Letters: Proportional representation

Proportional representation would be bad for Britain
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The Independent Online

You imply in your leading article (30 December) that proportional representation would solve the problem of "safe seats", elections decided by a small number of voters because such seats are held by one party, seemingly in perpetuity. But with PR, election outcomes can be determined by even fewer voters, with governments often formed on wafer-thin majorities.

As a citizen of the only nation other than Malta to use the single transferable vote form of PR – arguably the most proportional form – many of PR's other failings are manifest: the national interest is subordinated to the local because of the aforementioned narrow margins of victory, governments are held hostage by a gang of backbenchers, demanding preferential treatment for their constituencies as a ransom.

Our Minister for Justice from 1993-94, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, for example, was found by a High Court judge to have, in effect, abused her power of pardon in overturning or mitigating thousands of punishments and sentences simply to please constituents of various TDs.

Taken prima facie, the proportionality of PR makes it seem more democratic; again, this is a myth. In the UK, the 2005 election, won with little more than 35 per cent of the vote, is an example of how undemocratic first-past-the-post is. With PR, coalitions are the norm, and administations with strange bedfellows can be formed with the approval of only 5 to 10 per cent of the people. Which is more democratic?

If the UK were to go for PR, the resultant apathy over big issues in favour of local ones on the part of MPs and the inevitable political instability, with no party able to command a majority, would conspire to sap desire for reform and cement the neoliberal status quo, which is what Britain needs like a hole in the head.


Lismore, Co Waterford, Ireland

Danger of military action in Yemen

So Yemen is the new Afghanistan? (Patrick Cockburn, 4 January). Maybe it is, but there is something fundamentally wrong with our thinking if we insist that Yemen (the poorest country in the Middle East) poses a security threat to the West.

There are certainly groups with "terrorist intent" in Yemen but if we start military action, inevitably involving "collateral damage", even more hatred will be spawned. The net result for the West will be that al-Qa'ida attracts even more recruits. They could even move and use some other hapless country as their new base.

In Yemen, the money and the know-how to make sophisticated bombs does not exist, so those resources are being brought in from other countries. Considering that most of the 9/11 bombers were Saudis, and that most of Yemen's border is with Saudi Arabia, my suspicion falls squarely there.

But because Saudi Arabia is a key oil-producer and is considered a "friend", they are immune from all measures. We need their oil for our cars, our planes and our consumerist life-style. Our reckless consumption of that oil feeds the coffers of both despotic governments and various figures who trade with the West but sympathise with radical groups. So the West's oil dollars fund terrorism.

Intensive military action in Yemen will serve only to radicalise the problem and, with Yemen having a border with Saudi Arabia, we could find that this time the situation boils over, and oil-producing Gulf states become seriously destabilised. That would have an extremely serious global impact.

Alan Mitcham

Cologne, Germany

The decision by the US and UK governments to close their embassies in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa (report, 4 January), has set a negative precedent, and will be perceived as a victory of the terror forces against the world's foremost superpowers. On one hand, US and UK administrations announce increased monetary and military assistance to Yemen to bolster the fight against al-Qa'ida; on the other, they close their embassies, fearing an imminent attack from the same terror group.

The stated reason for closing is to safeguard the lives of the embassy personnel, but the message that has gone out is that when these two countries, at the forefront of the so called "War on Terror" for the past eight years, cannot protect their own small sovereign territories and personnel, how committed and effective will their effort be against the world's most dangerous and feared terrorist organisation. Close on the heels of the failed terror attack on Christmas Day on a US passenger plane, and a suicide attack on a covert CIA base in Afghanistan on 30 December, which killed at least seven top CIA operatives, demonstrating abject security and intelligence failures, the decision to shut the embassies seems to be an act of desperation by the two unsure and demoralised governments.

Amitabh Saxena

DUBAI, United Arab Republic

It is difficult to understand how any person working at an airline check-in desk could wave someone through who had a single ticket and no luggage.

It has been alleged that the CIA knew both the nationality and the originating departure point of the attacker: does this mean that someone in the CIA is running a separate operation to force the USA into another war, knowing that had this been successful all hell would have broken loose?

M Harrison

Wallsend, Tyne and Wear

As the United States now has another poverty-stricken Muslim country in its sights, Patrick Cockburrn's excellent and timely article omits one point.

When Yemen voted at the UN against the 1991 onslaught on Iraq, the US ambassador is said to have told his Yemeni counterpart, "That is the most expensive vote ever made". US aid of $70m to Yemen was promptly cancelled. Given the military mire in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems the elephant neither learns, nor forgets.

Felicity Arbuthnot

London E9

I would like more details on the safety of the scanners to be used on airport passengers. On 16 December, the University of California report said CT (CAT) body scans used in hospitals could cause cancer in as many as one in 80 participants, and that just one body scan can give off radiation equivalent to having 442 chest X-rays.

This research was led by Professor Rebecca Smith-Bindman and was published in Archives of Internal Medicine. She concluded that CT scans can be lifesavers for sick patients but, because of the high radiation emissions, should not be used on healthy people just for routine check-ups. The scans may well be safe, but we need more details.

A Wills

Ruislip, Middlesex

Nick Daber (letters, 4 January) believes that "those wishing to travel by air must be prepared to subject themselves to whatever security measures are deemed necessary".

I am reminded of the following passage from Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies: "From the next room, came the shrieks and yells of poor Miss Runcible, who had been mistaken for a well-known jewel smuggler, and was being stripped to the skin by two terrific wardresses."

Pure fantasy? Possibly it was, in 1930, but maybe this is what lies in store in 2010.

Nick Chadwick


Well, we're sort of Christian

Your correspondent asks if Britain is a Christian country (letters, 24 December). The British Social Attitudes Survey showed 74 per cent of Britons belonged to a religion and attended services in 1964, but only 31 per cent did so in 2005. The Tearfund report, Churchgoing 2007, stated that 15 per cent of the [then] population (7.6 million) were regular attendants at Anglican church with a further 10 per cent (five million) as "Fringe/Occasional" attendees.

In the 2001 census, 70 per cent ticked the "Christian" box but church attendance is below 7 per cent and an Ipsos MORI poll of November 2006 showed 36 per cent of people – equivalent to 17 million adults – are not religious in their basic outlook.

May I suggest that we are a nominally Christian country?

Simon Allen

Watford, Hertfordshire

Ryanair is tricky, but it's good

On whose behalf does the Office of Fair Trading (" 'Puerile' Ryan-air under attack by OFT chief", front page, 4 January) pour scorn upon some of the foibles of the Ryanair operation? Surely it cannot be for people like me, who for several years have benefited from the most affordable and, in my experience, most reliable low-cost air travel available in the market place.

This last Christmas, circumstances forced me to abandon a booking with Ryanair and make one with a rival, a subsidiary of BA. I paid almost twice the price and had to wait two and a half hours for my baggage in Milan. Travelling with Ryanair may not be without irritations but fair play insists they be given due credit for the remarkable service they provide.

James Lawton

Higher Kinnerton, Flintshire

What could be simpler than requiring airlines not to charge passengers more than the advertised fare regardless of the means by which they chose to buy their ticket? So why hasn't the Government enacted such a measure long ago? It is hardly a contentious one.

Including fuel surcharges and airport taxes as part of the advertised price would make the process much more transparent, and perhaps even divert passengers to other cheaper or less-polluting travel.

We might then see a move from Ryanair's tricky advertisements for "free" flights to dubious ones indicating how the discerning can get cheaper flights and more privileges than the average thicko.

Roger Chapman

Keighley, West Yorkshire

The sea eagle was native to Britain

I have excavated the bones of white-tailed eagles from Bronze Age sites and Anglo-Saxon settlements (letters, 29 December). And there are numerous places in England which, including Earley in Berkshire, take their names from this magnificent bird. How much more native can you get?

Archaeological and anecdotal evidence indicate that white-tailed eagles, a close relative of America's national emblem, the bald eagle, succumbed to the pressure of a rapidly rising human population about the time of the First World War.

Parakeets are not native to Britain. Today, mobs of them screech through Greenwich Park in London with such elan that they might have been raised in the Alfred Hitchcock School for Birds.

David Miles

London SE3

Going, going, gong

As the absurdity of the New Year's Honours list with gongs for the mostly not-so-worthy-but-well-placed-and-positioned becomes apparent, isn't it time for abolition of the list and its replacement, if there must be one, with a civic award more appropriate for a parliamentary democracy in the 21st century?

Keith Flett

London N17

Unfair to Clegg

When Bruce Anderson refers to Nick Clegg (Comment, 4 January) as being "only about a quarter British", he is not only insulting but being unfair. Winston Churchill, Michael Howard, and Michael Portillo among the Tories and Patricia Hewett, Peter Hain and Gisela Stuart for Labour, and Lembit Opik for the Lib Dems can chart part if not all of their ancestry from beyond these shores. Our political system has been the better for their presence.

John Marriott

North Hykeham, Lincoln

Sweden's howler

The Swedish parliament has decided there should be no more than 210 wolves in their country. At present, there are 27 too many. Now, some 10,000 "hunters" are preparing to cull the excess. There are 9.2 million people in Sweden. So far, the wolves seem to have decided to leave them alone.

David Gibbs

London SW4

BBC backtrack

The BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson, claimed in his Radio 4 interview with P D James (report, 1 January) that the BBC had to pay high salaries to keep the right people. He said the Controller of BBC1 took a pay cut when she moved back to the BBC from the commercial sector. Some contradiction there, surely?

Nick Allen


Blame supermarkets

In your leading article, "A national drinking problem" (2 January), no mention was made of supermarkets selling beers, wine and spirits at drastically discounted prices. A lot of binge-drinking problems can be attributed to this.

Andrew Morley


No Straw man

Jack Straw's comments about police (report, 1 January) are substantiated by new figures about what some officers do in "work-time". Apparently, more than 400 police have been sacked or given written warnings for looking at grossly inappropriate – and obscene – material on their police computers.

Godfrey H Holmes

Somersall, Chesterfield