Shakespeare, torchbearer for the Chinese way of doing things

His popularity survived the revolution to the point where it is acceptable for a communist leader to hail Shakespeare, not as a bourgeois reactionary, not as an imperialist capitalist running dog, but as the greatest writer who ever lived. When you stop to think about Shakespeare’s prevailing ideology, it is easy to see why.

Think of Shakespeare’s political context, the Elizabethan age. This was the era when England was the world’s boom nation. The Armada had been thrashed. English companies were forming and trading around the world. We were laying the foundations for the greatest commercial empire the world has ever seen; and yet of course it was also a time of domestic paranoia. There was no real political freedom – of course not, when there was always a risk that the Spanish would strike back, or that armies of secret Catholics would launch a Counter-Reformation, or that the Queen – a poor, weak woman – would be deposed by one of her charismatic earls. That was why Walsingham deployed his secret police. Authors and playwrights had to be very careful about what they said. If you offended the regime, it could be curtains. Thomas Kyd was tortured to death. Christopher Marlowe was probably bumped off by the secret service, in the course of that mysterious “brawl” in Deptford. Ben Jonson nearly had his ears and nose cut off.

Shakespeare himself played a very cool hand. He was, frankly, the poet of the established order. We don’t want to go back to the tumult of the Wars of the Roses, is the nub of what he is saying in the histories. We want to stick with the Tudor settlement. You can see why his message might be agreeable to Beijing. Look at what happens to the family members who are so impudent and ungrateful as to depose the gerontocrat King Lear. They get their comeuppance, all right. No wonder King Lear has always struck a chord in Japan and China and other societies where old age is particularly reverenced.

Look at what happens to the putschist Macbeth or to the Gang of Eight conspirators who kill Julius Caesar. They all come to pretty unsavoury ends. And what is the theme of Hamlet, that work of cosmic genius that Mr Wen watched yesterday? Well, it is also about a constitutional outrage, in which the King is murdered by Claudius; and when the battle is over and the stage is strewn with bodies at the end of Act Five, Shakespeare takes care to leave the ruling party in power. Fortinbras takes over from Hamlet (and remember, we are laboriously told at the beginning that he has a good claim to the throne). Kent and Edgar take over from Lear. Macduff takes over from Duncan. Antony and Octavius take over from Caesar. Usurpers never prosper, unless, of course, like Bolingbroke, they take over from bad kings like Richard III.

Shakespeare did occasionally get into hot water himself. He was spoken to very severely when he obliged the Earl of Essex, on the eve of his abortive rebellion, by staging Richard II – a play about a king who is deposed. Such was the anxiety about any play depicting a regicide that you could not buy a copy of Julius Caesar for 24 years after it was first staged. But Shakespeare never really fell foul of the secret police. He was too fly for that. He ended his life quite rich, by the standards of the day, and that is hardly surprising when you think that his plays contained so much poetry, so many insights into the human heart – and such ingenious defences for keeping things as they are, and keeping the ruling party in power.

Yup: he was the greatest writer of all time, but he also knew how to cope with censorship, the secret police and the absence of anything that we would now call pluralist democracy. Which is why, I venture to say, it is very safe and correct to admire him in Beijing.

The greatest gift to the Greeks might be to let them go it alone

The Greek debt crisis is deepening, in other words; and there are only two options. We could continue down the road we are on, in which the euro shambles becomes an invisible and surreptitious engine for the creation of an economic government of Europe. Indeed, there is a sense in which the slow-motion disaster of the PIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Spain – has been terrific for the federalist cause. Bit by bit we seem to be creating a fiscal as well as a monetary union, in which huge sums – including about £20 billion of UK bail-out cash – are being transferred from the richer to the poorer parts of the EU. The idea is that Germany, France and others should “socialise” the debts of the periphery – take them on, in other words – so as to keep the eurozone together and to stop the domino effect, with all the attendant damage it is feared that would do to the European banking system.

These profligate and improvident countries would be obliged, in return, to submit to a kind of economic supervision that is now proposed for Greece. Taxes, spending, benefits – all the panoply of economic independence – would then be subject to agreement with Berlin and Brussels. I sometimes think Kohl, Mitterrand, Delors and co instinctively knew that this would happen.

They probably calculated that if only they could achieve monetary union, the euro would create such strains that the de facto creation of a United States of Europe would be impossible to resist. The trouble is that there is just no democratic mandate for anything of the kind.

As Angela Merkel is constantly obliged to point out, the German people would never have supported joining the euro if they had been told that they would become the guarantors of the debts of Greece. The Greeks would never have gone into the euro if they thought it meant the complete surrender of their economic independence and the destruction of their standards of living. As for the UK taxpayer, none of us believed that a condition of EU membership was the payment of billions in ransom money to stop the euro blowing up.

For years, European governments have been saying that it would be insane and inconceivable for a country to leave the euro. But this second option is now all but inevitable, and the sooner it happens the better. We have had the hamartia – the tragic flaw in the system that allowed high-spending countries to free ride on low interest rates. We have had the hubris – the belief the good times would never end. We have had nemesis – disaster. We now need the anagnorisis – the moment of recognition that Greece would be better off in a state of Byronic liberation, forging a new economic identity with a New Drachma. Then there will be catharsis, the experience of purgation and relief.

I don’t believe that Greece would be any worse off with a new currency. Look at what happened to us after we left the ERM, or to the Latin American economies who abandoned the dollar peg. In both cases, it was the route to cutting interest rates and export-led recovery.

The euro has exacerbated the financial crisis by encouraging some countries to behave as recklessly as the banks themselves. We are supposedly engaging in this bail-out system to protect the banks, including our own. But as long

as there is the fear of default, as long as the uncertainty continues, confidence will not return across the whole of Europe – and that is bad for the UK and everyone else.

It is time for a resolution. And remember – if Greece defaults or leaves the euro, then we will not see that UK cash again. Indeed, we are more likely to be repaid in stuffed vine leaves or olive oil than we are in pounds or euros. We should stop chucking good money after bad.

Ignore this rain, it’s the drought that we need to think about

Man or mouse, I said to myself. Spot of rain never hurt anyone, I said. It’s bound to clear up in a minute or two, I said. So I hopped on my bike in the middle of what I thought was a light summer shower, and no, my friends, it did not clear up. It came down like the monsoon. Cars seemed to take a special delight in overtaking me just as we were abreast in a lagoon-like puddle. By the time I got to City Hall my skin was pruned, my teeth were chattering and my suit was shiny with water, and just as I was emptying the contents of one squelching shoe I looked up and saw my friend Caroline Spelman on the office television, and she was telling the world we were in the middle of a drought.

Drought! I said bitterly. You must be joking. How can we tell people that they can’t have baths, when they only have to step outside to be soaked to the skin? Then I listened a bit longer, and of course I saw her point. We have just had the driest spring for 20 years, and across the country rainfall has been down about 45 per cent. The crops are miserable and wilted; the brewers and the farmers have been so short of water that the price of food and beer is apparently set to rise even higher – exactly what people don’t need in the current economic conditions. We ought to forget this June dampness and concentrate on the drought of the past few months. If the British people are seriously being advised to avoid having baths – with all the damage that may do to our international reputation for hygiene – then we need to look again at water distribution in this country.

The rain it raineth on the just and the unjust, says the Bible, but frankly it raineth a lot more in Scotland and Wales than it doth in England. It has done so throughout the dry spell. Back in May, when England was at its most parched, my executive assistant Ann Sindall went on a two-week walking holiday in Scotland. Batley-born Ann knows all about the English rain – but even she was amazed by the unremitting horizontal fire-hosing she received from the Scottish skies. According to some experts in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, we have a North-South water divide, which means that Scotland and Wales are positively sodden, while Newmarket seems to be a Sahara.

Since Scotland and Wales are on the whole higher up than England, it is surely time to do the obvious: use the principle of gravity to bring surplus rain from the mountains to irrigate and refresh the breadbasket of the country in the South and East. It is amazing how much hostility this idea provokes from the very water companies who are currently warning of shortages. If you go to the website of their front organisations, you will find the notion of a water grid denounced as “absurd” and “inefficient”. But if you talk to the excellent Professor Roger Falconer, of Cardiff University, he will tell you that they are blinkered and wrong. He has been looking at all sorts of proposals for improving our current network of canals so as to integrate them into the water supply. He talks of linking up Welsh mountain reservoirs via the Wye and the Severn with the Thames, or of sending the water from the Severn and the Trent round to East Anglia – for many years the driest part of the country.
I believe we might go even further, and retrieve J F Pownall’s magnificent 1942 plan for a Grand Contour Canal, which would follow the 310 ft contour of the hills all the way from the Scottish borders to the South East.

The water companies mount all sorts of objections. They warn that it would be a mistake to mix up water from Wales with water from the Thames, since “the chemical composition of water varies in different parts of the country, and the potential effect on habitat and species would be significant”. This sounds pretty much like tripe to me, and I am glad to say that Prof Falconer agrees. The chemical composition of water is H2O, and that is true across Britain. Then they object that any new water grid might involve some pumping, and therefore fossil fuel consumption. That is true; but then the pumping would be nothing like as energy-intensive as the desalination plants that are currently under way.

Above all, I think the water companies forget the extra benefits a network of water-bearing canals would bring.You can find best water heater at A canal is a beautiful thing, and if we have to expand the current network with some new stretches, then we should not expect the nimby frenzy you get with a new road or a high-speed railway. On the contrary, it adds to the value of your property, surely, to have a little boat tethered at the foot of your gorgeous riparian lawn. The construction of new canals would not only generate much-needed jobs to dig the thing, but further jobs in all the recreational activities that would follow. In some ways we are going through a neo-Victorian age of investment in infrastructure. We have Crossrail, the Tube upgrades, the Thames tideway tunnel, and plans for new high-speed rail.

But in energy generation, in aviation and in water supply we are woefully unimaginative. Think of the Romans: they built an incredible 31 mile aqueduct just to supply the people of Nimes with water for their ornamental fountains (since they already had plenty for bathing and drinking), and they didn’t even have mechanical diggers. We have plenty of water in Britain, and the nation of Brunel is surely capable of finding scenic and ingenious ways of getting that water to the right place at the right time. I look at the rain lashing my window as I write, and it seems mad that we are complaining of drought. It is simple mismanagement of supply.

Prof Falconer and other engineering experts will be having a conference later this year, at the Royal Academy of Engineering, to discuss a water grid. Their ideas need careful thought, but I like what I hear.