BC or BCE? The BBC’s edict on how we date events is AD (absolute drivel)

We are asked to call the years-before-the-event-we-cannot-mention BCE, or “Before Common Era”, and the years-after-the-event-we-cannot-mention “Common Era”, or CE. You should not underestimate the influence of this verdict. What the BBC decides, all kinds of other publishers and broadcasters will decide to follow. Schools will snap into line, and if people protest they will be told that they are following best practice – it’s what the BBC does, after all.

So this is not some trivial bureaucratic thing: it is a change with subtle but extensive cultural ramifications. I object, first, because no one is asking for this change. I once did a few history programmes for the Beeb, and we referred endlessly to BC/AD, and we didn’t get a single letter of complaint.

I object because no one is offended by these terms. We talked to loads of Muslim and Jewish scholars, and none batted an eye at my usage; and it is particularly mad to think that Muslims might be offended by a reference to Jesus, when he is an important figure in Islam, and when many Muslims are baffled by this country’s peculiar desire to exterminate cultural references to its Christian history. I should stress at this point that I do not object because I want to vindicate the literal truth of the Christian religion – since I am afraid my faith is like a very wonky aerial, and I sometimes find the signal pretty scratchy. I object because it is all so darned nonsensical. There was no Mr Common Era preaching a ministry in Galilee in the 1st century AD. There is no Eran religion, and no followers of Common.

There was Christ, and if the BBC doesn’t want to date events from the birth of Christ then it should abandon the Western dating system. Perhaps it should use the Buddhist calendar, which says that it is the 2,555th year since the nirvana of Lord Buddha. Perhaps it should have a version of the old Roman calendar, and declare that this is the fourth year of the fourth consulship of Silvio Berlusconi. It could say that this year was 13,400,000 or whatever since the Big Bang, or maybe the BBC should switch to the Mayan calendar and announce that 2011 is the year 1 BC – before the catastrophe that is meant to engulf the planet.

But if the BBC is going to continue to put MMXI at the end of its programmes – as I think it does – then it should have the intellectual honesty to admit that this figure was not plucked from nowhere. We don’t call it 2011 because it is 2011 years since the Chinese emperor Ai was succeeded by the Chinese emperor Ping (though it is); nor because it is 2011 years since Ovid wrote the Ars Amatoria. It is 2011 years since the (presumed) birth of Christ. I object to this change because it reflects a pathetic, hand-wringing, Lefty embarrassment about thousands of years of cultural dominance by the West.

The simple fact is that the Roman empire was programmatic of most of our modern global civilisation, and the decision by Constantine in 330 AD to make Christianity the official religion was one of the most important moments in the history of that empire. That is why we have used this system for 1,500 years and more, and that is why it is accepted in China, Japan and just about anywhere you care to mention that this is the year 2011. The BBC needs to stop spending time and money on this sort of footling political correctness. Someone needs to get out down the corridor and find the individual who passed this edict and give him or her a figurative kick in the pants. I know it sounds like a trivial thing to get worked up about, but one trivial thing leads to another. I urge all readers to get out their Basildon Bond and hit the emails – to Mark Thompson and Lord Patten. Let’s fight this Beeb drivel now.

Britain should bang up the trouble-makers, but let’s turn them round, too

We need a dual track policy, which recognises the role of prison in reducing crime – as Michael Howard and David Blunkett showed – but which also places a greater emphasis (as Ken Clarke is doing) on cutting the rate of re-offending through education of all kinds. We are working with the Justice Department to expand the work of the Heron unit in Feltham, where re-offending rates have been brought down from about 80 per cent to about 20 per cent. Bang them up, in other words, but turn them round, too.

Now the Treasury will rightly protest that all this is expensive; and that is why it is time to look at cheap and highly effective ways of both cutting re-offending and cutting offending in the first place. We need to look much harder at the role of alcohol in crime, and above all in violent crime.

I have talked to many London doctors over the past few years, and they have repeatedly stressed the horror and expense of the current booze culture. Go to any A and E on a Saturday night, and you will see the victims and perpetrators of drink-fuelled violence. They are being treated at considerable cost to the taxpayer, and at the moment we have very few tools – short of prison – to stop the drunken thug from going out and doing it again.

For more than a year we in London’s City Hall have been advocating a scheme that has been highly successful in America, and that needs to be tried out in London as soon as possible.

It works as follows. If you are convicted of a drink-related violent offence then you may stay out of prison – if and only if you stay off the booze. You may think this is impossible to enforce, but in South Dakota they have come up with a very effective tool. You simply require the individual to take a breath-test twice a day. You make it a condition of his (and it is normally his) parole that he must report twice a day to a police station and prove that he has not been drinking; otherwise he is arrested and locked up. And it doesn’t cost the state a thing, because you make sure that the – relatively low – cost of the breathalyser test is met by the offender.

In South Dakota they have had 16,000 people involved in the trial, and the system has been so effective in preventing repeat offending that the prison population has come down by 14 per cent. That is a big financial saving – and all from finding a way to keep the drunken thugs sober. Of course, we should continue with other programmes to get people off alcohol, of the kind that are championed by Alcohol Concern.

But this one is cheap, and it has real teeth. I have to say that we have not been lucky so far in our representations to government. Kit Malthouse, deputy mayor for policing, has encountered a certain amount of what I will politely call bureaucratic resistance.

Alcohol plays a big part in domestic violence; tough anti-alcohol measures can help bring down crime, as we have seen on public transport, where a booze ban has been accompanied by a 30 per cent fall in crime statistics. If we won’t lock them up, and we want to cut drunken violence, then sobriety tests must be part of the answer. We need to pilot the scheme now.

David Walliams’s Thames swim: it will take a super-sewer to get London out of this mess

The sewers of London are already so full, and so much rainfall now sluices into them off the concrete and tarmac rather than sinking into the turf, that these Bazalgette interceptors are already exploding into the Thames about 50 times a year, and the discharge rate is increasing the whole time.

When Joseph Bazalgette built his remarkable system, he thought big. His sewers are still robust, and they are impressive feats of architecture and engineering. But they were designed for a city of 2.5 million people; and the population of London is now pushing eight million, and heading for nine.

In one of the crimes for which we are truly all guilty, society is now discharging an awful 50 million tons of raw sewage into the river in London alone, and unless we are bold in our plans, that figure will rise to 70 million tons in 10 years; and no matter how gutsy David Walliams may be, his future swims could well be banned by elf ’n’ safety.

When Bazalgette designed his interceptors, in response to the Great Stink of 1858, he assumed that they would only kick into action in emergencies – truly torrential downpours of a kind that happen once or twice a year. That is why it is time to recognise that we can no longer rely on Victorian capital, and why Thames Water is right to be consulting on its proposed super-sewer, known as the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

Of course, it must construct this cloaca maxima in a way that minimises hassle for local people and avoids damage to riparian beauty spots. But the basic idea is excellent, and essential. At a depth of 75 metres – below the Tube and other excavations – and with a bore the width of three buses, this huge tunnel will run winding beneath the course of the Thames from Richmond to a series of vastly improved and upgraded East End sewage works. A separate leg of the tunnel is proposed to run from Abbey Mills to the Beckton sewage plant, to end or greatly reduce the discharge into the Lee. It is a breathtakingly ambitious project, on a scale that would have attracted the approval of Brunel and Bazalgette themselves.

We have the prospect of protecting Walliams and other migratory forms of river life, such as sea-trout and salmon, and of ensuring that a much cleaner and sweeter river flows through the heart of the city. If we fail to act, we face smells and pestilence and a serious reduction in our quality of life.

This new super-sewer is the right thing to do for the environment – and it is above all the right kind of thing to do for a country still struggling to get back to growth. Never mind the supermasticated arguments about the 50p tax rate (which seem to be moving in the right direction). I know that George Osborne is also thinking about the economic stimulus that can be provided by infrastructure projects – and he is right. Big construction projects such as a supersewer generate myriad forms of employment – not just builders, but designers, architects, engineers, planners, and the list goes on. They create long-term competitiveness by making the city more pleasant to live in and move around.

And it is a mistake to think that these projects always need to be funded by the taxpayer. There are plenty of investors and wealth funds around the world who can see the potential long-term revenue streams that can be generated by investing in a significant and beneficial piece of infrastructure.

In other words, it is largely a question of vision, and of political will. It is becoming clear that this downturn could go on for so long that we need to think not just about projects that are “shovel-ready” now, but ones which could be “shovel-ready” in two, three, or five years’ time.

We are massively expanding Tube capacity, we are putting in Crossrail; but we need to go further. Even as these improvements come on stream, we will be struggling to catch up with the growth in demand. Commuter networks are jammed; Heathrow is running at 99 per cent capacity. We need Crossrail 2, and a new airport.

We can’t afford to keep muddling along and relying on historic investment. On sewers, rail, river crossings, ports and airports it is time for neo-Victorian boldness. It is the right thing for jobs now, and the right thing for this country’s long-term competitiveness.

Gaddafi: first we fete them, then we bomb them – but that’s politics

Gaddafi thought he was quids in, and then what happens? A spot of bother with some rebels in Benghazi, a faint suggestion that his regime might be in trouble (and that he might no longer be the go-to man for oil contracts) and ka-booom! The very Brits who have been oiling up to him are now flying sorties over Tripoli and trying to kill him and his family. Yes, Gaddafi must be feeling bitter about the whole thing; and, of course, he is not alone in being cynically courted, fawned over and feted by the British establishment, and then ruthlessly vilified and attacked. Compare the fate of Gaddafi with that of, say, Sir Fred Goodwin — and all the other bankers and super-rich excrescences of the capitalist system.

It was only a few years ago that government ministers, and indeed politicians of all parties, were engaged in a protracted cringe before the wealth-generating power of the Masters of the Universe. And the bankers, in turn, became quite used to the flattery. They were put on important task forces to improve the governance of the country. They were given knighthoods for services to banking. They would sit at posh dinners with politicians beside them behaving in the manner, let us be frank, of some seductive courtesan. “You so rich! Your hedge fund so massive! Me love you long time!” And now look at the bankers, and all the other “filthy rich” characters once shamelessly extolled by Peter Mandelson. Not a day goes by without their foxholes being bombed and re-bombed by the very politicians who once sought their favour.

The country is seemingly engaged in an extraordinary repudiation of free-market capitalism. I don’t think I am dreaming, but I have read recently two pieces, in this space, by some of the conservative journalists I admire the most. One said (forgive me if I summarise) that the Left had been right all along, and that the country was plainly run by a money-grubbing cabal.

The other said (I compress) that the bankers had caused the recent riots. A brace of brilliant new Tory MPs is today arguing that corporate decisions should be invigilated by some “public protagonist” to make sure they are in the interests of the country as a whole, and not just shareholders.

Whatever the merits of these points, they were not what these characters were saying only a few years ago about bankers or wealth creation. Of course, both these transformations in attitude — towards Gaddafi and the bankers – could be connected with the change in government. They might be all to do with the replacement of creepy sucky-up Labour by noble and fearless Tories.

A cynic might say, however, that if the revolution had not begun in Benghazi it is all too likely that the oiling to Gaddafi would have continued — because that was the British economic interest. And the same lesson applies, in reverse, to the currently despised capitalists.

Sooner or later the upswing will return, and since we are unlikely to find any real alternative to free market capitalism, there will be a new bull market and a new round of speculation and a new breed of super-rich; and as soon as most people feel richer, and the squeezed middle feels less vengeful — why then the politicians will be clustering around the money-makers again, like flies around a jam jar; and as soon as it is safe to do so, they will claim that it is in the national interest to encourage wealth creation, just as it was in the national interest to go for Gaddafi’s oil deals.

It may all sound reprehensible, but I am afraid it’s called politics.