Blaming diplomas, natural capital and delusions of violence
October 19, 2011
Scrap the 50p tax rate

Chris Huhne’s argument in favour of keeping the 50p tax rate (October) reminds us that politicians lie when they promise that a tax hike is only temporary. It also shows the main danger of progressive or graduated income tax: by dividing citizens into different groups, they can be mugged one group at a time. Politicians like to tell voters: “I have a great idea and only the two guys in the corner are going to pay for it, so why don’t the rest of you step outside?” Of course, the next time they come for the rest of us. A flat rate of income tax would force the government to speak to the nation as a whole.

Barack Obama famously promised he would never raise tax on anyone earning less than $250,000 a year. Sixteen days into his presidency, he signed a bill to tax cigarette smokers. One of the only Americans who earns more than $250,000 a year, and smoked at that time, is Obama himself. The promise to only tax the rich was a distraction.

Grover NorquistAmericans for Tax Reform

Scrapping the 50p rate isn’t about helping anyone’s “friends in the City.” Only 97,000 of the 299,000 people paying the tax live in London. Scrapping the rate would avoid a disaster for the British economy. Over time, every high earner who moves abroad, every investment that goes elsewhere, is a blow to our prosperity, job creation and chances of escaping the dire financial position we find ourselves in. Taking over half of every pound someone earns is simply unfair—and it won’t pay to treat people who are particularly able to move like that. Do we really want to hurt our own interests just for the sake of spiting the rich?

Matthew SinclairThe TaxPayers’ Alliance

France is considering a higher tax band, but they are likely to set it at above €500,000. Perhaps we should also set it at this higher level. As things stand, good GPs, senior consultants and others are caught in the net of the top rate, rather than the City “fat cats” who will find their ways around it anyhow. This is where an examination of overseas property ownership would be more fruitful, too.

Joannah YacoubVia the Prospect website

Three cheers for Boris

James Macintyre (October) is right that Boris Johnson appeals to parts of the electorate that other Tories can’t reach. But the criticism of “friends and enemies” that Boris cannot be bothered with “detail” is not quite correct. Boris is certainly not a brilliant and meticulous administrator who has spent the last 20 years acquiring an encyclopaedic knowledge of the workings of local government. To fill that gap, he employed the late Simon Milton. But it is not true that Boris finds all detail boring. Once his interest is engaged—as by Latin and Greek literature, or by the case for building an immense airport in the Thames estuary—he is capable of mastering the detail at astonishing speed. That is one reason why so gifted a man as Milton enjoyed working for him.

Andrew Gimson, author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson”

Although Johnson’s aspiration might well be to become leader of the Conservative party and then prime minister, there is another option open to him. The US Republican party is struggling to find a presidential candidate. Given that Johnson was born in New York, would he not be eligible to run?

Bernard J MulhollandBelfast


Surely Evan Davis [cited by Richard Lambert, October] is wrong that there’s a shortage of funds to lend to manufacturers. The big four banks have combined assets of up to four times Britain’s GDP. And yet there isn’t any spare for manufacturers?

David MasseyVia the Prospect website

Natural capital

It’s easy to see why Samuel Brittan (October) predicts the future of the countryside will be one of the major political faultlines in the decade ahead. The environment is too often seen as a soft target in difficult economic times—demonstrated recently by the plans to deregulate planning. As the examples of Greece and Ireland show, abandoning the countryside to sprawl serves little economic purpose in the long run. We need growth, but of the kind that best serves the needs of present and future generations. The government’s white paper on the natural environment made some important pledges about enhancing, rather than diminishing, our stocks of natural capital. These promises must be kept.

Ben Cowell, Assistant Director, The National Trust

Don’t blame diplomas

Tina Isaacs (October) argues that diplomas have failed, but the greater failure was the way in which they were introduced, and the government’s continual pitching of vocational diplomas against academic subjects. Policymakers need to revisit the proposals made by Chris Tomlinson and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and create a single, overarching qualification that embraces both vocational and academic subjects—and does not label pupils as one thing or another at such a young age. Isaacs is right that the teaching profession must also be included in curriculum and qualifications development, and that its absence proved damaging to the diploma.

Christine BlowerGeneral secretary, NUT

Delusions of violence

Steven Pinker doesn’t “argue” that we are becoming less violent. It’s not his opinion; it’s clear from the data, which John Gray (October) does not challenge. Pinker’s “argument” is about the causes of the change. Gray has every right to dispute Pinker’s theories on that, but Pinker’s book is a sorely-needed correction to the widespread perception, pushed by popular media, that the world is becoming more dangerous. It is not.

TomVia the Prospect website

How good to see Pinker’s latest pop-psychology blockbuster so comprehensively demolished by John Gray. I have just one grouse. The “civilising influence of women” was mentioned only in passing, but is surely our best hope for a more peaceful world. Keep putting the oestrogen in the drinking water, I say.

Professor Jill Boucher,Department of Psychology,City University, London

The cat experiment

Back in 1979 a close friend of mine became absolutely fascinated with Schrödinger’s cat experiment, of which Philip Ball (October) writes. He decided to spend the next 32 years of his life in a remote part of the Lincolnshire fens in order to subject the theory to a real life test. He is now on his last legs and wishes to have his findings conveyed to members of the quantum physics community. Yes, he says, it is possible to be alive and dead at the same time.

Ivor MorganLincoln

Death becomes us

As a woman of 80 years plus a few months, the subject of death is always in the back of my mind. I cherish the mental picture of Sarah Murray (October) and her mother collapsing with laughter while trying to store her father’s ashes. Laughter will keep us sane, whatever comes.

Annie MorganVia the Prospect website

A wasted vote

Peter Hitchens (October) ought to know why the “toxic brands” of our current political parties remain on the shelves. We had a referendum on it earlier this year.

Matthew HuntbachLondon SE9

Read more responses to Peter Hitchens's article from our Twitter followers here.

How to get rich

Amitai Etzioni (October) refers to the postwar rehabilitation of Germany and Japan. Many years ago a Canadian contemporary of mine at Oxford told me about a lecture he had attended at McGill University, given by the professor of political science. The arresting conclusion was: “If you wish to become an economic superpower, the best thing you can do is to make war against the United States—and make sure you lose!”

Julian DareOxford

Hip hop

I read with interest Steve Yates’ piece on hip-hop’s relationship to the recent UK unrest. The vilification of hip-hop culture is, of course, nothing new in America. I was recently asked to contribute to a documentary about hip-hop’s influence on sports, where I got the feeling that the director wanted me to link rap’s “bling” obsession to an increase in materialism among ball players. I replied that the wealth of the “1 percent”—capitalists from Wall Street to Paternoster Square— represents a far more noxious cultural influence. It always amazes me the lengths that folks will go to demonize impulses in people of color that are otherwise extolled when wielded by corporate titans.

Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop”, New York

By focusing on a few popular artists who’ve parlayed their music into small business empires, Steve Yates neglected the entire purpose of the genre, which is to provide an accessible medium of communication to those neighbourhoods whose realities are neglected by existing media, journalism and literature. This is especially pertinent in the UK, where grime was born from pirated radio frequencies.

Douglas HaddowVia the Prospect website

Real localism

Mark Malloch Brown (September) is right about localism, but when he says that “Whitehall and ministers...will find themselves increasingly limited to setting national spending frameworks for local decision makers” he misses the most important point. So long as local government is mainly funded from national taxation, there is no defence against “postcard lottery” accusations and central government is forced into setting standards and targets. Labour could make a reality of “localism” if it committed to turning Council tax into a genuine local property tax - or, if this is too alarming to our “property owning democrats”, to a local income tax - set at a level to fund most local spending. The transition would have to be staged, but given a firm commitment to make equivalent reductions in VAT, it should be politically saleable and hugely beneficial - just the sort of radical new approach that Labour badly needs.

Alan BaileyLondon SE8

Delusions of violence

John Gray’s philosophical pessimism (October) is a good counter balance to Pinker’s speculations about the decline of violence over the last few centuries, but it still does nothing to explain the evidential decline.

As for tremendous decline in violent over a longer period—what else can explain it except the rise of cities, states, culture and civilisation. True, these were created out of often large scale bloodshed—but nothing like the random lawless violence that preceded for millennia.

Peter JukesVia the Prospect website

More science, please

Looking at Britain in 2021, only one contributor mentioned science, an aspect of neuroscience. No mention of digitised information (including Prospect?), genetic engineering, personal DNA, stem cell developments, power generation, carbon capture, nuclear fusion, electric vehicles, space travel. Science and technology should make a greater difference to life while providing innovations for growth our Punch and Judy politicians prate about.

Peter YoungWest Sussex

If PJ Ruled the World

O Rourke opines of the great Adam Smith; “Smith wrote a paper in which he criticised interference with natural rights and private interests by politicians and what today would be called New York Times columnists.”

It does seem that an increasing number of commentators are making self-servingly selective use of Adam Smith’s writings. Adam Smith, however, also wrote famously of what today would be companies or corporations, including the banks, (i.e. ‘those who live by profit) that: “As their thoughts… are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business, than about that of the society.”

He also wrote: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.”

P J O’Rourke certainly needs the guidance of someone of the stature of Adam Smith (who, I believe never criticised the journalists of a free press, whether or not they ‘today would be called New York Times columnists’.

Edward HarkinsVia the Prospect website


The history and future prospects of New Holland in St Petersburg were well described by Shaun Walker (September); to judge from WORKac’s evocative photographs, the island has great potential. He was right to point to the cautionary tales of insensitive ‘reconstruction’ inflicted on historic buildings, and to set the development in the context of so-called oligarchs’ uneasy relations with the Kremlin.

Here, however, he should have said more. Another high-profile project (though in this case unintentionally so) undertaken in Russia over recent years was the construction of a palatial residence on the Black Sea coast, photographs of which are available online. In December of last year a businessman called Sergei Kolesnikov wrote a widely-reported open letter to President Medvedev, describing the ingenious investment structure used to finance the palace, which he said was for the personal use of the Prime Minister Putin (which the Kremlin denies).

Mr Walker should have mentioned this because the whistleblower alleged that through his charity Mr Abramovich, as well as other businessmen, contributed funds intended for the redevelopment of the St Petersburg Military Medical Academy, some of which ended up funding ‘Putin’s Palace’. Kolesnikov has not suggested that Abramovich knew where his money was ending up (which is perhaps itself concerning), and has stated in interviews that Abramovich acted with good intentions.

Nevertheless, Kolesnikov’s revelations, quite apart from providing evidence of the corruption rightly criticized by David Cameron on his recent visit to Russia, dramatically illustrate Shaun Walker’s contention that the liberality of Russia’s oligarchs is entwined with her politicians’ own plans. Roxane Chatanouvski’s remarks on oligarchs’ motives quoted at the close oddly echo those given by Kolesnikov in an interview with Snob. When asked why he had decided to blow the whistle, he replied: ‘If you are a Russian, if Russia is your homeland, and if you have something you can do for her, then the act is perfectly natural.’

Andrew RoseLondon NW5

Have your say: letters@prospect-magazine.co.uk

Correction: Due to an error in colour grading, a map accompanying “China: at war with its history” (October) incorrectly identified Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China. We apologise for this mistake.