Letter of the week: Second referendum possible

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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Peter Wilby is usually intelligent. Not this time round (First Thoughts, 9 November). Dragging the “Condorcet” voting model into the question of a second referendum may look clever but is idiotic. The 2016 referendum result was an “instruction” to parliament to negotiate an exit in accordance with Article 50. The ballot itself was silent on what might count as an acceptable exit deal. Now that we are about to have a version of that (either May’s deal or no deal), then it is perfectly proper to have a further referendum, with but two options: Remain, on the one hand, and, on the other, May’s deal or no deal, depending on what May brings to parliament and how the latter votes. Formally, another referendum ballot would and should thus mirror the first one in being binary. Condorcet is irrelevant.

Christopher Prendergast
King’s College, Cambridge

Great War fallout

David Reynolds, as a respected international historian, provides a lively overview of the chaotic impact of 1918 on the European map (“The Great War’s long shadow”, 2 November). Unfortunately when it comes to Czechoslovak history, he too is stuck in the proverbial trenches. He accepts at face value the Czech nationalist myth that Czechs “lived under German rule” for three centuries. But not even modern Czech historians would accept this anachronism. He also buys the Czechs’ myth of 1918-19 (stressed to the Paris peacemakers) that the war had ended in their part of Europe.

The takeover of German areas and not least continuing violent conflict in the conquest of Slovakia shows the reality. In short, Czechoslovakia was founded on many myths about democracy and order: the fall from this “moral pinnacle” was therefore all the greater in the 1930s.

Professor Mark Cornwall
University of Southampton

Your special issue on the Great War didn’t really deal with the possibility that its consequences may have been rather less than is conventionally supposed.

It was pretty much business as usual by 1922 in British, French and American politics. The formation in 1931 of a mainly Tory government headed by a Labour Party leader, Ramsay MacDonald, who had lost his Commons seat in 1918 owing to his views on the war was a much greater deviation from the norms of British politics than anything that had happened in the previous 40 years.

The enlargement of the political franchise in Britain in 1918 was, of course, related to the war and had a major influence: but it was overdue and Britain had been bound sooner or later to come into line with the US, New Zealand etc.

The not-exactly liberal regime in Italy was destroyed by the war, but it had inadequate roots in the existing class system of Italy and was no longer capable of maintaining a balance between antagonistic sectors. Fascist dictatorship made a better job of this: Spain, not a participant in the war, adopted the same formula in 1923 with the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera.

Russia, of course, had a revolution, but it was already clear a decade before the war that the Romanov autocracy was unlikely to maintain itself. As in France after 1794, the new system of government in Russia adopted much of the developmental logic of the old one, but with new energy. Stalin had his precedent in Peter the Great.

It is often pretended that the war ended the era of Victorian and belle époque optimism, and inaugurated an age of despair. This may be true of the upper classes (though in Britain and the US they continued to have a conspicuously expensive good time) but ignores the growing despair of working-class communities in many European countries before 1914.

Of course more than eight million deaths made a difference to a lot of people: one might even say that the war marked a new era in their lives for 20 million people who lost husbands, fiancés, brothers, sons. But the notion that the First World War inaugurated a new era generally is based essentially on ignorance of developments before 1914 and misrepresentation of what happened after 1918.

Dr AD Harvey
London N16

I have just spent some happy moments trying to imagine how one might draw a cartoon to show how “The budding Führer… pedalled the stab-in-the-back myth” (David Reynolds) – who knew that Adolf Hitler was a cyclist?  

But the real problem is that such mistakes cause me to lose the thread of the otherwise excellent article so that I have to retrace my steps over the last paragraph and regain my position in the argument.
The solution here is simple: don’t rely on spellcheck!

Maxine Mott
Elsenham, Essex

Greer theory

Germaine Greer, as the headline to Helen Lewis’s column made clear (Out of the Ordinary, 9 November) is funny, (can be) unkind and (always) provocative. She is also usually misrepresented in the media. Whenever I see a report of what Greer is claimed to have said, I take care to find her original article or speech. It is usually much more thoughtful and nuanced than the media extracts. I don’t necessarily agree with her, but she always makes me think a little more deeply about things.

Elizabeth O’Keeffe
South Yarra, Australia

Red Rosa rises

As the author of Rosa Luxemburg and the Struggle for Democratic Renewal, I agree with George Eaton that Luxemburg’s great achievement was to assert – against the revisionists within the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the centralising tendencies of Leninism – that socialism and democracy are nothing without one another (Observations, 9 November). That was undoubtedly her great contribution to the thinking of the Second International.

But it is also worth bearing in mind that, although not a pacifist, Luxemburg insisted in one of her last articles for Die Rote Fahne, written while she was on the run and published on 14 December 1918 and in the thick of the German Revolution, that, “The proletarian revolution requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing.”

It was Luxemburg’s steadfast belief in cross-party, multilateral action, mobilised from the bottom up through locally organised councils and comprising those of all political persuasions and classes, that led Hannah Arendt to draw a clear line of continuity from the German Revolution to the Hungarian Revolution through to the Prague Spring. Later commentators have drawn that line deeper into the 20th and 21st centuries through to the velvet revolutions of 1989 and even the so-called Arab Spring.

What is important to remember is that Luxemburg was not a “populist” as we now understand that term. Her notion of “the people” was broad and all-inclusive; she argued hard and long against any attempt to align democratic socialism with nationalism; and she refused to characterise herself as a leader of “the people”.

Even in the midst of revolutionary violence Luxemburg defined her role as the interpreter – the friendly critic – of the revolutionary struggle; one who spoke back fearlessly both to the proto-fascist elements within post-First World War Germany and to the extreme elements within her own revolutionary grouping.

Luxemburg was not the “red Rosa” of populist imagination, but a hugely intelligent, independent thinker who thought outside the boundaries of Marxism, liberalism, nationalism… and against the grain of all the other “isms” that continue to bedevil our political discourse.

Jon Nixon
Kendal, Cumbria

Esteemed organs

Regarding organ donation, Sandra Busell objected to the donation of organs to unknown and potentially unpleasant recipients (Correspondence, 9 November). I donated a kidney in a Cardiff hospital three years ago, and specifically asked not to be informed who the recipient was, nor to know whether the donation had been a success. The reason was that I could imagine how distressing it could be for the transplant team to have to tell a donor, who might be very emotionally committed to success, that something went wrong, so that no one benefited in the end. Success obviously cannot be guaranteed.

We are not very generous in this country when it comes to live organ donation, and I recommend that fit people think about offering a kidney. Early retirement is probably a good time in life to donate if one is in good health, since it does not involve taking time off work. I was 71 when I donated my kidney and found it a satisfying experience, and it has had no effect on my health.

Geoffrey Harper
Hereford

Banana man

You should find someone with money to finance a mailshot sending offprints of Martin Fletcher’s article on Boris Johnson to every member of the Conservative Party in Britain (“The Banana Republic of Boris”, 9 November). That man must be stopped. Or you could send the whole of your latest issue, in which they could also gain from reading Alan Rusbridger on Paul Dacre. Then it would look more like a promotion for the New Statesman than a targeted attack on Johnson. But they might not open it.

You produce a great paper these days, and we love the covers.

Richard Davy
Oxford

Tartan Nick

If Nicholas Lezard would like some more reading material to help him “bone up on the notion of Scottishness” (Down and Out, 9 November), can I suggest And the Land Lay Still, James Robertson’s tremendous 2010 novel illuminating the Scotland of the second half of the 20th century. Subtle but persuasive, without recourse to polemic or grandstanding, it helped steer a switherer like me to the cause of an independent Scotland. Maybe Lezard could ease himself into it in the company of a dram of his unbelievably expensive whisky.  

Sue Leckie
Edinburgh

I note that should Nicholas Lezard still be detained in Scotland when the next general election takes place, he plans to vote SNP to keep the Tory out in his constituency. News of the Lezard tartan is awaited.

Keith Flett
London N17

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This article appears in the 14 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history