For my sanity, I’ve recently begun to keep a tally of government actions that would in the past have led to sackings, resignations or reprimands. Top of my already long list are: the Prime Minister lying about the need for customs checks in the Irish Sea after 2020; the attorney general’s endorsement of law-breaking by a government adviser and the implication that Durham police had lied; and a minister failing to resign after circulating a doctored far-right video of the leader of the opposition.
Cumulatively, the tale these tell is of a system where all notion of accountability for those in power, without which we cannot claim to live in a functioning democracy, has broken down. It’s time we stop treating this as a hypothetical danger and realise that the dismantling of our democracy is happening now, in front of us. And it’s time to start shouting it from the rooftops to those who don’t yet get it.
Follow the leader
In his Editor’s Note about leaders (15 May), Jason Cowley writes that Jeremy Corbyn discovered that leadership “requires much more than charisma and personal conviction”; praises Starmer’s “relentless, forensic style of questioning”; and is unimpressed by the incoherence of Boris Johnson’s “widely ridiculed broadcast to the nation on 10 May”. His reference to something James Mattis wrote interests me particularly: that real leadership is collegial. Great leaders do not seek to have followers around them; they try to develop other leaders by inviting opinion and respecting the views of others. Corbyn and Johnson have shown no collegiality within their own parties or in the House; I suspect Starmer will do things differently.
In the Second World War, of just as much significance as Churchill himself was the coalition government, which generated a unified spirit in the country. If, back in March, Johnson had included opposition leaders in Cobra and established a cross-party forum to consider the strategy for the pandemic, perhaps the issues of care homes and testing would have been addressed more thoroughly.
Bob Reeves, director, Foundation for Leadership Through Sport
I usually enjoy Dr Phil Whitaker’s columns drawing on his medical experience, but he has gone off the rails in his criticism of “our theoretical science” (Health Matters, 22 May).
A model is a set of mathematical relations formulated on the basis of the best theoretical understanding of a phenomenon. Every model involves parameters, which need to be given values before the models can be used to make predictions. These values are taken from the data on past instances of the phenomenon. If the wrong data is chosen, the predictions will be wrong.
It’s starting to look to me that, if the models from Imperial College and others are performing poorly, this is due to the parameters being taken from past flu epidemics rather than the Sars epidemics that provided parameter values for Korean and Chinese modellers. It’s a failure in application, not theory.
Tony Lancaster, emeritus professor of economics and community health, Brown University, US
Power of prayer
Thank you so much for Tracey Thorn’s column on prayer (Off the Record, 15 May). As a retired priest who has “always talked about doubt”, I found her confession captured my heart precisely. Surely it is in the unguarded moments she describes (and our current circumstances supply plenty) that we come closer to who, where and what we really are.
Canon Trevor Pitt
Hamsterley, Co Durham
As always, John Gray is interesting and challenging (The Critics, 8 May). Following Machiavelli, he argues Christian morality is incompatible with the necessities of power. Augustine did not think so, nor did Martin Luther, though Gray believes Augustine evaded the issue. Reinhold Niebuhr faced it head on. Although the ethic of the kingdom of God cannot be enacted literally in the field of politics, it still bears upon political decision-making. It sets out an “impossible possibility” that alerts us to compromises and self-righteous blindness. And it impels us to fulfil its demands in relationships between organised power groups, as in our personal lives. Of course we fall short, but that absolute ideal continues to challenge us and forbids resignation to what is thought to be impossible.
Lord Harries of Pentregarth
Giving Dominic Cummings the power to replace the Treasury’s special advisers (as a result, the government lost its chancellor) is the biggest mistake Boris Johnson has made. Bernard Donoughue, head of Harold Wilson’s policy unit, and I were to take part in a BBC programme to explain why it was disastrous for the politicians, who are temporary, to set themselves against an institution that is permanent and why, inevitably, it would all go wrong. The broadcast was cancelled because Covid-19 swamped everything – but the inevitable has happened. Unelected power leads to arrogance and can breed a self-regard that causes lasting damage to the institution that creates it.
Donoughue and I know the power that access to the ear of the prime minister can bring. We were the only special advisers that Wilson had. We were aware of the instinctive suspicion that the permanent civil servants had of us and decided that it would be wiser to cooperate than fight. Rather than use the power our position gave us, we rejected it. A minor instance: civil servants at No 10 got a government car to take them to the station each night. I walked to mine. It was a symbolic act but important to me, a nightly reminder of my impermanence.
I won’t go along with melodramatic demands that Cummings should be sacked or resign. The time to object was when he was first given his power. Everything else is consequential. The onslaught of the press this week might have had a speedy effect had it taken place months back. It’s a pity that so many people who practise politics today know so little about it.
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
We may feel a visceral revulsion towards Dominic Cummings. But why so little examination of the man who lied us into Brexit, messed up the pandemic response and is supposed to be in charge? Boris Johnson is not weighing up whether or not to support his adviser – he is weighing his personal popularity against whether he can find someone else to run the country for him if Cummings goes.
Cummings is not Iago to Johnson’s Othello, he’s Lady Macbeth to Johnson’s blasted heath.
Not a philosopher
Gwyneth Williams describes Michael Sandel as a “brilliant philosopher” (The Diary, 15 May). He may be a brilliant something-or-other, but he can’t be a brilliant philosopher, because he’s not a philosopher. Maybe this only matters to professional philosophers. Still, it’s nice to get things in the right bin.
William James Earle,
professor of philosophy emeritus, the City University of New York
Pain of the game
Helen Thompson need not worry about fulfilling her childhood promise to support West Ham for life (These Times, 22 May). I broke such a covenant with Coventry City. Coventry’s mismanaged move from Highfield Road to the Ricoh Arena broke the bond. After more than three decades, it was a wrench, but surprisingly liberating. My son was pleased as he no longer had to trawl dilapidated stadiums in the north-west to keep his dad company. Now we both go to support Manchester City. It isn’t worse – just different. Helen should drop West Ham for Cambridge United.
As much as I am a fan of Hunter Davies, I value contributions from Helen Thompson on the state of Premier League football and committed supporters. As a Brighton and Hove Albion supporter of more than 50 years, I’ve fought through the selling of our ground, near elimination from the league, tedious trips to play at Gillingham, and years with few supporters at the tiny stadium at Withdean. Now we have 30,000 fans, a great stadium and piles of cash – but the magic has gone. We, the supporters, are no longer needed.
Buxted, East Sussex
Helen Thompson’s excellent column stood in contrast with Jonathan Liew’s about Newcastle United (Left Field, 22 May). Whereas Thompson wrote wonderfully about the experience of being a loyal supporter in the modern, commercialised game, Liew seemed to come down against powerless, long-suffering Newcastle fans like myself.
Moral responsibility in this takeover saga would be better laid at the door of Mike Ashley. After all, he chose sell to the Saudi-backed consortium and, if the proposed takeover went through, he would be the one pocketing the money.
There are many good reasons for subscribing to the New Statesman, Hunter Davies just one of them. It’s bad enough having no live football to follow without also being deprived of his regular column. Please can we have the old guy back where he belongs?
Cheadle Hulme, Cheshire
Editor’s note: Hunter will be back when the football returns.
An NS legend
Jane Thomas, who died last month aged 82, was a remarkable woman. She worked for ten years from 1978 as “assistant” to three editors at the New Statesman, but her title in no way describes her actual function within the magazine. Just divorced after 20 years of marriage and having brought up four children, she threw herself into every aspect of NS activity – keeping contributors happy, soothing disgruntled readers, feeding stories to journalists, winding up Mary Whitehouse about Craig Raine’s poems and providing all with a shoulder to cry on. During those years she was, in practice, the main contact between the magazine and the outside world. It was a pleasure to have known her.
New Statesman editor, 1982-86
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This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak