Vol. 19 No. 10 · 22 May 1997

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Under the Loincloth

While the Virgin Birth is certainly an extremely unlikely event, it is nonetheless not quite so genetically miraculous as Barbara Smoker thinks (Letters, 8 May). Very nearly, but not quite. She states that if the Virgin Mary had undergone parthenogenesis (a sort of spontaneous self-cloning), then the offspring would always be female, since Mary would not have possessed the Y chromosome which defines maleness. However, there is a very rare mutation which can produce individuals who are chromosomally XY, but look like completely normal females. They are usually sterile, but not necessarily so. Hence, it is not completely impossible to imagine Nature producing a mutant XY virgin with working female sex organs, who also undergoes parthenogenesis and gives birth to a male child. There are several other related possibilities, discussed in a recent article in Science and Christian Belief, but the point is that the Virgin Birth is genetically plausible without calling on the miraculous.

Mark Harris
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

Dangerous Error

The working of the Constitution of the United Kingdom depends on the relationship between government, Parliament and the judiciary. Since the end of the Eighties, when respect for judges had sunk to a new low, efforts have been made to improve their public image and to enhance their status. Mr Justice Sedley’s article on the common law and the Constitution (LRB, 8 May) is part of this process. Sedley claims that only in Parliament and the courts reside the sovereignties of the state. To arrive at this curious conclusion, Parliament is set up as the source of ‘executive policy and practice’, its function being to ensure that governments ‘conform to its wishes’. Parliament, we are told, does not itself govern directly because it ‘lacks the resources’ to do so (partly because government is ‘complex’ and partly because Parliament uses its powers inefficiently and ‘underfunds’ its personnel). Of all things, that old bogey, delegated legislation, is paraded as evidence of evil doings. I had thought such elementary misunderstandings of the Constitution had been finally laid to rest 65 years ago by the Committee on Ministers’ Powers. Parliament has never governed and has never claimed the right to govern (except by Cromwell for a short period before he gave up the attempt as unworkable). Government is the function of the Queen’s ministers, who are brought into office as the result of a general election. They make laws which are approved by Parliament, with or without amendment, and then they put the laws into effect.

Next we are told: ‘Ministerial government enjoys a high degree of autonomy, enabling it in large part to control the Parliament to which it is theoretically subordinate.’ Not so. Her Majesty’s Government is not and never has been subordinate, in theory or practice, to Parliament, even though an adverse vote in the Commons may bring that government to an end. Over the years, the House of Commons has been able to insist, in greater or less degree, that ministers should be accountable. Neither of these two great institutions is ‘subordinate’ to the other. Each performs its own functions and interacts with the other.

So we come to the central thesis: ‘It is crucial to stress the constitutional fact that the executive does not possess anything which can accurately be called sovereignty.’ This is sophistry. To assert, as Sedley does (note the weasel words ‘fact’ and ‘accurately’), that the Queen’s Government derives its legitimacy not from its election by the people but from the prerogative and the legislature, and therefore does not partake of sovereignty, is fantasy. So, finally, in an attempt to deny the existence of the political Constitution the better to insist that Parliament and the judges are sole sovereigns, we are told that ‘there is no constitutional requirement that ministers must be accountable to the representatives of the electorate.’ It is a necessary part of Sedley’s argument that conventions are ‘fragile’ sources of constitutional law.

These various misinterpretations and misunderstandings of the Constitution serve to construct a legalistic artifice in which ‘the common law has tried conscientiously to maintain the rule of law’ and to perform ‘its proper, non-confrontational role’. No one doubts the importance of the common law courts in containing government power. But it is a massive and dangerous error to believe they can be a substitute for politics.

John Griffith
Marlow, Bucks

The Great British Council Disaster

John Davis’s experiences with the British Council in Athens (Letters, 24 April) prompt me to relate what these ‘promoters of British culture’ have been up to in Cologne lately. Until this year the British Council in Cologne provided a library service for its members, open for three hours a day. Because it was not uncommon for the British Council to close with little warning, I did not think much further of the ‘temporary closure for improvements’ which took place in March and April of this year. However, when the British Council finally reopened, the entire literature section of the library had been spirited away to make way for computers! Secondary literature had been drastically reduced and of the remaining books only a small selection of contemporary novels can be taken out. When I asked where the books were, I was given the mysterious information that they had been ‘sent to Leipzig’. When I demanded my money back for my annual membership I was told, all the new computers notwithstanding, that this would cause ‘a lot of difficult paperwork’ and was presented, ironically enough, with a selection of works by Rudyard Kipling in place of a refund, which makes me wonder if ‘sent to Leipzig’ is a British Council ephemism for ‘given/thrown away’.

Michael Walker

In Search of New Enemies

Samuel Huntington’s advocacy of a monoculturalist West in The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order is rubbished by Stephen Holmes (LRB, 24 April), who claims hybridity is now the norm for which the only relevant values are universal, liberal ones. The devil as usual is in the detail, the move from the general to the particular. Both turn to the war in Bosnia as symbolic of our age. Holmes, the multi-ethnicist, accuses Huntington of treating ethnic hatred and religious intolerance dispassionately, avoiding ‘value-judgments of any sort’ and not showing the ‘usual liberal discomfort’. But how have the multi-ethnicists reacted to the largest single instance of ethnic cleansing in Europe since 1945, Croatia’s murderous clearance of the Krajina Serb nation in August 1995? Far from displaying the usual liberal discomfort, they have simply ignored it. At least Huntington is consistent in his approach.

Holmes seems blissfully unaware that multi-ethnicity/pluralism in long-established states is essentially a matter of treating dispersed minorities civilly pending their assimilation. Hyphenated Americans have no choice but to accept the white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant ethos of the Founding Fathers; newcomers to London have to acknowledge that Greater England rules. Bosnia found itself devoid of any such framework once the multi-ethnic former Yugoslavia was prematurely broken up.

More important, the former Yugoslavia defined itself as multinational, a word missing from Holmes’s vocabulary. Yugoslavia was ‘strongly’ multinational like the Lebanon rather than ‘notionally’ like the UK. Bosnia itself was constitutionally multi-national (Muslim, Serb and Croat) despite being part of a greater whole. Yet when Yugoslavia was suddenly done away with, it was automatically assumed by ‘concerned’ outsiders that the people of Bosnia would in a flash do what had never been done before: make a giant leap from an explicitly multinational administrative unit to a sovereign multi-ethnic citizens’ state.

Then there is the manner of Yugoslavia’s break-up which, unlike that of the former Soviet Union, was ultimately orchestrated by outsiders. To absolve these outsiders, as Holmes appears to do, of any of the blame for Yugoslavia’s descent into hell is truly a cop-out.

Why was Germany allowed to take the lead in policy matters given its appalling record this century in the lands of the South Slavs? Bonn’s encouragement of unilateral secession violated diplomatic convention as well as the Helsinki Accords. The EU decreed in superpower fashion that federal Yugoslavia had ceased to exist and that the federal units created by winner-take-all referenda would be the successor states. The EU knew better than the Yugoslav Constitution, whose first sentence granted the right of secession to the constituent nations rather than the federal units. It was to be all give by the unionist Serbs and all take by the secessionists. Worse still, the EU was ready to lay down the law without being willing to enforce it.

Yugo Kovach

Out of Africa

No surprise that with the Soviets gone, a hero of the Cold War might search for new adventure in the Bolivian jungle (LRB, 3 April and LRB, 24 April). Less surprising still that such a paladin should find danger any place he looks, whether it exists or not Yet, let’s face it, there simply are no alligators in South America, neither are there any mambas. Many wildlife populations have shrunk due to hunting and loss of habitat, and large specimens of major species are rarer than they once were. As for those hostile rancheros, their reaction to the Luttwak party would seem to be natural behaviour for serious workers (coca cultivation is, after all, important to most Bolivians) who at the end of a long day find themselves rudely accosted by a gang of gringo greenhorns tricked out in Abercrombie and Fitch’s latest gear. Just what did the Luttwaks think they were going to do with that Leatherman knife? Or did they both have knives? Luttwak seems confused about this as well.

A.C. Hall

Our Man in Burma

In his review of Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth (LRB, 20 March), Jeremy Harding manfully declares himself an anti, ending his first paragraph: ‘The sooner it is opposed, the better.’ Kaplan can be faulted mainly on two counts. First, there are the places where his authority is weak, notably in his superficial and unduly bullish passages on Thailand. Second, his omission of any discussion of the World Bank/IMF and the problem of debt seems to me less like ‘carelessness’ (Harding’s term) than wilful blindness. But on both counts detractors must take care. Too much of what passes for criticism is self-satisfied preaching to the converted. Perhaps Kaplan’s agenda is rightist. But by leaning consistently rightward, he articulates hard questions we all must face. For example, citing the ugly human rights record of President Karimov of Uzbekistan, he writes:

Karimov, the Nigerian generals, and others like them are betting that democracy is not the final word in political evolution. The West believes they are wrong. But what if they are right, or even partly right, in their cases? For us it’s a matter of principle; for tens of millions threatened by the spectre of civil conflict, it is a matter of life and death.

As a close watcher of events in Burma, I sense that Kaplan has put his finger on that country’s true dilemma. Unlike many writers, Kaplan has the courage to try to venture beyond his own limitations.

Ethan Casey

Short History of an Injustice

Readers of the incredible story of Adriano Sofri, Ovidio Bompressi and Giorgio Pietrostefani, told by Carlo Ginzburg in the LRB of 3 April, may be interested to know how they can obtain further information on the case. There is an excellent web-site run by Sofri’s son, Luca, at www.sofri.org. A UK campaign is beginning to take shape and there is an appeal which supporters of Sofri can sign if they wish. (They should contact me at UCL.) A French publisher is translating Ginzburg’s booklet, The Judge and the Historian, which compares the first trial to a witch-trial. Perhaps there is an English publisher who would think of doing the same thing?

John Foot
Department of Italian


Eric Korn’s review of the second volume of Adrian Desmond’s biography of T.H. Huxley (LRB, 24 April), noting that Huxley ‘constructed a respectable, almost a pious agnosticism’, misleadingly states that he did this ‘while distancing himself from the political atheists Bradlaugh, Watts, Holyoake’, and even more misleadingly adds that ‘when the Agnostic Annual pirated a piece of his, Huxley was furious.’ Huxley did distance himself from Charles Bradlaugh, who was indeed a ‘political atheist’, though Desmond exaggerates the militancy of his methods. But Huxley didn’t distance himself from G.J. Holyoake, who adopted secularism in 1851 precisely to avoid atheism and was as much of a snob as Huxley; the two were in friendly contact for several decades. There were actually two freethinkers called Charles Watts, though Desmond confuses them, and neither of them called himself an atheist; Charles Watts preferred secularism and his son Charles Albert preferred agnosticism, both later adopted rationalism, and Charles Albert formed the ultra-respectable Rationalist Press Association. When he prepared the first issue of the Agnostic Annual, in 1883, he approached several leading agnostics for statements to be included in it. When it was published Huxley complained that his letter had been a private communication, but when Watts published their correspondence it was clear that he was wrong. They soon made up their quarrel, were in touch for several years, and in 1891 Huxley contributed an article on miracles to the Agnostic Annual. In this case, too, Desmond exaggerates the militancy of Watts and his associates.

Nicolas Walter
London N1

Gospel Truth

Robert Ostermann (Letters, 24 April) is largely right: the Septuagint translation of II Chronicles 36:17 – ‘he delivered all of them over into his grip’ – does use paradidomi and may be relevant toan understanding of I Corinthians 11:23b. Our versions of Chronicles are, naturally, translations from the Hebrew original. L.C.L. Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint rightly reads: ‘he delivered all things into their hands.’ ‘All things’ seems to refer both to the people and to the treasures mentioned in the next verse. But the relevant point is that it is God who does the delivering. The same may be true of I Corinthians 11:23b, as has quite often been suggested; the unnamed agent of the handing over is neither Judas nor the Sanhedrin, but God himself. It is generally acknowledged that he who raised up Jesus from the dead at Romans 4:24 is the one who did the delivering (paradidomi) in the next verse: ‘Who was delivered up for our offences and was raised up for our justification.’

Since we have gone to the Chronicler, in his Greek (Septuagint) translation, we ought also to take note of I Chronicles 12:17. David, a guerrilla leader on the run from King Saul, meets a group from Benjamin and Juda and says to them: ‘If ye are come peaceably to me, let my heart be at peace with you; but if you are come to betray [paradidomi] me to my enemies unfaithfully, the God of your fathers look upon it and reprove it.’ The Hebrew verb is not the same as in II Chronicles 36:17, and is, in the lexicon, given as ‘beguile, deal treacherously with’, but the old Greek translator found it possible to use paradidomi. Hyam Maccoby’s view (Letters, 6 March) that ‘handing over’ is unsuitable when referring to Judas Iscariot, because Judas does not have possession of Jesus as a captive, fails to take account of the range of meanings for paradidomi. David’s doubtful recruits, doubtful to him at that point, do not have possession of him, and ‘handing over’ could take several forms.

W.L. Smith
Newark, Nottinghamshire

Art v. Heritage

We must point out that once again Alastair Niven (Letters, 24 April) misses the point. Like all small ventures, we are aware of the importance of marketing and six years ago an Arts Council marketing grant enabled us to increase Outposts’ subscription list. We are not against this kind of support. Like Dr Niven, we find that ‘reports and surveys’ are not the answer. Outposts after 50 years of publishing, and the Hippopotamus Press after 22 years of publishing books, know where to aim their marketing material. Our argument is that these ventures should be assisted with funding, so that they can increase their sales to the point where they no longer need subsidy. This certainly happened with Outposts for a brief spell. Unfortunately, the recession wiped out much of the good work that we carried out with the Arts Council’s assistance. The plea in our original letter was for financial support for ventures like ours with a proven track record. Constantly failing to receive Arts Council support seems very like being ignored.

Roland John, Anna Martin
Hippopotamus Press, Frome, Somerset

New Fletter, Old Danger

The LRB is to be applauded for publishing Stephen Smith’s piece on the Liverpool dockers’ dispute in its first issue of the Blair era (LRB, 8 May). Even so the framework in which Smith puts the dispute – that of The Road to Wigan Pier – is all wrong. The dispute would not have found the support that it has if it did not touch a very modern concern about job losses and ruthless employers. While it is probably right not to expect Blair to do anything to resolve the dispute, his emphasis on fairness in society suggests that he should use the influence which the substantial government stake in the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board gives him, to sort matters out.

Keith Flett
London N17

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