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16 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 12:04pm

Letter of the week: The trials of Dante

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

Alexander Lee writes: “Why Dante wrote the Commedia has been much debated. Some believe his purpose was at least partly religious” (“Dante in the dock”, 11 June). This is a bit like saying some believe the purpose of writing the Bible was at least partly religious, and reveals a lack of imagination as to the nuance contained in the Divine Comedy. Dante frequently accuses himself, as when he meets the anxious father of his friend, Guido Cavalcanti, in the Inferno: the father’s worry is a reminder that Dante betrayed Guido in an act that almost certainly caused his friend’s death. Dante is attempting to give a simultaneously clear-eyed and passionate account of events, raising the question of why doing so is valuable. An answer is given by Piccarda Donati, whom Dante meets in the Paradiso: when there is no justice to be found, freedom may come with the hard work of truth-telling that leads to acceptance. Ironically, the relief to be found in honesty, rather than anachronistically attempting to overturn or uphold historic convictions, appears to be Lee’s preferred option too.
Dr Mark Vernon
Author of “Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Guide For The Spiritual Journey”
London SE5


Save the date

Kevin Maguire suggests that the timing of the next general election may prove tricky for some if it coincides with the next London mayoral election (Commons Confidential, 11 June). He thinks that the latest date allowed for polling day in a general election is six months after May 2024. Not so. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act (FTPA) keeps polling day in May, even when the legislation has previously been subverted to provide for a December polling day, as in 2019. So the last date for the next general election is 2 May 2024, the same day as the London mayoral election. But the government is seeking to replace the FTPA. Labour appears to be mad enough to go along with allowing Boris Johnson to pick the date of the next general election whenever suits him best. With new boundaries favouring the Conservatives being introduced from 1 July 2023, Johnson might want a general election soon afterwards, and well before any conclusions from the Covid-19 inquiry become known. It seems to me that many in Labour must prefer opposition.
Lord Rennard
London SW1

Colourful advice

Robert Halfon really lets the Tory cat out of the education bag when he says that “one enduring obstacle is the need for teachers to have university degrees, which colours their advice to students” (Encounter, 11 June). A graduate teaching profession has long been an obstacle to the dismantling of public education by the Tories, and removing graduate status would finally turn teachers into skilled deliverers of pre-packaged training for skilling children to know their place in the economy. Will the Tories also remove graduate status from doctors, nurses, lawyers, engineers and scientists? After all, such degrees “colour their advice” to the public, and removal would help the Tories not only to withdraw such professions as aspirations for skilled children, but also to do away with the reality of public services.
Professor Helen Gunter
Manchester Institute of Education, University of Manchester

State of the Union

The reason the UK government is so opposed to Scottish nationalism (“The revolt of the English”, 11 June) is that its vision of an independent Scotland threatens key UK policies. An independent Scotland would, for instance, be free from nuclear weapons. The Scottish nationalists have always been firmly opposed to the renewal of Trident on moral grounds and so naturally also oppose the siting of British nuclear submarines at Faslane. The major British political parties are firmly attached to nuclear weapons and are not prepared to give the UN Treaty the time of day. That is why the Conservative Party, Labour and the Lib Dems cannot expect to make progress in Scotland.

Recently, in her preface to a reissue of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, Nicola Sturgeon said it was for her the book of books. It is a fiercely anti-war novel, in which the hero deserts the Western Front to make his way back to Scotland. He is captured and shot, but his spirit returns to Scotland.
Malcolm Pittock

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In his excellent review of two recent books, Colin Kidd states that “the common mode of English identity is one of feeling equally English and British”. Before Scottish devolution in 1999, the English identity often defined “English” and “British” as essentially two names for the same thing. Even distinguished authors, such as the American historian Barbara Tuchman, could sometimes use the two words interchangeably. I also remember seeing TV clips of English football supporters waving Union flags at Scotland-England games!
David W Brown

A depressing appraisal by Colin Kidd of the state of the Union. The break-up of the four nations is surely in the Tories’ electoral interest, and plans. It’s naive to believe otherwise. If the Northern Ireland protocol succeeds in solving the logical impossibility of frictionless trade between the EU/Ireland, Northern Ireland and the mainland UK, will it not lay the groundwork for a similar relationship between the EU/an independent Scotland and England?
Tim Pears

Tactful silence

Stephen Bush notes that under the Labour Party’s last three leaders, the “preferred response to divisive issues such as immigration… has been to move the conversation on” to other matters (Politics, 21 May).

Philip Collins, writing about the proposed Planning Bill (The Public Square, 21 May), says: “The number of households has tripled over the past century. A quicker birth rate, a slower death rate, later marriages and more of them ending in divorce have all increased the demand for housing.” He omits the consequences of the 2004 Accession Treaty, when ten new member states joined the EU. The Labour government of the day was one of only three member states immediately to open its labour markets to the new citizens, for financial reasons. The result was mass immigration, which contributed to that government’s eventual defeat.

If the mantra that a government’s first duty is to its citizens holds any weight, one change could be controls on property purchase. Many countries forbid foreign property ownership, which helps to keep domestic housing more affordable for a country’s citizens. I cannot think why it has not been done here. Could it be that fiscal considerations continue to outweigh citizens’ needs?

Anne Rothschild

London NW3

A swarm of Bs

Andy Haldane writes an intelligent espousal of the Treasury View (“A dangerous moment”, 11 June), but might we not do better by building back better by borrowing big, like Biden?
Mike Wood
Via email

The future

I always find articles and books by John Gray challenging because of his forensic deconstruction of beliefs and aspirations. Nevertheless, I did feel a little sorry for Ed Miliband when his book was reviewed by Gray, although I agreed in many ways with the argument (The Critics, 4 June). I think it’s partly because I imagine Miliband listening over and over to Leonard Cohen: “I’ve seen the future baby… it is murder!”
Richard Hemmings
Beccles, Suffolk

Setting the bar low

Ido Vock’s article (“Is ‘state capture’ undoing Georgia’s democracy?”, NS Online, 4 June) overstates the influence that the EU has in Georgia. Even if we accept that the recent intervention has helped keep Georgia democratic, that is a pretty low bar for a country aiming to position itself as a prime candidate for EU membership. The lapse in democratic standards and abuse of the rule of law extends well beyond maintaining power, with the government routinely ignoring the judicial process for its own ends. A recent Venice Commission report attacked a new law, pushed through parliament with little debate, that allowed the country effectively to seize control of a private company’s assets without trial, such as in the widely publicised Caucasus Online case. Given the EU’s recent public push to ensure its own members maintain the rule of law, Georgia can hardly be considered “a key success story” if it continues to act like this.
Nick de Bois
Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire

Greater confusion

Pat Hayes is completely correct to assert that Woodford is in London (Correspondence, 11 June). Clearly, the 56 years since the 1965 reorganisation of local government in what we now know as Greater London have done little to clarify matters among the general population. Enfielders like myself regularly refer to their hometown as being part of Middlesex, and many of my fellow Londoners in Bexley and Bromley would baulk at the notion of being from London, insisting they are Kentish.

But who can blame us for our confusion, when it appears that Surrey County Council has only recently realised that for the past half-century it has been governing its green pastures from gritty Kingston, actually a London borough?
Christopher Rossi
Enfield, Greater London

In sympathy

I have just read Nicholas Lezard’s column on the death of his friend the Moose (Down and Out, 21 May) and I must say I found it immensely moving. Indeed, I had a tear in my eye. Allow me to send my condolences to Nicholas after the tragic death of his best friend.
Sebastian Monblat
Sutton, Greater London

Laboured omission

John Gray’s article (“China’s Covid cover-up?”, 11 June) seems to have suffered an error in editing. I can find no reference to the failings of Labour’s Brexit position. Surely some mistake?
Geoff Skinner
London NW10

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This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web