Letters: January 2013

Prospect readers have their say
December 11, 2012
America rising

Bill Emmott may well be right about Obama’s second term, and I hope he is (The American century is not over, December), but the real issue is long term. Just look at Britain’s own story. 200 years ago, it was the world’s only industrial economy and greatest power, but its free markets spread industrialisation (especially to America). The US then had its own industrial revolution and by 100 years ago it was catching up with Britain. America took over as the great promoter of free markets, which spread industrialisation further (especially to east Asia). Following the same pattern, China is now having its own industrial revolution, and is catching up with America. The 21st-century US will have ups and downs, just as 19th-century Britain did. The 1990s tech boom was an up; the 2008 financial crash was a down; and perhaps the 2010s will see an American energy boom. But the trend is clear. By 2045, a hundred years after it began, the American century will be ending. Ian Morris, professor of classics and history at Stanford University

Bill Emmott points out that the House of Representatives is still firmly in Republican hands. The power that this gives [Republican members of the House] is not backed by an equally great legitimacy. The electoral boundaries within many states are set by the incumbent majority administration. With the majority of states controlled by Republicans the extent of their gerrymandering has exceeded anything the Democrats could achieve. In the Senate where each state elects two members [who do not represent separate geographical constituencies], increased Democratic support produced a net gain of seats. Harvey Cole, Hampshire

Goal scoring

Clare Lockhart’s attack on the Millennium Development Goals was uncharacteristically ill informed (The UN’s own goal, December.) There has been a lot of progress since the goals were introduced. The first goal was to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. We hit that target five years early. For the first time since measurement began most Africans were above the poverty line. The universal primary education target was a response to research that clearly shows that if a generation of children go to school, even just to primary level, they drive an advance in development. Girls who have been to school marry later, have fewer children, who are more likely to survive, and enhance family income. Universal primary education also drives a need to educate teachers and therefore improve secondary and tertiary education. There has been progress everywhere but the target will not be fully met, unsurprisingly. Progress beyond the goals includes an increase in life expectancy and a rise in the number of democracies since 1990. The lesson is to build on the progress we have made. The current fashion for carping over aid and development is in danger of throwing away the prospect of further progress, and a safer and more just future. Clare Short, former secretary of state for international development

A history lesson

Comparisons between the 1930s and the eurozone crisis of today are unhelpful and misleading (Europe’s long shadow, December). The world has changed and it serves nobody’s interest to keep drawing these historical parallels. Just as the era of empire is over, so is the era of isolationism. In a world where cyber warfare poses a greater threat than conventional military attack and in which the collapse of one state’s banking system can bring the rest of the world to its knees, isolation is not an option. What we need is a reformed and strong EU which can carry the flag of multilateralism led by the democracies of Europe. If we are to take anything from the 1930s, this must be the lesson. Emma Reynolds, shadow Europe minister and MP for Wolverhampton North East

Aiding waste

I am completely in agreement with Ian Birrell (Target Inequality, December.) However, this is not an issue confined to the UK government aid budget. All the donor countries and individuals, even though mostly western based, need to reassess the non-disaster aid funding and projects undertaken in many countries. Our own guilt at knowing that there is human suffering, and our genuine desire to alleviate that, appear to drive many of our aid decisions. However, there is tremendous difficulty in ensuring that each pound donated is alleviating the suffering that caused the donation to be made. A huge NGO “industry” has evolved in the past 30 years, with NGOs from many countries wastefully competing for and undertaking development aid projects in many countries. The duplication of effort and expense has been and remains extraordinary, but we, the donors, are assured that our donated money is making a difference, ensuring ongoing funding. Were we to know the truth of the ineffectiveness, the cash flow would slow down and possibly stop. Andrew ChristensenVia the Prospect website

Suspicious minds

Jon Huntsman suggests that the change of leadership in China and the renewal of President Obama’s mandate offer an opportunity for renewed US-China collaboration (New leaders, new chance, December). This would be a positive trend but there are strong countervailing currents in both capitals. Most recently, the former secretary of defence, Harold Brown, called for the US to develop a long range bomber “capable of penetrating sophisticated defences and delivering great force,” specifically to deal with what he sees as the growing Chinese capacity to project lethal force. On the Chinese side, sabre rattling in the South China Sea has the US’s allies alarmed. With both sides sending mixed messages, cooperation will remain dogged by mutual suspicion. Isabel Hilton, editor of chinadialogue.net

Free radicals

I respect Douglas Carswell MP, but he is wrong to say that this government is similar to its Labour predecessor (Bad government rules, December). This government is a radical one—taking the tough decisions to ensure Britain can succeed in the future. And in the process, clearing up Labour’s mess. The deficit has been cut by a quarter. Taxes have been cut for 25m people. Bureaucracy has been taken out of the planning system. Immigration has been capped. Crime is down. And as Douglas himself acknowledges, our welfare and education reforms are the most radical in decades. There is much more still to do. But this government has made good progress so far. Grant Shapps is MP for Welwyn Hatfield and Conservative party chairman

Still special

Robert Fry raises the issue of the future for special forces (Survival of the Fittest, November.) However the world turns out, these forces’ response will be more bespoke and nationally determined than he suggests. The prominence of special forces over the last ten years is in part because of the changes in the nature of defence and partly the misconception of what the post-9/11 challenge has been about. Military forces are trained to kill people and break things; at this they have been hugely successful. Yet with the relatively brief interludes of the toppling of the Taliban government and the initial invasion of Iraq, the military has increasingly been used as top end law enforcement in support of a political process (nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.) UK special forces are sufficiently vague in concept and fluid in construction to adapt and indeed anticipate future need. The more uncertain the future, the more their role as a vital part of problem definition, not just resolution, should be valued. Their greatest threat will come from tidy minded policy controllers whose planning instincts demand predictability. Jonathan Shaw, assistant chief of defence staff and retired major general; General Officer Commanding, multi-national division south east Iraq 2007

Indulged eccentrics

The article by Tom Carver (Awed by Authority, December) explaining why Jimmy Savile was able to get away with his behaviour for so long, rings very true. Certainly the casual misogyny was similar in the US as viewers of Mad Men will recognise. There is another interesting thread which is the British celebration of eccentricity. When I moved here from Chicago I was charmed by this—and still am. In the more conformist US, the word is rarely used: the preferred term is “weirdo.” The British seemed much more tolerant. The dark side is that only those living closest to him (it’s usually a him not a her) know how selfish, difficult and occasionally psychopathic a professional eccentric can be while the rest of the world looks on, charmed or making lazy excuses. Tom Carver’s analysis of the now deplored misogynistic, hierarchical culture of the time provides the bulk of the explanation. But the tendency to take so-called eccentrics on their own terms—still a strong cultural value—and look no deeper exacerbated the situation. Judie LannonLondon

Paying our way

Gavyn Davies recommends three ways of stimulating the economy: reducing taxes, spending on infrastructure and getting more money lent to companies (The unfortunate Mr Osborne, October.) All three may be possible without destabilising the markets and may therefore help to avoid more austerity. None of them, however, does anything to deal with the UK’s fundamental problem which is our inability to pay our way in the world. We cannot do much to expand the economy or avoid very high unemployment because our external payments position is so weak. Only manufactured goods can plug the gap and to make our exports sufficiently competitive we have to have a much lower exchange rate—maybe $0.20 to the pound. Targeting inflation at 2 per cent is the wrong goal. John Mills, Exchange Rate Reform Group

Drugs despair

I despaired at trying to follow Peter Lilley’s convolutions (Drugs Haze, November.) While supporting cannabis legalisation he tries to distance himself from liberals and cosy up to right-wing Peter Hitchens whose disagreement with him is more “thoughtful” than the liberals who agree with him. This hinges on the ideas that while drug taking is “immoral” per se (loss of moral control) it should still be legalised because lots of immoral things are legal. Oh, and a glass or two of that other drug, wine, is both legal but not immoral (why not?). I turned in relief to Ken Dodd’s review of John Major’s new book (Music Hall Dad, same issue), a model of passionate, funny and above all clear writing. Please spare us writers who don’t seem to know what they think, or don’t think, or why, or who they do, or don’t, agree with. Look at Doddy, Mr Lilley, and learn. David CheshireVia email

A doddle

Judging by Ken Dodd’s articulate appreciation of John Major’s book My Old Man, he can enjoy a successful career as a theatre and literary reviewer, should a live audience start throwing vegetables at him. Peter StoppardBristol

Judge for yourself

I’m not a great fan of the German constitutional court myself (Power struggle, November); it usually arrives at the politically desired judgement anyway, but I can only wonder why Britons “wonder why a bunch of unaccountable judges holds such power.” Many other modern representative democracies have a constitutional court. Britain is an exception, not the norm, which doesn’t mean that Britain is wrong, but there’s no need to wonder about it. Paul Daniels, Germany

Katinka Barysch thinks that the German constitutional court and the constitution itself are the real impediments for rescuing the euro. She claims that some Germans “are becoming fed up with the constraints that the court keeps imposing on Angela Merkel’s policies.” This is a minority view. Judges of the highest court are not democratically elected but nominated by parliament—similar to the Supreme Court in the US. Nevertheless, they speak in the name and for the good of the people. The constitutional court was inaugurated in 1949 after World War II and is a judicial institution sui generis. It was the explicit will of the Allies to have a high court that oversees and restricts decisions taken by politicians so as to ensure that they do not violate the constitution. Previously, that had not been the case. In 1919, the Weimar constitution had inaugurated the Supreme Court of the German Reich with limited constitutional jurisdiction. In 1933, a democratically elected Chancellor usurped the constitution and named himself Führer of the German people. He did not need a coup d’état to do that. No constitutional body could stop him. Christian Nolte, German national now working in Italy

A good Currie

I never thought I would agree with Edwina Currie on anything but her piece on ruling the world in the December issue made good sense. What a good Prospect. Terry Johnson Via email

When all’s said and done

Incredibly, Hephzibah Anderson has written a short piece on clichés without mentioning the rich nautical history inherent in some (In praise of the cliché, December). Was she three sheets to the wind? KetaVia the Prospect website