Letter of the Week: Hobsbawm the pragmatist

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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Richard J Evans makes a strong case for claiming that Eric Hobsbawm “would have been a Remainer” (“Peering darkly into the future”, 16 August). However, Hobsbawm died almost four years before the UK referendum on EU membership was held. By June 2016 growing disquiet was emerging over the impact of the single market in “left-behind” areas. Moreover, the democratic deficit in EU decision-making processes had deepened, the principle of subsidiarity had effectively been discarded, and the Greek economy had barely recovered from the crisis of 2009-10, when it was unable to extricate itself from the pincer grip of the euro.

Hobsbawm was hardly unfamiliar with the idea that the project of building a new super-state based on “ever closer union” might be riven by dialectical contradictions, not least those of a democratic kind. As Evans acknowledges, Hobsbawm was above all “a pragmatist in politics”, and pragmatists by definition are those who are prepared to re-evaluate their long-held positions.                                    

Ivor Morgan
Lincoln

To be precise

I understand John Gray’s argument (“The new liberal conspiracies”, 16 August): that liberals blame their own political failures on others; what I don’t get is why he isn’t troubled by the imprecision of what he says.

Gray wants to alert us to the abuse of collective, self-deceiving lying, and invokes the memory of leftish journalists who lied about Soviet starvation in the 1930s. But what is his modern corollary? That of collective lying by proponents of Brexit? Or that “liberals” have collectively lied about their lack of agency in bringing about the Brexiteers’ lying? Or the collective lie that this collective lying has been manipulated by darker, more alien liars (ie Putin’s Russia)?

I’m not sure which of these collective lies is the tortoise on which all the other tortoises are stacked, and I don’t think he knows either. Other than David Cameron and Nick Clegg, whom he names, who are these self-deceiving and conspiratorial liberals that he refers to? Who are his “liberal ruling elites” and “ultra-liberals”? Is there a difference? They can’t be members of the same political party because Gray talks about the damage done by “liberals in all parties”. Are they your readers? Is Boris Johnson one? Is Jeremy Corbyn? It is wearying to have to point out that an article about how “liberals” are “possessed by the pathology they rage against” is itself possessed by the pathology it rages against.

Stephen Games
London N10

In his essay John Gray posed the question: “How could the most rational ruling elite in history – as liberals perceive themselves to be – fail to comprehend the world around them?” But he failed to spotlight the main source of such miscomprehension – the liberal press.

He recounts how the grotesque realities of Stalin’s Russia went under-reported in the West but does not get stuck into the Guardian and Observer for so long sneering at the contemporary anxieties of the poor on these islands.

In March 2011 the Guardian’s former political editor Michael White courageously lamented such self-censorship, writing: “I have always sensed liberal, middle-class ill-ease in going after stories about immigration, legal or otherwise, about welfare fraud or the less attractive tribal habits of the working class, which is more easily ignored altogether.”

If only that had been sensed much sooner by his bosses.

Rob Brown
Via email

A current crisis

Your leader (“The burning world”, 16 August) asserts that as the world heats up people will migrate. This is already happening: the Syrian civil war was arguably caused by drought and has led to the mass movement of people. Estimates of how many will migrate once the heating really takes hold go up to a billion. Europe seems as likely to heat up slowly as anywhere, and the UK maybe even more slowly, so we will be a target for this migration. Already UK governments have proved brutal in their determination to keep down immigration (refusal to help the Dubs children; funding the Libyan coastguard and tolerating detention centres resembling death camps in Libya; standing by while people drown crossing the Mediterranean). We, as British citizens, are mostly unmoved by these savage policies, as our politicians know, and will probably be equally unmoved by the more savage measures that will be needed to keep out the flood of migrants that global heating will bring.

Jeremy Cushing
Taddyforde, Exeter

Southern snobbery

It is hard to believe we still have to read statements such as those in Bob Knowles’s letter (Correspondence, 16 August). He persists in the myth that northern Brexit supporters are ignorant. And even worse is his summary that the Brexit-voting English working classes are “seemingly unaware of their own interests”. It is this arrogant assumption that Brexiteers are stupid that will cost Labour its chance at government.

Yes, for some, the desire to regain sovereignty is visceral and no less valid for being so.

No one was more pro-Europe than I was until recent years. But I voted for a trade alliance among western European states, not a pan-European unification programme. In 1975 no one predicted the fall of the Iron Curtain and that the EU behemoth would swell to 28 countries, run sclerotically by a self-serving bureaucracy and unelected executive.

Imagine if in 1975 Canada and the USA formed a closer trade alliance and found themselves today in a pan-American superstate, where South American nations had an equal say and veto. I think US citizens would be voting for Amerexit in their millions.

Lynn Marsay
Via email

Surely Bob Knowles’s letter illustrates the gulf between the working class and the liberal elites that the writer speaks for. “Hoodwinked by Johnson”? “Unaware of their own interests”? Don’t anyone hold their breath waiting for the liberal press to compose the analysis of Brexit. They couldn’t articulate it if they could ever understand it.

In 2007 I worked for a sub-contract machining company where the MD took advantage of a scheme available to anyone to build a factory in Poland for machine components for the oil industry. It didn’t cost him anything because the EU paid for it through its payments to that country. Simple, shocking; even the MD initially couldn’t believe it was possible. Once it was up and running he strutted around the UK factory pointing out to the workers how he didn’t think he could keep it open because in Poland he only had to pay the skilled workers £5 an hour – less than half the UK rate for the equivalent job.

With disparities like this the free movement of people means one thing to the working class – the depression of wages and a threat to their jobs. And the UK contribution to the EU, their taxes, is paying for it. Still, maybe the ignorance of the working class prevents them from understanding the reality.

Mike Ratzer
Norwich

A great loss

I was sorry to read of the death of Paul Barker in Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts (16 August). New Society was an important influence on my thinking and understanding of the social policy issues affecting the lives of ordinary people throughout the early part of my less than glittering public services career in the 1970s and 1980s. I loved the writing of Jeremy Seabrook, Yasmin Alibhai, Angela Carter, Sean French, Ann Oakley, Tailgunner Parkinson and many others. Lincoln Allison, whose walk pieces encouraged me to get out rambling, was a particular favourite.

I still have the final issue of 27 May 1988, together with a letter from Stuart Weir, the then editor of the New Statesman, launching the combined magazine New Statesman and Society. But we all knew that the “and Society” bit would be quietly dropped as soon as decently possible.

Peter Boon
London E11

It was almost casual, easily missed and yet core to democracy. Peter Wilby, writing about the late Paul Barker’s editorship of New Society, referred to reaching “an intelligent non-specialist audience”. That audience is the section of society ridiculed by the right and ignored by too many on the left as “the establishment”. Democracy rests on participative citizens, amenable to argument.

Colum McCaffery
County Dublin, Ireland

Votes for men

Sonia Jackson (Correspondence, 16 August) claims that Disraeli extended suffrage to all adult males, presumably in reference to the Second Reform Act of 1867. In fact this act brought male enfranchisement to around 2 million (out of about 7 million adult men in the population).

Full adult male suffrage was achieved by David Lloyd George (another flawed character with undeniable achievements nevertheless) in the Fourth Reform Act of 1918, which also introduced the first votes for women.

Joe Marshall
Hardwick, Cambs

Lib Dem lunacy

Stephen Bush (Politics, 16 August) argues that Boris Johnson’s government would have numerous options to frustrate parliament preventing no deal. All the more reason then to support the leader of the opposition’s perfectly reasonable proposal for preventing what is by common consent the looming catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit. So why did the leader of the Liberal Democrats immediately rule it out ? Jo Swinson’s knee-jerk reaction either reflects her inexperience or a party that is willing to support a Tory administration in the “national interest” (tell that to food bank recipients), but is not apparently willing to work with democratic socialists to prevent a ruinous fate for the nation.

Trevor Cherrett
Devizes, Wiltshire

In praise of GPs

The presentation of bowel ischaemia causing Dr Whitaker’s patient’s gut to lurch is fascinating (Health Matters, 16 August). It is an example of clinical nous that an AI system will never gain and when it gets it wrong will never learn from. Chapeau (as we cyclists say), Dr Whitaker!

Mr SU Sjolin FRCS Ed (Orth)
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con