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26 August 2020

Letter of the week: A missed opportunity

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

In Robert Saunders’ sorry saga of missed opportunities (“A house derided”, 14 August) one essential element is overlooked. The coalition cabinet’s 2012 Lords Reform Bill, based on the previous Labour government’s white paper and improved by a joint committee of MPs and peers, was given a second reading with a majority of 338. There were substantial majorities for it in all three major parties. Yet the Labour leadership played silly party games with Tory reactionaries and refused to agree on a timetable for its progress.

Had it reached the statute book we would now have a smaller, more effective Senate, well on the way to democratic legitimacy. As Saunders suggests, the failure to agree on a compromise reform could result in total abolition and a unicameral parliament, with all the reduced scrutiny of the executive that would involve.
Lord Paul Tyler CBE
Liberal Democrat spokesperson for political and constitutional reform

The divided Union

Your leader (“Twilight of the Union”, 21 August) is spot on. The Union is in greater danger than ever as we drift towards a situation where Scotland could be out of the UK before the next general election.

You urge Boris Johnson that it would be wrong to refuse another referendum. Morality never features in his thinking, but the chance to increase his majority to 125, and divide the opposition by getting rid of Scottish MPs, might.

I do not think you considered the effect on progressive opinion in the UK of losing the Scottish vote. This seems common on the left and appears to extend even to the Labour leadership. From Scotland’s perspective, you also did not give due consideration to the vague nature of the term “independence”. In fact, no country can be completely independent. It would be far better if any future referendum used the more straightforward terminology of staying in or leaving the UK.

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In any case, the effect of leaving will depend heavily on withdrawal negotiations and a long-term agreement on cooperation. Scottish voters must have a confirmatory vote on those negotiations, otherwise it is too easy for nationalists to promise the benefits of the Union will be retained without any irksome commitments. That was the basis of Alex Salmond’s campaign in 2014 and of the Brexiteers’ in 2016, where it has taken four years for the truth to emerge, when it is too late to do anything about it.
Keith Macdonald
Via email

The exams crisis

Stephen Bush (Politics, 21 August) claims that “teachers are generally more generous than exam results would be”. But it is not the case that all teachers inflate predicted grades. I never did, for a simple reason: if my predictions were higher than the grades received, it would damage my professional integrity. In my case, if a student needed motivation I would make a lower prediction just to light a fire under them. So, Stephen, please think it through rather than helping to spread damaging myths.
Simon Scarrow
Via email


The UK is facing its greatest threat of break-up and the cause is the failure to challenge the nationalist upsurge within and beyond Westminster. Brexit did not happen by accident. Sadly, the dog-whistle politics that asserts national superiority against others is demonstrated by the exams crisis.

The dog whistling that greeted the Scots’ exam result problems (notably by the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson) was premature – they declared a fortnight before the rest of the UK. It was cut short when the English A-levels showed the same problem as Scotland – and the same solution, teacher-estimated grades. This is a UK-wide issue, and needs a UK-wide inquiry to find out what has gone wrong. Certainly, the four nations now have different exam systems, but there is only one crisis.
Trevor Fisher


In response to Dr Keith Hamnett’s letter on the exams fiasco (Correspondence, 21 August), I remember when teachers, police, doctors and politicians were respected and trusted for their learning and experience. Their institutions corrected any misalignments. Anarchy has its rightful place against injustice, but for the good of all Dr Hamnett is right: we must trust the earned skills of specialists. The problem with politicians is that they are often not specialists in their area of work.
Sally Litherland

On the House

On behalf of the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber we must congratulate you on two thoughtful and balanced articles on the future of the House of Lords in your issue of 14 August (“This house must fall”).

The campaign, which meets almost every week when parliament is in normal session, was established in 2000, following the expulsion of most of the hereditary peers in 1999. We comprise more than 200 peers from all parts of the House of Lords, supported by a number of MPs. Our aim is to ensure the continuation of an appointed House, in which the government of the day can never have an overall majority.

As Robert Saunders recognises in his article (“A house derided”, 14 August), an elected second chamber would become a significant challenge to the supremacy of the House of Commons. It would also be a much more partisan chamber without the large number of independent cross-bench peers or the experience and expertise of the present House.

However, we recognise the need for continued incremental reform. As a result of the efforts of our group, acts have been passed to allow for the retirement of peers and for the expulsion of any peer guilty of gross misconduct. We actively campaign for further reform, most importantly a reduction in our numbers to a membership no larger than that of the Commons. Proposals put forward by the Lord Speaker’s Committee have our unanimous support.

The obstacle to further reform of the House of Lords is the Executive. It refuses to consider plans to reduce our numbers by, for example, obliging those who play little or no part in our proceedings to retire, and by declining to accept a self-denying ordinance on the number of new peers it appoints.

Because the House of Lords scrutinises legislation infinitely more carefully than the Commons – securing hundreds of improving amendments to government legislation each session – and yet cannot frustrate the will of the elected House, there is no risk of prolonged deadlock in our parliamentary system. Far more would be lost than gained by abolishing the second chamber, which, suitably reformed, can continue to complement the elected chamber in a positive way.
Lord Cormack, chairman
Lord Norton of Louth, convenor
Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber
House of Lords

Carve out a niche

It was good to see Michael Prodger extend his fascinating series to Gertrude Hermes (The Greats Outdoors, 21 August). Hermes was one of an array of 20th- and 21st-century artists who used wood engraving to illuminate our understanding of the natural world and forces of nature. The print used to illustrate Prodger’s piece is included in the brilliant exhibition currently on show at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, as a celebration of the centenary of the Society of Wood Engravers. The ancient skill of wood engraving has long been associated with landscape art, including the work of Palmer, Calvert and Blake. The Ashmolean exhibition was wonderfully curated by Anne Desmet, whose own work extends the bounds of wood engraving through collage and metamorphic ensembles.
Roy Darke

Myth and memory

Simon Heffer is uncharitable and incorrect when he caricatures Fintan O’Toole’s book Heroic Failure as a “nakedly anti-English diatribe” (“The last of the few”, 14 August), before indulging in a paragraph of whataboutery regarding Republican German sympathisers in Ireland, which appeared to have limited relevance to his otherwise interesting discussion of historical myth and memory in the UK. What struck me about Heroic Failure was how amusingly O’Toole exposes and skewers the chauvinism, selective memory and narratives of “imaginary oppression” that were instrumental to building the Brexit sensibility. Heroic Failure is not “anti-English”, it is against Brexit and the exceptionalism of modern English nationalism – these are not the same thing, as Heffer should be well aware.
Damian Madden
Farnham, Surrey

A fatal error

Jason Cowley’s interview with Professor Neil Ferguson (“The Covid modeller”, 14 August) was fascinating. However, unless the interview was conducted with the aid of a Ouija board it is presumably not the case that Dr Ferguson “succumbed” to coronavirus in April.
Steph Marston
Todmorden, West Yorkshire

An affordable fix

Nicholas Lezard’s fears over Brighton’s affordability (Down and Out, 21 August) could be resolved by his packing up his worldly goods and seeking out new horizons just a stroll along the promenade, beyond Hove and into Portslade. This is what we did 35 years ago, leaving our cramped one-bed attic flat in central Brighton for the welcome expanse of a three-bedroomed terraced house on the fringes of Portslade.

However, his street cred might take a hit – as I discovered upon taking the local train service into Brighton. As the ticket office had been closed, I endeavoured to pay my fare at the other end. “I’ve come from Fishersgate,” I told the ticket clerk. “Never mind, love. We all have our cross to bear,” came the reply.
Caroline Ivy
Hayes, Kent

The jury’s out

Pippa Bailey in her column (Deleted Scenes, 21 August) accuses me of leaving my pants on the bathroom floor.

For the record, while this is technically true, it’s only because I’m forbidden from re-entering the bedroom before 9am for fear of waking her up.
Alex Sleator, Pippa’s boyfriend
London SW11


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