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- Arts + Ents
Wednesday 9 January 2008
As China revives, which way will Japan jump?
Sir: There is an important geopolitical aspect to China's emergence as a superpower in Asia ("The year a new superpower is born", 1 January). This isn't only about China. The Japanese Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, has just ended a four-day official visit to China little reported in the British media which has marked a dramatic thawing of relations between the two countries.
China refused high-level contact with Japan during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi (2001-6) because of his repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine houses the remains of Japan's war dead, including the graves of convicted war criminals such as General Hideki Tojo. Koizumi's successor, Shinzo Abe, didn't visit the shrine. Yasuo Fukuda has also promised not to during his premiership.
China has overtaken the US as Japan's largest trading partner. And Japan is today the largest foreign investor in China. These growing economic ties have now become the basis of a closer political relationship.
The growing ties with China could cause Japan to question the closeness of its current relationship with the United States, which has been an important part of Japanese foreign policy since the Second World War. As its trade and ties with other Asian countries such as China and India grow, Japan could question its alignment with the West, and the United States in particular,
Sir: How does your report of the rise of China to economic superpower status square with the Masha Bell theory (letter, 28 December) of a nation held back by an illogical writing system?
Revolutionary purge by Downing Street
Sir: In his otherwise excellent article "Government isn't working" (7 January), Andreas Whittam Smith makes no mention of the underlying cause of the problems of Britain's dysfunctional governments. That causal factor is the determination of successive leaders to drive through a political revolution, supplanting post-war social democracy with a radical agenda of neo-liberal economics.
As Roy Hattersley has argued, this goes beyond Thatcherism, and derives from the more extreme policies of the 1970s Tory MP Nicholas Ridley and others, who, among other things, proposed that all local services should be contracted out, with local authorities meeting perhaps once a year to allocate contracts.
Recent prime ministers have not been able to trust their party colleagues, their civil servants, even their ministers, to carry out this revolution, raised as many of them were in an earlier democratic, pluralist and social democratic age. Those prime ministers know too that voters do not believe in their free-market globalising dogmas either, so they have had a serious problem.
Their solution has been to strip out effective opposition at all levels and marginalise anyone who resists them. An army of "consultants" check that Downing Street's wishes are carried out at every level, and public services managers know that if they do not toe the line their careers may be blighted. Anyone wishing advancement in either politics or public administration has to indicate at least publicly their commitment to the new economic religion, even when they know it is nonsense.
The leaderships of all three main political parties have been captured by the neo-liberal tendency, leading to the mass disillusionment with politics of millions of voters, disappearing party members and the dysfunctional government which Whittam Smith describes. I suggest that a simple technical constitutional fix will not work without addressing the major underlying political problem.
Kelvin Hopkins MP (Luton N, Lab)
House of Commons
Sir: With his usual perspicacity Andreas Whittam Smith has put his finger on the fundamental problem with New Labour, namely that in spite of having the support of barely a third of the electorate, Blair and then Brown were able to set up a power base which has allowed them to rule without the need to listen to their own party, let alone to Parliament or I almost forgot the poor voters who pay the bills. This is a sick excuse for democracy.
However, having spotted the elephant poo in the living room, Whittam Smith and the Better Government Initiative strangely fail to see the elephant. Among their 50 recommendations is not a single mention of the one thing which could shatter the complacency of our masters, namely wholesale electoral reform.
Fundamental to good government is the engagement of the people, and all of the signs, not least plummeting turnout on polling days, suggest that the British people no longer have faith in our system of governance.
According to an ICM survey, no more than 83 (13 per cent) of the 649 Westminster constituencies will currently have any impact on a general election. For voters in the remaining 566 constituencies, it is not worth getting out of bed to vote. We know it, and our MPs know it, which is why they can get away with paying themselves more and doing less.
Better government will come when every single politician, not only 13 per cent of them, is made perforce to think about the needs of their voters as a priority. This will only come about when we get rid of our modern rotten boroughs.
Dr Stephen Bax
Sir: Andreas Whittam Smith and his privileged chums are the main problem that this country faces. Britain has suffered enough from the management class of politicians, civil servants, journalists and business "leaders" who run and ruin everything.
The Better Government Initiative, as detailed by Andreas Whittam Smith is a classic example of the way things are done: the voting public are told by the governing class what the problem is and how they are going to solve it.
The only people who should have a say in any constitutional matters are the voting public. Representational democracy is a busted flush, encouraging hubris, incompetence and intransigence. It is time we all had more involvement in the way things are done, not through political parties, but through participatory democracy by local and national referendums.
Sir: Here we go again ("Brown appoints City PR man as chief strategist", 8 January). Public relations is concerned with presentation. Hence the unending changes made to logos, slogans, and all the other razzle-dazzle that has replaced substance in the politics of this country.
Britain had until recently a superb Civil Service that could be relied upon to offer sound advice and to implement Government decisions, regardless of which party was in control. Thatcher, followed by Blair and Brown, demoralised the service and reduced its importance by hiring placemen and women to substitute image, true or false, for rational policy-making.
If the Prime Minister needs additional help, he should look to a serious thinker, not a skilled prestidigitator.
Bishop's claim of 'no-go areas'
Sir: I have great respect for leaders of other faiths, as I believe that their faith must demand of them a commitment to truth, honesty and fairness. They also, I believe, have been directed to be vigilant against motives, desires and bias that surreptitiously enter our hearts and minds and blind us to the evil within.
At this stage, therefore, I do not wish to make any comment on the statement of the Rt Reverend Michael Nazir-Ali, but would be very grateful if he would kindly specify the areas which in his experience have become "no go" areas for non-Muslims. Perhaps he can also help me with information about the so-called Islamic extremists who are posing a threat to our society.
He has raised concerns about use of loudspeakers for the call to prayers. The fact is that city councils are very particular about the noise level and put restrictions on the sound level to certain decibels, and exclude early morning and late evening prayers.
We have never considered church bells to cause any difficulty for us to live as Muslims. We are rather pleased to see churches, synagogues, mandirs and gurudwars proclaiming their faith in one God.
Dr M Naseem
Chairman, Birmingham Central Mosque
Sir: We have read Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali's weekend outburst with dismay. We were grateful for Yasmin Alibhai Brown's response (7 January).
For our own part, with extensive experience in the city of Leicester and beyond, we have found no evidence for "no-go areas", nor for the claims that the advance of Islam is preventing Christian witness and worship. By contrast, we have found that Christian leaders, who have welcomed the higher profile of Muslims in our society, have affirmed that this has strengthened their own faith and that of their communities. We are all working together for the good of our society.
Britain "has lost its faith in a Christian vision" for entirely separate reasons from immigration or the Islamic presence: the acids of modernity, an indifference to things of the spirit, doubt engendered by scientific progress, and other factors summed up in the term "secularisation". The future of a healthy Britain is not in confrontation, but in dialogue, trust and understanding.
S Faiyazuddin Ahmad
President, UK Islamic Mission, The Rev David H Clark, Hon Assistant Priest, St James the Greater, Leicester
The enemy our troops can't beat
Sir: Army recruiting advertisements have been criticised. Should they be more honest?
"Join today's modern army and see the world. Well, mainly Afghanistan. Risk your life in a war for the equivalent of the minimum wage, and on your brief return to the UK assuming you survive you are guaranteed some of our country's shabbiest housing. Should you lose an arm or a leg you will receive less compensation than a typist with a sore thumb, and be of no further use."
It is the duty of our highly professional armed forces to produce exciting TV adverts to attract the best young people. Having said that, it is also their duty to fully explain the pitfalls and drawbacks which I believe they already do, once interviews commence.
I don't think that the slick TV adverts are responsible for the disillusionment in our armed forces. Could the reason be that our overstretched servicemen are expected to fight an unwinnable war, in harsh conditions with second-rate equipment, simply to save face for President Bush? Could it be that our troops can deal with anything the Taliban can throw at them, but can't defend themselves against their cost-cutting enemy New Labour.
Wakefield, West Yorkshire
Educational visit to the pub
Sir: I write in response to Eddie Gershon's comments, "It is not a wonderful day out for the children spending hours in the pub" ("More than two drinks and you are out, parents with children told", 5 January). On the contrary, a visit to the pub with one's children can be an entirely pleasurable experience and a way of introducing them to drinking in a socially responsible manner.
His remarks about children getting bored and requiring special activities are not borne out by my family's experiences (four kids aged ten, eight, eight and one). As with most families I know, a trip to the pub for a meal or just for a beer and a bag of crisps is one of the many activities we do with our children. They do not require an "activity centre" nor do they get "bored"'. Rather, it is an opportunity for us to sit down together, talk and enjoy each other's company.
In our case, our most recent trip to a (Wetherspoons) pub was part of a trip to the National Gallery in London. We had a fairly pleasant lunch, although the long wait for food meant that my husband committed the heinous crime of drinking three alcoholic drinks. Never mind, it gave us plenty of opportunity to educate our children about the dangers of cheap alcohol available in supermarkets to drink at home ("Prime Minister takes charge of battle against binge-drinking", 2 January).
Dr Helen Lomax
Sir: I have just witnessed the most heartwarming start to 2008: a full-grown seal playing with a large salmon it had caught, in the Thames between Hammersmith bridge and Fulham football ground.
Farewell to winter
Sir: Gillian Coates asks if it is a record for daffodils to bloom on 4 January (letter, 7 January). Not in Dorset, as, much to our friends' amazement, we had our first bloom on 24 November. Since then we have had a succession of daffodils out, and now have a modest show.
Sir: At present I am enjoying two varieties of daffodil in full bloom outside in my garden but the first bud to open was on 25 November.
Tributes to Diana
Sir: In his anxiety to mention Harrods, Michael Cole (letter, 8 January) completely overlooks the Diana Memorial Walkway, which runs for seven miles through four royal parks, passing by Kensington, St James's and Buckingham Palaces, and marked out by 90 beautifully designed plaques. It opened in 2000, and no other member of the Royal Family except the Queen herself has been honoured in this manner.
Back to Thatcher
Sir: For the Tories to put long-term jobless to work on community projects is not a new idea. It is a throwback to the Thatcher years. Unemployed people were dragooned into community work programmes, with no training offered to enable those on the programmes to gain usable skills. Where the programme required the use of dumper trucks and associated machinery contractors were brought in so people left the programmes with no ability to move on into higher-paid work.
Cowes, Isle of Wight
Sir: Guy Keleny states that "compare" has "two alternative meanings" (Errors & Omissions, 5 January). Since "alternative" means "either one or the other", why not just say "two meanings"? Or am I, also, just a pedant?
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