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Letters: Fossil fuel divestment imperils academic freedom

The following letters appear in the 5th February edition of the Independent

Thursday 04 February 2016 19:44 GMT
A climate change protest
A climate change protest (AFP/Getty)

As somebody who has taught and researched climate change longer than most of my colleagues, I can assure you that only some Oxbridge academics “demand an end to fossil fuel investment” (front page, 2 February). Having noted the risk of climate change in your pages in 1992, when only a tiny minority were concerned, I know how controversial or dissenting views can be uncomfortable – and this is very dangerous intellectually. The students and others are of course well intentioned, but a consequence of divestment could be suppression of academic free speech – or even bullying.

The former Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, the ecologist Professor Sir Richard Southwood, once said to me that a university should not take an official position on an environmental topic. His point about the purpose of a university being to foster and present debates is crucial, even when a majority might currently hold a policy-relevant view.

Institutionalising a position on a controversial topic is deeply unhealthy for students and staff. In Oxbridge, the tutorial system, and exams, have always encouraged and rewarded scepticism. We owe it to our students and applicants not to make them feel at all uncomfortable in free expression – with appropriate defence – of positions.

Moreover, the hypocrisy of continuing to benefit from fossil fuels in products and activities, while not being prepared to help deliver them to society, should give philosophers something to discuss for years.

Clive Hambler

Lecturer in Biological and Human Sciences,

Hertford College, Oxford

If Oxbridge divests from fossil fuels, that will be a good start. But there is much else to divest from, not least the arms trade, if these wealthy institutions are serious about an ethical investment policy.

A former Cambridge student recently made a Freedom of Information request for details of the university’s investments. It was refused on the grounds of commercial sensitivity. We are therefore left to speculate that some investments could be linked, for example, to research collaborations including weapons development.

Dennis O’Malley


Cameron’s pick-and-choose Europe

In the EU negotiations, the Prime Minister shows himself, as always, striving to have his cake and eat it.

His proposals, as far as I can tell, are meant to permit the United Kingdom to pick and choose. He will deign to accept what he likes of the Community; anything he opposes can be vetoed or ignored. It’s very much like Google and others deciding when and where they want to pay taxes and how much.

The Union is meant to be a co-operative. If each nation is concerned only with self-interest there is not, nor can there be, a Union. This is not a game between them and us.

Instead of trying to discover ways to obstruct European policy and spending his time trying to charm allied countries into accepting his position, why doesn’t David Cameron devote more time to finding a collective solution to the immigration crisis?

That cannot be resolved by one country alone, and a bit of diplomacy, rather than constant opposition, might have positive effects.

Larry Johnston

Modrydd, Brecon

If the UK cannot get any meaningful change in her terms of membership of the EU, how can she get the other 27 members to support her in international negotiations and “punch above her weight” on the world stage?

Robert Edwards

Hornchurch, Essex

Will someone please give David Cameron a handbag?

Dan Dennis

Philosophy Tutor, Department for Continuing Education, University of Oxford

Tories work for a one-party state

Matthew Norman (3 February) is quite correct: this country is sleepwalking into a one-party state.

Not only is this despicable government gerrymandering constituencies to ensure its victory in future elections, it is working to disenfranchise many young people, on the specious argument that they are more likely to vote Labour.

Anyone who endured the previous 17 years of Conservative government will know how corrupt, self-serving, arrogant, scornful, debased, and incompetent the party becomes when assured of survival.

I despair of the future under the type of hard right-wing government now in place; fascism looms on the horizon.

Pamela Guyatt

Lamerton, Devon

I derided the Lib Dem claims that during the Coalition Government they had put a brake on many of Cameron’s more right-wing policies, but since last May the Tories have shown their true colours.

Matthew Norman’s article highlights the anti-democratic nature of many of these policies: nobbling political adversaries’ funds (Short money, union opt-in) while brazenly inviting the rich and powerful to donate to the Tories; shrinking the state under the guise of austerity; most insidious of all is the use of statutory instruments as a tool of law-making.

As Matthew Norman points out, a one-party state is almost a reality, and I for one do “give a damn”.

Diane Soye

Chorley, Lancashire

This Conservative leader is no Disraeli

Tom Peck’s amusing piece (4 February), comparing the staunch anti-EU arm of the Tory party with “the full might of the British Empire”, jokingly excused Jacob Rees-Mogg “for never quite comprehending that it is no longer 1867”.

There can be no excuse as there is a huge difference. In 1867 there was a Tory leader intent, albeit for reasons resembling a basic fear of revolution, on extending democracy, and with his Reform Act of that year, giving the vote to working-class men. At the first opportunity, Disraeli also extended trade union rights and legalised peaceful picketing with his Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act.

Even Rees-Mogg will have realised that in 2016 we have a Tory prime minister, who like his 19th-century predecessor, claims to be supporting One Nation Conservatism, but who is, in fact, attacking the very principles Disraeli propounded. There can be no claims for 21st-century “Tory Democracy” when we have a prime minister not only reducing numbers of those entitled to the franchise, with his individual registration scheme, but also changing constituency borders to favour his own party.

Bernie Evans


Not all the slaves were black

At least, if there is no formal memorial in the UK to the victims of the African slave trade (letter, 30 January), there is genuine acknowledgment, in museums and in our national school curriculum.

There is a hidden side to the story. The families of two of my four (white, ethnic British) grandparents lost members, taken from their homes by Barbary slavers in (I believe) the 17th century. Such things do live on in family legend. Not comparable to the industrialised horror that was the Atlantic trade, but not nothing.

There is not only no memorial to the Moorish trade in stolen Europeans, which went on for hundreds of years and saw thousands taken into a slavery just as life-destroying as anything in the New World, but little awareness in our curriculum or national consciousness; and uncertain acknowledge-ment by present-day North Africans.

In one respect I’m lucky: there is nobody (so far as I know) still living privileged lifestyles inherited from the suffering of my family in bondage. Then again, a third family member, evicted during the Highland Clearances (letter, 3 February), was then transported for his consequent vagrancy and indentured as a plantation worker, a white slave, also forgotten, in the West Indies.

So maybe, after all, there is someone reading this very letter who is still living off the back of my Scottish ancestor.

Sam Butler

Fleet, Hampshire

What makes gay marriage unique

Your leader writer, while trying to be thought-provoking (“It’s just a £35 cake, not a battleground for gay rights”, 4 February), has made an elementary mistake: supporting gay marriage is not analogous to denying the Holocaust, slurring homosexuality or drawing Mohammed. None of these things is necessary for an equal, fair, civil society; gay marriage is.

James Hutchinson

London W4

Are wind farms a danger to whales?

Watching a televised report on the destruction of the whales found dead on the Lincolnshire coast, I spotted, once again, that in the background there was a large off-shore wind farm, not dissimilar to one shown on Norwegian TV, where another pod of whales met their death.

Does anyone think there could be a connection?

Terry Duncan

Bridlington, East Yorkshire

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