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18 September 2019

Letter of the Week: Depths of dishonour

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

By New Statesman

I read your leader on Theresa May’s resignation honours (“Honours for Failure”, 13 September) as I travelled home from the 27th monthly Silent Walk to Grenfell. The piece points out that, as housing minister from 2016 to 2017, one of the beneficiaries, Gavin Barwell (Mrs May’s chief of staff), “ignored repeated warnings over fire safety regulations”.

Mr Barwell’s life peerage was also mentioned by the speaker at the rally after our walk. We heard his words as we stood with banners and placards in the memorial space near the tower – on fire-contaminated land.

The tone of the Justice4Grenfell campaign is exemplary in its combination of dignity, determination and community spirit. Many people were to blame for the 72 fatalities caused by the fire and for subsequent blazes that mercifully have not resulted in loss of life. This large number should not reduce in our perception the culpability of each individual. Corner-cutting, buck-passing and procrastination can wreck lives as effectively as the actions of a terrorist.

Vera Lustig
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

Christian country?

Tom Holland’s essay regrettably perpetuates a simplistic view of Stanley Baldwin that historians have long since moved beyond (“Why even atheists think like Christians”, 6 September). Baldwin was not “backward-looking” in the way suggested by Holland: his rhetoric was intended to link the past and present, and foster the sense of community in a society deeply shaken by the First World War, in which class war seemed a real danger. It is no coincidence that his famous speech “On England”, with its oft-quoted image of the rural plough team, was delivered in the same year as the general strike of 1926.

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Far from being complacent, Baldwin was willing to take risks in response to social and political change, such as his grant of a subsidy to the coal industry in 1925 to give an opportunity for compromise between owners and workers, and his support of devolution in India in the early 1930s, against the instincts of many Conservatives and a right-wing revolt led by Winston Churchill. He went further than most of his party wanted in extending the franchise to all adult women in 1928, while at the same time he was aware of the need to entrench the new democracy against the buffeting it would receive.

Far from nostalgia, Baldwin’s most frequent themes were service and duty, with rights balanced by responsibilities.

He did not prioritise appeasement over rearmament, but pursued both in parallel as far as the circumstances of the mid-1930s allowed. Many then believed that arms races had been a main cause of the Great War, and the Labour Party opposed all rearmament measures, all in the context of a fragile recovery from the Great Depression.

The Anglo-German Naval Agreement of 1935 was a success that led to the German surface fleet posing no significant threat in the Second World War. Hopes for a similar pact on air forces and the peaceful revision of other issues in the Versailles settlement were not unreasonable. At the same time, the rearmament programme began in 1934 had grown massively by the time Baldwin retired in 1937.

Of course, all politicians have failings, and with our knowledge of what happened from 1938 to 1945 it is easy to say that Baldwin should have done more. However, the summer of 1940 did not reveal “the inadequacies of Baldwin’s nostalgic conservatism”. Instead, the bedrock of social cohesion and the acceptance that everything possible had been done to avoid war sustained morale and the will to victory, as Churchill built on foundations laid by Baldwin.

Stuart Ball
Emeritus professor of modern British history
University of Leicester

I was delighted to read Tom Holland’s essay about the underlying Christian principles in society today, even showing themselves in those who would be horrified at the idea of bringing God into their motivations. As a Christian, of course I agreed with the article, and found it refreshing (and astonishing – sadly) that any intellectual periodical of today would pass it for publication.

But yes, the Bible says we are “made in God’s image”, so that even those who have rejected belief in God can be motivated by things that please God: justice, mercy and humility.

It’s probably safe to assume that in Baldwin’s day most people either went to church or had a Sunday-school background, and so when problems loomed they did turn to prayer. The fact that Hitler was defeated and our nation saved I have no doubt was largely due to the earnest prayers of many people. Sadly, in the decades since then there has been a gradual falling-away from Christian worship and Bible-reading, so that more and more adults today have never had contact with the Bible, and prayer is seen as pointless.

Elijah thought he was a lone voice and became discouraged. But God said to him “I have yet 7,000 who have not bowed the knee to Baal” (turned from God to worship other things). Let those of us who have been privileged to know our Bibles and the power of prayer not be cowed by those who have not, but get on our knees for this nation at its time of great crisis.

Frances Cullen

Philip Smallwood’s comments on Brendan Simms’s recent essay, “Hitler’s Long Shadow” (30 August), are pertinent, and I share his judgement that RG Collingwood’s celebrated essay is “food for thought” (Correspondence, 6 September). It is a striking coincidence (or is it?) that the same issue should have contained a major essay by Tom Holland on the profound influence of Christianity on Western civilisation, since it is this influence, together with its precursor in the classical period, that is central to Collingwood’s collected essays published as The Idea of History. In the “Epilegomena”, Collingwood writes of history as a re-enactment of past experience: “In… rethinking my past thought I am not merely remembering it. I am constructing the history of a certain phase of my life: and the difference between memory and history is that whereas in memory the past is a mere spectacle, in history it is re-enacted in present thought.”

It was Hamlet who opined “There is nothing good nor bad but thinking makes it so”, and we seem to be caught in just such a “thought-world” in our current crisis. The parallels, real or imagined, between right-wing “populism” and the rise of National Socialism are easy (too easy?) to make – perhaps because it is such a recent part of our European past. There is, to my mind, a more significant and direct parallel to be drawn from further back in our history, since its expression across our present-day divisions are clearer, and it is English rather than European. The English Civil War was the result of years of political struggle between a Puritan “landed gentry” and a duplicitous monarch, but when Charles I eventually lost his head, Cromwell’s Commonwealth was no place for the revolutionary tribes of Levellers, Diggers and Shakers that made up his New Model Army. Classes were divided – royalists from republicans – families were divided, brother fought against brother…

Is this just another “thought-world” or is a “re-enactment of past history” about to bring chaos once again?

Allan McKerrow

Our present crisis

David Hare’s view that Boris Johnson is “stoutly defended” among the hacks he disgraced raised my eyebrows (“The battle for parliament”, 6 September). I recently met an editor on the Telegraph who described our PM as “a liar, a bounder and a shit”. Hacks tend to defend their own, as do all professions, and when I expressed surprise at this (accurate) view, the reply came: “Boris is no longer a journalist.”

Amanda Craig
London NW1

Robert Saunders provides a marvellous account of the political situation in 1914 (“Breaking the parliamentary machine”, 6 September). But he misses the central point. The fiery rhetoric and the preparations for armed resistance in Ulster disguised a retreat by the unionists at Westminster. For nearly 30 years they had blocked Irish Home Rule. Most of them saw no reason why they should yield to Asquith what they had denied to Gladstone. But by 1914 the unionist leaders, Bonar Law and Edward Carson, had accepted that opposition to a Dublin parliament had to end.

Their militant behaviour in defence of Ulster both distracted attention from the abandonment of unionists in southern Ireland and was essential in securing the exclusion from the Dublin parliament of the six counties that became Northern Ireland.

Asquith came to the negotiating table in 1913. Law’s terms included acceptance of a reunited Ireland at some point if the six counties voted for it. Asquith turned down the compromise because of his dependence on the support of Irish Nationalist MPs. Nevertheless, it was Law’s formula that triumphed. Known today as the consent principle, it is the centre of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Saunders allots a small part in the 1914 drama to the Primrose League. With some two million members, it was in fact the biggest party organisation that Britain had seen, as I attempted to show in my 2010 book, A Gift from the Churchills.

Alistair Lexden
Conservative Party historian, House of Lords

School of life

I very much enjoyed reading Heather Cant’s vignette of Park View School, North London (Personal Story, 13 September). Many passages chimed with my own experience at the comprehensive school attended by the Blairs and Cleggs, though you wouldn’t know it from its media caricature. Fond memories include 100-plus pupils packed into the toilets to hear wannabe grime artists “spit bars”, the crescendos of which often resulted in an eruption of adulation  – much to teachers’ dismay. The microcosm of “super-diversity” (Vertovec) that Heather Cant so ably describes evidences clearly the intangible benefits of attending a diverse comprehensive. The paucity of this experience among many senior ministers – and the segregated parochialism of their upbringings – is to the detriment of creating a more cohesive and equitable country.

Nick Queffurus
London W7

Unwanted copy…

Thanks to austerity, as I am a pensioner, I will have to wait to read David Cameron’s book. Shouldn’t be long until Oxfam has a few copies on the shelf.

Graham Hart
Halesowen, West Midlands

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control