Sunday, 30 May 2010

The strange case of Facebook and the right to privacy

It’s fascinating to watch the turns and twists of the debate over Facebook privacy, though I have to confess that I have some trouble coming to terms with it. After all, the ‘www’ in front of the Facebook address refers to the idea of a ‘worldwide web’. I have trouble with the idea that we distribute material worldwide but still expect it to be private.

I feel the same about the frequent criticism of Britain as the nation with most video surveillance of any country in the world. I mean, I don’t deny the fact. In one sense, I suppose it’s actually a bit comforting to be top in something, having just come bottom in the Eurovision song contest. But of course the critics are reacting to the invasion of privacy that these cameras represent.

Certainly there are video cameras everywhere. I see them all the time, in public places, on the public highway, on public transport. But note that word ‘public’. It’s not insignificant. Where do we get an expectation of privacy when we’re in public?

One of the exciting aspects of starting out on a career is the way you have to come to terms with new concepts and challenge many of the ideas you had at the outset. When I first got into marketing, I took up with enthusiasm the task of planning a publicity campaign for our wonderful range of products. It was going to be so good that we’d be fighting off the people wanting to buy from us. I briefed some outstanding agencies, I worked alongside them with passion and energy, we came up with a campaign that gave us real pride. So imagine my disappointment when I put a series of designs in front of my boss and he leafed through them with apparent distaste and obviously increasing anxiety.

‘Yes,’ he said finally, but in a tone that betrayed his reticence, ‘these should be highly effective. But do we really want our competitors to know all this about us?’

It was a Damascene moment. It was the first but by no means the last time I had met a businessman who wanted to trumpet from the rooftops the outstanding qualities of his products, while imposing the strictest possible confidentiality about them. The elusive goal he was seeking was, in fact, secret publicity.

You may smile at the idea. But aren’t the concepts of ‘Facebook privacy’ or ‘the right to privacy in a public place’ at least as questionable?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

England, blessed with Rhyme and Reason

Here in Britain, our bright new government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, or ‘ConDems’ as the Daily Mirror has so aptly baptised them, has been announcing all sorts of exciting new initiatives. One of these – perhaps a bit more Con than Dem – is to make sure that schools again start to teach poems by heart. This is presumably because of the abiding love of poetry that has been inspired in so many by reading reams of Walter de la Mare as a child and being able to recite ‘The Assyrian came down like a wolf on the fold, and his something and something and something and gold’.

Equally they want schools to teach lists of the Kings and Queens of England. Being able to rattle through them in the right order is clearly the kind of accomplishment without which civilised life is barely imaginable.

Note, by the way, that this really does mean England, so that James I is always the first, even though he was the sixth King of Scotland of that name. Also the list starts with William the Conqueror as no-one wants to have to tangle with difficult names like Aethelred, Athelstan or Edward the Confessor. We just write the Anglo-Saxons out of the picture and pretend that history only started when the Normans came blundering in without knocking.

As it happens, I can do the first eight, because I’ve never been able to forget ‘Williy, Willy, Harry, Ste, Harry, Dick, John, Harry three’. You can imagine what comfort this gives me. I can’t count how many times it’s been useful to me, but that’s only because zero isn’t a counting number.

Meanwhile, our government – or, again, the Con part of it at least – would like to do away with the Human Rights Act. Obviously, no-one really needs human rights. Just learn to recite ‘Victoria, Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII’, and we’ll be able to proclaim with every ConDem in sight, ‘the snail's on the thorn; God's in his Heaven – all’s right with the world.’

Friday, 21 May 2010

An eventful life and a cruel end

Jeannette Brugner was born in 1925 in Alsace, which meant she was French. Her father had been born in the same region, but a generation earlier, which made him German. In that part of the world, at that time, the nation you belonged to was a question of history, not geography.

She was given a powerful object lesson in that truth fifteen years later when the Germans turned up again in Alsace uninvited, though perhaps not unannounced, and declared her home to be part of the territory of the Reich. The war years left her with a disrupted education and an abiding dislike of goats’ milk, shared by most of her family: with the shortages of the period, the only milk available at times was the pungent type produced by goats, and it put them off the stuff forever.

Things got off to a confused start for Jeannette. It used to be the custom in Alsace, and it probably hasn’t completely died out to our day, that while a new mother was recovering from childbirth, the father was out celebrating with his friends and getting well lubricated in the process. The father would then pop down to the town hall and register the birth, which sometimes led to some strange names being recorded.

Her mother favoured the name Jeannette but her father had always wanted her to be called Elise, and that was the name he recorded with the authorities. Jeannette’s mother was a woman of some spirit, however, and when she saw the ‘Carnet de Famille’ or ‘Family Book’ that the town hall issued her she simply erased the name she didn’t like and substituted the one she did. Now a ‘carnet de famille’ is an official document in France and tampering with it is an offence probably punishable by condemnation to the galleys, but hey, this was a village in deepest Alsace, and it didn’t always comply with the strictest rigour to laws made in Paris hundreds of miles away. The whole village knew that Jeannette was Jeannette, and the local authorities saw no reason not to issue her with an ID card and passport and all the other paperwork which brings so much joy into the lives of French citizens.

Eventually, however, her only daughter Danielle married a foreigner from the foggy side of the Channel, and he had the peculiar desire to take out French nationality. Now my claim to French citizenship was based on Danielle’s own nationality and, as her father was actually Swiss, that in turn rested on her mother’s being French. We were asked to produce a certificate proving Jeannette's claim to French citizenship. When we asked for one, back came the response ‘there is no such person as Jeannette Brugner’. Poor Jeannette: her son-in-law involved her in some months of correspondence with the authorities to establish to their satisfaction that ‘Elise Brugner’, who did officially exist, was the same person as ‘Jeannette Brugner’, who didn’t.

Jeannette’s life had more than its fair share of tribulations. Her relationship with Danielle’s father broke down. Despite that, she found an outlet for her generous spirit and warm disposition when she took over Danielle’s job at the YWCA in Basel, following the departure of Danielle and her French son to join me in Britain, where she produced two little Englishmen – but that’s a different story.

By this time Jeannette was in her mid-fifties but had a real new burst of youth from her contact with all those young women and their problems (to parents concerned about the difficulties their adolescent sons cause them, my advice is just to be grateful they don’t have adolescent daughters: girls tend to be easier for their first thirteen years and then absolutely awful – with notable exceptions of course, but generally – for the next thirteen).

Then misfortune struck. Riding her bike home one evening, she was knocked over by a car turning across her path. As ill-luck would have it, she fell into some roadwork excavations and onto a metal spike. One hip was shattered, the other leg injured too. All this happened over twenty years ago, but she never really made more than a relative recovery: she gradually experienced increasing difficulty walking until she was confined to a wheelchair, and finally became completely bed-bound in a nursing home in Strasbourg where she had moved to be close to her daughter, not many years before I took her away again to England.

As time went by, Jeannette graduated from being in great discomfort to being in serious pain, until she was in constant, searing agony . She lost the strength even to move herself in bed, so she couldn’t roll over to relieve her discomfort and was forced to rely only on analgesics. These were doled out to her with extraordinary parsimony by a doctor who seemed to feel that the long-term effect of painkillers on her health was a more serious threat than the intense pain that was making her life insufferable right then. This was a view he clung to although the prospect of her ever recovering her health was already long gone. Again and again she would plead to be allowed to slip away; again and again, if she developed an infection – she regularly suffered from pulmonary diseases – he would have her hospitalised, an experience that always caused her increased suffering, and she would be pulled through by intensive treatment.

Finally, Jeannette could stand it no longer. She had found it difficult to sleep for a long time and had been prescribed powerful sleeping pills. Somehow she managed to hide them for many days, perhaps two or three weeks, during which time she presumably managed barely to sleep at all. Once she felt she had saved enough, she took them all.

Again discovered by the doctor, she was hospitalised and her stomach pumped. Danielle travelled to Strasbourg to be with her. For the first time ever, the hospital doctors offered her the option of not treating Jeannette any further and Danielle had no hesitation over a decision that was painful but clearly right for Jeannette, as she confirmed as soon as she regained consciousness.

With treatment over, Jeannette was moved back to the nursing home and Danielle took up a position by her bedside which she was hardly to abandon for sixty hours. The doctor promised that Jeannette would feel no further pain, and it fell to Danielle to ensure that the commitment was fulfilled, which sometimes meant protesting energetically, even angrily, to have morphine doses increased. By acting as her advocate in this way, as well as by her simple presence, by her touch on her mother’s hand, Danielle was able to reduce the bitterness of the the final stage of what had become a period of torment drawn out over two years. It was harrowing for Danielle to watch her mother through her last moments, but her presence ensured that Jeannette suffered far less.

In one of her last moments of consciousness, Jeannette saw Danielle in tears and said ‘ist nicht schlimm’, roughly ‘there’s nothing to cry about’, in the German dialect of Alsace which had been her mother tongue and was the language of her end.

Jeannette died late on Sunday evening, 9 May 2010. She had suffered far more than she need have done, at the hands of doctors who hadn’t understood the principle ‘thou shalt not kill, but need not strive officiously to keep alive.’

I share the misgivings about euthanasia of many, the fear at the idea that some people should exercise a right of life or death over others. However, in the face of such needlessly prolonged pain, it seems unforgivable to allow our own fears to deny others the mercy of avoiding unecessary treatment when there is no hope of recovering health. There comes a time when the humane option must be to provide palliative care only and if that means analgesics at dosages that are eventually lethal in themselves, then so be it. As Jeannette’s case shows, many lives end in conditions where the only treatment is pain reduction anyway, so why extend the suffering needlessly beforehand? For Jeannette, that meant two years of intensifying suffering. She’d done nothing to deserve them and we don’t condemn our worst criminals to such inhumanity.

There were 25 members of her family at her cremation. Danielle and I, our three sons and our granddaughter scattered the ashes on a Strasbourg river in the evening. That gave a quiet dignity and warmth to the very end of Jeannette’s time on earth which I only wish she could have enjoyed in the final stages of her life.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

A spark goes out...

The loss of a cherished tradition is always a source of sadness.

Travelling by underground through the station at King’s Cross St Pancras in London recently, I heard the announcement ‘Exit here for the Royal National Institute for Blind People’. Nothing wrong with that, of course, in utilitarian terms: it’s informative, it’s accurate. But the old announcement was so much more poetic.

It was ‘Alight here for the Royal National Institute for the Blind’.

We’ll just glide over the fact that ‘for the blind’ rolls more smoothly off the tongue than ‘of blind people’ – that’s not the real issue. What I really enjoyed was the word ‘alight’ which, in spoken form, is indistinguishable from ‘a light’. To me, it sounded as though someone was calling for a light for the blind, which has got to be a particularly worthy objective.

Travelling by tube across London is a pretty dismal process at the best of times. The announcement at King’s Cross was a little gem that relieved the tedium. I’m going to miss it.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Wonder that is French Cinema

Many of my friends in Britain tell me about how much they enjoy French films. I always react with a certain scepticism, since I know that what they get is a heavily-filtered selection.

There are real gems in French cinematic output – Le Placard (The Closet) was a brilliantly witty comedy about a man who pretends to be gay as a way of preventing his dismissal from a condom manufacturer; Il y a longtemps que je t’aime (I’ve loved you so long) was a clever, original, thought-provoking tale of a woman played by Kristin Scott Thomas reinserting herself into society after a long gaol sentence; absolutely outstanding was Le Goût des Autres (It takes all kinds) by that exceptionally gifted director Agnès Jaoui who gave us a quirky take, full of sensitivity, insight and humour, on a number of intersecting lives.

Then, however, there is what I like to think of as the ‘quota film’. French TV has been required for many years to make sure that 51% of its output is sourced in Europe, and since they generally want to show French-language material, that means made in France. I have the image of groups of cinema people sitting around saying ‘hey, there’s this bit of budget looking for a home: why don’t we make a film?’ You know, to fill up the quota.

To me the classic quota film was the 1998 Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train (Those who love me will come by train). At the time, we were living near Paris and I imposed this piece of pretentious intellectualism on my youngest son Nicky, then aged 14. As we left our seats at the end, I started to say ‘Well, there were a couple of good lines…’ and was about to quote the two pieces of good writing the film contained.

‘It was crap,’ he said, before I could dredge them from my memory.

I was about to object. Could we not be more moderate, more even-handed, more subtle in our judgements, I wanted to suggest. But then I thought to myself, ‘actually, sometimes the young get these things right, where those of us who pursue sophistication too hard look for something that isn’t really there.’ Nicky had hit the nail on the head. There was no single-word description of the film that encapsulated it better than his did.

Since we were living in France, we were able to avoid the quota films for quite a while after that. But right now we’re back in the country for a short time and this afternoon we made the mistake of going to a film that I had been told had been recommended by The Guardian. That is, of course, my favourite paper, and its news coverage is outstanding, its comment columns brilliantly insightful as well as entertaining, even its sport coverage excellent. But when it comes to the arts, they seem to make a fetish of employing only reviewers deeply imbued with metropolitan attitudes, always looking for qualities that seem to enhance their own sophistication, never interested in those trivial devices that appeal to the rest of us proles, such as humour, intrigue or characterisation. If, say, the film is made in Turkey in some minority dialect and lovingly follows the journey of a farmer on a visit to his cousin in the next village, with the high point of drama being when he has to fight off a wasp that buzzes round his hat, then The Guardian critics will sing its praises.

It seems that The Guardian liked Mammuth (Mammoth). I should have seen the writing on the wall. Sadly, I went to the film and discovered that, since it is a motorbike movie, it could have been called Ceux qui m’aiment prendront la moto. It is fully worthy of being the sequel to that earlier masterpiece so brilliantly summed up by my son.

If you want to see what a quota film really is, hurry, hurry, hurry to see this one.

If you want an evening’s entertainment, paint your sitting room wall and watch it dry. You will see more in the way of coherent plot, clever character development and dramatic twists than you would in the film.

And at the end you’ll have a nice new sitting room wall.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

When you dine with the devil, take a long spoon

The results of Thursday's British General Election continue to fascinate and entertain.

I’m wondering whether we’re about to witness what I’d think of as a ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ moment.

Some of us are longstanding supporters of the British Labour Party. I say this with some pride because it certainly isn’t easy. The Labour Party does everything it can to put us off giving them their support, like having senior figures describing themselves as ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’, which is an interesting re-interpretation of the principles of egalitarianism that are supposed to inspire the party, or going to war in Iraq for no better reason than being told to by an American leader who combined deeply right wing views with unparalleled incompetence.

To those of us who maintain our tribal loyalty to this difficult party, the name ‘Ramsay MacDonald’ has powerful echoes even today. He was the first Labour Prime Minister. In office in 1931, he decided to form a coalition with the Conservatives and headed a government in which they had a majority of the ministers. This action split the Labour Party and left the Conservative Party, the Tories, in power either alone or in coalition until 1945.

Curiously, this wasn’t the first time in the century that a party of the Centre-Left had split itself over collaboration with the Tories, leaving them the ultimate victors. In 1906 the then Liberals (today’s Liberal Democrats being essentially their heirs) formed a government with a colossal parliamentary majority. In 1916, in the middle of the First World War, with the government failing to impress, the Prime Minister Asquith was toppled by his Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George, who formed a coalition with the Tories, splitting his party in the process. That government stayed in power after the war, until 1922 when the remaining Liberals were unceremoniously dumped by their Tory ‘partners’.

Getting into bed with the Tories doesn’t seem to be designed to do much for the health of progressive parties in this country. On the other hand, it does the Tories a world of good. I once had the ‘privilege’, if that’s the word I’m looking for, of having lunch at the Carlton Club. This is one of those leftovers of a bygone age, a gentleman’s club where members can lunch, dine or even stay the night. The Carlton Club is the one particularly favoured by the Tory Party, another leftover of a bygone age which, like the Club itself, continues to thrive to the despair of the rest of us.

As I was being shown around, I was told with pride ‘we have the portraits of all the Prime Ministers on the walls’.

I looked around and spotted a few gaps.

‘Surely only the Tory ones?’ I asked innocently.

‘Prime Ministers are Tories,’ I was told with all the charm that real smugness can inspire.

Sadly, the implication of what he was saying was right. For 66 of the 100 years of the last century, the Tories were in power, alone or with a partner. The other 34 years were shared by the other two parties, Liberals and Labour.

Today we’re contemplating a landscape in which the Tories have more MPs than any other party, but lack a majority. In coalition with the Liberal Democrats, they would have the votes to form a majority government. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, is in negotiation with them. He knows, however, that there are huge areas of disagreement between his essentially progressive party and the Conservatives. He knows that he will have terrible trouble selling a coalition with the Tories to his fellow party members. He could even split the party and find that he has given the Tories a huge hold on power, for the sake of little more than a brief period in a seat at the cabinet table.

Will he do it? Will he resist? Think Lloyd George, Nick. Think Ramsay MacDonald.

And a postscript

There was a portrait of Margaret Thatcher in the Carlton Club when I went there – naturally: for most Tories, she remains one of the iconic leaders of their Party. But she herself was only granted the status of ‘honorary member’ – it really was a gentlemen’s club. Only in 2008 were women given the right to become full members (if I can stretch the word ‘right’ that far).

And another

It’s a curious reflection on British attitudes that since the election commentators have been regularly saying that the only two-party coalition that would command a majority would be one between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. This is patently untrue. Another that would have a massive majority would be a coalition between Conservatives and Labour. I don’t favour it, in particular for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but it’s fascinating that no-one in Britain even considers the possibility: after all, there have been two such coalitions in the past, and Germany was most successfully run by an equivalent ‘Grand Coalition’ of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats from 2005 until just last year.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Britain, land of the elect

What fun we’ve all been having here in Britain!

Those of you sadly denied the privilege of inhabiting these shores may barely have registered the fact that the UK had a general election last night. For us, we’re barely aware of anything else. Of course, we realise that there’s been some sort of unpleasantness in Greece, and the Yanks seem to be terribly upset – but then when are they not? – about one of our revered British institutions, BP, and are being beastly to them for pouring oil and making troubled waters. But apart from that, well it’s been the election, the election and nothing but the election.

And what a marvellous election it’s been! It’s actually quite a shock to realise that the word ‘Schadenfreude’ isn’t English since it describes our favourite pastime: we delight in other people’s misfortune. So what could possibly be better than an election where everyone lost?

First the Conservatives. They peaked in the opinion polls at about 125% some time last year and then adopted a brilliant electoral position of telling voters that they were going to cut everything and cause everyone lots and lots of pain. As a result they ended up polling about 36% and failed to secure a parliamentary majority.

That hasn’t stopped them claiming all day that this election is their best and Labour’s worst since 1931. At that election they took 473 seats (306 today) and the Labour Party 52 (258). It’s reassuring to know that people this good with numbers are likely to be charged with getting us out of our financial mess.

Then Labour. They took 356 seats in 2005. That gave them the kind of majority that just can’t be wiped out in one election (the Conservatives had 198 MPs). Well, nothing is beyond Gordon Brown. If you really make every mistake in the book, dithering about when to hold an election, being denounced by your colleagues as a bully, getting caught dissing a voter on a live mike, then it doesn’t matter how good you may be at trivial things like getting the country out of recession, you can overcome every obstacle to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

And what of the Liberal Democrats? Well, they had what was called a ‘surge’ in the course of the campaign. Whenever I hear that term ‘surge’ it conjures up the image of what might happen to an adolescent boy in his bed at night: it takes a special kind of dream to bring one on, it’s over in a flash and it makes a bit of a mess that needs to be cleared up in the morning. So it proved with the Lib Dems. It was fun while it lasted, but then all the grand hopes evaporated and the party ended up with just a percentage point more votes than last time and actually lost seats.

So all three the major parties lost, and nobody won.

And there were lots of other losers, to make our delight complete. The United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP – I always feel that the abbreviated name sounds like something to line a cat’s litter tray – failed to win a single seat and, oh joy unconfined! so did the British National Party. The BNP have had to be forced by not just one but two court orders to open their membership to non-Whites. Even though they’ve changed their Constitution to comply with the law, I can’t imagine any Black or Asian person joining the BNP even if if it was a matter of life of death, which it probably would be if they ever did. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t join the BNP if my life depended on it, and I’m White.

The BNP won two seats in the European Parliament last year, which was ironic since no-one can possibly be more anti-Europe than they are. They thought it was that anti-Europeanism that chimed with the voters and gave them their success, and imagined they might pull the same feat off in the General Election. In the event, their leader, Nick Griffin, took 6000 votes, which is about 6000 too many, but saw his Labour opponent hold her seat with an increase in her own support, against the national trend.

What were you thinking, Nick? Listen to your own propaganda: the Brits hate Europe. That’s why they don’t give a damn who they send there. That’s how even the BNP can win seats in the European Parliament. But in a UK election? To our Parliament, the one in Westminster? The one that matters? Think again, pal.

Then there was a success. Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavilion (winning a seat in Brighton Pavilion sounds like being offered a plush spot to sit down in a quaint location, doesn’t it?), the first ever seat won by the Greens. But then she’s her Party’s only representative in Parliament, so really that’s a defeat too.

Defeats all over the place. Brilliant isn’t it? What a boon for a country that loves to moan about its losers that it suddenly has so many, all at the same time.

Happy days.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Shock warning: warfare may be bad for your health

As I was driving into town at lunchtime today, my eye was caught by a headline on a board outside a newsagent’s. ‘Soldier dies in war zone,’ it proclaimed.

No-one feels greater sympathy than I do for the plight of our forces in Afghanistan, and I find the constant drip-drip of casualties – on and on, inexorably, with no end in sight – quite simply harrowing. Even so, a soldier dying in a war zone isn’t exactly unprecedented, is it? Not really the stuff of which a classic headline is made, you’d think.

Ideas for a number of equally inspired headlines went through my mind.

‘Schoolteacher gave us lessons in classroom, allege pupils.’

‘Witnesses claim nurse was seen working on hospital ward.’

‘Worshippers unanimous: priest gave sermon.’

Of course, in the last case, if we were talking about a Catholic priest, it might be more a matter of ‘priest up to no good with chorister.’

It feels to me that there are certain things that just go with the territory, aren’t there? They live up to expectations, or at any rate down to them, and that simply makes them banal.

In that spirit, my humble contribution to this great genre would be: ‘Headline writer tries to whip up shock over the obvious.’

Perhaps it’s just further proof that there’s little to get enthusiastic about in the local press. Sometimes it's as weak and mediocre as great swaths of the national press.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Britain in 2010 and the unlearned lesson of the Spanish Civil War

It’s early yet to start to pass a judgement on the present century. The last, on the other hand, deserves to be classified as the ‘Dark Century’, even among the many other ghastly ones before it. Never have so many suffered and died in that century, and never for so little. I’ve written before about a footbridge across the Rhine in Kehl, opposite Strasbourg, where people stroll across a Franco-German border which cost millions of lives in three wars. Standing among the families enjoying the afternoon sun, you have to wonder what the point was.

‘Nations trek from progress’ wrote Wilfred Owen in his extraordinary poem, Strange meeting.

The main purpose to which progress was put in the Twentieth Century was to find new and far more devastating ways for humanity to be inhumane to itself. The Holocaust, the nuclear bombs on Japan, the killing fields of Cambodia: great power to benefit mankind put to use to destroy it.

In amongst all the ghastliness, one episode that deserves more attention is the Spanish Civil War. An autocratic leader, Francisco Franco, led a brutal, colonial army – one of his problems at the beginning of the fighting was to get the army from the Moroccan colonies to Spain proper – supported by a class coalition of small and large landowners, leading industrialists and inevitably the Roman Catholic clergy, to bring down a democratically elected government that was trying to reform a hopelessly backward system. The Government did many things wrong and carried out some shameful atrocities, but on the other side the scale of brutality was hard to believe. Whole villages would be put to rape and murder, leftists were tortured and killed, even being thrown down wells which were then stopped up with boulders.

The sheer extent of the violence has yet to be determined. Archaeological work now underway on Civil War mass graves may give an indication, though we already know that at least 50,000 were murdered and more likely 200,000. Several million were forced into exile. What’s more, the regime that eventually won the war in 1939, imposed 36 years of stultifying and often cruel oppression on its people before Franco finally died in 1975.

At the time, one of my colleagues was an engineer who wore corduroy trousers, thin-rimmed glasses and a jacket with patched elbows. I never saw it, but I bet he smoked a pipe at home. He was too young for the part, but he looked like the perfect representative of the old left of the 1930s, reading Orwell and supporting the international brigades in Spain. When we told him that Franco had died, he looked at us grimly and replied:

‘I blame his doctors. If they’d been worth their salt they’d have kept him alive for at least another six months of growing agony.’

A while later we told him that Franco had been buried.

‘I hope they stuck a stake through his heart,’ he said.

The second most shameful aspect of the War was that Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany came in gaily on the Fascist side. In fact, it was German planes that got Franco’s troops back to Spain. Later, other German planes bombed the Basque town of Guernica, in the raid made famous by Picasso’s monumental painting.

The Germans and the Italians had fun in Spain, trying out the new toys with which they’d equipped their armies, and helping to put into power a regime sympathetic to their aims and thereby weakening France, with Fascist regimes on three of its borders, and indirectly Britain too.

That British interests were at stake was clear to Germany. Goering met Mussolini early in 1937 and said they needed to win the war in the next three weeks because Britain could not possibly stay out of it any longer than that.

Which brings us to the most shameful aspect of all of the War. Britain didn’t get involved. It stood on the sidelines and watched while the Spanish Republic was strangled, its people suffered and bled, and those powers against which Britain was soon to be fighting for its life were immeasurably strengthened. In sheer stupidity and moral turpitude it’s hard to imagine anything that Britain could have done that was much bleaker.

Strangely enough, as well as many on the left, at least one leading figure of the right, excluded at that time from government, stood out against this bankruptcy of principle. Though I don’t share the general adulation for Winston Churchill, there are aspects of his political career that impress me as much as they impress anyone. On the Spanish Civil War, he saw that British strategic interests were at stake and a Fascist victory would damage them.

Many on the left understood that, and Churchill at least in the Conservative Party. Most in his Party had nothing like his vision, and they preferred to put their class interests – in the victory of a rabidly anti-Communist movement – above their strategic interest in halting the growth of Fascism. In doing so they made the Second World War virtually inevitable. The European War, indeed, broke out within six months of Franco’s conclusive victory.

Why is this relevant now?

Because on Friday of this week, 7 May 2010, it looks increasingly likely that the Conservative Party will once again take office in this country. They are promising a reduction in inheritance tax which will benefit a tiny percentage of the very wealthiest. They are promising to repeal an increase in National Insurance, in effect another form of income tax, brought in by the present government; its repeal will disproportionately benefit the highest salary earners.

They are promising to do this at the same time as they are declaring that their top priority will be to reduce the government deficit. With those tax reductions, the cuts they will have to make in public services will be steeper still.

And who suffers the most from cuts in public services? The poorest. What’s more, reduced public spending is likely to jeopardise the economic recovery which is just under way and far from secure.

Great to see that the traditions are still alive. We still have a Conservative Party wedded to class interests rather than strategic interests.

And we’re still stupid enough to vote for it.