In his review of the film White Riot (The Critics, 18 September), I was surprised to see Ryan Gilbey claim “No one watching… is likely to feel we’ve come very far”. Did Rock Against Racism (RAR) achieve nothing? In 1977, the National Front (NF) had beaten the Liberal Party in a by-election in Birmingham and 33 of the seats it had contested in the Greater London Council elections. The NF was on the cusp of becoming a major political party and, with the advent of punk rock, trying to attract a generation of young people to its racist ideology. Its focus was not the punk rockers of the King’s Road, such as Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious, but punk groups based in working-class communities, exemplified by Sham 69 and their lead singer Jimmy Pursey. The key question in the run-up to the 1978 RAR concert at Victoria Park was whether Jimmy Pursey would play. In the event, Pursey joined RAR, announcing onstage: “I’ve got bottle.” That was the turning point. Punk rock was now anti-racist, and the National Front on the way out.
Over nearly five years of leading the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn was allocated many roles by various hostile audiences (communist, Bin Laden sympathiser, IRA supporter, anti-Semite and more – all of which he denied). Though he is no longer the party’s leader, the role allocation goes on, as demonstrated by Jason Cowley’s Editor’s Note (18 September). According to one of Corbyn’s friends, the former Labour leader was a “Peter Pan figure”. Cowley bolsters this view: “Corbyn’s political world-view was formed in late adolescence and remained unchanged through the long decades of his service as an MP.”
Was Corbyn’s opposition to the Iraq War in 2003 a case of immaturity, not a matter of principle and support for the biggest demonstration on the streets of London since 1945? Were the people who, between 2015 and 2020, made the Labour Party the largest political organisation in Europe also living in Neverland?
We are urged to celebrate “Starmer’s cool, competent leadership”, the new sound bite of which – “A New Leadership” – says nothing more than “I am not Corbyn”. But as Cowley reminds us, “competence matters in politics as in the rest of life; it offers the chance to be taken seriously.”
Jason Cowley’s Editor’s Note characterised Jeremy Corbyn as doctrinaire and Keir Starmer as “pragmatic and non-ideological”. This is an oversimplification. In his 2015 leadership campaign, in which he won an overwhelming mandate, Corbyn stood on an anti-Nato and anti-Trident platform and proposed a maximum wage cap, but subsequently abandoned all these positions for the sake of party unity. In the 2019 election he endorsed the policy of a second EU referendum, despite his personal reservations, to agree a unified shadow cabinet position. The reality is that all leadership involves a blend of ideology and pragmatism, and Corbyn’s was no exception.
I read Erica Wagner’s review of Richard Ovenden’s Burning the Books (The Critics, 18 September) with great interest. I think there is an important matter to be added: the value of the book as a means of preserving recorded knowledge and information. If the age of print is coming to a close, it will come to be seen as a centuries-long island of stability between the manuscript age and the digital age, preceded by centuries of lost recorded knowledge and followed by a time of malleability and fakery. The loss of a manuscript library is a cultural catastrophe. Book-burning is a barbarity but not catastrophic. After all, the book burners succeed in destroying valuable artefacts but they fail to obliterate their content.
Past president, American Library Association
Green is good
A statement by the chief executive of Unilever, quoted in your Leader (“The message to the planet”, 18 September), encapsulates current fears: “there will be no jobs or prosperity on a dead planet”.
The answer on offer is “green jobs” to tackle the climate crisis. But the emphasis on green jobs and prosperity will not save the planet. Without a radical reappraisal of what constitutes a good life, we are destined to “sleepwalk into an avoidable catastrophe”, as your Leader puts it. The crisis may not be solely climatic. However green, we will continue to value certain types of work more than others and wealth and power will continue to be in the hands of a financial elite.
My takeaway from the pandemic is that the Earth’s population is far too high at 7.8 billion. Covid-19 is spreading rapidly through cities; social distancing is not even feasible in some parts of the world. Overpopulation is a driver of climate change, thanks to which parts of our planet are no longer habitable and more people will be crammed into a diminishing amount of space.
Robert Skidelsky writes of the belief that “governments are less efficient in allocating capital than private firms” (“What Keynes would do”, 18 September). This government seems very efficient at (mis)allocating capital to itself and its friends. The scandal of dodgy contracts is the dog that hasn’t barked during Covid.
A touch of evil
I take issue with Rachel Cooke’s claim, in her otherwise appreciative and insightful review (The Critics, 18 September) of Des, ITV’s drama about the serial killer Dennis Nilsen, that it was gratuitous and “told us nothing new”. I thought Des was an original drama that probed important questions about the nature of madness and evil and allowed the viewer to understand a little more about the mind of someone who carries out terrible acts. And it did so with sympathy and realism.
Any consideration of Shakespeare’s relevance to our present times (The Critics, 18 September) ought to remember that he was a student of Greek: references to Aristotle and Pythagoras, always mocking, are sprinkled throughout the plays. In Twelfth Night, there is a pantomime exchange between Feste and Viola, who asks him his reasons for saying words are “very rascals”. He replies that he can “yield you none without words and words are grown so false I am loath to prove reason with them.” I suspect Shakespeare knew the same sentiment was expressed in Thucydides 3.82, where it is argued that conflict causes words to change their meanings. Aggression became courage, fanaticism trustworthiness, and reasonableness treachery.
The full picture
Ian Leslie’s column on patriotism (Observations, 18 September) got many things right, but did not give the full picture. As a boy, at the 1950 general election, I asked my dad two questions: why the Conservative cars never came into our council estate, and why the Tory cavalcade was always bedecked in the Union Jack. His answer has stayed with me. For 70 years the Tories have manufactured a monopoly on patriotism because of its association with the monarchy, the ruling elite and the legacy of empire. This was dependent on the inertia of the left, which has not vocalised the desire of ordinary people for expressions of loyalty to, and pride in, Britain.
This has resulted in the separation of Welsh and Scottish nationalism, and an English identity taken over by the far right. The majority of people have a deep attachment to nationhood; you can be a socialist and a patriot.
The good doctor
I know I won’t be alone in feeling sorry that Dr Phil Whitaker’s weekly coverage of the pandemic has come to an end (Health Matters, 18 September). His Covid columns have been illuminating, warm-hearted and surprisingly comforting in these uncertain times. Thank you for steering us through the mysteries of the pandemic.
The Revd Fraser Dyer
I am writing to join what I’m sure will be a loud chorus of thanks for Dr Phil Whitaker’s weekly column during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Even though there are still many mysteries about the virus, it has been a great reassurance to have his insight and compassion as a weekly companion. I wish him all the best for what could be a difficult autumn and winter for the NHS and look forward to reading him in his old fortnightly slot in the Back Pages.
Solihull, West Midlands
Buy the book
Giddy with excitement at having my first entry to “This England” published (18 September), I then read Nicholas Lezard’s column to check out his housing situation. (I am sure other readers are as glad as I am to learn he has found a permanent home.)
His riff on the value of a book review made me think about the £5 book token I had just won. I have been reading the New Statesman for over 40 years and can’t recall the last time the amount awarded for each printed entry to “This England” increased in value.
Just in case
I can assure Daren Carpmail (Correspondence, 11 September) that he is not alone in concocting answers to the “Subscriber of the Week” questions just in case his number comes up.
Incidentally, my prepared answer of choice to “How do you read yours?” is: in a mad panic, once the week has elapsed, with next week’s issue already in the letterbox. And, it seems that “the New Statesman is…” a place to meet others who occupy themselves preparing for small-time fame. Just in case.
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