Letters: June 2022

Where readers point out what we missed—or just got flat wrong
May 12, 2022

The grand alliance

Samuel Moyn writes that “Putin’s despicable act has thrown a lifeline to dying ideas.” We would indeed be better off if Putin had not chosen brutal 19th-century war as “the way of the world,” in Moyn’s arresting phrase. Moyn is also right to reject equivalence between past western acts and Putin’s, although the reader might doubt his sincerity, given the space he devotes to those past acts.  

But far from a dying idea, the need to maintain strong defences in alliance with other democracies is a necessity. His wish to see a new, less militaristic internationalism is laudable, but has been set back several generations by Putin’s unjustified aggression and his reneging on previous commitments he gave as Russian leader (well chronicled by George Robertson, the former secretary general of Nato, in the same edition). It is not militarism to continue to believe in the right of a nation to defend its independent existence from armed aggression, and a victim of aggression has the right to turn to those most able and willing to help. It is as well, therefore, that the UK and Nato allies have over many years maintained armed forces for their own defence, with equipment that can now help Ukraine survive.  

Nato is a defensive alliance. We should remember why newly independent nations at the end of the Cold War sought to join, as insurance for their continued survival against a revanchist Russia. The people of Finland and Sweden can see today the difference that being a Nato member would make to their national security. I hope they do decide to join the Alliance.

David Omandwas director of GCHQ

A strange and muddled article by Moyn. He makes valid points about the west’s history of intervention and its failure to offer alternatives to free-market liberalism or any broader concept of democracy. But he treats a crisis mainly as a clash between opposing theorists in their studies. 

He takes shots at predictable targets like Robert Kagan and Francis Fukuyama. He decries “Anglo-American elites” for “gleefully” treating Putin’s attack on Ukraine as an opportunity to revive old Cold War certainties—OK, generals have come forth to demand more defence spending, and Boris Johnson especially has seized on Ukraine as a smokescreen, but to suggest that the overall response has been “glee” is surely a crass caricature.

What is missing—as well as any real idea of how to achieve the goal promised in the title—is any sense of the dirty reality of the here and now, and any immediate suggestions as to what to do about it. Moyn expresses routine admiration for Ukrainians’ heroism, but describes the invasion as “Putin’s sideshow” and accuses Biden (and, by extension, Europeans) of overreacting. 

So does he think we should leave the Ukrainians to it? What exactly is he arguing for? Are we supposed to just sit back and watch it all on TV, as a movie that makes us sad because the good guys are heroic and we love them but they eventually lose?

Nick Rider, Hornsey, London

World gone MAD

Julian Lewis and John Woodcock make an important concession in their column about Britain’s nuclear deterrent: that its primary purpose is “to minimise the risk of being attacked by mass-destruction weapons in the hands of an enemy.” 

To “minimise” is not to “eradicate,” and deterrence relies on all leaders being rational actors, who calculate to avoid mutually-assured destruction. Yet as the war in Ukraine underscores, we cannot rely on Putin—supposedly becoming increasingly unstable and erratic—to step back from the brink. The nuclear escalation we are currently witnessing leads all parties ever closer to accidental nuclear war—a miscalculation of incalculable proportions. 

Keeping our nuclear weapons sends a signal to the rest of the world that security is dependent on them, and thus drives further proliferation. What moral authority can we have to lecture other states, such as Iran, to abandon their nuclear plans if we ramp up our own? Eighty-six countries around the world have now signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and it is a mark of shame that the UK is not among them.

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion

More migration

David Goodhart falls back on his favourite theme as he argues that massive inflows of immigrants “are not compatible with stable democracies.” The slippery adjective “massive” is of course meaningless. 

Angela Merkel opened Germany to one million refugees in 2015. Her decision was contested but German business, civil society and local politicians helped to make it work, just as Moldovans, Romanians and citizens of other EU countries are accommodating countless refugees from Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Poland has taken in the most, having already accepted hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians as low-paid workers before the invasion. Poland is a stable democracy, as is Greece, which welcomes Albanian immigrants to work in construction, agriculture and domestic care. The 500,000 Albanians living with 10.7m Greeks have not destabilised Greek democracy.

After the EU’s eastward expansion in 2004, the campaign against European immigrants went into overdrive thanks to the Tory Party, Ukip, the BNP and some on the left. In 2008, the Federation of Poles of Great Britain published a list of 50 headlines it said displayed anti-Polish prejudice, all from one paper—the Daily Mail

Britain should have done far more to control who was in the country, yet one of the first acts of the Tory-Lib Dem government elected in 2010 was to abolish the EU workers’ register set up by Labour, and cancel the issuing of ID cards which would have allowed us to know who is living within our frontiers. Political and press campaigning turned a manageable issue into a movement that persuaded 37 per cent of the total electorate to vote to destroy Britain’s links with Europe.

Denis Macshane, former Europe minister

History rhymes

I’ve appreciated watching and listening to Lyse Doucet’s reports from Afghanistan and now her coverage of this brutal war. As a Second World War child, it took years before I stopped ducking at the sound of a plane! It’s terrible that again young kids have to go through this agony, all because of the monsters who govern us.

Yvonne Andreassen, via the website

The health of nations

Diane Coyle’s excellent piece on the economic outlook highlights that the grim picture for living standards is largely the result of underlying structural problems in the UK economy, rather than the pandemic and Ukraine war. We have seen more or less flat productivity growth since the mid-2000s.

Stagnant productivity also matters for public services. Spending on healthcare now accounts for almost 10 per cent of our national income, more than double the share when the NHS was founded. An ageing population, rising rates of chronic disease, new technologies and the need to pay the growing workforce mean that spending pressures will continue to rise by more than GDP and inflation.

This is common across all developed economies, whether they have a tax-funded or social insurance health system. In the past, we have accommodated rising health spending through economic growth, but a recent IMF forecast predicted that the UK will have the slowest growth rate of the G7 next year. We have also responded by reducing spending in other areas (defence being the very noticeable area where the share of GDP has fallen). Healthcare is expected to account for 46 per cent of all government spending on day-to-day public services by 2024-2025.

But spending on other areas such as education and local government also needs to rise. It will be hard even with robust economic growth, but almost impossible without. The fundamental issues that Coyle points to require long-term thinking, and a government bold enough to tackle them.

Anita Charlesworth, Health Foundation


Sukhdev Sandhu is right to recognise the value of DVDs. In our rush to get hold of the latest new thing there is a risk we neglect the qualities of older, established technologies. DVDs work, very well. Those of us who became parents at the height of the DVD’s dominance will never forget or fail to be grateful for the “play all” button, which unleashed hours of Peppa Pig or Charlie and Lola on a pacified infant. Newer isn’t always better. And the more virtual things become, perhaps the less substantial they will become too. 

Digital streaming of films and music is a technological wonder, and its inventors should be very proud as well as being very rich. But if you have never dusted off an LP before enjoying your favourite track, you haven’t really lived (or, indeed, experienced the work as the artist may have meant you to). A DVD in the hand is worth two Netflix specials.

Stefan Stern, author and journalist

Ousting a liar 

Unlike Chamberlain and Asquith, Boris Johnson is not leading a country at war. His obvious and repeated lying is not only a dangerous and degrading embarrassment to the institution of parliament (and the United Kingdom itself), but also undermines his authority to reprimand his fellow lawbreakers in the Kremlin.

I trust our MPs will be reflecting on what action to take over the coming weeks. Only they have the power to rectify this mess. Surely there must be at least one or two of them able to run the show better than this? 

Andrew Dunford, via the website

Class of its own

Paul Hayward covered cricket’s class malaise quite effectively but was not wholly right.

England’s lack of success in Australia was indeed put down to the fact that our players were too posh and lacked hunger. But while the likes of Anderson and Stokes are tough, so are the privately educated Stuart Broad and Joe Root.

It is more relevant to ask what does or does not happen at grassroots level. What was not mentioned in the article is the offspring of less well-heeled parents being priced out of county youth squads, as too much money is being asked to be a member of them. Former England players Matt Prior and Graeme Swann have slammed it as unacceptable. 

David Rimmer, Hertfordshire

Ageing gracefully

Bless your heart, Sheila Hancock. I gratefully look forward to your essays each month. This one was particularly excellent. I no longer stand on the edge of my tub to clean the glass fixture above my sink; it seemed safer to let the glass collect dust. From way across the pond in San Francisco, thank you for confirming that being older is a blessing—most of the time. 

Linda Chiarucci, via the website

In fact:

In one survey, 66.9 per cent of people between 14 and 23 in the UK said they missed lockdown.
The Face, 22nd March 2022

Only $8bn of Russian assets in Switzerland have been frozen so far; Jersey alone has frozen $7bn of assets linked to a single Russian tycoon, Roman Abramovich.
Financial Times, 27th April 2022

Unlike other western countries, the Nordic nations are having a pandemic baby boom. In 2021, live births rose 7.5 per cent in Iceland and 6.7 per cent in Finland; Norway’s 5.5 per cent gain was its first increase in 13 years.
Bloomberg, 23rd February 2022

The most expensive ingredient in the world is Almas caviar, which comes from albino sturgeon; it costs $25,000 per kilogram.
Daily Infographic, 18th April 2022

When asked how they prefer to stream foreign-language content, over 75 per cent of Russians and Germans chose dubbing; over 70 per cent of Chinese and South Koreans opted for subtitles; the UK was split (33 per cent for dubbing to 45 per cent for subtitles).
Morning Consult, 25th April 2022

The Beatles’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was succeeded as No 1 in the UK album chart in 1967 by Val Doonican Rocks, But Gently.
The Times, 22nd April 2022

On Earth, the speed of sound is typically 767 mph. Nasa’s Perseverance rover has found that on Mars, sound travels from about 537 mph to 559 mph depending on its pitch.
CNET, 6th April 2022

At the first Fifa World Cup final, Uruguay vs Argentina in 1930, the teams couldn’t agree on whose ball to use (they were different). As a compromise, the first half was played with the Argentinians’ ball and they led 2-1 at half time; the Uruguayans’ ball was used for the second half and they ended up winning 4-2.
CNN Style, 8th April 2022