Blair's Cabinet, the Pope and others

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Tony Blair treats his Cabinet as 'just another set of advisers'

Tony Blair treats his Cabinet as 'just another set of advisers'

Sir: It was disturbing to hear the Prime Minister, when interviewed by Steve Richards (The Independent, 21 April), and Jeremy Paxman (on Newsnight), resort so often to partial truths in his account of events leading up to the Iraq war.

To say, as Mr Blair did to Paxman, that four committees of investigation have exonerated him and those around him, is to put an overly favourable construction, especially on what one - the Butler review - actually said. The crucial caveats about the reliability of the intelligence were dropped from the infamous second dossier. Neither Cabinet nor War Cabinet had the papers members needed to make up their minds properly. The Attorney General's opinion on the legality of going to war was so truncated as to omit consideration of counter-arguments.

But there was almost worse disingenuousness to come in the Paxman interview. Blair tried to have it both ways over the role of Cabinet. First, he denied he ruled through sofa meetings. Second, he stressed how often Cabinet discussed the approaching war.

In his article in your paper ("Why are we governed so badly", 18 April), Andreas Whittam Smith mentioned favourably relevant arguments in my new book, British Government in Crisis. In it I give chapter and verse about how Margaret Thatcher in many ways increasingly misused and undermined the authority of Cabinet; how John Major failed to restore it; and how under Blair the autocratic tendency has been almost complete.

The evidence supports Robin Butler's contention that very important decisions - not only about war - are taken at "sofa" meetings by Mr Blair and his mostly unelected advisers; and that Cabinet discussions are largely futile, not only because ministers are without the carefully prepared papers and other evidence needed for an informed discussion, but also because he does not treat Cabinet as the supreme decision-making body it had been for about two and a half centuries, but as just another set of advisers.

This attitude towards Cabinet was blatant in the interview as he repeatedly spoke of it being "his" decision to go to war, never Cabinet's. Until we get a prime minister who is genuinely ready to share power with cabinet colleagues, we will go on being governed badly, sometimes even dangerously, as over Iraq.

SIR CHRISTOPHER FOSTER

LONDON W11

Reports of the Pope insulting to Gemans

Sir: I am incensed over your reports and commentaries concerning Pope Benedict XVI. As a German having lived in this country for the past 17 years I have hardly had any negative responses to my nationality. I feel that we should let the past rest - but not forget it. Why is it necessary to stress that the Pope was a member of the Hitler Youth ("A burden of history that needs to be lifted", 22 April)?

So were almost all the young people at the time. You report on the reaction of the Pope's home village to prisoners being marched through it (22 April). You would have found the very same reactions in many other towns and villages across Germany then.

Pope Benedict was not elected because he was German. He was elected because the cardinals believed him to be the best choice. Whether this will be the case remains to be seen. I would ask you to stop raking up the past in a way that lets all the old prejudices be resurrected again and again.

HILDEGARD O'KANE

MILTON, CAMBRIDGE

Sir: The horrific events and inhuman crimes described in your article, "Nazi atrocities against Jews were committed in Pope's home town" (22 April), did take place but surely cannot be laid at the door of the teenage Josef Ratzinger.

I grew up in the nearby town of Rosenheim and know from direct experience what was happening at the time. I was ten years old at the end of the war, my elder brother was 18 years old and followed the exact same "course" taken by the young Ratzinger in making the wise decision of "betraying his Fuehrer and Vaterland" by heading home before the bitter end.

Family and friends had to go to some considerable lengths to hide him. The fanatical SS execution squads were particularly active and numerous in that last corner of the country they had been driven into and were bent on wreaking revenge.

I lived opposite my elementary school, two large four-storey buildings around the usual school yard. Towards the end of the war the school was converted into a military hospital. Sneaking into the yard in the morning we could see severed limbs spill out over the top of the overfilled refuse containers in addition to everything else that comes from hard working operating theatres. Later in the morning that "refuse" was cleared away by a group of heavily guarded men in striped pyjama type suits, concentration camp victims as I was told later. The bakery on the corner baked extra bread for them and it became my job to throw the loaves up to them on the back of the military truck as it sped away through the gates late every afternoon.

Having lived and worked in this country for many years I have of course learnt to appreciate that nigh on every Englishman is a war hero, particularly those who have never been in the front line.

No doubt your writers are very heroic people as well and thus well qualified to advise Pope Benedict XVI, my brother and indeed myself who are guilty in your own words of having "lived through the era of Nazism" what it is that we should and could have done. I will certainly be grateful for such guidance.

KONRAD SCHLUTTENHOFER

ABERGAVENNY

Sir: In your leading article "The German Pope: A burden of history that needs to be lifted" (22 April), Die Tageszeitung is cited with its headline "Is God German?" as an example of the German media's glowing pride. But for everyone who knows Die Tageszeitung, a left-wing newspaper with a certain fondness for satirical headlines, the very thought of Die Tageszeitung supporting Ratzinger is simply hilarious.

WOLFGANG SCHMIDLE

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE

Sir: Matthew Norman's gag about the Jew, the Black and the Hitler Youth running for Pope carries a nasty "are you thinking what we're thinking?" innuendo of which he should be ashamed. He raises many points that deserve an answer but he seems baffled that millions still choose to live within the framework of religions like Christianity and Islam which, incidentally, each contain a towering intellectual tradition.

Belief in God has survived the discovery that the Earth goes round the Sun and the theory of evolution, and is therefore unlikely to be snuffed out as Mr Norman hopes on the day medicine perfects stem cell techniques and cloning, and thus defeats "theological sophistry to explain what conceivable function God has left".

On the contrary, if that day comes it will be religious faith that gives us the chance not to sink into a world of Nazi eugenics.

JOHN MCHUGO

LONDON SW15

Lost joy in studying English literature

Sir: There is no need to scrap A-level English (report, 19 April), although I agree with the National Association of Teachers of English that the current A-level is narrow in its approach.

The problem was brought about by Curriculum 2000, and especially the mean-spirited AS level which destroyed the joy of discovery for first year A-level students. Under the old A-level system we were able to follow a foundation course in the Lower Sixth ranging from Beowulf to late 20th century contemporary fiction, and students wrote up to 20 broadly based coursework essays.

In the Upper Sixth we focused on a limited number of texts in great detail, always including two Shakespeare texts and often Chaucer and Dickens, whom Claire Fox of the Institute of Ideas fears might be lost under a broader system.

Those of my students who went on to study English literature at university would report back that at school they had read or at least gained acquaintance with most of their first-year university texts.

NEIL KING

HEAD OF ENGLISH HYMERS COLLEGE, HULL

Sir: As a department we read with some concern about the recent report by NATE suggesting that English literature at A-level "should be scrapped ... merged with the English language A-level and include a study of modern media" because the subject "fails to give youngsters the skills they need to write academic essays".

It seems that literacy and literature have been confused. The A-level English literature examination was not designed as a tool to raise the standards of written expression: literacy skills are now meant to be established during the literacy hour and are tested during a student's school career, notably at the end of Key Stage 4 in the GCSE English examination.

The A-level English literature course requires serious academic study involving critical analysis and incisive written commentary. In addition to sheer pleasure, great literature offers endless examples of good literacy and is instrumental in fulfiling the current demands for moral and social education - nobody should marry without reading Middlemarch!

By all means let us strive for improved standards of literacy but rest assured that those standards will not be achieved by the loss of an A-level course offering the possibility of the rigorous academic study of English literature.

L M ARMITAGE

ENGLISH DEPARTMENT THE CHELTENHAM LADIES' COLLEGE CHELTENHAM, GLOUCESTERSHIRE

Britain's bluebells are spreading nicely

Sir: Jonathan Brown ("Bluebell blues as most popular wildflower feels the squeeze", 18 April) was right to raise awareness regarding the threat to plants from environmental change but unfortunately, he furthered common misconceptions regarding our much-loved bluebell.

Nobody really knows, but Britain and Ireland probably only contain around 25 per cent of the world's population of bluebells, not the half quoted. Furthermore, there is no evidence for the level of "dilution" he reported of our native Hyacinthoides non-scriptus due to cross-breeding with the Spanish bluebell.

Botanists are currently debating how much hybridisation occurs between our native bluebell and the garden hybrids. If it is prevalent, the proximity of many gardens to wild populations of our native bluebell may be a concern. There has indeed been catastrophic loss of bluebell habitat but many of our woodlands were lost centuries ago. However, most botanists agree that there is no hard evidence that the bluebell is decreasing and in fact, detailed studies have shown that it may be locally increasing in some areas, such as Dorset.

Our hedgerows remain a prime concern, linking bluebell woodland habitats together in the landscape, and these are greatly affected by different cutting techniques and regimes. In the south of Britain, bluebells have spread out from the hedgerows onto the road-verges and into fields. Not all gloom by any standards!

G HEMERY

D PEARMAN

BOTANICAL SOCIETY OF THE BRITISH ISLES, OXFORD

No link between IVF and breast cancer

Sir: Nicola Glucksmann's article on the psychological and social consequences of IVF treatment (12 April) was informative. However, her reference to "the treatment's links to ovarian and breast cancer, and concern for assisted reproductive technology children's health in later life" is incorrect, and could cause alarm to couples undergoing, or who have undergone, IVF treatment.

There is no good scientific evidence to suggest a link between ovarian and breast cancer and IVF, although childlessness and late age at first birth have been found to be associated with these outcomes. Nor is there good scientific evidence of adverse health effects in children resulting from assisted reproductive technology other than apparent increases in preterm delivery and low birthweight, with their potential health sequelae.

DR NOREEN MACONOCHIE

DR PAT DOYLE

DEPARTMENT OF EPIDEMIOLOGY & POPULATION HEALTH LONDON SCHOOL OF HYGIENE & TROPICAL TROPICAL LONDON WC1

Cuban camps

Sir: Your leader (23 April) speaks of "our invention of concentration camps during the Boer War". The clear implication is that ours were the first. Not so. That distinction belongs to Spain, in Cuba in the 1890s. There, and during the Boer War, the aim was to counter guerrilla insurgency by concentrating rural populations into army-controlled settlements.

ANTHONY MAYNARD

KING'S LYNN, NORFOLK

Bananas in pyjamas

Sir: The Conservatives' rallying question "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" has an interesting pedigree.

The Australian children's programme "Bananas in Pyjamas" features two animated bananas, B1 and B2 - a standard part of their routine is for one to say to the other "are you thinking what I'm thinking B1? (or B2) and the other invariably replies "I think I am B1 (or B2)".

The French National Front employed a similar catchphrase in their last election campaign ("notre programme, que pensez-vous"?). Thus the intellectual roots of the Conservative rallying cry are an extreme right-wing French party, and two Australian bananas.

JIM CORDELL

MANCHESTER

Sir: Barely mentioned in campaign speeches and the election manifestoes are constructive approaches to helping the homeless on our streets. A touchy - perhaps untouchable - subject? And possibly low in priority, since hardly any of Britain's homeless will be able to vote on 5 May.

PETER BUTLER

LONDON W4

Sell-by science

Sir: Your correspondent (29 April) asks about sell-by dates. These are decided by the manufacturer and are based on two entirely different criteria. The first is the organoleptic quality of the food. For example a baguette goes stale very quickly, and although perfectly safe to eat is not pleasurable. The second is based on the microbiological and toxicological safety of the food as well as its nutritional content, and is therefore, determined by well established, and independently derived, science.

ALAN D B MALCOLM

LONDON SW5

Straw bales

Sir: Given his insistence on the accurate use of words, Guy Keleny (23 April) will not mind me pointing out that a combine harvester does not disgorge a line of bales, but a swath of loose straw. The bales are disgorged by the, aptly named, baler that follows behind.

JONATHAN WALLACE

FENHAM, NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE

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