The ANC on “Disgrace”
3rd October 2003
The scholarly journal Interventions published a series of articles on JM Coetzee’s Disgrace last autumn, which challenge RW Johnson’s rather crude reading (June). A number of contributors to the series, including myself, point out that the ANC’s “reading” of the novel, to which Johnson refers, was not exactly a “vitriolic denunciation” and that the general response to the novel in South Africa was a lot more interesting and complicated than he makes out. There is no doubt that Johnson’s status as a “witness in the field” gives him privileged access to local happenings, but it does not necessarily follow that he is, therefore, their most insightful interpreter.
18th September 2003
As a former special education teacher in the US for six years, and before that a career counsellor in a high school, I was interested to read about the behaviour problems in British schools (September). Teachers have to maintain a delicate balance between controlling and teaching. The disintegration of manners in the west has made this much harder, and many teachers burn out from the effort. Older teachers can have an advantage, but it is hard to persevere against the odds. I opted for a less demanding occupation.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Openness after Hutton
7th October 2003
Robert Hazell (October) is right to be sceptical that the Hutton inquiry will lead to a new reign of openness in public affairs. Of course, ministers and officials will interpret freedom of information provisions in the most restrictive way possible. Of course they will use the public interest argument to the limit of propriety: Jonathan Powell’s intervention over the Abraham report on gifts is a splendid example.
But Hutton has done two things. First, he has continued the process started by John Major in 1993 of demystifying the intelligence machinery. By doing so, he has cast light on the obsession of British ministers and officials with what the Marquis de Custine (speaking of Czarist Russia in the 1830s) called, “secrecy useless as well as secrecy useful.” All this should make it possible for outsiders to write about these things more freely than in the past, and with better knowledge.
Second, he has demonstrated what people so often forget: that the intimate operations of government are exactly the same as the intimate operations of any other large institution. There was nothing surprising, or even particularly disreputable, about most of what he has revealed. And the Americans have shown it is possible to open to scrutiny more of it than the British do without damaging the national interest. Within six years or so of the Soviet collapse, for example, they published many of the (mistaken) CIA estimates written in 1989-91. People researching British foreign policy often find they can only find their material in Washington. The Washington-based national security archive is an effective organ of pressure for even further openness-funded in a way no similar body here could dream of. America’s national security does not seem to have suffered as a result.
The culture cannot be changed quickly or easily. But Hutton encourages us to keep on trying, and not to believe the excuses of the establishment.
6th October 2003
Ben Rogers ends his article (October) by claiming that if political participation falls any further we could witness a crisis of legitimacy for Britain’s political institutions. This is to mistake not voting for not approving. You can hardly blame the electorate for not making a choice when the political parties fail to provide grounds for making one. But this is not necessarily a problem. The poll tax, anti-war, anti-capitalist and pro-countryside marches demonstrate that on single issues British people are far from apathetic. Perhaps the shrinking turnout merely reveals that, when it comes to party politics, the electorate has moved from interested dissatisfaction to disinterested satisfaction, a benign trust that those grey-suited politicos on either side won’t do anything too different from last year.
Chew Magna, Somerset
6th October 2003
There is a difference between a language that comes into being through geographical and historical forces and a language which becomes “macaronic.” Turkish, for example, is a hybrid of Mongolian, Oghuz, Arabic and Persian. Jonathon Keats’s example (October) of Spanglish is “macaronic.” The word was actually invented by the Italian poet Teofilo Folengo in the 16th century to describe hotchpotch verse. It then came to be used, hundreds of years later, in American English to describe the language of Hans Breitmann’s ballads in which a German immigrant expresses himself in a mixture of German and English.
Too many kids
12th October 2003
David Willetts (October) uses Beirut as an example of a dangerous city suffering from an excessively young and troublesome population. But Beirut today is not the war-torn and lawless city of 15 years ago. Since 1990 an entire generation of young Beirut residents have not seen serious civil unrest, let alone participated in it. Naturally there is concern about the ghastly situation in the middle east, but few people here in Beirut live in fear of crime. According to Interpol, last year in Lebanon 2,991 crimes were committed per 100,000 inhabitants. This places Lebanon in the league of the safer countries. Further, Lebanon is richer than the other countries mentioned by Willetts: Yemen, Liberia and Pakistan. GDP per capita is over $5,000 – not much by G8 levels but similar to imminent EU members like the Czech Republic.
Postwar Lebanon seems to be back on the world’s entertainment and cultural map. Beirut was Unesco’s cultural capital of the Arab world in 1999. Pop icons like Elton John, Sting and others, as well as major operas and shows, perform here during the annual festivals. International lifestyle publications often cover Beirut. The city usually comes across as a vibrant place with creatively designed venues. Despite its shortcomings, Beirut’s relatively bold liberalism often surprises.
Karl Marx impersonated
11th October 2003
Donald Sassoon (October), of all people, should have recognised that the Marx he interviewed was an imposter. Sassoon’s very first question – “you are all washed up, aren’t you?” – would have been met by the real Marx with howls of laughter and the reply, “When the industrial revolution was in its very infancy I said capitalism would solve the problems of production and create the demand/debt problem. Look around. Can you see any demand problems? Can you see any debt problems? In the US only 18 per cent of people are growing anything or making anything, yet their roads are choked with cars and they are too fat. The other 82 per cent are mostly salesmen, advertising executives, lawyers, bankers or unemployed. Just like I said they would be.”
And why did Sassoon let him get away with all that claptrap about the bourgeoisie? Now that is 150 years out of date. It is always the most industrious intelligent people who escape from the proletariat into the bourgeoisie. Marx was an expert on expensive cigars, Engels had businesses in Germany and Manchester, Lenin was a rich lawyer whose family support meant that he had to work on only 12 cases in his whole life-including defending himself. In their social lives they avoided the proletariat like the plague.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Pensions for babies
6th October 2003
As a solution to the pension problem, Harvey Cole (October) proposes a pension funded at birth with a ?10,000 pension bond, earning a market-beating 3 per cent return after inflation, until retirement at 65. Long-dated index-linked government bonds currently offer an inflation-adjusted return of only 2.1 per cent. This implies the real cost of the plan is more than ?14,000 per child, at market rates. Then there is the question of funding, left to our imagination by Cole, but presumably to come from additional taxation.
The plan may have merit but it amounts to no more than an increase in the compulsory savings rate. Would households respond to the higher compulsory savings rate by reducing their discretionary savings? If so, the government will then control what would otherwise have been private savings: would this distort the economy and crowd out the private sector? Would the scheme perpetuate a dependency culture?
But why stop at pensions? Why not a university bond? At a stroke, top-up fees would become a thing of the past. But giving a child a pot of money, or any other token, at birth, and taking it away from them on graduation, is no more than an accounting trick. It would do nothing to generate the income necessary to pay a lecturer’s wages. Perhaps a more realistic alternative is simply to raise the retirement age proportional to life expectancy, or simply to deregulate it altogether.
19th September 2003
It would be surprising if a longish article from a former and respected trade union leader (September) did not contain at least a modicum of common sense and useful advice on the future of the movement. Tony Cooper’s article just about passes this test, if only for his insistence on the imperative of membership growth.
In almost every other area Tony’s article could have been penned by an advocate of US-style business unionism. The main reasons for union membership decline since the late 1970s are the growth of mass unemployment, the decline of big plants, and a sustained attack on collectivism.
On the firefighters’ dispute, Tony is wrong. Ours was not a “politically motivated” strike; it was a campaign for pay justice involving a group of fine public servants whose wages had declined by 21 per cent in relative terms over the last 20 years and whose productivity had risen by over 100 per cent in the same period. Neither was our action “inept.” After turning down 4 per cent, we secured a 16 per cent increase and a new pay formula. Maybe Tony is spending too much time with government ministers (and his family).
Fire Brigades Union