The room looked much the same as it must have looked in 1998. Or even 1898. Leather seating. A gleaming hardwood balcony. Walls adorned with pictures of men and women who had added their voices and thoughts into seven hundred years of history. The air carried the faint smell of oldness. Times lost and gone and more or less forgotten.
The burgundy benches were sparsely populated. Professor Virat Singh of Edinburgh University hadn't been enough of a draw to put many bums on the leather. The hall was maybe a third full, but this was nothing unusual. The real audience would be found far beyond the old hall. All over the world virtual students of the university might have been tuned in via their headsets which made them feel like they were actually there in person. Many there were millions. Maybe a mere handful.
A female professor who looked like a twig wrapped in tweed introduced the Cambridge Union's guest speaker for the night. She listed all his books and achievements and made sure the audience was aware he was also one of them. Magdalene College 2016 to 2019. A first in History. Enough for a scholarship to Harvard and an eighty year long academic career.
And his topic?
'These islands have had a disproportionate impact on the history of the world'
And so with no more ado...
The old man stood and scanned the sparse audience. And he introduced himself with a small smile.
"The last time I was in this room was eighty years ago. 2018. I was twenty. Which of means I am now 100 years old. When I was born in Preston Royal Infirmary, I might have expected to achieve the average lifespan of the day. 78. Well of course things have changed. As a well paid professional, I have been able to take advantage of every one of the medical miracles of the last hundred years. And now? Now my doctor confidently predicts I will be around for at least another thirty years. We'll see I suppose..."
He quickly ran through the story of his life. Coming back from Harvard to a disintegrating post-Brexit Britain. A Britain which soon became 'the Rest of the UK' as first Scotland and then Ulster opted for the lifeboats rather than going down with the English ship. He painted sepia pictures of the mayhem of the Corbyn years and the unstoppable rise of the England First Party.
After a sip of water he recalled an appearance on Question Time when he went toe to toe with the leader of the EFP over the economic benefits of immigration. And then being stopped dead on the pavement three days later.
"Who the fuck do you think you are, you Paki bastard. Paki scum..."
Three months in hospital. A broken arm. Four cracked ribs. Major head injuries. A punctured lung. Touch and go for a while. Borderline. Fifty, fifty. And the men in the trademark leather jackets never brought to court.
And as he had slowly eased away from death, he had made his mind up to get away from the swirling darkness.
North to Edinburgh. North to the sanctuary of Scotland.
"You may be surprised to hear this is the first time I have been back to England in seventy five years. I took a long time to agree to tonight's invitation. I have learned there is no shelf life to fear. But never mind. I am here. And so are you."
And with another sip of water he moved into his topic
"These islands of ours have much to answer for. For hundreds of years our Empire was a truly brutal thing. We dominated the slave trade. We came close to committing the perfect genocide in Australia. We oversaw famines in Ireland and India which did for more souls than even Stalin managed. When we arrived in West Bengal in the late Eighteenth Century, India was home to 23% of the world's GDP. When we left in 1947, the figure had fallen to less than 3%. It was grand larceny on a scale never seen before or since. Of course over the last eighty years, many of the countries we robbed blind have enjoyed a feast of revenge eaten cold. People tell me what goes around, comes around. It will seem extraordinary to your generation, but when England left the European Union there were still deluded idiots who took to the TV screens and seriously expected the countries we had looted would want to forgive and forget and beat a path to our door....... Oh dear."
A couple of late comers took their seats with small apologetic waves. Professor Singh acknowledged them with a smile.
"However in the midst of all the brutality and theft and oppression and appalling self satisfaction, people from these rain drenched islands managed to turn the history of the world on its axis three times. And more to the point, it was mostly for the good."
And now as he reached the heart of his address, he speeded up a little. He reached back to the days before Dickens and the men who worked out how to harness the power of steam. Trains and ships and printing presses and vast factories. The Industrial Revolution which eventually delivered an average lifespan of many, many years more than 35. The Industrial Revolution which created vast cities and started to shrink the world. The Industrial Revolution which made possible the battle of Paschendaele and the gas chambers of Auschwitz Birkenau.
"Like I said. It was only mostly for the good. The machines of the Industrial Revolution turned mankind's dark side pitch black. But we must never forget the affordable books and the libraries. And the spread of education which slowly but surely led to votes for all and a degree of equality. It wasn't factories which created the vast inequalities of the 2020's and the rise of the EFP, Brexit's bastard child. It might be said it was the lack of factories. But I get ahead of myself....."
And now he took the sparsely populated room back to the dark days of 1942 when Hitler's U boats were making a decent fist of starving Britain to death. The Enigma code and the mathematical geniuses of Bletchley Park who eventually cracked it and thereby won the battle of the Atlantic.
"Defeating Hitler was of course a truly great thing. But it wasn't the main thing. The main legacy of the men and women of Bletchley Park wasn't the demise of the hideous Austrian corporal. The main legacy was the invention of the computer which changed the world even more profoundly than the steam engine."
Another sip of water. Another cautious glance around the room.
"So. Let me take you back to the spring of 2032. I watched things unfold from the safety of Edinbugh, which at the time was the most buoyant city in the world. Things south of the border were going from bad to worse to even worse again. The two main parties were falling apart. The late 2020's saw a succession of huge financial scandals. Both the main parties were as bad as each other. It seemed as if every MP in the House of Commons had an offshore account. The people were seething mad and abject poverty was a fast spreading virus. An election was called for 16 June 2032 and all the smart money was on the England First Party smashing through much like Hitler's Nazi party had done a hundred years before.
"And then a Press Conference was called by a brand new party. They called themselves the Sanity Party. Five of them sat at the table. In front of the cameras. Nobody would have cared about the two university professors. Well of course they wouldn't. Nobody would of cared about the single professional politician who had once been a junior minister. Instead it was the last two members who grabbed the attention of the media. Once was a tech billionaire who Forbes judged to be one of the five richest men in the country. And the fifth was film star who had cut his teeth in English TV dramas before heading across the Atlantic to become a global superstar. He was often described as the 'thinking woman's crumpet'. He was a man adored by public and advertisers alike. He put bums on seats. He guaranteed the Sanity Party its air time. And of course he did all the talking.'
'Their message? Oh that was simple enough. Everyone's lives were being ruined by the corruption of politicians. Corruption and ineptitude. These vain, preening men and women were clearly incapable of creating a life worth living for the people of England. And the solution? The solution was the Sanity programme. The Sanity Party would hand the business of day to day government to a computer. Ten simple manifesto promises would be fed into the programme and the computer would do the rest. The computer would never be corrupt. The computer would never be distracted by a sex scandal. The computer would care nothing about short term popularity. The computer would never sleep or take time off. The computer would absorb and process a billion times the amount of information any human being could ever absorb. A computer would be beyond the reach of corporate money. Instead, it's only focus would be on delivering the ten point manifesto of the Sanity Party.'
'The media met the new party with derision and contempt. And once again the pundits second guessed the mood of electorate and got it completely and utterly wrong. Every Sanity Party video went viral. Every public meeting was standing room only. And over six extraordinary weeks, support for the broken old parties and the hateful new fascists drained away like rain in the desert. On 16 June the Sanity Party won 83.2% of the votes cast and they duly formed a government.
'Item number one on the manifesto was 'less inequality'. This had been rubbished by one and all. If the rich were taxed harder, the rich would pack their bags and leave. So promised the spitting mad right wing press. Any measure which threatened the free market would send the country into an even greater tail spin. Anarchy would rule.
'The Sanity Party had promised to make the decisions of the programme a public event. They were good to their word. The computer made a five minute video of its first decision and the film was watched by a vast TV and online audience. And it wasn't just watched in England. People tuned in from all corners of the world to see what government by computer would look like in the flesh. Here. Let me play the video for you."
The lights dimmed and a screen dropped down from the ceiling. Sanity rolled out statistics and moving pictures. It's topic was the public school system and the role it played in guaranteeing those with money would always dominate all the top jobs and thereby guarantee the gravy train would never hit the buffers.
7% of the population of England attended public schools in 2032 and yet they dominated all positions of power. 71% of judges. 63% of senior army officers. 50% of TV presenters. 45% of journalists. 42% of the average Cabinet........... The list ran for one minute and 32 seconds. Enough to make the audience angry. Not long enough to get people switched off and bored. Sanity had calculated the exact optimal time by studying thousands of pages of research. And then Sanity snapped out it's solution. Anyone entering any public school from September onwards would face a number of restrictions. From 2036, no English university would be allowed to admit anyone who had studied at a public school. Anyone who studied at a public school after September 2032 would not be eligible for employment in any public office whatsoever. Not the army. Not the police. Not the judiciary. Not the BBC. Not Parliament or local councils. Not the NHS.
In fifty three seconds Sanity destroyed hundreds of years of ingrained privilege. And in doing so, the governing computer didn't spend a single penny of public money.
"In follow up poll 87% of the population backed the computer and the rest is of course history. It was the start of the best new era mankind has ever come up with. Today every democracy in the world runs on the railroad Sanity built back in 2032. Men and women create manifestos and computers deliver them. No more human failings. No more vanity and corruption and stubbornness and crazy ideology. Decisions are made for the next hundred years instead of the next five years. Sanity succeeded where the likes of Lenin and Castro and Mandela all failed. And thanks to these small islands, mankind has finally found a way to govern for everyone rather than a select few.'
'And you know what? In my humble opinion, this final great contribution might even make up for all the evils we committed over all the hundreds of years of our blood soaked Empire. When I last sat in this old room, I was filled with the optimism of youth. When I was left for dead on the pavement, I would never have dreamed I would ever again know such hope. And yet here I am. Back after seventy five years. A hundred years old and living in a world better than I would ever have dreamed possible. Thank goodness we finally woke up to our own failings. Shakespeare saw this with his usual clarity
'But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape
Plays such tricks before high heaven
As makes the angels weep.'
'Oh and how the angels wept. They wept for thousands of years until the Sanity Party finally allowed us all to get in touch with what Abraham Lincoln once called 'the better angels of our nature'.
'Well, amen to that. What a gift to the world. To the future. Far greater than steam engines and factories and computers. For the Sanity Programme is the gift of genuine hope. Forever. The Sanity Programme finally turned democracy from being the least worst solution to the very best solution."
A small smile. A shrug.
"I do believe I have said all I have to say. Many thanks for your attention."
He shook some hands and left to gentle applause. Outside, he climbed into a driverless taxi which silently eased up into the night sky and turned to the north.