The interesting column by Stephen Bush contains one egregious howler (Politics, 13 March). In it he states that when chancellor I was guilty of “directing monetary policy to prepare the UK for entry into the single European currency”. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is on the record that I was strongly opposed to the single European currency right from the start – indeed I was probably the first senior politician to take this position in public.
Mr Bush may be confusing this with the earlier ERM, which I did wish to join, but which could not be more different: in the ERM you kept your own currency (as in the gold standard) and were free to leave at any time.
Nor, of course, did I at any time direct monetary policy to prepare for ERM membership. All this is clearly set out in my memoirs, published almost 30 years ago.
Nigel Lawson (chancellor of the exchequer 1983-89)
House of Lords
Jeremy Cliffe’s fascinating essay (“Grace under pressure”, 13 March) illuminates much but begs the question of the part propaganda plays in promoting national stoicism. “The whiff of unfeeling Victorian brutality – putting down colonial revolts and sending children to sadistic boarding schools” is easier to understand of a nation, at war on and off for centuries, but propagandised into believing it had done the right thing.
One crucial outcome was that large numbers of children were brought up fatherless or father-damaged to believe war was somehow glorious. Stoicism was therefore easier to exploit to justify, for example, the recent coalition government’s narratives around austerity – to such an extent that a YouGov poll in 2015 found that 58 per cent of those surveyed viewed austerity as “necessary”. The Conservatives won the 2015 election after Labour chose not to contest austerity. And in 2018, after eight years of the austerity he had imposed, which continues to cause much hardship, George Osborne tweeted: “We got there in the end – a remarkable national effort. Thank you.”
Before turning to Stoicism as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, I’d advise noting that ancient Stoics would have regarded modern Stoicism as completely irrational. Further, for an ancient Stoic, that is to offer a devastating critique. The reason is that the divine logos of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus was benevolent.
In accepting life as it comes “your soul will be deeply moved by a certain intimation of a deity’s existence”, Seneca wrote. But modern people live after the death of that God, Nietzsche argued, which is why he saw through the sleight of hand of the modern Stoic who substitutes God for a natural system of cause and effect. Nietzsche wrote: “You desire to LIVE according to Nature? Oh, you noble Stoics, what fraud of words!” And he was right. If nature is indifferent and purposeless, as science is often said to prove, the least rational, most inhuman thing to do is accept it, for to be human is to have cares and purposes.
Dr Mark Vernon
It is arguable whether the cost of precautions against the spread of coronavirus is proportionate to the number of lives they will save. Whether one will feel in retrospect that we got the balance right may depend upon one’s relationship to those who die.
In your latest edition you imply that “The World is Closing Down”. I would take issue with that perception.
In The Lord of the Rings, when Frodo met Gildor of the Elves, and complained that he could not cross his own Shire without hassle, Gildor replied: “But it is not your own Shire. Others dwelt here before Hobbits were, and others will dwell here when Hobbits are no longer. The wide world is all around you. You can fence yourself in, but you cannot forever fence it out.”
I am no Dr Pangloss; but neither am I a Cassandra. Perhaps some good will evolve from this, entirely predictable, event. More international co-operation to address common problems? A change in what is perceived as “wealth”, with a corresponding change in the world economic model?
Bangor, County Down
Voice of reason
I must echo Graham Johnston’s comments about the quality of writing the New Statesman achieves on a regular basis (Correspondence, 13 March).
Your latest issue on Covid-19 and how the world is closing down is outstanding. The breadth of coverage, the different perspectives and the measured insights into what is going on and how we all need to adapt is a refreshing change from some of the more hysterical coverage we are seeing in the media.
An essential read, and your strapline of “enlightened thinking in dark times” has never seemed more appropriate.
In her otherwise detailed and fascinating account of the legacy of the Black Death on European memory, Helen Carr asserts “the view was that the disease was a form of divine punishment” (“Haunted by the Black Death”, 13 March). This wasn’t true until the much later stages of the plague. Ordinary Europeans tended to view the plague as the result of conspiracies by the Jewish population. Meanwhile, educated Europeans attributed it to natural phenomena, with the most popular theories blaming it on a comet hitting China or earthquakes releasing foul vapours into the air.
Intellectuals at European universities had substantial correspondence with their rivals at Islamic universities, with scholars from both civilisations trying to collaborate in finding a cure. While all of these theories were wrong, medieval Europeans initially sought natural, not supernatural, explanations, and only turned to religion when societies began to collapse. Even when this happened, religious fanaticism was very restricted. Contrary to the author’s claim that it included “waves of ritual flagellation on the streets; people whipping themselves until bloodied”, medieval Europeans were very suspicious of flagellants. This strange phenomenon, denounced as heresy by the Pope in 1349, was almost entirely restricted to what is now Germany, and there was only a single recorded incidence of flagellants in Britain – at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. The legacy of disease certainly casts a shadow over Europe, but so does a legacy of rational responses.
Dr Russell Foster, lecturer in British and European Politics,
King’s College London
Belief in atheism
Dr Lally may be right that the atheist’s assertion that God does not exist is logical nonsense, but this cannot give any comfort to the theist, because as Charles Bradlaugh pointed out long ago the concept of God is itself nonsense (Correspondence, 13 March). John Gray’s original piece (6 March) concluded oddly by suggesting that the fact that secular thinkers share Cottingham’s non-Humean sense of a coherent self means they have somehow swallowed the theistic myth. Gray must think more carefully, for that is an outrageous non-sequitur. As both Alan Howard and Richard Harries point out in their letters to you, there are good reasons to reject Hume’s “bundle” theory of the self. I reject it and do not think that compromises my atheism in the least.
Respecting the will of the citizens is not “disaster nationalism” but the task of responsible leaders. In his recent article (Observations, 13 March), Richard Seymour makes the outlandish claim that the rise of nationalist movements, in which he includes the government of Viktor Orbán, is in fact “disaster nationalism” that is “fascinated with the prospect of annihilation” and “giddy for self-destruction.”
What? One may admire Seymour’s gift for the catchy phrase, but I’m not sure how this has anything to do with the Orbán governments and our achievements in Hungary. For writers such as Seymour – a Marxist and former member of the UK’s Socialist Worker’s Party – notions of national identity and efforts to preserve it are the eternal bogeyman.
They struggle to understand why movements like ours, led by Orbán, have grown in popularity and why the left is in a free-fall in many places across the continent. If we want to use the word “disaster”, it would better apply to the catastrophic collapse that the socialist and left-liberal parties have suffered in Hungary and elsewhere. The voters have shown them the door in search of better alternatives.
The turning point for many was the global financial crisis of 2008, a mere footnote in Seymour’s account. In the wake of this, fiasco voters began rejecting left-liberal, pro-globalist policies and leaders began to realise that this crisis was in part a result of unfettered liberalism.
Seymour claims that the success of these nationalist movements is based on “fantasy” and “conspiracy theories” about threats like “immigrant invasion”. Yes, Orbán did call it an immigrant invasion. But fantasy had nothing to with it. Some 450,000 migrants crossed our border illegally in just a few months. There’s no word more appropriate than “invasion.”
Seymour claims nationalist movements promise people only superficial “psychological improvement” instead of any real “material well-being”. False. Over the past several years, Hungary has seen a strong economic expansion, one of the highest GDP growth rates in the EU. Rating agencies have changed the economic outlook from stable to positive; the EC has even placed us among Europe’s top performers. Public and private debt are down and unemployment has hit record lows. I could go on, but suffice to say it’s far from a “disaster”.
Hungarian government spokesperson
Flagging it up
I note that Peter Wilby’s subversive pianissimo version of “The Red Flag” while washing his hands (First Thoughts, 13 March) does not risk the excellent chorus:
Don’t let the scarlet standard float
We’ll lose the middle classes’ vote
Let our old-fashioned comrades sneer,
We’ll sing the Red Flag – once a year.
We reserve the right to edit letters
This article appears in the 18 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The final reckoning