The Spectator's Notes

The Spectator’s notes

25 June 2015

1:00 PM

25 June 2015

1:00 PM

People write about ‘Grexit’ and ‘Brexit’ as if they were the same, but they need not be. Grexit is about leaving the euro. Brexit is about leaving the EU. It seems, however, that the Greeks fear that leaving the euro would mean leaving the EU, and so feel paralysed. It simply is not clear what the true situation is. Although Britain has a specific opt-out (as does Denmark), for the other member states, euro-membership is, after a preparatory period is completed, an obligation. Does this mean that, once in the euro, an EU member state cannot leave it? If so, then William Hague’s famous phrase likening it to ‘being in a burning building with no exits’ is exact. If there can be no exit, then surely the Commission, the ECB and the member states are obliged to rescue Greece, however bad its situation, since, by membership, it has surrendered the right to decide its own future. In reality, a ‘British way’, by which Greece was not in the currency but stayed in the Union, might suit it best. The Greeks would keep the non-Balkan self-image for which they have always yearned and the subsidies; but they would regain a currency whose value would reflect their economic reality. No one dares suggest this, however — not Britain, who would attract European odium by doing so, and not the eurozone powers, because other poverty- and debt-ridden countries, seeing it working, would want to follow suit.

I am writing this from one such — Portugal. Here in the Hotel Palacio, Estoril (‘grand & cosy’, it calls itself), the sense of crisis is not, one must admit, apparent. Under the auspices of the Estoril Political Forum, a great invention of the Portuguese Burkean, Professor João Espada, we are contentedly discussing Magna Carta. In the evening, we sing Harrow school songs in honour of Churchill. There seems to be no constituency at all for Portugal leaving the euro, and the matter is not discussed. It still feels too frightening to contemplate. For years, Portugal — and Greece and Spain — were allowed to borrow as if they were Germany (often from now gravely compromised German and French banks). Eventually, reality intruded, and revealed to a shocked continent that they were not. So now the Portuguese effectively belong to Germany, and therefore they think that their only hope is to be on their best behaviour and to emphasise how they are not all like the naughty Greeks. All along the walls of this hotel are photographs of the exiled royalty for whom Estoril was once a watering hole. When they have finally driven half the continent they rule to throw off their yoke, perhaps the Junckers, Draghis, Schäubles, Lagardes could all end up here, giving one another elegant, pointless dinners by the sea.

‘Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which our children will never see’, says Pope Francis in his gloomy encyclical Laudato si. Can this possibly be true? Over the past 500 years, 1.3 per cent of birds and mammals are known to have become extinct — 200 species out of 15,000. There are far, far more species of invertebrates and plants in existence of course. The latest ‘predicted number’ of species is 8.7 million, of which 7.7 million are animals. (The remaining million are plants, fungi and microbes.) If you assume — which the great Matt Ridley assures me is unlikely — that an equally high percentage of these has become extinct, it averages out at about 350 a year. The loss of any species feels very sad — though, if Ridley is right, this has much more to do with (non-human) invasive species than climate change — but surely, at this rate, it is not the end of the world.

On Tuesday, the Times republished its issue of 22 June 1815, which reported the victory at Waterloo. I was pleased to find in the parliamentary reports (then, unlike now, extensive and often verbatim), a speech by my great-great-great-great-grandfather William Smith, the MP for Norwich. He was a rich Unitarian anti-slaver. On this occasion, he was arguing against flogging in the army. Was there no cure for drunkenness but flogging, he wanted to know. ‘He should suppose that example would be much more effectual’ than cruel punishment: so long as ‘the circulation of the bottle’ continued to be the fashion of the officers at dinner in the mess, the men were bound to want to get drunk too, he argued. My ancestor was followed by Lord Palmerston, the future Prime Minister. He wasn’t mad about flogging either, but argued that the deterrent was needed because English soldiers’ ‘feeling of personal independence’ made them unruly: ‘The love of ardent spirits was more common to the northern than to the southern nations, and occasioned great excesses. Hence punishments for this offence were rare among the Portuguese in our pay.’ So it remains to this day, though flogging is no more. Smith’s humanitarian concern did him credit, but perhaps Palmerston had a stronger grasp of human nature — the difference, in short, between the radical and the Whig.

About 20 years ago, a friend, Claire Mackintosh, had a brilliant idea about a very dull fact of commercial life. Lots of people, she realised, had small amounts of shares which made them not worth selling, because of the commission payable. Lots of companies had to send out certificates for these shares to those who owned them. It was all a bore. So Claire invented a charity — ShareGift — which undertook the paperwork of selling the shares and gave the proceeds to other charities. The result is that more than 2,000 charities have benefited. Recently the total of £20 million distributed has been reached. It is a beautifully simple concept, but not easy to operate. It is the scrip equivalent of vacuuming up all these coppers that lie around in streets and giving them to causes that need them. The latest thing, Claire tells me, is that people are now leaving money to ShareGift, which is so much more useful than dividing, say, 400 BT shares between your legatees. Even if you’re not about to die, remember


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