When it comes to historical accuracy, Britannia waives the rules

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 July, 2005, 12:00am

I KNOW THIS COLUMN is supposed to be about business and economics, but I have been running short recently on hate mail from readers and it is time to stray a little and stimulate some.

Here goes. What is this obsession in Britland with extolling military sideshows? I am speaking, of course, of the hoopla in Portsmouth this week about the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Leave alone that the battle was fought on October 21, not in June, it had very little effect on the course of the Napoleonic wars. A French fleet already repeatedly beaten and confined to harbour attempted to retreat from the fray to seek refuge in the Mediterranean and, in diminished numbers, was forced back to harbour again, as its admirals knew it would be.

At the time Napoleon had already moved his army east, away from Britain, to engage in a series of resounding land victories against monarchies that refused to accept the will of the French people for a republican government.

His fortunes were reversed only seven years later and in Russia, not at Cape Trafalgar. The British navy played no part in it at all. A British coalition with Dutch and German land forces did participate in his final defeat three years later but only when a Prussian army came to their rescue at a critical stage in the last of three battles in Belgium, the first two of which actually saw the Prussians and the coalition pushed back.

They would have done better with their fireworks in Portsmouth to celebrate Hitler's defeat 60 years ago. That fleet at Trafalgar, and I have this on good authority, was best known for its traditions of rum, sodomy and the lash. The battle itself, in terms of any historical significance, was a sideshow and, even then, not in a cause as morally sound as the one against Hitler.

Could I have my hate mail now, please?

AND NOW, BACK TO business and economics. I find it gratifying when senior government officials in Beijing make the value of their public commentaries apparent to us all.

Yesterday, we ran a story reporting that the leadership in Beijing is making an economic policy switch by easing clampdowns on overheating and returning to stimulus of critical economic sectors. This prompted congratulatory remarks from Yi Xianrong, director of the Financial Development Institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

'We can say that the economy is like a healthy man now after he was ill for some time,' Professor Yi said.

Thank you for that profession of your thoughts, Sir. You have now been spotted. The next time you offer us any analysis of economic trends, we shall bear in mind a picture of young Johnny furiously polishing an apple to please his teacher. I could use another metaphor involving something equally round and smooth, but this is a family newspaper.

But while we may have our opinions on why you came to this diagnosis, Sir, there is still the question of whether you made use of a thermometer in declaring the patient healthy.

When economic growth of more than 9 per cent year on year was earlier considered a sign of overheating, the latest figure of 9.4 per cent hardly indicates a fever cured.

Similarly, when fixed asset investment growth of 25 per cent year on year was earlier considered too hot, we hardly have things cooled down with the latest figure of more than 27 per cent growth. Fixed asset investment now absorbs almost 55 per cent of gross domestic product and this is an astoundingly high figure.

Most interesting is the picture in steel production, one of the sectors specifically cited for an easing of previous clampdowns, according to our report from Beijing.

The chart should set this one in perspective. Steel production now is almost three times as great as it was only four years ago and still rising fast. The only thing not in evidence here is any sign of an earlier clampdown on steel.

The mind boggles at the mountain of steel that mainland producers will turn out if there had, in fact, been a clampdown and it is now to be eased. This rate of production is already having an effect on worldwide steel prices and reports are emerging that it may also have a profound one on the financial position of the mainland's steelmakers.

Healthy? Find yourself a thermometer quickly, Professor Yi.