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22 February 2023

Letter of the week: What conservatism knows

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By New Statesman

In his superb assessment of contemporary conservative parties (Cover Story, 17 February), Jeremy Cliffe missed a chance to distil their enduring appeal to many voters.

First, the centre right understands many citizens’ hybrid view of state intervention and collectivism: sometimes involving more in the name of security and stability, but sometimes involving less in the name of liberty and individualism.

Second, mainstream conservative parties seem to embody a common view of “the nation” akin to filial affection rather than jingoism, combining a recognition of imperfection with firm loyalty. Anti-imperialist leftists and supra-nationalist liberals might be more mindful of such moderate patriotism. Third, centre-right parties are sceptical of liberal attempts to “re-educate” the electorate: a preference for Edmund Burke’s “crooked timber of humanity” over John Stuart Mill’s vision of “man as a progressive being” chimes with the many people irritated by sanctimony.

Parties representing these themes are bound to recover support eventually, regardless of whether they are led by Heathite dullards or Johnsonian chancers.

Richard Kelly, Manchester

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[See also: The strange death of the centre right]

The rightwards shift

The death of the centre right (Cover Story, 17 February) is not as strange as it sounds if we consider the shift in semantics of the left-right spectrum over recent decades, in tandem with the rise in income inequalities. What used to be regarded as centre-left policies – from free education to keeping essential services in the public sector, paid for by a fair level of taxation – are increasingly being portrayed as ideologies of the far left. This recalibration seems to work by those who held centre-left positions in the past moving to the right in their pursuit of power, pushing conservatives further right. This is what we see when we observe Labour’s present leadership distancing itself from several of the 2019 manifesto ideas, and the repulsive sound-bites from the Conservatives regarding taxation, Britain’s relationship to Europe and immigration.

Professor Mahesan Niranjan, Southampton University

In 1962 I was a Conservative. I believed privilege could only be justified by service, high taxes on very high incomes were necessary to prevent an entrepreneurial economy becoming a rentier economy, and Keynesian growth would finance public service improvements and a welfare state that steadily reduced inequality. I was suspicious of ideologically driven, large-scale change. These were the mainstream policies of the Macmillan government at the time. In 60 years I have moved from centre right to hard left without changing my opinions.

Dr Stephen Watkins, Oldham, Lancashire

[See also: Why size does matter for Europe and Brexit Britain]

Sporting secrets

In his article on the financing of football. Jonathan Liew writes that the sale of Newcastle United was “waved through by the Premier League” (Left Field, 17 February). Actually, the Premier League did not agree to the sale for almost 18 months, only approving it following a hearing under the Competition Appeal Tribunal, some of which was held in secret. Once the sale had been approved, the club’s former owner, Mike Ashley, withdrew his claim under the tribunal and the case was closed before the judgement and evidence were published. A journalist who is interested in these matters would want to discover what was in that evidence.

Peter Foster, Edinburgh

Zombie government

It was good to read Will Lloyd’s review of The Big Con (The Critics, 17 February) on management consultants. The true nature of firms such as Arthur Andersen and their drone armies was clear decades ago but these things seem to take time to filter through. I particularly enjoyed the comparison to the crab barnacle parasite. Another apt one is to ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the zombie ant fungus.

Bob Simmons, Cambridge

Candid camera

I was surprised and yet not surprised to read in Michael Prodger’s interesting piece on the new Vermeer show (The Critics, 17 February) that “alas, no drawings by him exist to give definitive evidence” of Vermeer using a camera obscura and that there is no “clear outline for tracing”. Both Philip Steadman’s seminal book Vermeer’s Camera and Tim Jenison’s subsequent experiments, recorded in the film Tim’s Vermeer, prove beyond reasonable doubt that he did use such a camera, and that it had nothing to do with tracing.

Ruth Brandon, London NW3

[See also: From Brian Dillon to Tara Zahra: new titles reviewed in short]

What’s the use

I cannot agree that there’s “no such thing as ‘wrong usage’ of English expressions” (Correspondence, 17 February). I consider it wrong to diminish the language of its power. People who misuse expressions such as “begs the question” achieve this very effectively. Employing a circular argument (begging the question) is a concept that should be understood all the more in today’s environment of amateur experts.

Matthew Henry, Reading, Berkshire

Graham Hughes is correct to say common usage governs meaning. Nobody can control the English language. We can rejoice at the emergence of useful new words, but equally we can lament the extinction of valuable shades of meaning in others. English is impoverished by the loss of the exact meaning of words such as “disinterest”, “decimate”, “enormity” and “riff”. There’s nothing we can do about it, but we are entitled to a bit of regret.

Michael Bartholomew, Birstwith, North Yorks

Gone to a better constituency

Death being one’s final act on Earth, human beings have come up with innumerable euphemisms for it: passing away, kicking the bucket, shuffling off this mortal coil, biting the dust, pegging it… We can now add the delightful term that appeared in the Leader (17 February), “leaving the electorate”.

Christopher Rossi, Enfield, Greater London

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[See also: Britain’s far-right contagion]

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon