The Doomed Euro?

In any normal January commentators offer their views on the coming year. However, most years, after the usual mix of doom and gloom, the world seems to carry on in the same old way.

This year, however, really is different. Quite a lot of the world is already not carrying on in ‘the same old way.’ In 2019 we are going to realise that something big has changed ‘out there’.

The Eurasia Group, political risk consultancy and adviser to the world’s elites, warns in its latest report: ‘The geopolitical environment is the most dangerous it’s been in decades.’ This is the year that events, and lack of remedial action, threaten global stability and risk collapsing the old world order in a way not seen for many years. The post-1945 Pax Americana is crumbling before our eyes as President Trump unravels the transatlantic alliance that has underpinned Europe since the 1950s. Many blocs – NATO, the UN, the G7, G20, WTO and the EU – are in varying degrees of crisis as new global challenges emerge and as America walks away from acting as the world’s sheriff. The Middle East is a basket-case, fighting its own ‘Thirty Years War’ between Sunni and Shi’a with a wary Israel looking on. In the East, China and North Korea are flexing their muscles; and in the emerging world a new breed of hard-line autocrats are taking over in Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Hungary.

The world order is changing – and not for the better.

The outlook is bad enough; but to make things worse, a world trade recession is looming. Global economic forecasts for 2019-20 make for dismal reading: 2019 could turn out to be the year that the world economy falls apart, although timing global economic slumps is like watching an oil tanker running slowly onto the rocks.

This is the wretched backdrop against which the European Union is confronting the biggest challenge to its existence since it began as a dream of a single European superstate back in the 1950s.

The year 2019 will be full of important decisions for the EU, as Brussels will have to set a seven-year budget – without Britain’s cash – as well as appointing new leaders to key institutions, and discussing reform, whilst coping with falling economic growth, the threat of populist national elections, trade frictions with the US, plus the challenges from Russia and China. Brexit is merely background noise to the increasingly embattled, unelected and unpopular bureaucrats sitting in the Berlaymont (European Commission HQ).

The EU is fighting on three fronts at the same time, even as many of its member states have their own domestic problems to contain (the French anti-Macron revolution is a symptom of a wider EU malaise):

  • First, nationalism (aka, ‘populism’)
  • Second, the Catalan rebellion and the Visegrad Four’s mutiny epitomise the growing challenge to Brussels’ rule
  • Third, underpinning everything, is the threat to the Euro. Brussels’ flagship currency is in deep trouble

The smiling celebration party for the euro’s 20th anniversary masked the rising panic among the fat cats, bureaucrats and bankers waving champagne flutes for the cameras. They now know that their grandiose plans to cement the EU together by issuing a single currency was a huge gamble and a serious mistake. ‘The house of cards will collapse’, admits Professor Otmar Issing, ironically one of the original cheerleaders of the euro and the founding chief economist of the European Central Bank (Business Insider, 17 October 2016).

For a real monetary union to work smoothly you need a genuine single authority, plus the ability to swing government money around a united economy. Thus England can pipe London taxpayers’ cash to support Scotland, Wales and Ireland; and the US can shore up the Rust Belt states with money from New York and California. Brussels however does not have the power, or the authority, to transfer rich German taxpayers’ cash to struggling Greece, or to get the Netherlands to pay for the million illegal immigrants who are descending on Italy.

The real economic problem is the EU’s ‘Club Med’. Southern Europe’s economic fragility was well known when Greece was allowed to join the euro, after some pretty dodgy accounting. It was always a risky venture.

To take one simple example, when Greece had its own currency, Athens could stimulate an economic slump by devaluing the drachma: suddenly Greek holidays were dirt cheap and millions of tourists brought their spending power to Greece. Not anymore. Athens was trapped into a currency it could not control or devalue, and which the big boys of the EU wanted to keep strong at all costs.

Devaluation of any German controlled pan-European currency was unthinkable. So Greece was told to cut its budget and live with austerity. That meant that the only way Greece could get extra euros was by borrowing – heavily. Sure enough the big German and French banks were only too happy to lend trillions of euros to the Club Med countries. Unfortunately it became a vicious circle, known as a ‘debt doom loop’, between countries with high levels of debt and the banks that hold that debt.

The problem got worse. Big banks have bought more and more public debt from Eurozone countries. However, should the debts not be paid back (‘non-performing loans’ in Bankspeak) then the banks holding those loans are themselves in deep trouble. Now the euro-banks are running scared. Without payment, they could follow Lehmann Brothers into oblivion. The ‘rescue’ of Greece 2010-13 turns out to have been nothing more than a face saving bail-out ‘loan’ to save the big French and German banks. Even the IMF has admitted that Greece was sacrificed to save the euro and the European banking system from disaster in the great financial crisis.

Italy is the canary in today’s Eurozone coal mine. Italian banks hold one-third of the unpaid euro loans; Italy largest banks hold 300 billion euros of bad debt, dodgy securities and off-balance sheet items that aren’t being repaid. Also, billions of euros of Italian government bonds are held by Deutschebank, Commerzbank, Societé Générale, Crédit Agricole and the Netherlands’ ING.

All this could be solved at the EU level; however there is fierce opposition from Northern European countries to swinging their taxpayers’ money around. In 2018 they diluted President Macron’s proposals for greater money pooling and higher spending in the Eurozone. The idea of stripping elected parliaments’ control over taxation, spending, and the economic policies of the nation state was never going to be accepted; ‘ever closer union’ had hit the buffers of national self-interest, as the UK’s Brexit proves.

Without a means to transfer funds and a ‘fiscal union’ by the EU countries (by pooling everyone’s taxes in Frankfurt and Brussels) the euro is at mortal risk. Now the economic storm clouds are gathering to make things even worse. Eurozone economies are slowing. Even the German economy is contracting. Industrial production was down by 4.7 per cent in the previous year leading up to November 2018. This means that, unbelievably, Germany – yes, Germany – is probably heading for a recession. Meanwhile, Italy has been in recession for a long time and Greece, Ireland, Spain and Portugal are still struggling to escape the last financial disaster. The Eurozone is heading for a full-blown recession; and without the means to devalue, or order ‘government’ spending to boost European economies, a slump seems inevitable. The pressure to break out of the stranglehold of the euro in order to print their own money has never been stronger for some nations.

‘What is clear is that the status quo cannot persist indefinitely if the euro is to survive in the long term’, an LSE blog article warned in October 2016.

This combination of member states’ disillusionment with Brussels, domestic problems, a shrinking economy, massive indebtedness, social and political challenges and the crisis of migration, plus the intrinsically unstable basis of the euro, means that monetary union has failed economically and politically.

Unless the EU27 agree to form a new central Treasury, the euro is doomed. That’s something to keep an eye on in 2019.

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Fog in Channel over Brexit?

‘Fog in Channel – Continent Cut Off’ was a famous headline before the World War I. However, it still captures the deep-rooted insularity of the British.

This attitude towards Europe has skewed Britons’ understanding of Brexit, because Britain’s decision to leave the EU doesn’t just affect the UK. Britons tend to forget that it also came as a shock to the 27 remaining EU countries and, above all, to the unaccountable, corrupt Commission with its feather-bedded officials, living well on foreign tax payers’ money.

Commission dreams of ‘The Project’ and unstoppable progress towards ‘ever closer union’ and a ‘United States of Europe’ have come badly off the rails since 2016. It is timely therefore to examine just what Brexit means for Britain’s European partners and how Britain’s departure is viewed from the Continent.

It is not a happy scene.

As with most divorces, the first quarrel has been about money. Grandiose EU plans are doomed if the UK refuses to pay the £39bn settlement; it’s PM May’s most potent weapon. Brexit therefore confronts ‘Europe’ with a massive problem. Losing one of the biggest financial contributors to the EU means that the Commission’s budget will have to be rewritten and a lot of expensive projects shelved. (However, the Commission will fudge it: no honest accountant has signed off the EU’s ‘audited’ accounts for 21 years.)

The squeals of pain from the 27 have already started. Beggar-states such as Bulgaria and Romania are furious at not getting their handouts from Brussels for ‘EU-funded’ projects, and the net contributing countries – not many left, with the UK gone –  aren’t happy either. Germany, Holland and the other contributors to the Brussels money tree are reluctant to cough up more to balance EU books. If you don’t believe that, listen to the German car manufacturers, the Spanish fishermen or the French farmers. They are distinctly disgruntled and alarmed by what Brexit means for them.

The truth is that Britain’s exit from the EU has proved a devastating blow to the founding fathers’ dream of a European superstate, run by unelected civil servants, because Brexit affects other nations, politics, people, and challenges the Brussels-based Commission’s control.

The remaining 27 member states have been forced to confront their own membership of the EU; and we tend to forget the mess that most European countries are in.

The EU was already heading towards a crisis even without Brexit. Across a continent beset by mounting problems, Britain’s departure is a stinging vote of no confidence in Europe’s collective future. Ken Clarke’s wish for Westminster ‘to become mere provincial council chamber in Europe’ has proved false. People across the Continent want to rule themselves, with their own borders and as individual nations. They are fed up with the EU meddling in their lives.

Now the suppression of nationalism, which has always been the bedrock of Euro-federalism, is being challenged. By its own admission the EU has suffered one of the most disastrous years in its history. It needs to reform quickly to avoid a head-on challenge, as governments throughout the continent face a backlash of anti-EU votes.

The EU’s leaders – Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel – have already seen their popularity ratings plummet to record lows. In Italy things are worse, as Rome’s government, one of the EU’s Big Four (France, Germany, Spain), now represents a serious anti-Brussels majority. Italy’s new ‘government of change’ openly defies Commission edicts on any Euro-budget, and refuses to accept EU immigration policies. Hardly surprising, as, thanks to the stranglehold of the German Euro, Italy’s economy is little bigger than it was 20 years ago, and youth unemployment is 32.5 per cent. The national debt stands at almost €2.5 trillion — over 130 per cent of annual GDP. That money can never be paid back and so Italy is heading for bankruptcy.

Italy is not alone with economic woes. Spain is in deep trouble, too. More than a third of young Spaniards have never had a job. This human tragedy is directly linked to membership of the EU, because the Euro has rendered large tracts of the Spanish and Portuguese economy hopelessly uncompetitive.

In Athens, the birthplace of European democracy, the long-running Greek tragedy continues. Membership of the Eurozone has ruined Greece, wiping out businesses, jobs and entire industries. The Greek economy has actually contracted; shortages and hardship stalk the streets, whilst Brussels dictates orders from afar.

Inevitably this growing economic crisis has now spilled on to the streets of Europe. In France, President Macron’s unpopular ‘reforms’ – like increased petrol tax – have encouraged citizens to protest in the traditional French way. The gilets jaunes (yellow vests) are rioting on the streets. But their protests are about more than just France. They are also about the EU, because Macron has become the main cheerleader for the EU now that Angela Merkel’s long Chancellorship is heading for the German knacker’s yard. Macron’s capitulation to the rioters with his curious cocktail of police brutality and concessions to rioters shows that the greatest crisis for the EU is the spreading challenge to Brussels from despised ‘ordinary voters.’

Spain’s experience reinforces this view. The bitter internal dispute between Madrid and the Catalan separatists – whose leaders either await trial at home or are in exile abroad – has exposed the simmering power of ‘the people.’ Brussels’ snub to the breakaway Catalans will not be easily forgotten. Like all the other unrest across the Continent, it spells out the EU’s dreaded ‘N word’ – Nationalism.

Even in safe, comfortable Germany, the nationalist far-right now poses a menacing threat to the cosy CDU-SPD order, with the electoral successes of the anti-EU Alliance for Germany (AfD) party. Also, In Belgium, ‘capital of Europe’ and headquarters of the EU, a political shambles is taking shape. Prime Minister Charles Michel resigned just before Christmas and now leads a caretaker government until fresh elections can take place in May 2019. He is leaving the screen whilst ordinary Belgians worries about chronic unemployment and Islamic immigration are stoking serious public unrest.

However, the most direct challenge to the authority of Brussels and the Commission comes from further east. There the situation is much more menacing, with the rise of openly far-right parties. The Visegrad Four: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary are in a state of open mutiny, mainly over unpopular immigration diktats from Brussels. Hungary in particular presents an increasingly authoritarian alternative to the EU model of liberal politics.

Elections for the European Parliament in spring 2019 may prove a nasty shock to the EU elite as right-wing parties look likely to score significant gains. New populist politicians will emerge, making Nigel Farage look like a hand-wringing local vicar. Suddenly Marie le Pen’s vision of an alternative Europe – even a ‘Frexit’ – is becoming a possibility.

There is no question the EU is confronting a serious crisis – and Brexit is only part of it. In 2019  we are entering truly troubling times, with the EU heading towards a showdown as some of its member states may elect openly nationalist governments intent on defying Brussels. The problem is that the EU Commission is terrified of reform, still believing that every crisis is just another opportunity to push for ‘ever closer union’.

Europe’s diverse countries with their infuriatingly democratic electorates now seem intent on keeping their national identities and to hell with Brussels. Ironically, the unsustainable EU’s flagship euro is the weakest link. The Centre for Economic and Business Studies warns that the ‘internal contradictions’ of the euro will eventually force the Eurozone to either integrate completely or break up.

European law professor at UCL, Ronan McCrea, sums it up: ‘Brexit on its own isn’t the existential threat to the EU that other things are. Migration, a crisis over the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, and the Eurozone’s future – all three of these could destroy the EU ….’

With or without Brexit, the storm clouds are gathering. For the smug fat cats of Brussels an unhappy year has begun.

Barbarians at the Gates

The word ‘barbarian’ comes from Greek and simply means ‘uncivilised foreigner – person not like us’. Today Europe faces an invasion of people ‘not like us.’

There is a warning from history. Rome may not have been built in a day; but it didn’t fall in a day, either. By 400 AD the rich, self-indulgent Romans ignored the danger until it was too late. Beyond the Rhine and Danube, Europe was invaded by millions of refugees, poor, hungry immigrants, determined to get to the fleshpots of Europe, away from the bloodthirsty hordes bearing down from Asia.

The Huns, fleeing from poverty and a savage enemy, were economic migrants, determined to find a better life west of the Danube. But immigration was to spell doom for Rome. There were several reasons for the fall of the Empire, each one interwoven with the othereven Christianity contributed to the decline by encouraging pacifism. By 400 AD very few Romans wanted to be a soldier and defend the empire’s borders.

Mass immigration posed a mortal threat to the Western Roman Empire for four main reasons.

  • First, Rome allowed its defences to become undermanned and weak. Taxes were not spent on defence but on domestic luxuries and benefits for the plebs; ‘bread and circuses’.
  • Second, Rome’s famed administrative class had become a bloated and self-seeking bureaucratic caste within the state, feathering their own nest.
  • Third, Rome’s economy was falling apart. The Imperial currency was debased, and more and more owned by the richest 10 percent, living in privileged cities, expensive country houses, with an entire ruling class benefitting from the system, whilst taxes for the poor increased.
  • Last, but not least, the immigrant hordes brought their own barbarous cultures with them. Not for them the civilised, sophisticated society of Rome. Instead, a world of strange ruthless gods with its own laws and very different social organisation. Decadent, lazy, corrupt, pleasure-seeking Romans didn’t stand a chance.

Sounds familiar? The fact is that Europe today is facing just such an invasion. Millions of Africans immigrants will flood Europe unless it acts now, warns the European Parliament. This dire prediction is echoed by the Mayor of Lyon. ‘People do not want to live together … It’s difficult to estimate but I would say that in five years the situation could become irreversible. We have five, six years to avoid the worst.’

Europe is sleepwalking into a complete re-ordering of society from unchecked mass immigration in the next thirty years. The demographics are alarming. ‘Millions of Africans’ will flood the continent in the near future unless urgent action is taken. A spokesman for the EU parliament warns that there would be an exodus ‘of biblical proportions that would be impossible to stop if we don’t confront the problem now’.

Population growth, climate change, desertification, wars, famine in Somalia and Sudan. These are the factors that are forcing people to leave.

When people lose hope, they risk crossing the Sahara and the Mediterranean because it is worse to stay at home. If we don’t confront this soon, we will find ourselves with millions of people on our doorstep within five years.

Today we are trying to solve a problem of a few hundred thousand people, but tomorrow we need to have a strategy for millions of people.

The problem is simple; dirt poor many Africans may be, but thanks to the new digital age many of them have televisions and smart phones. They can see the fleshpots of Marseilles, Brussels, Paris, Rome and London. They can see Nike trainers, free handouts, free houses, free benefits and the good life all paid for by the European taxpayers – and they want some, rather than a mud hut and no running water in their neighbourhood. The result is that Europe is facing a migration not seen since the Dark Ages.

Opinion is split on how to deal with this unprecedented invasion. Many Europeans, from Stockholm to Seville, are deeply alarmed and resentful. Others, guided by Frau Merkel’s admission of a million refugees from Syria, are sympathetic and even welcome the invaders. For example, there is now a handy 76-page booklet handed to migrants to evade EU borders. This comprehensive guide is being given to migrants arriving in Italy, giving them tips on how to travel through the promised land of Europe.

The 76-page manual lists train routes, bus routes and maps of road networks for would-be asylum seekers to make their way across the continent without being stopped. The guide, entitled ‘Welcome to Italy and Europe’, hands out tips on how migrants can register and travel to anywhere in the EU regardless of where they first entered and how to avoid the law.

The comprehensive list also offers migrants detailed information on rest stops and food stations, train routes, fares and travel timetables.  It has been described as a ‘complete invasion plan’ for Europe by furious lorry drivers who face daily break-ins to their freight as they travel across the continent. In a chilling warning, worried British politicians raise security concerns that the guide is encouraging people smugglers linked to Islamic State (ISIS), who are already making millions from the escalating migrant crisis.

Since 2015, Brussels has struggled to cope with this influx, increasing funding for border patrols in the Mediterranean, devising plans to fight migrant smuggling and proposing a new quota system to relocate asylum seekers among EU states for processing of ‘refugee’ claims, and to resettle genuine asylum seekers.

Not everyone agrees. Individual countries have re-introduced hard border controls within the Schengen Area and rifts have emerged between countries willing to allow asylum seekers entry and other countries determined to discourage them. The Balkan Visgrad four steadfastly refuse to take any EU ‘quota’ of migrants. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán points out that it took his country 400 years to get rid of the mosque and they don’t want any new ones now, thank you very much, and to hell with Brussels.

He has a point. Mass immigration is changing European societies for the worse. Many commentators now believe that thanks to too many immigrants, Sweden is a lost cause, with massive social unrest thinly concealed beneath a figment of normality.

France is however the most vulnerable EU country. With its population of North African Muslims, the nature of French society is changing overnight. Already France has a population of 6 million Muslims – and it is growing fast. Many Muslim families have five children, at a time when the French birth rate is 1.1. France can therefore expect a Muslim population of 13 million in 2050, or nearly 20 percent of the population.

The impact on society will be profound. Already France has major no-go Muslim areas, mainly in the poorer Paris suburbs, the banlieues. Towns like Marseilles are recognisably Muslim already, with mayors warning that ‘teaching Arabic will create more ghettos.’ More worrying, most terrorists have been French citizens. The reality is that extremist Muslims in France are creating an alternative society, parallel, separate. The danger now is of separate development and ‘internal secession’. The impact on politics, social cohesion and French life can only be guessed at.

Elsewhere others too are warning of the dangers of uncontrolled migration. Britain is not immune either; towns like Leicester, Luton and parts of London have already been colonised by immigrants. By 2100, Muslims will compose about 25% of Europe’s population. Czech Republic President, Milos Zeman has said it is ‘practically impossible’ for Muslims with their Sharia law to integrate into the democratic societies of modern Europe. Zeman, a political liberal, also blamed the notorious New Year’s Eve sex attacks in Cologne, Germany, on ‘Muslim culture.’

The danger to Europe – as we know it – is staring us in the face. The question is, will Europe go the way of Rome, 2000 years ago ….

Cyprus in World War I

In 1914 Cyprus was a protectorate of the British Empire, leased by the Ottomans in 1878 to provide London with a base in the Eastern Mediterranean. This all changed in 1914 when, following a secret treaty between the Ottomans and Germany, the Ottoman Empire declared war against the Triple Entente powers of Great Britain, France and Russia. The British garrison promptly annexed the island on 5 November 1914.

Despite its proximity to Turkey, Cyprus was never a battlefield during World War I. Constantinople had too many other problems: first, it was flat broke. Second, many of its citizens – such as the Armenians – did not support the war, and the Sultan found himself fighting off enemies on no less than five fronts, as well as at home: the British in Egypt and Mesopotamia; the Russians invading the Caucasus; the Anglo-French landings in Gallipoli; and the desert Arabs rising up in what is today Saudi Arabia.

The British authorities were always concerned that the Turkish Cypriots might turn against the British, since the Ottoman Empire was officially one of Britain’s enemies. Listening stations were set up to spy on Turkish radio messages and spies and saboteurs were smuggled into Turkey. Cyprus was also used as a convalescent home for thousands of sick and wounded British soldiers from the Middle East campaigns. It also became a secure place to hold the thousands of Turkish prisoners of war. The island was on a martial footing throughout the war and various Governors had to fight off repeated attempts by the Army to take over the administration.

Nevertheless many Cypriots played an active part in the war. Thousands volunteered for the British army and they played an important part in the Salonika campaign. By 1916, the Military Commander of the British divisions on the Salonika front requested a Corps of Muleteers to help carry stores and supplies in the mountainous region of Macedonia.

This contribution of thousands of Cypriots supporting British troops on the Macedonian Front is a largely untold story, but Cypriots provided crucial logistical support to the Allied war effort on the Salonika Front. The Macedonian Muleteer Corps had enlisted 9200 men by early 1918.  Another 401 remained at the training centre in Famagusta. They were well paid at 3 drachmas per day and, by March 1919, the Muleteers Corps was 15,910 strong.  It was estimated that 89% of those recruited were Greek Cypriots and 11% Turkish Cypriots. They served in the Macedonian front, in Serbia and in Bulgaria, while at the end of the war some even entered Constantinople with the victors.

Inevitably they suffered losses. In five military cemeteries in Macedonia there are the graves of 30 Cypriot muleteers killed in action between the years 1916-19.

Perhaps the most curious twist of Cyprus’ involvement in the Great War was the attempt to hand the island over to Greece, lock, stock and barrel. By 1916 London was desperate to woo Greece into joining the war. Athen’s nationalist Prime Minister, Venizelos was actually offered complete ownership of the island as a bribe towards Greek dreams of ‘MegaHellas’, a greater Greece, at Turkey’s expense. To the amazement of the Greek Cypriots, King Constantine turned it down, to the fury of his Prime Minister Venizelos, who was sacked. Tempting though the offer was, at the time the King didn’t want to be dragged into someone else’s war.

This call for ‘Enosis’ – union with Greece – would have to wait another half century and for EOKA’s gunmen. But that is another story …

This article first appeared in Cyprus Today in November 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the signing of the armistice to end World War I. The piece is reproduced here with the kind permission of Cyprus Today.

On Blowing Up Parliament

‘Remember, remember
The Fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason & Plot.
I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.’
17th-century Nursery Rhyme

The desire to blow up the occasional politician is a thoroughly understandable one. In the final stages of Brexit’s vexatious and bad-tempered Uncivil War in November 2018, this notion seems particularly attractive. However, it has already been tried – unsuccessfully.

That old monster Henry VIII really caused the original attempt. The Gunpowder plot of 1605 stemmed from Henry’s decision to change his wife – and England’s religion – 70 years previously.

Henry desperately needed a son to carry on the Tudor monarchy’s line. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, failed to produce an heir and in 1533 Henry decided she had to go. This was always going to be tricky. Spain was the superpower of the day, so ditching a Spanish princess was guaranteed to annoy the King of Spain. The Pope, ever anxious to curry favour with ‘His Most Catholic Majesty,’ refused to agree with Henry and blocked any divorce.

However, Henry couldn’t wait, so broke away from Rome, declaring himself in 1534 the ‘Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England’. This proclamation conveniently enabled him to annul his marriage to Catherine and to marry Anne Boleyn. (It also allowed him to dissolve the Catholic monasteries and grab their land and money.)

But Henry VIII was no real fan of Luther’s ‘Reformation’, any more than he was of the Roman Pope. He clamped down on all religious fanatics, executing Catholics and Protestants alike. After his death the country slowly polarised into political factions: Catholics on one side; Protestants on the other. Henry VIII’s reforms turned out to be the Brexit of the day.

His Catholic daughter, Queen Mary, tried to turn the clock back. Protestants were persecuted, with 283 burnt at the stake for heresy. When Elizabeth I finally came to the throne she tip-toed carefully through the political and religious minefield she had inherited, declaring she was against ‘making windows in men’s minds’.

Unfortunately she was forced into persecuting Catholics because Rome’s Counter Reformation encouraged numerous plots to murder her and restore Catholicism in England. The Catholic Church, the Pope and Spain desperately wanted to replace Elizabeth with a Catholic monarch – Mary Queen of Scots, for example.

In England every Catholic was now viewed as a probable traitor. The Elizabethan establishment passed savage anti-Catholic laws. Jesuits were ordered to quit the kingdom on pain of death. Catholic priests were fined for saying mass and imprisoned for life. Anyone harbouring a priest risked hanging. Catholics were forbidden to move more than 5 miles from their residences.

It was against this explosive background of what was shaping up to be a religious civil war that King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne in 1603.

James Stuart was viewed with suspicion by his new subjects. Catholics and Protestants were literally at daggers drawn; plots abounded on every side. However, James managed to sign a peace treaty between England and Spain. But Spain and the Pope were still determined to restore freedom of worship for Catholics in England. Ironically, James was distrusted abroad for the repression of Catholics yet at home for being far too tolerant towards them. So, he was always a target. Catholics were plotting once again, this time to put James’s Catholic daughter, Princess Elizabeth, on the throne. The authorities clamped down hard, but a new and deadly plot was brewing.

Robert Catesby, a minor Catholic aristocrat was the mastermind. He had taken part in a rebellion against Elizabeth in 1601 and then fled to the Spanish Netherlands where he began to recruit allies for a new attempt to kill England’s monarch.

By March 1605 the conspirators gathered in London. Their aim was simply to kill the King and as many of the Protestant elite as they could by blowing up the Houses of Parliament with a huge store of gunpowder. The State Opening of Parliament, with the bishops, lords, Privy Council and judges offered a ‘target-rich environment’, including the monarch’s nearest relatives. It was simple and brilliant: all they needed was enough gunpowder, and the opportunity to wipe out England’s hated Protestant ruling elite at a stroke.

The plotters based themselves at Catesby’s lodgings in Lambeth, where their stored gunpowder could be secretly ferried across the Thames. Meanwhile, Parliament pushed through increasingly harsh anti-Catholic legislation.

The gang leased an unused cellar beneath the House of Lords. In those days the Palace of Westminster was easily accessible; merchants, lawyers, and others lived and worked in the lodgings, shops and taverns within its precincts. By August, 36 barrels of gunpowder had been stored. The opening of Parliament was announced for 5 November. The plot was simple; Fawkes would be left to light the fuse and then escape across the Thames, whilst – simultaneously – a revolt in the Midlands would abduct Princess Elizabeth.

However, by now details of the plot were leaking. The wives of those involved became increasingly concerned and on 26 October, Lord Monteagle, the brother-in-law of one the conspirators’ received an anonymous letter warning him ‘as you tender your life, to devise some excuse to shift your attendance at this parliament’Alarmed, Monteagle warned James’s spymaster Salisbury, who cannily decided to sit on the intelligence and watch events unfold.

On 1 November the King was informed; he ordered a search of the Houses of Parliament. Half the conspirators moved to the Midlands, ready to abduct Princess Elizabeth. On 4 November Catesby set off North to join them.

On that same evening a search party finally discovered a large pile of firewood beneath the House of Lords, accompanied by ‘a simple serving man.’ It was Guido Fawkes. Later that night an armed party returned to search the undercroft more thoroughly. Once again they found Fawkes. He was arrested, giving his name as ‘John Johnson’. He was carrying a lantern and a pocket watch plus fuses, and slow-matches. Barrels of gunpowder were discovered under firewood.

Although Fawkes’s had been caught red-handed, for two days he was the only conspirator arrested. He openly admitted that he had planned to blow up the House of Lords but staunchly refused to name anyone else. This earned him the praise of King James, who nevertheless reluctantly ordered Fawkes to be tortured to name his accomplices. On 7 November his resolve and his body were broken; on the rack he confessed the identities of his co-conspirators. It was now a manhunt for the fugitives.

At the news of ‘John Johnson’s’ arrest, the plotters had fled. Catesby told them that the King and Salisbury were dead, before the gang moved north, eventually holing up in Holbeche House near Stafford. Tired and desperate, they spread out some of their damp pistol gunpowder in front of the fire to dry out. A spark landed on the powder and the resultant flames engulfed Catesby, and two others. The remaining fugitives resolved to stay on. On 8 November the King’s men surrounded Holbeche House, killing or capturing the surviving conspirators.

During the next few weeks, Salisbury’s agents hunted down the rest of the plotters and tried them for High Treason. Fawkes and the surviving conspirators were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Fawkes cheated his butchers; moments before the start of his execution, on 31 January 1606, he jumped from a ladder while climbing to the gallows, breaking his neck and dying.

The nation rejoiced. But Catesby’s failed Gunpowder Plot set Catholicism in England back for centuries. New laws were instituted that eliminated the right of Catholics to vote, among other repressive restrictions.

Catesby’s Gunpowder Plot still casts a long shadow. To this day, ‘Guy’ Fawkes’ effigy is burned across Great Britain every Fifth of November and the cellars of the Houses of Parliament are searched to make sure there are no conspirators hiding with explosives to blow up the politicians.

However, sometimes it still seems quite a good idea at times of national constitutional crisis …

America’s Secret Coup d’État

Book cover: see link in footer

Fifty-five years ago this week, the President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was shot and killed. The official Warren Enquiry concluded that the murder was the work of a lone gunman, an ex-US Marine, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Years later, another US President, Richard Nixon, admitted that the Warren Enquiry into the murder was “the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

The KGB’s secret enquiry came to a very different conclusion: the murder was nothing less than ‘a coup d’etat, carried out by rogue elements in the US administration, the CIA and the Mafia, backed by rich businessmen, and that Vice President [Lyndon B] Johnson knew all about it.’

New evidence proves the Russians were correct. JFK was murdered by a well organised plot to get rid of him. He had made too many enemies.

The story starts at his election in 1960. JFK squeaked in by just 4500 voters in in Chicago and Illinois. Those crucial votes were paid for by Joe Kennedy, JFK’s father, an ex-bootlegger and friend of the Chicago Mafia. The Mob expected gratitude from ‘Old Joe’s boy in the White House.’ They were wrong.

Robert F Kennedy

When JFK appointed his brother Robert as Attorney General – and since young Bobby Kennedy was out to make a name for himself – the Feds began hounding the Dons as crooks and putting them in jail.  J Edgar Hoover, the corrupt head of the FBI, who had been in the Mob’s pocket for years, watched horrified as mobsters ‘took the fifth’ in court. The Kennedys had double crossed the Mafia.

The Mob hit back with a contract to kill Bobby Kennedy. However, Carlos Marcello, the all-powerful Don of Dons, reminded the mobsters of the Sicilian proverb: ‘If you want to stop the dog’s tail wagging – cut off its head.’ The contract was switched to JFK.

J Edgar Hoover

The Mob had many willing allies. The Cuban exiles, smarting after their disastrous failed invasion attempt at the Bay of Pigs in 1960, wanted rid of JFK. So did the CIA, who in the aftermath of their botched attempt to overthrow Castro had been told that a furious Kennedy wanted to ‘splinter the agency up into a thousand pieces.’ This was dangerous for JFK, as he just ordered the CIA to work with the Cuban exiles to mount a new coup to overthrow Castro.

Over the months, others backed the plot. JFK alienated the so-called ‘Federal Reserve Bank’ (which is really a consortium of 12 private banks) by declaring that the Treasury, not the Fed, would print America’s money in future. JFK pointed out that the US Constitution specifically forbade anyone else printing money than the US Treasury.

He upset big steel by crushing a cartel of steel corporations, bent on upping their prices to rip off the American taxpayer. He infuriated the Oil Barons of Texas by removing their prized Oil Depletion Allowance, that allowed them to offset ‘dry wells’ against tax, worth $3 billion a year in today’s values. Wall Street was horrified; who the hell did Kennedy think he was?

Things got worse. Kennedy decided to pull out of Vietnam and bring the boys home. In 1963 there were only 16,000 ‘advisors’. The big arms corporations were making a fortune out of the Vietnam war and wanted the war ramped up, not withdrawal.

The alliance of vehement anti-Kennedy groups grew by the month. The all-important Jewish Lobby was furious when Kennedy refused to back Israel’s attempt to build a secret nuclear bomb. Much worse, he even threatened to turn off all US aid to Israel. David ben Gurion openly declared JFK ‘an enemy of Jews everywhere’.

By early 1963 Kennedy had managed put together a constituency – of his sworn enemies. By declaring open season on America’s secret government of money and serious vested interests he had united his enemies to agree on one thing – JFK had to go.

Lyndon B Johnson

Kennedy then made a fatal mistake. His Vice President, the Texan Lyndon B Johnson, was a crook, a swindler and had ordered several murders, as well as being up to his neck in numerous nefarious deals. A special Congressional Committee was appointed to look into his misdeeds. Jack Kennedy decided that he would need a different running mate for 1964. LBJ was in the running – but for a Federal Penitentiary. And LBJ –“only a heartbeat from the Presidency,” knew.

From then on in early 1963 the only question for the secret plotters was; when?  Where? And how?

There were three attempts on JFK; all using the same MO. A rifleman; a patsy to take the blame; and a clear opportunity. The first attempt was in Chicago on 2 October 1963. Nothing happened. The Secret Service received a warning that one Thomas Valee, ex-Marine sharpshooter, had been recruited to help train dissident groups of Cuban Exiles for the assassination of Fidel Castro. Valee was arrested. He claimed that he had been set up by ‘someone with special knowledge about him’, such as the CIA, because he had a government assignment to train Exiles to assassinate Castro.

The second attempt was in Florida. Tampa police and the FBI recorded a conversation between Joe Milteer and a Miami Police informant, Willie Somersett.[SIC] On 9 November 1963, Milteer told Somersett that that JFK would be killed on his visit to Miami, by ‘someone with a rifle in a tall building’. An ‘ex-Marine called Lopez would be arrested immediately after the killing to take the blame.’ Like Oswald, Lopez was heavily involved with the Tampa ‘Fair Play for Cuba Committee’; like Oswald and Valee, Lopez had been set up as a pro-Castro patsy. Extra security was drafted in and the conspirators went to ground.

The third – and successful – attempt was on the President’s visit to Dallas on 22 November 1963. We now have hard evidence of how the assassination was done, from a series of belated confessions and witness testimony. The presidential cavalcade was ambushed by three teams of gunmen; one in the Dal Tex building; one in the Texas School Book Depository; one on the Grassy Knoll. All this was recorded on film.

Up to ten shots were fired. JFK was hit first in the neck by a small calibre bullet; the Zapruder film of the motorcade clearly shows JFK clutching his throat. The next shot hit him in the back. The fatal shot was from the front, from a Remington ‘Fireball’, chambered for a .222 round. This hit JFK on the right temple and exited (with half his brain) out of the back of his skull. Oswald was swiftly arrested waiting for a contact to fly him to Cuba.

What happened then was a pre-planned and coordinated cover-up. Within two hours news releases and pictures of Oswald mysteriously surfaced, even as far away as New Zealand. Oswald was killed and silenced by a Mafia low life called Jack Ruby to make sure he didn’t talk.

How do we know all this? Here are some of the sources:

  • The deathbed confession of CIA officer, Howard Hunt
  • Carlos Marcello’s boasts to friends that he ‘whacked that smiling motherf_____ in Dallas’
  • The prison confession of professional trigger man Jim Files, who fired the fatal shot and identified the gun
  • LBJ’s admissions to his mistress
  • The 1992 testimony of Mafia lawyer Frank Ragano about the contract and conspiracy
  • The 1978 testimony of Cuban exile Dave Morales, passed to the House Committee on Assassinations, that ‘We took care of that sonofabitch’

The Mafia, the CIA and the Cuban exiles all had motive, method and opportunity to kill the US President. Oil billionaires, arms manufacturers, the big banks Wall Street and Israel all benefitted from JFK’s untimely death. J Edgar Hoover and LBJ survived.

The Russians were right; the assassination in Dallas was America’s secret coup d’état.

And it’s been kept covered up for far too long.

John Hughes Wilson’s book on this subject – JFK: An American Coup D’Etat: The Truth Behind the Kennedy Assassination – is available from libraries and all good bookshops: see Goodreads

The Slaughter of the Subalterns

Open letter to the Editor of Legion, the Royal British Legion magazine

Dear Sir,

I was dismayed to read the letter from Elisabeth Wooley in your September issue on officers in the First World War. It is a frequent misapprehension and demands the strongest rebuttal.

I speak from experience. Once, some years ago, I was compelled to intervene at Delville Wood Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France, after hearing an earnest young schoolmistress holding forth to her gullible pupils that ‘the reason there were so few officers’ graves was because they all stayed in the trench, forcing their men to advance at pistol point or be executed for cowardice.’ My (somewhat forceful) interruption to point out that she was talking nonsense and there were only 30 officers in a battalion of 900 men (3 per cent), and the officers led from the front was met with incredulity ….

A century on, we do a grave disservice to the dead young officers of the Great War to allow this disgraceful lie to continue unchallenged. Historical facts and truth are more important than ignorant opinions and prejudice. The Legion has a national duty to set the record straight.

The real truth is that the casualty rates among the junior officers in the Great War were horrific. The title of John Lewis-Stempel’s book Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, describes the fate of most; the life expectancy of a lieutenant in the Western Front in the trenches was just 42 days: ‘The universal expectation of a subaltern was “a hospital bed or interment in the soil”. Many had come straight from the classroom to the most dangerous job in the world, yet nearly all stepped forward, unflinchingly, to do their duty.’

Attacking across No Man’s Land with nothing but a revolver and in a distinctive uniform, junior officers were obvious targets for German defenders; they dropped in their thousands. One in five of the officer-students drawn from Oxford and Cambridge Universities died.

In the UK around 6 million men were mobilised and, of those, just some 750,000 were killed. That’s around 12 per cent. In fact, as a British soldier, statistically you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-6) than in World War I.

However, although numerically the great majority of casualties in World War I came from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately much harder by the global conflict. Their sons provided the junior officers, whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.

Some 17 per cent of the British army’s officers were killed, compared with 12 per cent of the rank-and-file soldiers killed during the war. Most of those were junior officers, although – contrary to popular belief – more British generals were killed in World War I than in any other major conflict (including three divisional commanders at Loos in 1915). Also, in 1914-18, most officers came from privileged backgrounds.

Casualty rates for regimental officers have always been proportionately higher than for other ranks.

The reason is simple. Young men as junior officers are needed to command infantry. The basic unit of foot soldiers was – and still is – the platoon under the command of the lowest commissioned officer rank. The official title of these junior officers is ‘subaltern’. A century ago in Britain, any educated young man over 18 and with a private school education was deemed officer material and, given a minimum of training, competent to lead his men into battle.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, these young men (many of whom were barely out of school) rushed to join the forces; many thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at most, and they didn’t want to miss out on the glory and fun.

Overwhelmingly, these junior officer volunteers were educated in British public schools, which in the quaint way we British have with the language are actually private institutions open only to those who can afford the fees. In 1914, the student body came almost exclusively from the British upper and professional caste and filled the classrooms of 120 elite schools.

According to an article by Lewis-Stempel in The Express (9 February 2014), ‘They trained a whole generation of boys to be waiting in the wings of history as military leaders. The young gentlemen from Eton and the Edwardian public schools paid a terrible price for this duty … but there was one unassailable, and surprising, truth about it. The more exclusive your education, the more likely you were to die. Manliness, duty, love of Britain, and stiff upper-lip self-denial were the inescapable virtues. So, when Lord Kitchener asked public school boys to step forward to officer the expanded British Army in 1914, they did so in their thousands.’

These products of tough boarding schools had been educated in a regime of muscular Christianity: team games, cold showers, demonstrating ‘pluck’ at sports, and immersion in history and the classics. They read GA Henty and Rudyard Kipling and were brought up on the famous Henry Newbolt poem, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’

In a society defined by class and the accent with which a person spoke, public-school boys were taught it was their destiny to lead, above all to set an example, and to inspire others through their gallantry. Their soldiers deferred to their young leaders sharing the same hardship in the trenches and acknowledged their courage and devotion to duty.

They were rarely let down. The courage of these junior officers was by and large amazing. A common thread is in the letters of many of these well-educated young men; they seemed to fear to be seen ‘letting the side down’ or ‘not being brave enough’ in front of their men more than they feared death itself. They were schooled to set an example; and they did.

The subalterns – in all armies – were always the first ones over the top of the trench and the last ones to retreat. The idea was that through this display of careless bravado they would inspire their men to follow them into Hell. Lionel Sotheby was a product of Eton and a subaltern on the Western front. He wrote in his last letter home that ‘To die for one’s school is an honour.’ He fell in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. He was just 20 years old. His public school, Eton College, sent 3000 of its ex-pupils into the army of the First World War: 1157 (over 30 per cent of them) died on the battlefields.

Guy Chapman of the Royal Fusiliers recalled ‘I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to thoughts of England. In fact, I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, most anxious lest I show it.’

Another tragic example was Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, educated at Wellington, keen to join the fight, but rejected because of his severe short-sightedness. His father pulled strings and wangled him a commission as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards. In autumn 1915, he saw his first and last action in the Battle of Loos. Within minutes of going ‘over the top’ he was dead, crying from the pain of his wound, shot through the jaw but still – according to his platoon serjeant – gamely trying to carry on, only to be later blown to pieces by a shell, just six weeks after his 18th birthday.

John Ellis wrote in his 1989 book Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I that, among subalterns, ‘estimates for the mortality rates among platoon commanders in the attack range from 65 to 81 per cent. This was, at its lowest estimate, double the rate for enlisted men.’  The German and French casualties reflect even higher mortality rates for their officers, and lost over 50 percent of their young males aged 20–24 during the Great War.

Bloodshed on this scale prompted the British historian AJP Taylor to write ‘The slaughter of the subalterns in World War I destroyed the flower of the English gentry.’ The American novelist Gertrude Stein lived through the Great War and afterwards described the dead young officers as ‘The Lost Generation’.

Sandhurst’s proud motto is ‘Serve to Lead’. The British soldier expects nothing less from his officers – then and now. The dead young officers of the Great War prove that truth, as a visit to any CWGC cemetery on the Western Front shows.

John Hughes-Wilson
Past President, International Guild of Battlefield Guides
Author, A History of the First World War in 100 Objects (Imperial War Museum, 2014)