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Tuesday 8 March 2011
Letters: World trouble-spots will see more of the SAS
Mary Dejevsky is right to call for greater transparency and accountability over Britain's use of "special forces" ("We need names behind debacle in the desert", 7 March). As Britain begins to follow emerging US doctrine, which favours a counter-terror-lite footprint backed by air power, there is likely to be an increasing reliance on covert actions abroad.
The White House has more than doubled the numbers of special operations forces in Afghanistan alone, as well as doubling the CIA's use of missile strikes from unmanned drones in Pakistan. And throughout Nato, after spending hundreds of millions of pounds in Iraq and Afghanistan, with questionable results, the clamour is growing for greater use of special operations, including strikes against suspected militants in hot spots around the world.
The legality and effectiveness of such operations need to be properly debated and "rules of the road" established. Britain should be at the forefront of efforts to establish a Nato-wide code of conduct for specialised counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism forces, which sets out clearly defined doctrines, rules of deployment and engagement, and parliamentary oversight.
The possible use of British (and Nato) air power or special forces, either as part of a humanitarian mission or to target specific terrorist training camps, remains an option that must be used sparingly and in accordance with international law.
Dr Ian Davis
Director, NATO Watch
What business does the UK have to meddle in Libya's civil imbroglio? The humiliating apprehension in Benghazi of an SAS spy team illustrates Britain's nefarious designs in a major oil-exporting country.
It is the height of irresponsibility and inconsistency for the Tory-led government to side with Libyan insurgents. Recently, it remained aloof when Bahraini protesters were killed and will certainly not offer credible support for any popular uprising in the despotic pro-Western Saudi kingdom. British shenanigans will contaminate the people's movement in Libya and will fatally compromise anti-regime forces by collusion with the region's foremost ex-imperial power.
Given the sordid history and bitter legacy of British colonialism in the Middle East, the UK should be extremely wary in again stirring the Arab pot, as the collective memory of past wrongdoings has not faded.
Starting with Victorian England's imperial conquest of Egypt in 1882 and the British army's brutal massacres in Sudan in 1899, Britain's ruthless image was further sullied by the expedient espousal of the pro-Zionist Balfour declaration in 1917 and its self-serving political division of former Ottoman territories. Britain's reputation as the surrogate of the US was exacerbated when Blair waged a calamitous war in Iraq in 2003.
Through its 130-year record in the region, Britain has consistently secured its own national interests rather than Arab freedom.
Dr T Hargey
Chairman, Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford
Soup runs help rough sleepers
I'm puzzled by the antagonism towards soup runs and similar assistance to homeless people shown by Councillor Daniel Astaire (letter, 7 March). Of course food is not enough, but you can't force people into accepting the services we think they need by starving them off the streets.
People who sleep rough have many complex reasons for being there, and for many of them, at any particular time, the reality of their circumstances is exactly what prevents them accepting that help.
When someone has just left prison without the support he or she needs to get life straight, they may need gentle coaxing to accept what they might see as another form of institutional help. When someone with mental health issues has turned down the umpteenth offer of psychiatric help, where do they go for human contact? When someone who isn't entitled to benefits can't bear the thought of being assisted through another round of form-filling to face another rejection, does this mean they don't deserve a bowl of soup?
Street handouts do indeed sustain life on the streets, but that doesn't make them a barrier to accessing services. They should be seen as a first access point and some of Mr Astaire's £9m might be well spent on supporting volunteers to work with the soup runs to engage with the people using the service and do some of the outreach work that is so badly needed to understand their particular needs.
To imagine that people choose to stay on the street just because there's a free food handout is naive. Longer-term solutions for homeless people are not helped by criticising soup runs. Mr Astaire's energy might be better spent by harnessing the compassion being shown by those who operate soup runs.
If Councillor Astaire does not know that a great proportion of those eating at soup runs are homeless or rough-sleeping because they have an addiction to alcohol or Class A drugs, then he should.
In the grip of such an addiction, unwise choices are made to feed it rather than feed the stomach. So, far from it being "outdated and unnecessary to provide food for people on the streets", it often provides the only decent food they are likely to eat.
Do banks really serve customers?
The response to Mervyn King's claim that banks try to maximise their profits out of "gullible or unsuspecting customers" was predictable. Angela Knight, Chief Executive of the British Bankers' Association, stated that "This is a responsible industry which believes in working with its customers of all shapes and sizes."
Fine. As an indication of the banks' sincerity, perhaps they will now declare a moratorium on their intention to eliminate cheques.
Mark S. Bretscher
Swaffham Bulbeck, Cambridgeshire
Bob Diamond's £6.5m bonus? Quite simply, an obscenity.
East Molesey, Surrey
No, we don't like hospital cuts
NHS London deems the Government's "four tests" on the proposed changes to Chase Farm hospital to have been met, but nobody else does ("Lansley faces landmark decision over NHS closures", 7 March). There is probably a better case to be made that none of the four tests have been met than that all have.
To concentrate just on the test most obviously not met, support by patients and the public: there has been, and continues to be, a massive campaign against the proposals. All the local politicians, of all parties, are against – but even so two councillors were elected on a "Save Chase Farm" ticket in 2006. There have been well-attended marches and public meetings. The local papers have carried literally hundreds of letters on the subject, of which the only ones in favour have come from NHS bosses.
The public and patients have been consulted – and responded with a resounding "No!" Let's hope Mr Lansley was listening.
Priced out of owning a home
I continue to be exasperated by the stock attitude to house price falls, both in your paper and others, of which David Prosser's article (Business news, 5 March), portraying the "grim" outlook of falling prices, is a prime example.
Rising prices are great if you enjoy remortgaging, getting into ever-increasing debt and helping the bankers with their bonuses, or perhaps if you are dead and no longer need anywhere to live. The now declining market is unfortunate for those who bought in the recent boom years and are in negative equity, but there is an entire generation of people who have been priced out of the market and a wave of older teenagers who are expecting the same fate.
David Prosser's rejection of the upside of price falls, on the basis that interest rate rises and larger deposits mean costs won't fall for first-time buyers, does not stack up. The costs would be even higher if prices were rising.
I cannot understand why rising house prices are still seen as the holy grail of the economy, given the glaring evidence from both the credit crunch and the late Eighties crash that this type of price bubble will only end in tears. And I cannot be alone in hoping that my children will be able to afford a home of their own one day.
HS2 benefits the elite
Ian K Watson (letter, 4 March) raises some interesting questions on the problem of balancing the interests of the country as a whole against affected communities in respect of HS2. Why though would he be "intrigued" that those who stand to gain nothing and lose a great deal, such as people living in the Chilterns, would be opposed to it?
The plans for HS2 are such that over several decades the only direct beneficiaries will be the inhabitants of four of the largest cities, whose combined population is less than a fifth of the UK's.
Here in Coventry we are told that we will benefit from HS2 as we will have the option of a 20-30 minute drive in the wrong direction in order to save 10 minutes on the train journey to London. Citing "benefits" like that has a ring of desperation on the part of the pro-HS2 lobby. Also, the longed-for reduction in overcrowding on existing West Coast line services, another element of the HS2 argument, will apparently be offset by cuts in the frequency of those services once HS2 has creamed off a proportion of the passengers.
There are two things that would give some credibility to the idea that HS2 is for the general good. One would be a guarantee that spending on HS2 would be matched pound for pound by improvements to public transport throughout the rest of the country. The other would be to turn the plan on its head and build HS2 in phases from north to south rather than south to north. Neither will happen, because this project is not about spreading the benefits of an improved transport infrastructure, it is about concentrating them, both geographically and socially.
While there's all this fuss about the effect of the proposed high-speed rail link, can someone tell us what happened in Kent? The Channel tunnel link was going to spoil the country side, deafen everyone and destroy property values. What actually has happened? Maybe the Government and protesters could look and learn, and save time and money.
British quarrels over Middle East
Howard Jacobson is quite right (5 March) when he says: "No on can deny that the very existence of Israel has been a goad to Arab countries for decades", but his concluding paragraph resorts to the kind of argument those of us who might have the temerity to criticise the government of Israel find tiresome.
To whom, exactly, does he refer when he writes about "our obsession with Israel"? And is it rational to describe such an unidentified plurality as having an "inflammatory hatred" of Israel which is "unreasoning, ill informed" and with which "some of our most prestigious universities and best known journalists collude".
This is, surely, poor stuff. If Mr Jacobson chooses to cast aspersions on the integrity of others, then those whom he is deriding should be clearly identified and the sources he is using should be carefully cited.
I wonder whether it is just possible that those members of the University and College Union (UCU) who, for many years, have campaigned for the academic boycott of Israel - the only democratic country in the Middle East - are prepared to think seriously about the implications of the Gaddafi-LSE affair and the acceptance by several UK Universities of huge amounts of money in order to set up Oriental Institutes and Islamic and Middle Eastern studies centres whose academic appointments and courses of study are strongly influenced by their patrons.
Will those members of UCU who call for the boycott of Israeli universities remain silent about the acceptance of funding with strings attached from the despotic rulers of countries such as Lybia, Saudi Arabia or Qatar?
Emeritus Professor of Spanish
University of Southampton
Red tape again
David Cameron's remarks about reducing bureaucracy to help business sound very familiar. Michael Heseltine was charged by the then Prime Minister with "hacking back the jungle of red tape" in 1992. The Prime Minister seems to have forgotten that it is governments that create the regulations and that civil servants merely implement them. His argument would be more convincing if he actually gave examples of these invented regulations and the names of the people responsible.
Romiley, greater Manchester
Citizen of UK
The census form asks me "How would you describe your National Identity?" and if I don't go for English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, or British I can write in "Other". I wonder, would it count as a National Identity to write in United Kingdomish or would they then come round and take you away?
Perspectives on voting
Odd reasons to oppose reform
Ken Clarke says that the alternative vote would allow the election of odder and more extreme politicians. How does he work that out?
With the present system, all that is needed for an "odd" candidate to win is that the vote for "normal" candidates should be split, since the odd one can then come through on a small share of the total. With AV no one gets in on a minority vote; unless at least half the voters in the constituency are happy to be represented by an "odd" MP they won't get one. If people want to keep the "odd" candidate out, all they have to do is to number a series of preferences that exclude him or her.
Does Mr Clarke not understand AV?
Tim Montgomerie (Comment, 4 March) claims that the alternative vote "will make it harder for many Tory MPs to keep their seats" and that therefore it's bad.
This once again shows the weak arguments that anti-AV campaigners are driven to using. Montgomerie knows that the AV system will give more power to the voters to kick out unpopular governments and MPs, and he knows that what the Tory-led Coalition is doing is unpopular. So his only resort is to try and preserve a broken system – first-past-the-post – that will frustrate voters when they come to punish the Government in 2015 for its savage and unnecessary cuts.
That's why the Tories oppose AV – because they know that voters will hate them but that FPTP would keep them in power, as it did in the 1980s and 90s, whereas AV would only elect a popular government.
To me, that sounds like the most convincing argument for voting "Yes."
Victories for the no-vote party
The triumphal tenor of the headline to your report on the referendum about powers of legislation for the Welsh Assembly ("Wales to control major policies after overwhelming referendum", 5 March) reflects the ecstatic response of the Yes group rather than the cold reality of the worryingly small turnout.
A paltry 35 per cent of the Welsh electorate felt it was worthwhile casting a vote. Yet the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, claimed that the referendum had produced "a clear Yes vote" across the Principality, while Plaid Cymru's leader and the Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, his feet planted equally firmly in the air, claimed that "the rest of the world can now sit up and take notice of the fact that our small nation, here on the western edge of the continent of Europe, has demonstrated pride in who we are, and what we all stand for".
What his "small nation" had demonstrated was that the majority of the population were not persuaded by their political leaders that casting a vote would make any difference to them, rather as the non-voting 63.5 per cent of the electorate in the Barnsley by-election were telling Westminster that they felt casting a vote was pointless. The overwhelming apathy of both electorates suggests that the dubious achievement of elected but out-of-touch politicians in both Cardiff and Westminster has been to unite the majority of voters in profound scepticism about the value of voting.
Professor David Head
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