Letters: December 2022

Readers, including Patience Wheatcroft and Robert Tombs, respond to our November edition
November 3, 2022

Total Tory turmoil

When I resigned the Conservative whip before the last election, I was clear that a Boris Johnson premiership would not be good for this country. But I could not have imagined the turmoil it would unleash. The Conservative party had changed from the one that I had been happy to serve, when David Cameron said, and genuinely meant, that he wanted “to mend our broken society”. In the constituencies, Conservative members had lurched to the right. Many constituencies had welcomed former Ukip members. What we have suffered since is a direct consequence.

That small band of party members put Liz Truss in Number 10, a right-wing ideologue whose views were not those of the country as a whole and whose policies were madness. It was not merely the markets that didn’t like Trussonomics. The public generally were appalled at the government’s crassness in thinking it appropriate to abolish the top rate of tax when a cost-of-living crisis was already making the poor poorer.

Even if it had made economic sense, which is certainly not proven, a tax cut to benefit the rich was disastrous politically. It demonstrated to a swathe of the country that might have been prepared to give her a chance that Truss was not on their side. No matter that she had acted fast to help with fuel bills: cutting the top rate was totemic. A grudging U-turn came too late. The damage had been done and Truss was swiftly banished, still protesting that she was the only one in-step with what the country required.

The Conservative party has now been damaged to its core. Johnson’s hard Brexit sent in the first wrecking ball, but it was Truss’s callousness coupled with complete ineptitude, that has finished the job. Rishi Sunak is an improvement, but his ministerial choices show he is still trying to appease the right. It will take decades for the party to rebuild. I’m glad not to be a part of it, but devastated to see the damage the Tories have done.

Patience Wheatcroft, crossbench peer and formernewspaper editor

Symbolism versus substance

Deborah Hargreaves rightly highlights the overly extractive nature of much of our economy, and the disconnect between rewards for bosses, the rights of workers and the wider state of UK society.

Successive governments, and most economists, agree that boosting the UK’s weak productivity performance is vital to improving living standards. But those improvements could easily fail to impact the lives of workers or the wider population unless we also take action to ensure the proceeds are shared fairly.

However, I worry about the focus on CEO pay and mandatory ratios between pay at the top and the bottom. The question for me is which levers are most likely to lead to tangible changes in the lives of those stuck at the bottom of our labour market. Limiting CEO pay might be emotionally satisfying. For many people excessive pay packets are a potent and enraging symbol of the unfairness baked into the design of our economy. But, on its own, would it actually change anything? Did the ban on bankers’ bonuses mean they were paid less? Most analysts agree that companies simply found other ways to reward their best performers. Would mandatory CEO pay ratios significantly alter the behaviour and incentives of executives? I’m sceptical.

Of course, Hargreaves and the High Pay Centre don’t advocate for that as a single policy, but as part of a wider package of economic reforms. My worry, though, is that the issue of CEO pay is so emotive that it would be easy for this kind of measure to become the focus of campaigning and policy pressure. That could drain time, energy and political capital away from measures that might feel less cathartic but could result in far greater changes to the position of workers.

For instance, the long-promised but ever-receding Employment Bill would have brought in measures to boost workers’ rights and job security, alongside tougher enforcement of existing employment legislation. More technical and less alluring from a campaigning standpoint, certainly—but perhaps more likely to lead to real change.

Helen Barnard, Joseph Rowntree Foundation

What personal endeavour—by for example the CEO of a water company—can possibly justify their eye-wateringly high salary? Did they invent water? In addition, how do they justify such a high salary when the delivery by their companies is abysmal? Hargreaves’s article is right to point out that the rot set in with Blair and there is no possibility that another Labour government under Starmer would do ­anything different, lest they be accused of communism.

Mary Robinson, via the website

Democracy’s dynasties

Julian Baggini begins by criticising ­hereditary monarchy in principle before defending it in practice, as a source of the “strong sense of history and tradition” that nations need—an eminently defensible position to which personally I would largely subscribe. But the question is a little more complex than Baggini’s characterisation would have us believe.

Enlightenment thought was not anti-monarchist. Republics, which have gradually replaced kingdoms since the First World War to become the standard political form, have generally come into being not through rational democratic choice but amid political catastrophe and by default. In luckier nations, monarchies remain: they are the standard form in northwest Europe. Attempting to replace them would indeed be gratuitously disruptive. But it would also be more than that.

Baggini’s assumption, echoing Bagehot, that monarchy is merely an “absurd” and “irrational” relic seems to me to miss something significant. Modern republics tend to behave like monarchies. Members of presidential families assume quasi-political roles as of right. Spouses eye the succession. Dynasties emerge even in established republics.

Principled republicans must surely deplore all this, but it reflects the age-old advantages of a hereditary system: prestige, name-recognition, stability, assured succession. So it would be wrong to suppose, as Baggini seems to do, that the tide of history is carrying us towards republicanism—except in the superficial sense that today’s monarchs choose to call themselves presidents. A formally hereditary constitutional monarchy inhibits the creation of rival dynasties and circumscribes the role of politicians. A crowned republic may be preferable to a republican monarchy.

Robert Tombs, Cambridge

I was on the other side of the crowd at the proclamation of King Charles in Oxford when Symon Hill asked “Who elected him?” and was arrested.

As a naturalised UK citizen, I was passively observing the proclamation as a once-in-a-lifetime event, trying to keep an open mind about the monarchy and attentive to the reaction of the crowd. I was delighted to hear what sounded like an authentic example of the great British tradition of peaceful protest and was wondering how it would end.

I assumed that Hill had drifted away after making his point, and was shocked to learn that he had been arrested. I am even more amazed to discover that there were only a handful of protests recorded up and down the country: I had rather assumed that there would be at least one such voice in every crowd.

Clearly the police had been instructed to nip protest in the bud, irrespective of any legal grounds they may or may not have had for doing so. It’s when authoritarian means are used to prop up undemocratic governance that things start to get dark. Many thanks to Symon for accidentally prompting such a revealing reaction from the state.

Howard Hotson, Oxford

Buried treasure

Katherine Dunn is right to point out the importance to the green transition of rare earth elements and the risks associated with the concentration of their production and processing in China. As the energy transition proceeds, the economic and potentially political importance of access to growing supplies of rare earths can only grow.

We do not, however, have to be passive in the face of Chinese dominance. Rare earths are to be found in many parts of the world, including the UK. A recent authoritative report from the British Geological Survey lists a number of areas where resources have been identified, for instance in Wales around the Preseli Hills and the area north of the Brecon Beacons; and in Scotland around Lochs Borralan, Ailsh and Loyal, northeast of Ullapool.

The challenge which has held back the mining and processing of rare earths in the UK has been economic. The volumes identified so far have typically been too small to make commercial development viable. The growth in demand, however, both in the UK and internationally, could change the economics and encourage more exploration and development.

Producing and utilising low-carbon energy sources is not just about building more wind turbines, on or offshore. Rare earths are part of a complex supply chain, and if we want the transition to progress rapidly to meet the ambitious net-zero targets being adopted by all the main UK political parties, we need to pay attention to each link in that chain. Rather than focusing on fracking, which will produce minimal volumes of gas and lead to higher emissions, there is a case for making the identification and development of rare earths a central plank of Britain’s energy policy.

Nick Butler, King’s College London and former BP executive

Facing fearsome facts

Andrew Simms claims we must continue to see the UN 1.5°C climate target as not only desirable but realistic. His grounds are that crossing 1.5 is taking us into a hot new terra incognita. He is right about that; but, sadly, that’s no grounds for believing that 1.5 remains realistic.

The IPCC’s latest report said we need “rapid, deep and immediate” cuts in emissions to give us even a decent chance at 1.5°C. What are the chances of such cuts being achieved, and worldwide? As the US and the UK double down on fossil infrastructure, the answer to that is obvious. They are effectively nil.

A painful reckoning is being put off. Accepting that 1.5°C is gone and that we are moving inexorably out of the “safe” zone is going to be hard.

That’s why scientists have kept shtum on this point: for fear of demotivating citizens. But such silence is no longer tenable. At a recent event bringing together climate experts across my university, the question was put to the room: how many believed that 1.5°C was still alive? No one, out of 60 scholars present, raised their hand. Only understanding that we are moving out of the 1.5°C safe zone can generate the anger and grief we so badly need for political momentum on climate. 

Rupert Read, University of East Anglia

Worlds of difference

I read Rebecca Lawrence’s column in your November issue. She failed to capture the huge range of the actual autistic condition.

I know because I am, at 93, the only survivor of the small group of parents who founded what is today the National Autistic Society one cold evening in March 1962.

My son was 66 last month. He does not speak, lives in a care home and is utterly dependent on others to help him navigate the world. He is so different from the autism that Lawrence describes. What can we say about such wildly divergent experiences? I think that 60 years—or more than 100 since the term was coined by a Swiss doctor called Eugen Bleuler—is long enough for us to know that autism is not a myth. We have come a long way since François Truffaut put the wild boy of Aveyron on screen and gave us an early cinematic representation of autism.

Lawrence explores none of these issues. But one thing I know is that, masquerading under one name, there are worlds of difference.

Michael Baron, west London

Established facts

In his doom-laden polemic about the Church of England Martyn Percy makes a fundamental error. The establishment of the Church is not an archaism but a living thing that continues to evolve, both in its service to the nation and its self-understanding.

Bishops in the House of Lords speak frequently, and often forcefully, for those on the margins—whether it’s the impact of the Universal Credit two-child limit, the treatment of refugees and prisoners or human rights abuses at home and abroad. My own work in the House focuses on gambling reform and getting justice for the victims of the cladding scandal. This service in parliament is enabled by our constitution and informed both by our faith and the experiences of people in our parishes and other networks further afield.

Questions about establishment and the future of the lords spiritual are for parliament. But I detect no great enthusiasm for abolition. And other denominations and faiths find in our role a reassurance that faith and belief are taken seriously in our shared public life.

For my part, and that of my colleagues in the Lords, our interest is less in “clinging to the privilege and power of the past” than speaking truth to power in the present—and serving those most in need.

Alan Smith, bishop of St Albans and convenor of the lords spiritual

Southern shame

Having lived in Virginia for 20 years, I can testify to the truth of Diane Roberts’s analysis. Life for many Virginians is a perpetual struggle against the desire of privileged white people to maintain power and wealth, while the rest of society tries to catch up. Add to this a hefty dose of misogyny: many American men despise and abuse women. Virginia—and America—has created an unequal society lacking in love and happiness.

Robin Poulton, via the website

Digital fingerprints

Ethan Zuckerman asks whether social media giants should ever hand over user information to law enforcement (“Could a private message get you sent to prison?”, October). It is something of a mystery to me why anyone should think that recording plans to commit a crime, or recording having committed a crime, should be excluded from the matrix of evidence in a possible prosecution. One may disagree strongly with the classification of some activities as crimes, but that is a different argument.

As my late father observed, one should never record anything that they might be embarrassed to have read out in open court a few years later.

Simon Cockshutt, via the website

In fact:

A majority of Britons—56 per cent—prefer not to use the Oxford comma, 25 per cent prefer to use it, and 19 per cent don’t know.
YouGov, 7th October 2022

Between January and September this year, people in more than 90 countries held fuel protests. Spain had none in 2021, but saw 335 rallies in March alone.
BBC News, 17th October 2022

In 2021, Uber hired one fifth of Harvard’s graduating PhD class in economics.
Economist, 7th September 2022

Annapurna is the deadliest mountain in the Himalayas, with 72 deaths for 365 ascents between 1950 and 2021: one for every five summits. More than 300 died on Everest but its fatality rate is only 2.84 per cent.
Forbes India, 3rd October 2022

About a quarter of the US Congress is over the age of 70— the highest percentage ever.
Business Insider, 13th September 2022

In the world’s biggest stock wipeout, Chinese gaming giant Tencent has lost $623bn off its market value since its January 2021 peak.
Bloomberg, 30th September 2022

The song “(We’re Gonna) Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets was the first single to sell one million copies in the UK; since its release in 1954, 178 other singles have achieved the feat.
Far Out Magazine, 17th October 2022

The best 400-metre time of Allyson Felix, 11-time Olympic medalist, is 49.26 seconds; in the 2022 season, it would put her 689th on the US boys’ high-school performance list.
Atlantic, 29th September 2022

In 1943, Winston Churchill asked the prime minister of Australia for six platypuses (he collected animals and had a lion he kept at London Zoo); one was sent but died four days’ sail from Liverpool under German attack.
“Of Marsupials and Men” by Alistair Paton

Write to us…

Email letters@prospectmagazine.co.uk. Letters require a full name and address and may be edited