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Letters


The Shit We’re In

John Lanchester writes of the ‘structural deficit’ without putting that fiction under any pressure (LRB, 3 January). To begin with, if there was such a large and growing gap in the public finances, was it an urgent problem of over-expenditure, or was it really a crisis of revenue collection, as tax laws favourable to corporations and a lack of enforcement allow an ever increasing share of GDP to escape the public purse? What is clear is that in May 2010 the percentage of UK GDP which went to servicing debt, even after the impact of the 2008 crisis, was, at 2.5 per cent, at the lowest level enjoyed by any Conservative government since Lord Salisbury was at the Treasury in 1900. By no metric in 2010 was the present or projected debt burden of the UK in historical terms very high, let alone unsustainable.

What Lanchester calls the ‘tweaky accounting’ of the Royal Mail pension fund is just a variant of Brown and Balls’s manipulation of the public balance sheet after 1997. This was not just about making the public finances look good to the bond markets. From the 1980s, with Labour’s full participation, there were continual attempts to turn state spending on the public good based on general taxation into forms of private provision of services (rail, hospitals and infrastructure), all of which provided monopoly or near-monopoly rent-seeking opportunities for private capital. What almost all commentators on the student fees issue of 2010 seem to have missed was that Clegg and Osborne’s new model of higher education funding was really just a kind of PFI financing which, over the long term, as student debt financing is ultimately securitised and spun off to private finance, will create a highly lucrative income stream, guaranteed by the state, but with private actors harvesting interest payments.

‘Austerity’ today is being used deliberately, across the board, to justify the acceleration of this transfer of public services into private hands. The ‘cuts’ which follow from Con-Dem policies are not going to be felt merely as unemployment. They will also come indirectly, as consumers pay higher prices to private companies for inferior services, in the inflation-eroded salaries of public servants, and in the poorer wages and pensions of private-sector employees. The price of austerity will be a long-term decline in the standard of living of the majority of the population, and an acceleration of the now thirty-year-long experiment in transferring wealth from the poor and middle classes to the richest. By this measure, pace Lanchester, a powerful minority might consider this success rather than ‘failure’.

Richard Drayton
Kings College London

John Lanchester’s indictment of the government’s economic policy, damning though it is, is in one respect at least still too generous. Health spending, he says, is ‘still growing in real terms’. But in early December the UK Statistics Authority told David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt they had to stop saying that, because it wasn’t true: ‘Expenditure on the NHS in real terms was lower in 2011-12 than it was in 2009-10.’

Martin Sanderson
Ipswich


Any Big Brown Snake

Bee Wilson writes that Nancy Langhorne, later Lady Astor, killed a ‘moccasin snake’ in Virginia, which was then only marginally within the water moccasin range (LRB, 20 December 2012). Currently, owing to climate change, these fat brown snakes are creeping further north but it is more likely that she did in a brown water snake with her riding crop. There is still a general propensity in that part of Virginia and its environs to call any big brown snake a water moccasin.

D.E. Steward
Princeton, New Jersey


Universities under Attack

No one could quarrel with the aim of making publicly funded scholarship freely available to all. However, under the government’s plans for publication in academic journals, UK scholars are in danger of ceding control over the publication of their own work to those who manage research in academic institutions and, in the process, losing their international standing.

What is now being proposed, following the recommendations of the Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Janet Finch, is that all research funded by the research councils or by Hefce (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) must be published in journals that make it ‘publicly available online’. Currently, academic journals are produced and distributed by commercial publishers, who charge university libraries for subscriptions. Academics give their services for free in evaluating, selecting and editing articles submitted to the journals. Under a system known as ‘gold’ open access, journals will depend entirely for their revenue on fees paid by the authors of the articles they publish. In return for this ‘article processing charge’ (APC), the publisher will make the article immediately accessible online, free of charge to the user. Where the authors are employed in UK universities, the intention is for the APC to be paid by their university. However, many authors – graduate students, post-docs, the retired, independent scholars and most scholars from abroad – will not be in a position to pay an APC.

Despite its strong public support for gold open access, the government accepts that because it is making only a limited amount of money available to universities to pay for APCs, an alternative form of open access will be required. This will be known as ‘green’ open access. Under this system an article in an academic journal will become openly accessible only after a period of embargo. The assumption here is that academic journals will continue to rely on subscription income alongside APCs, but it is unclear whether the government considers this acceptable in the longer term. Meanwhile Research Councils UK has insisted that the period of embargo for articles in humanities and social science journals must be no longer than 12 months, which is too short to sustain the viability of a subscription model.

Three features of these proposals are particularly damaging. First, the pot of money provided by the government to fund APCs will be small and it will be up to each university to decide how much money to add to the pot from other funds (principally, library budgets). A system of rationing will be needed. University managers already exercise considerable control over the research of individual academics since the amount of money available to each university for research depends on its performance in the periodic assessments of research. Now that they will be dispensing APCs too, the managers will acquire even greater control. Will Professor Jane Bloggs be allowed to send her article to leading journal X with its high APC? Is it in the university’s interest for early-career scholar Dr Joe Bloggs to publish in leading journal X, given that he may be at another university by the time the next research assessment takes place? Should he be encouraged instead to submit his work to an electronic journal that will publish it for free but doesn’t have the same prestige, or standard of production, as commercially published academic journals? These are the kinds of decision that university managers will be forced to make. Moreover, by introducing considerations of cost into decisions about publication, the new system threatens the robust system of peer review operated by academic journals.

Second, Research Councils UK will accept publication only in ‘compliant’ journals. Hefce is now following suit, and seems minded to insist that only articles published in journals that accept gold or green open access will be eligible for submission to the next assessment of research, which is likely to take place in 2020. Since many world-class journals outside the UK don’t offer open access, we risk seeing UK scholars prevented from publishing in these, thereby undermining the international standing of UK scholarship.

Third, the kind of licence that Research Councils UK insists be used for all ‘compliant’ publications, a CC-BY licence, allows commercial re-use of material, data mining, re-mix and re-publication, so long as the author is ‘credited’. This goes much further than the Finch Report proposed and would seriously undermine the integrity of the work scholars produce.

Many aspects of the proposals are good. We have an instinctive sympathy for open access: all scholars, not only those supported by public funding, have an interest in seeing their work disseminated as widely as possible. But there needs to be much more public discussion of the implications of the current proposals for academic freedom, the international standing of UK scholarship and intellectual property rights.

Colin Jones, Queen Mary University of London, Peter Mandler, Cambridge, Lyndal Roper, Oxford, Stephen A. Smith, Oxford, Alexandra Walsham, Cambridge, Chris Wickham, Oxford


Our Joan

Andrew McCullough, in his response to my piece about Joan of Arc, ends by saying, ‘If the right want her they can surely have her’; R.W. Johnson seems to be tarring her with the same brush, recalling a dim heroine of colonial propaganda from the French war in Indochina (Letters, 20 December 2012 and Letters, 3 January). Both show startling complacency about mythical and political symbols brandished by propagandists for their ideological ends (or is it weariness they’re suffering from?); they also incidentally reveal how the Front National’s historiography is gaining ground. This is disturbing for many reasons, not least because it exposes such holes in historical memory.

I don’t single out Joan of Arc for her military skills or political acumen – though the lifting of the siege of Orleans changed the direction of the Hundred Years War, and the coronation at Rheims was a symbolic triumph – but focus on her trial because it gives us one of the most vivid, fully recorded voices in history; with forthrightness, sincerity and flashes of wit, an unlettered young woman conspicuously stands up to the crushing power of church and state. After hundreds of years, her spirit rises off the page, and identifies her with ideals of integrity and justice, freedom of thought and worship, safety from persecution and torture, resistance to oppressors and respect for individuals.

The magnetism the historical person exerts has since been enriched by historical, poetic and cinematic accretions that can’t now be chipped off her. It’s clearly in the interests of the Front National to claim this national heroine and saint as their political precursor, and Marine Le Pen wants Joan’s stardust to rub off on her personally, unlikely as that may seem. One of the misapprehensions which it suits the Front National to perpetuate concerns the role of the English. In 1429-30, Joan was fighting against the French as much as against the English: the Burgundians were supporting the claim of the English king, the baby Henry VI, to the French throne (according to the Treaty of Troyes, the son of Henry V and his queen, the French princess Catherine, was the legitimate heir). Joan was condemned to the stake by a court dominated by French clerics, many of them from Paris.

Seeing dynastic, feudal conflicts through the lens of modern ethnic nationalism distorts understanding of the past, and the Hundred Years War remains messily complicated. In Johnson’s case, it’s particularly disturbing that he finds it possible to equate the experience of defeat in World War Two with the perception of ‘being overwhelmed by foreign Muslims’. It is this kind of move that concedes ground to the Front National, who have forgotten that ‘foreign Muslims’ fought in great numbers with the Liberation forces that freed France from the Occupation; together with other Muslims, both then and later in the case of the Harkis in the Algerian war, these French troops were notoriously shabbily treated, and many of today’s tensions can be traced back to this expedient forgetting.

Marina Warner
London NW5


Who split first?

Jackson Lears writes: ‘On Christmas Eve 1938, in Sweden, the physicists Lise Meitner, one of the few “girls” among the knaben, and Otto Frisch … bombarded a uranium nucleus with a neutron, making the nucleus wobble, then split into barium and krypton’ (LRB, 20 December 2012). The bombardment of the uranium nucleus with slow neutrons was first carried out in Rome in 1934 by Fermi and his group, and he considered it likely that they had produced transuranic elements. It was Hahn and Strassmann, working in Berlin late in 1938, who did the bombarding that found barium. Hahn sent a letter to Meitner, his former colleague, asking for the explanation, since he was a chemist and relied on her for physics.

Frank Tangherlini
San Diego, California

Jackson Lears states that ‘the manufacture of uranium would require building the first nuclear reactor.’ What he should have said is ‘the manufacture of plutonium …’ Lears makes another error when, after referring to the failure of the gun assembly plutonium bomb, ‘Thin Man’, he writes that Oppenheimer moved on to design a plutonium implosion bomb. This didn’t involve ‘bringing together several subcritical mass pieces’, as Lears states, but rather imploding a single spherical subcritical mass of plutonium to an extremely dense – and, therefore, critical – mass by exploding a carefully designed charge of high and low explosives around it. This design made for a bulky, spherical bomb, which was why it was named ‘Fat Man’.

Tony Cheney
Ipswich


Every Man with Every Man

In the course of an interesting discussion of the different ways in which Hobbes has been read by contemporary historians, Phil Withington offers a brief account of Hobbes’s theory of the state, one element of which he describes as ‘the basic contract between governors and governed’ (LRB, 3 January). What Hobbes proposes is not a contract between governors and governed, but a covenant ‘of every man with every man’ whereby each gives up his right of governing himself to one man or assembly of men, on condition that the others do so too. This is the creation of Leviathan, a commonwealth in which a multitude of men unite to institute a sovereign whose actions are authorised by each and every one of them. The sovereign is not a party to this, as Hobbes emphasises, explaining that because his authority is given to him ‘by covenant only of one to another, and not of him to any of them’, he cannot forfeit that authority by breach of covenant. The sovereign cannot do just as he likes; his office is to procure the good of the people, to which he is obliged, not by contract, but by the law of nature, and is accountable to God, and to no one else. It is evident that Hobbes’s argument for absolutism depends on the sovereign’s not being a party to the covenant.

John Benson
Kendal, Cumbria


Gentlemanly Pastime

Thomas Keymer writes about Eliza Haywood, who was arrested in 1749 and questioned about her pamphlet attacking George II but supposedly written by a Gentleman of the Bedchamber serving the Young Pretender (LRB, 3 January). Three years earlier, another bookseller, Ralph Griffiths, had been hauled in to explain his novel, Ascanius, which featured Charles Edward Stuart as the protagonist. Griffiths represented the book as a gentlemanly pastime, ‘a pleasant expedient … calculated for no bad purposes whatever’, and insisted on his loyalty to the Protestant succession. The novel did well. An earlier pamphlet of his, purporting to be the letters of executed Jacobites, had been seized and his whole stock confiscated. He got off by protesting that the letters only pretended to be real; or, as he put it when complaining about the loss of time and expense in going backwards and forwards to Westminster trying to retrieve his property, represented ‘the whimsical production of my own Brain’. Fact or fiction, political allegiance or opportunity to sell words? Nobody knows. But I don’t think we have to assume, as Keymer suggests, that Haywood ‘never really mattered enough’ to be prosecuted. Booksellers like Griffiths and Haywood knew how to play the game with the authorities. Griffiths, mind you, could be more direct. When the Duke of Newcastle’s men came for him after he published Fanny Hill, he reportedly threatened them ‘with a large hammer’. He wasn’t prosecuted for that, either.

Norma Clarke
London N15


What a State Might Do

A few years ago an exhibition of photographs in Safarikovo Square in Bratislava commemorated the 40th anniversary of the uprising against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The square was near my apartment and several times I saw older men speaking emphatically to the student at the information desk. When I asked her what the men were saying she told me they wanted the tanks to come back. Under Communism, they said, we could be sent away to camps if we said the wrong thing, or even if we said nothing, but everyone had a job, and healthcare and education were free. What you did at home was your own affair. You had a private life. Today we can say and do what we want. But unemployment is high while healthcare and education are expensive.

Neal Ascherson argues that Anne Applebaum, in her book Iron Curtain, questions not only totalitarian Communist regimes but also the welfare state (LRB, 20 December 2012). She sees what was wrong with Communism but fails to see what its attraction was; what, in short, a state might do for its citizens. It would never have been possible in imperial Russia or the Austro-Hungarian Empire for a peasant to be a teacher, a miner a lawyer, a woman a doctor. Under Communism, at least at first, the playing field in Eastern Europe had been level as it had not been before.

Robert Buckeye
Middlebury, Vermont


Right to Work

Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands want our support for their minority report to the Commission on a Bill of Rights, arguing that if there is to be ‘any change to the Human Rights Act, it should reinforce the European Convention, not undermine it’ (LRB, 3 January). Yet neither of these documents includes the essential ‘right to work’ that was in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent


Ancient Refrigerators

Mary Beard describes the conundrum of the big storage jars set into the shop counters of Pompeii and Herculaneum: they were unglazed, which would surely make them unsuitable for the storage of food or drink (LRB, 3 January). In some hot countries, such as Spain and India, porous pots are still used to cool water. In a process similar to human sweating, water stored in the pots slowly seeps to the surface and evaporates, thereby cooling the pot and the water that remains inside. In a more modern, African take on this old idea, glazed food-storage pots are placed in wet sand inside larger porous pots to make solar-powered ‘pot-in-pot refrigerators’. Perhaps Mary Beard’s enigmatic jars were the Roman equivalent of wine chillers.

Richard Carter
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire


Like Alan Bennett …

Grammar schools such as Leeds did not, as Alan Bennett says they did, ‘turn themselves into direct grant schools on the introduction of comprehensives’ (LRB, 3 January). By that time they had been direct grant for more than forty years. After the advent of comprehensives in the 1960s and then the Labour government’s abolition of the direct grant system in 1976 they had the option of becoming entirely independent, which Leeds and most of the other 177 direct grant schools decided to do – thus giving the independent education sector its biggest boost in modern times.

David Woodhead
Leatherhead, Surrey

‘The only other notable resident of Bramhope,’ Alan Bennett writes, ‘is (or was) Saddam Hussein’s cousin.’ Other famous Bramhope residents have included rugby commentator Eddie Waring and Chris Norman of the band Smokie. It was also the birthplace of Jeremy Paxman.

Joe Swan
Leeds


Product Placement

A recent episode of BBC1’s Last Tango in Halifax included the estranged, intellectual dreg husband of a sexually ambiguous school principal. The husband has on his side table, next to a drained whisky bottle, a neatly folded copy of the LRB – a flag of intelligence or a status symbol? I’m sorry to say I think it’s the latter. Who in this world returns the paper back to coverfold when reading?

Jonathan Hauxwell
Crosshills, North Yorkshire