Amongst so many Gold medals, let’s remember the first cross Channel swimmer.

Today we celebrate the remarkable feat of a great swimmer. Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim the English Channel through his epic swim on the 24th and 25th of August 1875.

Webb first attained fame through diving into the Atlantic in an attempt to save a drowning passenger from his ship. He subsequently resigned as a Cunard Captain to take up professional swimming. On August 12th 1875 his first attempt to swim the Channel failed. 12 days later he covered himself in porpoise oil to keep warm and swam out from Dover. 21 hours 45 minutes later he staggered ashore in Calais, after swimming 39 miles in a roundabout course, battling against the outcoming tide from France.

His feat earned him instant fame and fortune. He was acclaimed on his return journey to his native Shropshire. The story goes that even a pig put his trotter up on to a wall to see the returning hero. He went on to float for 60 hours in the Westminster Aquarium, to beat his own floating record in Boston, and to defeat the US champion swimmer.

Unfortunately in 1883 he jumped from a boat into the swirling waters below the Niagara falls. 10 minutes later his vigorous swim ended in disaster as he was pulled down by the strength of the currents and killed.

Such pioneering spirit was a proud part of Victorian England. It is good to see our young athletes today capture this spirit again, believing they too can perform great feats. As it says on Webb’s grave “Nothing great is easy”. So swimming across the Niagara river proved.

Bosworth – what did the Tudors do for us?

Some of my friends are both Catholics and Eurosceptics. They are sensible people, and rightly see nothing contradictory in that stance. The once Catholic kingdom of France is now a secular Republic, and once Catholic Spain is no longer an aggressive exporter of the faith by force of arms. Protestant Germany is an important motor of the EU. The forces which impelled England to the Protestant anti Spanish anti French side in the wars of religion have mercifully dissipated.

I make this point because I was thinking about yesterday’s anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth. It wasn’t much of battle in many ways. 5000 troops loyal to the invading Henry, the Lancastrian, took on maybe 12000 troops of Richard, the Yorkist King. In less than two hours the Stanleys switched sides and the battle was over, as their substantial force completely changed the odds.

There were two remarkable things about Bosworth. The King himself died on the battlefield, with no obvious Yorkist successor capable of claiming the title. His early death ended the battle. Henry Tudor and his heirs arrived in triumph, and proved able enough to unite England and Wales under their rule and put an end to the long and miserable history of succession squabbles and mini wars which had characterised much of the fifteenth century.

So I asked myself, What did the Tudors do for us? Time and space does not permit a full answer, for there is so much. If you like me saw any of the Globe productions, then just look around you. The flowering of English poetry, drama, music, art and architecture in the later Tudor period was remarkable.

The Tudors certainly knew how to spin and to brand. They blazoned the portcullis and crown logo on so much, the constantly travelled their country bringing government to the people. They left us a version of history which portrayed their achievements in a good light. Whether it was Henry VIII on the field of the cloth of gold, or Elizabeth seeing off the Armada, they established England as a force to be reckoned with. They played the courtiers off against each other, ensuring power was mainly brokered by them at court.

Above all they led England and Wales decisively into Reformation Europe. This was much more than a religious choice which some of my readers will now regret and criticise. It was a general statement of foreign policy and even of economic policy. It meant our country aligned with the smaller countries of western Europe, with Holland and the German states, against the bureaucratic Empire and against the Catholic superpowers. It meant the property of the monasteries passed into new landowners hands which helped power and economic advance based on enterprise and family capital. It meant the anti clericalism of the English was allowed reasonable freedom. I see the anticlericalism of the 1520s and 1530s as the forerunner of the scepticism about big government and expert opinion we still see today.

The Tudors ensured England and Wales would be a united country, a unity that has never been split to this day. They established a stronger rule of law from the centre, but relies on substantial devolution of power to local JPs, municipal authorities and local landowners. They had to recognise the limits of their power in an age before instant communication and huge government budgets.

100 years of Middle Eastern oil

I awoke this morning to be reminded by the Today programme that 100 years ago a British explorer first struck oil in Iran, and began the dash to the Gulf to set up an oil industry.

My sources tell me that the first oil was found at Masjid-i-Suleiman on May 26th 1908 by George Reynolds, working under William Darcy’s licence. This discovery led to the formation of the Anglo Persian Oil company, which proved a very popular investment in 1909, subsequently to become BP.

In an era when it is fashionable to decry oil for its environmental impact as well as for its impact on the politics of the Middle East and the great powers, it is perhaps timely to remember the huge leap forward in our living standards which a hundred years of relatively cheap oil has brought us.

Oil as a fuel has kept us warm and powered our transport. As a chemical feedstock it has enabled scientists and chemical companies to develop flexible plastics, bitumens and other crucial products that play such a role in modern lifestyles.

Doubtless if mankind had not had oil to go to war about the bellicose would have found other pretexts and causes of dispute.

Today we mourn those who died on the Somme

Today we mourn the loss of 19,240 men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Following an eight day bombardment with 1.7 million shells, and seventeen mines exploded under the German front line, 750,000 troops set out across No Man’s Land at 7.30am on that fateful day. Their General, Sir Douglas Haig, was sure the bombardment would have destroyed the German front line and made the attack relatively easy. Casual observation would have shown him that the barbed wire and the concrete emplacements had withstood it. The British had air supremacy so they should have seen that. War on an industrial scale went to deadlines and plans laid well in advance. Commanders showed little flexibility. Wellington’s brilliance at husbanding his resources and avoiding heavy loss of manpower was replaced by a casual acceptance of massive losses for little territorial gain.

We all admire the heroism and stoicism of the many men who served in that army. My own two grandfathers fought in that long war. They were amongst the lucky ones, both surviving, and only one wounded. We should be more critical of the political and military leadership of the time. The Liberals in government presiding over mass slaughter would never recover as a governing force after the war. The decision to go to war over a dispute in the Balkans and over the neutrality of Belgium was questionable. We then fought the wrong kind of war for the UK. Our strength lay in our navy, kept substantially stronger than any rival, so we fought a static land war on the continent where we could not deploy our sea power to good effect. The men and money the war took damaged the UK’s subsequent position in the world and is part of its twentieth century relative decline. It reminds us how much blood and treasure in the past commitment to Europe has cost us, when the world’s oceans beckoned to a better future elsewhere for an island trading maritime nation.

A suitable commemoration for Waterloo

Today we commemorate the victory of Waterloo, when allied forces led by Wellington and Blucher defeated Napoleon. They put an end to his ambitions to unite Europe under French domination through his military prowess and the strength of his armies.

It was not an easy victory. For much of that fateful Sunday the British led allied army of some 67,000 men withstood repeated attacks from the stronger French force. The French assembled 74,000 veterans including 14,000 cavalry, compared with Wellington’s 11,000 cavalry and 56,000 footsoldiers. Only 7000 of Wellington’s army were veterans of his successful Peninsula campaign, and only 24,000 British troops familiar with the great general’s methods and training routines.

At the end of the battle, after the arrival of Blucher with 48,000 Prussians secured the victory, 25,000 French soldiers were dead or injured and 8000 were prisoners. 15000 from Wellington’s army were dead or injured, and 7000 of Blucher’s men. It was heavy price to pay, but it bought a final victory against the most dangerous dictator and the most successful continental General Europe had know for a long time.

What should we make of these sacrifices, almost 200 years later? We can mourn the dead, for they all had loved ones and left behind grieving relatives. We can be grateful the right side won, and Europe was spared more misery at the point of a French bayonet.

We can also take away from the story a reminder of just how much blood and treasure Britain has had to shed in the past to prevent any one power dominating the continent. We have always been the country that has stood up for the rights of smaller countries to self determination. We have favoured democratic and national governments that make sense to people, and resisted strongly over centralised, aggressive and acquisitive powers that wished to unite the continent by force.

Today, fortunately, France and Germany no longer seek to rule the rest of Europe by annexation through force of arms. Our brave Waterloo soldiers, and their successors who fought German tyranny, did put an end to that. But on this Waterloo day, can we not ask our government again to rise to the spirit of what our forbears have done? Should they not abandon the EU centralising constitution, and stand up for the rights and verdict of the Irish people? What better epitaph, what more fitting recognition could we give our long dead Waterloo veterans, than today to say the EU Constitution is dead, long live diversity, long live the independence of smaller countries, long live the right of everyman to have his say and see his vote respected. The new unifiers of Europe are not using force of arms, but they are using the bludgeon of international law codes, the secrecy of international government and bureaucracy to thwart the popular will.

510 years ago the Portuguese reached India by sea

On May 20th 1498, Vasco da Gama sailed into Calicut, the centre of the Indian spice trade. His long and epic voyage had begun the previous year, taking him far out into the Atlantic Ocean, before he turned east and reached the South African coast at St Helena Bay. From there, he sailed around the Cape to Mossel Bay, stopping at a place he called Natal at Christmas time. He travelled north east through Mozambique and Mombasa, before picking up a pilot to cross the Arabian Sea to the Indian coast.

It was a great feat of seamanship, although the long, illness-afflicted return journey meant only a minority of his crew made it back to Portugal to report their triumph. Two of his fleet of four ships were burned during the course of the expedition and their stores and crews placed on the remaining vessels.

Subsequent voyages, by da Gama and others, established Portuguese naval supremacy along the east African and Arabian coast en route to the Indies, at the price of many being killed and ships being plundered and destroyed. The Portuguese decided to wrestle some of the spice trade away from Arabian traders and Venetian merchants, into the hulls of their better-armed ships.

Even then, five hundred years ago, the Indian trade was important. Spain was pressing around the world from the West, crossing the Atlantic and rounding Cape Horn. Portugal, by Treaty arranged by the Pope in 1494 between the rival Iberian imperialists, could exploit the route around the Cape of Good Hope. On his first voyage, da Gama underestimated the sophistication of the places he wanted to trade with, and found his trinkets unacceptable to many. The Portuguese improved their offer when they went back.

Today, the Indian trade is many times more valuable, to be undertaken by all peaceful merchants who appreciate the power-house which is the new India. We should remember the pioneers of the sea route, the tradition of enterprise and brave adventure they represented, while regretting the way their actions soon came to blows

In memoriam

On 11 May 1812 a man in a green coat with brass buttons called John Bellingham stood, full of anger at the government, in the lobby of the House of Commons. He had lost substantial sums on trade with Russia. He felt strongly that the government should have offered compensation.
Approaching him was no less a person than the Tory Prime Minister. Spencer Perceval was having all manner of problems, trying to keep his administration together against a background of resignations by senior politicians. Others refused to serve. He had to be his own Chancellor of the Exchequer following six rejections from Parliamentarians he had approached.
Perceval had persisted with the Peninsular War despite all its complications, reversals and costs, against Parliamentary criticism. He was to be vindicated by the eventual victory. He responded to Napoleon’s “continental system”, blocking British trade with the continent, with Orders in Council restricting trade in retaliation. These measures were unpopular with merchants and bankers, and were, to some, part of the cause of the economic depression that had hit manufacturing employment and sparked Luddite protests. On that fateful day the Prime Minister was walking to a debate on those very Orders in Council, thinking, no doubt, about the arguments he would need to marshall to deal with his critics.
John Bellingham produced a gun and shot the Prime Minister through the heart. He then gave himself up to the officers. He was duly tried and executed.
I am glad to say that no other Prime Minister has ever been murdered, though there have been threats to some of their lives. It was a tragedy that Spencer Perceval was killed in this way, his life cut short at a time when Britain’s fortunes were about to improve, thanks to the progress of our armies in the Napoleonic War. The Prime Minister had successfully put in place the Regency legislation to handle the problem of the King’s madness.

Why do we enjoy peace in Western Europe?

Today is the anniversary of the German invasion of Holland and Belgium, 68 years ago. On the first day of the fighting in Holland around half the small and old Dutch air force was destroyed, Waalhaven airport seized for troop landings, and the bridge taken at Dordrecht. The Dutch army and the small boats of the navy put up stout resistance, but the absence of any functioning tanks and the loss of air cover made resistance difficult. In Belgium, the Germans hurled more substantial forces against the Allies, and destroyed around half the small Belgian air force on the first day. The German forces went on to conquer Holland by May 14, following the devastating bombing of Rotterdam and their threats to do more of the same to other Dutch cities. The attack on Belgium led to the English and French retreat from Dunkirk, and the successful German occupation of the rest of the Low Countries and Northern France.

Some argue today that we have been spared such battles over the last 63 years, thanks to the European Union. I always find this one of the most unpleasant and absurd arguments in the thin armoury of the proponents of a politically integrated Europe. Are they seriously suggesting that, without the EU, modern Germany would be following a warlike course against her neighbours? I see no evidence of any such intentions on the part of modern Germany, which has a very different outlook from the Germany of the Kaiser, or of Hitler. Why do they think so ill of a country with whom they wish to have such close relations? Do they not understand that military matters in the post-war period were mainly determined by NATO, not by the EU? Do they not recall that for much of the second half of the twentieth century Germany remained under four military zones from the occupying powers? The US emerged after 1945 as the world’s main superpower, and was herself committed to maintaining the peace in Europe, should there be a threat to it. As it turned out, the main fear after 1945 was not of German military action, but of cold-war tension between east and west flaring, into hot war across the divide between East and West Germany. As far as the west was concerned, the threat to peace did not come from within the EU, but from the communist world. The only protection against that came from a strong NATO with the US as its main pillar.

On a day when we mourn the loss of life in the blitzkrieg against Holland, and in the early exchanges of the battle for France, we are reminded what a much better place Europe became with the death of German militarism and its replacement by a peace-loving democracy, whose constitution endorsed their wish not to arm for conquest. It is wrong to argue that this came about only because of the EU, when it came about for wholly different reasons. Peace has been maintained in Western Europe for 63 years because the countries no longer wish to fight each other. That has been backed up by the presence and actions of NATO.

63 years ago it was Victory in Europe day

Hitler committed suicide on April 30th 1945. On May 7th the new government of Germany bowed to the inevitable and authoritsed the signature of the unconditional surrender document at Reims on May 7th, and in Berlin on May 8th. All war like operations between Germany and the Allied powers ceased at 23.01 on May 8th.

There was great rejoicing throughout the country, with dramatic scenes on the streets of London. The relief must have been huge after the long dark years of bombing raids, the loss of loved ones overseas,and the nagging fear of death to civilians and active service personnel alike. The evil of the concentration camps and gas chambers discovered by the Allied armies was still sinking in. Years of post war austerity lay ahead, but who cared on the news that the war was over?

At the Potsdam Conference the Allies decided on the partition of Germany, and the granting to Poland of territory from the Reich. This ushered in an era of suffering for the Germans who were living in the wrong places in Eastern Europe and had to move out.

One of the main preoccupations of the Allies was to dismantle German heavy industry, to prevent future rearmament and the construction of battle ships, tanks and fighter planes. They ordered the dismantling of steel capacity, the closure of many factories, and the transfer of weapons techonology.

This thinking lived on with French governments, and led directly to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community and the proto EU. It took a long time for Western politicians to come to see Western Germany, later Germany, as a peaceful democratic ally in an uncertain world.

16 years ago the first woman Speaker was elected by the Commons

On Monday 27th April 1992 the House of Commons elected its first woman Speaker, Betty Boothroyd.
I was a rare government Minister voting for a Labour Speaker. I did so because I thought it time a good woman candidate should have the job after 700 years of men, and thought it important that Labour held a great office of state again after 13 years in the wilderness.
The mood was strange. Many of my Ministerial colleagues were buoyed up by the fourth election victory in a row, and had not detected the feelings of unease and unhappiness on the doorsteps. They did not seem to grasp that the Conservatives won the 1992 election despite the background and the ERM policy, not because of it.It seemed to me it would have been wrong to have flaunted the narrow victory by using the majority to have another Conservative Speaker, especially if that Speaker had been a Cabinet member in the recent past in the same administration that he would need to preside over.
Enough of my backbench colleagues took the same view, so Betty was elected easily.She proved to be a good Speaker, who brought a fresh approach to the job and was widely liked and respected on all sides of the House.