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Thursday 8 December 2011
Letters: Surviving in a time of austerity
It is dismaying to read the conclusions drawn from the British Social Attitudes Survey, especially Julian Baggini's comment about throwing "inconvenient values" out of the window in hard times (7 December).
When my partner's business folded two and a half years ago, and we went from two salaries to one overnight, despite our reduced finances we carried on for about a year thinking that of course we'd soon manage to sort things out. After 12 months all our savings were gone and we were having to sell things to cover outgoings. Cancelling regular contributions to charities and eschewing the free-range and fair trade foods we'd always held so important was not a ditching of inconvenient values but simply a matter of survival.
With hard work and a load of luck, he is now set up in a new business, but its fledgling state and the fragility of the economy mean our finances are little more secure.
This reality, albeit with different causes, is replicated in millions of households across the country and it is hardly surprising that the UK population is in survival mode. Millions of us are now focusing on keeping going day by day and do not have the financial wherewithall nor emotional energy to think of anything else.
Add to that a media consumed with painting doom at every turn and survival behaviour becomes entrenched for the longer term. Instead of being critical about the fact that many people's generosity is diminished as they struggle not to go under, Mr Baggini would be better off urging you and your colleagues to provide more inspiration and hope to break us out of our bunker mentality.
The British Social Attitudes Survey shows that 54 per cent of the public believe jobless benefits are too high and discourage the unemployed from finding work. This really gets up my nose.
Take my son – who has a first-class degree from Glasgow School of Art (that has trained the last three Turner Prize winners); he is now working hard to establish himself as a self-employed artist. He is managing on a jobseekers' allowance of £54 a week. Hardly state-sponsored profligacy: more like subsistence (underwritten by parents).
If we are truly "all in this together" then let us not forget our own humanity. "There but for the grace of God..."
Principal Lecturer in Community Development and Local Governance,
University of Gloucestershire,
Lobbyists: action delayed too long
The revelation that Bell Pottinger believe they can cleanse Uzbekistan's reputation through the miracle of Search Engine Optimisation is more laughable than sinister ("Caught on camera: top lobbyists boasting how they influence the PM", 6 December). What is more concerning is their claims to be able to influence government policy.
The Government has moved swiftly to deny these claims. If only it had moved anything like as fast to publish its long-delayed white paper on a statutory register of lobbying activity. Following the Fox/Werrity incident, it was announced this would be published at the end of November, and yet we are still waiting.
Until the Government stop procrastinating on this issue, it will come back to hurt them time and again. In this case denials are simply not good enough; it is the lack of transparency itself which enables companies such as Bell Pottinger to make such claims. Making it impossible in incidents like this to tell whether it is the public or the lobbyists' clients who are being treated like chumps only serves the interests of the lobbyists themselves.
Director, Unlock Democracy
Bell Pottinger's claim to be able to influence the order of internet listings seems rather exaggerated. I Googled "Bell indecent exposure" and he came up fourth on the first page.
America and the eurozone crisis
Sorry to do a "bah, humbug" on Hamish McRae's winter wonderland reveries of New York ("On the streets of New York, I sense a recovery", 7 December), but I'm sure his fellow shoppers were paying with credit cards, stoking the already astronomical American personal debt levels. And the question is how they get the rest of the world to continue financing their and the country's habit.
I hate the conspiracy theories that are so popular over there, but you do have to ask "cui bono?" in the present euro crisis. Despite Mr McRae's dismissive comments about Europe and the euro, the EU has overtaken the US as the world's largest economy – and the euro is the world's second largest reserve currency and traded currency, having gained strongly against the dollar in recent years. The charge against the euro has been led this week, once again, by an American ratings agency – Standard & Poor's – which threw in its spanner even before the Franco-German and eurozone summits.
So Jingle Bells to you, too, but as Mr McRae says, New York is not America, and President Obama's unfestive comments might cause a discord. He warned that the US is at a make-or-break moment for its middle classes, and that the "gaping" economic inequalities could not be allowed to continue.
It is to be hoped that enough member states of the eurozone will have the guts to resist Sarkozy's demand that they forfeit yet more of their economic (and ultimately political) independence to the diktats of Brussels.
The European project, including the introduction of a single currency, was instigated largely as a result of perennial Franco-German animosity, which in the last century twice plunged the peoples of Europe into misery and ruin.
Sarkozy seems to have forgotten that during the second of those catastrophes his country had to endure the humiliating loss of its freedom. He should know better than to expect other countries should now meekly surrender their own independence for the sake of the new-found Franco-German love affair.
If a German New Order was unacceptable in Europe in 1945, so is a Franco-German New Order in 2011.
Those Eurosceptic Tories who seize any opportunity to demand referendums on the EU, in the hope that the will of Parliament can be overridden, are like Samson in the Old Testament, who brought down the temple but killed himself in the process. If the euro collapses it would mean economic disaster for everyone, but the Eurosceptics would take this risk in order to further their ideological anti-EU obsession.
The new Victorian railway folly?
Can I suggest to Steve Richards (Comment, 6 December) that another key reason High Speed Rail will probably never now be built is that it is increasingly looking like the last grand folly of the boom years and an embarrassing anomaly in the coming age of austerity?
Any decrease in journey times will be of minimal benefit to the occasional traveller, and it is becoming impossible to justify spending public billions to allow City bankers and other elite commuters just to expand into estates in the Midlands.
Remaining proponents may take a warning from history. Much of the Great Central Railway, originally part of Sir Edward Watkins' grand plan to link to Europe via a channel tunnel, and the final throw of the great 19th-century age of railway building, now lies abandoned, in some places only a few miles from the proposed HS2 route.
I do not think it is fair to say the end is nigh for HS2. The project's promoters have mistakenly sold it on the basis of speed, which for the Birmingham section at a cost of £17bn, looks expensive.
The point of HS2 is expanded capacity, the real time savings come when the lines to Manchester and Leeds open. Suggested new tunnelling in the Chilterns does not indicate the project's doom, just as extra tunnelling for HS1 when it switched from Waterloo to St Pancras did not.
Why we must afford aid
I am amazed that a reader considers the giving of overseas aid as some sort of imperial dream, that we should scrap in the name of economy (letter, 1 December).
Surely he must be aware that, as a major trading nation, we need to import from around the world vast amounts of food, fuel, manufactured goods and other resources to maintain ourselves. It is only right, therefore, that we should help other countries when they suffer from starvation, disease, disasters and general poverty, especially as we are still far better off than most countries.
As the future rolls on, there will be times when we need to look to others for various forms of assistance, when we will expect to receive at least as much compassion as we now show to others.
Pete Parkins' assertion that parents buy their children's way into schools in order to maintain the power of the family is the real "absurd proposition" (letter, 5 December). Many of my fellow pupils at the independent school I attend receive financial help (including myself), which for less fortunate families takes the form of a full bursary. At the risk of sounding like a school leaflet, the criterion for admission is intelligence.
I have no interest in going into politics. By Pete Parkins' logic my desire to be an artist is no doubt an extension of my father's wish to keep a monopoly of power in the art world.
A tribute to our veterans
Nigel Cubbage (letter, 7 December) wonders, in relation to a report about Kenneth Branagh, how old one has to be to be considered a veteran. In athletics in the UK, ladies are considered veterans at the age of 35 and men at the age of 40. Sexism and ageism in one hit.
If a veteran is a survivor of many campaigns, then Branagh undoubtedly qualifies. From Fortunes of War (1987) through Henry V (1985), Othello (Iago 1989) to Valkyrie (2008) he seems scarcely to have been off the battlefield for over 20 years.
It came as some surprise to learn that one of our bailed-out banks (RBS) is selling 918 pubs across the country. Why don't they keep the pubs and get rid of the banks? Or is it that bankers can't even manage a piss-up in a brewery?
Jeremy Laurance has got his genders the wrong way round when quoting the feminist aphorism that "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle" ("Sex and the guppy", 7 December). A man without a woman, Jeremy, is like a flounder.
Soup is served
And we munch minestrone (letter 7 December). May we get down from the table now please?
South Nutfield, Surrey
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