Charles Moore

The Spectator’s Notes | 28 July 2012

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‘Make hay while the sun shines’ is advice to be taken literally as well as metaphorically, and so, as I walked up from the station after a particularly Olympics-cursed visit to London, I was soothed by the sound and smell of mowing coming from our little fields. Haymaking should have taken place almost two months ago, but the wet made it truly impossible until this week. Should the sudden kindness of the weather and the excitement of the approaching opening ceremony make one get all nice about the Olympics? Well, yes, as far as the hopes of the athletes and the pleasure of the spectators go, it should. It is only when I read that it is ‘easy to carp’ that I get cross. Actually, it is not all that easy. There is considerable moral pressure to talk up the Olympics. One feels like a republican during the Jubilee. Yet ‘Olympism’, unlike monarchy, is a bogus, semi-fascist doctrine, not felt in the hearts of the people.  

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Anyway, I shan’t carp. I shan’t carp about the dress instructions issued by a school some of whose pupils will help form the Olympic Guard of Honour. Shoes, they say, must be ‘unbranded or Adidas’. Nor shall I carp about the fact that one group of people not allowed to use the hateful, Soviet, un-British, anti-democratic, Olympic Zil lanes are the soldiers who have been brought in at the last minute to provide security. Many of them face a four-hour daily commute from and to their camp in Hainault. Others are being billeted in Tobacco Dock. ‘It’s like when we arrived in Northern Ireland in 1969, or in Bosnia — pretty primitive,’ says an army friend cheerfully.

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And I certainly shan’t carp about the curious announcements by the Mayor of London which are tannoyed in the London stations. ‘Hi folks, it’s the Mayor of London,’ said Boris this week, ‘and this is the big one.’ At this point he was interrupted by an announcement of further delays to all services caused by a signal failure at New Cross, so I never got his full message. But, as his former editor, I recognised the tone, mendacious yet persuasive: ‘Hi, Charles. Yah, Boris here. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Yah, yah. The copy’s just coming. Ten minutes!’ Two hours later, it would arrive. I must admit that it was worth the wait. I am not so sure that the same applies to the entire London railway system.

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In his 2009 book Good Value, about why good behaviour is good business, Stephen Green, the then chairman of HSBC, wrote about what he called ‘the sin of compartmentalisation’: ‘We have to recognise that values go beyond “what you can get away with”.’ Green was then and is still a non-stipendiary priest in the Church of England. He is now a peer and the trade minister in the present government. He is spoken of as the next Governor of the Bank of England. But if the US Senate’s permanent sub-committee on investigations is to be believed, while Green was at the top of the company — and writing his book and, as the blurb puts it, ‘speaking widely on integrity and sustainability in business’ — HSBC was permitting money-laundering by drug barons, terrorists and dictators. A fine of perhaps $1 billion is expected. The sin of compartmentalisation would appear to be exactly what HSBC was guilty of. Since it is impossible to believe that the Revd Lord Green was himself corrupt, or even deliberately compartmentalising, the story raises a related question. Is it possible for a bank of such size to keep a proper track of its own operations, let alone to make ethical decisions about them? If not, we have a problem not only of ‘too big to fail’, but of too big to function.

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Lord Green also says in his book that ‘The vital point about globalisation today is that it has passed the point of no return’. What has happened since he wrote must surely call this into question. He is right when he says that, nowadays, ‘It is not possible for whole regions to remain isolated from the world’s accumulated knowledge’ (though British state secondary schools have a pretty good go), but he makes the classic boom-era mistake of thinking that big trends must persist. Globalisation depends on trust — that people will deal reasonably fairly with one another, pay their bills, operate under mutually recognised law and live at peace. Because global institutions are inevitably weak and people’s loyalties are not naturally global, it does not take all that much for trust to break down. That is what is happening now.

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Conceivably you will not be aware of it, but Cyprus is the president of the European Union from this month, so all the important discussions about the long-term budget take place on Cypriot soil. The President of Cyprus is a Communist. In the week before its presidency began, Cyprus applied for an EU bailout: the Cyprus Popular Bank is glaringly exposed to Greece. Cyprus is important for Britain because of our sovereign bases there, and the listening post which allows us and America to find out what is happening in the world, especially the Middle East. Yet the most powerful people there are now the Russians, who use the place not only for holidays, where they have supplanted the British as the rudest and most vulgar tourists, but also for money-laundering — witness the hugely inflated price of houses — prostitution and even gun-running. The Cypriot President asked Russia for a bailout on the same day he asked the EU. This divided, bankrupt, corrupt and vulnerable island seems a good metaphor for the enterprise of which it forms a tiny, but temporarily prominent part.

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A friend of mine waiting in casualty recently met a friend of his accompanied by his son, aged 11 or 12. The boy was looking pale. Was he all right, my friend asked. Well, said his father, he’d been through a nasty experience. He had attended a compulsory sex lesson at his school, and found it so appalling that he had passed out. They’d had to rush him to hospital. Is sex education a form of child abuse?