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Saturday 23 May 2009
The dangers of an extra-parliamentary watchdog
Watchdog would put parliamentary freedom in peril
Now that the sacking of the first Speaker of the House of Commons to suffer this indignity in 300 years has been accomplished, we are being asked by the Government to approve the creation of an extra-parliamentary watchdog to police MPs and keep their snouts out of the trough of public money.
Has it occurred to no one that the establishment of such a body, no doubt an appointed body something like a quango, would fundamentally infringe the sovereignty of Parliament, and so put paid to a principle fought for and won in the Civil Wars of the 17th century and the Revolution of 1688.
It may be true that history teaches no lessons, but it ought at least to make us reflect on the fact that sovereignty is indivisible, and that populist appeal to anti-parliamentary prejudice has generally resulted in the strengthening of the executive and the consequent loss of democracy and liberty. Other European countries have often lived this experience, which has thus far been spared the British. "It can't happen here" is a shibboleth too sanguine by half.
Professor Jeffry Kaplow
Tam Dalyell agrees that £18,000 for bookshelves would be far too much. But he thinks £7,800 is fine as that's what John Lewis would have charged. What further evidence do we need just how far detached from reality MPs are? How many of the electorate spend £7,800 on bookshelves, even taking into account the rationale that they were to go in an old house?
And in what way did this vanity project of his contribute to his work as an MP? I'm afraid this fits the usual refrain at the moment. I couldn't possibly hope to claim any sum whatsoever from my employers for bookshelves to store historical publications related to my profession, so why do MPs believe it is appropriate that they are subject to different rules from the rest of us?
Perhaps Mr Dalyell thought his letter (20 May) would clarify the issue. But, for me, it further illustrates the greed which appears to be endemic within our Parliament.
The airwaves and media are laden with pious MPs declaring that their expenses system is clearly in need of radical reform. Well, it was the same system that was in place two, three or more years ago – and I don't recall any expressions of concern then. The silence was deafening, save maybe for the snuffling of snouts in the trough.
Is it not depressing that a nation which used to boast of its command of the ocean should now be focusing its attention on a moat and a duckpond?
Splendid news. The suggestion is being bruited about that there should be an extra-parliamentary body to oversee whatever new arrangements are introduced to monitor MPs' allowances and expenses. But what to call it? Of course: OfTrough.
After the Gurkhas, now for the Iraqis?
I do hope Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, was right when he said that opening the doors to the Gurkhas would set a precedent. Can we now dare to hope that Gordon Brown will exercise his newfound sense of honour in respect of the Iraqi interpreters, Army support staff and their families, who have lived in fear of their lives, and are about to be callously abandoned to their fate when the British forces withdraw from Basra?
Has Joanna Lumley scored a victory for the Gurkhas? No, she has just written the final chapter in the history of the proud Gurkha warriors. The Gurkhas are a mercenary force who have been employed by the British because they are effective and cheap soldiers. Now they will cost as much as local forces, there is absolutely no point having them. These last, greedy Gurkhas have ensured that none of their sons will follow in this long and lucrative (for Gurkhas living in Nepal) tradition.
While the country is celebrating with the Gurkhas over the Government's change of heart about their residence here, it might be timely to remember the man who, against the orders of his masters, first created a full Gurkha regiment in the Punjab in 1850 and then refused to disband it.
General Sir Charles James Napier (1782-1853) – whose statue, erected from the pennies and sixpences of thousands of ordinary soldiers and sailors at his Portsmouth funeral, stands in Trafalgar Square – deserves a respectful nod at this time. He would be enjoying greatly the discomfiture of the powers that be, powers whom he spent his life outmanoeuvring in the service of his men, and of the many civilians whose lives he improved wherever he had the power.
Professor A J (Tony) Pointon
University of Portsmouth
Roots of the Tamil Tigers' revolt
Your leading article "The war may be ending, but the struggle will go on" (18 May) states that "The country's laws that privilege the Sinhala language and Buddhism need to be reformed."
There are no laws in Sri Lanka that privilege the Sinhala language, except perhaps the provision in the constitution that in the event of any misunderstanding of a particular law, the Sinhala rendering will take precedence over the Tamil and English versions. Tamil is an official language and has been for the past 21 years; prior to that its use was governed by the Reasonable Use of Tamil Act, which gave every Tamil-speaking person the right to receive and reply to government documents in their mother tongue.
Equally, there are no laws that privilege Buddhism. The article in the 1972 constitution on Buddhism stated that it would be given "its rightful place" – an article intended by its author Colvin R de Silva, a Trotskyist, to indicate that it would be primus inter pares and nothing more.
Since the LTTE were driven from the East, there has been an election to the Eastern Provincial Council and a Tamil (an ex-Tiger) is the Chief Minister. The government has stated that it will soon hold elections to the Northern Provincial Council.
The root causes of the Tamil insurgency were the affirmative action regulations implemented from 1971 onwards, to enable students from less privileged areas and ethnic groups (particularly Muslims and Indian-origin Tamils) to go to university, which acted against the privileged Sri Lanka Tamils of Colombo and Jaffna in particular (as well as against the privileged Sinhalese of Colombo); and anti-Tamil pogroms carried out by the regime of JR Jayawardene (who had the full backing of the Western Powers) between 1977 and 1983
It should come as no surprise that the Eelam movement originated among privileged expatriate students in London and Manchester in the 1960s and only spread to other sections of the Sri Lanka Tamil community after the pogroms.
Hokandara, Sri Lanka
New coal power station? No thanks
It is bizarre to suggest (letter, 20 May) that the new London Array windfarm, which will save emissions of almost 2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, will only help against climate change if we also build a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth. The latter will emit 6 million tonnes of CO2 per year, even if a quarter of it is fitted with carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) under the Government's new plans.
We cannot pretend that locking the UK into decades of dirty coal will in any way save us – or developing countries, where the effects of climate change are already severe. The solution is to generate our energy using a mixture of low or no-carbon emitting technologies, with CCS piloted on existing coal-fired power stations.
Building new coal power stations with no guarantee of when, if at all, the majority of their emissions will be captured and stored, is playing Russian roulette with the lives of millions.
Dr Alison Doig
Senior Adviser, Climate Change
Christian Aid, London SE1
Film makers break the glass ceiling
Jane Campion, reported on 16 May, suggested that female film directors "toughen up" and "get going", then went on to talk of the "boys' club" of the studio system, describing it as sexist.
Yet sexism is not only in the "studio system" and not always from men; sometimes it seeps out in a different guise, unwittingly supported by a woman within the film industry; Jane Campion's comment, "Women tend to find criticism hard to bear," falls, unfortunately, into that trap.
Some women make great directors, as do some men, yet few women make it to the level of Jane Campion. The problem lies not in women being "too sensitive to succeed as directors", nor the failure of female directors to accept criticism, but from deeply entrenched attitudes to gender when it comes to film directing.
There are now many talented female directors working their way up through the system and it is becoming more normal for younger directors to be women; attitudes take time to change but changing they are, albeit slowly. It's great that Jane Campion made a point of calling for more female directors and disappointing that the words she used managed to undermine the very thing she was calling for.
Exiles in the Sahara desert
We welcome the fact that the situation of the Saharawi people, exiled from Western Sahara to camps in the Algerian desert for three decades, is gaining some coverage ("Riddle of the sands", 15 May). But what is crucial now is to move the story off the culture pages of our newspapers and on to the international pages, where it belongs. The occupation by the Moroccans has been deemed illegitimate by the International Court of Justice, and the Moroccans continue to block the referendum agreed to as part of a UN-brokered ceasefire in 1991.
With Morocco named by the US as a major non-Nato ally, and with many western governments and companies involved in lucrative trade deals with the Moroccans, action has not been high on the international agenda. Large reserves of phosphate, vast fishing grounds and potential offshore reserves of oil and gas make the Western Sahara a possession that the Moroccans will not relinquish lightly.
The British government should take a lead in supporting the right of the Saharawi people for self-determination.
Jeremy Corbyn MP
All Party Parliamentary Group on Western Sahara
House of Commons
Recent letters on school assemblies reminded me of the actor David Benson's account of what, according to the deputy head of his 1970s midland comprehensive, were the essential features of a morning assembly: "A hymn, a prayer, and a bollocking."
Solihull, West Midlands
Michael McCarthy (Nature notebook, 19 May) is troubled by the way herons, although to be marvelled at, eat baby avocets at the London Wetland Centre. He may be consoled to hear that half a mile down the road at Barnes Pond, on our very own "duck island", a Canada goose recently killed a heron, in order to protect current or future goslings. To adapt McCarthy's words, those who live by the beak also die by the beak.
I enjoyed reading John Walsh's quest for England's ultimate tranquil retreat (19 May). It is perhaps not surprising that his search ended in Shropshire. Writing over 100 years ago A E Housman identified an area in the west of the county, Clun and surrounding villages, as "the country for easy livers, the quietest under the sun".
The heading on your third leader (19 May) brought back fond memories of the few occasions I saw Eric Cantona playing for Leeds United. I always understood that it was the Leeds supporters who first used the chant "Ooh aah Cantona". However Sheffield United supporters have indignantly told me they believe they were the first to use the phrase "Ooh aah" but in their case referring to my nephew of the same name as myself; the chant being "Ooh aah Bob Booker" (pronounced Bob Bukah) when he played for them.
Whatever the debates about changing language (letter, 19 May), "news" is neither singular nor plural. It is (or has become) an uncountable noun. Other examples of uncountable nouns are "freedom", "information" and "money". Items or pieces of news are countable, and can therefore appear in the singular or plural.
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