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Saturday 6 June 2009
Letters: British politics and democracy
The time-honoured way of British politics
On Thursday I strolled down to my local village hall and cast my votes in the way that I have done for the past 50 years, in "the spirit of things".
And how refreshing it all was. None of Putin's armed militia, none of the armed police that you see outside polling booths through the rest of Europe. No sinister thugs with their legs hanging out of their Mercs such as you might find in South America. This is our very British way of doing things. It represents exactly what we are and what our peoples are made up of, and what our peoples have in their unspoken way achieved and have given to the rest of the world. It frightens me to death when I hear our Prime Minister talk about reforming our constitution that, for all of its faults, actually in its way seems to work.
Just think of these two ladies that greeted me inside this lonely village hall doing their duty for public at large, armed only with a large Thermos, one old wooden table and the tin box.
Let's not meddle with things too much.
Numerous changes are needed to achieve greater democracy. Most of these have been mentioned in your letters pages recently. The present situation offers an opportunity to get some of these changes introduced; the most important need, of course, is for electoral reform.
I have applauded the campaign by The Independent for more genuine democracy. I was amazed and disappointed, therefore, to see your editorial (2 June) urging a general election now. If we have a general election now under the first-past-the-post system, then we can be sure that the minimum of changes will be introduced by the incoming government. Neither Labour nor Conservatives are keen to introduce electoral reform, but at this time it might look attractive to Gordon Brown and could win him a lot of Brownie points.
King's Lynn, Norfolk
Labour MPs must blame themselves
Those Labour MPs trying to get rid of Gordon Brown should take a long, hard look at themselves first. Labour will lose the next general election not because of Gordon Brown but because they collectively have fallen well below the standard we, the British, expect of our government.
Even without the expenses scandal, they will be punished for sucking up to George Bush, for the war in Iraq, the deceit over weapons of mass destruction, the cowardly outing of David Kelly, the meanness over the Gurkhas, the endless changes to education and the NHS, the widening gap between rich and poor; the list goes on. And now they can't even protect the lives of young foreigners studying in this country.
To those of us not Labour supporters, Gordon Brown appears more honest, straightforward and trustworthy than Blair ever was, and I suspect if the party were to knife him in the back it would get them nowhere – the electorate would see it as one more crime committed.
The disintegration of the Labour cabinet threatens Labour with not merely defeat, but abject disaster at the next general election. It may even be a record low for a sitting government in modern times. Discounting the 1931 result, when a national government had been formed, the all-time low is the Conservative Party result of 1906, when it collapsed from 401 MPs to 154. Balfour too had faced ministers walking out of his cabinet.
If Gordon Brown hangs on in this situation he will destroy his party. He faces a rout similar to the Tories under Margaret Thatcher, but the Tory party deselected her and John Major went on to win the following election. However, Thatcher thought she was indispensable and tried to hang on. Brown might also try to hang on, such is his egotism. If he does, he could break the all-time record for a loss of MPs in a general election.
As the Prime Minister's disloyal colleagues wallow in their schadenfreude they might pause and reflect.
Gordon Brown will be remembered for his compassion. His commitment to the National Health Service has not received the praise it deserves. His own forceful initiative in the supply by Britain of huge numbers of mosquito nets to Africa has had a markedly beneficial effect in that tragic continent, where more than a million people die of malaria every year. Posterity will laud the Prime Minister for his humanitarian work when his disloyal colleagues are long forgotten.
James Purnell has said Gordon Brown must step down in order to help Labour win the next election. Surely he should have offered some alternative policies which might get us through the recession, reform the judicial system or Parliament itself. Is that not what they are actually elected for?
If Gordon Brown is forced to quit and some of the recently resigned ministers join a new cabinet, I suspect that the view of the general pubic will be that the rats are jumping back on board the sinking ship.
How many died in Mau Mau war?
The history of Kenya and in particular of the Mau Mau period (as described by Johann Hari, 29 June) is hotly contested, but there is at least one issue where Caroline Elkins' version of events has been decisively disproved.
She offered (and Hari cited) an estimate of 300,000 Kikuyu "unaccounted for" during the years of the Mau Mau emergency, based on her analysis of the 1948 and 1962 Kenyan censuses. However, John Blacker, the most expert demographer of this period in Kenya, has shown in exhaustive detail, published in the Journal of African Affairs in April 2007, that these claims are based on a misunderstanding of the data.
Blacker, who was a key advisor on Kenyan censuses both before and after independence, shows that the number of "excess Kikuyu deaths" (that is, above normal levels) for the period was around 50,000, of which 26,000 were young children and 7,000 adult women: in his view, most likely victims of malnourishment and wider spread of childhood diseases within the enclosed villages.
The official figure of 11,503 deaths refers only to Mau Mau killed in action. It does not include the 1,090 Mau Mau hanged, nor the thousands of Kikuyu – civilians and in British uniform – killed by the Mau Mau. That total corresponds closely to Blacker's estimate of 17,000 adult males among the excess Kikuyu deaths.
In praise of American cars
I have to take issue with Margareta Pagano (1 June) and others in your paper who reflect common European misconceptions about American cars. I'm lucky enough to live here in the UK, where I drive a Skoda, and in New Mexico, where I drive an 11-year-old Chevrolet Monte Carlo LS, which I've had from new.
You can probably tell from the fact I own a Skoda that I like an ordinary car that performs well and is cheap to buy and run. For that same reason I own my Chevy. I regularly drive to Los Angeles from my home, a distance of 750 miles at 75mph most of the way, and get 30 miles to the gallon. That's a US gallon – just four litres. As to reliability of the American car, well I've just turned 125,000 miles with no mechanical or build quality problems at all.
It's true, GM have made some terrible choices with the kind of cars they make, but I won't be replacing my Chevy until it wears out. My mechanic reckons that will probably be beyond 250,000 miles. And I hope I can buy American, if they are still around.
Jonathan J Whitehead
D-Day marred by stupid nationalism
I have just read your opinion piece about D-Day ("The truth is a casualty of war in the battle of 'Obama beach' ", 2 June). Thank you for this straight-talking reaction to all the rubbish being written about the Brits being excluded from the D-day ceremonies this year. I find it quite tragic that such stupid nationalistic nonsense can be written up in the UK press.
My father was a New Zealand ship's engineer on the troop ship MV Derrycunihy, carrying the 43rd Reconnaissance Regiment to Normandy. On 24 June 1944, when the ship started its engines to disembark the troops off Sword beach, a German acoustic mine blew the ship into two sections.
The stern part sank in 20 seconds, killing 189 members of the regiment. A further 150 were injured. Twenty-five of the crew and a number of army gunners also died. Fortunately, my father was protected by a bulkhead in the engine room and I am here to write this. It was the heaviest single British loss of life off the invasion beaches.
I am so thankful that my generation was the first that did not have to come to fight a war in the mud of Flanders or the beaches of Normandy – thanks to the creation of the European Union. It is time that the UK played a full part in the Europe, just as we are now doing in our own Asia-Pacific region.
Wanganui, New Zealand
Straw's apology is not enough
Jack Straw has apologised for failings in the probation system, following the murder of two French students, though the clear implication of what he said was that they were not his own. This is misleading.
During 12 years in government, Mr Straw and his colleagues, taking a lead from their predecessors, have presided over the near-destruction of serious probation work in this country, accompanied by a ruthless press campaign designed to disempower those who saw what was coming.
The present demoralised, under-funded and over-managed service is the direct result of policies about which he and his fellow ministers were repeatedly warned. Disasters such as the events which prompted his apology come as no surprise. Any apology is welcome, but repentance is needed for the real failings, namely those of policy at the highest level.
For the press counsellor at the US embassy to claim that all the political appointees had the same industrious standards as the last ambassador, Robert Tuttle, is highly misleading. Part of the problem stems from the fact that American career diplomats are denied the top positions, a real disincentive to the most able. No amount of interest in public service makes good this deficiency
Fill that silence
Several correspondents have complained of TV background music drowning out speech. I have a different grouse, concerning background music played when there is no speech. TV programme makers abhor a vacuum, so if a minute passes without anyone speaking, there must be music to fill the void. If a chef is cooking, there must be busy frying music. If Michael Palin is boating down the Zambezi, there must be boaty music. We cannot be allowed simply to enjoy the pictures.
Stags at bay
As a business traveller to Riga for 14 years, I am glad to hear of the demise of the stag party brigade ("Latvia casts off Britain's stags", 4 June). A once charming city was transformed into a drunken sea of sick. But who is really to blame? Ryanair to an extent, with cheap ticket prices, but also the once cheap prices in Riga, the corrupt police and greedy club owners who milked the stag parties, and the government for allowing strip clubs and prostitution to carry on.
Squirrels: the answer
Prince Charles has called for the killing of all grey squirrels. As a native-born Kentuckian I can confirm that pan-fried grey squirrel is better tasting than Kentucky fried chicken. If Delia Smith would cook my pan-fried grey squirrel recipe with onions, celery and gravy served with biscuits on her next season of TV cooking programmes, the problem would be solved. Once the British public discovers this Appalachian dish the grey squirrel will be hunted into extinction.
George D Lewis
Terence Hollingworth (letter, 3 June) speaks of all things dangerous in French as being feminine (wasps, vipers etc) but quotes a colleague as saying that all problems are masculine. The Spanish get around this very deftly. Although the Spanish words for wasps, vipers and bees are feminine, their word for problem has a feminine ending but is a masculine noun; hence el problema. Spanish diplomacy or what?
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