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Thursday 21 May 2009
Letters: European politics
Meanwhile, in Europe, real politics goes on
Political pundits are looking to the European election to give an indication as to how big a kicking David Cameron will give Gordon Brown at the general election. Norman Tebbitt is subtly calling for electors to give their votes to extremist parties or to abstain. All this would be comical if the EU were unimportant.
However, the achievement of persuading 27 European nations to pool some of their sovereignty and to create a bloc with the ability to influence world affairs, which would otherwise be dominated by the USA, Russia and China, means that the European election should be treated with the same respect as our general election. We will be letting ourselves and the world down badly if we follow the advice of the Westminster-obsessed Little Englanders.
Geoffrey S Harris
Your leading article of 5 May on the European Elections ends with the words "We need to vote." Yes, and no.
Since the introduction of proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament we have all been voters in mega-constituencies, which in Greater London means nine MEPs representing 7.5 million people. We elect them, and they disappear off the radar.
How many of your readers have any idea who the candidates in their constituency are? The introduction of list voting has severed any link with the electorate. Until this democratic deficit is redressed, most people will feel it's simply not worth putting themselves out to vote.
Anthony Lipmann (letter, 19 May) accuses members of the EU Commission of behaving like dictators. The reality is that the Commission may propose new legislation, but only the Council of Ministers and Parliament may pass the laws. The former comprises ministers from the 27 member states, while the Parliament members are all directly elected.
If the Parliament does not represent the people, that is largely due to the failure of too many of them to bother to vote.
Why do I so often see the adjective "boring" used as a catch-all withering criticism? I would like to point out to Anthony Lipmann that to call the EU boring is not a valid criticism, because it is not a part of the EU's remit to be entertaining.
Bring back the gentlemen MPs
It is being said that the House of Commons must stop operating like a gentlemen's club.
When the Commons actually was a gentlemen's club, between the Great Reform Act and the 1960s, it was remarkably free of greed, graft and grandiosity. The rot set in with the advent of a new "Westminster class" – wholly divorced from their constituencies, utterly dependent upon party, remorselessly whipped . . . and mostly rising without trace from think-tank to Cabinet rank, before moving on to the City or the quango of their choice; and as that class has grown, so has the reputation of Parliament fallen.
If anything we need to return to the gentlemen's club of old, not create yet another quango to sanitise the stink of the existing swamp; an idea that would be risible if it were not a very real threat to those few freedoms and democratic rights the sorry crew at Westminster have left us in possession of.
It has been said that recent scandals have put our democracy at risk. The truth is that it has been at risk for a very long time.
At one time our member of Parliament was a local person who had won local respect sufficiently for them to be proposed as a candidate by local people. They had primarily earned that respect in a field other than politics. Once elected, they owed some loyalty to their central party, but they did not owe their presence in Westminster solely to the central party hierarchy.
Now the central party machine dictates who may be considered by a local party selection committee; the electorate votes for a total stranger drafted in from Lord knows where. As likely as not these people have spent most of their lives steeped in party politics and have little knowledge of local concerns.
When elected these people are then in the situation of having to pay for having a home in their constituency, often keeping their "home" home. They then also have to have a home near to Westminster. They owe a much greater loyalty to the central party than to their constituents and, if their party falls from favour and the next election is lost, they return to Lord knows where and do not have to live among the community that they may have let down.
In these circumstances fiddling becomes more likely.
In his statement to the House on Tuesday, Speaker Martin said: "Since I came to this House 30 years ago I have always felt that this House is at its best when it is united. In order that unity can be maintained . . ."
No wonder the House of Commons is supine and has failed to hold the executive to account if the Speaker of the House for the last nine years thinks that it is "at its best when it is united". Has he not missed completely the point of a representative democracy?
Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute
On the subject of the expenses scandal, Speaker Martin said to his fellow members of Parliament: "We must all accept the blame.". That is quite untrue.
The Speaker should confine his blame to those who are blameworthy, starting with the Fees Office, who have been giving the green light to the absurd claims which have filled the media. He may not blame all MPs. Mine, Glenda Jackson, has an unimpeachable record on expenses, and so has my nearest neighbouring MP, Sarah Teather.
Many MPs have attempted to excuse their collective behaviour on expenses by the assertion that they are underpaid.
In the long-ago 1970 general election I was a Labour Party candidate. Then, as now, people often said to me on the doorstep: "You politicians are just in it for the money."
At the time I'd been a full professor in a British university for a year, and I could reply truthfully that if I were elected to Parliament the following week I would lose about 20 per cent of my salary. Now, though, MPs have a salary 50 per cent more than I was ever paid in my professorial career and are given largely unfettered access to an expense account undreamt of in my profession. My question is, how much do they think they are worth, and how much do we, the electorate, consider is appropriate?
My own answer is that I am prepared to accept that some of them may work harder than a professor, but I doubt that most of them work harder than a general practitioner. On average, when elected, MPs are not as well qualified as either of these.
These comparisons suggest that a reasonable salary might be around £70,000, but any expenses allowed should be under Internal Revenue rules, which normally include the proviso that an expense is strictly necessary for the performance of professional duties.
Above all, the ability of Parliament to determine its own salary increases and expense procedures must be ended.
Emeritus Professor of Physics at the Open University, Oxford
It is all very well for us to clean out the Augean stables of stinking corruption that our MPs are wallowing in, but that will not correct the fundamental flaw of our government. It is run by lawyers, trained to argue from any point of view.
Meanwhile, sea levels rise, bees die out, we sprinkle the sands of the Middle East with depleted uranium, we invest in bigger and bigger cars, rain forests are cut down while we sit in hardwood chairs counting the numbers of moths, butterflies and beetles in our colour supplements before they become extinct. Until there are some scientists in government we are doomed.
Circumcision without consent
Jeremy Laurance starts his article "Should all baby boys be circumcised?" (Life, 19 May) with the words, "If you were the parent of a baby boy and were told a minor operation could provide him with protection against three diseases . . . ." This highlights one of the highly charged areas that surround circumcision. The diseases that the hypothetical baby boy will be at best only partially protected from cannot possibly be caught, or transmitted, until he becomes sexually active, so what is the rush?
I think it is that the hypothetical parent does not trust that their son, when he reaches puberty and has the capacity to review the evidence, and the ability to give informed consent, will make the decision that they would like him to make. The hypothetical son may just decide it is a lot easier and safer to wear a condom.
Parents still think they have rights equivalent to ownership of children, when what they have is a duty of care. Parents do not have a right to demand, and doctors have no right to perform, an operation that is "not medically necessary".
The mad rush for biofuels
In your article "The Guilty Secrets of Palm Oil" (2 May) you state, "Conservationists are increasingly wondering whether the wholesale destruction of rainforests to make margarine is the most striking of all examples of environmental lunacy". No, the most striking example is the deforestation being incentivised by so-called "green" biofuels, which, in the case of palm oil grown on deep peatland, can cause 30 times more emissions than it saves, peatland that may have shielded such endangered megafauna as you describe.
To maintain the lunacy, more than a million tonnes of palm oil were used for bioenergy in the EU in 2005; and under UK government guidance, palm oil grown on deep peatland can be labelled as making an emissions saving.
Even worse, the EU Renewable Energy Directive passed last December will force nearly 10 per cent of forecourt fuel in member states to be biofuel by 2020, force member states to inform the public of the environmental benefits of biofuels, even where there are none, and force them to promote some palm oil grown on deep peatland as making an emissions saving.
According to Nasa, peatland in Borneo alone stores the equivalent of nine years of global fossil-fuel emissions.
Anne Watson (letter, 20 May) is right to demand "How dare the BNP use a photo of an RAF Spitfire on their election propaganda leaflets?" The BNP is undoubtedly supported by some who admire Hitler's Germany and what it stood for. For such people to associate themselves with the Spitfire is a contradiction impossible for them to reconcile.
Walsham le Willows, Suffolk
Sensible but illegal
I agree with Kristin Scott (letter, 19 May) that it's not wrong for children to "meet together every morning, to listen to stories, discuss morality, to sing together and to spend a short time in quiet contemplation" – and this is what many sensible schools do. The problem is this worthwhile practice is illegal, and head teachers are sometimes censured for it. By law what they are supposed to be doing is an act of worship "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".
Kingston upon Thames, Surrey
I don't know where Nic Granda-Barton gets his French from (letter, 12 May). I get mine from France. Criquet is not an old French word meaning "post" or "wicket". It is the current French for "locust". There is no documented evidence for a 15th-century game called "criquet". The exact origin of the name of the sport is unknown.
Keighley, West Yorkshire
You report (19 May) that Sadiq Khan, Minister for Community Cohesion, has met Saudi officials and discussed how they might "work with British [Muslim] scholars in potentially exciting ways". Presumably this means making it even easier for them to spread their anti-Semitic and anti-secular Wahhabist doctrines among British Muslims. Mr Khan would have been better employed in explaining to the Saudis how our civil servants could work with their imams in exciting ways to explain how pluralism and free speech can promote a better understanding of the position of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia.
Fit of the grumps
Chris Evans doesn't know if he's got to the "grumpy old man" stage of life when he complains about "the large number of inconsiderate beings who drag their wheelie-cases behind them through crowded places like railway stations, creating a lethal trip hazard" (letters 19 May). Sorry, but yes, he has.
Shoreham-by-sea, West Sussex
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