In our time of heated debate, wisdom can stem from unusual sources. Ian Fleming is best known as the creator of James Bond, but he also had a quirky view of the world, with surprising resonance for our time.
Over half-a-century ago, on October 9, 1959, The Spectator published a piece by Mr. Fleming, immodestly titled, “If I were prime minister”. Filled with all manner of upper-crust curmudgeoness (“I vote Conservative rather than Labour, mainly because the Conservatives have bigger bottoms and I believe that big bottoms make for better government than scrawny ones”), it was way ahead of its time.
Going against class, he promised to abolish all expense accounts, “and other forms of fiscal chicanery”. Company cars, “whether Rolls-Royces or Fords”, had to have their corporate owner posted prominently so that if it “was seen disgorging a load of mink and cigar smoke in theatreland in the evening, any of the company’s shareholders who happened to be a witness could, if he wanted, ask the company to justify the use of a company vehicle.”
Fleming had ideas for the other end of the economic spectrum as well. That year he called for a minimum wage for all industries; it was not actually instituted in Britain till 1999, forty years later. To boost productivity, there would also be “rapidly mounting merit bonuses for real work in either quantity or quality.”
Bond’s creator had a curious and far reaching intellect. A born patrician, Fleming loved cars—the showier the better—but hated the effects of industrialization. Accordingly, he denounced the internal combustion engine and especially, the pollution it caused, long before we had CAFÉ standards. He called the internal combustion engine a “ridiculous steam-age contraption which turns only a modest proportion of fuel into energy and spews the rest out in the form of petrol vapour of a more or less solid consistency.” Predicting climate change’s effects, he wrote, “When there is no wind, this lies in a dense layer in our streets and we breathe it in day and night. It then rises into the upper atmosphere, where I am told, it forms a kind of envelope round the world which has the effect of interfering with the beneficial rays of the sun.” In blunt language, he concluded, “the petrol engine is obviously a noxious and noisy machine….” Fleming’s solution to this mother of all climate change producers: he “would gradually abolish and replace it by some form of electric motor.” We still haven’t caught up with this idea, but we are on the verge.
One reform with potentially widespread effects was the quarterly production of a government publication, Hazard. Without editorial comment it would provide the latest information on the ill-effects of tobacco, drinking to excess, white bread, and refined sugar. Auto accident figures would be covered in detail, and where a product was the cause, the name of the manufacturer would be listed.
Finally, anticipating the Brexit debate, he called for openness across borders, for the increased movement of people within the Commonwealth, and also suggested “less fried food for the constipated masses.”
Written a year before John F. Kennedy got elected president, Fleming’s ideas on how society could function might have been even more far-sighted than the plots of his Bond novels. Solutions to our problems are not new. We just have to enact them.
Addendum to the piece on the London fire: the management company that runs the building and handled a renovation in 2014, chose the flammable cladding over a safe, zinc version, to save 298,368 pounds or $380,000.
In addition, Nick Paget-Brown, a Tory, resigned as head of the local council (but kept his seat on the board). This came after he tried to exclude reporters from a Council meeting, after they had obtained a court order mandating their right to attend.