Letter of the week: Transcendental Trans-Siberia

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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Matthew Engel’s article on the lure of international railway travel stirred in me an old sense of excitement in this form of transport (“Life on the Tracks”, 7 December). In today’s sense-dulling, budget-flight age, it is easy to forget the stimulation and authenticity of long-distance train travel.

I would, however, suggest that Mr Engel should rethink his rejection of the Trans-Siberian line. In 1991, I experienced a truly mind-opening experience, travelling from Moscow to Beijing. Irrespective of the fact that these three great countries (including Mongolia) were transitioning from communism to capitalism in very different ways, this journey across so many cultures, landscapes and time zones would be fascinating in any era.

I would happily relive that adventure in what would surely be very different times.

I hope, too, they now serve something other than just borscht, before the dining car is changed at the Chinese border.

Mark Thorp
Chorlton, Manchester

EU myths

More Brexit “ignorance is bliss” from Jonathan Notley (Correspondence, 30 November). Where is the bureaucratic control from Brussels – often cited, rarely defined? When were we not able to set our own budget? Brussels tried, sensibly, to apply a limit to budget deficits but it never worked.

Germany was the first to breach the 3 per cent deficit barrier, in the early 2000s, but nothing could be done. What about our recent huge deficits? Brussels was silent. Take back control – of what? We already control almost everything: budgets, tax rates, welfare spending, work and pensions, education, foreign policy, defence, the NHS, justice, energy, transport, housing, local government…

The EU mainly involves trade and when we lose free access to EU markets the pain will be quickly felt. And as for: agriculture: the CAP has been reformed since the UK joined, and is there really a crying need for cheaper food? (Except among the poor, of course, and there will certainly be more of them.)

Barry Wilson
Talloires, France

I am bemused that some elements of the political left in this country seem to think that the EU is some sort of socialist nirvana, so let me pose this question. What did the EU do to prevent the closure of UK coal mines from 1984-85 and to prevent the privatisation of the railways in 1994?

Phil Brand.
London SW17

The Brexit mutiny

In his interview with Jason Cowley (Encounter, 30 November), Paul Collier brilliantly identifies the heart of the Brexit vote cast by the less educated, 50 per cent- plus. It was a “mutiny”, he says, an act of desperation, with no thought about what the outcome might be; a chance to establish once and for all that social and economic conditions have become beyond intolerable.

It was also an act of defiance against the “neglect” and “contemptuous” disregard of the highly educated metropolitan elites, with their overwhelming sense of entitlement to money, wealth and power. To make his point, Collier quotes a Financial Times commentator who sees London as “shackled to a corpse”, ie the decaying economic remainsof the UK’s provincial towns and cities.

Collier’s solutions are radical: break vested interests, challenge rent-seekers, develop an ethical state, tackle regional inequalities. Can the readers of the NS have more of this approach to the Brexit fiasco and less on Westminster party politics please?

Kathryn Dodd
London N16

Federal fractures

Jeremy Cliffe’s argument (“What Europe can learn from Hamilton”, 7 December) for a greater federal Europe is precisely why it should be avoided. Rather than “healing the fractures”, he downgrades the importance of culture in Europe – with its diversity of language, arts, landscape and myth – and would seek to impose a fiscal and political straitjacket over those elements that many of its citizens hold dear.

The euro experiment has clearly failed. Unsurprisingly, Germany is reluctant to bolster those economies unsuited to its strictures. Ignoring the culture and history of member states, in the hope that some sort of homogeneity can be achieved, would, I fear, deliver yet more ammunition to right-wing authoritarian movements, who would exploit this, but whose respect for culture is similarly scant.

There is no comparison between the American experience and the vastly longer and deeper cultural patchwork quilt of Europe. No number of foreign summer holidays will change that. Extending the European project from trade and security to a greater political and federal Europe could be seen as an almost Napoleonic error.

Felicity McGowan
West Wales

Age of upheaval

The dialogue between Rowan Williams and John Gray (“Matters of life and death”, 30 November) excellently supports Jason Cowley’s aspiration for the New Statesman “to understand… analyse and explain the forces driving this period of extraordinary upheaval” (Editor’s Note, 7 December). However, it and the Christmas special, chock-a-block with interesting pieces, may indicate Jason’s flâneuring days are behind him. One wonders, though, whether his political scepticism reflects his adult experience: an imbalance of predominantly Conservative-led governments. Nevertheless, impressively, in the Leader (7 December) his scepticism still finds room for the UN rapporteur’s findings on UK poverty, which, “learning from context”, makes an overwhelming case, I hope he agrees, for “what is best in the present context” – a change of government.

David Murray
Wallington, Surrey

Idioms idiocy

Can someone among your clever staff or readership please help me with some modern idioms? What is the difference between an “existing” condition and a “pre-existing” condition? Is it not a tautology or a deeply philosophical position to say that if something exists it also exists before it existed? What on earth would Wittgenstein say?

In a similar vein, what on earth is an “existential” threat? Is it some legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre come back to attack us? Or are we just alone in the universe and consequently only a threat to ourselves and from ourselves?

I also note that one can now “pre-order” something. Is that not also an order? Or perhaps an order to raise an order before one can place an order? I’m very confused.

Martin Eade
Saltdean, East Sussex

Faith and doubt

Michael Axworthy is right to identify rebel theologian Pelagius as an important influence on European thought and culture (“The Revenge of Pelagius”, 7 December). Axworthy is also right to recognise that Pelagianism has a downside. The Pelagian outlook, when taken too far, goes well beyond having an optimistic belief in people’s abilities to make the right choices, and risks embracing the belief that people are nothing more than creatures of circumstance.

This is where Pelagius’s dispute with Augustine becomes interesting and relevant to many contemporary arguments.

One of the more thoughtful writers to identify the importance of these thinkers was Michael Oakeshott. In The Politics of Faith and the Politics of Scepticism (1953), Oakeshott used Pelagius and Augustine to outline a duality of styles observable in European politics; one, that sought the perfection of “a single, comprehensive condition of human circumstances”; the other, not so much concerned with perfection, instead focusing on the more limited activity of reducing the occasions for conflict between individuals.

Axworthy’s paean to Pelagius ends with a cautious warning from Augustine. Oakeshott would probably agree but would also point to the importance of the ongoing conversation between these two traditions which, to Oakeshott, works best when neither properly prevails nor permanently dominates the other. Liberal humanism has its heroes too.

Benedict Davies
Melbourne, Australia

Picking up the NS only a few hours after midnight mass, I was heartened to read “The Revenge of Pelagius”. Although I rarely go to church these days, the endless repetition of the C of E General Confession often seems at odds with the more positive aspects: the music, the community, and the hope that love can make a difference.

In many respects, the clergy of Western churches could “fairly be called Pelagians”, as he says. Self-help, Buddhist thinking and notions of continuous improvement are philosophies the Church would be foolish to ignore. The historic emphasis on unworthiness has been useful to those in power, and the “birth sin” is inherently misogynistic. The doctrine of original sin is a legacy, yet the Church of England’s ninth article of faith still says: “Original Sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man.”

Awareness of our own fallibility should be balanced with the notion of original goodness and belief in our own capacity to make a difference. Time for another reformation?

Peter McCullen

Public practice

The solution to the problems set out by Dr Phil Walker is to have all GPs employed directly by the NHS – as with nurses, junior doctors and others such as physiotherapists (“The doctor won’t see you now”, 7 December). 

It was a gross error at the start of the NHS to allow GPs and consultants to be self-employed and to run, what in effect, are taxpayer-supported private businesses. Seventy years on, this model is no longer fit for purpose.

They would spend less time on managing, more on seeing patients and part of their contract would be their attachment to a set number of a cross-section of patients. Areas with increased levels of social and economic deprivation would have smaller lists. While there would be many other issues to sort out it can’t be worse than now.

Moira Sykes
Didsbury, Manchester

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This article appears in the 04 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, 2019: The big questions

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