Stuart Reid Charterhouse
Swine fever could not have come at a better time for Gordon Brown. Now at last the newspapers have turned their attention from the horrors of the recession and sleaze – aggravated most recently by the Budget – to the rather more straightforward horrors of a flu pandemic that, we are told, could kill 120 million people worldwide.
You know where you are with mass graves, and pretty soon no doubt there will be someone to blame. It couldn’t be better. All the same I am still focusing on the economy.
Last week, for the first time in my life, I listened to the Budget as it was being delivered, though I cannot pretend that I took it all in. It was a nice day and I was sitting in the garden sunning myself like an old lizard – or a teenage girl – and some of the ledger-clerk stuff was a bit above me. What on earth is an “accelerated capital project”? What, come that, is a “top-up trade credit insurance scheme”?
Most years I rely on those Budget-at-a-glance boxes in the tabloids to find out what it means to me. It usually means absolutely nothing. Mostly it’s a penny here, a penny there. Only billionaires care about such sums, because a billion times a penny adds up to the price of a lunch for two at Le Gavroche followed by a modest weekend at the tables in Monaco.
But let’s not be snobs. Billionaires are people too, and right now they are hurting. Not only will they soon have to pay more tax, but in the past year, as we read last weekend in the Sunday Times, the recession has wiped £155 billion from fortunes of Britain’s richest 1,000 people: Lakshmi Mittal is down to his last £10.8 billion and Roman Abramovich to his last £7 billion.
Our newspapers – some of which are owned by billionaires – gave the Budget stinking reviews, but I rather liked it, or at least was greatly impressed by Alistair Darling’s performance.
He did not have a very upbeat tale to tell, and he chose exactly the right language for the job. He was a model of calm, Somme-like stoicism as he delivered the bad news about, for example, the hundreds of billions of pounds we must borrow to see ourselves through until pay day. The figures were so ridiculously large, however – and the recovery forecasts so wildly optimistic – that it was hard to take them seriously. Still, you never know...
We are living in an Alice-in-Wonderland world, and the only sensible thing for the sceptic to do at the moment is to be sceptical about the experts’ scepticism. All we know for sure is that we know nothing about how all this will pan out.
The recession is a great opportunity for the Church to get its message across. God willing, the Pope’s forthcoming social encyclical – due, apparently, on the feast of SS Peter and Paul (June 29) – will sock it to the neo-liberals (aka neocons) who take it upon themselves to speak for the Church in matters of economics, and try to persuade us that Benedict XVI is sold on the Anglo-American economic order.
He isn’t. The Pope is a Catholic, and therefore subscribes to Catholic social teaching, which is as hostile to liberal capitalism as it is to socialism, and especially to the sort of deregulated numbers rackets that the Mammon-worshippers of London and New York have been running.
In his days as a cardinal the Pope spoke out against the “tragic legacy” and “cruelty” of liberal capitalism. In Brazil in May 2007, addressing the Latin American and Caribbean bishops, he drew parallels between Marxism and capitalism: “Both capitalism and Marxism promised to point out the path for the creation of just structures, and they declared that these, once established, would func tion by themselves; they declared that not only would they have no need of any prior individual morality, but that they would promote a communal morality. And this ideological promise has been proved false. The facts have clearly demonstrated it.
“The Marxist system, where it found its way into government, not only left a sad heritage of economic and ecological destruction, but also a painful oppression of souls. And we can also see the same thing happening in the West, where the distance between rich and poor is growing constantly, and giving rise to a worrying degrada tion of personal dignity through drugs, alcohol and deceptive illusions of happiness.” Everyone needs a secular hero or two, and one of mine is Rian Malan. In the Sunday Times at the weekend he had a very nice diary, in which he said that he liked Jacob Zuma, because the president-elect of South Africa had “old-fashioned views on stuff like law and order”.
Malan also said that it was a good time to be a Boer: “...as South Africa staggers towards its destiny, it’s white Left-liberals who are wailing about our government’s shortcomings. The Boers never expected any better, so we are generally immune to the gloom.” The diary made my heart go out, once again, to the Boers. They are brave, honest, hard-working, courteous, old-fashioned and often God-fearing, with a weakness for the bottle. Plus they were on the right side in the Boer War and their women – sometimes their men too – are beautiful.
Malan was born in Johannesburg, in what was then the Transvaal, and was a teenage rebel against apartheid. He is probably best known for My Traitor’s Heart, a gripping, and grippingly honest, book about race and violence in the Republic.
I first met him fairly late on the night of the 1997 election, at a party given by the Daily Telegraph. I listened to him talk for about a quarter of an hour, but without understanding a word he said.
He’d had a few drinks, and there was a lot of noise in the room, and he speaks quietly. I just nodded and laughed every now and then, in case he’d make a joke.
The Sunday Telegraph’s Jenny McCartney later told me that at five in the morning of the same day she’d had a similar experience at Tory party headquarters. By that time Rian was well relaxed, and Jenny said that in a conversation lasting perhaps half an hour she’d recognized only one word: corduroy.
It would be fascinating to know what he’d been getting at. Tony Blair evokes flannel rather than corduroy, but no doubt Rian had some insight.