Letter of the Week: The crisis of liberalism

A selection of the best letters received from our readers this week. Email letters@newstatesman.co.uk to have your thoughts voiced in the New Statesman magazine.

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Your leading article “The hollow centre” (10 August) contains some uncomfortable truths for the Liberal Democrats. Entering into the coalition government in 2010 was an electoral disaster. The electorate’s mantra is that it wants politicians who put the country before party, but when a party does precisely that, it is punished electorally.

The answer to why the Liberal Democrats have not reaped the benefit in the polls from their support of a united Europe lies at least in part in the strategy of strictly targeting seats adjudged “winnable”. It has had diminishing returns, with the hidden but inevitable price of steadily killing off the party’s organisation in non-target seats. The strategy reached its nadir at last year’s election when the Liberal Democrats suffered the record loss of 375 deposits. There is little or no party campaigning presence in these seats and therefore no stimulus for the electorate – nor the media – to note its presence.

The party’s recovery requires experienced members to go constituency by constituency, briefing, teaching broad liberal values and emphasising the Liberal Democrats’ vision of a progressive state built on values very different from Theresa May’s Conservative austerity and Jeremy Corbyn’s statist mirage.

Michael Meadowcroft,
Liberal MP for Leeds West, 1983-8

Doesn’t ad up

The distinction Ian Leslie makes between the “ad industry” (which appears to include every agency) and the “ad business” (which seems to be primarily Facebook) is vivid but reductive (“The Death of Don Draper”, 27 July).

It’s framed as a battle between a clubby Soho-housed (and Oxbridge-educated) cadre of creative dreamers and a secretive Silicon Valley cabal of machines and their keepers.

While dramatic, this narrative is also misleading. The ad industry consists of many parts, most of which would be new to Don Draper. Most revenue flowing through global holding companies is related to operations such as targeting, events, direct marketing and media – not traditional “creativity”. Fewer than 5 per cent of the 200,000 people who work at agencies in the US are [creatives like] Draper, according to Ad Age.

The obverse is also true: just as the ad industry is not just creatives, the so-called ad business is not only quants. Leslie’s implication that the “largely automated” programmatic digisphere is either uncreative or entirely machine-driven is not true.

Except in a very limited sense (ie some search messages), machines still can’t create good ads. They assemble, measure and optimise them – sure. But so far, at least, they can’t create a video or even a compelling paragraph out of nothing.

Martin Kihn, VP research, Dentsu Aegis Network
Via email

Another EU vote

Can someone remind Mark Bale (Correspondence, 10 August) that there is no unelected foreign committee running the EU (he might usefully look up the European Council) and that the government’s white paper of 2017 made it clear that the sovereignty of parliament is a fundamental principle of the UK constitution and that parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU. As to his point about the EU not having the interests of the UK at heart, it seems rather obvious that it’s the interests of all members that the EU has, or should have, at heart.

Paul Heron
Via email

Mark Bale misses the point about a second referendum vote. Remainers voted for a clear proposition but Brexiteers did not, unless you count “Brexit means Brexit”. A second vote would be no less “democratic” than the first. If it offered clear choices it should be more satisfactory.

Noel Hamel
New Malden, Surrey

Faiza’s challenge

Faiza Shaheen sounds a good choice to oust Iain Duncan Smith (Observations, 10 August) but I note that in backing Corbyn’s pusillanimous editing of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism she doesn’t appear to know that criticism of Israel’s government is not regarded as anti-Semitism by the full definition. Hopefully someone can put her right on that red herring and hand IDS his P45.

Keith Marr
Hemel Hempstead,
Hertfordshire

FE for ever

In his article on Blackburn (“The town that stopped working”, 27 July) Jeremy Seabrook highlights the role that the local further education (FE) college has for social mobility and cohesion, along with the number of students that attend the institution. However, FE colleges have seen funding cuts that have led many into financial peril. This in turn has led to institutions merging, losing their local identity and reducing the diverse curriculum offer that was once available. Since 1993, when the Association of Colleges notes there were more than 450 FE colleges, the number of standalone colleges has fallen by almost 200, with more mergers planned.

Paul Smith
Rubery, Birmingham

Newer order

I don’t wish to be picky but Stephen Morris is credited as “was the drummer in Joy Division and New Order” (The Critics, 27 July). He was the drummer in Joy Division and is the drummer in New Order. News of his demise is much exaggerated.

Michael Duke
Denbigh, North Wales

More McDonald

Patrick Maguire ends his Encounter with Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald by claiming that she has put her own brand of republicanism on the party by removing it from physical-force republicanism to what he terms “emotional-force republicanism” (Observations, 27 July). I am not in agreement.

The conflict in the north of Ireland that scarred generations is over. The ballot box has ousted the shadow of the gunman and has made Sinn Féin the second-largest party in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin is now an all-Ireland party. In this context, McDonald promotes astute politics that contain a vision of a “new Ireland” that unites Catholic, Protestant and dissenter underpinned by social and economic justice. Without wishing to come across as sycophantic, McDonald is a proverbial breath of fresh air.  Her promotion of pragmatic republicanism is timely. 

Unfortunately, she does not have an equivalent in political unionism, which remains stuck in the denial of the past.

Pat Armstrong
Londonderry

Autumn years

Dr Phil Whitaker’s account of his patient Malcolm (Health Matters, 27 July) tracked my own experience with health care at the end of my mother’s life.

She also had to undergo a myriad of tests and invasive procedures, with each appointment taking at least a week to come around, and a further two weeks for results to be presented. So why is not a patient, especially one in the autumn or winter of their years, when presenting with common or vague symptoms of uncharacteristic “unwellness”, not immediately sent for a CT scan? The prevalence of cancer in this age group is understood. Though costly, this would reduce an excruciating time for the patient and his or her relatives by two or three months, and could mean the right treatment would come sooner.

Melanie Oxley
Petersfield, Hampshire

On the move

The “trouble with migration” (Correspondence, 10 August) is that throughout history the human race has always been on the move. The earliest people moved out of Africa, and their descendants moved all round the globe. It is a pretty fair bet that every generation throughout the history of these islands has complained about immigration, from the arrival of the Romans, Saxons, Danes, Normans, and on to the Huguenots, the Irish, the Jews and all the later generations of newcomers to this country.

And what of the earlier generations of people from these islands who left it to settle in far-flung countries? Did their arrival have no impact upon the demography and culture of the receiving countries?  What about the activities of the missionaries? What of the diseases such as measles and smallpox the settlers brought with them?

In spite of what David Ashton says, I am glad to live in a country where there is ethnic and cultural diversity.  Multiculturalism is hard work, but it makes for a better society. Immigration has benefited
this country.

Richard Dargan
Old Coulsdon, Surrey

Lord of misrule

Rowan Williams is surely right to say that JRR Tolkien was serious about his stories (The Critics, 10 August). However, I think he risks reducing The Lord of the Rings to a moral tale, about the inherent dangers of power. Rather, in his essay on fairy stories, Tolkien argued that he was serious about fantasy because it confounds such straightforward analysis and is radically free. He explicitly chose the word “fantasy” over “imagination”, when describing “the most nearly pure form” of art, because fantasy keeps the unruly quality of the fantastical.

This matters not only in relation to Tolkien but in relation to the contemporary “political insanities”, which Williams is also surely right to have in mind. Moral warnings are necessary, but they are clearly insufficient when it comes to addressing our age.

This is what the rational, liberal mentality has failed to recognise. We need the startling, unexpected vision that fantasy can deliver and this is why it’s a good moment to dust off Tolkien.

Mark Vernon
London SE5

Never mind The Lord of the Rings. Rowan Williams should try Frank Herbert’s Dune. The book tells of a quasi-religious war in a desert landscape, kick-started by an order of nuns, superficially about the coming of a messiah but actually about who controls the local drug trade. Gender is handled archaically, but the messiah has a kick-ass younger sister. Oh, and it turns out to be a long-running family saga as well. What’s not to be taken seriously, now more than ever?

William Essex
Via email

Night music

Almost impossible to choose what I enjoyed reading most from your Summer Special (27 July). The one that spoke to me was Helen Macdonald’s wonderful piece. “Nightjars are cryptic beasts for whom subtlety is safety,” she writes and evokes the perfect picture of the bird in my imagination. The bush stone-curlews set off a whistling wail most nights as I fall asleep in the Antipodes.

Marina Marangos
Brisbane, Australia

Hopkins history

In his excellent centenary article on the publication of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems (The Critics, 10 August) Seán Hewitt refers to his work being “finally published” in 1918, from which readers might infer that this was the first time Hopkins had appeared in print. In fact I have in my library a volume in The Poets and Poetry of the Nineteenth Century series entitled “Robert Bridges and Contemporary Poets”, published in 1906, in which Bridges presents a selection of eight poems by his friend along with a brief memoir and critique. Together these take up ten pages whereas Bridges himself commands 66. How tastes change!

John Dearing
Reading, Berkshire

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This article appears in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad