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Tuesday 25 May 2010
Divided by the BA picket line
I have just had the pleasure of two great friends staying with me. Both work for BA, which marred this pleasure.
While passengers can and will fly with other airlines, shareholders can hold on or sell, my friends are very worried about their jobs and their future. One reluctantly will strike, the other will reluctantly, with trepidation, cross picket lines.
There are of course real issues between the sides here, which have to be resolved. However this dispute has become a clash of powerful men with big egos, and is seen by them as a fight to the metaphorical (one hopes) death. If they cannot resolve this, the fatality will probably be that of this great flag-carrying company.
I would like to shut them in a room, giving them all the facilities need. They would stay there, while both sides withdrew their threats of strike or reprisals until there was an acceptable settlement. It won't happen, but isn't it an indictment of both these arrogant, pig-headed men that their personal antagonism may cause what my friends and many of their colleagues see as a disaster.
They should be ashamed.
Human rights of terrorists
Despite what Howard Jacobson may think (22 May), terrorists are still human. Because they are human they are imbued with certain inalienable characteristics. They feel. They think. They exercise free will. They have morality. Their feelings and thoughts and decisions and moral convictions may differ wildly from ours, but the mere fact that we are willing to label them "terrorists" is evidence that we consider them to be thinking, feeling, morally responsible human beings.
There are several consequences of this. The first is that they are bound to accept the consequences of their actions, and it would be far more satisfactory if we could put suspected terrorists on trial, and, if they are convicted, punish them accordingly. However, recognising terrorists as human also has consequences for the way we treat them. There must be certain basic rules about what we may or may not do to our fellow humans. If these rules are taken away, there is no reason to prevent some humans being considered less than human. For examples of how this works, look at Rwanda in 1994, or Nazi Germany.
Human rights are just those rules. They are based on the idea that all humans share those characteristics listed above. To defend our humanity we must be prepared to defend that of others, and this duty crosses racial, national, ethnic, gender, and religious boundaries. It is not a question of "loving our neighbours more than we love ourselves", but rather a question of recognising that humans are equal at a fundamental level.
We defend the human rights of terrorists because that is our duty as humans. We are not freed from this duty either by the refusal of terrorists to respect our human rights, or by the refusal of other nations to respect the human rights of terrorists. We can only be freed from this duty by denying our own humanity. If that is what Mr Jacobson wants, then he should be prepared for the consequences.
Andrew T Barnes
Back to the age of austerity
It seems that the hearts of the population are filled with dread at the thought of the much-heralded age of austerity that is facing us all. I'm quite looking forward to it.
I can remember when Sir Stafford Cripps was Chancellor; he was the most austere man in an austere government, and it wasn't that bad. We had enough to eat, just; but luxuries and material goods were so appreciated. A piece of rump steak, black market of course, was absolute heaven, and if you could procure a pair of nylons (stockings) you could win any girl's heart.
Even as recently as 1962, when I took my first pub, we were rationed for certain goods. We were only allowed, for instance, four bottles of dimple Haig whisky, once a year; it was all for export. What a treat getting a bottle of that was.
In this spoiled western world of ours, as we saturate and glut ourselves on the produce and labour of the third world, it will refresh us all to suffer some deprivation.
Long Melford, Suffolk
Nigel Wilkins (letters, 24 May) asks a perfectly reasonable question: why does the coalition government not reduce the public deficit by clamping down on fraud, such as the estimated £40bn of tax evasion and avoidance, rather than cutting public services?
I suspect the answer is depressingly simple. Tax evasion and avoidance are generally associated with the rich and big business, and none of our politicians or parties seems to have the will to challenge such people. On the contrary, they are totally in thrall to them, and pander to their every greedy whim.
Public services, on the other hand, are generally used by the less well-off, and employ many of the lowest-paid, so they do not enjoy anything like the respect granted to those who are wealthy (and amoral) enough to engage in tax-dodging.
As ever, in a time of economic crisis, the poor must pay the price of protecting the rich.
Reader in British Politics
Reading of the expected cuts in the new Budget, my attention was drawn to the freeze on hiring in Whitehall. I was reminded of the promise in the equalities section of the coalition manifesto to provide "internships for under-represented minorities in every Whitehall department".
I spy with my cynical eye a cheap method of providing workers for hard-pressed Whitehall departments. Still, killing two birds with one stone represents a step in the direction of efficiency which will be indispensable in the age of austerity that is ahead of us.
Just a hint to the new Chancellor. He could save a fortune if he put the retirement age for women up to 65 this year. Five years of a decreasing pension bill and a blow for sexual equality thrown in.
Left and right unite for reform
There has been much point-scoring at Nick Clegg's expense following his promise of "the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832" (letters, 21 May). Perhaps the greatest English novel ever written, Middlemarch, has the Great Reform Act at its centre and Dorothea's second husband, the idealistic Ladislaw, moves from journalism into the new Parliament.
Clearly, as George Eliot looked back, this was an event of enormous national significance and though things did not change immediately – as Dickens's account of the 1835 Northamptonshire election shows – they began to.
What is strikingly relevant in all this to our present government is that it was the Conservatives who passed the Second Reform Act (1867) but the Liberals who passed the Third (1884). It was Lloyd George's Coalition which extended the vote to include women in 1918 but the Conservatives who gave the vote to the flappers in 1928. Then it was Labour who finally abolished the dual vote in the 1948 Representation of the People Act.
If left and right in coalition can complement each other as effectively as they did in opposition, we should be all right.
Liberal Democrats at all levels are suffering from an inconvenient truth. There is a sense of unease within the party about the degree of ideological sacrifice created by the new coalition agreement.
While the Lib Dems have gained significant concessions from the Tories on a number of points, such as the abolition of the tax rate on the low earners and watered down electoral reform, there are huge fault lines in this agreement, such as inevitable Lib Dem compromises on Trident, Europe, immigration and energy policy.
A huge winner out of this will be the Labour Party. Despite tribalism on the back benches, they will get a chance to regroup, rebrand and offer the only viable left-of-centre opposition. If the coalition collapses under the heavy weight of the budget cuts and ideological differences, Labour will be presented with a clear opportunity.
One cannot join the Coalition Party (yet), but a government offering in its first week both an end to Labour's identity card database and a review of the iniquitously unequal Blair-Bush extradition treaty (vociferously defended, let us not forget, by Labour apparatchiks while in power as an agreement between two mature democracies) is off to a good start.
Those who voted in the election have delivered a result which should rescue more than one political party from its most fundamentalist activists, and that alone has to be applauded, maturely. Now we need to ensure that next time everyone who wants to vote and turns out to do so actually can.
There are extravagant bonuses from the coalition deal that have passed unnoticed. The Lib Dems will come out of the deal with a dozen or more of their most able members really experienced on the inside of government. The public may even have become familiar with all their names and faces. Those will be colossal advantages at the next general election.
Kenneth J Moss
Investment in expensive cars
While Tom Sutcliffe's article (18 May) on the sad and, in some eyes immoral, waste of money on the purchase of expensive cars certainly strikes a chord with many people, he has chosen the wrong target.
Chris Evans may have paid £12m for his Ferrari but it will certainly not cost him that amount. The car's rarity will probably earn him a tidy profit; this particular car is an investment, just as shares are, or artworks.
In his none-too-subtle attack on Evans's apparent greed, Sutcliffe ignores the fact that he may very well be intending to do good works, or "pay for 1,723,000 anti-malarial bed nets", with the proceeds of the sale of his Ferrari at a later date. And if the car does indeed rise in value, many more bed nets could in fact be funded. A man with Evans's millions may already be contributing unsung amounts to causes or have left large donations in his will.
A much more reasonable debate is the necessity of buying modern, basically unusable, "supercars" for sums between £150,000 and £1m and watching them depreciate immediately. Even allowing for the undoubted rush generated by use and ownership, this is definitely wasting money that could be spent on better causes.
What is the good of digital radio?
Ian Burrell's article (20 May) about broadcasters' efforts to persuade teens and twentysomethings to tune in to radio was written with the assumption that DAB radio is the only way forward.
If DAB is so good there would have been a rapid uptake already (as there was with DVD). But the sound quality of DAB is noticeably poorer than FM, making it a poor choice if you want to actually enjoy the music.
As far as I can see the only "benefit" of DAB is that the broadcasters will be able to squeeze ever more channels of poor quality and marginal interest into the radio waves.
Two words explain our reluctance to embrace digital radio: battery life.
I have a small tranny which is still using the same two AAA batteries a year after I bought it for less than a fiver new. Prior to that I bought a DAB set for around £50; a hat full of batteries lasted two days. I was thrilled when it was stolen.
Ian Burrell could answer his own point about the lack of enthusiasm for radio by looking at the tiny, scruffy corner of page 19 that you allow for setting out the meanest details of a vary limited range of channels. You should give as much space and prominence to the full range of UK radio broadcasting as you give to television.
Guy Keleny is puzzled by a report of a sea-monster "about 129ft long" (Errors and Omissions", 22 May). I can only suggest that the original record of 1830 would have been in a nautical unit such as chains or furlongs or whatever was being used at that time, but has been converted accurately for the benefit of the modern reader to 129 feet, without any thought to the arising confusion.
Franz von Habsburg
Value of lives
The Rev Kim Fabricius (letter, 24 May) is vexed by the moral inconsistency of anti-abortionists who are not pacifists and do not oppose the death penalty. I am vexed by the pro-abortionists who seem untroubled by ending the life of a blameless unborn child but protest at the execution of a mass murderer.
Perspectives on university access
In the US, all must have top marks
Sarah Churchwell's article on the inadequacies of the British education system (21 May) compares it unfavourably with the American and Canadian system.
By making education available to so many people of greatly differing abilities, the USA and Canada have dramatically lowered their standards. Although America has some of the best universities in the world, there is a general perception amongst the teaching staff of most American universities that it is appropriate to award top marks for the vast majority of assignments. Those who mark in a way that reflects a spectrum of ability all too commonly have their grades adjusted to ensure the correct percentage of the class get the top grade.
I teach at an American university to pay my way through my PhD, but I am a British citizen who has undertaken an undergraduate and two master's degrees in the UK. I am dumbfounded by what appears to be a profound dearth of interest in the excellence (or lack thereof) attained by the undergraduates at the university where I teach, which is considerably higher up the world rankings than the University of Bradford, where I did my first degree.
Does Sarah Churchwell honestly think that by making education available to such a large proportion of the UK there is going to be no equivalent sacrifice in standards and quality? I recommend instead focusing on making universities both fair and elitist by ensuring they are exclusive to those that are diligent and able enough to get something worthwhile out of their education. This way the smaller number of more deserving individuals at university can make the most of it without great expense to the public purse and at no expense to themselves or their families.
Columbus, Ohio, USA
Not for us, say poor families
Anyone involved in medical education will not be surprised by the Office for Fair Access report that top universities are still failing to attract students from low-income families (report, 19 May).
Today only around one in 10 medical students comes from the lowest economic groups. There is ample evidence that many young people from these backgrounds automatically discount a medical degree because they believe it's a career that is out of their reach, a distressing mindset that is often compounded by a lack of proper school career guidance, as highlighted in the Offa report.
But while these issues are well recognised, politicians of all shades appear to be considering sanctioning huge rises in tuition fees. If this happens then the cost of the already expensive five-year medical degree will spiral to levels that may place a barrier in front of students from low- and middle-income families.
Medical Student Finance Lead , British Medical Association
In your leading article of 20 May, you suggest that the Russell Group needs a "fair hearing" on their stance in favour of higher fees. I could not disagree more. The only people in the fees debate who need a national newspaper to stand up for them and their right to a "fair hearing" are students who are already being saddled with debt at the beginning of their careers.
Furthermore, you point out that fees do not "cover the cost to the taxpayer" of a university education. They were never meant to replace government funding. Moreover, the benefit of an educated and highly skilled workforce to the economy is more than enough reason to justify the taxpayer making an investment in education – not to mention that British cuts to education funding run counter to increased investment in other countries, such as the US.
Education Officer, University College London Union
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