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20 March 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 12:08pm

LETTER OF THE WEEK Standing up to populism

By New Statesman

John Gray’s take on the Brexit saga (“The age of disorder”, 15 March) is insightful about many things; not least Corbyn’s dilemma and use of vranyo. His overall thesis is, however, flawed.

First, the 2016 referendum cannot be said to have “changed British politics irrevocably”. Second, who precisely are the ruling classes that have failed to appreciate this quite momentous revolution? Third, sensible Remainers have never called Leave voters stupid. Fourth, Gray’s notion that many working-class Leave voters are motivated by noble values other than economic gain needs much greater amplification.

Let me try to do that – alienation from traditional politics and anti-immigrant populist nationalism are undoubtedly at work in those values; and are close to what Gray calls “the dark forces shaping European politics”. The best way to stand up to those forces is to promote the EU, with all its flaws, as a bulwark against them. Something both Gray and the Labour leadership do not appear fully to understand.

Phil Lee
Skipton, North Yorkshire

Misruling classes

In his very interesting essay (“The age of disorder”, 15 March), John Gray describes the European Union as “a failing political experiment”, “a project that belongs in the past” and in other critical terms.

But the EU is a necessary project. Europe is a collection of small and medium-sized countries that have spent most of the past 1,000 years fighting each other; they are also rich and have many practical and cultural advantages compared to many other countries in the world. They are, however, vulnerable in comparison to much bigger countries and they need to unite in some form or other to survive with their existing advantages.

I think we can be fairly sure that Poles, Czechs and Hungarians do not want the Russians back. Unfortunately, the British government is obsessed with the notion that the market always knows best, but participants in markets have even less information than many governments. The result is austerity – small wonder that many people are discontented.

Gray refers to “the political class”, “the Uber-Remainers in many of Britain’s ruling institutions”, “the ruling classes”, and so on. But who exactly was he referring to? Surely those who rule Britain are divided among various individuals, institutions, and foreign organisations and companies, as well as the formal institutions such as parliament, government, the civil service, and local government and its subordinate bodies. Surely a foreign owner of several media channels able to influence sections of the electorate must be a member of this ruling class?

So another cause of failure must be the government’s failure to exercise its proper functions. But can it afford to do so if a foreign owner is an effective ruler?

It is constantly repeated that the “British people” voted to leave the EU, but this is not quite accurate. Only 37 per cent of the total electorate voted in favour of Leave, 33 per cent voted to Remain and nearly 30 per cent did not vote. It is reasonable to assume that both Leavers and Remainers are included in the 30 per cent who did not vote. I wish that both non-voters and Remainers were treated with respect, just as Leavers should be – as John Gray rightly says.

Margherita Rendel
London NW8


John Gray’s article puts emphasis on the “failure of the British ruling classes”, but in identifying the root cause as their inability to grasp “that the 2016 referendum changed politics irrevocably”, he fails to point our that that measure was made in desperation.

There has emerged a disconnect between all parliamentary groups and the electorate because society and economic conditions in the world of work have moved ahead (for good or ill) while political thinking has remained trapped in the past. Our political representatives are not only ignoring the major issues of most concern to the majority today, but more significantly, they give recognition to divisions in society that are fast disappearing. In this is to be found the true crisis of democracy, and it can only be addressed by formulating new patterns of difference that replace the increasingly ineffective ideas of the discredited left/right divide.

Robert Corfe
Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk


Scorning Remainers as elitists with a deluded faith in reason, John Gray cites John Maynard Keynes’s belated confession that he had been blind to humanity’s darker urges.

Yet there is a jarring incongruity about the invocation of Keynes by a writer with a frank contempt for the EU, as Keynes never gave up on progressive politics. Mindful though he would be of its fallibilities, nobody, I suspect, would be more committed to the survival of the EU as a force for good.

Neil Berry
London N10


Sitting it out

Mary Beard’s essay was excellent (“Women in Power”, 15 March). The accompanying illustration was of Mary Astor, “the first female MP”. In 1918, Constance Markievicz was the first female elected MP, for Sinn Féin, but did not take her seat.One does wonder what might have happened if the seven current Sinn Féin MPs had abandoned their century-old tradition and taken their seats in the current parliament.

Martin White


People’s ill will

The fiasco of the Brexit process is not only down to Theresa May’s ineptitude as prime minister and the irreconcilable aspirations of the Brexit dream (Leader, 15 March).

Ever since the referendum in 2016, the ugly we-won, get-over-it triumphalism of the Brexiteers has been their, and everyone else’s, undoing. Constantly trumpeting their 52 per cent victory as if it had been a landslide – “the British people have decided!” – their definition of democracy has been throughout that it exists only to serve their inchoate and incoherent interests, with no regard for anyone else.

The European Union and some of the Remain camp have been no better. The flagrant disregard for legitimate concerns about how the EU is run and the consequences of unregulated one-way immigration handed the Brexiteers their “victory”.

The democratic majority principle means we must leave the EU, but the only way to avoid years of festering discontent and humiliation lies in understanding what democracy really means: consensus and compromise. The reality of true democracy is that no one gets exactly what they want and we must settle for something we can all live with, at least until the next democratic vote. That’s the whole point. If we can wrest at least that from this mess all will not be lost.

Guy de la Bédoyère
Grantham, Lincolnshire


How late it is

Francisco Garcia’s overview of James Kelman’s fiction (“The winner loses all”, 15 March) was a much-needed reminder of the opprobrium he has received over the years, most of it ad hominem.

Rather than being “an illiterate savage”, Kelman is one of the most sophisticated prose writers to have emerged in the UK in the last 50 years. The influence of modernism, American realism and existential philosophy on his fiction draws the praise of academics, as Kelman himself acknowledges, but runs against the innate conservatism of the English literary establishment, which has never had the international outlook of Scottish literature. Significantly, the first two critical works on Kelman were written by Germans, and the third was published in Japan.

I suppose some consolation can be taken from the fact that literature must still be important if it inspires such venom.

JD Macarthur


Daddy Descartes

Sandra Busell referred to René Descartes as a “so-called philosopher” who “sadly, many still revere” (Correspondence, 15 March) in relation to his view on animals as machines that cannot feel and over which humans have dominion. But her comment seems entirely baseless.

Descartes is seen as the father of modern philosophy for a great number of reasons. He was the first philosopher since Aristotle to have worked on a principle of foundationalism (building philosophical arguments up from an “Archimedean point”), he was the champion of scepticism and rationalism and pioneer of the method of doubt. His work inspired many of the greatest thinkers of the last millennia such as Spinoza and Leibniz.

The teaching that animals were subservient to humans and of lesser value was not unique to Descartes in any shape or form. Both before and after him countless philosophers have rejected the idea that the suffering of animals is on the same level as that of humans and many have, like Descartes, even denied its existence.

It was, in fact, the official teaching of the Catholic Church, until the 20th century, that man should have dominion over animal-kind. The belief that animals are equal in value to humans is a very modern one sparked by the work of philosophers such as Peter Singer.

Charlie Mackintosh
The King’s School, Worcester


Disraeli years

I enjoyed Simon Heffer’s article on the Liberal Party (“The original centrist party, 8 March) and particularly admired the accompanying photograph of HH Asquith. The author referred to “the first three Jews ever to hold senior government posts”. He made no mention of Benjamin Disraeli. While Disraeli may not have practised Judaism, would he not count as first? He certainly had to put up with a lot of anti-Semitism from fellow parliamentarians.

Julian Hemming


Dark matter

Sarah Ditum’s excellent article on the digital dark age could hardly be more timely (Digital Dispatches, 15 March). Within a couple of days of reading it, I see that MySpace has admitted to losing a large amount of data during a server migration; photos, video and audio files all lost, personal histories vanished. The article has also made me appreciate my decision to stick with a print-only subscription to the
New Statesman.

John Adcock
Via email


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