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12 March 2014updated 11 Sep 2021 6:11pm

Letter of the Week: All in the mind

By New Statesman

A small but vital point missing from John Gray’s comprehensive review of the contemporary significance of Nietzsche and atheism (The Critics, 7 March) is what one might call the aftermath of the Darwin/Wallace insights into natural selection.

We now know that the human brain, and therefore the human mind, is the product of specialised and limited forces over a comparatively short time span (less than half a million years) and in a singular space (on the surface of the earth). In no way, therefore, should human reason be considered adequate for all possible contingencies of perception and cognition. Even the enhancements of perception – from Hadron colliders to electron microscopes – are the products of our limited minds. This perhaps should equip us with a humble awareness of how little we can ever know. It may not in and of itself justify religious transcendence. It should, however, give rise to a wiser sense of our limitations than is sometimes the case – or than even Nietzsche was equipped to understand.

Ian Flintoff
Oxford

House rules

I have to congratulate Ed Smith for articulating so well what I’m sure many of us have been thinking for a long time (Left Field, 7 March). The Houses of Parliament, and in particular the Commons, are not fit for purpose. If we want an end to the pernicious cynicism that seems to have taken root in the UK – cynicism about our politicians and the political process – we need purpose-built premises that incorporate 21st-century facilities, together with new codes of conduct that promote discussion and respectful debate. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it would be one chunk of capital spending that would pay for itself many times over for generations to come.

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Rod Jones
Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

Ed Smith is right not only that “if you want to change the tone of political debate, first change the debating chamber”, but also that the public image of political discourse needs such
a change. Yet there is more to it. Whatever the outcome of the Scottish referendum, it is imperative that an English parliament be created to give a sense of parity between the four (I hope, not three) nations of the UK. It should be a semi-circular assembly, built in Birmingham – with an adjacent hotel for all MPs to be accommodated from Monday to Thursday. The present House of Commons should become an occasional meeting place for the full parliament of the United Kingdom. Perhaps leave the Lords in London.

Michael Bassey
Newark, Nottinghamshire

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Ministerial boob

The resident minister of religion of a Nonconformist chapel is unlikely to have been a vicar (First Thoughts, 7 March), as that term in England (excluding specific Roman Catholic uses) refers to the incumbent minister of a Church of England parish church. The correct designation would be “minister”. I’m sorry to see the New Statesman’s level of editorial awareness of the correct designation of ecclesiastical offices falling to that of the tabloid press.

Rev Canon David Hodgson
Wokingham, Berkshire

Please get your facts right! I am a Nonconformist of many years’ standing and it is the first time I knew that Nonconformist churches were led by vicars. Wasn’t there a hall or pub nearby, where you and your friends would not have had to attempt to sing any hymns, and there would have been time to swear even more?

Mary Goddard
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

Putin power

Your coverage of events in Ukraine is appropriately critical of President Vladimir Putin but a bit light on the self-appointed regime in Kyiv (Leader, 7 March). The current administration contains fascists in important positions, which seems to leave most media commentators and western governments untroubled. I find that as concerning as Putin’s agenda.

Keith Flett
London N17

Peter Wilby (First Thoughts, 7 March) makes pertinent points about the Russian perspective of Ukraine. The need to view international disputes as the other “side” regards us is crucial and rarely realised. My 50-odd missions to emerging democracies around the world since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1989 have been an extremely steep learning curve in how we are seen from overseas.

In particular, the west has had no understanding of Russians’ pride in their culture and history. The fall of the Soviet Union was gleefully seized on by the American neocons, aided and abetted by the Thatcherites, to export to the new fledgling democracies the social and economic disasters of their own experiments. It needed instead a reverse Marshall plan to underpin the rouble, but this was never on the agenda. Consequently the rouble collapsed and we allowed Russia to fall into the hands of the oligarchs.

Michael Meadowcroft
Leeds

Northern soul

The NS Scotland special (28 February) was surprisingly fertile ground for political thinking. Andrew Marr’s cultural interpretation of the question “What is independence for?” (The Critics) opened up the issue of a modern Scottish identity, which is less about landscape, Gaelic or MacDiarmid-type Marxism, and more about forging a social-democratic, Nordic-style politics.

Marr was not altogether complimentary of SNP positioning – “well-behaved, impeccably monarchist . . . milky” – but perhaps his argument can be pushed in a more radical direction. It could be that the success of the SNP marks a fissure in the hegemony of the dominant, market-driven politics of south-east England.

As John Denham has proved, the Con-Lib coalition has deliberately made sure that Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield and the whole of the north-east of England have suffered disproportionately from government cuts. Perhaps it is time for these polities to heed the insistent Scottish national voice and effect a “Northern Renaissance”, based on resistance to
southern hegemony.

Kathryn Dodd
London N16

With all the talk of the independence referendum, not to mention events in Ukraine, I am deeply impressed by the arguments posted in your excellent coverage that a vote for Scottish independence will condemn the rest of us to perpetual government by the Tories, which would be no more representative of voting patterns here in the north of England than it would be in Scotland.

How about a referendum in the north to see if we might appreciate the same more caring, more equal society that the Scots are seeking, and therefore join them?

Chris Wright
Otley, West Yorkshire

Unhappy together?

Colin Cubie asks what will happen to the status of Scots living in any other part of the UK (Correspondence, 7 March). I would refer him to Scotland’s Future (pages 272-273), which clearly explains the position. I believe that almost every eventuality is detailed in the 650-page document.

Scotland’s Future portrays a positive image of Scotland. Meanwhile, the Better Together campaign does nothing but talk down both the people and the assets of Scotland. In fact, I wonder if Scotland is such a basket case . . . If so, why on earth do they want to keep us as a part of the UK?

Graeme Stevenson
Paisley, Renfrewshire

Class divide

Unlike John Rogers (Correspondence, 28 February), I do wonder about issues such as ethnicity, class and education when it comes to New Statesman writers. For instance, what proportion of them went to private schools? How many attended Oxbridge? My guess is that the offices of the NS, like most of the established media, will contain a much higher proportion of ex-private/Oxbridge students than the UK population as a whole.

Yes, of course, I judge them by their output; but I wonder if a more representative group of writers with a wider range of life experience might produce spikier, bolder and more challenging pieces. Would the NS give us the rundown on its writers?

Max Fishel
Bromley, Greater London

Statin red alert

Having reached retirement age some years ago, I accepted government advice and began taking statins (Health Matters, 28 February). I began suffering from severe depression and debilitating muscle pains in my legs. My active life of walking in the hills with my Labrador and sea kayaking was replaced by hours of staring at the wall. With the help of my wife, a retired GP, I did what research I could into statins. I decided to stop taking the drug. After about six weeks I was back to my normal self.

Statins are a billion-dollar, worldwide industry and the pharmaceutical companies will not easily let go of these profits. Nor can we expect the government to take action any time soon to protect the public. For the moment, patients need to assess these drugs, and their potential side effects, for themselves. In my painful experience the only safe option is to avoid them.

Denis Watkins
Crymych, Pembrokeshire

Bedroom farce

Lynsey Hanley (The Critics, 28 February) writes: “It goes without saying that the bedroom tax applies only if you have the temerity to rely on social housing.” The reason this should go without saying is that it isn’t true.

Labour introduced Local Housing Allowance for housing benefit claimants renting in the private sector. This similarly restricted the number of bedrooms for which benefit could be claimed. But I suppose in some eyes that’s the critical difference – it’s all right because it was brought in by Labour.

Iain Sharpe
Watford, Hertfordshire

Sci-high fancy

At the end of her piece on the “sci-fi army” (In the Red, 7 March), Laurie Penny says that “there is only one way to get to the future. We get there together.” This is an amazingly fuzzy conclusion for someone who is usually astute in her observations. The “future” is never attained because it has the same attributes as the horizon – you can only ever move towards it but never reach it. And she should remember the disasters that have befallen humanity when people have been in thrall to utopias.

David Rust
St Albans, Hertfordshire

Space invaders

With regard to your articles on space exploration (21 February), my own support is based on two quotations.

The first is from the early-20th-century Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky: “Earth is the cradle of mankind, but no one stays in the cradle for ever.” The second quotation is from later-20th-century American science fiction and by Robert A Heinlein: “The earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in it.”

Peter Davey
Bournemouth, Dorset

I found the NS space issue depressing. I can well understand the human fascination with space flight – I was involved with the development of UK and European space policy many decades ago and have always enjoyed science fiction. But shouldn’t the first priority be to curb the wasteful overexploitation of finite resources on our planet, rather than rush to replicate it elsewhere? Whatever happened to sustainable development?

Robin Lingard
Dingwall, Highlands

Twisty tweet

Even James Abbott McNeill Whistler, with his preoccupation with posterity (The Critics, 7 March), might have been given pause by a pet-shop sign I glimpsed a few years ago. Next to a songbird in a cage was its description: “Mother’s Whistler”.

Bob Ballard
Bristol