Letters: June 2021

The latest readers' correspondence
May 6, 2021

Law unto themselves

I agree with much of Adam Wagner’s critique of the government’s approach to legislating for Covid-19 (“Taking liberties,” May): the habit of publishing complex, highly intrusive regulations at the last minute; the lack of parliamentary scrutiny; the confusion between law and guidance; and the inconsistent, sometimes perverse, approach to enforcement.

However, I doubt whether the solution is to “codify the ground rules of our freedoms,” as Wagner suggests. Some of the ground rules are already in place, not least in the form of the Human Rights Act 1998 (currently subject to an independent review under Peter Gross). But the quest for a fully codified constitution would risk tying the country up in knots, with little prospect of consensus as to the outcome, and a future sovereign parliament could always rewrite the rules anyway. Even a self-contained constitutional change like the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has already been overridden twice by parliament legislating for early elections.

That does not mean the current checks and balances are working as they should, or that reform is undesirable. It is surely time for a new Statutory Instruments Act, which could restrict ministers’ use of the “urgent procedure” to circumvent parliamentary scrutiny, perhaps even providing for some instruments to be amendable rather than “take it or leave it.” More generally, the Ministerial Code could be put on a statutory basis, with stronger independent oversight. What about clarifying the role and accountability of the attorney general in upholding the rule of law? Obviously, even piecemeal changes like these will need politicians to make them happen. So I certainly agree with Wagner that public debate about these issues is vitally important.

Jonathan Jones QC, former head of the Government Legal Service

The centre cannot hold

Polly Toynbee’s “progressive” defence of England’s centralised state (“Whitehall knows best,” May) rests on her complaint that Conservatives win local elections and pursue Conservative priorities.

It has escaped her notice that Conservatives win national elections too, and more often than Labour. Conservatives have used centralised power ruthlessly to promote a financialised, globalised and privatised society. Bereft of any statutory powers, local authorities have been largely unable to resist. Despite the imagination and innovation of many councils, voters sense their marginalisation.

Toynbee invites us to put up with all the bad years for the brief times when a London Labour government can impose its benign will on the country. But even Labour’s record of using its centralised powers is less persuasive than she assumes. There were plenty of New Labour programmes—including the New Deal for Communities, Decent Homes and New Deal for Schools, to say nothing of the target-heavy management of public services—where the rigid imposition of centrally determined models and priorities led to monies being wasted, ill-designed targets being chased and priorities distorted. Far better to press for a new constitutional settlement in which power and resources are distributed across England, allowing local areas to meet their needs in the way that they choose.

John Denham, former communities secretary

Carrie rules

Three centuries ago, when Robert Walpole became our de facto first prime minister, he, like Boris Johnson, had a “Carrie.” She was Queen Caroline, consort of George II. A Walpole supporter, she was hugely influential with the King. As one ditty had it: “You may strut, dapper George, but ’twill all be in vain/We all know ’tis Queen Caroline, not you, that reign.”

It is risible to insist that spouses should not influence each other—they always have. As Martha Gill noted in her excellent piece on the PM’s fiancée Carrie Symonds (“What you need to know about…,” May), it is for him to decide how much sway she has over government. So why is she so inordinately controversial?

Nearly all No 10 spouses have played strictly secondary roles. Cherie Blair broke new ground with a career of her own, but in law, not politics. Carrie’s career has been very much in politics, so when it comes to influence she is competing directly with ministers and the wannabes buzzing round No 10. No wonder some among their (mainly male) ranks are spitting tacks!

Chief among them will be the man she is credited with ousting—Dominic Cummings. Nor will resentments have been eased by the April edition of glossy magazine Tatler, which had her face on the cover above the headline: “Carrie’s Coup: Inside the World of the Most Powerful Woman in Britain.”

Now her opponents are trying to get even by using anonymous claims about so-called wallpaper-gate. If they want a real refurb horror they should go back to the Blair years and lord chancellor Derry Irvine, whose official pad was done up with the taxpayer footing the entire cost of £650,000—£59,000 on wallpaper alone!

The canny Walpole refused to accept No 10 as a personal gift from the King, insisting it must be an official residence—that way the Treasury would pay for renovations.

Sue Cameron, writer and broadcaster

Modi’s unambiguous malice

India may have ambiguity in its DNA, as Andrew Adonis says (“A trick of the light,” May), but it is baffling that he attributes “chronic ambiguity” to Narendra Modi while in the same profile cataloguing so many unequivocally divisive and discriminatory pronouncements and actions.

“It is what happened in [Modi’s] penumbra… which is so murky,” writes Adonis, a coyness that many in India would incredulously reject. There has been a longstanding, undeniable pattern in the conduct of Modi’s administrations—and communities that have borne the brunt of the misinformation, surveillance and authoritarianism practised by the Indian state over the last few years came to this realisation much sooner than more privileged elites.

The facts are overwhelming in number and plain to see: a clearly discriminatory citizenship law, a state-approved media apparatus that incites violence against minorities, and the fact that the actions of the BJP politician widely held responsible for igniting Delhi’s worst communal violence in years are reportedly absent from the police investigation into the matter.

Today it would take a particularly opportunistic fealty or blind faith in India’s constitutionalism to deny that the BJP’s ethno-nationalist project is advancing apace. There can be no ambiguity about that—or who its architects are.

Mahesh Rao, a novelist, lives most of the year in India

Marking the curriculum

It is a shame that Eliane Glaser’s assessment of the national curriculum (“Present imperfect,” April) focuses almost entirely on the over-emphasis in the primary English curriculum on formal grammar. If she stopped to look more widely at other subjects and school stages, she would realise that this is an anomaly, not a feature. Taken as a whole, the curriculum is consistent with the best international evidence, allowing for significant interpretation by teachers and a wide range of pedagogical approaches.

Glaser is right that high-stakes testing can lead schools into an unappetising, assessment-driven version of education. But that is a problem with our blunt-instrument method of holding schools accountable, not the curriculum.

It’s important to be clear where the issues really lie. Otherwise we risk falling victim (as Scotland and Wales have) to the global trend of curricula based on “21st-century skills,” which replace too many of the core building blocks of knowledge with a series of vague aspirations and buzzwords, causing the greatest harm to those less privileged pupils who are most reliant on schools for their life chances.

Sam Freedman, CEO, Education Partnerships Group

Fabric of our world

Your fascinating interview with Carlo Rovelli (“Finding the theory of everything,” May) offers insights into one of the fundamental problems of physics: how to construct a theory that is valid both at the level of the small—as described by quantum mechanics—and the cosmological, described by general relativity. At present, these two pillars of theoretical physics are incompatible, so inevitably much effort goes towards producing a unified theory.

As a theorist interested in condensed matter physics, I come to questions about the fundamental nature of our universe from a different perspective to Rovelli. The issue of how to reconcile the theoretical domains of quantum and classical physics persists.

The interactions within a solid are very well understood: they are governed by the attraction of unlike charges, and the repulsion of like charges in a system of particles, nuclei and electrons, whose motion is described by quantum mechanics. Interactions between such particles can give rise to remarkable phenomena such as superconductivity and antiferromagnetism.

The challenge at the cosmological scale arises from the unimaginably large number of particles involved. Might it be possible that a universe made up of an unimaginable number of mutually interacting components will have an uncountable number of states of being?

Gillian Gehring, University of Sheffield

Democratic defects

The March Duel (“Does politics really matter?”) unwittingly provided good evidence that referendums, opinion polls and other components of modern political machinery just don’t work! Especially when they try to force a straight choice.

What we had was two clever people trying very hard to find material differences between their respective positions. This shows what can happen when the basic proposition put before the readers (or electorate) is capable of multiple interpretations. Were they debating the nature of political theory, modern political practice, or executive government action? Were they debating whether politics should matter or whether it is effective currently? But what we can conclude is that we are better off for having their opinions shared with us so eloquently. A good example of “deliberative democracy” at work?

Chris Boston, Edinburgh

Miswriting women

Jon Day’s interesting review of two new Roth biographies (“Ruthless intimacy,” May) suggests that the novelist’s relationships with women were both superficial and lacking in maturity. Though an admirer, I find the same is true of his novels, even the best of which are marred by female characters who seem like embarrassing fantasies.

In Everyman, a young secretary improbably lusts after her octogenarian boss. The hero of American Pastoral is forced by a young radical to stare at her vagina. Coleman Silk, the college professor at the heart of The Human Stain, dates an illiterate woman with very large breasts.

Novelists should write how they please, so unlike the sexual assault accusations now swirling around one of the biographers, morality isn’t the question here but credibility. Roth seems to have found it hard to understand women—and it shows.

Miranda France, novelist and translator

A community apart?

I spent 1971 interviewing Turks in Cologne and wrote a doctoral thesis on the basis of the interviews. It seems from Suna Erdem’s essay on the struggles of Turkish Germans (“We asked for workers, but people came,” May) that things haven’t changed much.

At the time, I used to sit in a Turkish tea house, just off the Rudolfplatz. On one occasion I remember seeing a German couple, who looked to be in late middle age, staring with alarmed expressions through the front window at the people inside. What to them appeared to be a place filled with thieves was to me a group of lonely men, worried about how their children back in Turkey were going to grow up with their fathers absent.

John Clark, Massachusetts

In fact:

A survey of 5,000 Britons found that residents of Manchester are the most addicted to social media, using it for an average of 16 hours and 13 minutes each week. Peterborough had the lowest usage, at four hours and two minutes.
InYourArea, 12th February 2021

In January, there were more real-estate agents than homes for sale in the US.
Wall Street Journal, 21st March 2021

Between 1952 and 2011, the length of summers in the northern hemisphere increased from 78 to 95 days. If current trends continue, summer will last nearly half a year and winter less than two months by 2100.
Geophysical Research Letters, 28th March 2021

In Star Trek, events that Spock describes as “impossible” happen 83 per cent of the time.
Scout Mindset by Julia Galef

The football team that has won the most titles this century is Egypt’s Al Ahly, with 45.
GiveMeSport, 6th March 2021

When Abba competed in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974, the UK gave them nul points.
BBC News, 19th April 2021

People have around 30 trillion human cells, which make up two thirds of our body mass. About 1 per cent of those cells (330bn) are replaced daily—so every 80 to 100 days sees the cellular equivalent of a new you.
Scientific American, April 2021

In 2020, 3,112 shipping containers fell overboard (a seven-year high), at a cost of $50,000 per box. Most were lost in the Pacific Ocean.
Bloomberg, 26th April 2021

More than 80 per cent of known American serial killers operated between 1970 and 1999.
Rolling Stone, 10th February 2021

Jack B Yeats (William’s brother) won Ireland’s first Olympic medal—there used to be an arts competition and he won silver for his painting The Liffey Swim at the 1924 Paris Games.
Irish Times, 10th April 2021

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