Letters: November 2023

Ngaire Woods on globalisation; Alison Wolf on the philosophy of education; and Michael Amherst on prison violence—readers respond to our October edition

October 04, 2023
article header image

Game over for globalisation?

Barry Eichengreen, an eminent chronicler of the global economy, argues that the financial crisis and Covid-19 might have ended globalisation had major governments not changed tack, regulating financial services after 2009 and supporting their populations during the pandemic. He’s understandably concerned that no such effective change of tack is occurring today in respect of the China-US relationship. Each side is permitting narrow restrictions aimed at national security to spill over and cut off trade and investment, while pressuring other countries to do likewise. This, he suggests, really could spell the end for globalisation.

The argument is persuasive. But underplayed is another force shaping relations among countries: a new strand of ever-strengthening nationalism within states, which has deep implications for globalisation. 

Eichengreen argues that neither Trump nor Brexit succeeded in reversing globalisation. But they shifted something foundational. Trump gave Americans reason to fear forces within America itself. The enemy became the “deep state”, the globalist elite, the Black Lives Matter movement, the forces of woke and so on. In the UK, the Brexit campaign did the same. “Take back control” was about rescuing Britain from an elite who were permitting illegal immigrants to flood the country (an elite including the “lefty lawyers” blamed by the current government). Variations of these arguments can be heard across the far right, as it advances this brand of nationalism in France and Germany.  

The result is that government leaders are navigating between a powerfully resonant, fearmongering nationalism on one side, and the need to deliver greater opportunity, equality and growth on the other. China, the UK, Germany and France have long depended for growth on foreign investment, global supply chains and trade. If those diminish and growth erodes, politicians will find it yet more tempting to resort to attributing blame. Eichengreen is right that governments need new strategies, but not just vis-à-vis China and the US.

Ngaire Woods, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

The way we learn now

Given formal education’s size and reach, Julian Baggini’s analysis was bound to feel somewhat scattergun. Nonetheless, some history alongside the philosophy would have helped.

Humans have taught their children forever, just as other mammals do. Education in pre-agricultural societies was universal, but undertaken by parents and family-­based groups. It taught vocational skills such as hunting, weaving and plant recognition. It also, very effectively, inculcated shared family and group values. 

Formal education arrived with the state. It too was essentially vocational. Prosperous families paid for teachers so that children might become lawyers at a European court or bureaucrats in the Chinese empire. Everyone else organised their children’s education directly, or through local workplace apprenticeships. Educating children for work wasn’t a capitalist invention: on the contrary. And pre-modern education had nothing to do with nurturing innovation, and little to do with free thought.

The industrial revolution increased hugely the opportunities opened up by formal education. It also ushered in the first economic system that explicitly sought change and “disruption” born of independent thought. That was the last thing in the mind of pre-modern emperors, or on the family farm.

Industrialised economies demand a far greater range of formal instruction. They also pay for this to be, increasingly, funded, controlled and managed by the state. Of course, modern authoritarian and modern democratic states are different in the values they try to inculcate, as Baggini notes. But they are alike in forcibly educating children formally for ever-longer periods, and reducing families’ power and influence over what their children learn. 

In discussing what education is for, this is rarely noted, let alone discussed. But it involves a huge and radical change in society and deserves serious philosophical and ethical attention.

Alison Wolf, King’s College London


On the question of education’s purpose, Michael Oakeshott said that a university education granted the “gift of an interval”, to free students from “the hot allegiances of youth without the necessity of at once acquiring new loyalties to take their place. Here is a break,” he wrote, “in the tyrannical course of irreparable events.”

Many of today’s students might reflect on such idealised thinking with envy as they struggle under mountains of tuition-fee debt, the soaring costs of living the university life, and the need for (increasingly) full-time work to fund their studies. Consequently, they too are contemplating the purpose of education.

Patrick Callaghan, southeast London


Brutality behind bars

I read with interest Bill Keller’s piece on the Americanisation of UK prisons. However, I was surprised there was no mention of sexual violence in prison, often seen as synonymous with the US prison estate. 

Years ago, I was told by a researcher on prisons here in the UK that we have a collective state of denial about rape in UK prisons, save for instances so horrific not even prison doctors can ignore the evidence. We can claim not to have a problem, but it’s not worth much if we simply refuse to gather the evidence.

From 2013, I was a commissioner on the Howard League’s Commission on Sex in Prison. One of our underreported findings was that, depending on the definition of sexual violence used, the prevalence of sexual abuse in UK prisons was actually comparable to the rate in the US. This was when using the only study devoted to prison sexual violence then available—a PhD thesis.

Since then, things in UK prisons have markedly deteriorated. The Guardian recently reported a dramatic increase in reports of rape and sexual assault in English and Welsh prisons, with an elevenfold increase reported to Durham constabulary alone between 2010 and 2018. Yet the UK still lacks comprehensive and regular research dedicated to the issue of sexual violence in prisons, as happens in the US. This is in spite of the US Justice Department offering to share its methodology and research questions with researchers in the UK.  

The US Prison Rape Elimination Act of 2003 mandated the collection of data around rape and sexual assault, while Just Detention International (on whose board I used to serve) has demonstrated that sexual violence behind bars is eminently preventable. 

When we punish someone by incarcerating them, we take on a duty of care. We fail in that duty when we allow sexual violence to take place. We fail more egregiously when we refuse even to face the extent of the problem.

Michael Amherst, Stoke Newington


Freedom must win

Elena Gordon’s article was so powerful. Vladimir Kara-Murza is incredibly brave and noble: a hero, who clearly comes from an incredibly brave and noble family. May there be justice soon—may the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine end, may all political prisoners in Russia be freed, and may all of the Kara-Murza family’s suffering end, when they are reunited with him as a free man. #FreeKaraMurza #свободукарамурзе

Jeff Dawson, via the website


Central flaw

Matthew d’Ancona counsels political centrists to “accept that there is no pendulum”. The reason there is no pendulum is because “left”, “right” and “centre” are metaphors—bad metaphors at that. 

D’Ancona describes both Macmillanite Conservatism and Blairite New Labour as “centrist”. But Macmillan presided over a carefully regulated mixed economy and a paternalistic social organisation, while Blair embraced the free market and social liberalism. If they are both centrist, then “centrism” is a very elastic term. We should abandon it, along with “left” and “right”, and start talking about substantive policies.

Alexander Jacoby, Oxford


The f-word

Sarah Ogilvie asks if it is outdated to call someone a fascist. No, it isn’t. In 1922, Mussolini came to power in Italy as head of the Partito Nazionale Fascista. Its symbol was the old Roman symbol of power: a bundle (fasces) of birch rods tightly bound around an axe—enabling one to deal with malefactors. The bundle of rods also sent the message that strength comes from people being closely aligned together, rather than acting separately. 

The 20th-century fascist states, and Germany in particular, took this message to extremes, so that every individual was expected to conform with whatever the state dictated and dissent was often brutally punished. Thus “fascism” has now come to be associated not just with authoritarianism, but the attempted suppression of all dissent from “correct” thinking, and its usefulness lies in neatly expressing this concept. 

Richard Burnett-Hall, London


Cost of care

A good read (“It’s time for a new social settlement for carers”). For far too long those caring for someone had to make the difficult decision of balancing work and unpaid care. People should never have to make that awful choice. We need to ask, at what cost?

Matthew Mckenzie, via the website

Memory and mourning

A very interesting piece on Austrian antisemitism, but the author mentions the new Holocaust memorial as if there was nothing similar in Vienna prior to 2021. Has she never been to the Judenplatz (Jewish Square)? One of the most beautiful pedestrian squares in the very heart of Vienna, it has been dominated for the last 23 years by the Holocaust memorial designed by Rachel Whiteread. A monolithic structure inscribed with the names of all the concentration camps in Austria and the number of Jews killed, it is a profoundly moving monument, the lack of traffic making contemplation and remembrance all the more effective.

I would never excuse Austrian antisemitism, and the FPÖ are a disgraceful party, but former president Heinz Fischer’s comment about not jumping to conclusions over their electoral gains is well observed. When Jörg Haider was suddenly popular, that was partly a protest vote and had less to do with his anti-immigrant positions than the party’s promise to reform Austria’s onerous tax system.

Simon Witter, via the website


Hard pressed

N Ram’s article on the Newsclick media portal offers probably the best picture of the state of affairs we have in respect of freedom of expression in India under Modi. It also invites us to take a critical look at the quality of professionalism in “investigative stories” done by the New York Times, a newspaper which I otherwise look forward to reading for its typically high journalistic standards.

Anand K Sahay, columnist, New Delhi


Alan Rusbridger describes the recommendation for an Institute for Public Interest News as having gone nowhere. 

In Scotland, the National Union of Journalists has taken up the cudgels for a Public Interest Journalism Institute, with my branch—Edinburgh Freelance—instrumental in persuading the Scottish government to set up a working party (chaired by former Sunday Herald editor Richard Walker) to pursue the idea. The Welsh government has gone further in committing some dosh to a local variant. The idea now needs greater momentum injected.

David Gow, via the website


Position politics 

It’s easy to forget the strides Ed Davey has made since taking over after the calamity of 2019, with the party now poised to win many more seats across the blue wall. As Sam Freedman says, that should not preclude (and eventually will require) us articulating national positions that differentiate us from Labour, and not just the Tories… it’s not as if we do not have any, when it comes to realistic policies to mend our shattered economy and fix our broken politics.

Councillor Paul Kohler, Wimbledon


Deep water

Katie Carr’s plan sounds incredibly dangerous as a sailor. Fastnet, Sole, Rockall? Let alone in a kayak.

Julia, via the website