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7 October 2020

Letter of the week: Defining a nation

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

E Pritchard is no doubt content to be counted as a member of the Welsh nation, but is mistaken in stating that there is no such thing as a British nation (Correspondence, 2 October). Nations are not fixed entities. They exist as a result of historical processes, do not have fixed definitions and are subject to change, all of which applies to individuals’ identification with them. The existence of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh nations if and when these are meaningful to the relevant populations does not preclude the existence of a British nation. For example, it certainly was the British nation that fought the two world wars of the 20th century. As well as people who identify as both British and one of the four constituent nationalities, there are others, like myself, who simply identify fully as British. Hence the prospect of Scottish independence and the break-up of the Union, brought so much nearer by recent events, is not a distant consideration but causes me real anguish: it would result in a fundamental loss of identity.  
M Greenwood
London IG11

Anti-Tory alliance

Philip Collins is right that a Lib Dem-Labour alliance would increase the chances of a Labour-led government, but he is wrong to reject including the SNP in that alliance (The Public Square, 2 October). As things stand, the departure of Scotland would mean a permanent Tory majority in the rest of the UK. However, the Tory hegemony in England is a product of our first-past-the-post electoral system, not of the wishes of the English electorate. In the 16 elections since 1959 the Tory vote share in England has rarely been larger than the combined Labour and Liberal one.

It follows that Labour, the SNP and the Lib Dems would all benefit from an alliance, for a single general election, based on two manifesto promises: proportional representation and a Scottish independence referendum. The Scots would get the right to self-determination, and the people of the UK would get governments that reflect their views.
Stephen McNair
Coltishall, Norfolk


I congratulate Philip Collins on raising the most pressing party political question ahead of the next general election: can the Lib Dems and Labour work together to defeat an illiberal Conservative government?

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His analysis is good but the prescription – a common critical language and maximum tactical voting – is not likely to get through first-past-the-post. Labour doubtless has more opportunities to win than the Lib Dems but each impedes the other on the ground. A rough, but broadly fair, suggestion: the party polling fewer votes in each constituency in 2019 does not stand against the other. This does not require political convergence, nor a joint manifesto, just a recognition that each is preferable to a Conservative Party that neither could work with.
Rob Marshall
Aylesbury, Bucks

Blitz horror

I was disappointed to see Peter Wilby compare Covid-19 to the London Blitz (First Thoughts, 25 September). Presenting on equal terms the period lived by us all since March to this dark period of history is not only disingenuous, but disrespectful to those who lived through the incomparable terror of 1941.

The average age of the victims of Covid-19 is higher than the current life expectancy – while their deaths are tragic, they were overwhelmingly people already close to the end of their lives. The Blitz may have caused a similar number of deaths but it killed indiscriminately of age in nightly raids of terror, as well as seriously injuring 139,000 people and causing mass destruction of property.
Ben Hargreaves
Via email

Honest account

I wanted to scream “hallelujah” after reading Katy Shaw’s Red Wall Notebook (25 September). How refreshing it is to read a perspective from the north-east: an area which is much discussed and caricatured by those who aren’t from here, don’t live here, and don’t “get” the complexities and contradictions of the region. More voices like Katy’s from the regions would be warmly appreciated.
Marie Donnelly
Via email

Poverty denial

Megan Nolan’s column about how rich people can’t accept – or indeed imagine – poverty (Out of the Ordinary, 2 October) raised a wry smile here, because this is the true subject of my recent novel, The Golden Rule. Its heroine has no safety net, or “complex network of guarantees that underwrites the life of any moneyed person”, as Nolan calls it. I once lived this life, for a brief but searing time. Despite being a university graduate, I became a cleaner, and although I avoided homelessness, I was hungry, angry and despairing, just as hundreds of thousands of people now are. It is this that made me a so-called “state of the nation novelist”. It is ironic that, so far, the right-wing Spectator has found space to review my novel but the New Statesman has not.
Amanda Craig
London NW1

Rise to power

Martin Fletcher’s account of the Boris Johnson acolyte Munira Mirza (“The rise of the Oldham libertarian”, 2 October) is too polite. Mirza’s journey from the back streets of Oldham to the “pinnacle of power” does not show it is possible for people of colour to prosper in Britain. It simply reveals the temporary benefits of sycophancy.

Her disavowal of institutional racism is based on the story that personal success is a panacea for the many who are routinely excluded by structural racism. Her dismissal of the Windrush scandal as a bureaucratic problem suggests that knowledge, empathy, and critical insight are not her strongest characteristics.

Together with the Home Secretary, she represents the worst manifestation of institutional racism: investing shoddy power in people of colour to do the dirty work for institutions steeped in prejudice.
Jay Mitra
Professor of Business Enterprise and Innovation
University of Essex

Class divides

I am not sure what postwar educational explosion David Clemson is referring to (Correspondence, 2 October). The median age of MPs is 50-59, so this majority would have been at university from the late 1970s onwards. Perhaps he means the war against the grammar schools started by Tony Crosland, Harold Wilson’s education secretary, who believed comprehensive schools could offer equal opportunities and access to the new universities: members of this new aspirational working class were likely to be the first among their extended families to go to university, surely something to be proud of.
Dr Mike Davis
(First in family to experience higher education)


I may be making an inaccurate assumption but I notice David Clemson was writing from Melbourne and perhaps is not so aware of the significance of class in British society. In the 1970s, around 5 per cent of the population went to university; they were overwhelmingly upper and middle class. It is essential for working-class people to have the aspiration and opportunity to go to university if we are to address class divides in the UK.

Kevin Cawser
Via email

Damaging views

Andrew Marr’s article (“The search for a national story”, 25 September) was an enjoyable enough read. However, his attempts at provocation went a step too far in requesting a reappraisal of Mary Whitehouse as “a righteous pioneer in taking on paedophilia and sadistic porn”. Whitehouse believed, true to traditional Judaic Christian principles, that sex should be practised only between married people when conception was possible. Teenage sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality were all appalling, as were the people making TV and radio programmes celebrating such “evils”. Far from helping to forge new ground, she was a religious bigot who caused many people serious distress.
Phil Lee
Elslack, North Yorkshire

Conflicting instinct

In an otherwise well-reasoned argument against pessimism, Ian Leslie’s column (Left Field, 2 October) contains a striking contradiction. At one point he states that “when confronted with bad news our instinct is to avoid it”; then, further down the page: “It’s easier to get clicks for a story that says the world is going to hell.” Even so, I am persuaded to give his prescription for optimistic thinking a try. I don’t hold out much hope, though.
Martyn Bedford
Ilkley, West Yorkshire

Subscriber woe

I sympathised with Wes Bell (Correspondence, 2 October) apropos his inability as a digital subscriber to see This England and Subscriber of the Week. This England is a particular favourite of mine. However, I cannot resist pointing out that on the preceding page of Correspondence, there is a letter from Professor Alison Assiter regarding an NS Online piece, the context of which I missed out on as a print subscriber.
Christopher Rossi


Peter Barnes (Correspondence, 2 October) might like to note that a postcard with a stamp costing more than 10 per cent of the prize is no longer necessary for a submission to This England. For years I have been sending entries by email. Since Royal Mail was privatised I do this without compunction.
Jenny Woodhouse

Mushroom mission

Every now and again, I read a book review in the New Statesman that is so intriguing I have to immediately place an order. In the case of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures (The Critics, 2 October) I acted partly on the promise of the content, but more on the author’s curiously apt name: Merlin Sheldrake.
Chris Simms
Marple, Greater Manchester


Editor’s note: in last week’s Correspondence, Michael Pyke’s letter appeared to complain of Leo Robson’s dismissal of “The Great Gatsby” in his review of Greil Marcus’s “Under the Red, White and Blue”. Mr Pyke’s point was that Mr Robson had “summarily dismissed” Marcus’s book, not Fitzgerald’s. We apologise for the error.

We reserve the right to edit letters.

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This article appears in the 07 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Long Covid