Letters: August/September 2021

Readers debate the arguments made in the July issue
July 16, 2021

Stay of execution

In his piece “From Hartlepool to the hangman” (July), Chris Mullin argues that the rise of English nationalism within the Conservative Party may eventually end in our bringing back the gallows. The analysis, though, does not sit easily with the direction of travel on this issue among the British public.

The evidence shows that there has been systematic liberalisation of attitudes towards the death penalty in Britain. The British Social Attitudes survey collates responses to the question: “For some crimes the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence.” Back in 1986, three-quarters of the British public agreed. There was a substantial decline in the mid-1990s, but a majority of the British public still agreed that the death penalty was the most appropriate sentence for some crimes until 2013. In 2014, though, the BSA recorded the first minority support—putting the figure at 49 per cent—and this has since fallen further, to 43 per cent in 2019.

Further liberalisation is likely: higher education is correlated with opposition to the death penalty, and so as generations with fewer graduates and direct memories of executions are replaced by younger cohorts, we would expect overall opinion to shift. Mullin argues that restoring the death penalty would in practice require a referendum, but the moment when such a referendum would have been winnable may have passed.

Paula Surridge is a political scientist at the University of Bristol

Mullin’s gifts as a writer of fiction have not deserted him, judging by this essay. His contention that the Brexit vote was driven by blinkered, backward-looking English nationalism fails to explain why a majority of Welsh voters supported it, as well as 44 per cent of Northern Irish voters and 38 per cent of Scots.
As for his prophecy of a referendum on the death penalty, I’ve told Mr Mullin that I’m very prepared to take his money if he is willing to bet on the accuracy of his forecast. So far, he hasn’t got back to me.

Robert Colvile, Director, Centre for Policy Studies

Commission impossible

Bravo to Andrew Adonis for his profile of Ursula von der Leyen (“Europe’s second-rate first lady,” July) who has indeed been a mediocre president of the EU Commission until now—so much so that all essential EU initiatives during the pandemic have come from other actors.

True, even in normal times the job is very difficult. Among her predecessors, three were mediocre (Santer, Prodi and Barroso) and one alternately efficient and ridiculous (Juncker). Von der Leyen has been handicapped by the sniping of European Council president Charles Michel, who seeks to undermine her—witness the “sofagate” humiliation in Istanbul.

Things could still change. How did Delors succeed? He had a strong and balanced cabinet, real consultation processes and independent experts, plus an efficient secretary general (this is no plea for a dictatorial crony like Martin Selmayr, who held the post until 2019).

The solution is not complex but it will require deployment of rare qualities in Brussels nowadays: lucidity, humility and persistence.

Franklin Dehousse was a judge of the Court of Justice of the European Union

Selfish strategic interests

Feargal Cochrane’s incisive analysis of broken relationships across these islands (“Unionism, nationalism and Northern Ireland’s unrequited love,” June) shows how successive British governments used Northern Ireland for their own ends.

All of Ireland once enjoyed the privilege. The 1801 Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom, was passed due to British security interests (the French had landed in Ireland in 1798) and commercial concerns. Partition in 1920 and the creation of the Free State in 1921 were arrangements that deliberately left both Northern and Southern Ireland within the British Empire at a challenging time for British power after the First World War.

Exploitation by British governments is one thing; a Northern Irish political party failing to act in the province’s best interests is quite another. It is difficult to feel sorry for the DUP, however much one might sympathise with their voters. The party voted against the Good Friday agreement despite a referendum
demonstrating a clear majority in favour of peace. Though it eventually entered Stormont, it liberally uses the “petition of concern”—a mechanism designed to ensure that one community can’t be antagonised by another in a majority vote—evoking it 115 times between 2011-2016 (most recently in November 2020, to block a 14-day extension of Covid restrictions).

The party banked on a hard Brexit despite the region voting to Remain. Their objections to a hard border on the island were far from emphatic. They were adamantly against Theresa May’s “backstop,” which would have kept all of the UK in a customs union with the EU, and, as Cochrane points out, had plenty of historic examples of British governments using Northern Ireland to know better than to trust Boris Johnson, who cast them aside as soon as the electoral advantage they offered was gone. The protocol, which puts a customs border down the Irish Sea and was eventually agreed as the least-worst option, is a mess of their own making.

Niamh Gallagher, historian, Cambridge

Fait accompli

Julian King’s assessment of Michel Barnier’s role in the Brexit talks (“The Brexit illusions,” July) is fair minded.

But perhaps he underplays Barnier’s nationality. The Frenchman was a key link in the Brussels-Paris axis that drove the EU to be hard on the British. This is not to say Barnier took instructions from Paris—he worked closely with all 27 governments—but his views were often close to those of the French, who were usually the toughest on the UK. Like the Commission, the French obsessed over the integrity of the single market, but they were also quite open about wanting a deal that would encourage companies to move from Britain to the EU. And they were keen to show those who might vote for Eurosceptic populists that Brexit would hurt.

Thus the French, Barnier and the Commission collaborated to push the UK out of the Galileo satellite programme and the European Defence Fund. And though the UK chose a Canada-style trade agreement as its model for Brexit, the EU imposed harsher terms in financial services, rules of origin and mutual recognition of professional qualifications than it had done in comparable deals with other countries.

It is hard to criticise the EU for being harsh when the UK has behaved badly throughout the Brexit talks. But Barnier and EU leaders should have thought more about the long-term consequences of losing not only the British state, but also British public opinion.

Charles Grant, director, Centre for European Reform

Muddling through

As Duncan Weldon notes (“Condemned to be liberal,” July) the institutions of the past inevitably play a role in shaping those of the future. But if the history of British policymaking over the past two centuries has a defining feature, it is pragmatism rather than a “deeply ingrained, hands-off liberalism.’’

Admittedly, 19th-century Britain was as close as any country has ever come to a “pure market economy,” in which regulation and intervention were minimal. And in Europe this was unusual. Elsewhere economic progress was believed to need dirigisme.

By the closing decades of the 19th century, however, the role of the state was more pronounced, most notably in public health and education. Industrialisation and urbanisation demonstrated what economists today call “market failures”—pollution, disease, unsafe working conditions—where laissez-faire failed and had to be abandoned. Moreover, poverty and unemployment became more oppressive.

In 1909, Lloyd George introduced his famous People’s Budget and the welfare state was born. It grew enormously over the following decades, inspired by the Beveridge report. It is still with us, because the market failures are still there and we still need it.

The liberalism of the 19th century was itself a pragmatic response to the sclerotic mercantilism and corruption that came before, just as the welfare state was a response to the shortcomings of laissez-faire.

Pragmatic change, in most instances, means incremental change, and so Weldon is probably right to expect any upcoming reforms to be underwhelming. But as the recent past has reminded us, unlikely events (“black swans”) happen on occasion, and when radical changes do occur—whether Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws, Disraeli’s radical Second Reform Bill, or Brexit—they often come about in abrupt and unexpected ways.

W Walker Hanlon and Joel Mokyr, economic historians

Embryos, ethics and experiments

Philip Ball’s article “Replotting the Human” (July) covers some mind-boggling developments in embryology, including human embryos grown outside a uterus past the current 14-day limit, human “simbryos” grown from stem cells, human-monkey embryonic chimeras, and artificial wombs. All these developments have plausible scientific justifications; all are deeply disturbing. I want to note just two issues.

First, this May the International Society for Stem Cell Research released new guidelines, encouraging jurisdictions to abandon the 14-day rule for human embryos. But it offered no hint of a new time limit. If scientifically possible, human embryos could presumably be grown for research to any stage: viability, full term or beyond. A defensible stopping place between fertilisation and full term is hard to find, but to have no limit is unacceptable.

Second, to draw useful scientific and ethical conclusions about these embryos, embryoids and chimeras “in a dish,” we have to learn things about them which we could only hope to know through ethically dubious experiments. They are useful scientifically only if they tell us something about “real” implanted embryos. How can we ascertain that without experimenting on implanted embryos? And we must grant them greater moral status if, when moved to a womb, they could become babies. How can we determine the likelihood of this without trying to implant these ex vivo “things”?

I see no easy answers—only many questions that demand further thought.

Hank Greely, Stanford

The Polish question

Christian Davies’s article “Where the west ends” (July) raises justified concerns about the authoritarian backslide in Poland. But it does so in such a way that it gives critics of western liberalism a perfect opportunity to dismiss them.

By portraying the ruling Polish conservatives as “intruders” in the EU who “have nothing to contribute,” Davies disregards the domestic cultural debates that underpin ideological cleavages in Poland. Polish national conservatives are not aliens in their own country; they represent an intellectual tradition that has always had a legitimate place in Polish and European history. There will never be only one view of what constitutes the west or “a free Europe.”

Just criticism of illiberal practices is one thing. But instead of vilifying current Polish authorities, it makes more sense to analyse the impact of their left-leaning economic policies on reducing social inequality, and ask why it might be that the Law and Justice Party remains the most popular political force in the country.

Anton Shekhovtsov, Centre for Democratic Integrity

Money talks

Ben Chu’s analysis of money (“What you need to know about…” July) is right about a great deal. His eight-year-old daughter’s description of what money is—“something you use to buy things with”—is not merely right, it is more succinct than most economics textbooks.

But having cleared up what makes it unique, the question of what gives money its value remains. When money could be converted to gold, the answer seemed clear. Modern money, by contrast, comes in the form of valueless pieces of paper or digits on a screen. Chu is too generous to chartalism, the idea that money has value because the government forces us to pay taxes with it. We would hardly value money less if our taxes were reduced.

We’d do better to listen to David Hume. He was the first proponent of the idea that there are three “spontaneous institutions” in human society: language, law and money. Money has much in common with language. The value to the individual derives from the fact that these things are used by others. Most local dialects struggle to survive and die out as societies develop—and an entirely private language would be useless.

There may be lessons here for cryptocurrencies. New digital tenders seem to pop up almost daily, but the most boring technology—that of dollars, pounds and euros—is used by everyone, and so is likely to remain dominant.

Eric Lonergan, author and macro fund manager

Back down to earth

What we really need to question is not whether space exploration is worthwhile (“The duel,” July) but our deeper motives for cosmic travel. We should not be driven by an imperialist impulse to conquer and pillage new territory. We must not give up on our own planet only to find new habitats to destroy. Before leaving for the stars, the priority should be stopping the climate catastrophe at home.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield, a former commander of the International Space Station, sums it up when describing what it felt like to watch Earth from orbit: “We are small, so much smaller even than we may have thought. To me that’s not a frightening idea. It’s a helpful corrective to the frantic self-importance we are prone to as a species—and also a reminder to make the most of our moment on this beautiful, strange, durable yet fragile planet.”

It is the only one that we know of, to date, that has nurtured complex, intelligent lifeforms—let’s not shirk our cosmic responsibility. Time to become better stewards of our planet.

Priyamvada Natarajan, astrophysicist, Yale