Generally, New Statesman readers write letters about articles. However, we should not forget the consistent quality of your photographs. In the 16 October issue, the photograph by Ahmad al-Basha of war-torn Yemen, featured in Observations, packed an emotional punch (In the Picture, 16 October). It’s a superbly composed image, with the twisted metal coming out of the foreground rubble and the girders silhouetted against the clear blue sky and distant mountains. Seeing a class of children sitting crowded together under the one part of their bomb-blasted school roof that’s left, with their teacher using a half-destroyed concrete pillar as a blackboard, is very powerful. I took away from it a sense of the unnecessary destruction of young lives, but also a defiant hope for a peaceful future. Thank you, Ahmad.
I’m grateful to Chris Deerin for his insightful online article (“Scotland has never been closer to independence – and Boris Johnson is to blame”, 15 October) and particularly for reminding me of the Scots term “bawbag”.
Scotland’s independent-mindedness was surely set by the Treaty of Union that established legal, cultural and administrative institutions as separate “national” entities. The tension between these institutions and those of Westminster has come into sharp focus as their commonalities – empire-building and two world wars – have receded into history. As Deerin points out, a form of self-protective rejection seems at the heart of the latest surge in Scottish separatism.
Perhaps, though, independence is a false problem. In the wake of an inadequate centralised response to the pandemic, there is evidence of a widespread anti-Westminsterism in the English regions.
Should the nine administrative regions of England be given a clone of devolved Scottish powers and their own assemblies, the rebalancing of the British state, in which powers and revenue are federally distributed, would have the potential to defuse Scottish disaffection with London. It would also provide Labour with a much needed vision for national renewal, democratic reform and above all, hope.
Beware the dogma
There are few people more irritating than the dogmatist, but one such person is the confused dogmatist. I’m sorry to see your leader writer has joined their ranks (“The revolt of the north”, 16 October). He or she states that if the SNP wins an overall majority at next year’s Scottish elections “it will have an unarguable mandate for a second referendum”.
It will only be unarguable if those elections are fought exclusively on the question of independence, with every vote not cast for the SNP counted in the “No” column. Even then, there is no guarantee that it would be replicated at any subsequent referendum.
I do not dissent from any of the adjectives you have used about Boris Johnson and I understand the Scottish electorate’s revulsion. But Johnson, like Nicola Sturgeon, is temporary. (Incidentally, so are leader writers – I was one.) Splitting, on the other hand, is permanent and requires a much longer view.
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Anoosh Chakelian writes movingly of her family’s history and the pain of displacement from ancestral land (Another Voice, 16 October). But in her column she does not acknowledge the suffering of the other side.
Over 650,000 Azerbaijanis were driven from their homes in Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding districts during the war in the early 1990s. The realisation that Armenia would not withdraw its troops from these districts (contrary to UN Security Council resolutions) and allow the displaced people to return home is a major factor behind the current fighting.
Chakelian is convinced that Nagorno-Karabakh is Armenian land, but it is not so simple. It is legally part of the Azerbaijan Republic and Azerbaijanis, too, have an emotional attachment to the region. In particular, they cherish the city of Shusha, the former seat of the Turkic khan of Karabakh, as a cradle of Azerbaijani music and poetry.
For a lasting peace settlement, both Azerbaijanis and Armenians should be able to live in Nagorno-Karabakh. Understanding the position of the other side could be a first step towards building sufficient trust for that to happen.
First the Yugoslav wars and now the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict confirm a geopolitical maxim. The break-up of multinational entities is likely to result in young states that do not naturally command the allegiance of all their peoples. The legacy of the Soviet Union has yet to run its course. The Slavs of Transnistria, which abuts Ukraine, don’t feel any affinity with the Romanian-speaking Moldovan authorities and they fear that Romania will eventually absorb Moldova. Then there are the Abkhazians and South Ossetians of Georgia who distrust Tbilisi rule. Most worrying of all is Ukraine.
To treat these cases solely as instances of Russian imperial rule is unhelpful. The West needs to tread carefully.
Winterborne Houghton, Dorset
A force for good
It is so refreshing to read about the positive role religion can play in the politics of the left (Observations, 16 October). Far from the fanatical obsessions of some sectors of the church that get so much airtime, Catholic Social Teaching places the dignity and welfare of human beings and their communities at the heart of their concerns. Policies based on such teaching aim to strengthen institutions such as trade unions, local businesses or city councils, while protecting us from the impersonal forces of global finance or over-centralised government.
Furthermore, Pope Francis urges us to balance a “love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family”, transcending the false dichotomy between being patriotic and being part of a global village. Though we are neither a Catholic nor a very religious society, these values are surely shared by a majority of us. If the Labour Party was to adopt them as the basis of its next manifesto I have little doubt that it could win the next general election.
I was delighted to read Adrian Pabst’s article on Pope Francis’s latest encyclical. As a left-leaning Methodist minister, increasingly frustrated by the political madness and social injustice in the world, I find that the New Statesman provides me with a little bit of solace each week that good-quality political journalism does still exist. Likewise, the Pope gives me reassurance that Christian leadership has not completely given way to populism or narrow-mindedness.
Rev Andrew Murphy
Market Harborough, Leicestershire
The PR stunt
I cannot let Alan Grant’s letter (Correspondence, 16 October) pass without comment. Proportional representation (PR) was not put to the electorate in 2011: it was the “Alternative Vote”, simply a different method of counting to arrive back at what we already had. The clue with PR is in the title. It is the only system that truly reflects the democratic will of the electorate. What was so egregious about the Liberal Democrats’ decision to agree to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is that many people would think that rejecting that equates to rejecting PR.
Harry Eyres claims Boris Johnson is underestimated as a politician: “he is very good at winning” (Personal Story, 16 October). That’s true, and no one doubts his ambition. But why is he so keen to win?
I have recently read Steve Richards’s book on the leadership qualities of our last ten prime ministers. None craved attention and popularity the way Johnson does. He seems to have no principles or ideals. He wants to win solely for himself, not for the good it enables him to do for others.
This is exposed by his many false promises, casually made, unrooted in any reality, and promulgated purely for favourable publicity. I am 65 and he is without doubt the shallowest figure to reach No 10 in my lifetime.
Emily Tamkin (“The many faces of Joe Biden”, 16 October) fails to mention the scariest potential parallel between William Henry Harrison and Donald Trump: Harrison’s grandson became president.
Todmorden, West Yorkshire
Babble of Hastings
I moved to Hastings in 1977 for my first post-qualifying job as a community worker in the social services department. During the first few weeks, as part of my induction, I visited the council for voluntary service, whose general secretary had a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists on his desk (The Critics, 16 October).
He told me that reading the book, written almost 70 years earlier, would serve as a guide to the lives and attitudes of the locals. I had read it some years earlier and followed his advice – he wasn’t wrong.
Hunt for Jordan
While I enjoyed Hunter Davies’s excellent column on international football (The Fan, 16 October), I am concerned about his “wine-sodden mind” (Hunter’s words, not mine!) if he believes that someone called Jordan Sancho is starring in the Premier League.
Should we assume he means Jadon Sancho, the Borussia Dortmund star, who (despite Manchester United’s best efforts) remains firmly in the German Bundesliga?
I am available for football sub-editing duties if the New Statesman feels that Hunter’s column is too niche. The magazine, meanwhile, continues to get better and better.
We reserve the right to edit letters.
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic