Letters: Perspectives on the constitution

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Political theatre of the absurd

Black Rod was rigid with puffed-up pomp as he battered the Commons door closed so sternly in his face, with the cry of "Strangers!" reverberating round the corridors.

Their Lordships and Ladyships waited in ermine-robed ceremony while Dennis Skinner quipped sneeringly and other MPs grinned in perplexed indulgence as they finally gave way to the arcane proceedings that required one of their number to be held hostage at the Palace drinking sherry throughout.

Elizabeth II and her consort arrived in one immaculately gilded horse-drawn coach, her crown in another and the mace in another still – all accompanied by cavalry in medieval-looking breastplates – as the Queen's State opening of Parliament got under way with the inauguration of the first coalition government of her long reign.

Prince Philip even peered theatrically into the Lord Chancellor's purse ... as if he's ever going to suffer from the swingeing cuts in public spending on the way, or have to hustle for the odd half million like his "poor" old ex-daughter-in-law Fergie.

And the taxpayer is paying the lot of them good money to carry on like this. But, I ask you, is costume-drama government any way to front a 21st-century European democracy any longer?

John Haran,Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

What's wrong with simple democracy?

Oh dear, in their attempts to avoid simple election to the Upper House by the electorate the alternatives suggested by your recent correspondents appear to get madder by the day.

If we are to have election only by specialist bodies such as lawyers, who decides who those groups are going to be? Are we only going to have the usual professions – lawyers, economists – or should we widen it to include the butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker? These days virtually everyone is in a profession of some sort, everyone has some expertise. Who makes the decision about whom to leave out?

Let's make it simple: one person, one vote seems to work for all the world's democracies.

Mark Thomas, Histon, Cambridgeshire

Fewer people, more hope

Dominic Lawson attacks Jeremy Irons for talking about population, and says actors should stick to acting ("Spare me lectures from deluded actors", 25 May).

Falling birth rates offer a wonderful opportunity for developed countries, and hope for developing ones. If only we had a falling population here in the UK, we might look forward to a time when new house building overtook demand, and even middle-income young people could afford a home.

At last we might stop the relentless destruction of our farmland and countryside, of our green spaces and wild areas. We might find room for our cities to breathe. We might find room on the London Tube to sit down, and somewhere in our towns and country to pause a moment to listen to the birdsong, that was beyond the noise of a busy road.

We might even become a society that valued all its children to the point where our social services, Childline, the NSPCC, and Barnardos, found they were able to give all the help that was needed to all the children in need.

In the developing world, the struggling poor want and need family planning, to be able to concentrate their limited resources in good nutrition, education and healthcare of small families, rather than struggling to barely even feed large ones.

Reducing birth rates is a story of health, wealth and happiness, and of hope. The people of the world are showing their common sense in having smaller families, and their hope in the future. They need help and encouragement, not the curmudgeonly carping of columnists like Dominic Lawson.

Chris Padley, Market Rasen, Lincolnshire

Dominic Lawson provides a fairly typical traditional economist's response to Jeremy Irons' fairly typical celebrity angst.

Among all the claims and counter-claims that characterise the debate on the economy and the environment only two facts seem certain: the Earth (on any meaningful measure) has finite resources; but traditional economics demands infinite economic growth. A subsidiary fact is that, to date, economic growth has been correlated with a consumption of natural resources.

The traditional economist must then explain how to divorce growth from consumption. This has not been achieved. Placing a bet that "technology will get us out of it" runs contrary to all historical evidence and seems, at best, an irresponsible punt.

On the other hand, those who advocate "sustainability" must explain how we are to achieve such a state of affairs, given not just our penchant for pink castles and Range Rovers but also deep human desires such as exploring space and the desire to travel and invent and experience new things.

Neither Lawson nor Irons has any idea how to achieve any of this. Neither do I. This is a subject on which we are still still trying to establish the premises. Before we can do this, all arguments and counter-arguments are worthless.

Carl Gombrich, London N3



Dominic Lawson is quick to criticise Jeremy Irons' initiative to lead or inform people about green matters. He might also make a positive suggestion.

Who should lead and inform on the behaviours required to live within the planet's resources and to know the social consequences of our purchasing decisions?

Since politicians require the support of voters, and businesses will not stray too far ahead of their customers, it is an informed and motivated electorate and shopping public that we need. Do we listen to politicians and business people telling us what to do?

Perhaps celebrities have a role to play. Most of all however, they need to live the values. Seven houses seems too many, but I don't begrudge Jeremy his pink castle.

Jake Backus, Oxford



"Why can't actors stick to acting?" asks Dominic Lawson, attacking Jeremy Irons for declaring himself a green campaigner. Well absolutely. Dominic Lawson is a newspaper columnist and he quotes two books that support his world view. Compared to that, Jeremy Irons is just an amateur, spouting off. Who does he think he is?

David Woods, Hull, East Yorkshire

Space shuttle: end of a dream



A piece of history was played out quietly in the Florida Keys this week, but it is doubtful that many people noticed. The return of a space shuttle to Earth will soon be the stuff of legend, as all the orbiters in the fleet are due to retire by the end of the year. As with the mighty Saturn V rocket, we will not see their like again.

The shuttles, the most complex machines ever built, have made possible some of the most staggering engineering feats in human history, including the construction of the international space station and the repair of the Hubble telescope.

With a successor to these wonderful spacecraft not even on the drawing board, those of us who are watching events at the Kennedy Space Centre are seeing nothing less than the death of an American dream, and perhaps the end of any chance humanity may have of exploring other worlds in the solar system. From an evolutionary point of view this could be an irreversible mistake, given what a hash we are making of the one planet we can live on.

Mark Stewart, Tolworth, Surrey



Steps towards the Big Society



Among all the waffle coming from the Cameron-Clegg government about power to the people and the Big Society, there's been no mention of the one tangible measure that would give people more democratic control over their lives: that is proportional representation for local government elections.

Back in the mid-Nineties, when the Major government was at its most unpopular, I had the privilege of representing my ward in Harpenden for the Liberal Democrats at both district and town (parish) level. Now, the tide has turned and the town has reverted to all-blue.

There is not a single non-Tory councillor representing a ward in Harpenden at any of the three levels of local government – county, district or town. Unless you support the Conservatives, it's a waste of time turning up to vote.

Yet there is still a large body of support in the town for the Lib Dems and significant support for both Labour and the Greens. On the basis of proportionality, a fair distribution of the 16 seats on the town council would be nine Conservatives, five Lib Dems and the other two either Labour or one each for Labour and the Greens. Instead, we have all 16 filled by the Conservatives.

If the Government is serious about devolution of power to the local level, then surely a proportionately constituted local authority would have stronger democratic credentials to take over local services than an anonymous, unelected group of self-interested parents, NHS patients or whatever, which seems to be what the Government is advocating.

John Coad, Harpenden, Hertfordshire



From the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, there existed something akin to the structures postulated in the Conservative Party's "Big Society": there was mass membership of mutual-aid organisations such as friendly, building and co-operative societies.

Over the past half century, leading figures in the employ of insurance companies, banks and supermarkets have successfully persuaded legislators to impede mutuality to the point that much of it has withered away.

Back in 1793, William Wilberforce helped to draft the first Friendly Societies Act. Two hundred years later, his parliamentary successors helped to abolish the post of Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies, ushering this part of the Yorkshire MP's legacy out of the mainstream. Good luck to those politicians now proposing a revival.

Richard Lister, Halifax, West Yorkshire



Legal and illegal limits to taxation



Pete Dorey (letter, 25 May) suspects that the answer to the question why the coalition does not reduce the public deficit by clamping down on tax evasion and avoidance rather than cutting public services, is that tax avoidance and evasion are crimes of the wealthy.

He should get out more. Tax avoidance is not fraud. It is arranging one's affairs in such a way as legally to reduce one's tax liabilities. There is scope to save over £1,000 in tax even for someone owning and running a company and taking as little as £15,000 a year out of it. If the company's accountant did not advise how to do so, he or she could be sued for negligence.

Evasion, on the other hand, which is fraudulent, is associated in the public mind with the plumber, gardener or jobbing builder who offers a discount for payment in cash, as much as it is with the rich salting undeclared income away in tax havens. Neither activity is the exclusive preserve of the wealthy.

The problem with avoidance is that, once detected, it has to be countered by changing the law, a process which has led to ever-lengthening Finance Acts and a tax system which has become well-nigh incomprehensible. The highly imaginative and intelligent minds that devise ways of exploiting the loopholes are always one step ahead of the civil servants who devise ways of blocking them, and probably always will be.

The problem with evasion is, quite simply, detecting and quantifying it. Even with the expanded powers granted by the last government, the investigating officers of H M Revenue and Customs cannot hope to detect all tax evasion and to recover the tax evaded with interest and penalties.

Rather than indulge in conspiracy theories, Mr Dorey may wish to reflect that in the present situation no amount of effort to increase the proportion of tax chargeable that is actually collected will fill the gap in the public finances without cutting public services. There is no way to tackle the economic crisis through taxation and efficiency savings alone, and cuts in public services are inevitable.

Jonathan G Atkinson, Whitby, North Yorkshire



Struggling to scrap my boiler



The Boiler Scrappage Scheme would seem to be an ideal epitaph for our late unmourned government. At first contact it appears smooth, speedy and efficient, but when it comes to actually delivering the £400 grant towards your newly installed boiler, the clunking fist of bureaucracy takes over.

Once you have sent in your invoice and claim coupon, the grant administration team need "25 [working] days" to process it. When those days have passed and no money has appeared, the telephone helpline is permanently bereft of advisers "due to unprecedented volume of calls".

If you resort to emailing a request for information, an automated response assures you that your query will be answered within "five [working] days".

Eventually you discover that after the grant administration team have had their allotted time, the finance team then require a further 21 days to effect the transfer to your bank, so by now two months have elapsed. Try explaining to your plumber why he must wait two months for the last £400 of his bill.

Perhaps the Energy Saving Trust will be among the first in line for a severe shaking of the lapels from our new coalition crew?

Stephen Clarke, Brighton



Entrapment a legitimate tool?

It's sad that as experienced and perceptive a commentator as Stephen Glover, writing about the Triesman and Fergie stories, finds both to be acceptable examples of journalistic practice (Media Studies, 24 May). But there are clear differences which he seems to ignore.

Lord Triesman is a prominent businessman who made comments, which he had not intended should be made public, to a friend. More fool him, but there is no suggestion that he has been misquoted or misrepresented. The only deception is that his friend did not tell him she intended to make their conversation public. He's not the first, nor will he be the last.

Stephen Glover is wrong in saying that no one gives a fig for Fergie (otherwise there wouldn't be a story). The "businessman"who offered her £500,000 was nothing of the sort; he was a News of the World reporter. The contents of their conversation were a sham, the intention of which was to humiliate Fergie and, by association, her ex-husband and his family. A silly woman was provoked into making ridiculous remarks – as who wouldn't if £500,000 was said to be on offer?

If this sort of entrapment is "a perfectly valid tool" to what justifiable end was this tool being used?

Anthony Bramley-Harker, Watford, Hertfordshire



The length of a sea monster



Guy Keleny cannot explain how a sea snake could sensibly be described as "about 129ft" long (Errors and Omissions, 22 May), and Franz von Habsburg (letter, 25 May) surmises it is a conversion from some other unit.

A quick Google finds an interview on the website SteamShovelPress.com with one of the authors of the 2003 book, Strange Secrets: Real Government Files on the Unknown, which is still in print. In the interview, the author quotes the report in more detail, showing that Captain Stockdale had used features of his vessel to estimate the length.

"About 5pm all at once while I was walking on the poop my attention was drawn to the water on the port bow by a scuffling noise. Judge my amazement when what should stare us all in the face as if not knowing whether to come over the deck or to go around the stern – but the great thundering big sea snake! My ship is 171 feet long overall – and the foremast is 42 feet from the stern, which would make the monster about 129 feet long."

David Gould, Forton, Hampshire



Franz von Habsburg's suggestion about an unknown unit being used to estimate the sea-monster's length to an equivalent 129ft is ingenious – but surely not chains or furlongs at sea? The nearest I think appropriate is the perch (one perch equals 16ft 6in, although varying locally) but, alas, the perch is a freshwater fish.

Malcolm Addison, Woodbridge, Suffolk



I am perplexed as to why the measurement of the sea monster from 1830 was not converted into the more usual unit as used by newspapers, the football pitch. By my calculation, this monster was about a third of a football pitch long.

Brian Moore, Exeter



Wise words

I have every reason to be grateful to Alan Watkins ("A romantic at heart", 25 May). For many years Stuart Barnes's rugby commentary irritated me beyond belief. Then I read an article by Alan Watkins in which he described the commentator as "master of the baroque simile". Now, when I know Stuart Barnes is commentating, I sit in front of the television in keen anticipation – and not just of the match.

Richard MacAndrew, Reading

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