Letters: December 2023

A former Nato secretary general on Russia; two leading economists on Andrew Bailey; plus an impressive spot from an eagle-eyed reader of “in fact”

November 01, 2023
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If the west stands firm

Laurie Bristow’s article on Russia was one of the most perceptive pieces of writing on the subject today. His knowledge as one-time ambassador to Russia gives him unique insight, but he goes well beyond the Foreign Office telegram view of the Kremlin. In particular, he looks through the eyes of that one man—and it is only one man—who commands the country from the Kremlin, and assesses the mind state he has adopted. 

The most important conclusion Bristow comes to, and it is at variance with so much conventional thinking, is that Putin should be more scared of the European Union than Nato.

It was, after all, the EU association agreement offered to and then rejected by then Ukrainian president Yanukovych that sparked the Maidan demonstrations in Kyiv and his demise. Putin was clearly behind that refusal and he now attempts to destroy Ukraine as a sovereign country. Ukrainians are now fighting for their country, their lives and—let it be said loudly—for our security as well. 

One single man, Vladimir Putin, made the decision to invade his neighbour. One man can also do what the Politburo and Gorbachev did in 1989, when they walked out of Afghanistan. No “off-ramp”, no “face-saver”—just a dawning recognition that they were not winning and it was costing lives, cash and public support. The Soviet declaration of so-called success rang completely hollow, but authoritarians can and do defy logic and the facts.

The lesson of the Russian invasion so far has been clear. If the west stands firm, if the Ukrainians get the right weaponry when they need it, and if our solidarity—so impressive so far—is maintained, then that one man in the Kremlin will recognise that this adventure has been a dishonest enterprise and a devastatingly obvious failure.

George Robertson, Nato secretary general, 1999–2003

Bank bias

Several cats were let out of the Bank of England bag by Lionel Barber’s interview with the governor of the Bank of England. The first was Andrew Bailey’s belief that UK “financial markets are a global public good and therefore we have a responsibility, which we always have to take very seriously, to provide financial stability” to those markets. 

Translated, this means the Bank prioritises the interests of financiers active in global capital markets over those of British citizens. That is because “stability” in and for those volatile markets (achieved through decisions on interest rates and bailouts in the form of quantitative easing) is regularly accomplished at the expense of credit and labour markets at home. The fact is that the Bank is a public institution that should be serving the country first and foremost, but that places the interests of capital markets above the interests of British workers facing a cost-of-living crisis and what the TUC calls “the longest pay squeeze for more than 200 years”.

Second, and inadvertently I believe, Barber revealed a political preference: namely, the “pressing need for broader supply-side reforms”—code for further deregulation, privatisation and income tax cuts. If Bailey wants to protect the Bank’s responsibilities for economic forecasting, he must get the economic analysis right first.

Ann Pettifor, Policy Research in Macroeconomics (PRIME) 


In your interview with Andrew Bailey, various excuses are offered for the monumental failure of the Bank of England to do the very basics of its job—keeping inflation at around 2 per cent.

One is that no one could have guessed Russia would invade Ukraine. That may be true. But the invasion was not the core driver of our inflation: that was the very sharp rise in our money printing during the pandemic. There is no way that Bailey and his colleagues can claim that no one could have guessed a sharp rise in money printing would lead to inflation. As one of his predecessors, Mervyn King, says, “history tells us that if you print enough money, you will get inflation.” Every time.

The other excuse that does him no reputational favour is the idea that everyone else made the same mistake (something he manages to somehow square with the idea that central banks are not victims of groupthink), so it isn’t really the Bank of England’s fault. A collective cock-up is still a cock-up. And this one was a monumental cock-up.

It may look like a common and therefore somehow acceptable one to those with secure jobs and inflation-linked defined benefit pensions. But those actually living with the consequences of this inflation—think sharply falling purchasing power and house price collapse, for starters—might at the very least appreciate a slightly more humble tone from its architects.  

Merryn Somerset Webb, Bloomberg

Could be worse

While it is depressing to be part of the UK’s slide to being a second-rate country, it is more frightening to see the efforts the US is making to positively destroy its civilisation.

P1erre, via the website


Charitable cause

My wife and I have been making monthly payments to Oxfam for nearly 30 years. When the sexual abuse scandal described by Jessica Abrahams in your November edition blew up in 2018, we doubled our contributions. We knew Oxfam had got things wrong. But we also knew it had discovered the problems itself, was much more likely than other NGOs working in the developing world to fix them, and was still doing a lot of good work.

Oxfam has saved countless lives since its creation during the Second World War. It would have been a tragedy for this scandal to have destroyed it. The subjugation of women by men has been a dirty feature of humanity for tens of thousands of years, and is at its worst in wars and other crises. Fortunately, in the wake of the Haiti scandal, Oxfam and other aid agencies have started to deal with that particular risk better.

They are, however, in danger of losing the plot in the soul-searching about their future role that has been prompted by the scandal. The most important role of international NGOs is to stand up for the vulnerable and oppressed against the powerful. To do that well in the modern world, they will need more global collaboration. 

The biggest issue is not that the headquarters of international NGOs, which raise the vast bulk of the organisations’ money, have too much power. It is that, in many countries in which the best of these organisations work, autocrats and authoritarian regimes are attacking, threatening and restricting their activities and staff.  

Giving local organisations more autonomy might sound enlightened but, done wrongly, it risks throwing them to the wolves. In fact, they need more money, advice, protection, publicity and moral support from their global partners. Get that right, and we are far from the end of the NGO. These international charities will have a promising future—and the world will be much better for it. 

Mark Lowcock, former head of humanitarian affairs at the UN and permanent secretary of the Department for International Development 


Jessica Abrahams’s article raised some important issues while—in my view—avoiding others, such as the extent to which aid can or should be delivered without the cooperation and support of host governments, or sometimes even local elites/warlords; the extent of leakage through local corruption; and whether Oxfam’s “feminist lens” risks becoming a modern form of cultural imperialism. I would pose one further question: how just are the salaries of the CEOs running these NGOs?

Is roughly $1m to David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, justified? Note that, based on 2020 reports, Oxfam CEO Danny Sriskandarajah was on the comparably modest salary of £120,000, which feels more consistent with the sector’s expressed values and the demands and responsibilities of the job.

John Newton, via email


State of lawlessness

An interesting debate between Jessica Simor and Jonathan Sumption, and good to see it conducted (reasonably!) politely.

For my part, I would find it worrying if there should be no body outside the nation state to protect human rights. If the UK were to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, are we saying that it is perfectly okay for other states to follow suit—in other words, that the ECHR is unnecessary and human rights should be left to sovereign states? Doesn’t that take us back to the days preceding the convention, when human rights were strictly the business of each country? 

Of course we can argue that we have an excellent record—with some notable blemishes—in this country, and don’t need anyone else to dictate our judicial system’s approach. But I’m not confident that will always be arguable. And it can’t be said of all members of the Council of Europe.

Edward Washer, via the website


Jessica Simor writes that the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised gay sex, but it was only decriminalised in a precise set of circumstances—if it was in a private place, where only two people over the age of 21 were present, it was lawful. Police persecution of cottaging [sex between men in public toilets] intensified after 1967.

Abigail Maxwell, via the website


Pondering politicians

A good article by Alan Rusbridger. If there were more ways that politicians could express their ideas and ponder openly about issues without getting their head bitten off (by political opponents, news journalists and columnists, campaigners and so on) it might make a difference. Some of this does happen in meetings focused on policy, or in committee work in parliament, but if what they say doesn’t fit in with either the dominant news agenda or the scripted soundbites they are obliged to churn out, it goes unheard. 

But that’s where hopefully publications like Prospect can make a difference, capturing some ideas-in-progress and even heretical thoughts—and perhaps some of our politicians’ otherwise hidden humanity and humour.

Andy Lake, via the website


Royally wrong

The recent article by Guy Standing was misleading and consequently inflammatory—and not worthy of the normally high editorial standards of Prospect

The claim that the monarchy cashes in on the seabed has naturally and intentionally piqued the interest of those readers of an anti-monarchy disposition, as the online comments so far illustrate. Yet, as the article itself acknowledges, the revenues from the continental shelf belong by act of parliament to the Crown Estate, which is separate from the monarchy, and these revenues are paid to the Treasury not to the monarchy. It was the government that decided only in 2012 that the monarchy should be funded by a fixed share of the Crown Estate’s profits, and this could easily be changed by parliament if it wished to do so.

The case put forward by the author for treating the continental shelf as the property of the Commons rather than the Crown is legitimate and worthy of debate, and if the government and parliament agreed it could be achieved by legislation. But it has nothing to do with King Charles III.

Stephen Wright, Oxfordshire


A better solution would be simply to remove the monarchy out of the constitution. Then I propose we place the royals—along with their ceremonies, robes, crowns, parades, hand-waving, banquets and dysfunctional soap opera lives—into a Disney-style theme park, where tourists can pay to view them and even to banquet with them. This way they would pay for their keep—and it would save us taxpayers millions.

Guy Otten, Littleborough


Rejoin the club

It is constantly disappointing that so many seek to silence the pro-European voice by ignoring the very large beast on Britain’s back: Brexit. If, as Matthew d’Ancona argues, you are going to “champion radical practicality”, then you cannot “wipe the slate clean” and ignore Brexit. It is holding the country back and leaving us isolated and weak. 

The centre, liberals and patriots must make a case for giving up a little sovereignty in order to keep the peace, find new opportunities and solve our common global problems. Rejoining the European Union is the practical gateway to the economic returns and partnerships we need to deal with so many of these. The alternative is that the populists will continue to use such issues to foster grievance and exacerbate our problems of declining wealth and dwindling intellectual, social and diplomatic capital.

Simon Ferrigno, European Movement Derbyshire


Perhaps we need to replace the word centrist with “radical”—a term that avoids the need to put oneself on a hackneyed political spectrum that fails to account for the many complex intersections of political belief that the young have today. The 21st century needs a new political vocabulary and definitions.

Arnab Dutt, via the website


A centre for ants

Prospect’s May “In fact” column reported that “There are about 2.5m ants for every human”, citing “Eos, 17th February 2023”.

Prospect’s November “In fact” reported that “For every person, there are 2.5m ants” (“Buzzfeed, 25th August 2023”).

I am delighted that the estimate was verified between February and August. This is most reassuring.

Ralph Meloy, Saffron Walden