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11 November 2020

Letter of the week: The end of the story

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

Jason Cowley draws attention to the Prime Minister’s fondness for classics (Editor’s Note, 6 November). Perhaps this has distracted Boris Johnson from studying more recent advice on how to manage in difficult circumstances.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins brought the “Stockdale Paradox” into common parlance. Jim Stockdale was the highest-ranking United States officer in the “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner-of-war camp at the height of the Vietnam War.

“I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale said, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

When Collins asked who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, Stockdale replied: “The optimists… they died of a broken heart.” He added what came to be known as the Stockdale Paradox: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

If Boris Johnson gave more consideration to tackling the “brutal facts of [our] current reality”, he might be less likely to experience the hubris of the gods that surely awaits him.

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Bob Wolfson
Rudford, Gloucestershire

Seeking statesmen

When Simon Heffer quotes Enoch Powell – “the supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils” – he slightly misses the main point (“A crisis of statesmanship, 6 November”). Most human beings have always been prepared to sacrifice some of their autonomy in return for leadership that provides a buffer against disorder, famine and fear. This is, and always has been, the contract between the state and the people.

Covid-19 is a force largely beyond the state’s control; many governments, especially ours, have tried to convince us otherwise. They have used fear as a weapon and promised salvation in return for unprecedented losses of freedom. They have failed to deliver, mainly because they cannot rein in a natural phenomenon on this scale.

No government has found a permanent solution, even New Zealand. Their current virus-free state is no better than a mirage and has been bought at the price of isolation from the rest of the world. Our own government has offered mainly time-buying slogans and glib promises. It has preferred to listen only to a small cabal of well-paid and securely employed scientists who seem incapable of contextualising the problem and the collateral effects of their solutions on the wider health and well-being of the population.

Perhaps this week’s exciting news about a vaccine will turn the tide at last, but it will be no thanks to governments and the games they have played, and the damage they have done to public trust.

Guy de la Bédoyère
Grantham, Lincolnshire

No matter how entertaining it is to read about Boris Johnson’s multiple faults and obvious unsuitability to be on the government payroll in Jason Cowley’s Editor’s Note (6 November), Simon Heffer’s takedown goes further – the cabinet is useless too.

Far too little attention is paid to the calibre, suitability and performance of some of Heffer’s namechecks. Perhaps it is time for a new weekly column that goes minister-by-minister. A number of secretaries of state are already chomping at the bit seeking early inclusion.

Les Bright

When people come in for universal criticism, I usually try to defend them. But after reading Jason Cowley and Simon Heffer’s articles on Boris Johnson’s lack of leadership, statesmanship and, it seems, anything else, I gave up the task as a bad job. I always had my doubts about his capabilities, but hoped we would see a more serious side to his character as Prime Minister. Yes, a pandemic would test any leader’s capabilities, but somehow he has pivoted between a light-hearted response and a damaging, delayed one.

Cowley is right: Johnson wants to be all things to all people and thus fails to be credible to anyone. Now we have a new president-elect. Johnson needs to wake up, build necessary bridges and get a decent trade deal with the EU, or Britain will be left languishing while the action takes place elsewhere.

Judith A Daniels
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Jason Cowley often refers to the UK as “the four nations”. I think this is a mistake. England and Scotland are no doubt nations. I know little about Wales so I will not make any comment about its status. What I do know is that the six counties of Ireland we know as Northern Ireland are not a nation. They are not even a province. They are a divided fragment of Ireland left over from colonial times.

I know Cowley is, like me, an admirer of Orwell, so we know the important interplay of language and politics. Could I ask the New Statesman to change its description of the UK to something more accurate?

David Marsh
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Act your age

What an immensely enjoyable review by Rachel Cooke of The Undoing (The Critics, 6 November): witty and perceptive, as she so often is. She is right to have identified Nicole Kidman’s lack of facial expression, something I’ve found jarring for the past few years. I think the likely reason is skin tightening, Botox and other cosmetic procedures.

Many female actors of a certain age seem to be destroying their natural faces in a bid to look youthful; meanwhile they are compromising their ability to show emotion and in consequence their acting suffers. Our faces are meant to convey our feelings, to aid communication with others. Words alone are not enough. I prefer to see real women on screen who have aged characterfully and who can express their humanity – their joy, sorrow and the subtleties in between.

Alison Hibberd

Trust the doctor

In defence of Dr Phil Whitaker, he did not say that he was opposed to routine annual prostate-specific antigen (PSA)screening for prostate cancer (Health Matters, 23 October) as two recent correspondents implied (Correspondence, 30 October and 6 November). His column was specifically related to the experiences of one patient and his difficulties establishing the cause of his distress and rising PSA level.

Notably, did he or did he not have prostate cancer? After numerous investigations, all of which resulted in no positive conclusions, Dr Whitaker thought in this instance that the patient didn’t really need yet another routine PSA test.

David Rust
St Albans, Hertfordshire

Money problems

Philip Collins couldn’t be more wrong in asserting that Labour needs to work out what it means to be a social democrat without money (The Public Square, 6 November). Keir Starmer needs to understand that money is not the problem, but what it is spent on, and who gains. To help cope with the fallout from coronavirus, the government has turned to the Bank of England. In June, it injected £745bn of newly created electronic money into the economy – followed by a further £150bn in November – via quantitative easing (QE). That £745bn of QE has not made extra demands on the taxpayer, increased government borrowing or resulted in rising inflation (which is expected to remain historically low). However, this new money has not achieved improved conditions for the majority. Instead, it has been used predominantly to boost the property assets and shares of the wealthier sections of society.

Future QE must fund aspects of the economy that need investment. It could form part of a Covid exit strategy: not only providing short-term support for the hospitality, entertainment, retail and tourism sectors, but also financing longer-term measures that deal with regional inequality, repair our threadbare social infrastructure and tackle the climate crisis.

Colin Hines
Convenor, UK Green New Deal Group

How to be lucky

Simon Kuper’s review of two new books on meritocracy (The Critics, 6 November) ends: “Alternatively, stay home, do a respected job that contributes to society, and rise with your community instead of without it. You don’t have to ‘succeed’.” So, is that failure? It seems a strange way to summarise the Labour Party’s political respect for working people. No wonder they reject such arrogance.

Priscilla Alderson

University College London

I’m a lifelong socialist nearing 80. It’s been easy for me. The underdog or under-privileged have always had my respect and sympathy.

Michael Frayn went deeper than the two authors reviewed by Simon Kuper. About 60 years ago he wrote of the “tyranny of the fortunate”. I always take this to mean that being born lucky carries responsibility to help those less fortunate.

Jef Harris
Via email

OnlyFans allowed

Louise Perry’s column on OnlyFans (Another Voice, 6 November) recalled an excellent article by Sarah Manavis on the NS website about the platform being stolen from sex workers by celebrities. Please keep covering this important topic.

Emma Bane
London SE11

TV guide

Pace Barry Wilson (Correspondence, 6 November) and Matthew Engel (Diary, 30 October), if you set Channel 4 News to record with a series link it will be waiting for you when you are ready.

David Richards

Picket punchline

I enjoyed Claudia Kingston’s letter about a shepherd replacing wise men as your diarist (Correspondence, 6 November). But I can’t be the only reader with memories of the 1980s who thinks your sub-editor missed a trick with the headline. “Move over Magi”? Surely “Magi, Magi, Magi! Out! Out! Out!”

Andrew Connell

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This article appears in the 11 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump