Letters: June 2023 edition

A former ambassador to Germany responds to Nathalie Tocci’s essay on the Ukraine war, a professor critiques Julian Baggini’s view on billionaires and a librarian explains where Annie Ernaux should be shelved
May 10, 2023

Imposing sanctions

Nathalie Tocci’s analysis (“Learning to live with Russia”, May) shows there is little that Nato or the EU can do to influence Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine or to bring about change in Russia itself. But the same was true of our relationship with the Soviet Union during the (first) Cold War. It seemed for more than 40 years that the Soviet Union would remain a communist dictatorship forever and that its grip over the countries of the Warsaw pact, as well as over its own republics, would be permanent. Yet in the end there was change and when it came in 1989 and 1990, the collapse was sudden and unexpected.

Russia seems unlikely to change any time soon. Whether it does—and, if so, when and how—will depend on the internal dynamics of Russia itself. But there is one step that we could take. We should not only maintain military and economic support for Ukraine, as Tocci recommends. We should also make clear that the economic and political sanctions on Russia will remain in place for as long as Putin is in power. Even if, as is currently highly unlikely, Ukraine were to engage in negotiations to end the war and/or agree to some kind of territorial settlement, they should not be relaxed. They are a response to what Putin has done; and what he has done cannot be exculpated because his armed forces stop killing people. He should remain a war criminal for the rest of his days, and Russia should be treated as a pariah state until its citizens get rid of him.  

Paul Lever, former UK ambassador to Germany


Philosophy of envy

Julian Baggini asks, “How much wealth is too much?” An economist responds, “How much expertise in my subject is too little?” (“Banning billionaires”, May).

Jeff Bezos does not “siphon off” wealth, nor does “modern capitalism actively funnel cash to a small elite”. The correct watery metaphor is that Bezos is showered with money by his customers, who voluntarily pay for the services offered by his companies. Bezos was the first to realise that the internet could reinvent the mail-order catalogues and department stores of a century ago. His wealth sends a message from the rest of us: “More of that, please—urgently.” Tax it away for public projects, when states are already taking 40 per cent of income, and innovation dies. (So do humans, for that matter: innovation, not redistribution, has been the main salvation for the wretched of the earth. Without it, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.)   

Baggini infers from the unequal distribution of property that “the case for restricting extreme wealth [is] strong”. But property rights, including in human capital, are essential for the wellbeing of citizens at all points on the income scale. 

The proposal to limit income depends on an old utilitarian argument that would see us reallocate resources to wherever they most improve the sum of human happiness. But on this logic, Baggini’s salary would be cut down to $50 a day. Taken to its extreme, the reasoning would entail putting upper limits on intelligence, or singing ability. It could also entail redistributing people: transfer forthwith all Flemish people to Bangladesh. 

Arguments like Baggini’s are an affront to liberty in pursuit of an envy-driven equality of outcome. Their own logic leads to worse than higher taxes.

Deirdre McCloskey, Cato Institute



Reading David McAllister’s review of Annie Ernaux (“Owed to memory”, Jan/Feb), I noted that he expresses an apparent tension between two broad categories of books: fiction and nonfiction. As a retired public librarian who worked in the field for over 42 years, I understand the difficulties inherent in that distinction. But we librarians have a solution (we usually do).   

There are any number of ways of classifying books, and indeed other media, in order to catalogue them (don’t get me started on the differences between classification and cataloguing). The classification system I’m used to is the Dewey Decimal System, but imaginative fiction will normally find its way into an alphabetical sequence by authors’ surnames.   

However, Ernaux’s work does not sit easily as fiction, as McAllister explains. So, a public librarian’s solution would be to include it within Dewey’s 800 (Literature and Rhetoric) section. Because librarians are ultra-methodical—a state of mind that sometimes irritates users of our services—we would also put a faux book labelled “Ernaux, Annie see also 820” on its outward-facing spine (see what I mean?) in the fiction sequence, to direct user searches from there to the appropriate shelves. I hope that helps. 

John Hughes, Gloucester


Driving a wedge

It was inevitable that long-running struggles over car use would eventually become a wholly owned subsidiary of the culture war industry (“Freedom for whom?”, May). Efforts to control and suppress traffic have been a feature of ­public policy since the 1960s, when it became clear that so-called “predict and provide” road-building programmes would simply generate ever more traffic. Latterly, planners have made big efforts to squeeze vehicles into fewer and smaller areas, triggering grumbling hostilities between the pro- and anti-car lobbies. 

In the same way that virtually no one believes in total freedom of speech, even the most ardent car libertarians presumably accept the need for, say, pedestrian crossings and prohibitions on vehicles driving into oncoming traffic. Rules can save lives. Low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) are not that radical, anyway. Few people want their own street to be used as a rat run, even if they want other people’s streets available for through-traffic.  

The issue is complicated by the fact that, inevitably, poorer people often end up living on or near busy roads while ­better-off residents can afford to live in (and to lobby for) peaceful enclaves. Councils in many places have radically reduced the amount of road space by introducing complex one-way traffic mazes, wider pavements, more traffic lights for pedestrians and new bus and bike lanes. Endless, insouciantly managed roadworks make streets just that little bit worse.

New restrictions have opened another front of tribal disagreement in our societies. The dividing lines and respective camps will be similar to those in many other culturally defined struggles. Luckily, we have elections to choose politicians to make decisions on issues of this kind. People who do not like LTNs, 15-minute cities and so on can vote to stop them. That is the way democracy works.  

Tony Travers, LSE


I live in Jesmond, an inner-city suburb of Newcastle. It is a largely 19th-century mixed residential area, with housing ranging from multi-million-pound mansions to modest terraced properties and student flats. As a 15-­minute neighbourhood it has shopping, schools, a library, a swimming pool and open space in the wonderful Jesmond Dene, bequeathed to the city by Lord Armstrong. It’s also less than 15 minutes to the city centre, the universities and, most importantly, St James’ Park (footie, that is). 

The eastern part, where I live, is bounded on its south and west sides by two busy main roads that serve the city generally and have caused the inevitable problem of rat runs, as motorists attempted to save a few minutes’ journey time by cutting through residential streets. At the beginning of March, the Labour city council—after an admittedly brief prior consultation—simply eliminated through traffic with carefully positioned street closures, and at a stroke the roads were reclaimed as safe, calm, quiet and unpolluted spaces in which to walk, cycle, play or chat.

Of course there was initial confusion and inevitable protest, gleefully seized on by the local press. But even in the short time since implementation, the advantages are so apparent that it shows the benefits available in imaginative neighbourhood planning.

Alec Collerton, Newcastle upon Tyne


Path to peace

Andrew Adonis is right to flag the vision and courage of the political leaders who engineered the Good Friday agreement, particularly John Major, whose early role is often unsung (“The Insider”, Prospect newsletter, 5th April). He misses the role of Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam, who was courageous, unconventional and key to bringing loyalist paramilitaries into the GFA fold.

While the article focuses on politicians, we must never forget the many groups and ordinary people who had worked for peace throughout the Troubles and prevented Northern Ireland descending into outright civil war. I was a commissioner on the Opsahl Commission of 1993. We privileged those very people and learned that those who had suffered most were often the most constructive thinkers. I was particularly pleased to see the ideas (indeed even the words) used in their submissions to and meetings with us find their way into the terms of the Good Friday agreement.

We worked in particular with an impressive cross-community group of working-class women in north Belfast—where almost one-sixth of Troubles killings occurred—as we did with the future founders of the Women’s Coalition, who sought to secure the representation of women in peace negotiations. They broke through the often misogynistic and gladiatorial nature of NI politics. Northern Ireland had no women MPs or MEPs in 1993. 

Of course, peace could not have come about without the involvement of paramilitaries themselves. We talked with them, too, and learned of internal debates about ending a conflict which was “going nowhere”. The constellation of political leaders in 1998 was, indeed, the crucial element, but the ground had been well laid.

Marianne Elliott, University of Liverpool 


Seeking successful slogans

Sam Freedman says that Sunak is a more competent politician than his predecessors (“Starmer’s Sunak problem”, May). Labour needs a slogan to match Harold Wilson’s “13 wasted years” of 1964, which could certainly be revived—perhaps allied with the reliably powerful message that it is “time for a change”. But for that to work, the alternative has to be attractive, and at the moment it’s not quite.

Tom Richler, via the website


Going without

Danny Dorling wonders if the enormous gap between the richest and poorest will start to narrow (“Are things about to get better?”, May). I share his hope but am sceptical that a focus on hammering the very wealthy is the best way to achieve it.

Politicians have often been frustrated by their inability to get traction by highlighting their opponents’ wealth. In general, the British public quite likes success—Rishi Sunak’s wealth doesn’t seem to do him much harm with the electorate. The British Social Attitudes Survey finds around two-thirds of the public believe “ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth”. But fewer think that the government should redistribute income to correct this.

“Moderately resentful resignation” is the best way to describe our attitude to rich people —“yes, the game’s rigged in their favour, but what can you do?” There’s also a seasoning of grudging respect, and a pinch of  “that could be me, if my ship comes in”.

Whacking a few billionaires wouldn’t necessarily help all those struggling to put food on the table. But there is growing disquiet at the rise of destitution: seeing more rough sleeping, or ordinary families doing everything expected of them yet unable to pay the bills. Ninety per cent of people on low incomes getting Universal Credit are having to go without basics: unable to eat properly or have hot showers. Two charities, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (where I used to work) and the Trussell Trust (where I now work), have launched a new campaign to ensure Universal Credit meets the cost of essentials. I’m unconvinced the public will rally to bash the rich, but they do want everyone to be able to live with dignity.

Helen Barnard, Trussell Trust


When the music stops

“The flesh of musical life in Britain is being sliced away.” So writes Jessica Duchen about the cuts to BBC choirs and orchestras (“Acts of vandalism”, May).

The BBC certainly doesn’t come out of this smelling of roses, but the ­broadcaster’s decisions reflect the general downward trend in attitudes to classical music in the UK. Having just spent some time in Germany, the contrast is immense. Attending classical concerts or the opera is regarded as a perfectly normal activity for people of all ages, not just well-to-do over-60s. In Leipzig, for example—a not particularly affluent town in former East Germany—there are two professional orchestras and an opera house, plus choral music at a high level in Bach’s churches.

The gradual withdrawal of funding for music education in schools in the UK will only increase the contrast.

Sheila von Rimscha, via the website


Consulting consolations

It is inaccurate and unfair for Lionel Barber to claim in his essay on management consultants that the pendulum has swung too far towards private sector involvement in the public sector (“Bonfire of the consultancies”, April). As our partnerships with the government showed during the pandemic, management consultants provide additional skillsets and specialist expertise for critical public sector work. 

The UK led the world in developing, manufacturing and distributing Covid vaccines thanks to the partnership between government departments and agencies and management consultancies. Other examples of success include work with the Ministry of Defence, which has employed consultants to increase awareness of cyberattacks among its personnel, bringing about lasting behavioural change; another firm helped to reduce the NHS waiting list for breast screening, resulting in earlier breast cancer diagnoses.  

Sadly, stories such as these and the positive work being done by consultants are rarely acknowledged by the media. 

Tamzen Isacsson, Management Consultancies Association