I was immensely touched to read John Burnside’s beautiful piece of writing on remembering wildflowers, and was deeply shocked to learn we have lost 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows (Nature, 30 April). Along with the flowers and other rare plants, we have lost countless numbers of creatures that once thrived in such meadows. I want to do something to help reverse this terrible situation. If every parish set aside a piece of land in their village or locality and the residents helped turn it into a meadow, we could create over 10,000 wildflower habitats. I am going to initiate such a project in my village, near Cambridge, and then hope to create a blueprint for others to copy. Let’s all get involved before it is too late.
Adrian Wooldridge’s retrospective enthusiasm for grammar schools is misplaced (“Reclaiming meritocracy”, 21 May). The best research we have (by Vikki Boliver and Adam Swift) indicates that any assistance to underprivileged children provided by grammar schools was cancelled out by the hindrance suffered by those who attended secondary moderns, which squashed the ambitions of 75-80 per cent of children. Comprehensives have done neither better nor worse at equalising opportunities. No one who studies social mobility from an international perspective finds that surprising. The best predictor of a country’s level of social mobility is not its education system, but how unequal its outcomes are. The more equal a country’s outcomes, the more fluid its class system. Inconveniently for the Labour Party, it can’t choose meritocracy over equality: if it wants the former, it needs to promote the latter.
Director, Center for Ethics and Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Adrian Wooldridge’s article on meritocracy highlighted the injustices of the 11+ system between 1944 and the early Seventies. It would be helpful to mention that 75 per cent of state-educated children at that time attended secondary modern schools. I was one of them. Only three in my school year of just under 30 escaped the “dark shadow”, as he put it, of these dire institutions. However, some of us achieved some glittering prizes. We deserve some “merit” too.
The main problem with the grammar schools of the Forties to Sixties was the lack of support for impoverished pupils who had to compete with the middle classes. Many of those grammar school-educated pupils would have been privately educated if the grammar schools had not existed. The poor had appalling standards in primary schools, with many having no pupils passing the 11+ and no grammar schools in their area.
The situation now is much better, but what do the 50 per cent with degrees do? There are not enough good jobs to go round and the well-connected always get in first.
While I share Adrian Wooldridge’s belief in the social, economic and political advantages of a meritocracy, there is no link between this and a discredited grammar school system. Evidence from areas like Kent where selection remains shows that those who benefit most are middle-class parents who can pay for private tutoring. Those who are on free school meals, have special educational needs or come from more deprived backgrounds are consistently underrepresented in the profile of the grammar schools that Wooldridge would have us believe will promote ability rather than privilege.
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Adrian Wooldridge seems to think that grammar schools and Oxbridge are the only route into a meritocracy apart from private schools. What we actually need is a society where the people who keep the electricity and gas on tap, ensure we have clean water, produce food, keep public transport running, make sure our cars are safe, care for the sick and elderly, teach, and ensure that buildings and machinery are safe are recognised as essential.
[see also: In defence of meritocracy]
Neville Chamberlain was the prime minister when I was born. In my 82 years, Labour has been in government for just under 24 years. I have been in parliament since 1979 – Commons and Lords – and in those 42 years Labour has been in government for just 13.
For the best part of a hundred years, Labour has been the natural party of opposition and the Tories have been the natural party of government. The same pattern will continue unless the centre left combines as Tony Blair (“The progressive challenge”, 14 May) and others are now saying – including me. Having been born under a Tory government, I do not want to die under a Tory government. But that will be my fate unless the progressive left unites.
Alan Rusbridger’s view (Encounter, 21 May) of the lack of understanding among today’s youth of classical principles of free speech seemed somewhat selective in its citation of John Stuart Mill. In the political philosophy courses I took nine years ago as a first-year at university, the message I took from Mill’s work was that liberty runs out at the point where it harms other people, which the uncritical platforming of transphobic views in mainstream publications undoubtedly does. The right to speech is not the same as the right to be listened to, after all.
I agree with Kevin Maguire’s comment that Keir Starmer’s reshuffle “eclipsed victories” (Commons Confidential, 14 May). However, I could not help but feel that Kevin himself had allowed Labour’s perhaps most impressive victory to remain eclipsed: Mark Drakeford’s success in Wales, equalling our best ever result in the Senedd. It’s a shame that so often Welsh politics is forgotten.
As a guilt-ridden “flexitarian”, I read Sophie McBain’s review of Henry Mance’s book with interest (“The vegetarian in the abattoir”, 21 May). There’s a tendency to joke: “How can you tell if someone’s a vegan? They’ll tell you.” I suspect that we’re dismissive because vegans, with their impressive self-abnegation, shame us.
It’s easy enough to cook delicious vegan meals, but it can be expensive and irksome to forgo dairy produce. Above all, I would find it difficult to give up eggs, but the article made me realise that large ones may be harming hens, so I’m switching to small eggs and eating them less frequently. I’ve also vowed to stop repeating that joke. If I were a vegan, I’d want to shout it from the rooftops.
Michael Henderson gives us his version of England (Diary, 21 May). There is no uniform “England”, no essential “Englishness”. For half a millennium England (and then Britain) has been in a dynamic, often predatory relationship with much of the world and bears the marks of that history.
Philip Larkin wrote some fine poems but for Bernstein to have called him “the greatest poet of the last century” suggests the maestro hadn’t read much Brecht, Neruda, Akhmatova or Yeats. Larkin’s England is largely an inward- and backward-looking country, nostalgic and nervous of life and death.
When Henderson locates his ideal of Englishness in Larkin’s poetry, he excludes many of his fellow citizens from the club of English identity. He should look around him: the Albion he writes about with such proprietary confidence is no longer a place increasing numbers of English people would recognise.
I have to disagree with Megan Nolan’s column on the trans writer Torrey Peters (Lines of Dissent, 14 May).
While it may be simplistic to define womanhood as the ability to produce a child, it’s reasonable to define it as an accumulation of life experiences. In my life, I have been groped or shouted at in public places, sexually assaulted, subjected to “date rape”, had monthly periods for most of 40 years, been pregnant and given birth three times, spent ten years as a single mother and gone through the menopause. I can’t agree that someone who hasn’t experienced any of this can be the same.
The renewable age
Helen Thompson (These Times, 21 May) has a strange view of how we use renewable energy. A renewable-powered world uses the same low-density energy sources as the pre-industrial world did, but that doesn’t mean we go back to water wheels or windmills. Renewables make the same electricity as fossil fuels; once we abandon fossil-fuelled power stations, there’s no need to worry about insulating your home. Burn it up, it isn’t making CO2!
Just like a woman
Tracey Thorn’s opinion that “men tend to think they own the stories around music” (Off The Record, 21 May) was supported beautifully by your choice of contributors to “Who is Bob Dylan?” (21 May). Of the eight excellent contributors, six were men.
Llandysul, Sir Gaerfyrddin
A giant among us
The problem is not that our time fails to produce great thinkers (“The fall of the intellectual”, 7 May). The problem is that the greats are appreciated only in retrospect. And so what worries me is that I may not live to own the collected works of Nicholas Lezard – cloth-bound, smart plate of the author in each volume, and of course with warm words of endorsement on the dust jacket by that time’s unrecognised greats.
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This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism