Does History Tell the Future?

There are questions I can’t answer: is the frog the farmer’s friend, does history tell the future?

Many believe that history repeats itself, and looking back there is evidence of that, but telling the future is something else again.

I have been reading Black Sea, by Neal Ascherson.

Appearing on television discussion programme A...

Appearing on television discussion programme After Dark in 1987 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is not a work of marine biology but a history of the human activity in the Black Sea area over hundreds of years. It is full of detail and constantly interesting, but I was struck by these passages.

‘Tomorrow it will be the turn of the customs officers and frontier guards of the European Union to be outwitted and “hunted” by ten million illegal, inaccessible, fast moving aporoi immigrants.’ (Page 56)

‘That nightmare survives in the new Europe after the revolutions of 1989. It survives as Western fear of all travelling people, of the millions pressing against Europe’s gates as “asylum-seekers’ or “economic migrants”, of a social collapse in Russia which would send half the population streaming hungrily towards Germany.’ (Page 76)

The  Black Sea was published in 2007.

Politics, fiction and the Islamic State

An organisation in the Middle East is currently earning adverse publicity by cutting people’s heads off. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks this is a good idea. The usual reaction is revulsion, and I go along with that.

Particularly prone to revulsion are some of our politicians, who make their feelings very clear and, in so doing, believe they are speaking for the rest of us. Which, in most cases, they are – though some adherents of Islam can be found not only expressing their support but going over there to lend a knife or axe.

But here’s a strange thing. Several of the politicians I have heard expressing their revulsion also admit to being fans of Game of Thrones. Now whether they are genuine fans I have no way of knowing. I can think of occasions where politicians have claimed to like singers or groups, the suspicion being that their choices better reflected a desire to be ‘of the people’, to have ‘the common touch’, than music which they actually liked. In this pursuit some have even gone so far as to eat a bacon sandwich for the cameras or give two pennies to a beggar.

Which takes me back to Game of Thrones. (Don’t ask me how, but this is fantasy, right?) Some politicians may claim to like this series knowing it to be popular with the voting public, but others clearly like it for itself. One of these is Michael Gove, until recently education minister in England. (By this I mean England only: his writ did not run in other parts of the UK.) Here is the great man in action. Prepare to be inspired.

I haven’t the faintest idea what he’s talking about, but maybe you do. Anyway, my wife and I (cara sposa) were given a box set of Game of Thrones last Christmas by our son. About a month ago we watched the first of this series and knew it wasn’t for us. But this first episode was enough to show that the politicians who express such revulsion at heads being cut off in Syria and Iraq can live with it happily when it occurs in the first episode of Game of Thrones. I didn’t keep count, but at least two heads were removed from their necks in the first episode. So politicians who like this show must take the view, if they think about it at all, that there is no connection of any sort between real life and fiction.

Which may indicate several things, one of which might be that politics is itself a branch of fiction.

And now I come to think of it, politics is absent from the list of genres currently infesting the writing websites, though I can think of quite a few political novels, starting with Coningsby by Benjamin Disraeli. I feel a campaign to include it coming on, a relevant hashtag or two.

Line drawing of Disraeli

Line drawing of Disraeli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not that Game of Thrones started this unsavoury subject. I give you the Queen of Hearts, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. ‘Off with their heads.’

If it’s in ‘Alice’ it must be alright.

A secret affair

Here in the YUK, some journalists and others are on trial charged with phone hacking and perverting the course of justice. Today the prosecution revealed that two of them, Rebekah Brooks and Andrew Coulson, had conducted an affair lasting several years, this affair spanning the time of the alleged offences.

Telling us this, the Sky News presenter guessed – quite rightly, no doubt – that this would make it big in the next editions of the newspapers. He then revealed who they had lined up to review these papers. One of them was their athletics correspondent!
It would seem they are anticipating coverage in some detail!

Owing Money

We here in the YUK have been hearing much about our budget deficit in recent days. The reason? The Conservative and Unionist Party are having their annual conference.

We have a deficit in the YUK because the government spends more every year than it raises in taxes. It then makes up the shortfall by borrowing money on the open market, selling bonds (called ‘gilts’) to those willing to buy them. (Exactly the same happens in the land of the free, where government bonds are referred to as ‘treasuries’.)

The present administration points out that this habit cannot continue indefinitely because, if it does, our children and grandchildren will be picking up the tab – which is plainly unfair. So they are attempting to eliminate the deficit entirely and, three years in, claim to have reduced it by a third. But the remaining two thirds are still there, which means further borrowing every year. And the word we are not hearing from anyone is ‘debt’. Which is strange because, as we borrow more, so our national debt increases.

Addressing his party conference the top political money-man (known in the YUK as the Chancellor of the Exchequer) made a bold commitment. After eliminating the deficit, George Osborne stated that his goal is to start building up a surplus. That is, he intends to bring in more in taxes than he spends. He intends to be in a position ‘to fix the roof while the sun is shining’. He will be able to pay for new slates and gutters without borrowing the money to do it.

Right. Well and good. But I have now heard several interviews on this subject and not once has the interviewer asked how George could afford to do this given the present size of the national debt, let alone how much greater it will be several years down the line when the deficit is finally eliminated.

And we are not talking ten pounds here, but a truly colossal sum of money. We now owe in excess of £900 billion, and that figure excludes bank bailouts. We owe £19,034 for every man, woman and child, which is more than £42,084 for every person in employment. Every household will pay £1,906 this year, just to cover the interest. (Source: UK Debt Bombshell)

So if we ever get to the point where we have a budget surplus, it seems fairly obvious where the surplus money will have to go. Because, as the politicians know but don’t like to tell us, even as the deficit falls the debt keeps rising and it has to be paid for.

Evidence-based politics

Nick Clegg is a politician here in the YUK. Recently, at his party conference in Scotland, he announced the introduction of a charge on plastic carrier bags in England. (He couldn’t make such an announcement for Scotland or Wales because his writ doesn’t run in these places and because, in making his announcement, he was playing catch-up with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Government.)

In the course of explaining his plan he referred to the fact that a plastic carrier bag took a thousand years to degrade. So we might have two reactions to this. Firstly, 1,000 is a suspiciously round number and secondly, how he could he possibly know this? After all, plastic bags have  centuries to go before they have been with us for 1,000 years.

This second point occurred to the makers of a radio programme called More or Less (BBC Radio 4) so they contacted the relevant department and requested the source of the figure. The department obliged and referred them to a research paper which the programme-makers duly obtained. Two facts about this paper: 1) it did not deal with plastic carrier bags and 2) the figure of 1,000 years was not in it.

So, much as we might welcome his initiative on environmental grounds, we can safely say that Nicholas is not an evidence-based politician.


‘A politician is an arse upon which everyone has sat except a man.’
So wrote ee cummings.

We can infer from this quotation that ee cummings was not impressed by politicians. He is not alone in that, though few have put it so forcefully.

I find politicians irritating for many reasons. They frequently evade answering questions, they are often deliberately vague, they frequently misrepresent the policies of their opponents, if anything damaging they have said is quoted against them it has always been ‘taken out of context’, and here in the YUK (Yunited Kingdom) they have been guilty of gross abuses of their expenses, so much so that a few have ended up in jail. If a critical report is published about their activities their custom is to write it off as based on out-of-date figures (whether it is or not). None of this endears them to the public.

We have recently had the case of a YUK politician, Grant Shapps who, to put it politely, seriously misrepresented the recent visit of a UN special investigator. For chapter on verse on this regrettable incident, follow this link.

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The German elections have just taken place and Angela Merkel has been re-elected with an even larger majority. One feature of German elections over the last few years is that young people have participated in them less and less. I don’t know why that is, though young Germans I have heard asked this question often reply that they don’t trust politicians. One young man went so far as to say this: ‘If I would be a politician I wouldn’t trust myself.’ If the Pirate Party was standing, it hasn’t done well.

But Angela’s success over the years is remarkable, so many people clearly trust her. If I lived in Germany I would probably trust her myself. So how trustworthy is she? She has one major u-turn on her record, the decision to make Germany non-nuclear in the light of the Fukushima disaster. Before that she supported nuclear power, but Fukushima caused her to analyse technical papers on the subject and, as a result, she seems to have concluded that safety could not be assured. Now if Angela was your average politician we might readily query her conclusion, but she has a degree in quantum chemistry and a PhD to boot. She may well be the most intelligent politician on the planet. (I am told that here in the parliament of the YUK, lower house thereof  – the one that contains the elected politicians – there is only one scientist out of over 600 members.)

Other than that, we have her response to the crisis in the Eurozone. Bailing out Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus has required a great deal of money, the largest amount coming from German tax-payers via the German government. But this was not supposed to happen, and wouldn’t have if the Bundesbank had anything to do with it. Meanwhile Angela, while giving the impression she was resisting such transfers, has gone along with them to save the Euro. I would guess this policy will continue under the new government, since Greece needs yet more money and Portugal looks as though it is going the same way.

So Frau Merkel sometimes talks tough to reassure the taxpayers, but quietly pays up. On this one issue she is not to be trusted. Why? The reason might be that the Euro, being a weaker currency than the Deutschmark used to be, has made German exports more competitive, and Germany relies heavily on exports. Germany has probably profited more from the Euro than any other country in the Eurozone, but this may be a hard message to sell. Nonetheless, you could say that on this issue she has sung two songs in different keys at the same time. And it is for this reason that an anti-Euro party was recently set up in Germany and, from a standing start, has done quite well.