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29 January 2020

Letter of the week: Scotland aflutter

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

By New Statesman

I watched Lisa Nandy’s BBC interview with Andrew Neil to learn what she claimed had set “Scottish nationalist Twitter aflutter” (The Diary, 24 January). She spoke of the need to respect voters and said she understood why many people wanted more power in their communities.

On Scotland, Neil asked about her proposal to set up an international commission “to look for historical examples of how nationalism has been beaten by social justice”. She recommended lessons from Quebec and Catalonia in “beating divisive nationalism”; it seems that her readiness to listen and extend power to frustrated voters stops at the Scottish border. In her eyes, Scottish voters’ desire to take more responsibility for their own affairs is “divisive” rather than something to be respected. No wonder Twitter was aflutter.

Nandy’s commission is skewed. Any nationalism is potentially divisive if it seeks to divide a larger state. But what if the social justice principles integral to that nationalism outweigh those of the larger state from which it wishes to separate?

Helene Witcher
Bridge of Allan, Stirling

 

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Class politics

Simon Heffer’s approach to electoral statistics is a depressing mixture of superficiality and misrepresentation (“Rise of the new working-class Tories”, 24 January). Yes, the Tories did extremely well in breaking through the red lines at the recent election. But the Tory share of the vote only increased by 1.3 per cent from 2017. It was only 0.2 per cent higher than Alec Douglas-Home’s losing percentage in 1964. No Tory leader since then has come close to matching Ted Heath’s 46.4 per cent in 1970.

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The Tories made extraordinary gains in northern former mining seats, and those candidates should be lauded. But from the 1950s to the 1980s, the Tories won far more seats in Midlands and northern conurbations than they managed this time. There are still no Tory seats in Cardiff, Bristol, Coventry, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow – plus only a solitary MP in Birmingham. The Tories’ invasion of the red zone remains a work in progress.

Given the range of economic and demographic changes which have operated in the Tories’ favour since 1964, it is extraordinary that their share of the vote is still in the low forties. That is the most interesting question in modern political analysis, but it passes by Mr Heffer. Instead, he makes a preposterous claim: that the Tories’ electoral defeat in 1997 was caused by 15 per cent interest rates. It is true that interest rates reached 15 per cent on Black Wednesday, the day of Britain’s ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. But they only stayed there for a few hours. Otherwise, the period of the Major government was one of steady recovery from the recession of the early Nineties, which began under Margaret Thatcher.

The reason that this brought no electoral harvest is simple. Many Tory MPs lost all contact with reality. Abetted by commentators such as Mr Heffer, they managed to destroy a perfectly sound Tory government and prepare the way for Tony Blair. The reason why they acted in this way is the second greatest mystery in modern political analysis. But it may be better explained by psychiatrists than psephologists. Simon Heffer is certainly no help.

Bruce Anderson
Via email

Simon Heffer writes: “If the lessons of the Thatcher revolution are a guide… the political shift was made because of a conviction among working-class people that the Labour Party no longer understood their lives or ideals.” This happened in Australia too, and we watched it unfold while the Australian Labor Party elite spent the election evening prematurely celebrating in a victory dance at a cocktail party. I do not understand why Labour resists constructing a coherent party political base with the help of its centrists. It seems that Labour went all the way to the left thinking that that was where working people resided – they do not. In Australia, Bob Hawke found this out and gained our gratitude. We now have a good health care system, a great superannuation system and a generally balanced government.

Michael Woodcock
Perth, Western Australia

Simon Heffer’s piece is based on a mistaken belief that there was a solid base of working-class support for the Labour Party that is now disappearing. This trope is the bread-and-butter of the shallow analysis of the December election.

Whatever definition is taken – the absence of which is itself a weakness in this article – the statistics show that the working class is by far the biggest social group. If the working class generally voted Labour, there would usually be a majority Labour government. But there have only been two convincing Labour general election victories from a position of opposition: 1945 and 1997.

That the working class supported Labour was only reliably true in areas where there was a high trade union membership. In many non-industrial urban working-class areas, Labour support has always been patchy, and in the countryside workers have rarely voted Labour.

The problem is that many Labour activists operate on the basis that working class equals Labour supporter, and they don’t address the conservatism that runs deep in that class.

Colin Lomas
London W7

Simon Heffer and other commentators display an ignorance of the studies by Robert McKenzie in the 1960s on working-class Tories. Even in the era of class-based voting, 40 per cent of the working class voted Tory, demonstrating a weaker class consciousness than that of the middle classes, of whom only 25 per cent voted Labour. He demonstrated conclusively that there had always been a substantial working-class Tory vote.

The appeal to the working classes was that of a nationalist party. McKenzie quoted to his students Conservative Party election materials of the interwar period as examples.

Faced with a divided and weak opposition that imploded during the 2019 election campaign, all the Conservatives had to do was campaign on the usual Tory tropes.

Derrick Joad
Leeds

 

Progressive youth

John Gray has seen many of his political predictions come to pass, which is commendable given the uncertainty of our times. One wonders, however, if his apparent contempt for young progressives is clouding his judgement (“The new battleground”, 17 January).

Corbyn’s Labour Party has fared badly in today’s culture wars, in which Brexit is only one battlefield. Nevertheless, based on Michael Ashcroft’s analysis of the 2019 election results, the party’s “youth” base now extends to voters aged 44 and under. It seems that within 20 years voters with progressive attitudes will make up an unassailable majority of the electorate.

James Bartholomeusz
Via email

 

John Gray’s analysis of the blindness of “progressive” politics will give encouragement to citizens of every class fed up with arrogance and socially destructive dogmas. To the “academy, the arts, and the broadcast media”, he could add the Church of England’s hierarchy in the House of Bishops and General Synod, who jumped on the bandwagon of progressive agendas in order to appear relevant to their peers and halt an embarrassing decline in Anglican Church membership. But as with the working-class vote and Corbynism, so too the ordinary churchgoer and progressive theology.

RC Paget
Malaga, Spain

 

A common error

Nicholas Lezard (“Down and Out”, 24 January) claims that to “snigger” at Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candles is to display misogyny. I disagree; I would have loved Rachel Cooke’s review of Paltrow’s TV show even if it had been written by a man. Paltrow and her acolytes, with what Cooke calls their “360-degree narcissism”, set themselves up to be ridiculed.

However, I concede that Paltrow has been unfairly lambasted for not knowing the difference between the vagina and the vulva. This is a common error: see the new Vagina Museum at Camden Lock. Our Gwynnie is not alone in her ignorance of basic anatomy. But then, I’m super-privileged: I’ve spent the past 40 years campaigning against FGM.

Vera Lustig
Walton-on-Thames, Surrey

 

End of a royal era

Rowan Williams is wrong to say that the trial and execution of Charles I was a “largely counterproductive piece of political theatre” (The Critics, 24 January). Instead, it changed forever the relationship between monarch and parliament.

Kings had been killed before, but in battle or secretively, not in public by their subjects. The 59 commissioners who put their names to Charles I’s death warrant – including Oliver Cromwell – were drawing a line under the Age of Kings. The English Civil War was a revolution in defence of parliamentary democracy and religious liberty, and it beheaded a man who wanted to rule rather than reign long before the French sent Louis XVI to the guillotine and Russian revolutionaries shot Nicholas II. The execution helped to shape the modern world. The revolutionary ideas and actions of the English working and middle classes undermined the myth of monarchy and ushered in a new era of democratic politics.

Keith Richmond
Tonbridge, Kent

 

Prostate priority

I would like Dr Phil Whitaker to take every opportunity to promote early detection of prostate cancer (Health Matters, 17 January). As a recovering patient, I survived precisely because my cancer was detected early.

While the kind of test Matt Hancock advocates is, as Dr Phil wrote, of little value in this regard, men with symptoms can have a simple (PSA) blood test to detect the possibility of prostate cancer. Early detection can save lives.

Jack Demaine
Attenborough, Nottingham

 

Try Wells’s Polly

Andrew Glazzard’s review of HG Wells: A Literary Life (17 January) was thoughtful and thought provoking. However, I was disappointed that there was no reference to The History of Mr Polly. If any readers have been put off reading Wells, I suggest they try this gentle yet profound novel.

Andrew Jones
Meols, The Wirral

 

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This article appears in the 29 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out