Letters: Christmas under attack

Christmas is under attack from secularists and political correctness
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The Independent Online

Sir: The attempt to erase the distinctive identity of Christmas which is causing such controversy in the United States ("Happy holidays? Not if the Christian right has its way", 8 December) is by no means an exclusively transatlantic phenomenon. In just the last few days, the two of us have encountered a senior citizen in Poulton-le-Fylde who was understandably upset to have been told that Christmas lights had now to be referred to as "winter" lights, as well as a whole host of Preston's citizens who, with good reason, were irritated by a civic leader's decision that an annual carol concert would not take place this December but be replaced by a multi-cultural, candlelit "event" in January.

The reasons for such inappropriate responses to a pluralistic landscape are not hard to fathom. On the one hand, vocal secularists are being accorded a disproportionate influence in relation to such matters, even though their views represent but a tiny minority position as compared with the 72 per cent of the population who identified themselves as Christian in the 2001 census, and who surely deserve to see Christmas, one of their major festivals, continue to be acknowledged for its religious significance.

On the other hand, overly timid local government, obsessed with what is now seen as the ultimate virtue - namely, a political correctness that sets out to be all things to all people - forgets that in trying to embrace everything, and by dumbing down to the lowest common denominator, one invariably ends up standing for absolutely nothing and in the interests of absolutely no one.

Britain needs the diversity and distinctiveness of its many religious festivals, Christmas, Eid al-Fitr, Hanukkah, and Diwali among them. The moral fabric of our nation - both sacred and secular - depends on the messages of peace and hope which they annunciate and the dialogue and discussion which they prompt at the deepest levels.



Consumer boycott to save the planet

Sir: The debates at the Montreal conference (report, 9 December) touch only gently on the primary cause of global warming: the overconsumption of goods and services. Blaming governments is easy and comforting. By contrast, for the individual consumer to take action by boycotting, for example, cheap air flights is painful. If you suggest such action to ardent Greens, many are prone to mumble that "some people" cannot afford to take a holiday in the UK.

If we are honest, we know that we are prepared to advocate any means to save the planet other than the most certain and effective: a consumer boycott of offending goods and services. The obvious popularity of cheap flights is justification enough for providing them. Consumer demand has nurtured them, and enables the corporations concerned to resist stridently, in the consumer's name, the imposition of a tax on aviation fuel. The consumers made it; it can also break it.

We are deluding ourselves if we limit ourselves to asking politicians to go right against the grain and court unpopularity by agreeing to measures that impose increases in consumer prices. If we truly want to reverse climate change, we have the power to do it ourselves as individual consumers. All we lack is the will.



Sir: It is ironic that the report of Gordon Brown's decision to scrap the requirement for companies to report on their environmental and social impacts ("Chancellor spares business new reporting requirements", 28 November) should coincide with your front page article on the rainforests where commercial activity, both legal and illegal, is the main contributor to their destruction.

The operating and financial review (OFR), proposed for incorporation in next year's reform of company law, would not have mandated how companies should behave, but would have required them to report on their impacts on communities and people other than shareholders which could affect the future of the business. It was a toothless requirement, dependent on the judgement of directors, which has often proved fallible in the past, but would at least have revealed information of how companies treat the physical environment, their supply chains and human rights, abuse of which has been an increasingly important element in corporate reputation and therefore profitability. Such information would have been as important to shareholders as to other stakeholders and essential if we want market forces to influence non-financial as well as financial performance.

The Chancellor is right to say that it is a false assumption that "business, unregulated, will invariably act irresponsibly". But he is ignorant of history if he is unaware that the interests of all stakeholders other than the shareholder - whether employees, the physical environment, or the community - have invariably had to be safeguarded by external pressure and legislation, not by corporate initiative. He must also be unaware that while good companies do indeed act responsibly, unprincipled competition, based only on financial gain, can lead to a race to the bottom. The OFR could have been the beginning of a more transparent and accountable capitalism; its abandonment is a wholly retrograde step, damaging to the interests of good companies as much as to society.



Sir: Time and again we hear we have a fuel crisis, and yet nearly every shop I go into is so overheated that the staff have to wear short-sleeved summer clothing.

As most shoppers need to wear a warm coat to travel to town, once they get into these shops they become uncomfortably hot and can consequently soon feel pretty tired. I wonder how many of them give up sooner than they would if the shops were cooler? This must mean a loss of business.

If government directives are responsible for the level of heating in shops and offices then these need to be changed or ignored. It's time to use more common sense and less fuel!



Sir: David Hansen misinforms when he claims that windpower needs little spinning reserve (letter, 6 December).

The operator of the largest conglomeration of wind turbines in the world, German E.ON Netz, wrote in its Wind Report 2005 that for back-up "traditional power stations with capacities equal to 90 per cent of the installed wind power capacity" needed to be permanently online.

ESB, the Irish National Grid, gives a similar warning: "As wind contribution increases, the effectiveness of adding additional wind to reduce emissions diminishes; the cost will be very substantial because of the back-up need."



War protests are not 'serious crime'

Sir: It strikes me that if offences under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 were in fact serious, those convicted under it would face a harsher sentence than a conditional discharge and £100 costs (report, 8 December).

Those breaching Asbos and supervision orders are dealt with more sternly by the courts. Does this not show that this Government uses its powers, not to protect the public, but to keep them at arm's- length? If any further evidence were needed, the fact that the law was brought in to free the Palace of Westminster from a "noisy peace protester," should seal the case. Laws should serve the public, not ease the Government of a small "nuisance".



Sir: The war in Iraq has been a costly folly. The problem with democracy is that it empowers our leaders to take decisions on our behalf and make choices which affect our lives. In refusing to pay part of his tax bill Mr Barker (report, 8 December) was not only making a protest against the war in Iraq, but unintentionally against the concept of equality which underpins democracy.

Sometimes we have to pay for things we do not want or require for the reason that our representatives believe that they benefit society. In Mr Barker's case his opposition may be well-founded but applied on a larger scale it makes the very concept of public services unrealisable. If we had a society where we only paid for the facilities we used the inequality would be even more staggering than it is today.



Sir: Instead of decrying the action of Malcolm Kendall-Smith in refusing to comply with what he feels is an immoral order as "totally unacceptable", Mssrs Anderson and Minshall (letters, 9 December) would do well to remember that the Nuremberg trials established such refusals as obligatory. "I was only obeying orders" was deemed to be no defence at all.



Tory followers, not leaders, the problem

Sir: Critics often suggest that, post-Thatcher, the Conservative Party has selected a succession of ineffective leaders. However, the issue is not that too often the Conservatives have chosen poor leaders. Rather, it is that too many Conservatives have chosen to be poor followers.

The Conservatives enjoyed success during the 1980s precisely because the party's political heavyweights generally showed sufficient deference towards Margaret Thatcher to allow her to lead effectively. Since the last days of Thatcher, and certainly in wake of John Major's "bastards", no Conservative leader has enjoyed such deference, ergo, none has been allowed to lead effectively. To succeed as a political leader, David Cameron must first persuade influential Conservatives to be good political followers.



Sleeping with baby in the bed is natural

Sir: You say that "now experts are strongly opposed to 'co-sleeping', warning that parents risk rolling on to their babies " (report, 9 December). In fact there are experts (such as Dr Helen Ball of the University of Durham Sleep Lab) who believe that 'co-sleeping' is a biologically appropriate behaviour that provides babies with the habitat that ensures stability of their body systems during the night, and of course helps to ensure successful breastfeeding. Breastfeeding mothers naturally adopt protective positions when sleeping with their babies in bed. The best protection against accidental deaths at night is to not smoke, drink or do drugs, or let anyone else do them around your baby.



This dissenter is no troublemaker

Sir: In his article on the Old Etonian network (7 December), Terry Kirby describes me as a "troublemaker". Is it troublemaking to have opposed policy on Iraq, and having asked, in 2002, why the dossier on Iraq, the basis for military action, was not short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction?

Is it troublemaking to have opposed Scottish and Welsh devolution and having asked why it should be possible that measures should be imposed on England by virtue of the votes of Scots MPs whose own constituents were subject to different laws, imposed by a devolved Assembly?

Was it troublemaking to scupper the proposal for a runway, in 1967, on Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, today still a pristine ecological treasure?

"Dissenter" please, Mr Kirby, not "troublemaker". I have never made trouble for the sake of it.



Conservative change

Sir: David Bishop has a point regarding Conservatives and change (letter, 8 December). But given the changes made by the possible outgoing government what does conservatism mean? Do they preserve the institutions as they find them or do they reverse the changes made - in which case are they being conservative?



Shakespearean self-help

Sir: Philip Hensher (Opinion, 7 December) describes the way that "people break out into 'verse' of some sort whenever the light of public attention falls on them" as "a very weird recent phenomenon", thus overlooking most of the Classical, Medieval and early modern periods. He says Alain de Botton's "popularising the idea of literature as a self-help manual" is a recent tendency; but the richness of Renaissance drama and verse, including that of the national hero, Shakespeare, was surely the result of ordinary folk believing that poetry could transform lives.



Praise the Lords

Sir: I used to think that the House of Lords was an undemocratic and anachronistic waste of space. And then came their decision on the inadmissability of evidence obtained through torture (report, 9 December). It's a sad reflection on the state of the present government that they now appear to be the only bastions of sanity.



Steadman's grim reality

Sir: Ralph Steadman's gruelling depictions of war in the Extra supplement (9 December) were quickly followed by another supplement with Christmas gifts. As T S Eliot said: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality".



The ethics of M&S

Sir: As we have just won accolades for our ethical performance in clothing from the RSPCA and Greenpeace, Ethical Consumer magazine's survey (report, 8 December) makes no sense to us at all. We are a leading member of the independent Ethical Trading Initiative and we audit around 1,000 of our factories every year, refusing to use suppliers that don't meet our code of conduct. We will be debating the findings with the magazine - which, only six weeks ago, ranked M&S as one of the UK's top ethical food retailers.



What is a statesman?

Sir: Adrian Hamilton declares that Tony Blair is not a statesman (Opinion, 8 December) yet fails to tell us what a statesman is. Many definitions have been offered in the past but surely the best was the one in the New York World-Telegram & Sun in 1958: "A statesman is a politician who's been dead 10 or 15 years". I wouldn't wish premature statesmanship to be conferred on him but we're all mortal and Tony will get there in the end.