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- Arts + Ents
Wednesday 21 May 2008
Letters: Constitutional reform
How to keep the 'great and good' out of constitutional reform
Sir: The key point made in Nick Clegg's excellent article is that a new constitution should be drafted by a convention of citizens, "not run by the usual great and good" ("Westminster isn't working", 20 May). Fortunately, we already have helpful precedents: the recent Citizens' Assemblies on voting reform in British Columbia and Ontario were chosen by lot from members of the public and their recommendations were put directly to a referendum.
But if this popular empowerment is a good idea, why not extend it to Westminster and replace the House of Lords with a Citizens' Assembly? After all, once we have achieved a fairly elected Commons, what will be the point of a second elected chamber that may well be "run by the usual great and good"? Something, perhaps, for the Citizens' Convention to consider?
Sir: Nick Clegg's perceptive analysis of what's wrong with our democracy raises a question. With a fairer voting system, beefed-up parliamentary committees and greater scrutiny of ministers and senior officials in the Commons, why do we need a House of Lords at all?
Swanland, East Riding of Yorkshire
Sir: Many of the good points Nick Clegg made in his article are neatly encapsulated in the astonishing fact that "Houses of Parliament" is an anagram of "shameful operations".
Without Scotland, what of the UK?
Sir: Andrew Grice's article "Scotland: one year closer to breaking away" (17 May) prompts me to wonder what the effect of this will be on the future of the rest of the "United" Kingdom.
The broadest of generalisations about the Union of the Crowns in 1603 is that the Scots political elite acquired a much bigger stage on which to play out their ambitions. Independence for Scotland will replace this stage rather than deny it. For the ambitious Scots politician the spotlight will switch to Holyrood and Brussels. London will be a dead end. Other UK politicians will have to accept that London will be a smaller stage than they have been accustomed to.
Once our political world has shrunk, all talk of a "Great Britain punching above its weight" in world affairs will have to end, as will concomitant foreign policy adventures. We certainly won't warrant a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. What price the "special relationship" with the USA then?
So, bereft of the notion that we have a global role which is much more fun for UK statesmen than our regional involvements, maybe we shall have to take Europe more seriously. I echo Wendy Alexander. Bring it on.
Sir: In the Big Question on 9 May, there is a suggestion that the 1707 Act of Union "set off a wave of anti-Scottish sentiment in England".
Sadly, that sentiment was long established by 1707. James VI and I experienced it exactly a century earlier when the Westminster parliament put the kibosh on a closer union between the two countries. An extraordinary amount of work had been undertaken in the autumn of 1604 by a commission of Scottish and English representatives, who met in Westminster. Their modest and careful proposals met with little or no sympathy from MPs, who questioned the equality of the two historic nations. In the end James's great project floundered and even the equality of his subjects had to be established through the courts.
A century that included wars and civil wars with Scotland's shifting involvement and role did not help. Scotland's four military interventions in England and one, or even two, military occupations of the North-east of England, all of which had an "element" of unionising behind them, served to cement hardening attitudes. By the end of the century, in the minds of some "little Britons" south of the border, the 1707 Act was an unwelcome union, while north of it, the eventual political ties smacked too much of unequal bondage, because Scotland was no longer the driving force for such a union as it had been a century before.
Professor Martyn Bennett
Nottingham Trent University
Farmers join in conservation effort
Sir: It is not surprising that Natural England's report shows a countryside very different from that of the mid-1950s. However, our countryside is far from being in catastrophic decline (leading article, 19 May), nor on the brink of losing precious wildlife for ever. We do indeed need landscape analysis and action.
Natural England's report recognises that our farms are more productive, our wildlife better protected, and that 80 per cent of our landscape is in improving or stable condition. The public can enjoy greater access to this countryside than those in the 1950s may ever have imagined. So we ought to be celebrating success, not doubting the future.
Central to these successes has been a new "countryside partnership"' between farmer and conservationist. For many farmers conservation is part of our business. I am pleased that half England's farmland is now entered into conservation agreements with Natural England.
We should be quietly discussing future challenges, such as how we as farmers produce more food while meeting our environmental responsibilities. We should be developing plans to protect our most productive land while managing sea-level change. We should be assessing where 300,000 new homes can be located without worsening flooding and damaging water capture. And we should be working with government to develop secure renewable energy across our countryside.
Rather than a negative headline seeking more funding, Natural England should focus on spending existing budgets to create a countryside fit for the future.
President, National Farmers' Union, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire
Palestinian silenced on a US campus
Sir: Through intimidation and the use of the powerful label of anti-Semitism, criticism of Israel is taboo in political, academic and public forums (Johann Hari: "The loathsome smearing of Israel's critics", 8 May).
I was teaching a course on international health to an undergraduate class of 75 students in a prestigious American university. It involved inviting healthcare professionals from several nations to discuss health care in their respective countries. All such lectures were appreciated until a Palestinian nurse came to discuss the miserable health care in the occupied territories.
Within minutes into her lecture the only two Jewish students raised quite an angry ruckus that halted the lecture. They went immediately to complain to the Dean, who proceeded to criticise my entire course and its bias against Israel. Another shocking surprise was the total silence of the remaining 73 students during this incident.
David Ben Gurion, Israel's founding Prime Minister, said: "The test of democracy is freedom of criticism."
Mohamed Khodr MD
Winchester, Virginia, USA
Sir: Since Simon Jackson is a Zionist not uncritical of Israel, he should examine and probably sign the statement of Jews for Justice for Palestinians – we're pretty sure he means us (Letters, 10 May). Its opening lines read: "JfJfP is a network of Jews . . . practising and secular, Zionist and not . . . who support the right of Israelis to live in freedom and security within Israel's 1967 borders."
Israel has announced more homes to be built in the Occupied Territories. The Gazan population is isolated and imprisoned while the residents of Sderot and southern Israel have had their safety and peace of mind sacrificed to a doomed policy of military response. It is clear that Israel's government has little or no intention of seriously embracing a peaceful end to the Occupation. Rather, they are deepening and extending it.
JfJfP does not believe all British Zionist Jews take their instructions from a central cabal. We are concerned that not enough feel ready to voice opposition to the kinds of actions described above. Mr Jackson is welcome to join us.
Chair, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, London NW6
All welcome on our railway
Sir: In your leading article of 19 May, you stated: "During the Christmas disruption on the west coast main line, the train operators made no attempt to alleviate passengers' misery by allowing them to transfer tickets for travel on to each others' services."
Throughout the Christmas disruption, Chiltern Railways, which runs an alternative route to the West Midlands from London Marylebone, accepted all valid tickets to any destination on the west coast main line no matter which operator issued them. Our reaction on hearing about the disruption was to help as many passengers as possible to get home.
During the current disruptions on the west coast main line we continue to welcome on board passengers with tickets from other companies. We pride ourselves on our consistently high passenger satisfaction rates and record-breaking punctuality and believe that when other train operating companies are unable to run services, we have a duty to welcome their passengers.
Chairman, Chiltern Railways, London NW1
Two sides to the football battle
Sir In a sadly predictable "my little life disturbed" letter, Matthew J Sephton (16 May) attempts to chastise Manchester City Council in the wake of the unpleasant but limited and brief disturbances connected with the Uefa Cup Final in the city.
He mistakenly assumes that the 200,000 or more Rangers fans in the area were somehow "invited" by the City Council. Not so; the city was chosen to host the final months before the contesting clubs became known on 1 May, and Rangers fans en masse would have made the pilgrimage, invited or not.
Your report (16 May) also invites readers to watch "police footage of the riot" online. I hope anyone who did so also saw Channel 4 News footage (15 May) of young Rangers fans of both sexes, isolated and innocent, being assaulted by swarming riot police. It is necessary to obtain a balanced view, not just imbibe official propaganda.
Power to the people to curb population
Sir: Well, I suppose it's a good thing that population is getting discussed at all, after such a long period of silence.
However Dominic Lawson ("The best population policy is to have none", 20 May) clearly has not yet got his head around the fact that people living in, say, rural sub-Saharan Africa, cannot just pop down to the chemist to get a packet of three, or get their doctor to prescribe an IUD. If you do not make contraception available then you cannot be said to be letting each family choose its own fertility rate.
The fact that there are about 19 million unsafe abortions a year suggests that people actually want help to achieve their desired family size.
Illegal wars don't help the Forces
Sir: Rather than introduce yet another unnecessary criminal offence ("Discrimination against military to become crime", 20 May), the Government should ask itself why the Armed Forces are perhaps viewed with a certain amount of disfavour by the public. Might it not have something to do with the fact that our brave boys are fighting an illegal war of which many people disapprove?
It is ironic, though hardly surprising, that a Tory MP should find such right-wing ideas as an armed forces day bank holiday and encouraging schoolboys to learn to kill people – something some of them seem quite good at doing already – well received by a so-called Labour government.
Children in the fields
Sir: As many other schoolchildren of the period in southern Gloucestershire will relate, "tater-pickin" (letter, 19 May) was a feature of the autumn calendar of school breaks well into the 1950s.
Sir: Well done Labour for highlighting the "toff" issue in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. It is still relevant today to ask whether voters would prefer a representative who has made their own way in the world or one who is simply inheriting their position from a parent. If neither of the larger parties can give satisfaction on this there are still eight other candidates to choose from.
Harrogate, North Yorkshire
The sins of Blair
Sir: Leni Gillman comments on Tony Blair's relationship with the Catholic Church (17 May). Tony Blair was responsible for taking this country to war. Both the Pope and the Cardinal spoke out against it. I object to the implication that Catholics can do anything they want, go to confession and then everything will be OK. For a proper confession the sinner should show remorse for his actions, promise not to repeat them and make amends to those he has injured. The problem with Blair was that he just didn't think he had done anything wrong.
Sir: The current advertisement by TV Licensing is frightening, though not solely in the way it is intended to be. In sombre and menacing tones that would have struck a chord with George Orwell, it warns: "New technology means it's easy to pay for your licence and impossible to hide if you don't; it's all in the database." I've often felt the debate about ID cards was an unnecessary fuss. Now I begin to wonder.
Man against horse
Sir: Regarding the KO-ing of dumb animals (letter, 19 May); Ronnie and Reggie Kray once purchased a horse that they hoped to race. It was kept in a field in Suffolk and on one occasion Ronnie must have stroked it too roughly and it tried to bite him, whereupon he gave it a "right-hander". The horse's knees buckled but it never went down, for which, ever after, it was greatly admired by the twins as being "very game".
Long Melford, Suffolk
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