In characterising Labour ministers’ ability to provide a ‘thousand reasons why the Upper House cannot possibly be elected’ as ‘a failure of imagination, nerve and democratic politics’, Ross McKibbin (LRB, 5 July) does not come to grips with the real problem of a revising chamber. If the House of Lords is to be elected, it will either have to be by the same method as the House of Commons or by a different one, presumably some form of proportional representation. In the case of the former, the result would merely be another Labour landslide; in the case of the latter, you would get an Upper Chamber with a greater claim to democratic legitimacy than the Commons – a prescription for gridlock.
Then there is the question of the type of people who would seek and obtain election. They would probably closely resemble the type of people – an increasingly limited group – who seek election to the House of Commons, when what is wanted is a wide range of expertise and experience. Almost all of the candidates would belong to political parties. The Martin Bells would be as much an endangered species in the one chamber as in the other. What we now have is virtually a one-chamber legislature and that chamber is the House of Lords. This is the only place in which the Government is uncertain of being able to carry its legislation as (often poorly) drafted. It is the only place in which its periodic assaults on the liberties of the subject have sometimes been repelled.
The task of constitutional reformers in the new Parliament will be to satisfy the demand for some democratic component in the Upper House without much changing its present character. I have been cudgelling my mind to think of some elegant way of arranging this, but I suppose we will end up with one of the Wakeham options. We should be anxious to avoid being landed with a B team of yah-boo politicians in the name of democracy.
Ross McKibbin is unduly charitable to ‘New’ Labour on two counts. ‘The greatest failure of Old Labour was its reluctance to think about institutions and its narrow conception of democracy,’ he writes. But it was the Callaghan Government of the late 1970s which first attempted to bring in devolved government for Scotland and Wales. This was also a cause dear to John Smith, Blair’s predecessor, but Blair himself has been conspicuously lukewarm about it, and has tried, pretty unsuccessfully, to keep Scotland and Wales ‘under control’. Tony Benn – Old Labour for sure – has always been a champion of democratic and, indeed, republican institutional change. Given the disgraceful mess that New Labour has made of reform of the House of Lords, and the Prime Minister’s relentless exploitation of his powers of patronage, the Party’s commitment to serious democratic reform is much in question.
Second, McKibbin claims that the ‘idea of social solidarity should be central to New Labour’. But the truth is that although New Labour, like the pre-Thatcher Conservative Party, has justifiable anxieties about the corrosive effects of capitalism and the so-called free market on social ties, it is so committed to individualism and meritocracy that in practice it has no policies which can sustain or promote social solidarity. A Government which refuses to utter a word of criticism of the greed and ruthlessness of the rich is in a weak position to preach the virtues of unselfishness and social responsibility to the rest of us.
Do you mind if I smoke?
Groucho Marx’s joke, mentioned by David Bromwich (LRB, 10 May), is probably older than C. McLeod suggests (Letters, 7 June). Joyce, who loved old jokes, provides a version in Finnegans Wake: ‘Akst to whether she minded whither he smuked? Not if he barkst into phlegms.’ Since many of Joyce’s jokes come from music-hall routines and old copies of Punch, it seems likely that this one antedates Chickens Come Home, the Laurel and Hardy movie watched by McLeod, by thirty or forty years.
City University of New York
I don’t care if you burn
If Ian Gilmour looks closely at Kenneth Clarke’s ‘clean’ hands (LRB, 5 July), he will detect the stains caused by his vice-chairmanship of British American Tobacco. His paymasters are still under investigation by the DTI for smuggling cigarettes into countries which are trying to stem the tobacco epidemic. One of these countries is Vietnam, visited by Clarke on BAT business while he was making up his mind whether or not to stand for the Tory leadership. Clarke dismisses those, including cancer charities, who express concerns about the ethics of advertising tobacco at home and abroad as ‘single-issue fanatics’. For Gilmour to claim that he is the best leader the Tories can hope for says as much about the state of the Party’s ethics as it does about Gilmour’s see-no-evil attitude to pro-European Tories.
Charles Glass's account of the rise of Zionism (LRB, 7 June) leaves out important parts of the story. In 1938 half the Reform rabbis in the US were not Zionists and some were outspoken anti-Zionists. By 1950 all Reform rabbis in the US supported Zionism, at least in public. What arose in the interval was the need to find a place of refuge for Jews displaced from Eastern and Central Europe and exiled from Arab lands – about a million people in each category. Because there was no such refuge, Zionism moved from a marginal ideology among world Jewry to a central doctrine grounded in necessity and morality. It was Hitler and the nationalist Arab masses, not Balfour, Weizmann or even Ben-Gurion, who created the Israeli state. If the strict quota for Jewish immigration to the US – imposed in 1924 – had been lifted in 1945, instead of 1965, Zionism would not have triumphed. At least 300,000 Israelis now live in the US and at least half of them are highly educated professionals. The elite in Israel send their children to colleges and graduate schools in the US. The Zionist phase in Jewish history is transitory.
Writing about the rise of Zionism, Charles Glass refers to Lord Cromer as the ‘British Viceroy in Egypt’. Cromer (Maurice Baring as he then was) arrived in Egypt in September 1883 and left in May 1907. Throughout this period he was British Agent and Consul-General, not Viceroy. At the time, Egypt had a relationship with the Ottoman Empire, and was ruled by a prince, or khedive. The British went to Egypt to ‘defend’ him against the Orabi revolt in 1882, stating repeatedly that their presence was temporary. Egypt was never a British colony and the government department dealing with the country was always the Foreign, not the Colonial Office. The situation changed at the start of the First World War, when Britain unilaterally declared Egypt a ‘Protectorate’. This arrangement lasted until 1923 when, after much local agitation, Egypt became an independent sovereign state, albeit with some qualifications.
Salah el Serafy
I was flattered to find my biography of John Gielgud reviewed by Frank Kermode (LRB, 21 June). I must point out, however, that it wasn’t Gielgud who referred to himself as a ‘theatre rat’. it’s a quotation I took from a short piece by Chekhov that Gielgud once filmed. I was hoping to make the connection between the character in the piece and the man who played him, but I seem to have done it rather too well.
In his review of my book Other Traditions (LRB, 7 June), John Palattella states that John Wheelwright ‘published four volumes during his lifetime but he now has only one book in print in the US’. In fact that book is his Collected Poems, published by New Directions in 1972 and still available. It incorporates those four volumes and includes another he had readied for publication before his tragic death in 1940. Palattella also says that David Schubert’s ‘one volume of poetry, Initial A …, is out of print’. That volume, along with previously unpublished poems and biographical material, was included in a Quarterly Review of Literature special number devoted to Schubert. It appeared in 1983 and can still be ordered from the QRL editors, Theodore and Renee Weiss, 26 Haslet Avenue, Princeton, New Jersey 08540.
In his review of John Gray’s Two Faces of Liberalism (LRB, 7 June), Glen Newey claims that Bernard Williams was the first to talk about Agamemnon’s dilemma at Aulis in value pluralist terms. But in his lectures on aesthetics, Hegel speaks of ‘the collision of equally justified powers and individuals’ and gives this example: ‘Agamemnon, as King and commander of the Army, sacrifices his daughter in the interest of the Greeks and the Trojan expedition; thereby he snaps the bond of love for his daughter and his wife.’ This sounds very much like an explicitly pluralist conflict of values to me.
Wolfson College, Oxford
Keep your nose clean
In his discussion of the Government's criminal justice proposals (LRB, 21 June), John Upton seems to belittle the need for a comprehensive criminal code. All the Constitutions written since the war for Commonwealth countries contain these two provisions: 1. that no person shall be convicted of a criminal offence unless that offence is defined, and the penalty therefore is prescribed in a written law and 2. that no person who shows that he has been tried for a criminal offence and either convicted or acquitted shall again be tried for that offence. Does Britain deserve anything less?
P. Le Pelley
In his review of Douglas Dunn (LRB, 21 June), David Wheatley misquoted Larkin’s ‘Card Players’. it’s ‘the secret bestial peace’, not ‘place’.
Germaine Greer’s remark in her essay on Lucy Hutchinson (LRB, 21 June) that to ‘attempt to render Lucretius’ difficult Latin in English was daring enough; to do it in elegant and coherent rhyming couplets was an achievement unattempted by anyone before and unachieved by anyone since, including Thomas Creech in 1682’ reads like a calculated insult to John Dryden, of whose translations from Lucretius in his poems from Sylvae of 1685 she can hardly be unaware.
Sink the ‘Bismarck’!
Ludovic Kennedy states (Letters, 24 May) that there were only three survivors of the sinking of the Hood. There was, in fact, one further survivor. John Macnamara, son of the minor Irish poet Francis Macnamara and brother-in-law of Dylan Thomas (and also of myself), was an engineer on the ship. He would have been aboard the Hood had he not been in jail at Portsmouth, having accidentally killed a shipmate in a brawl shortly before she sailed.
After the sinking of the Hood, the rhyme quoted by Pamela Oakley (Letters, 21 June) was altered to
Roll out the Rodney
The Nelson, Renown.
You can’t have the Hood
’Cause the bugger’s gone down!