Letters: Bulgarian workers

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Shameful British bar on workers labels Bulgaria as second-class

Sir: I was the British ambassador to Bulgaria from 1989 to 1994. During that time the communist dictator was ousted, the communist regime was overthrown, democracy - with free elections - and a market economy were adopted, and Zhivkov's persecution of the ethnic Turkish and other Muslim minorities (an early form of ethnic cleansing) was halted.

The new, democratic government looked up to the UK as a model and mentor, and we encouraged reform from top to bottom, with aid programmes in local government, policing, democratically accountable security and defence forces, the environment, the humane care of disabled people, and in many other fields. At the same time we expected the Bulgarians to abide by the sanctions regime that we and our allies had imposed on Serbia, and they did so even though it probably hurt them more than the Serbs, by cutting off their vital trading routes to Western Europe.

Later, the Bulgarians were welcomed into Nato, and they have contributed to coalition forces in Iraq. They scrapped their UK visa regime (while we maintained our against them) and welcomed British investors and property developers. And their economy began to grow, faster than most others in Europe.

We encouraged Bulgaria to apply for membership of the European Union. This cherished goal will be achieved in a month's time, and will draw a line under half a century of oppression and tyranny. But instead of welcoming the Bulgarians back into the European fold, our pusillanimous government have chosen to label them - and the Romanians - as second-class EU members by denying them the working rights which have already been accorded to the other new members from former communist Europe. That by doing so we are also denying ourselves the economic benefits of an addition to our workforce of well-motivated and skilled immigrants is almost beside the point. We have behaved despicably, and I would be ashamed, as a one-time resident apostle of all things worthy and noble about Britain, to show my face again in Bulgaria.



Trident defies common sense

Sir: It is possible for Britain's politicians to justify why the Trident nuclear "deterrent" system needs to be upgraded. It is even possible to understand their arguments even if one doesn't agree with them. There is something, however, that is bewildering.

It makes not even the remotest sense to pontificate to other countries about what they may and may not do with nuclear power, research and weapons development if you yourself are upgrading your own. This is something an eight-year-old could understand. You can point to as many clauses in a non-proliferation treaty as you want to justify your own development while stopping others. But it doesn't matter, because from the point of view of basic common sense, you are wrong.

I don't want North Korea and Iran to have nuclear weapons. But, then again, I don't want Britain, the US or Israel to have them either. The only common sense way to convince other countries not to develop their own weapons is for the nuclear powers to at least make some moves towards significant reduction of their own.

For Britain to justify continued improvements in weapons because of the possibility of a future threat could be considered a valid argument. But then we would have to admit that Iran has as much right to feel threatened as Britain, and therefore has a right to develop its own "deterrent". Nobody wants this, so there should be no talk of upgrading weapons systems in Britain at this very sensitive time.



Sir: There are some good arguments about whether Trident is effective in reducing threats. But the doubters still have a big chance of being wrong.

The projected usable lifetime of the new Trident programme is 2050. If anyone thinks that the US will reduce their stockpile within that time they are more optimistic than I. No other nuclear-capable country will disarm until the US starts to. Disarmament requires a comprehensive peace which America endorses, not a list of disarmed countries.

Should overwhelming peace break out within 45 years, Trident can always be decommissioned and outstanding monies recouped. They would then be expensive ploughshares indeed, but the calm would be worth it.



Sir: Lee Willett's enthusiasm for Trident replacement has obviously clouded his analytical faculties (letter, 1 December). It is difficult to see how unilateral action to upgrade the existing Trident system can be consistent with Britain's article VI obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to pursue disarmament negotiations in good faith and bring them to a successful conclusion. International lawyers are queuing up to support this judgement.

Adopting a virtual nuclear arsenal (ending the deployment of nuclear warheads but retaining the expertise at Aldermaston to reconstitute a rudimentary nuclear weapon quickly) is by far the cheapest and least sophisticated insurance policy. It would be the equivalent of a nicotine patch designed to wean our political elites and the MoD off their collective addiction to nuclear deterrence.



Sir: Mr Blair believes that it is impossible to say we will never face a future threat which would necessitate use of our independent nuclear deterrent. Does he also find it impossible to foresee a situation in which a future Prime Minister, perhaps less reluctant to use military force than himself, might use that deterrent on the basis of sexed-up intelligence?



Dreaming of a secular Yuletide

Sir: I was about to write to you to protest (partly tongue in cheek) about this relentless christianisation of the perfectly harmless festival of Yuletide when I heard about the trouble it's causing in offices the length and breadth of the country.

There are, it seems, places in which seasonal decorations are banned for fear of a backlash from non-Christian religionists. Not cribs and nativity scenes, mind you, but tinsel. What is religious about tinsel that these people see as objectionable? As a secularist, my natural tolerance is assaulted regularly by the antics of religionist bigots of all kinds but in a multicultural land my sensibilities are of little significance and secularism is even seen as racist by some extremists.

This bizarre situation has got beyond a joke. Every year some new piece of legislation appears as a sop to one religious faction or another, many of these new rules being smuggled on to the statute book in the guise of anti-racial law. Racialism is something most of us abhor but fudging the difference between religion and race in order to promote the religion is a dangerous strategy, effective as it might be in today's confused legislatures.

I, for one, will be celebrating Yuletide with tinsel, tree, turkey and not a religious token in sight - and so will the vast majority of my fellow Britons. The rest can do it in their own way but must learn not to mistake the christianised version for the real thing.



Drop the tax on saving energy

Sir: Wednesday's pre-Budget statement has been described by Gordon Brown as necessary to "build an understanding between government, individuals and business". But a lack of understanding within households still exists on how to reduce energy demand. Households need to be made aware of how they can improve their home and save money.

Given that households are responsible for 30 per cent of total energy use, it is vital that the Government offers households fiscal incentives to upgrade their properties. An immediate step should be to reduce the rate of VAT on the refurbishment and repair of buildings from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent. The current rate is a huge financial disincentive to improving the existing housing stock. It is also a threat to our national heritage as historic environments will continue to be lost to development unless the cost of maintenance can be reduced.

Positive steps toward reducing carbon emissions can only be achieved if the Government shows the necessary political courage to implement change.



No collective guilt laid on Muslims

Sir: "I hate the British government's demands that the Muslim community should take on collective guilt for Islamic terror": strong and potentially inflammatory words from Deborah Orr (2 December) which were surely not written lightly.

So can she tell us exactly when any member of the Government has demanded anything of the sort? As opposed to pointing out that Muslims share with everybody else the responsibility for protecting their fellow citizens (Muslims included) from mass murder, and that they may well have opportunities to exercise that responsibility which are not readily available to others. All of which is true even if John Reid says that it is true.

Ms Orr deserves praise both for seeking common ground and for being honest when she cannot find it. But she has not yet gone far enough in challenging the myths on which collective paranoia feeds.



Who is to blame for the plight of Gaza?

Sir: I'm glad your Christmas Appeal will help needy people, but I'm troubled by your approach. The Palestinians in your article of 5 December are humanised individuals: the souk merchant, the grieving survivor, the odd-job man. Israel, on the other hand, is the "other", a capricious force that shells houses and terrorises children. Israeli opinions are only honoured when they criticise their government. Palestinians en masse are always "dispossessed" and "abandoned". Just in time for Christmas, we have a morality tale.

But there are two sides to this issue, even one in which Palestinians are complicit in their travails. The Gaza pullout was a chance for autonomy and growth. Instead, the Palestinians chose martyrdom and elected Hamas. They selected extremist representatives and a violent platform, which inevitably invited retaliation.

Please continue to help people who need it. But spare us the one-sided tale of good vs evil.



Sir: Congratulations on making your Christmas appeal for the civilians of Gaza. I will be posting my contribution tonight.

I fear this appeal will bring in hate mail from a lobby that feels both criticism of Israel and support for Gaza is anti-semitic. We suffered this at Camden School for Girls when we entertained for a morning three teachers and six pupils whom the National Union of Teachers had funded for a week's break in London.

Rather than embezzle Gaza's funds, withdraw aid, deprive the population of sleep with sonic bangs, and attack heavy population centres, how much better to show positive concern and help. This, not violence, is the way to counter despair. I cannot tell you how happy your decision has made me.



Keep party lists out of the Lords

Sir: I agree with the general thrust of the response by Lord Greaves (letter, 4 December) to the Government's proposals for the House of Lords, but it's not quite there. The second chamber should be all-elected, with half of the seats up for election two years after a general election (yes, yet another election), also providing a half-term report on an emperor's new clothes.

To eliminate patronage, the curse of the second chamber, the party list system must be avoided like the plague, given the 100 per cent control it affords party leaders to select their MEPs, which has contributed to discrediting the European elections, leading to apathy on a heroic scale.



Sexy undies for all

Sir: Apparently including a maternity range at Agent Provocateur makes sure that no one is left out ("Complete guide to online shopping", 4 December). Actually that is not true as they do not do mastectomy wear as part of their range. A shame because we would like to buy sexy underwear too.



Britain and England

Sir: It is not only the English who are guilty of believing that their country is the only one on this island. I was once stopped on the street in Edinburgh for a questionnaire, the first question being "Are you from Scotland or are you from overseas?" I just said "Neither" and walked on.



Sir: In the Basque, Catalan or Breton regions of France, I tell people, "Je ne suis pas anglais, je suis gallois." This has frequently led to an animated and enjoyable discussion of rugby.



Celebrity spelling

Sir: In response to Andrew Gumbel's critique of Lindsay Lohan's use of English (29 November), I would say that the media shouldn't knock celebrities, or anyone for that matter, for poor grammar and spelling. It is the equivalent of a professional football player telling a Sunday social leaguer they are useless. It is meaningless and arrogant.



Turn to the euro

Sir: Isn't there a forgotten story in the excitement about the dollar? For several years now, sterling has been staying close to the euro and has abandoned its former mid-Atlantic position. Time for reviewing sterling's entry into the euro?



Asbo for Santa

Sir: There is no need for an Asbo to prevent Santa Claus going anywhere near a chimney (leading article, 4 December), since this sort of activity has already been banned by the Elfin Safety Executive.