As I write, the World Islamic Economic Forum is opening in London, the first time it has been held in a non-Muslim country. David Cameron boasts that investors will now be able to buy sharia-compliant British gilts. If the forum helps Muslim countries share their commercial expertise with one another and the rest of us, well and good. But should modes of global commerce be defined by religious allegiance? What would the conspiracy theorists say about a World Jewish Economic Forum? How would Saudi Arabia — or even Dubai — react to the suggestion of a World Christian Economic Forum taking place within its borders? And once it is officially proclaimed a good thing for a non-Muslim country to offer sharia-compliant products, it will not be long before rich and powerful people will start arguing that other sharia-compliant customs — marriage, for example, and criminal punishments — should also be accommodated in our law. Our great western economic and financial institutions seem unaware that the battle for sharia-compliance is highly controversial in the Muslim world itself. Extremists push it, moderates resist it. The British government and the City of London are lining up with the former.
This column has noted before that the Prince of Wales has the honour of sharing his birthday with Paul Dacre, editor-in-chief of the Daily Mail. Mr Dacre is irreverently known in Clarence House as ‘the Twin’. Both men were born on 14 November 1948. In a recent interview, one of them — see if you can guess which — said: ‘I’ve had this extraordinary feeling, for years and years, ever since I can remember really, of wanting to heal and make things better.’ Their very differing but parallel lives tell one a good deal about post-war British history. Both had two sons and sent them to Eton, but only one of them — Mr Dacre — owns his own estate in Scotland. And whereas Mr Dacre has been able to exercise feudal power over generations of humble subeditors and reporters, and a court of witty and brilliant writers who pander to his every whim, Prince Charles has had to play an essentially humble role of serving others and waiting his turn. Now they are about to be 65, however, the balance of power is shifting. Great though Mr Dacre remains, the deference which he has enjoyed unquestioned is now looking rather old-fashioned. Some say that the great institution of the Daily Mail will need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century if it is to retain the allegiance of millions of simple British people. It is, of course, unthinkable that Mr Dacre would ever abdicate, but after his current ‘annus horribilis’, people are asking whether this life of pampered privilege can go on much longer. Meanwhile, the modernising Prince seems more relevant than ever.
On the subject of shared birthdays, I should add that the late Jimmy Savile and I were both born on 31 October, though separated by 30 years. Sir James would be 87 this week. While he lived, I must admit, this fact did not give me much fellow feeling with the famous disc jockey, knight and member of the Athenaeum (proposed for membership by Cardinal Hume); but since he has died, I have been distressed that absolutely no one will speak in his defence. What bothers me is the sense that no one knows fully what he did, and few have tried seriously to establish the facts. Operation Yewtree, conducted by the police and the NSPCC, would barely admit that it had not actually investigated individual testimony against Savile. The current inquiry into Savile’s behaviour in NHS hospitals is being much more conscientiously pursued. But the universal use of the word ‘victims’ to describe all those who have made posthumous allegations against him is unjust, so long as we believe that justice depends on evidence and due process. In life, he was excused everything. In death, he is indiscriminately condemned. Both these things are revolting. It is reported this week that a disabled man in Bristol was beaten to death and his body burnt by youths who accused him of being a paedophile for photographing children. The police, ever vigilant against paedophilia, had run him in for questioning on the say-so of the mob. Actually, he had been photographing damage done by vandals to his hanging baskets and flower beds. Hurrah for the British sense of fair play!
People express surprise that Labour, having invented HS2, is now getting cold feet about it. But, as with rising energy prices, it is precisely because it invented the policy that it knows how expensive it is. Labour is like a big bank which went bust in the 2008 crisis but has somehow managed to continue trading without being either rescued or wound up. It knows how badly it did, and what a terrible state it is still in, and keeps hoping (with surprising success so far) that people won’t notice. Psychologically and politically, it is important for it to transfer blame for its own actions on to the coalition. Then it can be the prudent party at the next election, and the Tories and the Liberals can be the profligate ones.
At the centenary of the first world war next year, we shall mourn the wasted potential of so many who died so young. A similar feeling applies to the second world war, in which you now have to be over 85 to have served. One could argue that the succeeding baby-boomer generation is the first in human history where neither war, nor plague, nor famine, nor infant mortality has cut off a substantial proportion before its prime. It is living out its natural span. Its achievements will therefore be judged without extenuation and exclamations of ‘if only’. However pleased one is to be alive, this is a bleak fate.
We were in the eye of the storm in Sussex on Monday, with a power cut which went on for several hours. We are cheered, however, by the flood alert from the Environment Agency the previous day. When the flood comes, it expertly advised, ‘Low-lying land and roads will be affected first.’