Please note a version of David Hannay’s letter will appear in the winter double issue
A new political home
Gaby Hinsliff’s article on “The end of the liberal Tory” (November) explores the issue in great depth. But we have to ask: what is liberal conservatism and what does it represent?
The values that drew me to the Conservative Party over two decades ago were a firm belief in liberal democracy, including the rule of law and property rights; cherishing the Union; and economic pragmatism, being pro-business and pro-endeavour.
This government’s approach to Brexit is taking an axe to these principles—the very principles that made the Conservative Party the most successful political force the world has ever seen.
The reality is that the Conservatives have become an English nationalist party, willing to throw the Union, the economy and our institutions into the fire in pursuit of ideological purity.
That is why I had to vote with my conscience against a damaging no-deal Brexit and all that entailed, for which I had the whip removed. This sums up what has become of the Conservatives—and why I now feel more at home elsewhere.
Sam Gyimah, Liberal Democrat candidate for Kensington
Gaby Hinsliff ’s analysis of the conversion of the Conservative Party from “broad church” to narrower ideological force is very good.
A paradox of current UK politics is that while voters’ loyalty to the main parties has been declining for decades, so their memberships have recently moved in the opposite direction—to be more loyal and more ideological.
Normally one party would move to fill the gap in the centre ground. But with both moving to extreme positions the exit of centrist members is bound to increase. Neither the two main parties nor the electoral system designed for their convenience will survive very long if this dynamic continues.
Colin Talbot, University of Manchester
Bureaucracy of bigotry
Amelia Gentleman’s article (“The Go Home Office,” November) reminds us of the cruelty of the Windrush scandal. As a diplomat, I observed mixed-nationality families avoid applying for British citizenship for their children, even where their right was unambiguous, because of the Home Office’s “reject first, concede on appeal” approach.
I became painfully aware of this when my own son was refused a British passport at a time when I was in fact a British ambassador. For those like me, with connections and resources, this was an expensive irritant. For countless others, the bureaucracy of bigotry has broken up families, destroyed careers and blighted blameless lives. With millions of EU citizens now dependent on the Home Office for their right to be in this country at all, we can only expect more injustice in the coming years.
Arthur Snell, former diplomat
Gentleman’s analysis of the problems faced by the Windrush generation is spot on, as is her point that potentially hundreds of thousands of EU citizens and their family members currently living in the UK will soon face similar treatment. The answer is not to force EU citizens to apply or be illegal—the current approach of the UK government—but rather to declare them legally resident by law, and scrap the hostile environment policies that force citizens to check one another’s immigration papers.
Colin Yeo, Garden Court Chambers
Shift the burden
David Willetts is right that the young take an unfair burden (“The Duel,” November). Most welfare states were created after the Second World War, when the world had a “population pyramid” with lots of young folk and very few elderly on top. Shifting the burden of elderly care to the young was bearable for all.
Now, our pyramid looks more like an obelisk, and eventually will be funnel-shaped. Post-war systems are no longer sustainable and must change. But there is deep resentment when benefits, long taken for granted, are cut. Look at the British women demanding a roll-back of the increase in state pension age. Equally strong objections have been raised in France and Russia. Dislodging expectations of a growing percentage of voters, is grim, but necessary, policy.
Norma Cohen, former FT demography correspondent
Out of kilter
Tom Clark concludes his article on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (“Think before you reform,” October) with a warning to “expect unexpected consequences.”
How is this for an unexpected consequence? In 2016 the Scottish parliament passed, with cross-party support, an Act to delay the next parliamentary elections from May 2020 to May 2021, to avoid a direct clash with the UK, which under the FTPA would have held a general election in May 2020.
The UK election in 2017—and now 2019—rendered this reasoning void. However, there has been no attempt by the SNP to reinstate the 2020 date, so awarding themselves an extra year in government.
The losers of course are the Scottish electorate, who may have wanted to change their government but now have to wait an extra year.
Paul Sutton, East Dunbartonshire
Julian Baggini says that I once dismissed Patricia Churchland’s work as “neuroscienc cheerleading” (“Out of mind,” November). This is wrong. I described the book I was reviewing that way, which was quite accurate, but I didn’t “dismiss” it for being cheerleading; I gave considered criticisms, as I do for any book I review. I think neuroscience belongs with psychology, biology and philosophy in a multi-pronged approach to the mind.
Churchland is quoted as saying of me: “his sermonising is just so much spit in the wind.” I have never done any sermonising about Churchland’s work, though I have disagreed with and criticised it. The business about spit is just a childish insult, to which I happily respond in kind: “you need to work on your spitting technique.”
Colin McGinn, philosopher
Immortal William Blake
Seamus Perry provides an insightful and thought-provoking review of Tate Britain’s latest retrospective of William Blake (“A prophet in paint,” November), but his conclusion that Blake’s “claim as a writer is probably greater” is, I fear, a result of limited vision.
Much of this stems from Tate’s decision to place the 1809 exhibition centre stage. As Perry rightly observes, this was not a complete success and time has not been kind to the small selection of works that are displayed.
If he had lingered in the room dedicated to Thomas Butts, Blake’s most important patron, he would have discovered the painter who captured the imagination of later generations. More than any artist, it is Blake who has shaped how we see the great red dragon of Revelation or the Satan of Paradise Lost.
Jason Whittaker, University of Lincoln
Taking the temperature
Caroline Lucas is right to call for a citizens’ assembly on climate change (“Brief encounter,” October), gathering a representative group of people over weekends to learn about the issues, discuss them deeply and produce recommendations. I led one on Brexit and the discussion was humbling.
These forums can’t solve all ills, especially if debate is already too polarised or time too short. In the right circumstances, however, they can be transformative, and climate change may be such a case. Radical measures will impose short-term costs, making politicians reluctant to move quickly. But illuminating what people see as fair, having thought the issues through, may open a path to decisive change.
Alan Renwick, Deputy Director, UCL Constitution Unit
Chris Moss’s review of my book A Biography of Loneliness (“Books in brief,” November) is an exercise in deliberate misunderstanding. He dismisses the book as a “primer.” The introduction states it is the first book on the history of loneliness, and necessarily exploratory.
Moss says sorrow and alienation have been around for centuries. Yes, but these aren’t the same as loneliness. The word and feeling emerged with modernity: individualism, capitalism, secularity, urbanisation. One couldn’t be “lonely” if guaranteed an omnipresent God and collectivist culture.
Loneliness has a biography because it changes over the course of a life—and through history. Understanding this is critical to addressing a so-called “modern epidemic.”
Fay Bound Alberti, York
Averil Cameron mentions that Boris Johnson compares himself to Pericles (“Athens via Jerusalem,” November), but anyone can see that our PM more closely resembles another prominent Athenian. Alcibiades was a rich aristocrat with great charisma, able to charm the general population. He laid claim to a superior education from his association with Socrates. His popularity was increased by financing victorious horses and chariots at the Olympic Games.
However, he was said to live a disreputable private life with scant regard for others, getting into trouble for allegedly defacing sacred statues of Hermes in a jape with his friends. Ultimately, he persuaded the Athenians to launch a disastrous invasion of Sicily which paved the way for the decline of Athens.
Keith Evans, Gwynedd
Wendell Steavenson (“The waiting room,” October) foresees HS2, a project intended to rebalance the UK, “reducing journey times—Birmingham in 45 minutes… Manchester in an hour and a quarter… Leeds in an hour and 23 minutes.” She doesn’t say from where—could she perhaps have had London in mind?
David Griffiths, Huddersfield
Anthony Teasdale’s perceptive review of the third volume of Charles Moore’s superb biography of Margaret Thatcher, rightly in my view, suggests that Moore does not do full justice to the European dimension of her downfall (“Into the vortex,” December). Perhaps this is because his own views on the politics of Europe are too close to hers to achieve true objectivity.
What both Teasdale and Moore have missed is that the crisis over the decision at the European Council in Rome in October 1990 to launch the negotiations for a single currency was a completely unnecessary one, born of what Nigel Lawson described as Thatcher’s increasing “recklessness.”
In the early months of 1990 Thatcher’s chancellor of the exchequer John Major and her foreign secretary Douglas Hurd advised the prime minister that the UK would not be able on its own to stop the progress towards Economic and Monetary Union, since the other member states would simply forge ahead outside the formal EU treaty framework (as they subsequently did in 2011 when David Cameron tried to block the Fiscal Treaty); and that the best course was for the UK to concentrate on securing a copper-bottomed, treaty guarantee giving us complete control over whether, and if so when, we ever decided to join the single currency (the approach which subsequently appeared in the Maastricht Treaty, known as the “opt out,” although at the time it was known as the “fire break”).
The prime minister turned this advice down flat. But of course many of her senior cabinet colleagues would have known what had passed long before the Rome meeting and would have drawn their own conclusions from it. The rest is history.
David Hannay, UK permanent representative to the European Community, 1985-1990. (A shortened version of this letter will appear in the Winter double issue)
In the 2017 UK general election, the number of adults who didn’t vote was larger than the winner’s majority in 558 of the 650 constituencies. If every non-voter had voted Liberal Democrat, that party would have won 250 seats.
Manchester Evening News, 5th November 2019
In October, for the first time since records began in 1980, the US resettled no refugees.
Quartz, 3rd November 2019
Nearly 35,000 cassette tapes were sold in the UK in the first half of 2019; the bestselling artist was 17-year-old Billie Eilish, whose debut album When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? shifted 4,000 tapes.
NME.com, 12th October 2019
At 18,950 miles, the coastline of Africa is shorter than Europe’s.
Over the last decade, Accrington Stanley had the worst disciplinary record in English football, with 52 red cards in 429 league games, or one every 8.3 matches. Derby County had the best record, with a red card every 25.2 matches.
Mirror, 3rd November 2019
In September, it took 4.9 minutes to drive 1km in Metro Manila; the worst rate in the world.
Bloomberg, 26th October 2019
The modern use of the word “woke” first appeared in print in the New York Times in 1962, in a glossary of “words you might hear today in Harlem.”
Guardian, 14th October 2019