After two days walking along the Great Wall of China, I come back to the UK by way of Shanghai. It is the first time I have seen this version of New York on steroids and I am still in a state of shock two days later when I find myself sitting on a panel discussion in Torquay. Amid all the chatter about allegedly savage welfare cuts, grinding poverty and so on — and charming place though it is — I find myself wishing to wring Torquay by the neck, shouting “Do you not know what’s happening over there? Do you have any idea?” Instead I confine myself to a mild and tongue-tied defence of some of the coalition’s policies.
Even what successes our government has had now look jeopardised. After the elections in France and Greece the idea of Ed Miliband becoming prime minister is moving from late-night fear to probability.
He will be helped by the continuing ability of the Conservative Party to learn the wrong lessons from any electoral defeat. After 2001, rather than realising that William Hague was a hopeless leader facing Tony Blair at his peak, the party concluded that they should never mention Europe again. After 2005, rather than recognising that Michael Howard was an unappealing figure facing a Blair with some steam left, they decided that they should never again campaign on immigration. Now, after a modest thrashing in the local elections, we find a small but vocal group of MPs trying to palm off the idea that the defeat was not the result of a double-dip recession, terrible youth unemployment, the demeaning revelations of the Leveson inquiry or even just the natural mid-term cycle of government, but instead the idea of civil marriage equality for gays.
Escaping the gloom, I fly to Israel to speak at the opening of a new park in the world’s most bombed town. The rockets landing on Sderot from nearby Gaza reached a peak before Israel’s incursion in 2008, but now only a few rockets hit each week. Bomb shelters are mainly in dashing distance but the sirens give only 15 seconds’ notice that a Qassam missile is coming.
Nevertheless, on a warm sunny evening, at the opening of this Jewish National Fund-donated park, there is bunting everywhere, lush greenery, and singing and presentations by young people. The mayor presents a gift before dinner. Next day I have the usual security questions at the airport: “Anyone give you anything while in Israel?” “Well yes, actually. The mayor of Sderot gave me this,” I say, opening my suitcase. I bring out the “swords-into-ploughshares” themed sculpture. A crowd of security people gathers. My questioner’s eyebrows raise. “It is a rose moulded out of the remains of a Qassam rocket,” I explain. His eyes roll. “So — apart from the Qassam rocket, did anyone give you anything to bring on the plane?”
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted so far of the Lockerbie bombing, died a free man. His death came almost three years after the hilariously titled “Scottish Justice Secretary”, Kenny MacAskill, proclaimed in a tear-filled speech that Megrahi must return to Tripoli because he had just three months left to live.
Perhaps it really was the case that this was the best that health professionals consulted by the Scots could manage. In which case the Libyan health service proved to be ten times better than Scotland’s.
But equally possibly the Scottish “government” made its deal for another reason. Scots used to have some backbone, but it will be remembered that MacAskill defended his decision to release the murderer of 270 people on Pan Am Flight 103 and in Lockerbie because the “defining characteristic” of “Scottish people” was their “humanity”.
It was suggested that other people did not share this humanity; families of the American victims were portrayed in the UK media as uniquely vengeful. After Megrahi’s death, Alex Salmond said, “The first thing we should remember is the victims of the Lockerbie atrocity.” What a shame that he forgot them previously, using them instead for his petty nationalist ends. Americans will not, and should not, forget this.
On a final humid evening away from London, I take my favourite walk up Fifth Avenue. As I always try to do during busy days in New York, I turn off into the Church of St Thomas. Evensong is in progress, and above the diminuendo roar of traffic I hear the strains of Kenneth Leighton’s Collegium Magdalenae Oxoniense canticles. I drink it in from the back of the church and think about God and Philip Larkin. The Creed comes along and I head back into the traffic and eventually home.