Letters: March 2021

Contributions from Rory Stewart, Philippa Levine and others
January 28, 2021

Path to a better world

Kudos to Timothy Garton Ash, who has tried to do what every political leader should be forced to do, and what every prudent campaign manager prevents—laying out a comprehensive global vision (“The future of liberalism,” Jan/Feb). There is much to agree with (from love of Martha Nussbaum and devolution to taxes on Facebook) and just enough to disagree with (Basic Income, the absence of defence or “law and order”). There is no better summary of liberalism, one of the defining sensibilities of our civilisation—or indeed a better manifesto for Keir Starmer.

But the essay is also a reminder for all of us of the troubling gap between the liberal philosophy that we espouse and the political culture in which we live. Although Garton Ash acknowledges the centrality of identity, his most detailed solutions are still economic or technocratic (new forms of taxation, a China policy and a focus on carbon consumption). He does not acknowledge how much easier it was in the early 20th century to provide goods to win support at the ballot box (votes for women, or a new welfare state), than it is now when those things have already been done, and money is tight.

He portrays politicians as symbolic communicators—there to sell technocratic policies dreamt up by others. And yet that is not how populist leaders see themselves. And it is not policies but leaders who are needed to defeat populists at the opinion polls (a sense of humour would help, so would a skill with social media). And here, I believe, the key may include things that have been unfashionable almost since the Renaissance—the moral character of politicians, and their ability to govern well.

Until we rediscover such virtues in politics and governing, we risk being trapped in a corkscrew spinning, like his conclusion, around universalism and diversity; individualism and contextualism; liberty, belonging and recognition; meliorism and scepticism; a double helix of fear and hope. I am in awe of Garton Ash’s attempt here—I would do much worse. But I fear he is caught in contradictions, which would defeat any leader however “rhetorically gifted.” 

Rory Stewart is a former Conservative cabinet minister, now independent

Cheques and balances

Regarding Lionel Barber’s most interesting piece about HMT (“Devalued Currency,” Jan/Feb), my own view is that the Treasury’s power is hard to keep down for very long, given the department’s nature and the structure of our institutional arrangements. 

Unless there is a major overhaul of the broader organisation of government, HMT is likely to retain huge power over British public policy. Yes, marginal degrees of influence will ebb and flow depending on the personalities of the prime minister and chancellor of the day—and perhaps even some of the other Treasury ministers occasionally—but as recent times demonstrate, HMT is ultimately the central player. 

Under Theresa May, with her two overly dominant special advisers, there seemed an attempt to diminish the importance of HMT—but that came to a sorry end rather quickly, and currently, notwithstanding the big personality challenges, Nos 10 and 11 are reasonably close. Indeed, at the suggestion of the current PM’s own dominant adviser, the now-departed Dominic Cummings, this government has tried to make sure Nos 10 and 11 are linked more tightly, with their advisers more aligned than in the past.

What is now really needed is for the government to articulate a clear post-pandemic economic plan, including for the much-heralded levelling-up agenda, and to give the Treasury a clearer supportive framework for ensuring all engines of government get on board. Even during my own brief time at HMT, when the PM and chancellor were especially close, a number of departments—notably education—only paid lip service to central government priorities. 

True levelling up will require clear instruction from the top—and for many departments, especially those involved in education and skills, to play a role. The Treasury is central, but it cannot meet the challenge alone.

Jim O’Neill was commercial secretary to the Treasury 2015-2016

Barber’s enjoyable portrait covered some familiar themes: external challenges (climate change, big tech) and internal culture (high turnover, monoculturalism), as well as some hardy British policy perennials (skills, local government).  

Barber implicitly recognises, in Bruce Fraser’s words, that the Treasury exists “in order to curtail the natural consequences of human nature.” Perhaps he secretly hopes that the Treasury will emerge as the grown-up in the room to call a halt to the ineptitude and infantilism of current British politics and government. If so, he would not be alone.

Edward Troup, former permanent secretary, HMRC

Gross miscalculation 

Jill Rutter and Anand Menon are right to list ultra Remainers among their culprits (“Who killed soft Brexit?” December). I witnessed the death of a moderate Brexit from within parliament. In January 2019 I put forward the idea of indicative votes. We went ahead and found that a compromise around soft Brexit garnered most support but was three short of a majority. I wonder if some of the hardline Europhiles who joined the European Research Group in the “No” lobby now regret their votes?  

The People’s Vote campaign and its supporters in parliament never had a coherent plan for achieving their aims. They grossly overestimated their position and underestimated the Brexiteers. They wasted time refusing to move into the zone of realisable objectives. We have all paid the price.

Helen Goodman, former MP for Bishop Auckland

Disruptive but not difficult

David Allen Green is correct to say that when the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973 it knew—or at least should have known—that there would be a profound impact on its own laws (“At law,” Jan/Feb). Of course not every individual voter in the UK had sufficient interest actually to know this, but they could have done. Politicians and lawyers should have done.

In 1962, a year after our first application to join the Communities, a conference was held between British judges, including two later law lords, Diplock and Wilberforce, and representatives of the European Court of Justice and Commission. The question they addressed was whether the exercise of judicial power over British subjects as set forth by the Treaty of Rome raised any particular problem under English law. 

Michel Gaudet, director of the Communities’ joint legal services, opened by saying the ECJ “is a very striking feature of the European Communities. It is a permanent court; it has compulsory jurisdiction; it can take binding decisions which must be complied with and can be enforced against private individuals and member states.”

Yet for Mr Justice Wilberforce there was “no fundamental difficulty in the English system in accepting that position… once we accept the treaty, we accept the supreme power of the Luxembourg Court over our courts in matters within its jurisdiction and this concept does not create difficulties for English lawyers.”

Allen Green is unquestionably right in asserting that by joining the EEC, the UK was becoming part of an extraordinary and in many ways destabilising legal order, even though many at the time affected to believe that joining the EEC was just about trade. But during my term as a judge of the ECJ, the European treaties were part of our laws because we had ratified them and the ECJ fulfilled the function ascribed to it. I am of course not neutral, but I cannot understand why the court arouses such hostility in some quarters.

Konrad Schiemann was a judge on the Court of Appeal and later the Court of Justice of the European Union

The end of the Brexit transition may seem an appropriate occasion to mark the death of European Union law in the United Kingdom, but an obituary is surely premature. EU law—at least a proportion of it—remains very much alive in one part of the UK: Northern Ireland. 

Under the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, goods produced in NI and traded in and into its market need to comply with applicable EU law. Articles 30 and 110 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, as well as more than 300 EU acts, “apply to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland.” And some of these acts go beyond goods, to citizens’ rights and the operation of the single electricity market on the island of Ireland. 

Moreover, future replacements and amendments to EU acts covered by the Protocol will automatically apply, and the range of applicable EU law can be extended. The European Court of Justice retains jurisdiction over EU law in the UK under the Protocol. It’s too early to be writing an obituary.

David Phinnemore, Queen’s University Belfast

Nameless and shameless

Your debaters point out there are some stories where journalists may have no alternative but to allow a source to be anonymous (“The Duel,” Jan/Feb). But we should always push back against anonymity where it is not strictly justified. Take anonymity in social media. Allowing sunlight into the process and obliging protagonists to reveal themselves could reduce online abuse. While there might be exceptions for special cases, such as political dissidents facing harsh regimes or victims of crime, I am delighted that Margaret Hodge MP is introducing a bill to drive reform in the UK. 

And dare I say that academic peer review is not always enhanced by anonymity? Comments from reviewers would be far less rude and unpleasant if the writers had to reveal themselves. So let’s make sure that anonymity is employed only where it is really necessary. After all no self-respecting publication, such as this one, would publish an anonymous letter. 

Suzanne Franks, City, University of London

Demographic distractions

The “Duel” between Robin Hodgson and Norma Cohen (“Is Britain overpopulated?”, November) raises some important questions about the implications of demographic change. But both writers reveal that what often lies behind debates about numbers of people is really about social values and types of people. 

Hodgson’s concern about Britain’s growing population is largely focused on immigration, while Cohen counters that the real challenges come from “rising numbers of ageing Britons.” I am not persuaded by either contention. The economic, social and environmental challenges that we face today are not the result of too many (or too few) people of any age or background, but stem from an ongoing evasion of the discussions we need to be having: about the resources we need as a society, and how we can develop these resources and use them to their best effect. Demographic change is the product of social and economic change, not its driver.

Jennie Bristow, author, “Stop Mugging Grandma” 

No dignity in death

Marc Bolan and Sigmund Freud have been demoted, Thomas Marks tells us in his lovely elegy for the cemetery (“How the dead live,” Jan/Feb), from the cover of the Metro Guide London’s Cemeteries, consigned to shuffle off their mortal coils a second time. 

What were the marketers thinking when they rubbed out these two among their celebrity names? Was Bolan’s penchant for feather boas too sexually ambiguous to sit alongside family-friendly Enid Blyton? If so, then why is Keith Moon still there? He made a speciality of blowing up toilets and passed out on stage more than once before succumbing to an overdose in 1978. As for Blyton, she was hardly a paragon of English virtue, despite the books that made her famous. Bisexual and adulterous, she did whatever it took to maintain her “jolly hockey sticks” public image. 

The cemetery’s own website proclaims Marx as “our most famous resident.” It’s hard to imagine a book about London’s cemeteries that did not foreground the iconic looming monument so reminiscent of the worst of socialist art. Freud’s memorial, on the other hand, is topped with a tasteful Grecian urn, a gift from the great grandniece of Napoleon, no less. What precipitated his fall from Metro Guide grace?

While it makes for a delicious threesome—the bombastic Marx, the oh-so-English Blyton, and the bad-boy rock star Moon—I still favour the Famous Five. Now if only the London Necropolis Railway could be resurrected to take us on our journeys…

Philippa Levine, Balliol College, Oxford