Sir: In comparing Gordon Brown to Harold Wilson, Steve Richards (3 June) is deeply unfair to Harold Wilson.
The gritty Yorkshireman held together a Labour Party which in the 1960s did not seem to want to be united: it was split between left and right down to ward level. Brown, the sensitive Scot, inherited a disciplined party which is now in open revolt. Wilson unified and delivered, winning four election victories in 10 years, one more than Margaret Thatcher.
By the age of 27, working in wartime London, Wilson had a staff of 270. He knew how to run a government department well, and with good humour. His supporters and enemies agreed that he was a thoroughly nice man who shrank from confrontations because he hated upsetting his colleagues. No one ever called him a Stalin.
Henry Kissinger marvelled at Wilson's love of the political game: "He was fascinated by the manipulation of political power." He scorned abstract ideas. Brown is supposed to be a deep thinker, but he has been unable to inspire us with any big ideas, while showing a degree of practical incompetence that would have aroused even placid Harold Wilson to fury.
Sir: I will not pass judgement on Gordon Brown, but refute the comments by Steve Richards about Harold Wilson. He calls Wilson "deliberately opaque, often frustrating friends and enemies".
The reforms that Harold Wilson piloted in the 1960s and 1970s largely remain. His premierships had more lasting impact than those of Thatcher.
Thanks to Wilson, we have the Equal Pay Act, racial equality legislation, the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the Abortion Act. Educational opportunity was extended, especially through the Open University. A massive public housing programme was implemented. The school-leaving age was raised to 16. The voting age was lowered to 18, extending the democratic process.
When asked by the US to commit British troops to America's war in Vietnam, Harold Wilson stood firm and refused. Commentators like Richards know what the contemporary comparison would be. Why doesn't he make it?
In party management, Wilson was a master. With fierce pro- and anti-Europe views raging in the party and in Cabinet, he allowed a free vote, and did not split his party.
Harold Wilson was a masterclass. I am proud to call myself a "Wilson woman". If he was now the inhabitant of No 10, he would lead from the top. As he said himself at a particularly pesky conference: "You want to know what's going on. I am going on." Listening, Gordon?
Peterborough (The writer was labour MP for Peterborough, 1997-2005)
Constant tinkering damages education
Sir: The National Foundation for Education Research is right to point out the extent to which teachers have to work outside their areas of expertise (report, 4 June). However, this situation has existed for a long time.
When schools are suffering constant change, matching the expertise of the staff to the requirements of the curriculum is almost impossible. It is not a neat and tidy world where, for example, the number of periods of German needed exactly matches the number of German specialist lessons available. It is almost inevitable that either the German specialists will end up filling their time-tables with other things or that some German will be taught by non-specialists. I have yet to meet a teacher who spent their career teaching only their specialism.
Matching expertise to demand is less difficult in over-subscribed schools, since the school does not change much in size from year to year. In unpopular schools with falling rolls, the problem is much worse. As the research shows, it is these schools which have the greatest difficulty.
The Government's obsession with choice does not help. Expanding a popular school is not just a matter of buildings. The creation of 30 extra places will require, in the first year, one-sixth of a mathematician, one-sixth of an English specialist, one-eleventh of a geographer, and so on. Big schools will have more flexibility than small schools, but few will manage without asking teachers to work outside their specialist area.
It is hopelessly idealistic to expect that every lesson will be conducted by a teacher with an appropriate degree, but the problem can be alleviated by being very much clearer about the aim of state education and by freeing schools from incessant political tinkering.
Thornton Hough, Merseyside
Sir: For the past 20 years politicians have interfered with schools and colleges (letters, 2 June). Their interference is now counter-productive. As recent international surveys have demonstrated, education in the UK is slipping back in comparison with other countries. A political cult of permanent revolution has proved disastrous.
Education is trapped between experts offering a growing mass of evidence of damage, and a political elite on both front benches who dismiss the facts. From the Select Committee criticism of the testing regime in England, to the Open Eye group concerns over damaging proposals to regiment vulnerable pre-school children, the Government and its advisers refuse to listen to reason.
The crisis is especially severe over exam reform and in the area of the new Diplomas. The head of the Edexcel exam board said in April that the plans were seriously problematic. The National Union of Teachers surveyed members and discovered alarming complaints of lack of training among those who have to deliver. Nevertheless, the Government has produced a strategy for 14-19 exams hinged on the assumption that Diplomas will work perfectly.
This document is now published and is out for consultation – but only for 10 weeks. The deadline has been set for 23 June. Highly controversial proposals need more rigorous scrutiny than the Government has allowed. Critics of the Government's approach are right to argue that a more inclusive way of developing policy is urgently needed. One element of this should be for the Government to extend the deadline on 14-19 exams to allow for a deeper consultation.
Images that lead to paedophile crimes
Sir: Dominic Lawson (Opinion, 30 May) comments on the proposal to criminalise possession of drawings and computer-generated images of child sex abuse. He writes: "The Government, in effect, is seeking to punish people for having disgusting private thoughts."
Once again, he ploughs his well-worn theme of the Nanny State intruding on freedoms, but his relentless championing of libertarian ideology betrays a total lack of understanding of how paedophiles exploit the most vulnerable members of society.
Specialists in the field of child sexual abuse have clearly demonstrated that the development of deviant thoughts among abusers is incremental and that abusers frequently use masturbation fantasies as a precursor for actual physical abuse. Can a sexual drawing of a child be used in such a way?
The point Dominic Lawson singularly fails to grasp is that it is not a case of "real crime" versus computer-generated images, but that all such activities are the product of the distorted thinking patterns that convince paedophiles that their actions are morally acceptable.
Hospices struggle to raise enough cash
Sir: The points raised by Dr Hoy and his colleagues (letters, 28 May) with regard to palliative care are well made – as far as they go. What they don't discuss is the pitifully inadequate financial support that hospices receive from government.
It costs East Cheshire Hospice well in excess of £5,000 a day to stay open. Of that, the local primary care trust gives 23 per cent. The remainder we have to generate for ourselves – a task akin to running up a down escalator, even with the help of some 400 devoted volunteers.
We embarked recently on a capital project that will transform our building (seven new single occupancy en-suite rooms, new treatment rooms, etc) and thus enhance the care and support we are able to provide for patients and their families. It will cost £4m, of which only £500,000 has come from government.
Until government recognises that hospices provide a vital service to local communities and contributes accordingly, hospices will continue to struggle.
Member of the Council of Trustees, East Cheshire Hospice, Sutton, Cheshire
What we can do about knife violence
Sir: The present outbreak of knife violence is horrifying, and there is probably nothing we can do about it in the short term.
But in the long term we can do plenty. Depictions of violence horrify some children but attract others, yet many films, adverts, video games and posters depict violence. This is not a deterrent to all children; some will think that is what adults approve of and do – just as depictions of promiscuous sex lead some to believe that that is what is expected of them when they grow up.
Things that shock tend to be a box-office success. Sometimes we have to sacrifice success and money for the sake of our children. Are we adult enough to do that?
'Feudal' chamber serves us well
Sir: The letter from Nigel Wilkins ("Feudal farce in House of Lords", 29 May) shows a lack of understanding of the function and value of the Upper House.
He finds it repulsive that the Lords can amend and reject legislation presented to it by the Commons. In fact, the Lords can, and frequently does, have its suggested amendments rejected by the Commons. However, such amendments are often adopted, simply because they are a great improvement on the original draft legislation passed by the Commons.
The vast array of expertise contained in the membership of the Upper House has given this country the finest revising chamber in the world. The chamber contains leading figures in business, law, religion, science, diplomacy and politics; a combination that would be unlikely to result from democratic elections.
The Lords in its present form serves this country well. To change or abolish this House would be to lose an important balance and check on the other.
How Muslim states hinder peace
Sir: Stan Brennan wonders what would make American Jews abandon their support for Israel (letter, 2 June). It might be more useful to ask what might make Muslim states and the Muslim diaspora abandon their unconditional support for Palestinian terrorism, their supply of weaponry and money to terrorists, their compensation schemes for the families of suicide bombers and, above all, their refusal to settle a single Palestinian refugee in their huge territories which run from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, thus condemning them to live for ever in refugee camps and perpetuating one of the major obstacles to peace.
If only they took a lesson from Israel, which in 1948 provided homes, jobs and dignity to those of the 700,000 Jews driven out of Arab countries who chose to come to Israel, there would have been peace decades ago.
Bet Shemesh, Israel
Sir: Donald Macintyre (23 May) suggests that the Hamas takeover of Gaza was by force. Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority in the 2006 election. Its actions have therefore been defensive, against an attempted coup by Israeli- and US-backed Fatah.
Britain should be supporting the Palestinian economy (since we messed it up in the first place) and talking to Hamas, not the rogue state of Israel. One reason progress remains elusive, and the Palestinians suffer the consequences, is the continued failure of the media to avoid Israeli spin.
No children, thanks
Sir: Virginia Ironside (Dilemmas, 2 June) writes: "Getting married means either that you are thinking of having children or that you already have children together and want to make the whole thing legal." Has she not heard of voluntarily childless married couples?
Lewes, East Sussex
Bad news for luddites
Sir: Hooray for science and hooray for genetic engineering. The news that a cheap treatment for malaria has been developed by employing genetic engineering (report, 4 June) should help to silence (or at least quieten ) the ill-informed rants from the "we don't want Frankenstein creations in our environment" mob. The same comfortable lot want to inhibit development of GM foods that would help feed the world's staving. Their luddite views should be resisted at every turn.
Festival of rugby
Sir: Thomas Sutcliffe was a day late going to rugby at Twickenham (2 June). The match between England and the Barbarians was unimportant, which is probably why the crowd used it more as a social occasion. How different from Saturday's Guinness Premiership final between Wasps and Leicester, which was a spectacle to behold – a world record crowd of 82,000 for a club match and a thrilling encounter between the game's most successful sides of the professional era. It was topped off by a rousing farewell by both sets of fans for one of rugby's greatest stars, Lawrence Dallaglio.
Sir: Nigel Cubbage (letter, 4 June) is out of touch. It is a legal requirement for retailers of television receiving equipment to provide to the TV Licensing agency the name and address of purchasers of such equipment. This has been the case for many years. The problem here is that his retailer should have explained this to him.
Sir: When Mark Steel (4 June) wondered how the mathematical concept of zero was expressed in the old days, he was indeed going back to ancient times. I think he'll find that in the last two games between Crystal Palace and Charlton, it was Palace who scored "a vague and undefined sense of emptiness".
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