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Thursday 28 August 2008
Letters: Defining Britishness
Bletchley Park cracks the problem of defining Britishness
As a headteacher, one of the more perplexing new responsibilities that I have acquired over the past year or so has been that of promoting "Britishness". Having had about as much success at defining this nebulous concept as any politician who has publicly attempted to do so, I must confess that I had surreptitiously placed the responsibility to promote it to one side.
However, I was reminded by last week's series of articles in The Independent regarding the decaying state of Bletchley Park that I have never felt so proud to be British as when I visited this historic site some years ago. The Station X story tells of a group of people who understood it to be their duty to put personal or cultural differences aside in order to work collectively for the greater good; who each accepted without question that it was their responsibility to pool their talents in the service of justice and ultimately of the triumph of intelligence, ingenuity and dogged determination over barbarity and fanaticism. Surely this story has something fundamental to tell us about what is unique within the British character.
I therefore find it incredible that significant steps have not already been taken to secure Bletchley Park's future, and that a British government could have a moment's hesitation in taking steps to preserve it as a unique feature of our national heritage. I might venture that the Government would have been wiser to spend £10m on ensuring that future generations of school children would be able to learn about "Britishness"' through visiting Bletchley than the £35m that was paid to ETS Europe for managing this year's SATs.
Can Miliband be serious?
With New Labour in meltdown, it must comfort the Foreign Secretary to know that he has the prospect of a second career opening up before him. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Georgia and its recognition of South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, David Miliband has displayed a previously hidden flair for stand-up comedy.
I just don't know how the man manages to keep a straight face when he condemns the Russians for "blatant aggression" and "19th-century forms of diplomacy" or when he insists that the British government has "respect for a sovereign independent country" like Georgia and wouldn't violate a nation's "territorial integrity".
Priceless stuff. Miliband will have them rolling in the aisles from Baghdad to Kabul and possibly Tehran too. He'll knock them dead.
A desire by America and Britain to fast-track Ukraine's Nato membership could have serious consequences for Kiev's fragile new coalition government.
After many months of political limbo and public wrangling, the former Orange Revolution allies, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko, formed a government earlier this year with a majority of just one seat in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament. This, remember, is the same coalition that spectacularly collapsed in 2004 and that was unable to unite following the 2006 parliamentary elections.
The country is deeply polarised on regional grounds, with the Ukrainian-speaking population in central and western Ukraine supportive of greater Western integration while those in Eastern regions see themselves as more closely aligned to Russia. Pushing for Ukraine's Nato membership will not only further damage Western relations with Russia but threatens to stir up regional antagonisms within Ukraine and destabilise the already fragile alliances within the Tymoshenko government.
London NW3 (The writer was a member of the OSCE election observer mission to Ukraine, 2006)
After 1945 Russia stole huge areas of Poland and Germany, not to mention several Japanese islands, and of course has never given any back. It would seem modern Russia is quite the same; two districts of Georgia are now part of the Russian Empire.
The European Union and Nato had better start preparing to defend their eastern borders, and those states not yet in Nato would be wise to join quickly.
We in the West were inclined to blame the Communists for the ghastly behaviour of the Russian army in eastern Europe, but it would seem to be a Russian trait rather than a Communist one. We must recognise that the Cold War is back, and it may be much warmer this time.
Tydd St Giles, Cambridgeshire
World hunger? Let them eat biofuel
It is all very well for Struan Stevenson MEP to call for GM to deal with food scarcity arising from population growth and climate change (letter, 23 August), yet he omits to mention biofuels as a major cause of the current food scarcity he describes.
GM has not been shown to improve the maximal yield of any crop, even if it can save on insecticides or tilling. In contrast, every unit of foodstuff converted into biofuel is one unit less to go round the poorest, and the cost can be huge in cross-subsidy, as well as high food prices for all.
With biofuel targets having been slammed by senior analysts in the OECD, World Bank, IMF, IFPRI and the EU's own scientific research centre, will he or other MEPs vote against such targets in a few weeks' time?
Struan Stevenson writes that "food security is now top of the political agenda" . The Soil Association certainly agrees with that . However, Stevenson goes on to say that GM is the only way out of this "looming crisis".
There is increasing evidence that organic production does have the potential to feed the world. A recent report from an international group of over 400 scientists, published by the UN (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) concludes that organic farming has real potential to help feed the world in an era of increasing oil prices and urgent need to cut greenhouse gases, because organic farming systems use the sun's energy and legumes to fix nitrogen in the soil, not oil and gas.
By contrast, the role of GM in feeding the world is much less clear. Over 20 published peer-reviewed studies show worse or no better yields for GM crops. In 2006, the pro-GM US Department of Agriculture observed that "currently available GM crops do not increase yield potential", a point already made by a report from the FAO in 2004 that acknowledged "GM crops can have reduced yields".
Soil Association, Bristol
Bursary cash that students fail to claim
We read with deep concern the findings of the recent UUK report that there has been scant improvement in the numbers and type of students from non-traditional backgrounds applying to university, despite millions of pounds being spent on attempts to widen participation (report, 12 August).
The UUK findings corroborate what the report from the Office of Fair Access a few months ago also highlighted: that a significant percentage of students fail to claim bursary monies for which they are eligible.
This is a national disgrace, not least because channels exist by which this problem can be largely alleviated. The matter of charging university fees obscures the real issue of hardship among disadvantaged groups – something we at the Helena Kennedy Foundation know from a decade of working in this field. In 1998 we pioneered the establishment of a national bursary fund to tackle social injustice and assist social mobility by the provision of bursaries to students in need.
The key to success is identification of student need in the right place (in our case in our partner FE colleges), in the right way (through tutors who know individual student circumstances, culture and background) and at the right time (well before entrance to university). In this way, the issue of students not realising they were entitled to support can be dealt with.
Although last year we awarded over a hundred bursaries, we could have given out 10 times that number if we had had a fraction of the money that lies unclaimed in university coffers. We can help universities ensure that their unspent funds reach students in need.
Baroness Kennedy QC, President; Dr Ann Limb, Founder & Chair; Helena Kennedy Foundation, Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire
Old enough to rule, but not to drink
Josie Appleton is to be commended for challenging officialdom's disapproval of young drinkers (Opinion, 27 August), but does not illustrate the full absurdity of raising the drinking age to 21.
It is indeed iniquitous that those who are adults in the eyes of the law and can buy a house cannot buy a can of lager. Yet the Government has reduced the age at which one can stand in an election and be an MP (and theoretically Prime Minister) from 21 to 18.
The spectacle of those with the power to legislate for the lives of others yet unable to use the bars at Westminster would be a fitting display of the confused priorities of New Labour.
Vision for a renewable future
For an environmental editor, Michael McCarthy seems to have a very pessimistic view of both the potential of renewable energy, and the attitude of the public (Opinion, 22 August). He appears to have joined those who maintain that our whole way of life is under threat, unless we continue to generate (and waste) power in the same way we have done for the past few hundred years.
I prefer Nick Clegg's vision. If we put the same amount of energy into developing renewable and decentralised energy sources, instead of persisting with massive centralised power stations, would our way of life not be enhanced rather than worsened? The only current contenders for centralised power are coal and nuclear, both of which have massive environmental issues and will bequeath our descendants some very nasty problems.
Let's have a real vision for a future of mostly renewables, not a vision of attempting to bury our toxic waste.
Taking over the torch from Beijing
There are concerns that London may find it difficult to follow the spectacular Olympic Games staged in Beijing. But Downing Street's attempt to stop London's tourist board from using Marcus Harvey's art to promote the capital suggests that the Government is learning quickly from China. Who knows what other lessons they will learn in the next four years?
David P Stansfield
Joy Mills (letter, 25 August) tells us the Isle of Man is part of Great Britain but not part of the United Kingdom; however the reverse is true of Northern Ireland, and yet the Province had competitors for Team GB – and even some for Ireland.
Colwyn Bay, North Wales
Warning: label writers at work
John Evans's letter (26 August) provides the clearest evidence I have seen for my hypothesis that product label writers have for some years been gleefully pushing the envelope of absurdity. I did not believe that one on a push-chair said: "Warning: remove baby before folding the chair", until my son told me he had seen it in the USA.
Your correspondent last week saw their arrival as coinciding with no win, no fee litigation. I prefer to interpret them as a lively way of striking back at the stupidity of a population not trusted to assess risk at all. Long may they make us chortle.
Laurie van Someren
If the Government levies a windfall tax on the "excess profits" of the energy companies, will it also give the housebuilders a windfall bonus to compensate for their excess losses?
Those who have problems telling the difference between rooks and crows (letter, 23 August) should always remember that when they see a rook on its own, it's a crow ,and when they see a lot of crows altogether, they are rooks.
Wednesbury, West Midlands
Eric Fitch says (Letters, 26 August) that it is high time that one international language was decided upon. I would argue the case for that much neglected planned language, Esperanto. I have just come back from an international holiday in Plouezec, Brittany, where the only language used was Esperanto. A hundred and fifty people from Britain, Germany, Russia and Poland all spent a week talking, singing, and learning together, using this delightful language. It really works, and deserves more than just grass-roots support.
Users of tools
It would be interesting to know when in history or prehistory those skilled in the use of tools, as we are told were the Neanderthals ("Why Neanderthal man may not have been as stupid as he looks", 26 August), were ever higher in the pecking order than those who are not. In our era, I am thinking of politicians, bankers, footballers, lawyers . . . even scientists.
Professor Richard Harley
School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Southampton
Tories and fatties
Andrew Lansley wants children to exert peer pressure on fat children. Goodbye to the nanny society: hello to the school bully society.
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