Prospect readers have their say
July 18, 2013
The workers, united

I welcome David Goodhart’s article (“Bad job for Britain,” July), but it is important that we make a clear distinction between the services that unions offer to members and the political campaigning of some of their leaders.

I have seen first hand how extraordinary the work done by unions, as part of the “big society,” can be, and what a difference it can make to workers. Sadly, union activities on the ground are very different from the behaviour of leaders at the top, many of whom run strongly ideological campaigns that ensure that, as Goodhart points out, the low-paid and low-skilled are neglected.

The door is now open for moderate trade unions to focus on helping the lower paid. This could be achieved by offering free union membership. The result would be a welcome shift in unions’ priorities.

Robert Halfon, Conservative MP


It is relatively easy to identify, as David Goodhart does, the problem of low levels of participation by union members, but harder to find a solution, as the three major political parties know to their cost.

In 2000, Professor Jeremy Waddington and I did some research in which we found that 46 per cent of respondents to a national survey on participation in Unison elections said they would vote in these elections if secret ballots were held at either their workplace or branch. A further 18 per cent said they would vote in the elections if online voting was available. For a variety of reasons the union decided not to pursue these findings with either the TUC or the then Labour government.

Allan Kerr, former head of organising and recruitment at Unison


David Goodhart is right to say that unions have taken their eye off the ball. But there is one dimension to this problem that he has overlooked: the impact of the privatisation of public services, which is responsible for the de-unionisation and the impoverishment of many public service workers, who are now a permanent component of the lowest paid .

Privatisation resulted in downward pressure on pay, conditions and pensions, as well as de-unionisation, with hostile employers refusing to recognise unions or to “allow” organisation without a fight. There is also the fact that unions—including my own, Unison—often have white-collar, male activists and officials who overlook predominantly female manual workers or prioritise recruitment of better paid workers because of their higher subscriptions.

There are over 250,000 people directly employed by councils earning below £15,000. Low pay and lack of union organisation is a public sector phenomenon too.

Heather Wakefield, head of the local government service group, Unison


In or out?

I agree with Richard Lambert (“Exit? It’ll cost us,” July) that remaining in the European Union is vital for Britain, but it is also vital for Europe.

Since it is ranked by the OECD as the least restrictive nation for product market regulation, the UK’s presence will protect free trade and is necessary to a healthy and open European Union. Europe has strong protectionist traditions and the French, who invented colbertisme and dirigisme, are fond of economic patriotism. Two years ago, a French government minister, Arnaud Montebourg, published a book on “de-globalisation” (a more appealing term for protectionism) and during last year’s presidential campaign Hollande and Sarkozy stepped up their protectionist rhetoric in an effort to woo the 80 per cent of voters who are anti-globalisation.

Britain and Germany are less protectionist than France, and Britain’s continued membership of the EU will aid further free trade agreements. This in turn could help foster growth, lower prices and increase purchasing power in Europe.

Claude Fouquet, former French diplomat


Ukip is not the only political party committed to an independent UK. The continuation Liberal Party—which, unlike the EU-fanatic Liberal Democrats, opposed giving up the pound for the euro—is also in favour of leaving the EU.

Dane Clouston, member of the Liberal Party National Executive Committee


Princely disagreements

I am grateful to Jonathan Powell for his review of my new book about Machiavelli (“The art of power,” July). The review accurately describes the gist of my argument for Machiavelli as a constitutionalist. There are, however, three points I wish to clarify.

I speculate that Machiavelli began his work on republics, the Discourses, before stopping and quickly writing a book on principalities, which we know as The Prince. Powell is almost certain this didn’t happen because it required Machiavelli in nine months to write complex and demanding chapters of the Discourses while also writing the much shorter Prince. Powell may well be right. But I note that Machiavelli begins chapter two of The Prince by saying, “I will not discuss republics, as I have already done so at some length elsewhere.” I am aware of no other work of Machiavelli’s to which this could plausibly refer.

Second, Powell is convinced that “Machiavelli would have been mystified to be told that he had foretold the rise of the nation state.” But my point is that Machiavelli foretold the structure of the princely states that emerged shortly after his lifetime, the first modern, neo-classical states.

Finally, Powell believes that Machiavelli’s real value lies in his insight into the eternal truths of human nature insofar as these give rise to practical suggestions for political leaders. Again, he may be right, but it is interesting to note that this is not what Machiavelli himself thought was the contribution to be made by his writing.

Philip Bobbitt, author of “The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that he Made”


Costs and contributions

I do not believe, as Peter Clarke suggests (Letters, July), that an insurance-financed NHS would effectively control costs by its very nature. It would establish, though, for the first time, an understanding that rising costs have to be met directly by contributions. This link is currently absent from our debate. An insurance-based health service would therefore make choices about the range of NHS services easier—at least for politicians—and it might thereby slow down the growth in the health budget which, as Paul Johnson of the IFS has established, will, with pensions, take half of all public (non-interest) expenditure by 2060.

Frank Field, Labour MP


History lessons

As one of the “new breed of historian” identified by Jonathan Coe (“Poet of postwar Britain,” July), I would endorse his description of the social and cultural histories that continue to fill the shelves.

One of the most important stories of postwar Britain is the rise of popular culture. Since then, however, there’s been a counter-trend that has seen greater social inequality, symbolised by the restoration of the public schoolboy Prime Minister. The result is a growing tension between an ever more remote ruling class and an increasingly democratised culture. That conflict has yet to be resolved. But in the meantime there’s an appetite for accounts of the recent past that have a strongly political agenda and allow space for the voices of those without power.

Alwyn W Turner, author of “A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s”


Inside out

Adam Gopnik’s piece (“Humanism in glass and steel,” July) is a timely reminder of Richard Rogers’s huge impact over six decades. We share a hero in Richard. He has turned the world of architecture inside out, his buildings question cultural and social values and he has changed forever how we see and use our museums. He also put architecture on the political agenda, although, despite his tenacity, our politicians continue to fail to use their imagination to picture a brighter future.

But we have moved on from the somewhat stylistic question Gopnik poses: “How to make an architecture that neither descends towards pastiche nor becomes oppressive and overwhelming?” It is Rogers’s recognition that public engagement and keen participation create humanism in cities that is more telling than his choice of architectural language. Surely the public’s engagement with the architecture of modernity, so perfectly expressed in the Centre Pompidou and Lloyds, best answers Gopnik’s question?

Amanda Levete, Director of AL_A architects


An Englishman’s castle

We can all agree with Simon Jenkins that the British countryside is precious (“Where will we all live?” June). But his assertion that the very high cost of housing is not a crisis but just a “fact of life” is complacent beyond belief. Postwar “Leninist” planning successfully protected the countryside but it also tried to meet housing needs through new towns and urban tower blocks. More than ever we need a mix of town centre regeneration, urban extensions and new towns and villages to house the growing population.

Unfortunately the government has dismantled the machinery of strategic planning which might have been able to achieve this in creative and sustainable ways. Instead we have the sound of local drawbridges being raised against the developers, with the outcomes determined by diktat from London. This is unlikely to produce a good result for the countryside or the many seeking a decent home.

Trevor Cherrett, Wiltshire Community Land Trust


Vive la France

I remember the moment well: it was during the Chirac years that France started denigrating its Paris-educated elite. Christine Ockrent (“Invisible republic,” July) keeps the tradition alive, but she’s wrong. In the last 10 years, grandes écoles like Sciences Po have opened up to the world in a way that elite British and American universities never will, teaching a wide array of subjects in different languages. My generation has travelled extensively and lived abroad while often retaining a French outlook on the world: a great asset. If Ockrent feels the republic has become invisible, I predict it won’t stay that way for long.

Agnès Poirier, author of “Touché: A French Woman’s Take on the English”


Laughter lines

My stomach still hurts from laughing so much after reading Clive James’s review of Dan Brown’s Inferno (“The heroic absurdity of Dan Brown,” July). For the pleasure that he has given me and so many other people over the years—not least with this review—he deserves to find a comfortable perch somewhere in Paradiso.

Stuart George, London


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