The cover of the April issue

Letters: May 2020

Responses to the April edition
April 2, 2020

Sympathy for the devil?

Arron Merat judiciously lays out the painful moral dilemmas in Britain’s arms exports to Saudi Arabia (“Making a killing,” April). Still, he underestimates the painful choices facing Whitehall decision-makers.

The defence company on which Merat focuses is a Scottish-based American subsidiary; should its (indirect) Saudi sales disappear, production lines would simply be repatriated to the US, and skilled Scottish workers would be consigned to the dole queue.

Merat is also wrong to imply that we have leverage because the Saudis are stuck with our technology. The UK no longer features even among the top five global arms exporters. Autonomous weapon systems such as drones can be bought off the shelf and can deliver just as lethal a firepower as the systems Britain sells.

My institute hosted numerous Saudi senior officers, all trying to justify their country’s involvement in Yemen. Not all offered believable justifications. But all felt compelled to come, precisely because of the military ties between the UK and their kingdom.

I doubt that they’d feel the same restraining obligation should most of their future weapon supplies come from, say, China.

Jonathan Eyal, Associate Director, Royal United Services Institute

Merat’s excellent article should be read by anyone concerned at the “moral contagion” that comes with selling weaponry at almost any cost. It is not remotely good enough for arms companies to say they aren’t responsible for how their hardware is used.

For five years, the Saudi Arabia- led coalition has unleashed massive quantities of bombs in Yemen, including well-documented cases of schools and hospitals being hit. The UK government should long ago have suspended all arms exports that risked adding to this carnage. Even now, it should block all pre-existing Saudi arms sales while the risk remains.

We need to see a major overhaul of the UK’s dysfunctional arms licensing system. It should start with immediate reestablishment of the parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls to properly hold ministers to account. Meanwhile, companies like Raytheon should stop washing their hands of responsibility.

Kate Allen, Director, Amnesty International UK

Khartoum villains

“Rise and fall of a dictator” (April) reminded me of my own experience of returning to Khartoum in 2007 after a 20-year absence.

Sudan had subtly changed. There was more obvious wealth, but also a new nervousness in the air. Arrested by blue-shirted soldiers for taking out a camera and frog-marched into headquarters, I was interrogated by a tense military chief. Soldiers with rifles stood behind me as he asked questions about my plans, my pictures, the purpose of my visit. Only later that afternoon did he relent and quietly let me go, though not before deleting the pictures.

Bashir’s legacy, I sensed that day, was to alienate his people from their better instincts. Perhaps now equilibrium can be restored.

Nigel Briggs, associate lecturer in law, Open University

Limits of the local

Rachel Sylvester rightly stresses the potential for Labour’s metro mayors to spearhead a new agenda for their troubled party (“Opinions,” April). She recalls Herbert Morrison, innovative leader of London County Council in the 1930s.

However, perhaps another iconoclastic municipal politician from London’s past might give pause for thought. From 1981, Ken Livingstone spearheaded a controversial Labour administration of the Greater London Council (GLC). The GLC planned interventionist industrial strategies, tried to introduce subsidised public transport, and underwrote pro-minority and counter-cultural projects.

Yet its leftism proved unwisely noisy in a country run by a consciously radical Conservative government. Thatcher simply abolished the GLC in 1986. London did not regain a metropolitan authority until a national Labour government, led by Tony Blair, created the Greater London Authority. Local politics can only get you so far.

Colm Murphy, Queen Mary University of London

Art of the deal

Phil Hogan, the European Union’s Trade Commissioner, is certainly a very capable politician (“Will this man break Brexit Britain?” April). But when it comes to transatlantic trade relations, as opposed to Brexit, replicating his past deal-making success could prove tricky.

First there is the risk a “pugnacious” approach backfires and the Trump administration reacts badly to its own forceful tactics being turned against it. Second, Hogan faces tough constraints. The US wants access to the EU’s massive market for agricultural products. But Hogan does not have a mandate from EU member states to offer much more than the removal of some regulatory trade barriers.

So far the Americans seem to be unimpressed. It will take more than the power of Hogan’s personality to change that.

Soumaya Keynes, trade editor at the Economist, Washington DC

There is a personality with far more power to break Britain than Hogan: Boris Johnson. With parliamentary oversight removed, and no formal role for devolved nations, rarely in any trade negotiation has a prime minister had more influence.

While Big Phil calibrates the interests of 27 member states and their MEPs—an unenviable challenge—we on this side of the channel are left to wonder which Johnson we are ultimately dealing with. Is it the man who recently signed the political declaration with the EU, committing to cooperation on aviation, security, customs and environmental and labour regulation? Or the man committed to an ideological project of independence—no matter the price?

Emily Lydgate, Sussex Law School


Chris Mullin’s tribute to John Bercow (“Order and out,” April) makes for interesting reading. His nine years as speaker were certainly transformative, and he can be praised for championing the powers of the Commons and holding the government to account.  However, as ever there are two sides to a coin, and Mullin seeks to gloss over some of the more challenging parts of Bercow’s record.

As the arbiter of debate in the chamber, the speaker must be impartial. His recent comments after standing down, declaring that Brexit was the UK’s “biggest mistake” since the Second World War, adds new light to his decision in January last year to tear up Erskine May and overrule the advice of the Clerk of the House.

That decision was strongly criticised at the time by the independently minded Chair of the Procedure Committee, Charles Walker, who said that it was “a departure from expected practice” and that “procedural terms should be universally understood.” In January 2019 Walker wrote to the speaker asking for clarification over the ruling—Bercow never replied, because the ruling he made was incompatible with Erskine May and could not be defended.

Secondly, Mullin glosses over the bullying allegations. These complaints were extremely serious, but a number of MPs on the standards committee blocked an inquiry.

It is interesting to note that Lindsay Hoyle has already delivered change, promising "greater transparency" by publishing a statement from the Clerk of the House if he overrules him, and ensuring that investigations into MPs behaviour will no longer be blocked by MPs but determined by an independent expert panel.

Graphic scenes

There are lies, damned lies, and graphical misrepresentations of statistical data (“Speed data,” April). The use of graphs with the Y-axis truncated makes for striking graphics but it does not represent reality. While is is clear that 20-year-olds are full of joie de vivre and 80-year-olds are just glad to be alive, the life satisfaction of the “depressed 50 year old” is in fact only 10 per cent less than either of those extremes. The graphics mislead.

Ian Skidmore, Welwyn

Fragments of history

Charlotte Higgins’s piece on the loss of great classical works (“Tragic loss,” April) reminded me of Protagoras of Abdera. He was the first great theorist of agnosticism and political theory, but only a few fragments of his world-changing works have survived. He was the oldest of the generation of philosophers before Socrates and influenced him greatly, as well as the intellectual circle Pericles gathered around him to work out the ideas necessary to underpin Athenian democracy.

Protagoras began life as a humble porter, which doubtless enhanced his understanding of the position of lower-class Athenians. His great contributions included the concept of consensus, or homonoia, between the citizens of an ideal state and a theoretical model of the rise of man through language and technological progress. Above all, he believed that humans needed to work out their own ethics without appealing to divine authority. So perhaps he’d have been content that his ideas have survived even without any great canonical text. His most famous saying, after all, was about people, not books: “Man is the measure of all things.”

Edith Hall, King’s College London