ANDREW ALEXANDER: Morality... in China? Look at our track record


Last updated at 01:38 28 March 2008

When Lord Macaulay wrote "We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality", he was speaking as a book reviewer rather than a historian. He was writing about a life of Lord Byron, published in 1830.

Had Macaulay referred to the British Government, rather than the British public, his observation would have been a timeless truth. The Government's current fit of morality over Tibet is ridiculous and nauseating.

Which is not to say that Beijing has behaved well, which it obviously has not, and the media is right to say so. But a lecture to China about human rights from Foreign Secretary David Miliband just about takes the biscuit.

He was fully complicit in the Iraq war as a junior minister and has never protested about it. This did not lead to the 19 deaths officially acknowledged by the Chinese in the case of Tibet (so far), but totals of sheer horror. A precise figure for civilian deaths is hard to come by in the anarchy in Iraq to which we have contributed.

However, some 90,000 deaths have been ascertained as an absolute minimum. A British opinion poll firm, by contrast, after extensive sampling of families recording losses, estimates the real total at well over a million dead.

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Tibet protest

Tibetan Buddhist monks have been injured during anti-China demonstations

On top of which, more than two million have fled the country and another slightly lower figure have fled their homes for safer towns and villages. Our own humbug has been overtopped only by the protests to China from President George "Waterboarding" Bush.

Humbug apart, protests like Miliband's are counter-productive. True, if the UK gave Andorra or Liechtenstein a severe talking to, it might make an impact. But China is a major power with a traditional disdain for foreigners which any protests are likely to exacerbate.

The trouble with a so-called "ethical" foreign policy is that whatever it might do in improving human rights in the target country - which is usually nothing - it fails in what should be the very first aim of foreign policy: the preservation of peaceful relations.

China is not a country to be bullied. It has emerged from the long dark night of Chairman Mao's rule not because of condemnation from the West but through the actions of the Chinese themselves.

It is also financially powerful. Its huge currency reserves in American securities put it in a position to inflict major upsets on the U.S. economy and by extension on the West, generally should it abruptly switch out of dollars. It is not a wise target for hypocritical protests from London.

One of the difficulties for the Press is that it rarely has room to report speeches in full. So, in a spirit of helpfulness, I would like to add the unreported sections of various distinguished figures' recent speeches, ranging from politicians to churchmen.

David Cameron launched an attack on the Government this week for making tax changes which add £110 a year to the burden on average families.

Unreported was his further comment. "But I can assure you, with my hand on my heart, that a future Tory Government has not the slightest intention of reducing that burden in any way. Not only are we committed to matching Labour's spending plans, we have also pledged to spend more in a number of areas, especially defence."

Also of interest is the Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter sermon in which he inveighed against the constant demands of ordinary people in their "acquisitive ways" and the "greed of societies that assume there will always be enough to meet their desires". People should "let go of selfish, greedy habits".

Unreported, he went on: "Of course, you may say that since I live in a palace, this is patronising. But who wants a prince of the Church to live in a monkish cell? I have my comforts because I need them. My car and driver and all the rest because they go with the job. I put up with them reluctantly."

Another cleric, the Archbishop of Birmingham, has castigated new legislation on embryonic stem cell research as shameful. The evidence claimed by most medical researchers that it can provide cures for serious diseases was, he said, "sparse". Unreported, he went on: "You may think the word 'sparse' is pretty cheeky given the preponderant view of medical researchers.

"But be confident that I can always produce a minority view from good Catholic medical men who know their place. Anyway, the Catholic Church is used to dealing with tiresome experts. We put Galileo in his place with the threat of torture. And other tiresome individuals who disagreed with the Church made useful firewood."

Gordon Brown did not make another speech on Britishness this week, but "sources" close to him say that he remains devoted to promoting the cause. The Prime Minister is thinking of introducing a number of American practices to underline our Britishness.

This could include not just the flying of lots and lots of flags from public buildings, as in the States, and even from private ones. He also has in mind hand-on-heart salutes to the flag and patriotic vows as in U.S. classrooms. In further moves to underline his programme, he will be having talks with Brussels, which in itself is now a part of Britishness.