It is said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Once upon a time, long ago, there was a Labour prime minister who was considered to be a slick, unprincipled operator. But he knew how to win elections. Three times he had performed this magic.
One day, quite unexpectedly, he resigned and left the job of prime minister to his heir apparent, a man who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer but, unfortunately, a man who did not know the trick of winning elections.
In his three years in the top job, this new prime minister tried hard to steer the country through a world financial crisis. Realising that he did not have the magic, election winning pixie dust of his predecessor, he was afraid to call an election, so he clung on to power until the last legal moment before he was forced to ask the voters to re-elect him. He lost heavily to the Conservatives, now being led by an energetic, reforming leader.
Soon after the election, the losing prime minister resigned leadership of his party and a new leader was to be chosen. Most of the Labour members of parliament wanted the natural successor to get the job. He was a gifted, intellectually brilliant, experienced, statesmanlike figure who was the only Labour MP actually to be feared by the formidable new prime minister.
As it was, the trade unions used a heavily biased electoral system to make sure that the job went to an unelectable bookish socialist of impeccable left-wing opinions and a complete lack of political streetfighting skills.
After this amiable but unworldly man took office, he found himself regularly outsmarted and ridiculed by his far more competent Tory adversary. So it was not too long before many of his party’s followers deserted him and formed their own gang. And it was to be a further 18 years before the Labour Party found another slick, cunning, political magician who knew the secret of how to bamboozle the people and win three elections.
And the moral of this story about Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, Healey and Foot? First, it is not possible for a left-wing socialist, backed by union power, ever to become prime minister. And second, now is the time to go down to the bookmaker and put money on David Cameron being re-elected prime minister in 2015.
It is obvious that Ed Miliband owes his victory entirely to the alternative vote system. So how could he in all conscience take advantage of a fairer electoral system himself, yet deny that same system to the wider electorate?
Given that he chose to wear a bold purple tie as he accepted the leadership, purple being the proud colour of the grassroots takebackparliament campaign in favour of the AV system, I take that as a signal that he means now to swing the support of the Labour Party fully behind electoral reform, and stop playing petty party blocking games.
Anything else would be rank hypocrisy, and a shoddy way to start off his incumbency.
Dr Stephen Bax,
How to beat the badger
Stuart Allan (Letters, 23 September) is quite right to point out the destruction caused by badgers. Besides making carpet rolls out of turf in grazing fields they cause havoc in soft-fruit fields and vegetable gardens. The cheapest and most successful deterrent is an electric fence.
A wire six to nine inches above ground level on insulated posts and powered by a cattle electric-fence unit is guaranteed to stop this miniature army tank in its tracks and, after nothing more than a tweak to its nose, send it scurrying back to its sett. Mr Allen’s nearest farmers’ store should be able to supply all the equipment at a cost of a lot less than a link-fence, with the bonus of less effort in erection.
My family has been living in this area for many generations; while I understand the sentiment expressed by Mr Allen, let us not forget how destructive these (human) creatures can be.
Wollaton Park, Nottingham
Our lives run by space clocks
Dr James Chin-Wen Chou and his colleagues are to be congratulated for the unprecedented accuracy of their experiment with atomic clocks (“Einstein’s theory is proved – and it is bad news if you own a penthouse”, 24 September), but as they acknowledge in their article in Science, they are not the first scientists to confirm Einstein’s prediction that clocks run more quickly at higher altitudes. The effect was first measured in the early 1970s using atomic clocks on airliners, and confirmed with greater accuracy later when such clocks were launched into space.
It is now part of mainstream science, and it even affects our everyday lives. Satellite navigation systems in commercial airliners and the familiar car sat-nav both rely on time signals transmitted from global positioning satellites orbiting the Earth at an altitude of about 20,000km.
These satellites carry ultra-precise atomic clocks, which run faster than their Earthbound counterparts by 38 thousandths of a second per day because of the effects predicted by Einstein.
This may not sound like much, but satellite navigation requires time signals a million times more accurate, so the clocks on board the satellites are deliberately built to run slow by exactly the right amount to compensate for Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Dr David Harper,
As I’m sure many others did, I enjoyed Steve Connor’s article about the latest experiment to confirm the general theory of relativity. But there is a very large flaw in the headline. Theories in physics can never be proved and this is taught early in most secondary schools as part of the science curriculum. Theories can only be disproved. Even the “laws” of physics are again only theories.
The experiment with the atomic clocks confirmed the theory, it didn’t prove it. As an example, the theory of relativity cannot explain galaxy rotations where the stars are at the edge of the galaxy, assuming all the mass is made of atoms and particles we have discovered. This is why the theory of dark matter arose as well as the MOND theory. Gravity is thought to behave differently at different scales and only one of those can be measured on Earth or, indeed, in our solar system.
Auckland, New Zealand
Case for peace in the Holy Land
Johann Hari’s interview with Gideon Levy is the most powerful case for peace with justice in the Holy Land that I have read in a British newspaper for many years (“Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel, or just the most heroic?”, 24 September).
It should be compulsory reading for everyone who occupies a position on either side of the conflict as well as those who claim to be neutral. When the injustices meted out against the Palestinians by Israel’s occupation are described so clearly and passionately, silence is no longer an option. Many thanks.
Senior Editor, 'Middle East Monitor',
I must congratulate you on Johann Hari’s article on Gideon Levy. Profoundly moving, beautifully written and uplifting despite the gloomy outlook, it’s the very stuff of what makes journalism so important. Thank you.
East Molesey, Surrey
I was pleased to see Israel’s treatment of Palestinians referred to as apartheid. The Palestinians are most certainly treated as second class citizens in Israel, subject to different laws and policies from Jewish citizens and systematically disenfranchised by the government. Apartheid is the most accurate word to describe this two-tiered system of government and should be fearlessly used by the media and by all critics of Israeli repression.
Words have power; perhaps if we all referred to the Israeli government as an apartheid state it would come to seem as indefensible as it actually is.
Ellen M Purton,
Arms firms not big employers
Keith Turner (Letters, 20 September), argues that we need an alternative defence policy. But Mr Miller sullies his argument by stating that military “defence” provides a “massive contribution” to the UK economy in terms of employment and manufacturing. It does not.
Since the early 1980s, armsrelated jobs have fallen from about 740,000 to 300,000. Arms exports employ a mere 0.2 per cent of the UK workforce and comprise just 1.5 per cent of total exports. Even this overstates their importance because about 40 per cent of the value of arms exports were imported in the first place. The benefits of the arms industry are reaped in the profits of the arms companies rather than the economy as a whole.
So-called defence jobs are rarely valuable in economic terms because they are few in number and their multiplier effects are limited. Jobs in health, education, transport and the arts bring tangible benefits and generate other employment. The engineering and scientific skills used in military industries would be better deployed in green industries.
Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT),
Milton poem linked to Dante
I read the attribution of a series of “bawdy” lines to the poet John Milton with great interest (report, 23 September). In fact, these lines have also previously been accredited to John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester, (1647–80), poet and courtier, as confirmed by The works of the Earls of Rochester, Roscommon, and Dorset; the Dukes of Devonshire, Buckinghamshire, &c. with memoirs of their lives, London, printed in 1731.
Interestingly, this poem could also have an earlier source in Dante. In a letter to the 19th-century antiquarian and collector Francis Douce (also in the Bodleian collection), Wilbraham wrote a letter suggesting that Rochester appeared to have “fished in the same source as Dante”, and compared the verse to a line in the Divine Comedy, “come d’un stizzo verde che corso sia) (etc) from the Inferno, Canto XIII, v.40, “As a green stick, which is burning at one end, / Sweats at the other end at the same time / And hisses as the steam goes out of it”.
Kathryn R Barush,
University of Oxford
Anaesthetic idea takes a whack
While entirely agreeing with Christina Patterson (Comment, 18 September) in her views on cosmetic surgery, I do take issue with her when she says “whacked with great doses of anaesthetic”. Nobody has been whacked with great doses of anaesthetic in this country for the past 50 years, not since the introduction of muscle relaxants to anaesthetic practice.
Anaethesia today consists of small doses of specificaction, short-acting drugs, sometimes supplemented with local anaesthetic techniques, which, by and large, have no residual effects. There are plenty of reasons to feel unwell after surgery – surgical trauma, haemorrhage, infection, potent analgesics and particularly morphine – but today it is rarely, if ever, the result of the (non-whacked) anaesthesia.
Formerly Consultant Anaesthetist at St Thomas's Hospital,
We're guarding the fish stocks
The independent, peer reviewed science behind every Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certificate provides the long-term sustainable assurance that Charles Clover seeks, provided they continue to meet the MSC standard (Letters, 10 September). Wild-capture fisheries are part of the natural environment and, as such, change constantly. Every fishery that receives an MSC certificate following a rigorous assessment has to undergo an annual audit and a further recertification process every five years. This ongoing and transparent process ensures that MSCcertified fisheries are sustainable for the long term. No other seafood eco-labelling programme requires the same level of stringent review and regular, independent reassessment.
Where the bar is set for determining sustainability can be a contentious issue. The MSC’s standard of a sustainable and well-managed fishery represents a broad scientific consensus, agreed between 1997 and 1999 by over 200 marine biologists, scientists, environmentalists and other stakeholders from around the world.
Chief Executive, Marine Stewardship Council,
After reading your “Philanthropists Past and Present” (24 September) I should point out that the last time I saw Titus Salt’s wonderful Saltaire township it was still on the banks of the River Aire in Yorkshire. Travelling to see it via Bristol would be a bit of a detour.
Burley In Wharfedale, West Yorkshire
Julie Burchill (Comment, 22 September) says women are too realistic to expect famous men they fancy to reciprocate. She is too young to remember, but when Paul McCartney married Linda Eastman, thousands of girls were devastated. They were convinced that he’d have married them, if only they had ever met.
Perspectives on education
There is no El Dorado
Gamesmanship if not downright corruption may threaten the integrity of our school examinations (Letters, 23 September). But no one should underestimate the problems of maintaining examination standards.
Standards need to be consistent between different examining bodies, between subjects, and over time. Within subjects, there may be a choice between different syllabuses. Syllabuses, questions and marking schemes must all be monitored to maintain equivalence. The work of large numbers of examiners for each paper has to be co-ordinated internally by a chief examiner, and monitored externally.
The traditional way of maintaining standards was to assume that, broadly speaking, each year’s pupils are about as capable as the previous year’s, and to award passes, credits or distinctions to about the same proportion of pupils each year.
This once almost universal kind of norm-referencing fell out of fashion because it begs so many questions. Criterion referencing became the new educational El Dorado, the mythical Colombian home of treasure beyond measure, an objective examination system to maintain the gold standard. Experience suggests that the cost of close monitoring by experts to secure a consistency as elusive as El Dorado would be as costly in its own field as the cost of Trident.
The cost of establishing and running the external examination system is already enormous. No schools outside the UK groan under such a weight of external examinations. As part of the Public Expenditure Review, Michael Gove might usefully turn his mind to zero budgeting. Building a school system from scratch, he might find that teacher assessments, lightly sampled, would be less cumbersome and less costly than external examinations, and no less reliable.
Secretary, Schools Council for Curriculum and Examinations, 1978-1983,
Double standards, not lower ones
The more I hear the way examinations are talked down by the private education system, the more I feel that they are trying to move the Government behind the IB to give themselves a tactical advantage with their students, and far less over the “standards” of any of the current examinations.
I fail to see how a decision by a school to take up an examination board that offers their students an advantage is a sign that the exam is inherently “easier” in the standards it requires.
The method of study, the breakdown of assessment methods and styles and the arithmetic of the marking systems can all affect pass rates, so choosing a particular exam board to suit their method and style of teaching is no more than the reaction of any sensible school, especially in the era of league tables.
Also, if we are supposed to throw up our hands in horror at examiners explaining to students how to pass exams, why is it good for private schools with links to universities to offer their students coaching on how to succeed in university interviews? This would seem to be double standards, not lowered standards.
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