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Letters

Vol. 20 No. 13 · 2 July 1998

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Plato’s Gulag

There are a great many things to say about M.F. Burnyeat’s brilliant piece on Plato’s Republic (LRB, 21 May), but for someone like me, brought up under Communism, what stands out immediately is the similarity of Plato’s ideas to those of Stalin. The difference is that the dictator understood, and the philosopher did not, that to turn poets and writers into ‘engineers of the human soul’ one must have prison camps and firing squads.

Charles Simic
Strafford, New Hampshire

Internationalist and Revolutionary

Jenny Hinton (Letters, 18 June) fashionably decries the uselessness of British demonstrations against the Vietnam War. We didn’t end the war, of course, that was done by the Vietnamese people. But at least we made it impossible for successive British Governments to send British troops to kill and die in Vietnam. (Quite a few politicians and some public figures like Bernard Levin and Kingsley Amis were in favour of this.) I wish we had as strong a movement today in order to prevent Blair and Co from poodling along behind the US whenever they decide to order up Gulf War Two or whatever’s next on the menu.

Footnote: I never saw demonstrators pulling razor blades on the police in Grosvenor Square. How many did this and how many police were slashed? I only saw a few bits of turf flung before I was chased by a mounted cop with a baton and hid behind a pacifist tree.

Adrian Mitchell
London NW5

What is Jenny Hinton on about? I was at Grosvenor Square, and saw no demonstrators ‘drawing razor blades’. Where were they carrying them? In portable razors? In secret blade-holders? Did they injure any police? If so, why didn’t the police make an issue out of it? And why haven’t we heard about it before?

Peter Gillman
London SE25

Robert Lowell may have said that ‘he was glad not to have been a revolutionary when young, because it prevented him from becoming a reactionary bore in his old age’: but that doesn’t sound like Lowell the World War Two conscientious objector who later protested against the Vietnam War. Perhaps Christopher Hitchens (LRB, 4 June) was thinking of another Robert, who wrote:

I never dared be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.

Robert Frost, in 1936.

William Logan
Cambridge

Here come the judges

Conor Gearty seems to have made two fundamental misjudgments (LRB, 4 June). First, he believes that we in Britain live not in the shadow of élite absolutism but in a genuine democracy. Or as he puts it: ‘Now the UnitedKingdom stands alone, as one of the last places where a Parliament of elected representatives can speak conclusively for the people.’ Second, as the quotation shows, Gearty believes that there is such a thing as ‘the people’ – a national voice that has ‘conclusive’ or singular views. These strange beliefs are untroubled by the absence of any evidence in their favour. By the same token, or lack of it, they allow him to attack the constitutionalising of power involved in sharing sovereignty and codifying rights. Such developments, in his view, threaten democracy and, indeed, are driven by what he terms, ‘post-democratic liberalism’ (my emphasis). There is an underlying myth, in all this, of a golden, democratic past.

Three difficulties – conceptual, political and professional – impair Gearty’s review of my book This Time. He and his colleague Keith Ewing have a zero-sum notion of sovereignty. For them, sovereign power resides either with elected politicians or with judges. It cannot be shared. Yet, in a range of ways, sovereignty today is being shared even while it is being attacked by the agencies of the global market (including judicial ones). To establish democracy under conditions of shared sovereignty, power needs to have a constitutional framework, especially for the protection of minorities. The Northern Ireland Peace Agreement contains an institutional commitment to ‘partnership, equality and mutual respect’ and an emphatic section on human rights. While it may have emerged out of an attempt to overcome Ulster’s primitivism, the Agreement represents a more advanced constitutional culture than Westminster’s. Gearty supported the Agreement. Apparently what is good enough for Ireland is not good enough for the rest of us. But it will be.

This leads to Gearty’s second difficulty. He has opposed Charter 88. Yet in ten or fifteen years’ time he will not want to teach his students that Britain should tear up its constitution and return to the royal prerogative. A belief in the need to sustain ‘civil and political pressure’ on the courts pulls him reluctantly towards agreement with the Charter 88 approach, even if I am a victim of his resistance. Thus he singles out the use of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to convict a peaceful, non-obstructive gathering on a road near Stonehenge and criticises the judges for their ruling. I also analyse this incident but focus more on how the Bill was passed. At first it consisted of 117 sections: by the time it received the Royal Assent it had 172 sections and was a hundred pages longer. Most changes were due to late government amendments. Even members of the Lords complained that basic rules of law and order were debated ‘after midnight in an inquorate House’.

In my view, pressure for constitutional change should start from a broader understanding of the structures of power than the one Gearty provides with his focus on human rights law and its hypocrisies. He reflects the partial nature of contemporary constitutional discussion in Britain, and its unwillingness to debate strategies for change. He ignores my chapter about this, indeed, nothing, it seems, can be added to the debate from such a contaminated source. He states that Part 1, which is about 1997, contains ‘little or nothing in an analytical vein’. But I propose at least two novel arguments: that 1997 saw the first General Election since 1966 in which Powellism (carefully defined) was clearly the loser and, second, that public opinion, which in the Seventies would have rejected a tax-raising Parliament in Scotland or a Welsh Assembly, had now shifted to make such reforms possible. This analysis is developed in my assessment of the public response to Diana’s death, which was hardly republican but was not monarchist in the traditional sense. I show that British opinion has shifted towards a written constitution with a ‘hereditary presidency’ – a Swedish phrase – of the kind found in five EU states. My arguments may be wrong, but they are certainly analytical. A new NOP poll suggests they are not so wide of the mark. It shows support for a written constitution at 85 per cent.

Finally, there is academic nervousness. I observe that the standard division of state power into three branches – the legislature, executive and judiciary – is ‘inadequate’ and suggest that accountability is a new branch that cannot be subsumed within them. In theoretical terms, this is one of the most original passages of the book. Gearty is appalled at my iconoclasm and fires a barrage of rhetorical questions aimed at squishing the life out of it. The argument here is a large one, doubtless to be continued – I do not expect the functions identified by Montesquieu in the 18th century to survive unaltered.

Gearty has not resolved his own stance. He suggests that I believe in the ‘People’ with a capital P, although I explicitly attack the notion, while he himself thinks that there is a politically singular ‘people’. He makes the bizarre claim that I am a fashion accessory of New Labour cappuccino-populism, as if he were an underdog, yet reverts to his own New Labour style snobbery when he claims Charter 88 was ‘kicked into life in various basement flats and leftist magazine offices’. Charter 88 began in one magazine – the New Statesman – and none of those involved lived in a basement flat. But suppose that, like millions in today’s Britain, we had done so, would this not be a badge of honour?

Anthony Barnett
London WC2

Tips for the Trenches

Following my review of Kipling’s History of the Irish Guards in the Great War, I am grateful to Christopher Hitchens (Letters, 18 June) for his news about John Kipling and the tennis netting. It is significant, too, that ‘Mary Postgate’ – Kipling’s ‘daemon’ at its most diabolical – was being brooded at a time in 1914 when the media were systematically concocting horror stories about Belgian babies being tossed on German bayonets (see Kipling’s fiendishly skilful tale ‘Swept and Garnished’). His genius was in faithfully reflecting the popular hysteria of the time. But if he did not change his opinion of the Germans he did begin to understand what the war was like: his History is itself an expiation, as are the poems and stories mentioned in my review. These show a unique imagination at work on the horrors of war, as they lived on in soldiers’ minds.

For reasons of space my review was cut a bit at the end. I should wish to emphasise the praise I gave there to the production of the History by the Spellmount Press – a beautiful job.

John Bayley
Oxford

Paint your wagon

Over thirteen years ago I moved from Yorkshire to Essex, and now Harvey Plant (Letters, 4 June) has given me good reason for doing so. On wandering into the primary school opposite my home I noticed on the walls good-quality, framed, poster-sized prints from Diego Rivera, Richard Diebenkorn, Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe and Norman Rockwell, among others. What a refreshing change, not a Sunflower or Starry Night in sight. This same school recently suffered an Ofsted inspection, in the course of which, one nine-year-old pupil said to an inspector: ‘This is a great school. I didn’t know metaphors existed till I came here.’ Regrettably, my own children are now older than me and unable to benefit from a school education in Thurrock.

David Hooper
Chafford Hundred, Essex

Tricky

Adam Phillips, in his interesting review of Archie Burnett’s ‘wonderful edition’ of The Poems of A.E. Housman (LRB, 18 June), rightly draws attention to Housman’s remark that he ‘did not praise Bechert’s accuracy, because accuracy is a duty and not a virtue’. One might, therefore, have expected him to have provided potential purchasers of such an expensive volume with some information about Burnett’s accuracy. There are at least two glaring errors in this Oxford English Text edition. On page 30, line 22 of ‘The Welsh Marches’ is printed as ‘The war the [sic, for ‘that’] sleeps on Severn side’; and on page 51, quotation marks are wrongly inserted at the start of poem XLVIII. I hope that the Clarendon Press will make a full errata sheet available.

I was intrigued that Phillips, when remarking that Housman’s ‘poems are accurate, above all, about longing’, and listing in that context the possible meanings of ‘trick’, omitted meaning 10 in the OED: ‘a. An instance of the sexual act or any of its variations; usu. spec. a prostitute’s session with a client … b. A casual sexual partner; usu. spec. a prostitute’s client.’

Eric Thompson
London NW2

‘LRB’ in Drug Shock

I was delighted to see Peter Campbell’s picture of drug dealers outside a disused Tuscan warehouse on the cover of the last issue of the LRB. Does this mean that the LRB is finally purging itself of its bourgeois anxieties or merely reinforcing them?

David Rose
Sunbury, Middlesex

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