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19 August 2020

Letter of the week: Talking Britain down

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

The articles by Simon Heffer and DJ Taylor  (“The last of the few”, and The Critics, 14 August) represent the worst of current British pessimism. They both point out our depressing faults, but cannot bring themselves to recognise the benefits of being British. This attitude is based on believing that everything in the past was better than today. Heffer talks of myths, but he does not recognise that they are only part of that difficult concept, patriotism. In the Second World War, George Orwell identified a range of positive British attributes: the rule of law, free speech and democracy, the deep continuity of our heritage. He recognised two essential features of the British: their support for fair play and decency, and a revulsion to the cult of power worship. It is time for the left to recognise the sense of belonging and purpose that we are searching for as a nation. I recognise that loyalties are divided by four countries, but a British identity is still worth fighting for

Keith Maton 
Crickhowell, Powys

A long shadow

DJ Taylor’s rosy, cosy account of life after the Second World War (The Critics, 14 August) was grossly misleading; it would not be recognised by many children of the early 1950s whose fathers fought in the 1939-45 war and then in Korea.

After his childhood was consumed by the aftermath of the Great War, and his youth by the 1939-45 war and Korea, my father came home. For his children there were meagre rations of anything, save barely contained hatred and contempt – for that was what he learned in childhood and the navy. You can take the man away from the NCO, but you cannot take the NCO out of the man.

Lest anyone is misled, the wars stole a very great deal more than Pink Rabbit; Taylor’s account reduces their bleak shadow to a fuzzy, homely penumbra.

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Dr Bob Watt
Via email

British myths

Simon Heffer’s thoughtful article (“The last of the few”, 14 August) avoided the recent trend among some historians to underplay the significance of the Battle of Britain in our national history – with a very evocative portrait of John Hemingway to illustrate the piece and intelligent linking of historical mythology to our actual lived experiences, I wonder who will eventually replace the few in our consciousness.

Mark Long
Corby Glen, Lincolnshire

I am sure I am not the only one to have laughed my socks off reaching the end of Simon Heffer’s touching and otherwise well written essay on the risk to Britain and Britishness, to find not even a mention of the word “Brexit”, let alone any view as to whether it might just have played a role in what he was worried about.

To write that “an idea of Britishness, taken for granted even 30 or 40 years ago, is now… under threat from nationalist forces, notably in Scotland but also in England” and ask, “Is modern society… capable of unity, of having all the peoples of these islands engage in a national project together?” without even the intellectual curiosity to ask whether or not the forces unleashed by Brexit had made a modest contribution to this, made me laugh out loud. If a passage on this was edited out, perhaps an apology is due?

Rt Hon Alistair Burt
Wootton, Bedfordshire

Our house

Towards the end of his polished article on the Lords, Robert Saunders (“A house derided”, 14 August) touches on a key point. What is the House for? Composition of the Lords, which obsesses many, should come after the Powers and Functions have been addressed.

At present, the Commons has the last word and the Lords doesn’t use its powers due to being unelected. It is nothing more than a very large sub-committee of the Commons. Convention says (rightly) we do not use our powers, which are substantial. If an elected House were to inherit these, it could throw out bills sent for revising, and there would be no dispute resolution machinery as there is now, when the Lords “gives way” after, at most, three challenges.

We need a revising chamber to enable the Commons to think again and tidy up the often undebated legislation sent to us. It should always be smaller than the Commons. I am not sure it needs ministers, though I always felt under greater scrutiny as a minister in the Lords than the Commons. Clearly, a reformed House must have its powers reduced before it gains democratic legitimacy, as it will not agree it afterwards.

A reformed elected House would not contain the expertise that the present House has. That would be the price of direct election. However, because of the reduced powers and clarity of function the Lords does not need to be directly elected. It does not require direct election to be “democratic”.

If it were abolished to provide a chamber of the four nations to help keep the Union together, then a new English parliament based on a modified Commons might work, but it would need a radical change to many current working practices. Where would the revising role sit, for example? Therein lies the sticking point.

Jeff Rooker
House of Lords

Anoosh Chakelian and David Ottewell draw attention to our outdated and unelected second chamber (“Peers reviewed”, 14 August). The UK also has one of the most centralised governments in the world, in which the advice of local leaders is often ignored. We should replace the Lords with a body comprising the 408 elected leaders of principal local councils in the UK. This would give a greater voice and profile to local democracy as well as save money.

Dr Paul Lally
Via email

It is easy for abolitionists to paint a (selective) picture of the House of Lords as anachronistic and indefensible. There are certainly aspects of it, not least its unlimited size, which could be improved. But it was not the Lords that made Boris Johnson Prime Minister, or that is now allowing us to drift towards a no-deal Brexit. Make parliament work better by all means – but start with the elected legislators at the other end of the Palace of Westminster.

Andrew Connell

The tie that binds

I’m intrigued by your cover artist’s portrayal of Boris Johnson with a St George’s flag tie (14 August). What is this meant to convey? Johnson is certainly an Anglocentric British unionist: one who sees the UK as the extension of English institutions, authority and power. But far from making him an English nationalist, he places the Union above England and ignores English interests.

Anglocentric unionism is widely shared across England’s political establishment. We see it in Labour politicians saying “Britain” when they mean England, in “UK” headlines on stories about English policy, or your own Helen Thompson’s dismissal of the idea that England’s voters should govern their own domestic policy. None want to admit they share the same world-view as Johnson. Instead of giving him the Union flag he deserves, it’s easier to caricature him as one of those nasty English that “progressive liberals” love to despise.

Professor John Denham
Director, Centre for English Identity and Politics, Southampton University

Multiple choice

It’s disappointing that Dr Brian Winston (Correspondence, 14 August) felt obliged to point out that media studies should not be seen as solely vocational. It never set out to be. Ironically, it was during the Thatcher years that many schools began to pursue media education, through which they explored and challenged stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. By the 1990s, many pursued environmental education in the same way, as well as taking a progressive multidisciplinary approach to health and relationships education.

A critical understanding of how our media-dominated world works remains essential.

Helene Witcher
Bridge of Allan, Stirling

The exams fiasco

I wonder if the government might seize the opportunity presented by the results fiasco to reform the way in which we assess children?

Clearly, the current method of cramming them into some mysterious template and hoping for a worthwhile outcome is not acceptable. Using the skills of well-trained teachers, many of them already effective and very experienced examiners, would produce accurate assessments with outcomes that could be trusted by employers and universities.

But the key to all this is trust in the teachers: their skills and honesty.

Dr Keith Hamnett
Via email

Avoiding Amazon

Iain Dale (Diary, 14 August) notes that Amazon is doing a roaring trade and worries about independent bookshops. In the current circumstances it’s hard to resist the convenience of buying online, but it’s not necessary to feed the Bezos behemoth. The book supplier is usually competitive with Amazon on price, offers home delivery or collection from a nominated local bookshop and, either way, offers that bookshop a commission on the sale.

David Griffiths

No mere weed

Putting on a gardener’s apron seems to have obscured John Burnside’s usual natural sympathies (Nature, 14 August). His invading horsetails are barely given an identity, save that of the enemy. Yet they’re prodigious plants, descendants of the giant horsetails that formed the Coal Measures. Their detachable stalk segments (almost certainly the inspiration for Lego) coat themselves with silica crystals, so much so that they were used for scouring pots (they still work). At the edge of a chalk quarry I once saw a bed of horsetails mingled with wild orchids – the feather against the porcelain – that was worthy of a medal at Chelsea.

Richard Mabey
Diss, Norfolk

New horizons

Thank you for Michael Prodger’s articles on landscape painting. By choosing less widely known artists and from collections many of us will not have visited, he has revealed the most varied responses to landscapes of different types.

Rosemary Simmons

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