New Europe, inheritance tax and others

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Divisions in the new Europe follow ancient fault lines

Divisions in the new Europe follow ancient fault lines

Sir: Guy Keleny (21 August) defines the "true heart of Central Europe" as "the old Habsburg lands of Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - and possibly also Slovenia and Croatia". I would omit the word "possibly" because historically those two (today independent) countries were an integral part of the Empire and Kingdom of Austria and Hungary, and are pervaded by the same culture. Although Croatia has had strong ties with land and cultures to the east of its territory (and in some areas those ties are very recognisable today), it regards itself as part of Europe proper, although it is not yet part of the EU, but a candidate since June.

The divide between Central and Eastern Europe is mainly religious, the latter being Orthodox. The division goes back to the Roman Empire, when in 42 BC Augustus and Marc Antony defined the spheres of influence along the line that goes from Belgrade to northern Albania. East of that line Greek has been the common language, while Latin predominated west of it. Of course, there is the problem of Bosnia and Herzegovina between them, and it will remain a problem in south-eastern European geopolitics in the future.

The term "Balkans" is of modern origin, being invented by August Zeune, a German geographer, in 1808, referring to the unstable region, then part of the Ottoman Empire. He took the name of a mountain in present-day Bulgaria and inappropriately stretched it to the whole region. He also defined it as a peninsula washed by the Black Sea, the Aegean, Ionian and Adriatic, and the rivers Danube and Save to the North. Imagine defining Western Europe as a peninsula cut off from the rest of Europe by the Rhine and the Po in northern Italy !

Pula, Croatia

The politics of death and taxes

Sir: While there is clearly room for reform of the present inheritance tax regime, I question whether Michael Brown is right to suggest that "the correct response to this debate should surely be whether it is right for the state to have any claim on the lifetime wealth built up by people" (24 August).

A significant proportion of what most of us come to possess if we have had a fortunate lifetime of continuous employment has been due to factors other than our own efforts. For example, I was able to put down a deposit for my first house because of the generosity of an aunt, who in turn, as one of the first women in Scotland to be permitted to train as a medical doctor, had benefited from the campaigning efforts of others in the latter part of the 19th century.

When I moved later to Aberdeen, exploration for oil in the North Sea was just beginning to bear fruit, and I paid £8,000 for a detached house in the city. When a few years later I left the city for a smaller house in Aberdeenshire I sold it for around £50,000, and when I retired and moved back to central Scotland I sold the Aberdeenshire property for around £100,000. If my work had taken me to, say, Stornoway I would now be considerably poorer, though my salary at the time of my retirement as a university lecturer and my present occupational pension would probably have been much the same as they were and are.

Our "lifetime wealth" is to a substantial extent the result of external circumstances, and it is impossible to assess what proportion of wealth amassed has been "built up" by the personal effort or intelligence, morally exercised, of any individual. The state, as the authority which has a duty to encourage the education, research, invention, and general culture which enables each of us to make his or her contribution, is entitled for those purposes to take a reasonable share of what most of us possess when we die.

Dollar, Clackmannanshire

Sir: Xavier Gallagher (letter, 24 August) argues a case for low taxation of the rich. In the same edition, we are told of New Labour's intention to leave income tax rates unchanged.

It seems that a major feature of New Labour's rule has been a "both ends against the middle" fiscal policy. Some categories of "deserving" poor have been helped through new tax credits, whilst the rich have prospered due to a low top rate of income tax. All this largesse comes at the expense of relatively regressive "stealth" taxes that predominantly hit the middle/average earner. Is this a deliberate part of the New Labour agenda?

Bletchley, Buckinghamshire

Dulce et decorum?

Sir: Whilst I would generally agree that the victims of tragedy are also the people from whom we should least expect objective judgments, I cannot allow Bruce Anderson to have the last word ("Grieving families must not have the last word", 23 August).

Mortal danger is indeed an occupational hazard of being a soldier, and those who join the armed forces accept the risks; for a government, however, there is no greater responsibility than that involved in committing troops to war. Soldiers have the right to expect that their government will never abuse such a position.

Bruce Anderson misses the point entirely, although he almost stumbles upon it when he write that our soldiers "are prepared to die for us but only if we are committed to the justice of our cause". Rather, they are prepared to die for us so long as the cause is just.

The bereaved can, in time, get over their grief and move on. What Maxine Gentle gets across so powerfully is that she knows that her brother died for no good reason. He did not die defending his country or securing the freedom of another country or for any other such noble cause; he died because the British Prime Minister desired to be a big player on the international stage.

We should all find such a state of affairs intolerable, grief-stricken or not.


Sir: Only a male ignoramus could write: "How many female relatives, insensate in misery, would ever believe that the cause which claimed their son or brother could justify their grief?"

Untold millions of mothers and sisters believed or made themselves believe just that in both world wars, and in countless wars before and since. Politicians count on acquiescent families of the youths who die believing in Wilfred Owen's "old lie", that it is glorious "pro patria mori". Politicians just love women to be "insensate in grief", it keeps them from being angry and, yes, thoughtful. Good for Maxine Gentle. Take back your white feather, Mr Anderson, it looks grubby.

Lewes, East Sussex

Missed appointments

Sir: It is suggested that patients who miss appointments with their GP should be fined.

The majority of people who default from GP appointments in our practice have simply forgotten, or got the day or time wrong. I don't think we should fine them, as anyone can make a genuine mistake. If we run late, and the patient can't wait and has to re-appoint, should they be sending us a bill for wasted time?

There are just a very few who habitually fail to attend, and need to be warned that wasting hours of professional time is not acceptable. The ultimate sanction, if they continue to miss appointments after due warning, is to remove them from the surgery list. Fining patients would probably involve spending more money on chasing up the fines than it raised.

Whitchurch, Hampshire

Sir: It is of little surprise to me to learn of the amount of public money wasted annually by missed GP and nurse appointments, and the problems on an already pressurised system (report, 24 August). However, none of the attempted solutions address one fundamental issue, namely that of a free service being perceived as worth nothing by its customers.

My experience suggests that a significant number of patients (mainly at the younger end of the adult spectrum), see primary health care as a disposable asset, free and readily available when required, discarded without much thought when not.

What needs to be done, rather than tinker about with the symptoms, is to deal in some way with the root cause, and get some value back into health care by promoting responsible public ownership. Society will always end up with the service it deserves; if we think we deserve an efficient and effective national health service, we must all accept ownership and the responsibility that this brings.


Sir: My GP does not have appointments and everyone is happy. He is pleased not to have to employ an appointments clerk and the patients are well served by being able to turn up during surgery hours and always being seen. I have occasionally had to wait about 20 minutes, but that is unusual and anyway patients with appointments often have to wait longer. Perhaps other GPs should consider adopting this method and save the NHS £162m a year.

Salisbury, Wiltshire

BBC shuns the old

Sir: I support your correspondent's calls for the BBC to concentrate more on the older generation (letters, 19 August). There are 10.4 million people in Britain over 60 (21 per cent of the population). So why is there not a channel dedicated to the silver generation?

The BBC has a charter obligation to "provide ... information, education and entertainment" for the whole population. It is failing the older generation. BBC Three is aimed at the 25- to 35-year-olds; CBBC offers a "distinctive mixed schedule for children aged 6-12"; and CBeebies is aimed at viewers aged five and under (approximately 6 per cent of the population). So why is there no BBC Silver for us? Are career-minded BBC managers scared of being associated with Wrinkly TV?

One day they too will be old. Then they'll find out daytime TV is quite grotesque - yet many, like my sister who is in a care home, are subjected to it for up to 12 hours a day. Today's evening schedules are dominated by reality TV, lifestyle makeovers, quiz shows, sleazy sex and mindless violence.

Fine for those who like it, but we need a channel informed by the values of the older generation - courage, love, faithfulness, humour, good neighbourliness, thrift, tolerance and a religious faith. A channel which takes into account older viewers' failing eyesight and hearing, and their short-term memory problems; and which supports older people, and their carers (often elderly themselves), in living life to the full despite failing health, limited resources, bereavements and loneliness.


A-level challenge

Sir: What an odd claim from Martin Green (letters, 21 August) that his professional colleagues are in league with the Government and exam boards to increase pass rates at A-level. My daily experience as an A-level teacher seems very isolated from subterfuge and static in terms of success: I inhabit a classroom with young people (I don't think it's bugged) and sometimes my boss lets me out on a course.

Then again, sometimes I feel I inhabit another planet with all this talk of "record results". My results have seen little improvement in the five years I've been teaching history. I mark and administer assiduously, take my students on conferences, site visits, invite guest speakers but they still trail in with Cs and Ds. Maybe it's me?

But if you're one of the sceptics regarding the quality of the current A-levels, let me lay down the gauntlet. Here's an essay title from a recent Edexcel AS paper which is required to be written in 30 minutes: "Account for the economic and political fortunes of the Weimar Republic between 1923 and 1928." Go on, have a go in the time allotted and send it to me at the e-mail below.

Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands

Cherie picking

Sir: The Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, is to join the London 2012 bid committee. What role will she play, given that political lobbying of the IOC members and officials is now very restricted? Surely, we need sports persons to lead the bid - this was the reason for demoting Barbara Cassani - not politicians' wives!

Neuchatel, Switzerland

Wrong island

Sir: As an Irishman, I would like to point out that we Irish do not use the term "the British Isles" to refer to the islands of Britain and Ireland. For Ben Ellis (letter, 24 August) to assert that it is acceptable to list Cork as part of Britain is incorrect, both politically and geographically.

Cork is located on the island of Ireland, which is separate from the island of Britain. Cork is also part of the Republic of Ireland, which has not been politically British since 1921.

London NW7

Free thinker

Sir: Jean-Paul Sartre was not "an as yet unknown writer" in 1944 ("The day Paris was liberated", 25 August). His novel La Nausée, a major event in the literature of the 20th century, dates from 1938, and his collection of stories, L'Enfance d'un chef, from 1939. Two of his best-known plays were produced during the Occupation: Les Mouches in 1943, and Huis clos in 1944, three months before the liberation of Paris. And his major philosophical work, L'Etre et le néant, was published in 1943.


Winged words

Sir: Perhaps British Airways will now review the claims they make in the television ads, where P J O'Rourke attempts to get us to choose an airline that has "more staff". I suspect that the next time they fly the stranded BA passengers will do just that.

London W1