A-level history students used to learn about the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756 in which Britain and France, long-standing enemies, swapped allies. Britain and Austria against France and Prussia became Britain and Prussia against France and Austria.
Alliances in the Middle East are sometimes equally unstable and bewildering. The US backed Saddam Hussein in a war against Iran only to overthrow him a few years later with inevitable strategic benefits to Iran. Now, the US has a temporary agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme. If it sticks, could the US eventually abandon its long-standing relationship with Saudi Arabia and form an alliance with Iran? After all, Saudi Arabia, run by its rulers as a family business, has always been an uncomfortable partner for western democracies. The country (if you can call it that) has never had any form of democracy, apart from half-hearted municipal elections. Iran, on the other hand, has a modest parliamentary democracy within its theocratic framework, even if the ayatollahs largely dictate who stands and who’s allowed to win.
No policy for the Middle East can work without some means of containing Iran. The best form of containment is to bind her into an alliance. I shall be told by experts that I don’t know what I’m talking about. But how many “experts” predicted China’s embrace of free markets? Or the collapse of the Soviet Union?
London in the 1970s was full of tiny, constantly splintering Maoist and Trotskyist groups, similar to the one formed by Aravindan and Chanda Balakrishnan who allegedly held three women as domestic “slaves” for 30 years. To the security services, they caused as much alarm then as Islamist groups do now; in 1978, 200 officers with dogs were sent to Brixton in south London, to arrest the Balakrishnans and 12 others.
When Edward Heath, faced by an indefinite miner’s strike, announced a three-day week, the Observer instructed me to inquire whether revolution was imminent. Out of, at a conservative guess, some 60 far-left organisations at the time, I must have chosen the more downbeat ones because, in a rare show of unanimity, they agreed that capitalism had to pass through several more phases of crisis before its end came.
If I had asked Comrade Bala (as he was called), he would presumably have informed me – I rely on an account of his thinking on the invaluable website marxists.org – that the Chinese Red Army was on its way to lead the workers of Britain to victory. Later, when he and his wife formed the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tsetung Thought in 1976, he let it be known that the Chinese had covertly established an international dictatorship of the proletariat. It was just that we didn’t know we were living under it.
Unlike any other team sport, cricket conflates failure and loss of form with character weaknesses. Anybody who makes a duck, drops a catch or bowls a wide is said to lack, not talent or technique, but “mental strength”, like a First World War deserter.
That is the problem for Jonathan Trott, who has left England’s tour of Australia with what is described as “stress”. He has always been a limited batsman, but also a remarkably successful one because he plays within his limitations. In the first test in Australia, however, he was twice dismissed cheaply by Mitchell Johnson, bowling at more than 90mph. Since he also got out to Johnson several times at the end of the English summer, he is now said to be panicky and weak against fast bowling, rather than just not very good at playing it.
The truth is that very few batsmen cope well with consistent and accurate high speed; even Don Bradman did badly against Harold Larwood and the England captain Douglas Jardine decided he was “yellow”. Others play spin bowlers badly but they are not usually criticised for lack of backbone, only for lack of patience.
The England camp insists Trott’s problems are “ongoing” and nothing to do with Johnson. That may be so but I suspect cricket now uses psychiatric diagnosis as a substitute for moral judgement. Which is an improvement of sorts.
Alex Salmond’s white paper on Scottish independence covers every angle. Among the 651 questions answered, according to a BBC report, are “Will my season ticket be affected?” (no) and “Would the Scottish Broadcasting Service participate in Comic Relief?” (yes). I am sure that, as Bill McLaren, the BBC’s late rugby commentator, would have put it, they will be dancing in the streets of Kirkcaldy tonight.
But I have another question: can I get on to the Scottish government website to read the white paper? Answer so far: no.