Some events appear at the time in all their historical significance: D-Day, Hiroshima, 9/11 spring to mind. Others reveal their importance only with the perspective of passing time.
What will stand out when the history of early 21st century Britain comes to be written a few decades from now? I suspect last week may be seen – even if only symbolically – as a major turning-point.
There was a time, starting in the 18th century with the opium trade, when imperial Britain exploited China and the Chinese mercilessly. It went on well into the 20th century.
My grandfather’s naval posting to Shanghai between the world wars was part of the final flourish of that imperial relationship between the rich, confident West and the poor, exotic Orient.
Now – if you can bear the mix of metaphors – the worm has turned and the boot is on the other foot.
The three-day visit to Britain by Chinese premier Le Keqiang had the unmistakable look of an imperial progress. An emperor visiting his newest, farthest-flung dominions.
Out came the red carpet. Out came the local royalty to kow-tow.
Out came Messrs Cameron and Osborne, rubbing their hands, bowing their heads and fawning like Pooh-Bah and Pish-Tush in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.
And what exactly was all this servile diplomacy about?
Like Britain two centuries ago, forcing opium on the Chinese, China is now preparing to take a big stake in Britain’s future infrastructure and power-generation.
Presumably in the expectation of future profit.
Profit you might reasonably have thought should have been Britain’s – and might have been if we had a government that wasn’t ideologically allergic to state enterprise. Its own state enterprise, anyway.
So here we have a nation in thrall to the idea of private enterprise giving away control of its key assets to a foreign government. A far-distant Communist government, at that.
Strange but true. And still not the whole story.
Let’s leave aside the question – still highly controversial – of whether nuclear power-stations are a good thing at all.
Even if you class yourself as “pro-nuclear”, it must still make you a little uneasy, surely, to have them built on our shores by Chinese expertise and Chinese money.
For long enough, Britain has exported waste of all kinds, especially the toxic variety, to poorer parts of the world. On the principle, presumably, that “their lives don’t matter as much as ours”.
Do I detect a similar attitude to us in the Chinese?
Or are they now looking on us as they have looked on much of Africa for decades – and much as we looked on that continent for so long?
As a struggling people ready to be helped/exploited (strike out whichever doesn’t apply).
So maybe this is how June 2014 will stake its claim to historic landmark status. As the month when Britain became part of the Chinese empire.
It’s the sort of thing that can go unnoticed as it happens.
A news story last week put an old Bob Dylan song in my head. A very old Dylan song, in fact: Only a Pawn In Their Game.
In particular the lines which go: “And the poor white remains / on the caboose of the train / but it ain’t him to blame / he’s only a pawn in their game”.
You’ve probably guessed what the story was, even if you didn’t happen to hear it. As news stories go, it’s not the newest.
A select committee of MPs reported – or noticed, or remembered – that white working-class pupils, particularly boys, leave school less qualified than equally poor black and Asian pupils.
This immediately, and inevitably, caused a couple of leaps to different but equally predictable conclusions.
Depending where you heard it, it was presented as evidence either that
a) the system gives black and Asian pupils preferential treatment; or
b) there’s a “cultural” difference involved.
Both views contain a subtle (or not so subtle) element of racism.
The first can, I think, be dismissed as nonsense. The second is obviously true, up to a point. But it comes freighted with a couple of stereotypes:
a) “Asians set a high value on education.” In my experience, this is generally true, but probably not in all cases;
b) “the white working class are a feckless bunch.” A widely-held view that is a particularly toxic mix of racial and class prejudice.
There is, however, a totally different inference that can be drawn from the MPs’ observations.
I haven’t heard anybody in any of the media mention it any time this subject has come up. Yet it seems to me to the most glaringly obvious conclusion of all.
It is this.
In this country, intelligent, motivated black and Asian families are more likely to be poor than equally intelligent, motivated white families.