Letters: August/September 2023 edition

Patience Wheatcroft responds to David Aaronovitch’s musings on the National Conservative Conference; Paul Lever considers Germany’s shift away from Russian gas; and much more

July 19, 2023
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Tory takeover

David Aaronovitch concluded his chilling account of the conference of the national conservatives with the view that it should have helped instruct the Tory party in what political direction not to take. Current polling supports the logic of his conclusion, but logic does not abound in today’s version of the Conservative party.  

Fearful of the direction in which Boris Johnson was taking the party, I resigned my membership before the last election. It was already clear that, at grassroots level, moderate one-nationists were being replaced by former Ukip supporters. That around 170,000 people should be empowered to select a prime minister is in itself a democratic travesty. That they should choose Liz Truss is an eloquent comment on their thinking.  

Those who seek to become Conservative MPs in the next election have first to appeal to these people in their constituency associations. The most ambitious may well decide that their chances will be enhanced by trotting out the far-right views that resonated with the audience at the national conservatives jamboree. This can only exacerbate the timidity within parliament, where more moderate members of the Conservative party already meekly wave through the hardline policies of Suella Braverman and co. Many of my former colleagues on the Conservative benches in the Lords are deeply uncomfortable with swathes of this government’s legislation, but too few ever vote against it.  

Aaronovitch cites current polling that shows extreme nationalist positions have ever-less purchase with voters. A Labour victory at the next election seems almost inevitable—an impoverished and unhappy electorate will vote for change. But Keir Starmer will inherit economic and social problems for which there is no quick fix. The risk is that, in a few years’ time, the electorate—still impoverished and potentially more unhappy—follows the well-trodden path to those espousing national conservative-style policies.

Patience Wheatcroft, crossbench peer


Isabel Hilton is right to commend the speed and efficiency with which the German government—and in particular its economic minister, Robert Habeck—has diversified its oil and gas imports away from Russia. But the legacy of Angela Merkel’s disastrous mismanagement of the country’s energy policy will take longer to rectify. Germany is having to increase its reliance on coal-fired electricity and is bringing back into use coal-burning power stations that had previously been non-operational.

It is interesting to compare Germany’s performance with that of Finland, which relied on gas for just 5 per cent of its energy mix (though it imported most of that from Russia), leaving it far less exposed to fluctuations in supply. This meant that when, last year, the Russians cut off gas flows in retaliation for Helsinki’s accession to Nato, the Finns were able to replace them without difficulty.

Finland is also ramping up its nuclear power capacity. The country’s new reactor, Olkiluoto 3, is the biggest in Europe and entered into service in April (more than 10 years late, but the French constructor rather than the Finnish taxpayer bore the financial consequences), while a long-term deep storage nuclear waste repository will soon be ready.

Sometimes, it’s the smaller countries that seem to do things better.

Paul Lever, former UK ambassador to Germany

Late service

I agree with the sentiment of Andrew Adonis’s article. HS2 should have been built decades ago—the UK’s transport infrastructure is a joke. But better now than never.

Planning laws and environmental assessments here are insanely complicated and costly, and are in dire need of an overhaul. They are the biggest reason why the UK finds it hard to build anything to time and budget, notwithstanding the nonsense and rot in the Treasury.

From the emergence of the idea in 2009, it is incredible that a line connecting the core centres of population, as envisioned in the original Y-shaped network, took so long to put forward concretely. It took until 2020 for HS2 to be given the go-ahead and detailed designs, and we’re now looking at the 2040s for phase 2b of the scheme?

HS2—and the capacity it releases—is desperately needed. And once the benefits are realised, few people will even remember the costs. The opposition will evaporate, as it did with Crossrail, HS1 and other past projects.

Jonathan, via the website

Billionaire bashing

I have to disagree with the letter from Helen Barnard of the Trussell Trust in her response to Danny Dorling’s article. In the absence of “whacking a few billionaires” (her words), where, exactly, will the money come from to allow everyone to live with dignity?

We cannot go on forever squeezing middle- and upper-middle-income earners or borrowing huge sums of money to address the UK’s poverty problem. The prudent solution is to tax the super-rich and redistribute their excess wealth to those who need it. Reduced borrowing may even permit modest tax cuts for those on middle and lower incomes.

If arguments for taxation and redistribution were framed in these practical terms, then perhaps more people in the UK would come to agree that we should whack all the billionaires—and not just a few.

Bill Kerry, Kent

Russell’s rebrand

I found myself rather admiring the Russell Brand captured by Sarah Manavis—though I am sure that was not her intention, given the pejorative tone.

I think the truth about why he does what he does is a lot simpler than Manavis suggests. Brand earns a more than decent income having clearly understood what many people now want: entertainment, but entertainment that also picks at the many problems with accepting conventional opinions via conventional sources. I hope that no one reading the piece who also does their job for money—and, on occasion, has to swallow their principles as a result—is too harsh on him.

Indeed, if it’s Brand against conventional media, I’d say he’s three-nil up. Ask yourself when the last time was that you heard a straight answer on the Today programme. Paxman, in his television interviews, could no longer take those he questioned seriously.

The answer to this problem is to go and sniff out your own information, and to use your own critical faculties. Don’t automatically assume debate about, say, our pandemic response is “disinformation” rather than just, well, debate. Sitting back and accepting everything at face value was never a great strategy: is Prospect’s audience any better informed than Brand’s, if that’s all they are capable of?

Phil, Nottingham


Interesting article. It is just like the piece says at the very end: Brand doesn’t like to be framed by others.

As he saw, there is a void to be filled up. And he is not the only one to think so. You should follow up with who is responsible for that void.

I would add, last but not least, that misinformation is also donned by formal or established institutions.

MsTee, via the website

Act of sabotage

David Willetts offers a forensic demolition of Matthew Goodwin’s book lauding Brexit and puts his finger on the tragic paradox of the whole saga. A movement that claimed its objective was to free ordinary British workers from shackles allegedly imposed by Brussels has instead left them totally exposed to ruthless global competition. As the EU was the only entity large enough to have afforded significant protection, what we now face is a vicious race to the bottom.

This massive self-inflicted wound affords but one note of cheer: the unremitting excoriation that future generations will undoubtably visit upon self-serving clowns like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.

Mike Waller, Stratford-upon-Avon

Mr Morality’s mistakes

Derek Parfit’s work on identity is fine, but when it came to metaethics he was deeply conceptually confused, psychologically underinformed, and generally a sloppy thinker. At one point he straight up admits that he cannot demonstrate his concepts and then presses on anyway, seemingly relying—like many other philosophers—on the outdated notion that some concepts are “primitive”, requiring no further explanation.One of the most overrated philosophers in history, up there with Kant, for sending so many people down false trails and for impeding our collective ability to negotiate ethics.

disqursive1, via the website


I think the view attributed to Thomas Nagel in the penultimate paragraph echoes Bernard Williams and his notion of the “absolute conception”, originally formulated, if memory serves, in his book on Descartes.

Otherwise, I agree with the sceptics: I’ve simply never understood the Parfit hagiography. Clearly he was a brilliant man, and Reasons and Persons is a permanent contribution, but his thought seems fundamentally unbalanced. As Williams said in his review of Reasons, Parfit never really interrogates the authority of theory—and that, given his predilections, should have been the first thing he did.

Kim Messick, via the website

State we’re in 

Julian Baggini argues that nations provide us with structure and security, leading either to a life of Aristotelian flourishing or a nasty, brutish and short Hobbesian one, depending on whether they have just and enforceable laws.

It’s true, but these characteristics do not define what a nation is. Empires can equally be wisely governed or despotic; so can duchies, principalities or states, such as the Vatican, that are not conventional nations; local government can be enlightened or incompetent. Whether people have structure and security depends on when and where they live. Sometimes it will be the nation state that most affects their lives; sometimes it will be some other social contract.

Derek Turner, via email

What the Dickens?

Marina Benjamin notes, highly misleadingly, that Charles Dickens was buried in Westminster Abbey despite his “blatant adultery”, as though that accusation was accepted in his lifetime. To this day, as scrupulous an authority as Michael Slater maintains that there is still no conclusive proof that Dickens had a sexual relationship with Ellen Ternan, as is so often alleged. I personally happen to think that it’s well beyond belief that Dickens did not; nevertheless, in his lifetime Dickens went to extraordinary lengths to deny adultery and, the evidence suggests, succeeded in convincing the great majority of his public that he was not guilty of it.

Incidentally, if his family had respected his known wishes, Dickens would have been buried in the precincts of Rochester Castle or Rochester Cathedral, not at Westminster Abbey.

mjkismgs, via the website

History’s song

Your review of Jared Farmer’s Elderflora refers to ancient trees that were “witness to the convulsions of global history” and which serve as “postcards from the long past”.

The recognition of the acoustic qualities of ancient timbers has led UK craftsmen to explore their potential as tone woods. The use of rare living trees has rightly been restricted. Harvesting is proscribed and only naturally fallen timbers can even be considered. But the ploughing of parts of the East Anglian Fens in the 20th century turned up timbers that were sub-fossilised. Some 7,000 years ago, a rise in sea levels caused rivers to back up and already ancient oaks died where they stood, before sliding deep into the anaerobic silt. The ancient boglands of Ireland furnish its luthiers with comparable timbers.

During lockdown, instrument-maker Roger Bucknall created a “family” consisting of three guitars and a mandolin, crafted from bog oak paired with “sinker redwood” timber salvaged from trees felled in the mid-1800s and immersed for years in Californian rivers. The mandolin has an especially environmental provenance, being made from offcuts of the construction of the guitars.

The oaks witnessed the arrival of the first farmers in Britain. The redwoods were growing when the Spanish “discovered” California. We are fortunate that they continue to resonate.

Austen Lynch, Lancashire

Doing death

Alice Goodman’s column on funerals was really helpful. I’m doing an inurnment in a couple of weeks and didn’t want to do the details in a standard way. Alice, you have given me freedom to be creative. Blessings to you.

Reverend Jessie Brandon, via the website

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