Letters: December 2012

Prospect readers have their say
November 14, 2012
Fight for survival

I greatly enjoyed Robert Fry’s piece on the future of the special forces (Survival of the fittest, November). It was a balanced and authoritative piece that I agree with. As we emerge from the 9/11 wars, how special forces adapt in this slimmed-down and technically remote battlespace will be key not only to their survival but also to their position in the international strategic framework that will follow. Special forces are expanding to fight for their slice of the decreasing defence budget but it is vital that they remain a strategic asset, targeted enough not to abandon the pursuit of excellence that has enabled them to adapt and survive both tactically and politically in the past. They must resist the temptation to become a one-stop convenience store with lower quality products; they must remain a sharply honed tool. Andy McNab, former SAS sergeant and author of “Red Notice”

Unimagined possibilities

Over the years, Oliver Sacks has published a series of fascinating studies of strange and wonderful neuropsychological phenomena (Adventures on the edge of consciousness, November). None of these are peer reviewed scientific case studies and some of them have been severely criticised by researchers for misrepresenting the phenomena described, but I think we do better to leave Sacks’s exaggerations and oversimplifications unchallenged, since they make such good stories and help to swell the ranks of eager investigators. Some of these will be disappointed to discover in their own research that things are more complicated than they had been led to expect, but so what? We can advise our students to keep the salt shaker handy when reading Sacks’s poetic accounts, and count on them to supplement their reading with the rigorous scientific papers they never would have sought out otherwise. Such stories couldn’t have metaphysical implications, any more than fairy tales could, but they might well open people’s minds to heretofore unimagined possibilities. Daniel Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University

The drugs debate

I agree with the argument by Peter Lilley and Peter Hitchens that the use of drugs is more a moral than a health issue (Drugs haze, November). Indeed, it was my pursuing this line of reasoning that got me sacked as chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. My position was then, and is now, that the focus on the health harms of cannabis and ecstasy, and the exaggeration of those harms, was a smokescreen as much to avoid the moral debate as to justify harsher penalties for political benefit. The reason politicians will not engage in the moral debate is clear—they will lose it. The UK finances itself in part through selling highly dangerous drugs, alcohol and tobacco. To deny people the choice of using a safer alternative intoxicant such as cannabis is so morally wrong that the debate would be lost before it has begun. David Nutt, chair, Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs

Whether drug use is seen as immoral is a matter of opinion. The issue of what to do about drug use is much easier, however. The aim of drug policy is “drug control.” This can only mean control of the trade; how and where drugs are sold, and other measures, such as a minimum age. Prohibition makes any such controls illegal. Instead, it tries to control what we do with specific substances in the privacy of our own homes. Such a policy is never going to work. There are two options: control, which means legalisation, or the anarchy of prohibition. Derek WilliamsVia the Prospect website

I read Peter Lilley’s article about Peter Hitchens’s new book with concern. He is wrong to say it’s not an issue of health when there are plenty of scientific studies to show it is exactly that. He adopts the same stance as the pro-smoking lobby of the 1950s and 60s. I don’t think anyone disputes the link between smoking, heart disease and cancer. Nigel Price Cardiff

The courageous choice

Comparing EP Thompson with Eric Hobsbawm (A British internationalist, November), Ramachandra Guha says that in “moral” terms Thompson was “the more courageous man” because he left the Communist party over Hungary and Hobsbawm didn’t. Thompson was right to quit. But surely the mark of courage was staying in the party and taking the shit, not leaving to a chorus of approbation from the liberal intelligentsia? David Lipsey, House of Lords

Labour’s wrong turn

In 1997, 13.5m people voted Labour to get rid of the Tories; 13 years of new Labour leadership got this figure down to 8.6m in 2010 (Labour’s lost votes, November). Along the way, we had the contracting out of public services, privatisation of some jobs and massive PFI contracts in health and education, all of which significantly angered large numbers of Labour supporters. We had the war in Afghanistan, the cosying up to Bush, and the dishonesty and deception surrounding the Iraq war. Peter Kellner declares that the 20th-century contest between the ideologies of socialism and capitalism is over. The millions across Europe out of work because of the bankrupt economic ideologies of the European central bank and the parallel policies of our own government, mean there is every relevance to discussing why financial institutions are more powerful than the manufacturing industry, environmental lobbies or social causes. The way back for Labour has to be leadership on social justice, equality and opportunity. In some parts of the country in 2010 where there had been progress in these areas, there was a swing to Labour. This can and must be done again. Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North

I was a lifelong (61 years) Labour voter but did not vote for the party in 2010. The reason was articles exactly like Peter Kellner’s. The Labour party needs to believe in something and stick to it. If it is a party that will say anything and sway any way to get votes then it is not a party of principle. Lack of principle has turned people against politics and politicians. Richard Sage Via the Prospect website

The green solution

Dieter Helm argues that gas has an important role to play in the UK’s future (The great gas debate, October), but he ignores biogas. Biogas from anaerobic digestion delivers the benefits of shale gas without the environmental problems. It has the potential to deliver more than 10 per cent of the UK’s domestic gas, creating 35,000 jobs. This is similar to recent estimates for shale gas, but as it is renewable it can be produced forever. Anaerobic digestion isn’t just a source of renewable gas. The process treats food and other organic waste, cutting methane emissions from landfill and farms. Critical nutrients within this waste are also recycled back to the land. Charlotte Morton, chief executive, the Anaerobic Digestion and Biogas Association

Hairy situation

In response to Sam Leith’s article (In defence of the smiley, November), when something I write could be taken as an insult, a mock, a heresy, or an invitation to pistols at dawn, I am glad to have an easy graphic at hand to make clear that I’m “just kidding”. So I add my (:-)> (I have a beard.) Ted Reynolds Via the Prospect website