Letters: April 2023 edition

John Curtice reacts to Pete Kellner's essay on Labour's chances; Pauline Neville-Jones responds to Jonathan Powell on Ukraine—and more
March 1, 2023

Minority report

Peter Kellner does an excellent job of laying out the realpolitik of the next election. On the one hand, the current geography of party support makes it very difficult for Labour to win an overall majority. On the other, the absence of potential allies in the House of Commons means it will be very difficult for the Conservatives to sustain a minority government in a hung parliament. And even though the new constituency boundaries will be somewhat helpful to the Tories, the party will still have to be at least a few points ahead of Labour to win an overall majority—an outcome that is very distant from the party’s current position in the polls.

But I wonder if the piece was too sanguine about the prospect of a minority Labour administration? True, as was the case after the February 1974 election, the Conservatives might be reluctant to bring a Labour government down for fear of incurring voters’ wrath—but perhaps only for so long as it stuck with the current Brexit settlement. True, too, it would be open to Labour to seek an early dissolution of parliament at a time of its choosing. However, when Harold Wilson went to the country again in October 1974 he failed to secure the safe overall majority he was seeking—not least because changes in the country’s electoral geography had already made hung parliaments significantly more likely.

Just a little over two years later, Labour found itself having to seek the support of the Liberals in order to stave off an election that would likely have resulted in a heavy defeat at the hands of a resurgent Conservative party. While it might well be able to put off the difficult day for a while, a minority Labour administration could not presume that it would not eventually find itself needing to talk to the Liberal Democrats about electoral reform—or even to the SNP about indyref2.

JohnCurtice, University of Strathclyde

War and peace

Jonathan Powell is right to say that western allies should think now about their aims for Ukraine’s negotiations with Russia, even though we do not yet know how the conflict will end. There will be talks when neither side thinks that continuing combat will bring advantage. That point has not been reached, but could conceivably arrive in 2023.

Mediation, implying concessions from both parties, is not attractive for Ukraine, which is a victim of unwarranted aggression. Clearly the country must not be expected to take on Russia alone since, even under different leadership, Moscow cannot be relied upon to have acceptable views on Ukrainian sovereignty. Kyiv will need western supporters close by—which puts an onus on its allies to have come to prior agreement on aims and tactics.

Moreover, Ukrainian sovereignty will sit within the context of the settlement on wider European security which, established following German ­unification, has been destroyed by the Russian invasion. There can be no return to a failed status quo ante, but a crucial question will be whether to try to re-establish cooperative security in Europe—with safeguards—or to move to political containment and the economic exclusion of Russia. Trust will be in short supply and second chances will not be offered if Moscow is uncooperative.

Even in a relatively benign situation, the complexity of issues flowing from the war will take many years to settle and the outcomes will be uncertain. It is hard to know how far trade will resume with an impoverished Russia if and when sanctions are gradually lifted. Economic reparations and justice for war crimes could be stumbling blocks, if Russia refuses to pay or to surrender indicted individuals. A resumption of the arms control agenda, especially on nuclear weapons, would be highly desirable but will only happen if there is enough trust.

Ukraine’s integration into western institutions, essential in any outcome, will require some tough love from the EU to eradicate corruption. And Russia should realise that a Ukraine outside Nato will have to be more heavily armed than if it is in the alliance.

All this should be occupying western leaders’ thoughts. For now, however, a strong postwar hand means helping Ukraine today to defend itself successfully.

Pauline Neville-Jones, Conservative peer and former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee

If only Boris had tossed his coin the other way before the referendum—and not joined with Cummings and Farage in hoodwinking the public into believing that our economic problems were brought about by joining the EU—he would have helped our European allies either avert or win the Ukraine war, probably achieved his broken promises on the home front, and gone down as one of the greatest rather than worst prime ministers in our history.

But it is now too late to mend his fences, and in Europe we are pitied rather than venerated, as we were when the Second World War ended and the US finished off our empire.

As a centenarian, I have watched all this happen. I fear for the fate of my grandchildren, and those of my friends, unless Russia comes to its senses and realises that it is its 2,600-mile border with China that threatens its future hegemony, not the EU. Our best hope is that Rory Stewart will take over when the electorate and our parliament come to their senses.

John A Davis, Cambridge

Same old Saudi

Deyan Sudjic rightly notes the connection between authoritarians and mega-cities.

This idea of a sparkling high-tech city is not new for Saudi Arabia: in the 2000s, the country’s General Investment Authority proposed six new “economic cities” to attract foreign investment. They were not very successful. The government wasn’t planning to bankroll them, but rather designed them for foreign investors—who were not convinced.

With Neom, too, Saudi Arabia isn’t proposing to pay for all this itself. So who will? Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said the Saudi sovereign wealth fund will finance half of the first phase, estimated to cost $320bn. For the rest, they’ll tap up other sovereign wealth funds, private investors and the local stock market. One suggestion, given the Red Sea location, is that Israeli investors might stump up some cash. Tacit Saudi-Israeli ties have been developing for years, based in part on a shared enmity towards Iran, and both Donald Trump and Joe Biden have sought to broker a taboo-busting peace deal. But the ageing Saudi king, MBS’s father, probably doesn’t want to see this happen in his lifetime, and the new Israeli government doesn’t make it easy to come to terms.

One Saudi journalist says Neom likely stands for Never Ever Occurring, Man. But the eye-catching plans have an important PR effect: they help Saudi Arabia associate itself with technology and the future, rather than being closed and medieval-minded. Neom seeks to do Dubai, only bigger; by 2030 the plan is that it will have the population of Abu Dhabi. In short, Saudi is converting itself from a highly conservative desert autocracy to a highly futuristic desert autocracy.

Projections of the future hold a mirror to the present. With democracy under pressure around the world, Neom reflects authoritarian aspirations to open up economically (foreign investment!) and socially (there may be bars!), without opening up politically.

What a contrast with 20 years ago, when western opinion thought Saudi Arabia would be forced to democratise. The regime change in Iraq would create new dynamics; oil was running out; the political model seemed to be generating radicalisation; the population was mostly under 30 but ruled by old men. Surely political reform was needed? Instead, as the Saudi monarchy moves to the millennial generation, MBS has opted to reform everything except politics.

Jane Kinninmont, policy and impact director, ELP

Tebbit’s test

The article by Peter Oborne and Imran Mulla ranges widely, so it is strange to note that a politician who had plenty to say on the topic of British values is nowhere mentioned—namely Norman Tebbit. His acid test of true integration was a love of the English national cricket team among migrants—a test I, like millions of other British citizens who know virtually nothing about the sport, would fail miserably.

Dave Kruger, Nantwich

Levelling down

Samuel West is right to be contemptuous of the vocabulary of “levelling up”. The headline policy in question has been invoked with increasing promiscuity, while arguments about how much money should go to which parts of the country have become ever-more rancorous, centring on a perceived unfairness to most regional and metropolitan areas of the UK.

But regardless of what city or county is in question, cuts in funding for the arts—especially when they come out of the blue—can only lead to balance of an undesirable kind: less culture will be made available to everyone. Arts Council England executives now talk habitually of “reimagining” or “refreshing” our present cultural offerings, by moving opera into car parks and pubs up north, for instance.

It is not surprising that those on the receiving end of such suggestions describe themselves as staggering into the unknown. And there is not much point in aspiring to make us all end up on the same level if that level is rock bottom.

Freya Johnston, Oxford

Health check

A balanced and realistic view of the British and German health systems from Alexander Menden. In the US, a study published in 2016 estimated that almost 10 per cent of hospital deaths could be the result of complications of medical treatments. The NHS is comparatively cheap and yet it continues to surprise the world with excellent research and respectable outcomes.

Once the NHS has been lost, it will take a few years for people to realise how much more expensive, and less comprehensive, their care is. By then it will be too late. Sensible allocation of extra ­funding for the health service would return it to world-leading status. People with the skills to oversee this allocation can be found in the health and economics departments of our universities.

Gareth Greenslade, consultant in anaesthesia and pain medicine, Bristol

Outside looking in

Iain Martin apparently voted Brexit because he knew we would never be asked again. So he thinks we are no longer a democracy? He also says the public were deceived in 1973, but I was 26 years old then and I certainly don’t remember anything remotely like the incredible levels of fraud and deceit of 2016, when Brexit was presented as snake oil, the tooth fairy, unicorns and Father Christmas all in one. I note that the government has just complained that every 1 per cent rise in nurses’ pay costs £700m per year—the same amount Brexiteers claimed would go into the NHS budget every fortnight if the UK voted Leave.

It is deceitful to call the EU a trans-national government: the EU is a series of treaties we exercised our sovereignty to sign (with opt-outs from the euro and Schengen). Detailed regulations, budgets and so on must be approved by the sovereign governments in the council of ministers and by directly elected MEPs. It is nobody else’s fault if we elected Ukip football hooligans! The commission can’t make law and regulation, it can only propose it. The Court of Justice just resolves legal disputes about interpretation of the treaties. Nato, the World Trade Organisation and many other international regulatory bodies have similar structures and pass binding common rules on those states which sign up after (often difficult) negotiation.

Presumably we will soon have to beg to return to the EU, and this time we will have to accept the single currency and the Schengen borderless area. In any case, half-hearted membership is of little benefit, as nobody would invest in Britain if we could easily leave again.

P Basford, Hertfordshire

Closed church

I was exasperated to read Alice Goodman’s account of the bias and exclusion at her friend’s ordination. How can churches still be so tone-deaf? Services of any description in a parish church should never be ticketed—that just encourages ideas of possession and hierarchy. Worship should be freely open to all. As a matter of course, the seats at the front should have been reserved for the family and friends of the ordinands, and anyone else could find places in the usual way. And people refusing to allow the author to sit with them—awful. This is what happens when the church forgets what it’s there for.

Caroline Miley, via the website

Comma caution

This may seem like a pedantic comment, but I can’t resist pointing out that in Sarah Collins’s otherwise excellent piece on the Amazon strike she provides a classic example of how inappropriate use of the humble comma can result in reversing the meaning of the sentence: “It was a pressure-cooker environment… they were working as hard as they could, so they didn’t end up in a disciplinary.”

This was a quote from union organiser Amanda Gearing. As people don’t speak commas—unless they are doing oral proofreading—the comma has been added by Collins. Prospect is notable for the high quality of its articles, as well as their content, and this example is a rare Homeric nod—but it does make the point that commas have to be used with care.

Derek Turner, Thame

In fact

On average, a Briton born in 1956 will receive state benefits amounting to about £1.2m. One born in 1996 will get less than half that.
Economist, 5th January 2023

The Ford F-150 pick-up truck has been the best-selling vehicle in the US every year for 41 years; 32 per cent of owners say they rarely or never use their truck for personal hauling.
Axios, 23rd January 2023

By November 2022, only 8.5 per cent of EU and G7 companies with Russian subsidiaries had divested at least one of them.
SSRN, 13th January 2023

42 per cent of tweets about the design of the Scottish parliament building are negative. By this metric, it is the world’s ugliest building.
Buildworld blog, 11th January 2023

Harold Macmillan’s grandfather founded the publishers Macmillan; Carly Simon’s father co-founded Simon & Schuster.

Since 1945, the median length of a government’s time in office in Belgium—defined by change of party in the cabinet, change of PM or general election—has been less than 10 months, the shortest in the EU; the longest was Luxembourg (over four and a half years).
Pew Research, 25th January 2023

On 18th February, Bristol City were awarded their first penalty in 68 games. Football teams in England’s Championship are typically awarded a penalty once every nine games.
Prospect research

In 2022, 3.4m adult Americans evacuated their homes due to a natural disaster.
E&E News, 6th February 2023

37 per cent of Britons say they trust the government; 20 per cent of Argentinians do, the lowest score among 28 countries polled.
2023 Edelman Trust Barometer

The Korean equivalent of “Once upon a time” is “Long ago, when tigers smoked pipes.”
@qikipedia, 10th February 2023