Letters: January/February 2023

Readers join the discussion in reaction to Prospect's December edition
December 8, 2022

Bungled Brexit

The Brexit chickens are coming home to roost, and they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That much is clear from Ferdinand Mount’s masterly analysis and from many studies that have emerged since the effects of Brexit became distinguishable from pandemic disruption. Britain’s economy will be scarred by its departure, its influence in the world diminished. The admirably robust response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine—which would have been the same if we had remained in the EU—will not change that.

So any British government, of whatever hue, has to try to answer Lenin’s question: what is to be done? One thing that can be said with near certainty is that the government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, currently before parliament, is not the answer. That legislation, which breaches international commitments entered into only three years ago, will, if enacted and implemented, make Britain’s relationship with the EU even worse than it is now. It will inflict even more damage than has already been done on the Good Friday agreement, which remains a shining example of cooperation between the UK, the parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish government, the EU and the US; it must be protected.

The House of Lords European Affairs Committee—on which I serve—is currently having a shot at answering what could be done, with an enquiry into the future of the UK–EU relationship. It will cover cooperation on foreign and security policy, so heedlessly jettisoned by Boris Johnson and David Frost in 2020, and aspects of the flimsy and lopsided arrangements for trade in goods and services with a market that takes close to half of our exports. It will address the crucial need for greater cooperation on climate change, energy and labour mobility and migration issues; the collapse of school visits between the continent and the UK; and the crippling of tours by performing artists.

The result of the enquiry will be published in the spring. UK–EU relations cannot afford to be ignored just because they are potentially divisive.

David Hannay was UK permanent representative to the European Economic Community

Ferdinand Mount elegantly highlights the disastrous consequences of Brexit for the Tories. However, his suggestion for defusing the Brexit bomb will come to nothing in the absence of a suitable post-Brexit economic model. The two existing options fatally ignore the UK’s size.

The UK is simply too small for the first model, namely that of a “Global Britain” that is integrated on favourable terms into a web of brand new trade agreements. Such an approach might work for a country with the size and economic power of the US. Brexiteers have seriously overestimated the UK’s bargaining power vis-à-vis more powerful trading partners (like the EU).

The second model sees the UK as “Singapore-on-Thames”, where low taxes and lax business regulations attract international investment, creating growth and prosperity. What proponents of this model—like Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng, who pursued it briefly in office—miss is that the UK has around 10 times the inhabitants and eight times the GDP of Singapore. This makes cutting tax more expensive. The absolute revenue loss from a tax cut of one percentage point is clearly much higher in the UK’s $3.2 trillion economy than in Singapore’s $400bn one, yet potential benefits remain the same: there is a limited pool of multinational HQs and the mobile superrich to attract. It is no coincidence that most tax havens are small states, and the UK is too big to play this game.

The Tories lack an economic vision of the UK outside the EU that matches the actual size of their country. Without such a vision, the Brexit bomb will keep on ticking.

Julian Limberg, King’s College London

Fall from grace

Martyn Percy raises a great many crucial issues in his useful analysis. The Church of England’s main problems are a lack of spiritual vision, a lack of commitment and a handful of structural issues dating back to its origins in a different era. It has become so institutionalised that it cannot even see how ineffective and dysfunctional it and its rules and structures are. It is unable to change to meet the times; its management is appallingly bad and getting worse all the time. The change that is required is so radical that it just won’t happen. That is a great shame.

The Church has been a great one. It has fine theology and doctrines, fabulous buildings that still speak to people, a legacy of scholars, priests, artists and poets intimately entwined in British history and culture, and many conscientious and devout clergy and laypeople striving to worship faithfully and to care for their neighbours. Let us not forget that churches globally are the largest provider of social welfare outside governments.

But the Church of England, in England, must change or die. It must disencumber itself of dysfunctional structures. It needs a spiritual revival like the one John Wesley led, focused on a profound experience of and devotion to God—not “Mission Enabling Teams”.

Caroline Miley, via the website

I don’t begin to understand what happened between Martyn Percy and Christ Church, Oxford, but it has clearly embittered his view of the Church as a whole.

Forget the constitutional settlement: the Church remains essential because it is available and open to all who live in England and has “A Christian presence in every community”, to quote our ­strapline. When the banks, pubs, shops and post offices have withdrawn, the parish church remains. Many non-churchgoers are grateful for that, when they come to celebrate a wedding or to say goodbye to a loved one. In my own parish church service attendance is growing, while work in the community is on the rise. Over the course of a year we probably touch the lives of the majority of families here. With our outreach work in the three village schools and nursing homes, and support for those in pastoral need, it feels nothing like decline. I thank God for that daily.

As someone once said about football, it’s not a matter of life and death—it’s more important than that; but with the Church, it really is.

Mark Middleton is church warden of Kinver, West Midlands

Defending the indefensible

Julian Baggini ends his article on the hereditary principle (“Philosopher at large,” November) by saying that if the monarchy is both useful and pleasing, “that could be a good reason to stick with it—even if in theory it’s ridiculous.” I suspect that one can extend his argument to the House of Lords. May it not be that because an institution is indefensible on theoretical grounds, those in the institution work harder and with more dedication in order to justify the theoretically indefensible powers which they have?

Konrad Schiemann is a former judge of the European Court of Justice

Power up

Bryony Worthington makes a powerful case for the ongoing global revival of nuclear power, during which more than 30 countries have commenced construction on their first nuclear plant or announced intentions to develop one. Nuclear fits today’s energy challenges well. It has the lowest carbon footprint of all commercially available sources of electricity; has saved perhaps 70bn tonnes of carbon emissions and 1.4m lives from improved air quality over its 65-year commercial history; needs tiny fractions of the land or sea area required by other sources; and, by dint of using so little fuel and the widespread distribution of uranium, is highly resistant to fuel price inflation and geopolitical shocks. France and Sweden have previously shown that major nuclear programmes can be deployed quickly where there is a will to do so.

Worthington is, I think, a little unkind to the large, water-cooled technologies which were the backbone of nuclear power’s emergence from a standing start to providing almost 18 per cent of global electricity by 1996. Nuclear’s share has since fallen back to 10 per cent; had the record of those first decades been maintained, global carbon emissions from electricity would now look much more manageable.

And looking ahead? While it is important to note the exciting potential of small modular reactors, these are not yet commercially available and it will take time to establish high-volume supply chains. The 427 operating nuclear power reactors in the world today have an average capacity of 900 megawatts; the 32 which have started over the last five years average well over 1,000MW. For now the answer lies in such technology. 1,000MW-plus reactors are still very useful within large national or regional grids; the most practical option available to the UK at this moment is to replicate the 3,260MW Hinkley Point C project at Sizewell and other suitable sites.

Malcolm Grimston, Imperial College

Counterproductive protest

If the situation is as dire and as urgent as Just Stop Oil supporters think—and I am at one with them on that—then it must be possible to persuade the public of the case for constructive action against climate change by rational argument. Indeed, many are clearly already of the view that we need to radically alter our way of life, but cannot get right-wing governments to accept the necessary consequences.

By behaving in ways that are to any normal person completely irrelevant, and have nothing whatever to do with the underlying problems, radical activists who jump on trains or vandalise galleries mark themselves out as irrational. That is bound to make the so-far-unpersuaded think that the arguments being put forward by those activists are not worth bothering about. These idiocies are positively harmful, and make a bad situation worse.

Richard Burnett-Hall, via the website

If the global economy keeps growing, we will need more energy, which means more demand for renewables, which means material extraction for renewables will have to become more aggressive. Achieving a full energy transition while maintaining growth at projected rates will mean vastly increasing the global stock of solar panels, wind turbines and batteries over coming decades, if not forever!

If we’re going to have a just transition, we have to recognise that we can’t increase our use of energy indefinitely. We are already drastically exceeding the earth’s ecological resources beyond what it can regenerate. A huge amount of energy is needed to extract, produce and transport all the “stuff” the economy churns out each year. And, as green economist Jason Hickel points out, not only is this “excess consumption in high-income nations… sustained by an ongoing process of net appropriation from the lands and peoples of the global south, on unequal terms,” but it is accelerating “the sixth mass extinction event in our planet’s history.”

Lydia Darby, via the website

Ad world

Colin Crouch alerts us to the fact that “the language of advertising is not adept at alerting people to collective responsibilities”. If Prospect was to launch an “Understatement of the Year Award” this would have to be a serious contender.

Over the last half century the advertising industry has developed and refined a range of increasingly sophisticated techniques of mass persuasion. The culture of an entire population has gradually been remoulded along ever more individualistic and narcissistic lines. The methods employed by the propaganda departments of totalitarian states now look quite crude and clumsy in comparison.

Ivor Morgan, Lincoln

Romantic ideal

I enjoyed Freya Johnston’s essay on the German romantics. It is especially interesting—for those of us for whom Jena and Weimar were out of bounds for so many years—to note how writers like Andrea Wulf are now able to access documents from and even travel to these cultural centres in the so-called Land der Dichter und Denker. They are filling in some of the gaping holes which had arisen during the Cold War. “German romanticism” is a multi-faceted movement, spanning over 100 years. The Frühromantik phenomenon in Jena represented a particular intellectual strain that existed in the wake of the heady influence of Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. Wulf and Johnston present a kaleidoscopic scene of friendships and interactions, comings and goings, sprinkling among the youthful characters the presences of the “heavenly twins” of German literature, Goethe and Schiller.

The relationship of this Weimar duo to the “Jena set” is a complex matter. For one thing, both writers had by the mid-1790s rejected their own colourful pasts and were well into their more contemplative classical period. Goethe’s proto-­romantic Sturm und Drang movement had been about 20 years before Frühromantik. His Sorrows of Young Werther—a bestseller by any standard—set the emotional temperature at such a high level that we must surely regard 1774, its year of publication, as a key point in the evolution of the romantic movement in Germany.

Goethe as a grandfatherly presence amid all this excitement in the Jena set, however, does not quite strike the right note. In his creative life Goethe abjured group interactions. We must not assume that the closeness of the localities of Weimar and Jena to one another is proof that the two groups were in each other’s pockets.

Hilda Brown, University of Oxford

Wrapping up

Due to an error, our December edition was delivered in plastic rather than the usual potato starch wrapping. We have corrected the mistake for this issue and will be using paper wrap from the March 2023 edition onwards.