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17 November 2021

Letter of the Week: Johnson’s simulacrum of seriousness

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

John Gray’s forensic analysis of the ambiguities of political Johnsonism (“Behind the masks”, 12 November) is conducted with a coolness I can only envy. But I’m still surprised that Gray sees Johnson’s shape-shifting as a sign of some sort of “genius”, with the hint of a less culpable reality beneath the skin of this shallow simulacrum of a man. The news that Johnson took Lucretius on holiday does not secure his reputation for a serious inner life. Lucretius’s best English translator, John Dryden, who knew a thing or two about the will to power, wrote in 1685 of “that perpetual dictatorship which is exercised by Lucretius… he seems to disdain all manner of replies, and is so confident of his cause that he is beforehand with his antagonists… leaving them, as he supposes, without an objection for the future”.

Lucretius rails at the folly of fearing death in book three of De Rerum Natura, wagging his finger at his readers for wasting their life in pointless anxieties. Perhaps the “Lucretian” Johnson is not he of Gray’s “brooding fatalism”, but is most visible whenever he waves his arms or wags his finger, as on the subject of sleazy MPs.

Philip Smallwood, Bristol

The social-democratic EU

I read with interest John Gray’s analysis of our Prime Minister’s politics (“Behind the masks”, 12 November). However, I disagree strongly that the EU is a “neoliberal project”. I have not read or heard that the Social Chapter has been scrapped. Large sums of money continue to be transferred from richer areas to poorer areas of the EU: my own area of South Yorkshire is now missing out on the large sums that once poured in from the EU, after the closure of mines and steelworks made it one of the bloc’s poorest regions.

I understood that the motivation of the very rich, right-wing Brexiteers for wanting to leave was to abandon all the regulations on workers’ rights, environmental protection, food safety through labelling, environmentally friendly farming and good animal welfare, not tipping sewage into rivers and the sea, and levelling up the poorest parts of the Union, since all these would put a brake on their ability to make ever more money for themselves.

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The political complexion of the EU mirrors the national governments elected in each country, and all legislation has to go through extensive discussion and amendment in cross-party and cross-national policy committees of the directly elected European Parliament. The EU continues to model itself on the social market pioneered in West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. I do not dismiss market forces, having seen in East Germany how they were completely disregarded while record outputs of iron and steel were lauded and not put to good use, but believe they need to be managed to ensure the best outcome for ordinary people.

For all its shortcomings, this is the basic achievement of the EU – to say nothing of its success in providing a way of settling differences between the states of Europe in a committee room in Brussels rather than on a battlefield.

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Veronica Hardstaff, MEP 1994-99, Sheffield

John Gray makes a compelling case for Boris Johnson’s apparent immunity from criticism or even scandal. But we should not forget that another reason for such impunity is a dysfunctional political system that creates what Lord Hailsham described decades ago as an “elected dictatorship”. In 2019 less than three in ten of all people eligible to vote elected a government with a leader who, under the UK’s parliamentary system, can do more or less what he likes. More than three in ten voted against his party. The rest could not be bothered to vote – many of them perhaps because they felt that in the majority of “safe seats” it was a waste of time under the winner-takes-all rules.

Now the government is trying to restrict further the legislative and administrative checks and balances that should be regulating democracy. Until we change this exceptional and unfair voting system, corruption and injustice will continue.

Trevor Cherrett, Devizes, Wiltshire

John Gray offers a byzantine take on the intellectual underpinnings of Boris Johnson. I fear he is guilty of overanalysing. Johnson’s approach to politics seems largely to consist in little more than a concoction of relentless tabloid sloganeering, a deep-rooted unseriousness, a penchant for gesture politics and an impulsive drive to hoard power for its own sake. I doubt there is much more to it than that.

Gino D’Oca, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire

John Gray characterises Labour’s support for the judicial application of human rights as being hostile to democratic politics. But democracy itself dictates that human rights should be applied evenly to all, not least in the sensitive areas of immigration and terrorism that Gray cites. The courts are much better positioned to do this dispassionately than politicians. What’s more, as Gray neglects to mention, the courts did not fashion human rights out of thin air: they came from the elected parliament. This is democracy, with its checks, balances and the separation of powers, functioning well.

Nick Jones, London SW1

Care of Ed Balls

Rachel Cooke’s review of Inside the Care Crisis with Ed Balls upset me (The Critics, 12 November). It felt like an unnecessarily personal attack on Balls, who was kind and respectful at all times, and whose warmth for the elderly residents and for his mother appeared genuine. The programme was certainly better than nothing. I am the wrong side of 75 and it was a hard watch, but a thought-provoking and insightful one.

Julia Coyne, via email

So far I’ve deliberately missed all of Ed Balls’s post-political TV appearances. I promise to watch the one in which he looks Sharon Shoesmith in the eye and apologises for his public dismissal of her in December 2008, when he was children’s secretary and she was director of children’s services for Haringey. None of his galumphing makes up for that shameless and ignoble act.

Michael Coxon, Loughborough, Leicestershire

As someone working in the sector, I appreciate Ed Balls drawing attention to the daily work of caring for society’s most vulnerable, and to the financial and workforce crises threatening social care.

The prevailing attitude to social care has for too long been “out of sight, out of mind”: for the general public, that we might one day become dependent on others for personal care is uncomfortable and so is easily pushed to the back of our minds, allowing successive governments to put reform in the “too difficult” basket.

Recent reforms are a welcome first step but, according to the King’s Fund, are not enough. Only £5.4bn of the promised £36bn extra funding over the next three years is earmarked for social care. This works out at £1.8bn a year. If Mr Balls succeeds in getting more people to value those who need care and those who provide it, thereby pushing social care up the political agenda, then well done to him.

Claire O’Beirne, Chesham, Bucks

Locked out of living

Louise Perry shines an interesting light on the changing power relationship between the younger and older generations (Out of the Ordinary, 12 November). But I can’t go along with her assertion that young people have “had their best years robbed from them by lockdown”. They’ve got decades ahead of them and will soon get over, and even forget, this interlude. For those of us in our sixties, it’s felt like a real curtailment of the years left to us.

Paul Larsmon, Burbage, Wiltshire

The Tate’s blind spot

It was very interesting to read Michael Prodger’s caustic comments about the “imposition” of colonial, race and gender issues on the Hogarth exhibition at the Tate Britain (The Critics, 5 November). The irony is that the critical commentary by a range of “experts” is presumably paid for by the Tate, which itself has links with slavery through the sugar trade. I found no criticism of the Tate by the commentators.

Michael Moore, Loughton, Essex

We the pedants

Grammar rules must have changed since my GCE days in the 1960s (Correspondence, 5 and 12 November). We would have been shot for using “we” after “to” in all circumstances, there was no nonsense about “we nerdy English students” being an immutable noun phrase. As for “Us students of English embrace the richness of language” being informal but grammatical, it seems to open the floodgates to abandoning all rules. The special status of the pronoun “we” being more open to variation is new to me, and, if true, must surely complicate the teaching of grammar, which was hard enough to begin with.

Alice Edwards, Wokingham, Berkshire

Although Helen Ryan-Atkin is right to defend the use of “we” rather than “us” in certain noun phrases, she picked a bad comparator in referring to the Three Kings of Orient. The “we” here governs the “are”, placed poetically at the end of the clause, and is not part of a noun phrase.

Alex Galloway, Kenilworth, Warwickshire

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This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand