This Week's Big Questions: Is Putin more influential than Obama? Should Muslim women wear the veil?

This week's questions are answered by the historian and author, Simon Schama


Do you welcome the prospect of Scotland as an independent nation?

Och no; the skirl of pipes would always sound like a moan in the glen. No matter that the Act of Union was one of the more outrageous fixes in British history, I rather love the mixed-up nation it produced, and the lure of ever-purer, ever smaller, even more inward looking countries always saddens me. The aftermath of separation would not be happy: the spurned English chasing Scots out of Westminster, turning backs on anything north of the Tweed. The Bannockburn elixir would not last long. Watch the Orcadians look wistfully in the direction of Norway.

What are the implications of ever-spiralling London house prices?

Nothing good but nothing to be done as long as we live in a free property market. It just amplifies the spider-effect which happens in grossly unequal countries where (as in 18th-century France) the lure of metropolitan life creates a great, fat, bloated, greedy centre with sticky legs extending out into the ever depleted provincial web. But London is now the world city of the west: a glittering lure despite the state of the seats on the Northern Line: a rackety noisy, unstoppably animated place. Goodness, it sounds like I like it.

Is it right that American novels will be considered for the Booker Prize?

Not until the Pulitzer awards are opened to the rest of the Anglophone world and the National Book award becomes International Book Award it isn’t. In our dreams. (Though the National Book Critics Circle prize is open to non-citizens). Its not just a matter of playground tit for tat. I don’t want the strong writing coming from places outside Britain as well as inside it to be muscled out of the way by the great literary machines of New York, Chicago and the rest.

Stephen Hawking has given his support to assisted suicide. Where do you stand on the issue?

Though it’s autumn I stand before what Gore Vidal called “the springtime of senility”. It’s not death I fear but the dying. So I’m all in favour of decriminalising assisted suicide for the terminally ill if that’s their choice. There are however painful moral consideration, too distressing to imagine, in cases when the rights of the ill conflict with sensibilities of their families. Whose pain is morally paramount?

How optimistic should we be about a  US-Iran rapprochement?

Hey, I’m someone who believes that Spurs will be League Champions in 2014 (whatever they are chanting); that global warming will shortly make possible Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Shropshire and that Leonard Cohen will be touring “Dance Me To The End of Love” when he’s 85. Compared to me, Dr Pangloss was a realist. So, with many grains of salt in play, I want to believe Rouhani when he says that Iran will never acquire a nuclear arsenal. But Iran is still a theocracy and no one has much idea how much freedom of action the new President is being given by Supreme Khameini. 

Is Vladimir Putin emerging as a more influential world leader than Barack Obama?

In the year of the 500th anniversary of The Prince, Machiavelli would have thought of him as the new Cesare Borgia managing to combine ruthlessness with agility, political brutality with puritan self-satisfaction. In the op-ed in the New York Times and elsewhere Putin evidently relishes acting scold to American moral posturing. Never mind that Obama’s position on the need to act in response to the violation of the international ban on chemical weapons was moral, the Putin poke in the eye instantly endears him to large parts of the world which like nothing better than taking the United States down a peg or two. The tough customers who run those states aren’t unduly bothered by the fate of Pussy Riot or by the fact that Putin is a self-perpetuating oligarch who stamps mercilessly on any sign of serious political dissent.

But before anyone gets carried away by the notion that Putin is the disinterested cutter of Gordian knots in the knottiest place in the world, remember Russia has long thought of itself as the imperial arbiter of the Middle East. And this is still the leader who still wants to be taken seriously when he claims it was the rebels who committed the sarin atrocity of 21 August.

Should Muslim women be free to wear the veil?

Yes. It is entirely their own business and right, except in situations where veiling impairs communication and discomforts the unveiled when they are not free to be elsewhere. That’s the point at which individual rights have to yield to the needs of the group. Classrooms which are by definition a collective experience might be exactly such a situation, especially when a teacher feels the interaction of the group to be an indispensable element in its common education.

How do you feel about more than 20 UK universities offering courses online?

Relaxed. Over time education changes and this is just the latest evolution. Massive Open Online Courses (Mooc) can be a force for educational democracy. But, and this but could not be bigger, course materials, reading lists and reference materials do not an education make. Education depends ultimately on the living exchange between teachers and students, a situation of unpredictable, partly intuitive responses by both parties to the intellectual transaction.

Over many decades I’ve learned that often the moment of wisdom comes through the immediate response of a student to a question, the trigger of another question, an instant of Socratic reciprocity, and that true education is a living breathing thing. And don’t tell me the University of Skype will take care of that.

Simon Schama’s ‘The Story of the Jews’ continues on BBC2 tomorrow. His book of the series is published by Bodley Head.

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