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21 July 2021

Letter of the week: If Shakespeare did sport

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By New Statesman

After reading your various reflections on Euro 2020 (“Apple vs Facebook”, 16 July), I thought how appropriate it was that the nation of Shakespeare should produce a drama worthy of our greatest playwright.

The story starts with our modest hero failing in the most severe test of his young career (Euro 1996). Then, after years in exile (in distant Middlesbrough) he returns to the national stage, older, wiser and determined that his own young charges will go on to far greater things than he did. But, at the final hurdle, three of the brightest and best, who encapsulate all that he stands for, fail just as he did all those years ago. Yet in a final plot twist, as those young men suffer even greater abuse than he ever did, the nation turns and embraces the three and their leader as encapsulating the best of a country that had changed for the better over the intervening years.

I only hope that James Graham, the most accomplished playwright of modern times, has been taking notes.

Mike Smith
Settle, North Yorkshire


Pride of Lions

The impassioned words of Jason Cowley, Stephen Bush and Louise Perry in last week’s issue (“Apple vs Facebook”, 16 July) were an absolute pleasure to read. For too long, patriotism has been butchered by racists and xenophobes who idolise the past and corrupt what would otherwise be a healthy sense of national pride. The actions of England’s players both on and off the pitch, guided by the wisdom of Gareth Southgate, showcase a different kind of patriotism that all at once emphasises tradition, diversity, community, integrity and progress.

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In Achieving our Country (1998), the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote of this patriotism when he argued that “national pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement”. He believed that we must tell an emotive and honest patriotic story if we are to give reason and motivation to progressive politics. Without such a story, we will become so wrapped up in our shortcomings that we are unable either to articulate or bring about a better future beyond them.

For a brief moment, Southgate and the England team proved that a forward-looking and critical patriotic story has widespread appeal throughout the country. A pragmatic Labour Party would seize this story to expose the perniciousness of Tory flag-fetishism, reconnect with the electorate, and secure power. Ultimately, the key to crushing the hollow myth of Tory England is to raise our voices and tell a better story, one defined not so much by where we’ve been but more by where we’re going.

Thomas Osborne


Jason Cowley (Editor’s Note, 16 July) writes with elegance and sense about aspects of Englishness. But he slightly exaggerates by asserting that England’s footballers have helped to reclaim the flag from those who behaved badly when those players lost the final to Italy. The sports teams who represent England have been winning that battle for many years. In terms of racial composition, they are representative of the nation.

We have some distance to go before we reach this paradise. But some nations have even more ground to make up. How many black players represented Italy or Scotland at Wembley? It is worth asking these questions, if only to indicate that, in sport, the English are writing a tale that others might do well to read.

Michael Henderson
London W13


I’m 57 and have been a republican for as long as I have had a view on the subject. Louise Perry’s argument (Out of the Ordinary, 16 July) for a “powerless prince” over a “strongman politician” was persuasive in an age when the strongman seems to be rising up the popularity charts). I may have to temper my own anti-monarchy rhetoric for a while as a result.

Simon Muir
Via email

[see also: In Gareth Southgate’s England, you don’t have to choose between diversity and tradition]

Growing pains

Sophie McBain’s article (“The baby bust”, 9 July) rightly points out that the key driver of population change is whether women have control over their fertility. The government’s decision to cut the foreign aid budget was particularly regrettable given that much of the UK’s aid programme is focused on helping women achieve this control.

But, in the rest of her article I fear that she underestimates the challenges that lie ahead.

Globally, assuming the Lancet study is right – and by no means all demographers agree – the world population at the end of the century will be 8.79bn. That will still be an increase of 1.1bn (15 per cent) on today.

Nationally, according to the Lancet study, the population of the UK in 2100 will be five million above what it is now – equivalent to roughly two times the current population of Greater Manchester. To believe this increase can be achieved without trade-offs is fanciful.

That is why I argue for the creation of an Office for Demographic Change to provide transparent, evidence-based analyses of the strategic consequences of population change. I have tabled a private members’ bill proposing such a body, which is due to have its second reading in the House of Lords later this year.

The Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
London SW1A


Failing the test

There is nothing “general” about the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). GCSEs narrow the curriculum of schools far more than the national curriculum ever did. Philip Collins (The Public Square, 16 July) rightly points out that internal assessments by teachers work perfectly well.

Teacher assessments would function far better as part of a broader record of skills and achievements for each child. In the 1990s a National Record of Achievement (NRA) containing teacher assessments was adopted for all schools, with potential use by employers and in further and higher education settings. However, reliance on exam results by academic institutions and employers continued, and the 1996 Dearing Review of qualifications for 16-19-year-olds recommended the NRA scheme be discontinued. Pandemic arrangements aside, written examinations for young people leaving school will likely continue because they serve elite interests.

Robin C Richmond
Bromyard, Herefordshire


While I agree that GCSEs should be abolished, as a historian I am surprised at the superficiality of Philip Collins’s linking the history of education to the names of successive education ministers. It is like trying to understand Tudor history by listing Henry VIII’s wives. It also implies that each step represents progress, whereas teachers regard the 1988 Education Reform Act as a retrograde step. In the nearly 80 years since the 1944 Education Act, providing the necessary funding has never been the priority. Philip Collins wants Gavin Williamson to get rid of GCSEs, but a more fundamental change is needed: educational policy should be decided using the skill and guidance of teaching professionals.

Margaret Morris
London N8


Philip Collins rightly calls for the abolition of the pointless GCSE system. Missing from his thesis, however, is that students need to learn how to learn, and that we all need encouragement to discover how we express creativity.

Adam Stinson
Hazleton, Gloucestershire


[see also: Why GCSEs should be abolished]

Minority rules

In his excellent article Andrew Hussey quotes a criticism of the left for prioritising “the needs of individual minority groups… over the universal values of France” (“France’s silent majority”, 16 July). He suggests this is a key factor in the decline of working-class support for the French left. This also applies to the UK: you can’t expect a majority to vote for you when you only seem interested in minorities.

Recently, a government report showed that white working-class boys (the group I once belonged to) were the worst-performing pupils in schools. Previous surveys have also shown this. Only Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the Education Select Committee, seemed to take the matter seriously.

Peter Sheal
Fyvie, Aberdeenshire


Powerless people

Annette Dittert is right to criticise Boris Johnson for his dishonesty and “the erosion of the rule of law” (“The politics of lies”, NS online, 15 July, and see page 30). However, I was surprised that she appears to accept the notion that “the people” of the UK have “regained sovereignty” through Brexit.

First, the UK never lost its sovereignty through its membership of the EU, as evidenced by its being able to choose to leave. Second, sovereignty does not only mean having control of regulations within our borders, but also within the markets with which we trade. By leaving the EU, the UK has lost a degree of sovereignty by becoming more of a rule-taker and less of a rule-maker. Third, the “decline of democratic structures” that Dittert describes may have increased the power of Boris Johnson and his cronies, but it has taken sovereignty away from the people.

Robert Saunders
Balcombe, West Sussex


Mask matters

Throughout the pandemic I have found Dr Phil Whitaker’s columns enlightening. However, I was struck by his most recent piece (Health Matters, 16 July) and the inadvertent case it made for a policy position apparently opposed to his own. He has a point when he says careless mask usage does not do “much of practical value”.

But what about the impact of appropriate usage for people like me who have compromised immune systems? In the absence of clear policy on the right thing to do, we need every role model to set an example that promotes not personal but social responsibility. Telling patients, and all of us, that as a super-informed GP scribe he is “getting back to normal” may sadly reinforce that shrug-of-the-shoulders attitude to public health.

Neil Betteridge
​London W6


Wet up north

Nina Caplan writes that “downing vast quantities of alcohol as a signifier of manliness” has lost its cachet (Drink, 16 July). She obviously does not live in the north of England (where I’m from) or Scotland.

Trevor West
Dorking, Surrey

[see also: Wine is born from hardship – and few have had as much to overcome as port]

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This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century