Sophie McBain’s article (“The rise of the Proud Boys”, 9 October) reminded me of the 1935 satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about the potential for a full fascist government in the United States. It was all there: presidential dictatorship, suppression of the opposition, media control, eliminating the power of Congress, attacking the checks and balances of the constitution, setting up a paramilitary police force, gerrymandering of elections, illicit funding and bully-boy tactics. Are we so far away?
In Britain, we may not have reached such depths, but there have been similar, significant trends within a year of the Johnson government: proroguing parliament, haranguing the judiciary, the avoidance of executive scrutiny. Allied to this is a media that vilifies opponents as “enemies of the people”, and attacks on the BBC.
The effect on international organisations must also be recognised. Donald Trump treats the WHO and the UN with contempt and sees no role for international cooperation. Democrats, of all hues, have their work cut out.
[see also: The rise of the Proud Boys in the US]
Philip Collins’s analysis of the scale of the challenge to defeat the Conservatives (The Public Square, 2 October) was spot on. To form a government, Labour would need to win back most of Scotland as well as former seats in the so-called Red Wall. Can anyone really see this happening any time soon, notwithstanding Keir Starmer’s efforts to restore sanity to the Labour Party?
As a former Liberal Democrat MP, representing Cheadle from 2005 to 2015, you might expect me to agree with Collins’s view that my party is still a part of the answer to the conundrum. As he says, there are many seats where the Liberal Democrat contender is well placed to defeat the Conservatives next time. Cheadle is just one such example.
Yet Labour put more effort into attacking the Lib Dems than the Tories, which, you might say, represents business as usual. Here in Stockport, Labour and the Conservatives seem to agree on one thing above all – their mutual dislike of the Lib Dem challenge. Time to drop the blinkers and focus on the real opposition?
Cheadle Hulme, Greater Manchester
Reading the letters (Correspondence, 9 October) responding to Philip Collins’s column on possible electoral cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, I was transported back to similar dead-ended pleas. In 2010 the Liberal Democrat leadership preferred to cooperate with David Cameron’s Tories than Gordon Brown’s Labour. At grass-roots level, the prospects for an alliance are even more remote. Most Liberal Democrats are members not only because they are not Tories, but also because they loathe Labour. Local activists of both parties will rarely withdraw their candidate in favour of one from the other party. Under the first-past-the-post electoral system, pleas for inter-party cooperation are pointless. What the writers really want is proportional representation – and that was rejected by 67 per cent of voters in 2011. Time to get real.
Three cheers for Philip Collins, whose column was sensible, well argued and gave grounds for hope – so long as his wise words are read by the right people. Judging from the range of content and letters in the New Statesman these days, its reach extends far and wide.
Coming across Wilbur’s cartoon a couple of pages along was, for someone old enough to remember Alex Comfort’s studies of sex, a brilliant, laugh-out-loud moment. The New Statesman never ceases to inform, inspire and amuse.
[see also: Why the Lib Dems and Labour must cooperate to defeat this Conservative government]
The responses of Dr Mike Davis and Kevin Cawser to my letter about MPs being the first in their families to go to university (Correspondence, 9 October) implied that I didn’t fully appreciate their pride in this achievement. Not at all. Having grown up in modest circumstances in Birmingham, I went to an English university in the 1960s, so I have first-hand experience of what it meant to fellow students of similar or less fortunate backgrounds in those days, when opportunities were so much fewer. The substantial increase since then in the number of university places available must mean many more working-class students and their families have had access to higher education, despite continuing bias towards upper- and middle-class applicants.
David Clemson seems unaware of the huge benefits that came to working-class people after the Second World War. It was a “New Jerusalem”, with Clement Attlee’s government finding the answer the British people demanded to the “Five Giants” – disease, want, squalor, ignorance and idleness.
My father left school at 14: like most of his peers, he had to work to help put food on the table. Although he won books at school for his achievements, he had to work the rest of his life without the benefits of a better education. Blessed was I, born in 1948, to have had a good education and decent council housing. The benefits of a government determined to make sure ordinary people have decent lives, and the opportunity for university education, mustn’t be forgotten.
East Grinstead, West Sussex
In her column of 4 September, Helen Thompson suggested returning to “normal” ways of working was necessary for economic recovery, drawing criticism in your Correspondence pages the next week. Professor Thompson has expressed a similar sentiment in her most recent column (These Times, 9 October): “A rapid return to growth is first and foremost now essential to prevent an acceleration towards economic and social decay, and even potential collapse.”
Surely what is required are louder voices from the left challenging this, painting a vision of a more equitable economy not fixated on “growth” as the panacea for all economic and social ills.
Bad man, great art
Andrew Marr mentions Lucian Freud’s character flaws in his review of William Feaver’s biography (The Critics, 9 October). That a bad man can create great art was an issue Nietzsche confronted when he broke with Wagner over anti-Semitism: Wagner had become a Wagnerian, as Nietzsche acidly put it – but, he wrote, you do not reject the child for the sins of its mother.
Leaf from my book
Elif Shafak’s sudden desire to own a bonsai tree (Diary, 2 October) prompted a memory of my late aunt, Ruth Stafford Jones, who devoted much of her life to these delights, nurturing a fine collection in her garden in Surrey and studying with masters in Japan. She donated most of her collection to Kew Gardens in her late eighties. When she died ten years ago, I became the owner of one of her remaining trees. With the help of a local expert I learned about their care, and would like to pass some knowledge on to Elif.
These are outdoor plants not suited to indoor living. They are as hardy as a regular tree but their roots are shallow and they need to be protected from freezing in winter. They should be gently lifted out every year or so, cleaned and trimmed.
Far from exemplifying our shrinking democracy, these wonders illustrate a sacred process that has endured for centuries – and the trees themselves can, with care and love, live for many years.
Ilkley, West Yorkshire
Best of both
I have the best of both worlds: a combined digital and print New Statesman subscription (Correspondence, 9 October). I can read the print version at leisure over a couple of days, and I use the digital edition to follow up links from Stephen Bush’s Morning Call, or if there is a significant breaking story.
Women in politics
Some of the parliamentarians and journalists who have suggested Anneliese Dodds is “anonymous” have nevertheless noticed she is a woman (Politics, 9 October). Comments on clothing, hairstyle and physical attributes are issues that neither her predecessor nor the Tory Chancellor have to endure. Dodds faces the same problem as all of the current shadow cabinet: it’s not an easy time to attract attention of the right kind. In addition, she has to overcome entrenched attitudes towards women in public life.
Push for progress
In Martin Fletcher’s profile of Munira Mirza (“The rise of the Oldham libertarian”, 2 October), he mentions “two sides talking past each other”. This may be because the debate often skirts around the central issue. Racism has different outlets, but while entrenched socio-economic restrictions perpetuate class and racial divisions, it is likely to persist. It is up to progressives to present a case for a more equal and socially mobile society that will reduce racism and injustice.
[see also: Munira Mirza: the former radical leftist advising Boris Johnson]
Brushing up on art
I wish to express appreciation of Michael Prodger’s article about the superb Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery (The Critics, 9 October). During these bleak times, it has also been a great pleasure to read his “The Greats Outdoors” series with its exploration of less well known artists including Francis Towne and Gustave Caillebotte. I look forward every week to my next art history lesson.
Bromley, Greater London
The touch of Frost
As a mad West Bromwich fan, I was so pleased Hunter Davies spotted the West Brom Albion banner at the recent Iceland vs England international (The Fan, 9 October). However, it wasn’t put there by a quarantine-busting Baggies fan or an eccentric Jeff Astle-loving Icelander. The perpetrator is the England kit man and Albion nutter Pat Frost, who always packs the banner in his overnight case, ready to display at England matches. No doubt it will rise again at the next match!
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This article appears in the 14 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Can Joe Biden save America?