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- Arts + Ents
Wednesday 2 February 2011
America's credibility problem in the Middle East has become acute. It claims to support democracy in the region, but it remained silent over Egypt's flagrantly rigged elections two months ago, and at any time in the last 30 years it could have used political and economic pressure to guide Mubarak's regime towards at least minimal reforms.
On the other hand it slapped crippling sanctions on the Palestinians when they voted, in free and fair elections, for a party the US and Israel disliked.
The world is watching with interest America's reactions to the expressed will of the Egyptian people.
In an effort to quell growing unrest, President Mubarak purged his cabinet of those behind Egypt's economic liberalisation and various (unpopular) businessmen and tycoons who held influential economic posts.
This is eerily familiar, with British governments (both Labour and Conservative) frequently consulting or recruiting business "tsars" and with swarms of business moguls busy hob-nobbing with senior politicians inside "Fortress Davos" last week.
It's weird, isn't it? In a dictatorship people can make a clear and constructive comment and it is acted upon (free-market witch-doctors are fired) but in western democracies we vote but nothing much changes, as the real mechanisms of economic control (or rather non-control) go on undisturbed behind closed doors – with British forests being just the latest of many casualties.
Maybe Western "democracies" need some "consultancy services" from Egyptian demonstrators.
I notice that both Tunisia and Egypt were in the group of 18 states that, at China's instigation, boycotted the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in December for Liu Xiaobo. Apparently, both these countries did not approve of a dissident being awarded the prize.
The remaining countries are China, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Russia, Serbia, Venezuela, Cuba, Morocco, Sudan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka
Now, I wonder which one of these is going to be next ?
I really do not understand the inconsistency shown by the UK government with regard to the illegal demonstrations and arson which are regrettably a current feature of life in Egypt.
In the UK, we have seen how the Metropolitan Police have cracked down on the criminal elements of student unrest in London. Should not the Egyptian authorities be encouraged to follow their example? Instead, our Foreign Secretary William Hague's calls for government restraint are tantamount to encouraging Egyptian revolution.
John Eoin Douglas
NHS offers Lib Dems a chance
The Liberal Democrats seem to be stumbling blindly towards another 50 years of oblivion. Is there anything they can do? The only likelihood of recovery comes from embracing the "nuclear option" of which Vince Cable spoke. The way to persuade liberal-minded people that the party can be trusted again would be to pick a very high-profile issue of moral conscience, and bring the Government down over it.
I would suggest that the NHS reforms would be a good one to choose. The fag-packet jottings of Andrew Lansley are at best a huge gamble, with an £80bn stake. The NHS is an institution which the British public would reward a party for saving.
Close down these reforms, at least until they have been thought through and piloted, and begin to rebuild a future for the party.
Dr Stephen Black (letter, 27 January) accuses Steve Richards of obfuscating the debate on NHS "reform", but then proceeds to stir up an obfuscatory fog of irrelevance by a comparison of BMW and Trabant cars. Far more pertinent would be a historical examination of the immense benefits the centrally planned NHS has delivered to ordinary citizens in comparison with everything which went before.
Perhaps that also is too obfuscatory for Dr Black. Then let us compare the amazing health care offered by poverty-stricken but centrally planned socialist Cuba with that of the USA, surely the most money-grabbing, expensive and inefficient service in the world. Even after Obama's hard-won reforms, the richest society on the planet still cannot provide any cover for several million people.
Unfortunately it is only too clear which of these two countries is seen by the Coalition as the shining example to follow.
Haywards Heath, Sussex
David Cameron's explanation of his NHS changes as "evolution, not revolution" is a rather unfortunate image, with its connotations of the survival of the fittest. One dreads to think what is about to happen to us here in Cumbria, with our hospitals under so much threat and the long distance to reach them.
Sell the forests and enjoy them
Understandably, many people are strongly opposed to the sale of a proportion of the English Public Forest Estate. However, looking at Forestry Commission policy through the years, the public, and wildlife, might benefit considerably from a change in ownership.
The Forestry Commission regards all trees as standing timber. Much of the Forest Estate consists of conifer plantations, always referred to as woodland by the Forestry Commission. In fact, a conifer plantation is no more woodland or "forest" than a rubber estate or oil palm plantation is rainforest. In contrast, our native oak woodland is the richest habitat in Britain. Three hundred species of insect live on the oaks, and the light shade of their branches allows many native shrubs and ground plants to grow.
Woodland owned by the Woodland Trust, National Trust or county wildlife trust would be of more benefit to the community than the public forest. A few years ago my parish council purchased land and planted a community woodland. This is much enjoyed by locals and others. There may well be woods that could be owned and managed by the local community, part of the big society
Bratton Fleming, Devon
People who oppose the Government's plan to sell off thousands of acres of woodland may like to recall Rousseau's words about "the first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say 'This is mine' and found people simple enough to believe him".
He adds: "What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared had someone pulled up the stakes and cried out to his fellows: 'Do not listen to this imposter! The fruits of the earth belong to all!' " With this government we lose our equality, our sense of fellowship, and now our countryside.
Small farmers hold the key
The government's report The Future of Food and Farming misses a key factor in its recommendations for feeding an increasing global population in the face of a changing climate and a lack of land: the crucial role of small-holder farmers ("Food inflation is only going to get worse, warn scientists", 25 January).
The world's 450 million smallholder farms of two hectares or less, largely led by women in developing countries, both export and sustain domestic markets. Their productivity could be increased through technical assistance and access to credit.
One of the priorities is to ensure that women – the biggest food producers – can own the land they work on. The ongoing fixation with converting food into biofuels must be reviewed, and land-grabs which are an increasing threat to poor communities should be curtailed.
This is not just about producing enough food; this is about ensuring that the food is brought to the table. Only by overhauling the global food system can we truly begin to challenge the scandal of almost one billion people going hungry every day.
Head of Policy and Advocacy, Oxfam, Oxford
There are two things that human beings can do to avoid the nightmare of hunger.
Almost 65 billion animals are raised for meat every year and the grain fed to them can feed almost 4 billion people. Instead of eating grains and vegetables we are feeding them to animals and then eating the animals. The destruction of rainforests in south America, the spread of deserts and the pollution of rivers and oceans are due to our desire for meat.
In 2007 almost 27 million hectares of land was used to produce biofuel and in 2008 food prices soared, pushing almost 100 million people below the poverty line.
If meat and biofuel production stopped we might avert a tragedy of biblical proportions.
Crime map of sink estates
The publication of online crime maps of England and Wales by the Home Office is yet another myopic move by the Coalition. What is at stake here is not police accountability, but the very viability of communities.
Maps do not merely represent what is "out there", or not "out there"; they have a more active role, and in the case of crime maps, they will be quickly appropriated by the likes of estate agents in making further claims about the safety of a community. Potential home-buyers will be put off from purchasing a property where crime is said to be prevalent; that area becomes a sink estate, and crime multiplies; the map's work goes on.
The map needs to go, as does the Coalition.
School of Geography, Oxford
Hope still for music lessons
You are right to highlight the threat to music lessons posed by premature local authority cuts to music services (report, 24 January). The current review of music education is the most critical since the Music Manifesto and its announcement will shape music education for years to come.
However, the Music Grant, which is currently £82.6m per annum, can be secured at a comparable level beyond 2011. It is wrong to suggest that the Government is certain to scrap the funding, given that they recently made it clear that "no decisions have been made" and Michael Gove stating that he "expects to continue to provide funding".
Local authorities must stop their premature cuts prior to the review being published, and the Government must make clear what funding will be available when the review is published to ensure that we do not lose the world-class music education we have created.
Chief Executive, Incorporated Society of Musicians, London W1C
Dark forces of irrationality
We often encounter shocking irrationality in the media, but is Julie Birchill (27 January) right to discern a global flight from reason: the Dawn of the Age of Endarkenment?
As evidence, she cites the deranged mentalities of Muslim suicide bombers; teens who enjoy prudish Twilight novels – and "people who won't recognise that human beings only add up to 2 per cent of global warning [sic]." Does this amount to an objective assessment of the global prevalence of unreason? Of course not – indeed, I submit that the latter group simply know a bit more about climate science than Ms Birchill.
If she wishes to defend rationality, perhaps she should try practising it a bit harder.
The record transfer fee for Fernando Torres and the FSA's call for banks to publish pay data for their highest-paid employees are indicative of growing social inequality. It raises the question of the value attached to the jobs performed by the highest paid as compared to those paid least. While I never watch Torres kick a football, I rely on the bin collectors to keep my streets clean. How can society allow such a gulf in pay to exist?
I'm confused about the comment in your Friday Essay that: "Suprisingly, they [the elderly] have also been embracing technology ... email, internet shopping." I thought our generation actually invented the technology; thus it is hardly surprising for us to use the product we created. Certainly I was using email before any of today's teenagers were the proverbial twinkle in the eye. Of course, my confusion could be down to my age, and maybe my memory of history is equally flawed.
Forget all the other versions of "Over the Rainbow" (letter, 31 January); by far the best interpretation is by the late, great Gene Vincent.
Perspectives on bankers
Pay up for this catastrophe
I was winded by the breathtaking crassness of Jamie Dimon's comments at Davos ("Dimon attacks unfair 'denigration' of bankers", 28 January).
I work in banking, and I agree with Mr Dimon that the vast majority of those working in the industry are honest, decent, hard-working people who do not deserve to be branded as banker-gangsters. In the same way that not all Muslims are terrorists, not all bankers are crooks. But while the Muslim community has taken positive steps to restore its reputation by co-operating with the authorities to root out delinquent elements, big Wall Street bankers (and their cousins in London and Frankfurt) have not.
Real people in the real economy have suffered and are still suffering. What makes it worse is that most of those affected were not a party in even the remotest sense to a collateralised debt obligation (CDO), yet their lives are contaminated by the poisonous gas released by those toxic assets.
Not requiring an injection of capital from the taxpayer is not enough to acquit a bank of responsibility for this economic carnage. Only those banks that bought CDOs went belly-up, while those that sold them went unscathed. So, Jamie, if you seriously want a not-guilty verdict in the court of public opinion, you will have to show that not only was your bank not a "user", but it was also not a "pusher".
Given the sophisticated accounting systems in financial institutions, it should be possible to claw back all the previous bonuses paid out on every single one of those transactions that contributed to bringing the world's economy to its knees, set up a fund and pay some compensation to the collateral victims of this titanic financial catastrophe. I challenge bankers to do the right thing.
Greed on the high street
Much of the present ire is aimed at the investment banks for their high-risk activities, but the high-street banks are also guilty of abusive behaviour.
For many years up to the 1960s the lending banks and building societies charged us 2 per cent for money; that is, the typical difference between the savings interest and the borrowing rate. The actual rates varied widely with inflation. The lenders lived well on 2 per cent and they all had luxurious marble-clad buildings on every high street in the land.
Since that time they have ratcheted up the difference to feed what I believe is greed. The picture is deliberately obfuscated by unnecessary complication, but today the bank rate is 0.5 per cent, and savers get from 0.1 per cent to around 3 per cent maximum. The borrower pays typically 4 per cent for a mortgage, plus heavy fees, 8 to 10 per cent for an overdraft, 17 per cent for credit-card debt and 25 per cent plus fees for an unauthorised overdraft. The bankers are not more intelligent than those in other activities, nor do they work harder, nor in more arduous conditions. They pay obscenely high bonuses because they can.
If the Government really wanted to rein in their City friends they could legislate on a maximum difference between lending and borrowing rates.
Market Rasen, Lincolnshire
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