Frightening and exhausting but an exhilarating way to reach the top

When we turned up at the hotel on the Friday night, it was clear that we had come ill-prepared for what our hosts had in mind. Gloves? I said. Hats? Goggles? We didn’t have any of that malarkey. As for waterproof jackets and trousers – well, I proposed to go in my tweed jacket, if that was all right with them. They laughed, in a slightly incredulous way.

Stefano, our guide, indicated where he proposed to take us, and that was when I began – as I have said – to feel a twinge of alarm. The mountain did seem very high, and very big – probably one of the largest and coldest objects in the whole European landscape.

I looked anxiously at Marina, but she seemed to be taking things in her stride. The truth is that I don’t think either of us fully grasped, even then, what we were letting ourselves in for. The next morning we set out at 10.30 with Stephano, and I was relieved to find that we were going by car. We drove up and up in a Mitsubishi 4 X 4, and, as we passed the pistes, I marvelled at the expense and energy that goes into bulldozing the rocks out the way. The result is that in the summer the ski slopes become lovely undulating meadows.

The story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn

I thought perhaps we might stop, and meander among the wildflowers. Oh no. Stephano had other ideas. We finally came to a place that already seemed impossibly high – at the top of the highest ski-lift. Was that it, then? Was our excursion complete? It was not.

We got out and began to walk, and as the hours went by it became clear that this was no ramble. Higher and higher we went, until there was no grass and no trees. We had left the ibex far below us. There weren’t even any birds, let alone butterflies; and the landscape had changed from the Sound of Music to a desolate and blasted moonscape, full of haphazard piles of metamorphic rock, colossal slabs of schist and gneiss – broken and ruined as though eternally dynamited by some malign cosmic force.

By this stage I was starting to feel the effects of hauling my 17 stone up the mountain, and Stephano made a sympathetic puffing noise, like a walrus. “Are you all right, Boris?” he asked. “We can always stop or go back if it is not possible for you.” Well, there is only one way to respond to a challenge like that, isn’t there? We kept going, Marina much more nimbly than me.

By mid afternoon we came at last to a “rifugio” – a kind of pinewood cabin just below the snowline, where Stephano proposed that we spend the night. In the morning, said our guide, we would make for the summit. Why wait? I said, with all the bravura I could muster. Why not keep going? Stephano looked at me and smiled.

How to climb the Matterhorn

We passed a fitful night, surrounded by exceedingly serious Italian mountaineers, all of them bedecked with ropes and pitons and ice-axes, and all of them roasted by the sun to the colour of Nutella. At 4 am we rose and put on miner’s headlamps and crampons – the first time I have ever worn crampons – and began the final assault.

By now the whole mission was turning in my imagination into some Everest disaster epic. We staggered on up a wide and steep plain of ice and snow, fissured by crevasses. As the wind started to bite us – penetrating even the waterproof I had borrowed from the Mayor of Ayas – my morale began to sink yet further.

I fell over as I negotiated a crevasse, and as I tottered to my feet I asked Stephano if we could declare victory. “Isn’t this pretty much the summit?” I asked. It wasn’t, said our guide. For two more hours we toiled up a snow ridge so terrifying that we were commanded not to look on either side – an instruction I disobeyed. I instantly felt queasy. We were walking up a knife edge, with certain death on either side.

The Matterhorn for hikers

Finally we were on the top, just as the sun came up, and I wish I could record that I felt full of some spiritual insight or peace. As we tried to keep our balance on that small patch of stamped-down snow, I thought how lucky it was that Marina was so good at climbing, and I wondered how on earth we were going to get down from this 4226 metre spot and catch our plane from Turin; and as I looked at Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn, gleaming in the dawn, I am afraid I yearned to climb them, too.

The Queen was wise to mock Hitler

You will recall that in 1936 Hitler broke international treaties and invaded the Rhineland; and for many people in this country it was becoming obvious that he was bent on revenge for the First World War, that he was virulently anti-Semitic, and that he could not be trusted. So here is your starter for 10. Who went to Germany after that invasion, and returned so bamboozled by Hitler that he called him, “a born leader of men, a magnetic dynamic personality with a single-minded purpose, a resolute will and a dauntless heart”? It was the man who led us to victory in the First World War; one of the founders of the welfare state; a man who is widely revered for his work for the poor and needy of Britain. It was former PM David Lloyd George, who went on in the same emetic article to call the German leader “the George Washington of Germany”.

May 1945: Princess Elizabeth with Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill, King George VI and Princess Margaret on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE Day 1945

And Lloyd George was not alone in his bad judgment. Which editor of a great and patriotic national newspaper was a supporter of appeasement – the policy of letting Hitler get away with it? Step forward Geoffrey Dawson, fellow of All Souls and editor of The Times. He published a leader after the remilitarisation of the Rhineland announcing that it was “A Chance to Rebuild”. He was so pro-German that in 1937 he said that he spent the evenings looking at the proofs of the paper, and “taking out anything which I think will hurt their susceptibilities and dropping in little things which are intended to soothe them”. Of course, Dawson was also innocent – in the sense that he couldn’t have imagined that Hitler’s concentration camps such as Dachau, which had first opened in 1933, would become a byword for horror; and indeed The Times changed its tune pretty smartly as soon as war broke out.

Who said in 1938: “One may dislike Hitler’s system, yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.”

All I am trying to show is that delusions about Hitler persisted even among the most brilliant and well-educated adults, and even among those who were to become his most formidable opponents. So here is my final question. Shortly after Hitler entered the Sudetenland, a famous statesman made an extraordinary observation. “One may dislike Hitler’s system, yet admire his patriotic achievement,” said this British politician in November 1938. “If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations”. Who said it? Well, you all know the answer – it was Winston Churchill, of course. Ah, you will say; but we have ripped Churchill’s words out of context; we have found one iffy remark that should in no way subtract from his clear and prescient warnings about the reality of the threat from Hitler and Nazism. And you are right. It is all about context, context, context.

The two little girls are plainly fooling around, and so is their mother, and so – probably – is their uncle Edward, even if he did go on to maintain a sinister sympathy for the Nazi regime. This was a time when people made fun of Nazis and their pompous and preposterous behaviour – think of P G Wodehouse’s character Spode, in the Code of the Woosters, expecting people to greet him with the words “Heil Spode”. People have made fun of Nazis ever since. Is there anyone growing up in post-war Britain who has not at one time or another done a mock-fascist Dr Strangelove salute? Is there anyone who cannot remember little kids at some stage flapping their arms in that way? And this is after the war, after the horror had been exposed. These days people pay a high price for jokes. Think of Sir Tim Hunt. But at least he was an adult who understood what he was saying. The young Queen-to-be had no idea of the contemporary – let alone the later – significance of her gesture, and today she fully deserves the national surge of affection and admiration.

Greece must rediscover the spirit of Marathon to burst its euro shackles

First, they must simply hand over “valuable Greek assets of €50 billion” to be privatised – flogged off to decrease the debt. Who will do the privatising? Schäuble proposes that these Greek state assets – airports, electricity companies, whatever – should be surrendered to a body called the “Institution for Growth in Luxembourg”. And who is in charge of this institution, eh? Jawohl, meine Freunde! It turns out to be a front for the German KfW, the Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau, the state development bank that was set up, ironically, as part of the postwar Marshall plan to rescue the bombed-out German economy.

These Greek state assets may be tarnished, they may be indebted, but they belong to the Greek people; and now the 72-year-old Schäuble is seriously proposing that this family silver should be taken and sold by the Germans. Why the Germans? Because it is obvious from Schäuble’s proposals that he has complete contempt for the Greeks’ ability to run their own affairs.

His next two conditions are that there should be “capacity-building and depoliticizing Greek administrative tasks under hospices (sic) of the COM for proper administration of the program; (c) automatic spending cuts in case of missing deficit targets”. The arrogance is amazing. What does he mean by “capacity-building”? He means sending in natty-jacketed Eurocrats to take over the country. What does he mean by “depoliticizing”? He means telling Greek voters and politicians to get stuffed, because it is the Germans who are now running the show.

It is fitting that the draftsperson was confused about “hospices” and “auspices”. The eurozone is indeed turning into a hospice, and the dying patient is democratic self-government. That is what Germany wants Greece to do, as the price of staying in the euro. The only alternative, says Schäuble, is a “time-out” from the eurozone for at least five years: in other words, expulsion.

As the hours have passed since this document was leaked over the weekend, I have waited for the repudiation from Berlin. I had assumed that Angela Merkel would somehow distance herself from the demands of her finance minister – perhaps even issue a formal démenti. On the contrary, it has become ever clearer that this ultimatum has her support, and the support of the German government.

The message from Berlin is clear: either we take over the economic government of Greece, or we kick Greece out of the eurozone – and what is even more astonishing is that no one, in any other European country, is rallying to the side of the Greeks.

After five years of crisis, the European Union has reached such depths of intellectual and spiritual exhaustion that ministers are willing to contemplate two appalling options: the immolation of Greek democracy or a Grexit that would almost certainly prove contagious to other eurozone members – including, ultimately, the French themselves.

What will the Greeks do? My heart says they should tell Schäuble to get stuffed. Five years ago, I said they should go for freedom, and I think the same today. What have they gained, by staving off the inevitable? More unemployment, more misery, more poverty. What have they got to lose? Nothing but their chains – the servitude that goes with a cruel monetary version of the Ottoman empire.

Now is the time to rediscover the spirit of Marathon, to fight for the things that made Greece great, to burst the shackles of the Great King of Brussels. Now is the time for what they used to call arete – the full expression of their independent moral virtue.

Will they? Alas, I doubt it. The tragedy of modern Greece is that they don’t really trust themselves – any more than Schäuble does – to run their own affairs. There are still large public majorities for staying with the euro, for sticking with nurse – in spite of the toxic medicine she dispenses. I expect that the agony will go on, with endless deadlines and fudges and semi-disguised bailouts.

But the lessons from the Schäuble paper are clear. They apply to Britain as much as to Greece. The first lesson is that this is what happens when a nation gives up economic sovereignty, in the hope – accurate or deluded – of somehow becoming richer. The Greeks thought they were being smart to sacrifice their monetary independence; they thought they could free-ride. They didn’t appreciate that this autonomy might be something valuable in itself – something they would one day yearn for again.

The second lesson is that whatever they say in Brussels, there is nothing inevitable about any of this process of “integration”. It is all up for grabs. This is no time to moderate UK proposals for reform; quite the reverse, and David Cameron is dead right to open a new front on employment law.

No one can read that German paper, and conclude that the EU is still meant to be an association of sovereign nation-states. These Schäuble proposals are tyrannical. They should be bitterly resisted.

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Let’s cut taxes for people at the top and the bottom

I looked at the tax arrangements of the last 16 in the world’s greatest knock-out tennis competition – athletes from about a dozen countries – and what I discovered was sobering for British tennis.

Thanks to Gordon Brown’s decision to hike the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent, Andy was the man with the least to gain from victory. Everyone else would have taken a bigger share of the swag, because virtually every other nation, with the arguable exception of Belgium, was then imposing a lower top rate of tax. Was it possible, I asked – semi-frivolously – that we could sharpen Andy’s appetite for success?

Perhaps if we made a small fiscal adjustment, we could persuade him to lunge that extra half a yard and fling that racket with that extra ration of sublime frenzy. Perhaps, I suggested, we could cut the top rate to 45p and turn him from also-ran to champion.

Well, folks, that article obviously went down big in the Treasury. It was only the next year that George Osborne courageously reduced the top rate – and pow!

What happened the year after that? In 2013, Andy Murray became the first British man since Fred Perry to win the game’s premier tournament. It was a moment of incredulous national ecstasy.

Now I am not going to push this point too far. No one would seriously suggest that top tennis players are entirely motivated by the size of the prize money. But plenty of serious people accept at least the thrust of the argument – that tax cuts can, in fact, lead to extra effort and higher performance. And there are plenty of people who do believe – as I do – in the Laffer curve: the idea that a cut in the taxation rate may stimulate enterprise, leading to higher yields overall.

Thanks to the Tories, Andy’s position has markedly improved in the tennis tax table. He is about halfway down. If he wins the £1.88 million jackpot, he would pay less than the Belgian and the Canadian but far more than the Serbs or the Croats or the bouncing Czech.

The question now for Britain is whether we want to go further, whether we want an even more competitive tax rate – not for our tennis stars so much as for the millions who might be encouraged and incentivised to work harder, produce more and therefore fill higher the tithe barn of the Exchequer.

Again, there are plenty who think this would be a good idea. Nigel Lawson has recently argued that the top rate should go back down to 40p, and many Conservatives agree. I am among them.

But there is a very serious problem, and we would need to sort it out before any such top rate tax cut could go ahead. That problem is fairness, and how such a cut would be seen by the wider population.

Most people do not think in terms of Laffer curves. They may intellectually accept that a cut in the top rate of income tax could generate more tax for the Government to spend on schools and roads and hospitals. But that is not how they picture the impact of any Budget.

We think of ourselves according to our relationship with others – and it is simply not fair that a Budget should put more disposable income in the pockets of the rich and less disposable income in the pockets of the poor. And that, alas, would be the result if we were to cut top-rate tax and simultaneously to cut in-work benefits without any compensating improvements in pay.

It is outrageous that multi-billion-pound companies are mainlining money from the welfare system and using it to subsidise low pay.

We are snarled ever more densely in the coils of a trap – an elaborate benefits trap prepared by Gordon Brown and from which most thoughtful Labour MPs would like to escape.

Of the staggering £76 billion now being paid in in-work benefits, £11  billion is going to those who work in retail. Think of that. These are companies whose chief executives now earn vast multiples of the wages of the majority of their staff.

That multiple – the ratio between the boardroom and the checkout till – has grown enormously over the past 20 years. If you ask these titans why they deserve so much more, they will always invoke “market forces” – the need to pay executives very large sums to stop them being poached.

Well, many observers would say that boardroom pay had less to do with market forces than with a racket by which a relatively small cadre of business people sit on each other’s “remcoms” – remuneration committees – and engage in an orgy of mutual back-scratching.

Boris Johnson visits a supermarket during the 2015 election (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

And as for low pay, it isn’t a function of market forces. It’s being propped up by the taxpayer. That needs to end. And that means business has got to start paying its people a wage they can live on.

Yes, we should be cutting taxes all round – cutting the top rate as well as lifting the thresholds and taking the poor out of tax. We should have the most competitive tax regime in Europe. But we need to make clear to the business leaders of this country that we can only cut tax for them at the top if they do the right thing: treat their workers properly and pay them a living wage.