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28 November 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:48pm

Letter of the Week: Europe’s not so tolerant

By New Statesman

I consider myself an ardent Remainer but I must take issue with Martin Fletcher’s description of the EU as a bastion of “progressive, tolerant, human rights-supporting” values (Observations, 30 August). A couple of years ago the European Court of Human Rights ruled that it was legal for a French employer to dismiss a female Muslim employee for covering her hair – and that is the body that is supposed to uphold human rights. Such behaviour would not be legal in the UK, thanks to the Equality Act 2010 and the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

This is not an isolated case – in six EU countries (France, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Austria and Italy) there are full or partial bans on wearing any form of face veil. And how can we forget the picture last summer of a Muslim woman on the beach in the south of France surrounded by gendarmes being forced to remove her clothing as she was overdressed?

The widespread nature of Islamophobia in the EU is both a symptom and a cause of the increasing popularity of extreme right-wing parties, which are the strongest opposition in France and Germany, and, as  the historian Mark Mazower points out in the same issue, are in government in four EU member states

Our own progressive values owe more to British political history, combining liberalism, democracy and empiricism, than to membership of the EU. I believe Brexit is a poisonous threat to these values, based as it is on English nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and far-right populism. We need to be clear-eyed, though, about the reality of politics in Europe, which is progressive in some aspects but extremely reactionary in others.

Dan Taylor

Lessons of history

Tantalising parallels are called into being by Brendan Simms’s essay (“Hitler’s Long Shadow”, 30 August) and the inexorable progress towards a no-deal Brexit. They could not be better encapsulated than in an essay by the British philosopher RG Collingwood entitled “Man goes mad”. Written in 1936 under the threat of civilisation’s impending annihilation, it charts the psychic forces that allow an otherwise intelligent, rational people to “go mad”.

The essay is pertinent to understanding the 1930s; but there is also a pertinence to the haunted psychic state of the English nation today – echoed in the repeated claims, by some, that a no-deal Brexit is an act of national suicide, by others that it is a necessity of the first order and that politicians must “get on with it, come what may”. In a preamble to his essay entitled “The marks of madness”, Collingwood’s own words diagnostically fit the bill. He writes: “If a man of great intelligence, great bodily strength, and great mental energy, were found working out elaborate schemes for the betterment of his own condition, and throwing all his powers into their realisation, and if it were seen, even by himself, that these schemes when realised involved his own impoverishment, misery, and ultimate destruction, and yet he was unable to stop inventing them and carrying them out, psychological medicine would call him the prey of neurosis, and ordinary people would call him mad.”

Collingwood’s admonitory essay of the 1930s remained unpublished until 2005, but in good time, it now seems, as food for thought in the light of Professor Simms’s analysis.

Philip Smallwood


As one historian, Brendan Simms, implies, there are no straightforward lessons to draw or parallels to make between Hitler’s rise and the rise of destructive tendencies in our age, and in our domestic politics. However, as another historian (Ian Kershaw) has said, Hitler’s case is still instructive, to the extent that the Nazi dictatorship showed how a modern, advanced, cultured society can sink so quickly into barbarity.

That the descent was so rapid has many causes, but the failure of Germany’s post-1918 experiment with parliamentary democracy, the Weimar Republic – particularly after the Great Crash of 1929 and Hitler being appointed chancellor in 1933 – contributed to the Nazis’ rise to power and therefore opened the door to barbarism. The Weimar Republic’s failure was attributable in no small part to its democratic politicians who, as Kershaw argues, ceased to communicate with and stopped understanding the language of the people they were supposed to be representing.

There are no straightforward lessons or parallels there for us and for our much older democracy in the age of Brexit, but there is a clear warning.

Bob Wells
London E4


The university con

In his response to Harry Lambert’s thought-provoking article (“The great university con”, 23 August), PN Ruane makes disappointing comments about students with dyslexia, implying that they are unfit to be undertaking study at a higher education level (Correspondence, 30 August). The Equality Act rightly underlines the importance of ensuring that young people with special educational needs and disability, including dyslexia and sensory impairment, which do not affect cognitive ability, are enabled to show what they know and can do through the use of access arrangements.

These include note-taking, sign language and the provision of specialist teaching support.

His remarks suggesting that people with dyslexia are not suited to be schoolteachers and may only be “claiming” to have dyslexia highlight the fact that there is a great need for more education among the teaching staff in universities and colleges.

Paul Simpson
Rochester, Kent


Professor Alison Assiter (Correspondence, 30 August) is right to observe that prior to the expansion of university education many working-class people capable of getting a university degree ended up working in shops and factories. What she may not know is that many of them went on to run the companies, progressing at work through ability rather than by qualifications.

I have spent my life working in a factory. I also got a First in the professor’s subject, philosophy, and so am in a position to assure her that the problems in manufacturing are every bit as exciting and challenging as those in her subject. The problem manufacturing faces is the prejudice of those in our education system. The result is that we have employed a higher proportion of talented people coming from Europe and elsewhere.

Nick Bion, managing director,
Robert Bion & Co, Reading

I am puzzled that Harry Lambert’s piece referred constantly to “UK universities”, but made no reference to Scottish universities (other than one graduate from Edinburgh), even when including Ireland in his worldwide comparison of spending on higher education. I am sure that statistics are available for higher education north of the Tweed, which would have enabled Lambert to paint a more accurate and complete picture unless, of course, he looked and decided those stats were not helpful to his contentious case.

Lambert tells us that “British degrees from British universities are a great British export”. Perhaps he’ll drink a toast to that with a glass of “British whisky”?

Bill Craig


Labour in Scotland

I read with interest Helen Thompson’s column about Labour in Scotland (These Times, 16 August). However, I’m mystified that it doesn’t address any of the actual causes why the Labour vote in Scotland has collapsed. That is: Scotland has put up with Labour being “in charge” and ineffectual for decades. We wanted change. Labour in Scotland can’t move on or regain seats until it addresses the fact that at least half the population want independence. Professor Thompson points out that Labour needs to win in all parts of the UK, but to do so it has to recognise that its current agenda doesn’t work north of the border. The answer isn’t in the past: it’s in a new Scottish pro-indie Labour.

Siobhan Owen
Dunoon, Argyll and Bute

Cabinet of fools

True to his duplicitous nature our unauthorised prime minister has pressed ahead with the prorogation of parliament in an attempt to sidestep the scrutiny of our sovereign democratic process (“Parliament vs the Brexiteers”, 30 August). Throughout the Tory leadership campaign Boris Johnson avoided scrutiny and now continues to prevent parliament from holding him to account for his actions in the most cowardly and autocratic manner. The country is being held to ransom by the far right of the Tory party and deserves better than this cabinet of hypocrites and fools.

Nigel Evans

Cartoon villain

In 2014 I wrote a piece in which I said of the then secretary of state for education that he brought to the task the appetites of Dracula and the intelligence of Mickey Mouse. I went on to apologise: to Mickey Mouse. However, I forgot to mention Goofy. Michael Gove’s then sidekick, Dominic Cummings, has since graduated to No 10, and brings with him some weird baggage.

Ailbhe Rea (Observations, 23 August) quotes the following compendium that Mr Cummings deems essential to the acquisition of political wisdom: “We need leaders with an understanding of Thucydides and statistical modelling… who have read The Brothers Karamazov and The Quark and the Jaguar, who can feel Kipling’s “Kim” and succeed in Tetlock’s Good Judgement Project.” This is not just stupid, it’s also deranged. I guess I now need also to apologise to Goofy.

Christopher Prendergast

Who’s counting?

I write in respect to Nicholas Lezard’s latest column (Down and Out, 30 August). I want to point out for reasons of probity and completeness that, despite his alleged honesty when discussing his alcohol intake, he continues to deceive himself, his doctor and indeed his readers. He claims his intake is a bottle of wine a day. I read his columns avidly and know for a fact he has previously stated it was a bottle and a half a day. I trust this claret-ifies matters.

In vino veritas.

Dr Simon A Morrison
Via email

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This article appears in the 04 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war

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