God Save the Queen! Perhaps the USA might like to become a colony again – it does have certain advantages.
The Chilcott Effect
I hate public vilification. I hate the snarl of the pack at the heels of more or less anyone (other than Sepp Blatter! I am rather enjoying that – this shows how fallen I am.)
I know the world now comprehensively condemns the Blair government for the Iraq war. I don’t want to get involved in the rights and wrongs of the conflict but a few thoughts as I walk.
First, I loathe the media circus prancing around the bereaved families. Of course the media loves raw emotion, the more tears the better.
“Tell me Mrs Peabody, what did you feel when you learned your son had been maimed?”
“Do you think the war is “right”?
“Do you think the equipment was sufficient? Don’t you think the war is a disaster and that the prime minister is culpable?”
Of course, if a member of my family had been killed in war, I too would give way to an emotional response, and whatever new facts were presented, it is unlikely my feelings would ever change. To many of the bereaved, Blair is murderous scum and he can never be forgiven.
As a highly intelligent, man Blair must know this. We are all sensitive and he and his family must loathe the threats and the never-ending hatred that will be his lot until he dies.
Of course, I am desperately sorry for the families of people who have been killed in conflict. But for heaven’s sake, the bereaved are the last people on earth who can be reasonably expected to give a measured and balanced response to any question about the morality of the conflict, the competence of the way the conflict was conducted and its aftermath, or the decisions and methods of those in charge.
Chilcott and his like are a new phenomenon. Thank goodness he was not around 100 years ago when the Somme casualties were of an industrial order and the catchy phrase “lions led by donkeys” had yet to be penned. Then what about Churchill’s Dardanelles fiasco? If that had been “Chilcotted” at the time, Churchill would never have survived past 1916 to confront the evils of Hitler.
Regarding the so-called “dodgy dossier”: historically the accusations facing Blair, even if true, are thin gruel.
In 1941, Roosevelt bolstered support for Britain’s war by “sexing” up a naval incident into a Nazi act of aggression. By claiming to have possessed a secret map of NAZI designs on Latin America – a map far more dodgy than any dossier Blair is accused of manufacturing since the British had forged it and Roosevelt knew this – America edged closer to war.
Few would infer today that it was wrong then to have taken any steps necessary to get the USA involved in the war against Hitler. So perhaps when Churchill said that “the truth is so important, it has to be guarded by a circle of lies”, he might have had a point.
Remember that from 1939–42, the UK failed to win any battles until Alamein. All that time, men died probably because of being under-prepared and under-armed – who knows? And don’t forget the Norway, Dunkirk and Dieppe fiascos; and then the fall of Singapore and Operation Market Garden.
What would Chilcott have made of it all?
All wars are ghastly yet men queue up to take part! Lord Byron summed it up by writing, “All wars are a brain-splattering, windpipe-splitting art”. Just as well, for otherwise men would love them so.
But no battle plans survive contact with the enemy, and all men (and women) in war make dreadful and costly mistakes. How unforgiving we have become.
And another thing. I reckon that the penalties of going to war today are so draconian that only a foolhardy prime minister would ever dare to act for fear they might end up in the Hague. That’s a thought for us all.