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Tuesday 1 February 2011
Letters: Democracy and dictators
We may well be seeing the same level of change in the Middle East as happened in Europe at the fall of the Berlin Wall. But then we were on the side of the good guys, so we have a reasonably united and democratic Europe. They remembered our efforts to relieve the siege of West Berlin. But Gaza's?
In the Middle East, we are not on the side of right and freedom. We have supported the governments of Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Jordan, the sheikhs of the Gulf, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against their people. We spout support for democracy now in Egypt and Tunisia – but in Algeria and Palestine?
After the way we have treated democrats in the region, do we really expect the people of the Middle East will believe our protestations? Why have we finished up on the side of the dictators?
Following the events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, your leading article (29 January) highlights how Western hypocrisy towards the Arab world stands exposed.
One cannot but note how Western meddling 20 years ago helped to prevent the emergence, in Algeria in January 1992, of what is generally agreed would have been a democratically elected Islamic government. Riots of the type seen in Tunisia and Egypt led, in Algeria in October 1988, to a reported 800 deaths of civilians from military gunfire. President Chadli promised a new constitution, which would inaugurate a multi-party state.
Elections followed and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round in December 1991 and was poised to win a massive majority in the second round. It was at this point that the military, supported by France, the USA and the West, cancelled the second round.
The West was pre-occupied with the idea of another Iran in Algeria, but Algeria was not Iran. The result was descent into the bloody chaos of the decade that followed between Islamist armed groups and the security forces. More than 150,000 people were killed, many at the hands of Islamist groups, but tens of thousands were arrested and dreadfully tortured, and thousands disappeared, at the hands of the security forces. It is estimated that a million and a half people were displaced from their homes.
Allowing the FIS to form a government could hardly have led to a situation worse than this. Did the West miss an opportunity in 1992 to support some of the first democratic elections in the Arab world, and is it not now time to allow democracy to prevail, even if the West does not like the result?
Rhos on Sea, Conwy
"Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston box" (Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution). It looks as if the events unfolding in Egypt are going to put Trotsky's metaphor to the test.
Clamp ban won't end the misery
The RAC Foundation has the utmost sympathy with motorists who are clamped on private land and treated unreasonably, like Diana Jennings (letter, 31 January). But a ban on wheel clamping will not end the misery of fines imposed by parking enforcers on private land. If the Government goes ahead and prohibits wheel-clamping without regulating other activities, motorists may find themselves worse off.
It is our belief that rogue clampers will simply become rogue ticketers – pressuring drivers into paying charges on the spot, or following them home. What is being proposed by the Government falls far short of what is needed to ensure that motorists will not be exploited by an unregulated parking industry. Anyone dealing with parking matters and collection of penalties and charges should have to abide by a government-approved code of conduct. The war on the motorist will not end with a ban on wheel clamping.
Director, RAC Foundation, London SW1
The distressing letter from Diana Jennings about her experience in being forced to pay £500 to a gang of wheel-clampers shows what the nature of the problem is.
Gangs of crooks are taking over patches of unused land and are using them to lure unsuspecting motorists into situations where money can be extorted from them. This is nothing to do with the provision of parking but everything to do with organised robbery on a large scale.
Currently the law in England is taking a relaxed view about this process, provided that the word "parking" is quoted. However, this should be seen as nothing more than the forcible demanding of money with menaces, and the existing law on this crime must be applied with maximum severity.
Chinese voice of BBC falls silent
As a former head of BBC World Service's Chinese language section, I was shocked to read that it is to fall silent, and that Britain will no longer be heard in the language of a fifth of the world's population.
Internet services will continue, which is good. But nothing has the impact of the human voice: think of Radio Budapest in 1956, or the courageous announcer at Radio Beijing who urged the world to remember the date of the Tiananmen massacre. There is no website equivalent.
My years with the Chinese Section were heady ones, the first of the post-Mao era, when naive youngsters were quizzing foreigners about democracy in the streets of Beijing, and our postbag from the People's Republic soared from practically zero to five figures in a single year. My earliest experiences of China had been at the time of the Cultural Revolution, so I had a strong sense of what the new relative freedom of thought meant, and how important was our calm, restrained input to it.
During a sabbatical in Beijing in the 1980s I was shown great courtesy by my counterparts in Chinese broadcasting. But internal Chinese documents, which no doubt I wasn't intended to see, identified the BBC as an enemy, and bluntly described international broadcasting as a form of warfare, part of a life-and-death struggle for global domination.
I must say that wasn't exactly the way I saw my job in Bush House of a Monday morning. But perhaps there is a chilling realism there that we should take note of. We would not want to get into a fight with China, but in the contest of values and ideas we can hold our own very well, if we try. We seem instead to have opted for unilateral disarmament, for the most trivial of financial savings.
Chirac was being reasonable
It seems to me that it is not Nicholas Wood, but Denis MacShane, who is being "economical with history" (letters, 27 and 28 January). Mr Wood quotes correctly from President Chirac's interview of 1 March 2003, the transcript of which was published on the French embassy website.
President Chirac was making the reasonable point that he wished to give the UN inspectors in Iraq the extra time for which Hans Blix had asked. As Robin Cook told the House of Commons on 17 March 2003, this was also the view of Germany and Russia. Jacques Chirac may well have sincerely believed in December 2002 that Saddam Hussein had WMD, but it is clear that by March 2003, because of the failure of Hans Blix's team to find any, he was beginning to have doubts.
He went on to say that "France will vote 'no' because she considers this evening [my italics] that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have set ourselves, ie to disarm Iraq". He was not ruling out support for war if Hans Blix gave a report that showed it was necessary.
I believe also that Denis MacShane is wrong to say that the distorted view of France's position that was being promulgated did not affect the vote for war by the House of Commons, although with Tory support it would probably have still gained a majority. On 22 March 2003 I took part in a discussion with a Labour MP who had agonised over the decision to support the war. One reason given for this decision was that President Chirac had ruled out ever getting a UN resolution. This MP, at least, was clearly disturbed when I pointed out that this was not the case.
Respect for life and death
Dr Ann McPherson ("The GP who believes she should be allowed help to end her life", 24 January) says that doctors see death as "a technological defeat", that "we have got into a terrible mess about keeping people alive when they shouldn't be" and that therefore "palliative care specialists see it as a failure if patients want an assisted death". While that was the case once, and while it may still be so in a small minority of cases, it simply is not true of the profession as a whole these days.
The majority of doctors, and the overwhelming majority of those who specialise in palliative medicine, are opposed to what is euphemistically called "assisted dying". They respect both life and death. But they also know just how vulnerable the majority of us are to external influences when we are dying.
"We want an open debate," requests Dr McPherson. What makes her think we have not had one? There have been exhaustive parliamentary reports on the subject from both the Westminster and the Scottish Parliament, with several parliamentary debates too. Both parliaments have taken the considered view that licensing doctors to end or help to end the lives of seriously ill patients would put vulnerable people at risk.
Dr Andrew Hoy
Consultant in Palliative Medicine, Epsom, Surrey
Historic places in danger
The Government's new Localism Bill could seriously jeopardise the protection of England's listed buildings and conservation areas. The Bill is designed to shift power from central government into the hands of individuals, communities and councils.
It has precise specifications for new local management procedures to over-ride national cultural interests supported by listing and conservation area designations. This includes a new local management tool, the Neighbourhood Development Order, that could negate listed building and conservation area procedures that help care for a substantial national resource.
For example, if a small group as few as three people wants to get rid of a building protected for its national importance through listing, they could remove that protection through the Neighbourhood Development Order. This is not how we should look after our valuable and unique historic places, which are already severely threatened by the devastating reductions in local conservation officers.
The Government has agreed to protect the natural environment under its new planning framework, and it's unthinkable not to make the same commitment to our historic places, not least for the social, cultural and economic resources that they represent for the people living there.
Chair, the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, Tisbury, Wiltshire
Language of prejudice
It is hardly surprising that there is so much prejudice against Islam when the accepted term for its tiny terrorist minority is "Islamists". How many non-Muslims sense the difference?
Satanay Dorken ("Don't blame all Muslims", 25 January) reminded us that this country kept a clear head after the Brighton bomb and did not organise witch-hunts against Catholics. She is right, but would this have been the case if the IRA were called "Catholicists"? I am convinced that if IRA terrorists had been consistently referred to by a name that identified them so closely with their religion, there would have been outrage against that religion too.
Having completely different terminology meant that we were able to see a distinct difference between followers of a faith and a small minority within that group. Islamic terrorists should be given a new name that does not (seemingly) reflect on all the followers of Islam.
Hastings, East Sussex
When was Wessex?
Years ago, I discovered that, as a modern ethnic identity, the Celts had been invented by Edward Lhuyd in the 18th century. Now I find that the name Wessex was coined by William Barnes in 1868. It is amazing to think how many careers have been built around the words "Celt" and "Wessex". The latter is an anachronism for the early Middle Ages, but the West Saxons, as a people, were certainly historical fact.
Regarding Guy Keleny's Errors and Omissions (29 January): "If he has gone to London he can have seen the Queen"? I don't think so. I would also quite like to see a comma after the word "London". Excuse the pedantry.
You report that the sale of our national forests is likely to raise £250m. Given the certainty of energetic protest, we need to subtract from that sum the cost of extra policing, prosecuting, legal aid and incarceration. Can the paltry amount left over be worth the effort?
Worthing, West Sussex
Don't be too hard on Andy Murray. There's too much resting on one pair of shoulders at the moment. No Brit is going to win a Grand Slam until there are six others hot on his heels.
Perspectives on British drinking
Policy really can curb drunkenness
In "A glass of our own" (28 January), Christopher Hirst writes: "History teaches us that Britain has a blotting-paper tongue where drink is concerned." It also teaches us that journalists are far too keen to oversimplify when writing about "Binge Britain".
Hirst's article takes the familiar example of the 18th-century Gin Craze; however, the craze was an urban phenomenon and it masked declining alcohol consumption across the country as a whole.
To suggest the 19th century was an era of untrammelled drunkenness overlooks the wide variations in consumption between, say, the relatively moderate 1840s and the 1870s, when drinking really did reach a peak. To write that a "proposed tax on beer ... sank the Gladstone government in 1885" is questionable – though the 1872 Licensing Act really did damage the Liberals, as did their adoption of "local option" for prohibition 20 years later.
Most misleading, however, is the claim that licensing restrictions and increased taxation during the First World War did nothing to curb drinking. By contrast, alcohol consumption fell off a cliff in 1916 and remained at historically low levels well into the 1950s. Indeed, it was only after licensing was liberalised in 1961 (and affluence made alcohol more affordable) that drinking in Britain began to move towards its current levels.
It may be tempting to pursue the old saw that the Brits just love to get drunk, but it is deeply unhelpful. While we have had many periods of high consumption, what history actually teaches us is taxation and licensing policies (along with broader economic drivers) have influenced consumption and behaviour on many occasions.
The recently announced 6 per cent fall in alcohol related deaths between 2008 and 2009 is very welcome, and reflects recent falls in population-level alcohol consumption (British Beer and Pub Association Statistical Handbook 2010) which accelerated as the recession started to bite.
As well as being a welcome side-effect of the recession these figures illustrate the strong link between deaths and economic factors which change alcohol consumption.
The challenge will be to maintain the reduction in alcohol related deaths as the economy picks up.
Professor Jon Rhodes
British Society of Gastroenterology
Professor Ian Gilmore
Royal College of Physicians
Dr Nick Sheron
Alcohol Health Alliance
Professor Chris Hawkey
Nottingham University Hospital
Dr Kieran Moriarty
Royal Bolton Hospital
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