So on Tuesday night I switched on the telly in anticipation of Heston Blumenthal’s Buck Mad Cookery Show. But I’m not going to tell you about that, because I got distracted by Faisal Islam. I must admit, I like Faisal Islam. He has this slightly Tiggerish air, with his emphases and his gesticulations and his graphs, that always makes me think he should be presenting Blue Peter or something, rather than doing the economics report on Channel 4 News, which isn’t exactly where you expect to find young and energetic folk.
Anyway, Faisal was interviewing Jim Rogers. Not, I hasten to add, the language-mangling former Lord Mayor of Belfast, but the legendary financier. Jim has a fine line in futurology, and that’s what he was doing on Tuesday night. To summarise, Jim reckons the American economy is fucked, the British economy is even more fucked, and all those whizzkids in the City of London better start learning to drive tractors. He also predicts that the axis of the world economy is going to shift big time to Asia, which is why he’s put his money where his mouth is and moved to Singapore, so his kids can grow up speaking Mandarin.
The occasion for this was El Gordo’s trip to Washington, which seems to be based on the premise that Barack O’Bama will bail out everybody else’s economy. It doesn’t seem to have occurred that the American economy is also bankrupt. The Yanks do have the advantage of a currency that other people want, but that’s being attenuated as Bernanke keeps printing dollars like there’s no tomorrow. Brown also wants O’Bama to join his great crusade against protectionism, but Congressional Democrats may have something to say about that.
Brown’s other big problem, in advance of his G20 jamboree, is that every government is working to its own theory. Even different bits of his cabinet are working to different theories, as the former Trotskyist Alistair Darling tries to keep the banks solvent by nationalising them, while the former Eurocommunist Peter Mandelson wants to keep Royal Mail solvent by privatising it. This is what’s known as joined-up government.
It gets even less coherent when you move to the intergovernmental scale and try to get Washington and Beijing and Paris to all agree common approaches, let alone sign up to Brown’s theory. We saw some of this when the East European bloc in the EU put together a case for a bail-out of the region. Angela Merkel immediately told them to get stuffed, and now the Magyars and Slovaks and Bulgarians are left scratching around for alternatives. Which would be a good opportunity for a canny Russian government, with lots of gas on tap, to quietly reacquire much of the Near Abroad.
Which leads me to a modest proposal. The use of filthy lucre, rather than military might, to extend your empire is something we associate with the Americans. There was the famous Louisiana Purchase when they acquired a huge amount of territory from Napoleonic France; the 1867 purchase of Alaska from the Russians, who weren’t too worried about what the Aleuts or Yup’ik had to say on the matter; and the 1917 purchase of the Virgin Islands from the Danes, who apparently had just remembered they had a Caribbean colony and didn’t know what to do with it.
But there’s a long history of this sort of thing before we enter into the annals of American commercialism. Back in feudal times, it was quite common for skint kings and princes to raise money by selling bits of their territory to their more flush neighbours. That’s why maps of the Holy Roman Empire are as confusing as they are. In fact, there’s an example not far from Gordon’s own backyard. As any Shetlander or Orcadian can tell you, back in the day Orkney and Shetland were not part of Scotland at all but under Norwegian sovereignty. In fact, the islands were Norse-speaking until the 18th century. This changed in 1472 when the King of Norway found himself short of a few kroner and pawned these outlying islands to the King of Scotland, just as his ancestors had rid themselves of Man and the Hebrides.
Why not revive this tradition? The British government doesn’t have many assets to fall back on, but there are some uneconomic parts of the kingdom that Gordon may well think could raise a reasonable price on the open market. The North of Ireland comes to mind. Instead of doing his head in trying to get Peter Robinson to cut costs and reduce the British subvention, he could just sell us to the Chinese. After all, Beijing may own much of Africa and have extensive interests in the Pacific Rim, but a little beachhead in Europe could just come in handy to the up-and-coming mercantile power.