Where rising house prices mean resentment and grief
Sir: You pose the question "Are rising house prices good or bad for the economy?" (The Big Question, 13 September).
It depends which economy you are talking about. If you are talking about the prosperous economies of the South that have annexed most lucrative economic activity over recent decades then it probably is. If you are talking about basket-economies based on low wages like Cumbria then it is a disaster. In the last decade two-bedroom cottages have gone from an average £30,000 to £150,000.
External pressure from wealthier buyers has expanded the Lake District problem to a county-wide problem. Second homers, retirees, speculators and buy-to-letters have descended on the county in hoards egged on by stories of cheap property and big profits. They have cleaned up but they have polluted the well for young and low-paid Cumbrians.
The dispossessed are not about to adopt the Welsh or Corsican solution to colonial exploitation but the well-spring of resentment is growing and unless real solutions based on rational prices for purchase and rent are forthcoming there will be grief.
Sir: I was staggered to find in your article that under the heading "Who benefits?" there was no mention of banks and other financial intermediaries.
While householders may get a psychological lift, it is only a real benefit if you sell and do not buy another house. On the other hand, as house prices rise, so do outstanding mortgage balances, in turn yielding higher income and profits for banks. Further, higher mortgages create lower disposable income and force householders to incur more debt.
Blair's disastrous foreign adventures
Sir: I congratulate Clare Short (Opinion, 14 September) on her summary of the depths to which our political system has sunk during the Blair administration.
She depicts a prime minister who has usurped the function of cabinet, taken us into disastrous foreign adventures, and in general shown characteristics of the foreign dictators he decries. I did not think the time would ever come when I would be thankful to the House of Lords for putting a brake on his worst excesses.
My only criticism of Clare Short is that she did not show the same courage as Robin Cook in resigning from government when we were being railroaded into an illegal war.
Sir: Francis Reilly writes in support of the "war on terror" that "many deaths would have resulted from America and Britain not meeting the threat of fundamentalist Islam head-on" (Letters, 12 September). This analysis misrepresents US and UK actions.
The invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with fighting fundamentalist Islam. It was a grab for control of Iraqi oil, and to set up a regional outpost that would support Israel. This action, more than any other, has radicalised many Muslims and created the very terrorism that Bush and Blair claimed to be fighting. They then used this reaction to attack our civil liberties to try to suppress domestic opposition.
These counterproductive policies have killed well over 100,000 innocent people in the Middle East, something Francis Reilly seems to regard as unimportant. And far from making us safer, we are all now more under threat than we were before. How many more must die before we put a stop to this criminal foreign policy?
Sir: James Goldman (letter, 9 September) misrepresents the argument that Blair is fuelling extremism.
Under international law occupying powers are responsible for the security and welfare of all those under occupation. So since Bush and his fanatical Armageddon-seeking administration destroyed all the apparatus of government in Iraq, they are responsible for the subsequent opening of the gates of hell: rape, murder, chemical weapons, torture and sexual degradation in prison, arbitrary mass arrests, economic pillaging, destruction - and that's just directly by the American occupiers.
Blair is also responsible as in his haste to hold on to America's coat-tails he has acted as the main cheerleader. Every single life lost in this unjust war is his moral responsibility as well as his buddy's. Injustice and oppression will radicalise a whole new generation of young men.
Sir: Andreas Whittam-Smith (11 September) has allowed his liberal instincts to oversimplify the question of the "war on terror". There is a war, because al-Qa'ida has waged it, in New York, Madrid, London, Baghdad, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Al-Qa'ida has a clear political objective, the creation of a pure Islamic state free from Western influences, covering the territory of the old Abbassid Caliphate at its greatest extent, and ruled by a theocracy.
Where his remarks make sense is in the observation that wars are not fought solely by military means. Since the only appeal of al-Qa'ida is ideological, Muslims across the world must be given an incentive to accept that the western and the Muslim worlds are interdependent.
This causes a problem, because many concepts of fundamentalist Islam are not compatible with western values. However, much more important is resolution of the extraordinary lack of objectivity and common-sense in our dealings with Muslims, especially over Israel. We cannot ask Iran to give up nuclear reprocessing when Israel has nuclear weapons. We cannot express horror at the threat of aircraft terrorism and not take action at the deaths of 1,000 Lebanese. We cannot object to Iraq invading Kuwait and allow Israel to seize Palestinian land.
If the West could make a serious effort to be a friend of the Muslim world, seeing matters far more from their point of view, we would have a much better chance of isolating the deluded fanatics of al-Qa'ida.
ANTHONY C PICK
Sir: Very laudable of Mr Blair to meet the families of kidnapped Israeli soldiers. I wonder how many families of our killed and wounded soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan has he met.
DR PERVEZ ZAHEER
The victory of GM technology
Sir: I would interpret the fact that GM crops are not being grown in England somewhat differently from the councillors from Norwich (Letters, 8 September) who believe it to be "a real victory" achieved by "the green movement and all sensible people who believe in the precautionary principle".
It is highly probable that history will show that most "sensible people" may reside in the more than 20 countries across the world (including at least three in Europe) which are cultivating GM crops on a billion acres of land. Furthermore, the "victory", if it occurs, will probably be classified as pyrrhic as the millions farmers and scientists in the Americas and Asia now growing and developing "GMs" will find themselves at the head of the queue in an innovative industry which will do much to solve the serious problems of population growth, climate change and the loss of fossil fuels.
The most severe form of the precautionary principle, which if applied, would stop any developing industry in its tracks, has been adopted by the green movement to target biotechnology. All who read widely and understand the literature on GM technology must now conclude that the probability that with stringent safeguards in place, the possibility that GM foods will harm human beings is extremely remote. No significant environmental damage has so far occurred and it is unlikely that it will.
PROFESSOR EMERITUS SCHOOL OF BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES ROYAL HOLLOWAY, UNIVERSITY OF LONDON, EGHAM, SURREY
Generals who rose from the ranks
Sir: Hector MacDonald ("Pride and prejudice", 12 September) remains one of only two British generals to rise "from the ranks" in over 300 years. The other was Field Marshal "Wully" Robertson, who was head of the Army for most of the First World War under Lloyd-George.
In fact, to date, only four or five individuals have risen to general's rank without the advantage of a private education. Even now, for the most part, and despite a significant rise in the number of combat-arms officers from state schools, generals continue to be found from those of elite school backgrounds.
There are rare exceptions; the recently retired Sandhurst Commandant went to grammar school with Michael Portillo, and the fact that exceptions emerge seems to tell us that the Army's overall process is fair. Yet an imbalance remains, probably because of bias built into the status-conscious fighting regiments of infantry and cavalry.
By contrast, the US Army has made a habit of advancing the able regardless of their origins: Generals Eisenhower, Franks and Powell were the sons of, respectively, a poor midwestern farmer, a gas station manager and a black immigrant. Closest comparator in British history was Field Marshal "Bill" Slim, the son of a Birmingham ironmonger (whose victory over the Japanese was largely ignored in last year's Second World War 60th anniversary commemorations).
MAJOR, RETIRED BUCKINGHAM
Good students turn up for lectures
Sir: Johann Hari ("No wonder students shun their lectures", 14 September) raises some interesting points. I would agree that the slide into postmodernism has been a disaster for higher education generally, and poor pay for lecturers is a cause dear to my heart.
However Mr Hari fails to recognise that the new contracts are merely formalising what has always been standard practice. Students have always faced the threat of expulsion if they fail to meet minimum academic standards. The new contracts simply let both parties know what their obligations are. It is regrettable that the threat of litigation makes this necessary.
I believe that Mr Hari also fails to understand the importance of the lecture. I would be happy if my students read a book instead of turning up to my lectures. In my experience those that fail to attend twice a week also fail to read twice a week.
Time-tables give students a discipline and structure they often lack. Those students who think they can cram four years' worth of study into the four weeks before Finals are often proved wrong.
Even more serious is Mr Hari's idea that a well-spoken lecturer is a good lecturer. This is not merely wrong, it is pernicious.
Lectures ought to be judged on their intellectual content, not on presentation. If students come away from higher education having learnt only one thing I would hope it would be the ability to distinguish between the interesting and the well presented. The teachers that I admire most are often, as Mr Hari puts it, shambolic and inclined to mumble, but their ideas are worth the effort and concentration required.
If Mr Hari would like an illustration of the problem I suggest he looks over the state of modern British politics. Speaking well is no substitute for having something to say.
JOSEPH BENJAMIN ASKEW
INSTITUTE FOR CHINESE STUDIES UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD
For whom the bell tinkles
Sir: All cyclists should welcome any law compelling them to have a bell, as they can then rest assured the next time a 4x4 juggernaut is forcing them into the kerb a long blast on their bell will swiftly make the driver aware of the cyclist and give way. Dream on.
Sir: If Bryony Evans (letter, 14 September ) was approaching me from behind I would appreciate her ringing her bell to warn me of her presence before she got close enough to have to brake.
ROTHERHAM, SOUTH YORKSHIRE
Cooper and the arts
Sir: I, too, wondered who or what Cooper Brown was (Michael O'Hare's letter, 13 September) until I read his account of attending a Prom concert, when it suddenly dawned on me that his day job must be that of Consultant on Culture and the High Arts to the present government.
Sir: Your leading article on 6 September suggested Tony Blair received a mandate from the electorate. Blair suffered a humiliating rebuff from 65 per cent of the voters. Thanks to an electoral system that has become a travesty of democracy, Labour still managed to grab 55 per cent of the seats. We desperately need proportional representation.
Sir: In The Ten Best (14 September) you recommend ankle boots sold by Top Shop and Asda ("far more glamorous than frozen peas"). In another part of the same paper you report that Top Shop and Asda are amongst those UK chains failing to prevent human rights abuses and "sweatshop" conditions in their suppliers' factories. If your consumer columns profiled production conditions alongside the products, readers might be better able to judge your recommendations and use their purchasing powers to better effect.
Sir: Peter Walker, director of the Government's secondary school improvement strategy, says there is a need to improve the literacy and communication skills of school children (report, 11 September). This is what he had to say: "Quite simply, we need to look at key stage three in terms of encouraging those youngsters who have to catch up with interventions that will help them to make progress in maths and English. This is going to become paramount." John Prescott couldn't have put it better. Four out of ten. No wonder our children are unintelligible.
The Marmite effect
Sir: OK, I'm going to put my head above the parapet and say that I've been eating peanut butter and Marmite on toast for years. What's more, clinical trials have proven that a breakfast of carbohydrates, saturated fats and protein is the most effective way of boosting levels of brain activity throughout the early part of the day. Go on, you know you want to try it.