Philip Collins (The Public Square, 26 February) sees astutely beyond the old debates about Boris Johnson.
Johnson, like his hero Disraeli, is a career politician with a ravenous hunger for climbing the tiered cake-stand of public life. This Prime Minister is not an ideologue on a mission like Thatcher or Corbyn. Instead, like a late-Victorian Conservative, Johnson sees himself as playing the “great parliamentary game”. The point of this game is to win and keep office. Johnson constantly reinvents himself and his policies to make sure that he does.
Johnson is already the greatest vote-winning British politician of the 21st century. He is also a destroyer of opponents’ careers, his Boris bike festooned with the scalps of Ken Livingstone (his red twin), Cameron (his distant cousin), May and Corbyn.
Starmer can learn from Gladstone, who performed best when he rose above his personal distaste to attack Disraeli with policy. If he can show voters a vision of a better Britain, Starmer can make the next general election competitive. If he can’t, Johnson will add Starmer’s name to the many who have lost the “great game” to Boris.
Bruce Robert Dear
Boris Johnson’s success is not a consequence of his political enemies underestimating him, but the reverse. Ever since Johnson won the London mayoral election, he has had the overblown reputation of the “Heineken Tory” – the one that can reach parts of the electorate other Tories can’t. David Cameron and George Osborne reputedly feared Johnson more than any other rival. This must have influenced their courting of the Brexiteers, which was the first of many actions that paved Johnson’s way into No 10 and rendered him the voice of a respected and recognised faction of the Tory party. He could then terrorise Cameron and Theresa May, both of whom constantly undermined their own position by appeasing him.
He has been gifted in Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer two opposition leaders who gave credibility to his government. Corbyn, through suppression of the Remainers in his own party, ensured that Johnson’s Brexit policy would be denied any real opposition in parliament. Starmer desperately tries to identify with those Johnson policies that polling tells him are popular with the electorate. Rather than claiming for Johnson a competence that he lacks, it is the lack of political nous in his opponents that has granted him his success.
Harry Lambert (“The BBC and the battle for truth”, 19 February) reveals how the BBC is facing tough challenges. It needs to earn trust on all political sides as it did during the Northern Irish Troubles, as the historian Jean Seaton has documented.
Sadly, as Lambert shows, the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg often relays unattributed “government sources” without critical analysis. The BBC needs to rethink its news and current affairs coverage as it is letting down the wider corporation, which has broadcast rich, varied TV and an unrivalled array of radio programmes.
Harry Lambert’s article on the BBC was excellent. I suspect that many NS readers took in CNN’s coverage of the dramatic events in US politics in November and January, and, like me, were blown away by its forthright pursuit of only presenting its audience with the naked truth, the highlight of which was cutting away from Donald Trump in the middle of his untruth-laden rant. I cannot see BBC News doing the same if a speech of similar veracity were to be given by a member of our government.
Until BBC News stops blindly regurgitating the latest sartorial choices of the emperor and his court, I fear that Lambert is absolutely correct that consumers of news will increasingly look elsewhere.
Enfield, Greater London
[see also: The BBC and the battle for truth]
Richard J Evans’s review of Robert Tombs’s This Sovereign Isle (The Critics, 26 February) was refreshing. Tombs has established himself as the house historian for the government’s relationship with Europe; Evans debunks such posing.
However, he did not cover Tombs’s prediction that Brexit will quickly cease to have an influence on British politics. Tombs claims this previously happened with Irish Home Rule and the repeal of the Corn Laws, divisive issues in their time. But the Irish question resonates through the decades. Similarly, the debate on free trade, ever since the repeal of the Corn Laws, continues to reverberate. It would be more accurate to say that Brexit was the latest manifestation of both – and it has still not settled Britain’s relationship with either Ireland or Europe.
I was encouraged to read Margaret Morris’s letter (Correspondence, 26 February). I am, like her, one of the group Keir Starmer is not taking into account. I joined Labour in 2015, as did many young people, although I am in my seventies. Corbyn offered hope that things could be different. But he represented a threat to the establishment. Even so-called left-wing media organisations were less than supportive of him, and factions in the Labour Party rejected socialist values.
I also voted for Starmer as leader, believing him to be a man of integrity who would keep his pledges. I wanted him to follow through with uniting the party and keep to the 2019 manifesto. He has betrayed us with a witch-hunt of anyone with socialist values. Tony Benn warned of the Labour Party becoming “a harmless alternative” to a Tory government once socialists were purged. Under Starmer, his prophecy has come true.
Jonathan Liew, in his analysis of Joe Root’s comments on the departure of Moeen Ali from the England Test tour of India, concludes that “the whole episode betrayed the same institutional lack of empathy with which many British Muslims will be instinctively familiar” (Left Field, 26 February). Liew acknowledges that Root was horrified when he learned that his comment had been misinterpreted and immediately apologised, but omits the context: England’s managers had been so impressed at how Ali had played that they asked him to stay, despite their original plans. Liew’s other evidence of the maltreatment of Ali records the views of social media users and Daily Mail journalists, not the Worcestershire or England cricket teams. He is a much admired, respected and loved cricketer, one of the greatest of his generation. It is in this context that one should understand Root’s regret at how his words were used.
Stephen Bush’s book review (The Critics, 12 February) made some important points in relation to “why Britain’s colonial past cannot explain the politics of the present”. However, Bush erroneously claims that “Tony Blair apologised for Britain’s role in the slave trade in 2007”. In fact, Blair in 2006 declared the slave trade “profoundly shameful” and expressed “our deep sorrow that it ever happened”, but unlike others at the time stopped short of a formal apology. The British government is as far away as its European counterparts from signing up to the Caribbean heads of government (Caricom) Reparations Commission’s “Ten Point Plan for Reparatory Justice”, which demands “an explicit formal apology” rather than “statements of regret”. There is no justification for any self-congratulation on the question of our facing up to the legacy of Britain’s pre-eminent role in the slave trade, let alone for congratulating Blair himself.
A second spring
I was pleased to see a reference to Ferdinand Toennies’s gemeinschaft/gesellschaft dichotomy in John Jenkins’s article on the Arab Spring (“The lights that failed”, 26 February). I have often thought this concept has been sadly neglected as a framework for understanding the limitations of nation-building and attempts to tackle corruption. Ties to family, tribe and neighbourhood have traditionally been more powerful than identification with the more remote concept of the nation-state. Jenkins sees the internet and social media as the basis of Arab Spring 2.0. Let’s hope so, but the internet can provide its own context for tribal conflicts.
[see also: The lights that failed]
Harry Eyres misses a number of important factors in putting Taiwan on a pedestal (“Why Taiwan matters”, 26 February). There is no question that the Taiwanese have made much of the island since 1949. But to attribute this all to the form of governance misses that Taiwan’s economy is in lockstep with that of the Chinese mainland, where multiple Taiwanese companies have invested in major industrial infrastructure. The mainland economy has benefited; the Taiwanese have also benefited from opportunities in China.
Within Asia, Taiwan is hardly an outlier in its Covid-19 response. The success of Asia in managing the virus and preventing a catastrophic death toll has been the willingness of its citizens to place the common good over the individual. He is right to applaud Taiwan but not to put this down exclusively to the political system – it comes from deeper roots than a ballot box.
Sai Kung, Hong Kong
I was delighted that Michael Prodger shone a light on the artist Winifred Knights (The Critics, 26 February). I had never heard of Knights until I visited an exhibition of her work at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2016 with a group of poets from Morley College. We were all amazed by her talent and wrote a number of ekphrastic poems as a result. I was particularly taken with her painting The Santissima Trinita, which conveyed an uneasy serenity of the Abruzzi, as did the one depicted with the article. Thank you for bringing her out of obscurity once more.
[see also: The meticulous paintings of Winifred Knights]
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This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus