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Saturday 13 June 2009
Letters: Socrates on trial
Socrates should never have been prosecuted
As a former Cambridge classics don, I was amused at the page you devoted to the claim made by Professor Paul Cartledge of Cambridge that "Socrates' trial was legally just and that he was guilty as charged" ("Arrogance of Socrates", 8 June).
The idea of a criminal "charge" in the modern sense was unknown in ancient Athens. In normal times, any citizen could bring any accusation he liked against any other citizen, but Socrates' trial came at a very abnormal time indeed.
The "charges" levelled against Soc-rates were vague in the extreme: corrupting the youth of Athens and "impiety". The reason for this vagueness was that a general amnesty had been decreed in 403BCE. With a few named exceptions, nobody could be prosecuted for anything done before then. Socrates' trial was in 399BCE, and any specific allegations would have related to the period covered by the amnesty. So, far from Socrates' conviction being "a fair cop" (as your article quotes another Cambridge academic as saying), he should not have been prosecuted at all.
Why were Socrates' enemies hellbent on prosecuting him in the face of the general amnesty? Paul Cartledge, your article says, "questions traditional arguments that Socrates was purely the victim of political infighting". That term is an understatement. One of Socrates' pupils and close associates was Critias, a leading member of the pro-Spartan "Thirty Tyrants" imposed on Athens after its catastrophic defeat at the hands of Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. Socrates was also the mentor of Alcibiades, whose life he saved in battle and who actually defected to Sparta.
In the feverish ferment in Athens after the overthrow of the pro-Spartan oligarchy, it was hardly surprising that the leaders of the restored democracy should round on Socrates as a thinker and teacher who had questioned the whole basis of Athenian democracy.
Dr Michael Arnheim
End the culture of career politicians
The debacle over expenses, and recent cabinet resignations, have highlighted the deeply disturbing and pernicious rise of the "career politician", an individual whose work and life experience outside the political bubble of Holyrood and Westminster is limited.
Despite us enduring the deepest recession for more than 50 years, comprehensive analysis last year by the Industry and Parliament Trust found that fewer than one in seven MPs have 10 years' or more experience of private-sector management or financial services. Almost three-quarters have no business experience. In the Scottish Parliament, this is no better, with only one in eight MSPs having business or finance experience.
This lack of business experience extends to the UK Government. Fewer than a quarter of ministers in the most relevant departments for employers – Business, Innovation and Skills, Work and Pensions and the Treasury – have at least five years of business experience.
Many MSPs and MPs are operating in an environment where their knowledge and experience, not only of the commercial world, but of the outside world and the lives of everyday people is almost non-existent, yet these individuals are required to make vital decisions. A radical change is required, and this must involve ending the culture of the career politician.
Regular readers will remember The Independent campaigning for a change to the voting system after the last election, when Labour won a comfortable overall majority with only 36 per cent of the vote, 3 per cent more than the Tories.
It was pointed out then that there was just one alternative to the first-past-the-post system under which Labour would have increased its majority, the alternative vote (AV) system. Up popped Jack Straw, unsurprisingly, to express his sympathy for the method.
Four years on, we find AV popping up again, despite earlier reports of government support for changing the voting system citing Roy Jenkins' very good study of the different alternatives. Jenkins recommended the sort of system now applied to elections for the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments. But Labour doesn't seem to like that any more.
Now that a real debate on voting methods has opened, it is essential that all the alternatives are examined. The danger is that the Labour Government will simply replace one unfair system with another unfair system.
Dr Mark Corner
I fully concur with John Hall (letters, 11 June) that if the Tories win the next election with a clear majority, they will not be looking to introduce a fair voting system. Indeed, the cause would probably be set back by 10 years or more.
What we need is to introduce change before the next general election. The electorate are already well-informed about the choices. I suggest that a referendum should be held by November. The three choices should be the AV system (reluctantly favoured by Gordon Brown), AV plus top-up PR (the Jenkins model) or to retain staus quo. A general election should then be called for next May, based on the favoured system.
This would provide adequate time to set up the referendum and provide more detailed information and also to put any new system into place. It's not rocket science, just common sense.
Dr Chris Dacke
Gordon Brown's proposals for a binding code of conduct for MPs and a Parliamentary Standards Authority (report, 11 June) pose a hidden threat to the dwindling band of independent-minded MPs. It will be all too easy for their whips to incite bogus complaints against them.
The time and energy they will have to waste on a defence, and the adverse publicity of being under investigation, would be powerful weapons against any members of "the awkward squad".
Since there is no penalty for a false or malicious complaint, these proposals will expose all MPs to the spite of cranks, obsessives and extremists in their constituencies, and to the manoeuvres of those who want to replace them. These proposals are an excessive reaction to the expenses scandal. They will produce an even more servile parliament with even more cautious and defensive MPs.
The idea of recalling Members of Parliament before a general election if a certain percentage of his or her constituents are dissatisfied with the conduct of their MP appears is gaining ground in all three main political parties. But could not the prospect of recall open MPs to pressure or even blackmail from extreme groups and organisations?
An MP could find his or herself recalled because of having unusual or unpopular opinions. They could also find themselves recalled because certain constituents disapprove of their alcohol consumption and/or sexual habits.
There is a danger that the new politics could become dominated by squeaky clean yes-men who are uncritically loyal to their parties and incapable of independent thought. The new politics could became dominated by yes-men, not by colourful independents. The new politics would become even less inclusive than the today's out-of-date politics.
Peter J Brown
Schools must have proper libraries
Terence Blacker is right to counter-pose the dewy-eyed talk of creativity by some government ministers with a sad lack of strategy for libraries and reading in practice (Opinion, 8 June).
I visit 150 schools a year. Some have confident librarians, with middle-manager status, co-ordinating ICT, research and books. Others have weak, unsupported facilities or no library at all. Several misguided headteachers have closed libraries or followed California's Governator in moving towards "paperless schools".
A life-long love of reading is, according to Unesco, the single strongest predictor of academic success. It is vital that Her Majesty's Government commits itself to a good school library and a valued librarian in every school.
Organiser, the Campaign for the Book, Liverpool
Not much incentive to turn out to vote
There has been meagre mention that, despite the possibility of BNP success, there has been little evidence of active turnout among black ethnic minority communities in these elections. For this phenomenon, both the New Labour elite and media outlets such as The Independent must accept their substantial share of the blame.
There is not that much incentive to turn out to vote, when the only available alternatives to the BNP are institutionally racist mainstream parties and/or their individual unprincipled representatives. In the years of this government, we've had Asian communities scapegoated for race riots and Afro-Carribean young men scapegoated for rising gangsterism.
Add in the disgraceful, racist, cost-benefit analysis that was made on the political impact of bombing Muslim civilians, and an ugly pattern emerges that the BNP would be proud of.
The soldiers in the war cemeteries we saw on our screens during the commemorations of D-Day must be turning in their graves. They fought to defend freedom and democracy, yet more than half a century later, most of the population of this country and the rest of Europe, it seems, can't be bothered to go out and vote when we have an election.
This attitude opens the door to extremists, as we have seen so graphically. Millions of reasonable people don't go out and vote, for one reason or another, but extremists certainly do, thus skewing the results in their favour and gaining seats of power in parliaments.
For our own sake, and in grateful memory of the soldiers who died defending the freedoms and rights we all enjoy and take increasingly for granted, go and and vote next time.
I don't recall any sanctimonious sermons by media pundits on the evils and folly of egg-throwing and denial of free speech when George Galloway MP was pelted with eggs by the BNP at a rally on the Wirral a few years back ("What's the best way to fight the BNP?", 11 June).
It was filmed and the clip is gleefully played back at every opportunity by TV channels whenever they are doing their latest hatchet job on Galloway.
Dr Christopher Erswell
Perhaps the principal reason why Nick Griffin objected to having eggs thrown at him was because the protesters hadn't separated the whites.
Richard O Smith
Buying drinks on a train from France into Spain (letters, 10 June), I noticed that un Coca-Cola (because imported foreign words are usually rendered masculine), in Spain became una Coca-Cola (because it ends in "a", so is attributed feminine).
In praise of subtitles
I agree with Eric Lund (letters, 12 June) that it is unreasonable to expect us to turn on subtitles to watch a TV programme in our native language, but my understanding and enjoyment of The Wire was greatly enhanced by subtitles, because the argot of Baltimore police and drug dealers is not my native language. But even the more standard English in West Wing also benefits from subtitles, with accents, dialogue speed and characters talking over each other reducing clarity at least as much as background music.
Kingston upon Thames
Picking on children
Thank you for the report on Hares (12 June). As a volunteer peace worker, I spend time there each year. We have watched Israeli soldiers park their tanks outside the school and provoke the children. They have arrested many under-age ones on trumped-up charges and often hold them for days. One aged 13 was arrested, then dumped by the road-side several kilometres away and left to find his way home. We write re-ports but no one seems to listen.
The International Women's Peace Service, London SW15
BBC salary swap?
I am not a great fan of Today, mostly because – with one exception – presenters are careless with their diction, allowing ends of sentences to fade into the ether. But your figures (11 June) of what presenters are paid amazed me: John Humphrys' salary at £150,000 and Ross's at £6m: the first a bull terrier, mauling MPs and their cant, the latter, a foul-mouthed, inconsiderate oaf. Shouldn't their salaries be swapped?
I fear there may be another British financial institution about to dissolve in chaos. Aviva/Norwich have sent a questionnaire to our ground-floor flat in a Victorian terrace, asking for further details about our thatched cottage.
Derek J Cole
St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex
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