Risk of contagion
Peter Foster’s excellent essay (“How the deal died,” October) makes for very saddening reading. Brexit is a story of permanent misunderstanding of the EU since 1973, recurrent lies, mounting foolishness, and lost opportunities. UK governments bear the essential responsibility, but the EU also contributed. (Nobody has explained yet why the Withdrawal Agreement had to make provisions for Northern Ireland while forgetting the rest of the future relationship. This was a legal and political mistake, whose cost appears clearer now).
One striking element lies in the incompetence of the recent leaders. Cameron, May and Johnson don’t understand how the EU functions, and seem not to care. Cameron’s 2015 renegotiation was nonsensical (so much so that it was totally forgotten as soon as the 2016 campaign began). Corbyn conducted an ectoplasmic referendum campaign in 2016. May defined her Brexit red lines without proper consultation, and led a disastrous electoral campaign in 2017. Johnson was an abysmal foreign secretary and, as prime minister, jumps from soundbite to soundbite without any coherence.
Another striking element is the mounting intolerance in the country. A 52/48 referendum is seen by many Brexiteers as a democratic choice for hard Brexit (which it is certainly not), and by multiplying Remainers as inexistent. Those pleading for a soft Brexit are attacked from all sides. Meanwhile, death threats abound on the social networks. Jo Cox’s assassination confirms they are far from idle. Racism and xenophobia are on the rise. The bases of democracy—parliament, judges and the press—are contested.
Many on the continent see all this with schadenfreude. They miss the big picture. Hostility to democracy, racism and polarisation are rising in many member states. So, by the way, is
political incompetence. And the death of political conviction. As confirmed by the USA morphing into a banana republic, we undergo a general crisis of western democracy. Too often our “leaders” do not see that Brexit constitutes a particularly acute strain of this general disease. They should reflect more on John Donne’s words: “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were… And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Franklin Dehousse, former judge of the European Court of Justice
Peter Foster contends that Theresa May caught herself in three incompatible priorities: no single market or customs union; no Irish Sea border; and “no return to the borders of the past.”
The critical error was letting the EU and Irish government misconstrue the third promise as “absolutely no border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic.” In their own way, even the ERG tacitly accepted this definition, touting a technological solution for completely seamless trade.
But the crucial point, to which Foster should have drawn attention, is that the Good Friday Agreement demands no such thing. Northern Ireland and Ireland could be separate customs territories with the border managed with minimal—but not zero—formalities. The UK’s failure to press for this sooner precipitated the current
John Mills, former chair, Vote Leave
At the end of her polemic about university admissions (“The UK university admissions system doesn’t make the grade,” October), Alison Wolf describes “the English approach, with no system-wide planning, no number controls and blank cheques from the government” as “crazy.”
I am not so sure. Before number controls were removed, universities were having to turn down willing, able students. Given demographic trends, this shortage of places would have become a crisis.
Even now, the drop-out rate remains much lower than in other countries, suggesting the extra students are succeeding in their studies. And we still send a lower proportion of young people to higher education than competitors.
There is no “blank cheque”; fees are capped at £9,250, and UK universities are among the best in the world.
Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute
Law and legitimacy
Former US Chief Justice William Rehnquist said there is “a right way to go about putting a popular imprint on the federal judiciary.”
Dahlia Lithwick could have included in her article on Trump and democratic norms (“Breaking the law,” Aug/Sept) that four of the Supreme Court’s five conservatives were appointed by presidents who entered office having lost the popular vote—Trump by almost three million. Senators who confirmed Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh represented less than 50 per cent of the population.
If the Court’s slim conservative majority blocks the actions of a president and Senate popularly elected in 2020 to undo Trump’s revolution, it will recall the out-of-date, anti-New Deal Court that endangered its legitimacy in the 1930s.
Russell Wheeler, Brookings Institution
Power of prayer
To suggest that prayer is an act of humanitarian concern is not “illegitimate” as Oliver Kamm claims (“The Duel,” October), but the reality.
As Dawn Foster points out and as we know from research into faith-based social action, church congregations engage in prayer as an act of conversation with God, which in turn motivates their charitable giving: 90 per cent of Anglican parishes, for example, are involved in projects tackling food poverty locally.
Far from being a distraction from the world around us, prayer helps us work to improve it.
Hannah Rich, Researcher, Theos
The folly of HS2
Wendell Steavenson rightly argues that failure to come clean about HS2’s costs was an attempt by its supporters to muddle through, until it was too late to call a halt (“The waiting room,” October). That cunning plan has now failed, given the announcement of a review that should expose fundamental
But Steavenson could have examined the alternatives more thoroughly. High speed trains have popped up around Europe, but we are a small nation. Tram schemes, cycle paths, improving rail links between badly connected cities and a revival of bus services would be environmentally friendly ways of spending a fraction of the cost.
Christian Wolmar is writing a history of Indian railways
Caroline Lucas’s putative request to Einstein not to write to Roosevelt urging development of the atomic bomb (“Brief Encounter,” October) might or might not have had the intended result, but she’d have had a much tougher time succeeding with the Nazi authorities, whose equivalent programme was under way by 1939. And then of course there was the Soviet Union, followed by the Chinese, the Indians, the Israelis and so on.
History seldom has single inflection points, where one act or omission proves decisive. In this case, the idea that the wicked west is solely responsible for the evil of atomic weapons is both wrong and self-flagellatory.
George Greenfield, Chalfont St Giles
As a Europhile frustrated by Labour’s equivocation on Brexit, Len McCluskey always seemed part of the problem. I’m grateful your profile (“Fixer or fighter?” October) highlighted his complexity and pragmatism, making Labour’s internecine struggles more relatable.
I’m particularly heartened by McCluskey’s passion for chess, where awareness of the whole position and the opponent’s right to think differently is essential. At the same time, chess is sublimated warfare, premised on picking a side and trying to win. The best players know when to be
resolute. Labour should back Remain.
Jonathan Rowson, chess grandmaster and author of “The Moves that Matter”
Where blame lies
In his editorial on our Brexit travails (“A democracy in crisis,” October) Tom Clark asks “what is it about British culture… which has nurtured such nonsense?” He should have said “English culture” as Brexit is specifically an English phenomenon.
As a Scot, I would maintain that Scottish resistance to Brexit demonstrates our pragmatic and sensible approach to reality, in contrast with the extreme position now adopted by the largely English nationalist Conservative politicians.
Ian Arnott, proud Glaswegian
A questing spirit
Ray Monk is absolutely right in his article on the dazzlingly gifted RG Collingwood (“The man who wasn’t there,” October). Collingwood has been unjustly neglected and British philosophy would almost certainly have been more open to continental influences had he not died prematurely.
I do not know whether Collingwood ever read Ficino, the Renaissance polymath who is also now largely unstudied and who was the first to translate Plato’s corpus into Latin. Although Collingwood may not have shared all of Ficino’s interests—theology, medicine, astrology and magic as well as philosophy and all the creative arts—I think he would undoubtedly have relished Ficino’s ceaselessly questing spirit.
Angie Hobbs, author of the Ladybird book on Plato’s Republic
72 per cent of nursery workers say that far fewer children they look after have imaginary friends now compared to five years ago; 63 per cent believe screens are to blame.
Independent, 26th August 2019
In 1982, the average age of the Soviet Union’s Politburo was 71. The average age of the current US president, speaker of the House, majority leader of the Senate, and top three Democrats in the 2020 presidential polls is 77.
Politico, 3rd September 2019
A chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day.
ESPN, 13th September 2019
10 of the last 12 by-elections to the House of Commons have seen the election of a female MP.
@MrMemory, 2nd August 2019
17 per cent of owners of AirPods, Apple’s wireless headphones, say they have worn them during sex.
CNet News, 13th June 2019
In Hong Kong, nearly one in 10 married couples live apart due to the price of housing; a median-priced home is 21 times annual median household income (the equivalent figure for London is 8.3).
BBC, 1st October 2019
Only one Faber (Geoffrey) founded publishers Faber & Faber; legend has it Walter de la Mare suggested doubling the name as “you can’t have too much of a good thing.”
“Faber & Faber: The Untold Story” by Toby Faber (Faber & Faber)