Letters: Jan/Feb 2024 edition

Can peace prevail? Daniella Peled responds to Avraham Burg’s essay on Israel’s future. Plus: Guy Standing on the Crown and the Commons, Averil Cameron speaks up for the humanities, and more

December 06, 2023
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A dying dream

Avraham Burg writes with eloquence about the horrors of the Israel-Hamas war, and is right to look beyond the cycle of violence and temporary ceasefire towards a possible political future. But while it no doubt requires optimism to remain part of Israel’s struggling left wing, it is not useful to allow that optimism to obscure reality. Burg correctly predicts that the violence will continue until the US, EU and a coalition of Arab states oversee some sort of (probably unsatisfactory) settlement. The downfall of Benjamin Netanyahu also seems inevitable.

However, Israel then choosing the path of democracy—including a genuinely representative government that rebuilds its welfare, social and security compacts—is not “the only possible destination,” as he argues, but a fantasy.

The Hamas atrocities will be seen to have confirmed many arguments that the right wing has been making for decades, not least that that the Jewish state faces a genocidal enemy which makes no distinction between sovereign Israel and its settlements. The offer of “land for peace” is no longer viable under the new paradigm, and examples of it working in the past—the peace treaty with Egypt and the Oslo accords—are getting tired. There is no chance that the huge national trauma Israel’s citizens experienced on 7th October will boost the peace camp.

There is also a demographic element to Israel’s rightward drift. The ultra-Orthodox population continues to grow rapidly, and its political power boosts the nationalists who prioritise the Jewish nature of the state of Israel over its democratic values. Burg’s utopian suggestion of “excluding religious zealots and fundamentalists from all possible governmental influence” reflects a view of Israeli politics which is no longer relevant. Fundamentalism has been mainstreamed in Israel’s public discourse, and Netanyahu’s political demise will not reverse this.

Israel will of course survive this war. Its beleaguered democracy—and Burg’s dreams of secular liberalism—may not.

Daniella Peled, Institute for War and Peace Reporting

Burg offers a perceptive analysis of how the current crisis came about, but, I fear, an over-optimistic analysis of how it may be resolved to reach some form of peace.

Simon Cockshutt, via the website


King’s ransom

Stephen Wright’s insulting letter about my article on the Crown Estate’s moneymaking from our seabed suggests the Estate has nothing to do with the monarchy, a proposition that defies reality. Who does he think appoints the Crown Estate commissioners? The King must approve them, under the law. And if the King has nothing to do with the Estate then how come, after the auctioning of our seabed earlier this year to multinationals planning offshore windfarms, Charles could promise to give back hundreds of millions? Work it out.

Wright suggests the revenue goes to the Treasury. As he well knows, in 2012 George Osborne introduced a rule whereby the Crown Estate keeps 15 per cent of all its profits—since increased to 25 per cent. The government has said that in future the share will fall to 12 per cent, which creates a moral hazard. The Crown Estate, on behalf of the Crown, has an incentive to maximise short-term profits.

Wright says the case for saying the seabed is a commons is “worthy of debate”. It is actually a matter of historical fact. As noted in my article and in the book on which it is based, the Queen knew that in the early 1960s, when she and her advisers discussed finding ways to obtain it for the Crown.

As established in Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest of 1217, and adopted by King Edward I and never repudiated, it is contrary to the ethos of the commons for the monarch or anybody else to plunder such resources for profit. If this is “inflammatory”, so be it. It happens to be part of common law.

Guy Standing, author of “The Blue Commons”


Policy of exclusion

Jessica Abrahams’s article raises significant issues. It reminds me of a worrying trend I have noticed this year while browsing the websites of numerous international NGOs. Some of these INGOs advertise job openings for work in African countries, but subtly and deliberately exclude African applicants by requiring candidates to be based in European capitals, have the right to work in those capitals, and be proficient in multiple European languages...

As the article suggests, could these requirements be about power and the continuation of colonialism by other means?

Patrick K Mbugua, Nairobi


Schooling the philistines

Priyamvada Gopal’s article powerfully expresses the dire straits we are in as a society in hock to global capitalism, in which all that seems to matter is economic growth (currently non-existent in the UK). Pulling in the same direction we have government prescriptiveness about what universities should and should not do (so no “poor quality” degrees, which means those the government does not like). Schools and parents are being pushed to STEM subjects by funding challenges on the schools’ side and constant propaganda on the other, both of which take brave efforts to resist. 

Much of this was predictable given change to the university funding system: the abolition of the block grant for teaching and the iniquitous student loans scheme, which runs in complete contrast to what happens in other European countries. It’s hardly out of character if the government wants to save money by defunding courses or pushing institutions into collapse. Perhaps it is also shying away from the risk of being challenged by a well-educated population. But whatever happened to “blue skies research”, not something we hear much about nowadays? 

We cannot repeat too often that it is not only STEM graduates who are employable. Strong support for the value of humanities is coming from the British Academy and elsewhere, but it tends to get drowned out by the government and media. The ideals of the public good and civilised discourse are all but forgotten. As a society we truly need to reclaim them. 

Averil Cameron, historian

Rishi Sunak, after what I hope were happy years as a Wykehamist, then “went up” to Oxford to read PPE—philosophy, politics, economics. None of which are traditional STEM subjects. 

Be it noted that he graduated with first-class honours. Good for him. What I’d love to ask him, in light of his disdain for non-STEM university courses, is which of the three—P, P or E—does he regard as the most useless for career or other purposes, after graduation?

David Wright, via the website

A little bit of careful reading of Wikipedia and some “responsible, attentive and informed interpretation” could have prevented Priyamvada Gopal from falsely claiming that Guglielmo Marconi invented the transistor radio. 

The first transistor radio was not built until the late 1940s/early 1950s, with the first commercial units being developed by Texas Instruments working with Industrial Development Engineering Associates in 1954 (Marconi, the inventor of the wireless radio, had then been dead for nearly two decades).

Steve Donnelly, Bridlington


Growing pains

Liz Truss was right. That is a statement of fact consistent with Tony Danker’s recent article on economic growth. Growth is the only solution to the fundamental imbalance between the country’s needs—for spending on everything from social care to infrastructure—and the revenue available. Truss’s misjudgement of the market response to her borrowing was fatal, but the objective was the right one.

If anything, the same objective is even more important for Labour, given its natural desire to use public power for the public good. There is much talk of the priority of  “stability” but insufficient recognition of the fact that true stability can only be achieved through growth. The last thing the country needs is four or five more years of Calvinistic austerity. The challenge is to find a strategy that carries more credibility than Truss and Kwarteng managed to find.

Danker sees this clearly and offers a menu of options, most of which make good sense. The problem is that his ideas would take too long to produce the desired results. By the time they were in place we would have lost another three or four years in what is now a fierce international competition involving the US, China and the EU using semi-protectionist moves to support their economies.

To kickstart growth and to buy time for Danker’s ideas to work through, we need a powerful shift in incentives to encourage investment, especially by the companies currently sitting on vast amounts of unused cash. One recent study reported that the companies in the S&P 500 were holding some $2.6 trillion of uninvested capital. There is no reason why some of those funds could not come to the UK. Jeremy Hunt’s autumn statement has opened the door, with a modest adjustment to capital allowances. 

Labour should go further and recognise that unemployed capital is as bad for the economy as unemployed workers. The lesson of Truss’s failure is to change the means—to focus on boosting private investment—not to abandon the goal.

Nick Butler, King’s College London


Naming barbarity

Conor Gearty says the insistence on calling Hamas terrorists is misplaced. “The old British empire called its opponents (whether in India, Malaya, Kenya, or Cyprus) terrorists,” he writes. “The description does not end debate even if its users hope that it will. The past victims of colonial aggression in the Global South know this, even if we do not.”

Don’t be so patronising. Many Asian and African governments have condemned the Hamas barbarity strongly. And lumping vast and varied sections of mankind into a propagandistic term like “the Global South” is absurd.

Hegelman, via the website

I would like to stop watching the news, yet I gravitate to any news of the Israel/Gaza conflict. No one is winning, and everyone is losing. It is better not to have blinders on about that.  

It would be better to immediately halt all fighting—and admittedly to halt fighting is very hard to do—and have both sides in discussions now, rather than bombs and battles. The world needs to know that difficult decisions must be made. It is imperative not to avoid the situation, and not to take sides, like Alan Rusbridger says. Leaders should agree to meet.

MaryAnne, via the website


Repent and restore

The movement to make reparations for enslaving and trading people for more than 300 years is essential to build a just, safe and sustainable world. Every institution that benefitted from this crime against humanity—from the monarchy and state to families, schools and financial institutions—needs to audit its involvement and develop a programme of repentance and restoration in partnership with affected groups. 

As well as repairing the damage to communities in Africa and the descendants of slaves, we need to address the legacy in structural injustices. Former slave-owning nations retain disproportionate power in world affairs. We will all benefit from reparations.

Titus Alexander, Galashiels


Play to win

Bill Keller’s piece on prisons emphasised the importance of purposeful activity and face-to-face teaching for prisoners. He quoted from the UK Prison Inspectorate’s July 2022 nationwide overview that prisoners must be taught “how to succeed” when they are released, so that they are not simply “learning to survive in prison”. 

Our charity shares this belief and is committed to contributing to prisoner education through the universally accessible vehicle of chess. We operate weekly chess classes in 11 prisons across the UK.

The positive impact on prisoner mindsets has been clear to all involved. One prison librarian recently commented that she had “never seen the boys so quiet!” And after one major recent tournament, a UK-based prisoner commented that “It was quite nerve-racking waiting to play this morning, but once I relaxed I really enjoyed it. Chess is great for prisoners’ mental health.” He added that the game can help with “purpose and focus”.

Chess promotes a unique blend of problem-solving, strategic thinking and personal accountability. It has stood the test of centuries because it provides no hiding place from the impact of a player’s decisions. It also helps to improve concentration, particularly important for the many neuro­divergent learners we encounter within the prison estate.

Malcolm Pein, Chess in Schools and Communities


Good riddance

It was reassuring to read Sam Freedman’s reminder that Boris Johnson’s premiership has been “consigned to history”. I know this is an indisputable fact, but such and so recent was the horrendous and long-term damage inflicted upon British society by that dithering, calamitous buffoon that I will always welcome a reminder that he’s no longer in office and telling us all what to do.

Stefan Badham, Portsmouth


Dominion of destruction

Nature is struggling to survive for one reason: man. Remove man from the scene and nature will re-establish itself within a surprisingly few short years. It is man’s activities that destroy all. We are too many and our impact is overwhelming. We believe we have dominion over the fauna and flora: we fool ourselves.

Mark Lucas, via the website