Welcome to London 2012: Britain in its Olympic year.


The first time London played host to the modern Olympic Games back in 1908, the British Empire bestrode the world like a colossus. At its peak, the Empire oversaw a fifth of the world’s population. Yet for all its wealth and size, there was a sense that the Empire was morally on less strong ground. The British had run concentration camps during the Boer War (1899-1902). At home much of the population lived in desperate poverty.

By the time of the next London Olympics in 1948, Britons had more reason than before to hold their heads up high. Britain had played a vital role in vanquishing Nazism during the Second World War. What was more, the socialist Labour Government of Clement Attlee elected in 1945 was delivering on its election campaign promises of full employment, a new welfare state and a National Health Service. But the war had come at a price. The years to come would underline Britain’s post-war near economic bankruptcy. The days of the British Empire were numbered.

Where does Britain stand as the nation is poised on the threshold of London 2012? The picture is undoubtedly mixed. Britain still has a Royal Family. The elderly Queen Elizabeth II will attend the Olympics in the year of her Diamond Jubilee just as she did as a young Princess in 1948. The Royals in Britain are still generally popular and attract plenty of tourists.

But Britain no longer has an Empire but a Commonwealth and a Commonwealth that is much smaller than the Empire, already in retreat, was in 1948. Britain remains the sixth largest economy in the world but any influence it wields on the global stage comes only with the approval of the United States. The only post-war Prime Ministers to achieve widespread fame in the wider world – Churchill, Thatcher and Blair – all recognised this, even when support for the US in Iraq ultimately crippled Blair’s leadership after 2003.

Despite this, Tony Blair has good claim to being Britain’s best post-war leader after Attlee. By the 1970s, the post-war consensus which had produced the NHS and welfare state was coming under attack. Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government (1979-1990) attacked both, privatised much of British industry and launched a major assault on the nation’s public services. Britain has never been quite the same since. Like many leaders, Thatcher achieved a high profile on the international stage but weakened her country at home.

As Britain’s new Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair in 1997, inherited an economy which had recovered from the high unemployment and excesses of Thatcherism. Under his watch, Britain enjoyed an unprecedented decade of sustained prosperity, falling crime levels, largely improving services and (at least until the Al Qaida attacks on London of July 2005 which by coincidence occurred one day after London’s 2012 Olympic status was announced) a respite from thirty years of terrorism.

Since then, largely thanks to the global economic meltdown, things have gone rather less well. The government of David Cameron elected in 2010 was, unusually for Britain, a coalition although one that is primarily Conservative. Unemployment had already returned. Now under Cameron, so have spending cuts and austerity. Crime seems likely to rise again. Cameron, a Tory (Conservative) from a wealthy background has consciously modelled his leadership on Blair’s. Yet his government and the results of it more seem likely to end up as a pale echo of Thatcher’s.

Still, the British love to moan and the truth is there have been huge improvements in British society, too many and numerous to mention here. Britain is a less class conscious and far more interesting, pleasant and culturally diverse nation than it has been in the past. It is far more pleasant to live in Britain today than it was in either 1908 or 1948. And Britons await their third Olympic Games with enthusiasm.

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The Forgotten Hero of the Twentieth Century

The 20th century may have been the bloodiest in all human history but it certainly produced its fair share of political heroes. Alongside the likes of Gandhi, Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Franklin Roosevelt, however, should be placed one figure, still living, whose contribution is consistently overlooked.

For make no mistake: Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War. It would not have ended – and it ended relatively peacefully too – without him. Were it not for him we would still either still be enduring the period of unparalleled international tension which resulted from the conclusion of the Second World War or the human race would have succumbed to nuclear destruction.

This is no exaggeration. It is easy to forget now how terrifying the Cold War had become by the time Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985. Both sides in the forty year old East-West stalemate were actively engaged in an unprecedented nuclear arms race. A single spark at any time could have led to a full scale nuclear conflagration.

The US president Ronald Reagan attacked the USSR condemning it as “the focus of evil in the modern world” in 1983. The shooting down of Korean commercial flight 007 in September of that year raised tensions still further. The USSR passed between three elderly leaders – Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko  – in the space of three years.

In such tense circumstances, Reagan remained remarkably gung ho. “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever.” He notoriously joked during a 1984 radio sound check. “We begin bombing in five minutes.”

Against this backdrop, the succession of the comparatively youthful Gorbachev (he was fifty-four) was very welcome. His policies of Glasnost and Perestroika eased global tensions immeasurably during the second half of the Eighties as did the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the military quagmire in Afghanistan.

Anxious not to look like an “appeaser” (a charge levelled at President Jimmy Carter by many US conservatives during the Détente of the late Seventies), Ronald Reagan responded with caution to Gorbachev’s overtures. The 1986 Reykjavik Summit, for example, in theory, agreed to eliminate all nuclear weapons within the space of ten years. The stumbling block came from the USA not the USSR. Reagan refused to abandon his cherished “Star Wars” programme. In fact, the Strategic Defence Initiative would ultimately prove so expensive and unworkable that it was abandoned by Reagan’s successors anyway.

If there is a serious challenge to Gorbachev’s claim to greatness it is this: he did not actually intend to bring down the Soviet Union. He certainly wanted to liberalise it but he remained a committed Communist. Yet his actions undeniably led to the reunification of Germany, the liberation of Eastern Europe and at least a form of democracy being introduced to Russia.

Today, no one is keen to sing Gorbachev’s praises. In the East, he is blamed for robbing for Russia of its superpower status. In the West, conservatives are eager to claim the Cold War as a victory for themselves.

They do not deserve it. As the architect of the end of the most dangerous period of international tension in world history, Mikhail Gorbachev’s status as one of the living giants of 20th century history has been ignored for too long.

Is this the future?

Picture the scene. It is a cold day on January 20th 2013. A huge crowd has gathered in Washington DC to witness the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States.

This is the future. Or is it? The reality is that Americans are almost certainly going to have to wait a bit longer for a new president. For by far the most likely outcome of the November 2012 presidential election is that the Barack Obama will be re-elected, only the third Democrat to win a second term in US history. Barring tragedy or serious scandal, Obama will be in the White House until 2017.

Part of this is down to the total failure of the rival Republican Party to find anyone decent to run against him. The fact that a suitable front runner hasn’t yet emerged from the Republican pack is not in itself a bad thing. It is only February. At this stage of the electoral cycle, four years ago, Democrats were still a long way from choosing between Obama and Hillary Clinton and that delay (much more severe than this) didn’t ultimately do them any serious harm.

But there is a difference. Senators Clinton and Obama were both serious contenders for the presidency. The Republican field this time is poor.

The fact that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was even briefly considered a serious frontrunner for the nomination is a sign of the dire situation Republicans find themselves in. Currently the main race is between former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Romney has consistently failed to excite the party faithful enabling Santorum, who under normal circumstances would have been out of the race long ago, to hang on. Voters are torn between choosing between the least terrible option, not the best one.

History favours Obama. Only four elected presidents in the past century have been defeated in their bid for re-election in November and all in fairly extreme circumstances. A third party candidate brought down President Taft in 1912, the Great Depression defeated Hoover in 1932. Jimmy Carter was knocked out by the combination of the hostage crisis and economic malaise as well as the strength of Reagan’s candidature in 1980. Reagan’s former Vice President, the first President George Bush was similarly floored by a combination of recession and strong challenge from Bill Clinton in 1992.

Obama has disappointed many of his supporters. Unemployment remains high even as the economic recession in the US lifts. Guantanamo Bay remains open. Some feel his health and economic reforms have not gone far enough.

But Obama is not a Herbert Hoover, a Jimmy Carter or a George HW Bush. And none of the Republicans are anything like an FDR, a Ronald Reagan or a Bill Clinton. Polls indicate most Americans want to give Obama’s reforms a second term to come to fruition.

True, I may yet end up eating my words. Predicting anything is a risky business. None of the past three presidential election outcomes could have easily been anticipated at this stage of the cycle. But the evidence suggests Obama will be in the White House for a good while yet.