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Wednesday 26 May 2010
Letters: Dunkirk spirit
Vying to lead a broken party
The reason why the Labour leadership contest is getting off to such a slow start is that none of the contenders knows what Labour stands for or believes in. This is clearly seen in Ed Balls's article (17 May), which lacks policies, principles or passion.
I wanted Labour to be heavily defeated in the election so that it would be forced to rebuild itself from the start. Now this has happened I feel a tremendous sadness at the enormous void revealed where Labour used to be.
Now I realise why Jon Cruddas backed out. Who would want to be leader of a party which has lost its soul? It is not he who is unsuited to be leader of the Labour Party but the party which is not in a fit state to choose a leader.
I suspect Harriet Harman realises this and it is why she attaches such importance to remaining as deputy leader in the hope of holding things together. Or is it too late and the Labour Party has, to all intents and purposes already disintegrated?
The Labour leadership, and indeed the party itself, flirts with oblivion. The hand-puppets of the Blair-Brown era pop up, trumpeting their credentials to lead the ghost of a once-great institution. Which white, well-off boy politico do you want? The resounding answer should be "None of the above."
Two things are clear: the leader should not be another Cameron-Clegg clone, and they should hark back to the days when Labour was not "New Labour", the Thatcherite alternative led by the mad, bad and boring, but a party for the average person, the worker, led by sane people who had a brain and also had some idea about real life.
Currently, only Diane Abbott fits the description, which says how desperate it has all become.
Diane Abbott is right to highlight gender and race in the Labour leadership elections ("Back to the future with old Labour", 21 May), but why is class never mentioned in relation to a party which supposedly represents working-class people?
John O'Donnell remains the only candidate who was not Oxbridge-educated and who has worked in a factory.
Wield the axe for England
To add to the many letters suggesting ways of cutting the deficit, here is the outline of a Little Englander Budget that would soon do the trick.
Defence. We spend about twice as much per capita on defence as other EU countries. Are we any better defended or more secure than France or Germany? The extra money goes on big-power posturing in pointless and unwinnable wars. Reduce our defence spending to EU levels. Savings: £15bn to £20bn.
Devolved spending. £6bn goes on devolved spending in Wales. Then there's the Scots, subsidised to the tune of nearly £8bn, and Northern Ireland, about £3bn. Time for a united Ireland. Savings: £17bn.
Overseas aid. What on earth are we doing giving foreign aid to countries like China, India and Pakistan? If a country is rich enough to build nuclear weapons it does not need development aid. Savings: £10bn.
Culture, media and sport. Is any of this the taxpayers' business? Savings: £7bn.
Higher education. Only about 20-25 per cent of the population is intelligent enough to get a good degree in a proper academic discipline at a decent university. The idea that 50 per cent of young people should go to university is nonsense. Many will end up with poor degrees in make-weight subjects from sub-standard universities and be unemployable. They'd do better to learn a useful skill in an apprenticeship. Halve the university budget. Savings: £6bn.
The EU. Britain is the second biggest contributor to the EU budget, yet year after year the auditors refuse to sign it off as a true and accurate record of expenditure. It is not the job of English taxpayers to line the pockets of corrupt Johnny Foreigners or inefficient French farmers. Savings: £6bn.
There, that's 40 per cent of the deficit gone on stuff nobody in England will miss, and that's before we even start on the old favourites of efficiency savings, IT projects, ID cards, management consultants, wind farms and other green nonsense, not to mention various quangos that are nothing but work-creation schemes for the well-off. Tot up that little lot and the deficit is already halved. As Ernie Bevin used to say, "Go to it!"
Could you please ask Dave Brown to grow up, regarding the stream of cartoons depicting the vicious terror of the inevitable budget cuts.
I'm about half his age, and therefore part of the lucky generation who'll pay a level of tax probably unprecedented in this country, to atone for the sins of the previous one. Shouldn't the cuts be welcomed, as a way for as many as possible of the people who involved themselves so eagerly in the culture of living beyond their means to suffer in return? Or would he prefer they were postponed, and once you lot have shuffled off to pensioned obscurity, we'll take the strain?
As a teacher of economics, I relish the increasingly impressive array of graphics the press provides us with. However, your cover graphic on 25 May showed £6bn being wiped off the UK government debt. If only this were the case.
In fact, the fiscal deficit is expected to be £157bn this financial year, down from £163bn in the previous year. The mountain is growing, just a little slower than before.
Thank you for your graphic picture of Britain's £893bn mountain of debt. But it would be nice if someone could also explain where it has all gone. That amount of treasure can't just disappear into a mountain-sized hole – it must be doing good, being spent, helping someone's economy somewhere.
We know a lot of it went to help the bankers, and that they helped themselves to large chunks of it, but even they can't just be sitting on it; they must be spending it somehow, on cars and yachts and mansions, whatever. So please, if you can, let's have another picture showing where it has all gone.
In a long management career, one of the first questions I was trained to ask was, "Does this process/operation/department need to exist at all?" You would be amazed how often the answer was no, with enormous potential savings.
I would suggest that David Laws and his team make that the first question they ask every quango, local authority and government department head who comes pleading a special case.
The Forestry Commission advertised a vacancy for a "Manager (quality of life)" at a salary of up to £52,584 to help deliver the former government's strategy for trees – "to enable more people in more places to enjoy the personal and social benefits of trees". You really could not make it up could you? What better example could you ask for than this, to show that the former government spent our money as if it grew on trees?
Remember the Dunkirk heroes
I read Adrian Hamilton's article about Dunkirk (21 May) with much interest but was somewhat surprised and disappointed by the phrase "complete shambles".
My father was at Dunkirk too, and my first living memory was of him returning home for a few days afterwards when I was just three years old. He later became president of the Merseyside branch of the Dunkirk Veterans' Association from 1961 to 1981.
Of course Dunkirk and many aspects of the evacuation were a shambles, for good reason with the constant bombing by the Luftwaffe; but I feel the way in which this phrase was used was almost an insult to some of the heroic actions which were taken to plug defensive gaps, costing many thousands of lives, not to mention the quick tactical thinking of some of our generals, particularly Alanbrooke and Montgomery.
I will always refer to Dunkirk as a "heroic defeat".
The article was puffed, on the front page of your Viewspaper with "Dunkirk has gone down in history as a heroic defeat." No it has not.
With some 300,000 men trapped by the Germans, who thought they would be picked up at leisure, the courage of those who took their small boats to France (helped by the courage of the men) turned what looked to be a total disaster for Britain into a manageable one. The escape was heroic. It was not a "victory", but it was an infinitely better outcome than anyone could have hoped for.
The heading to the story inside stated: "The evacuation of Dunkirk was no military miracle," yet, even seen from 70 years later, that is clearly what it was.
Adrian Hamilton makes one glaring error in his interesting piece on Dunkirk. Britain did not remain alone until Pearl Harbor brought the US into the war in December 1941. On 22 June 1941, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. Stalin might have been unloved by Churchill, but he became our "gallant" ally and played a more significant part in defeating Hitler than the West would care to concede.
No time for digital radio
Your correspondents rightly identify the shortcomings of DAB radios (letters, 22 May) but omit another worrying aspect of these unwelcome contraptions – they cannot give an accurate time signal by which to set your watch.
Try putting a DAB radio, an analog radio, radio on-line on your computer and digital TV all in the same room and then tune them all in to get the 8am "pips" on Radio 4.
It sounds like a heart monitor. They go on for ever and the difference in the so-called "time" would confound Doctor Who. Just how are the radio authorities going to provide "the right time"? Put Big Ben back a couple of seconds perhaps? We need answers now, whenever that is.
Locked up for being gay
It is cruelly ironic that in a week in which we celebrated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) two Malawian men were sentenced to 14 years in jail with hard labour purely because of their sexuality ("Gay couple given maximum 14 years", 21 May).
Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga did nothing but declare their love for one another in front of friends and family with an open engagement ceremony. Refused bail on the tenuous claim that it was "for their own good", they have spent five months incarcerated in a maximum security prison, received deaths threats and even reportedly suffered beatings.
The charges they were convicted of are outdated: no one was harmed. The only victims are the men themselves and the many others who may now face similar charges.
A violent breach of human rights, this sad case serves as a stark reminder that while the UK and many other countries have made significant progress in creating equality before the law, thousands of citizens all over the world still suffer homophobic attacks, abuse, mistreatment and discrimination. We must do all we can to ensure all LGBT individuals live free from oppression and fear, and I urge the Malawi government to repeal their archaic laws.
Jean Lambert MEP
Green Party, London
How wrong is Richard Ingrams (22 May). One of the characteristics of Hilary Mantel's masterly novel Wolf Hall is its depiction of intrigue in the Tudor court which has resonance in current politics – though today the penalty for failure is not the axeman's block, but all too often a seat in the House of Lords and a few consultancies and directorships. Unlike Richard Ingrams, I and all the people I know who have read Wolf Hall have been engrossed by it, and have been unable to put it down until the final page.
Art and morality
Jonathan Heawood, Director of PEN, quotes with approval Abbas Kiarostami's statement that when a film-maker is imprisoned "it is art as a whole that is attacked" (Opinion, 24 May). Perhaps Jonathan could be invited to confirm whether his sentiments also extend to Roman Polanski. And would he say the same with hindsight about the oeuvre of Leni Riefenstahl?
Barford St Michael, Oxfordshire
Perspectives on the Afghan war
Jihadists want us in the quagmire
Your leader on Afghanistan (24 May) correctly describes the "endless stalemate" in the war against a resurgent Taliban, and points out the "folly of engaging in ideologically driven military adventures ... at the behest of another power". You also say, however, that if the mission were not so rudderless, it could still be made a worthwhile one. How?
Surely the mere presence of the British and US armies in Afghanistan does more than anything to inflame jihadism all over the world, and to swell the ranks of al-Qa'ida and Taliban sympathisers. This explains the continuing and deepening military quagmire in Afghanistan, and why the streets of Britain can only become less safe, rather than safer. Al-Qa'ida sympathisers usually cite our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as their main motivation.
Our leaders appear to have forgotten that our invasion of Iraq led to a dramatic growth of jihadism there. Jihadists want us in Afghanistan and would be very disappointed if we left.
The problem lies in Pakistan
You are right that the "Afghan mission can still be made a worthwhile one, but not if it is left to drift rudderless". However, it is not the goals that need to be debated but rather the strategy.
Unfortunately, the root of the problem continues to be ignored: namely, the Pakistani military and intelligence's support for the various militant groups in Afghanistan as part of their expansionist policy of "strategic depth". The military and intelligence also play a double game as part of their half-hearted co-operation with Nato forces by attacking militant groups that directly threaten Pakistan's stability but providing early warnings and escape routes during security operations against those that do not. This is done in order to receive financial aid from countries such as the US.
Hence, increasing the number of troops could defeat the militant groups in Afghanistan, but the victory would be short-lived as they could simply retreat into Pakistan as they did in the period 2002-2004 and then infiltrate Afghanistan again, similarly to what happened in 2005 and 2006, as can be observed by the sudden spike in the number of troop deaths from 2005 onwards.
At the same time, the situation would deteriorate if Nato forces were to simply withdraw. The militant groups would be strengthened, and the Pakistani military and intelligence would be emboldened to pursue their policy of "strategic depth".
Given the close co-operation between al-Qa'ida, the Taliban Shura based in Quetta, and Punjab-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was responsible for the Mumbai attacks, the threat to the whole of South Asia would be increased, and in turn to the West itself, since India and Pakistan both have nuclear arsenals.
Thus, we must confront the Pakistani military and intelligence on this issue, rather than assuming that we have, in Obama's words, a relationship of "mutual trust" with Pakistan, and try to make them assume responsibility for the situation. This would allow for a safe withdrawal plan that would also put an end to the Pashtun nationalist insurgency in Afghanistan that has arisen in response to the prolonged presence of Nato forces.
Fate of those who reject Islam
Johann Hari's article (20 May) illuminates hypocrisy within the UK asylum system. At the British Humanist Association we are receiving an increasing number of requests for help from Afghan and Pakistani humanists especially, at risk of persecution, violence and death in their own countries, who are refused asylum in the UK.
The suggestion from UK authorities that such people return to their native countries and behave "discreetly" is routine. After all, the argument goes, it's not as if these people actually have a religion they need to practice instead of Islam: they can just pretend to be Muslims. The fact that this argument would never be made to a convert to Christianity highlights the way in which the equal right of non-religious people to freedom of conscience is so often overlooked.
Chief Executive, British Humanist Association
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