Vol. 22 No. 15 · 10 August 2000

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What has Labour done?

It was Ross McKibbin’s bad luck that Gordon Brown should have announced large increases in public spending just as his article criticising the Government’s failure to spend more was published (LRB, 20 July). But he has no excuse for the other errors he makes.

As the Tories, the CBI, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and many others have all pointed out, Brown has increased direct taxation substantially. He has raised taxes paid by businesses and, through changes to national insurance payments and income tax allowances, by middle-class individuals. He has not, however, raised the basic or higher rate of income tax, in line with Labour’s manifesto commitment. Some indirect taxes, including petrol tax, have also risen, but in the last Budget the Chancellor actually discontinued the fuel-tax ‘escalator’ he had inherited from Kenneth Clarke.

The real novelty in tax and spending policy has been that the taxing has been done before the spending, to the great benefit of the public finances. The reduction in the National Debt since 1997 will translate into scope for additional spending of £3 billion a year from 2003. And the recently announced increases in expenditure will not be subject to emergency belt-tightening: I know of no economist who believes them to be anything other than easily affordable even if there is a recession.

Although the gap between rich and poor widened in the UK during the 1980s and early 1990s, this country does not, pace McKibbin, have one of the most unequal income distributions of OECD countries. The figures show very clearly that the UK is a little less equal than Germany and a little more equal than France. The Western European nations are roughly similar in this respect.

I do not believe the Government is complacent about either poverty or the UK’s low level of productivity. It is hard to characterise a Chancellor who introduced a minimum wage and a new tax credit to top up low pay, and raised £5 billion from privatised companies to pay for reducing unemployment as not caring about poverty. As for inflation, there is nothing worse for the poor. Rising prices do most harm to those on low and fixed incomes because their incomes do not keep up. Economists describe the reduction of high inflation as a policy which is ‘super pro-poor’, in other words one which benefits the worst off far more than the best off. The Netherlands, held up as a model by McKibbin, has a government budget surplus and only 2.5 per cent inflation. There is a great deal of consensus among economists that the profession made a mistake in believing large government budget deficits and inflation don’t matter. Almost all now believe, as a result of compelling evidence over more than three decades, that macroeconomic policy should aim for no more than moderate deficits and for reasonably low inflation. Disparaging this evidence-based shift in the professional consensus as ‘rigidly orthodox’ is puerile.

Diana Coyle
London W13

Ross McKibbin argues that New Labour should stop trying to emulate the American model and consider the Dutch. That might be a good idea, but only as long as the dikes here hold against the rising tide of Amerikaanse toestanden – ‘American conditions’. At the moment, after more than a decade of not-so-Third-Wayish policies, the Dutch political class has lost some of its enthusiasm for what the cheerleading business press here calls ‘modernisation’, i.e. the adoption of the Anglo-Saxon model. An important reason for their hesitation has been a growing awareness of how that model – disastrous transport and public utility privatisations, skewed school systems, worsening snob and yob cultures – has panned out in Britain.

David Sogge

It is not surprising that Ross McKibbin is unimpressed with Tony Blair’s Government. What should be more worrying for New Labourites is the way that it has failed even on its own terms. The tacit aim of New Labour has been to deliver enlightened, competent, modern, unideological government. They have, however, been stupid enough to make three clear errors. First, they have presented themselves as a party of principle, which they patently are not. Hence so many wonk-hours wasted looking for something to call the ‘Third Way’. Second, they have presented and continue to present themselves as a whizz-bang party which will change everything for the better overnight in the teeth of the forces of conservatism, when their method is clearly designed to produce gradual improvement, without making too many waves. Third, all too often they have given in to these same forces of conservatism – the culprit here is usually Jack Straw, who dismisses rational, enlightened measures such as freedom of information, favouring instead a dash to the right with Ann Widdecombe, a race which, as nearly all commentators (McKibbin included) have pointed out, he cannot possibly win.

Kieron O’Hara
West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire

The 3.1 million workers given the right to four weeks’ paid holiday by this Labour Government would, I hope, disagree with Ross McKibbin’s statement that ‘most people … would probably find it difficult to name anything the Government has actually done.’ So would the beneficiaries of the minimum wage and the working families tax credit. The difficulty is that the working poor tend not to be members of the Labour Party. So activists, and presumably Oxford intellectuals as well, have lost touch with Labour’s real achievements at the same time as the Party has made mistakes, as in the selection of its candidate for London mayor, for example.

Chris Purnell
Pratt’s Bottom, Kent

Up in Smoke

Frank Kermode’s tribute to William Empson’s memorable voice (LRB, 22 June) made me think of the occasion, more than fifty years ago, when I was a student in the Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa and Empson came to read to us. His presence was as enthralling as his words and I have still clearly in my ear the moment at which his voice, without changing pitch or urgency, segued from ‘Slowly the poison the whole bloodstream fills -’ to ‘Oh dear, I’ve set my beard on fire.’ At which point he removed the long cigarette-holder from his mouth, set it carefully down on the edge of a table, and clapped his beard between his hands several times to put out the blaze. He then picked up the cigarette-holder, placed it back in his mouth, and continued with the poem. No one laughed, although there were, as I remember, a few discreet coughing fits, possibly brought on by the acrid smell of crisp black hairs going up in smoke.

Eileen Shubb Lottman
New York

William Empson was on to something with his tree that would ‘ripen only in a forest fire’. A few years ago, Northern TV News reported that vandals had set fire during the night to a rare, exotic tree in a South Yorkshire park, and we were shown a sorry group of park-keepers looking at a scorched, bristly stump. Two or three evenings later, the news showed astonished keepers and various happy observers gazing at the stump, now covered in scarlet and crimson flowers.

John Langton


In John Lanchester’s review of Experience by Martin Amis (LRB, 6 July) he refers to a Sunday Times columnist who, writing about the collapse of Amis’s marriage in 1993, announced that he was ‘having trouble controlling my Schadenfreude’. This apparently caused Lanchester to do ‘a double-take’, so shocked was he by the columnist’s hostility. He goes on to express puzzlement as to what Amis could possibly have done to deserve such uncharitable treatment.

I wrote the article and the reason I said that it was ‘difficult to suppress a hint of Schadenfreude’ on hearing of Amis’s marital woes was because following the publication of Einstein’s Monsters, Amis gave several interviews in which he said that having children had been an ‘evolutionary moment’ in his life. Now that he was a father, apparently, he was legitimately concerned about the fate of the earth, particularly its nuclear fate. This struck me as a lot of cant at the time, hence my pleasure on learning that his marriage had collapsed. After all, if Amis was really concerned about the future welfare of his children he wouldn’t have abandoned their mother for a younger, prettier woman.

One final point. Lanchester’s memory also lets him down in his brief discussion of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. In a footnote to his review, Lanchester compares Eggers’s use of footnotes to Amis’s: ‘It’s as if he uses the footnotes to deflect, or escape from, the strength of his own feelings; which isn’t a zillion miles away from Amis’s use of them.’ I’ve just finished reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and, stone me, there isn’t a single footnote in the entire book. What version did Lanchester read, I wonder?

Toby Young
London W12

John Lanchester writes: I read the version of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius available in bookshops – the one with footnotes on page xxxv and page xxxvi.

John Lanchester

So Close to the Monster

Gilberto Perez’s discussion of US-Cuban relations (LRB, 22 June) alludes to both Elián González and the exiled 19th-century Cuban patriot José Martí, but without mentioning a quite remarkable connection between them. In classic Latin American fashion, Martí was both poet and politician, and his first poem cycle, Ismaelillo (‘Little Ishmael’), published in New York City in 1882, pours out his longing for his young son, whose mother had taken him back to Cuba, where Martí could not follow. The father who speaks in these poems repeatedly pictures his son set adrift on the ocean: ‘Always I see, floating/a boy, who calls to me’.

Earlier this year Fidel Castro, at great expense, had a statue of Martí erected on the waterfront plaza in Havana that was the officially designated site of many of the Elián-related protests. The statue – one of dozens of Martí that stand across Cuba and wherever a Cuban community of any size exists in the United States – shows Martí holding a young boy in one arm and pointing an accusatory finger at the nearby offices of the US Special Interests Section. Martí’s own views about the US were in fact contradictory. In his last letter, cited by Perez, he does speak ominously of the US ‘falling upon the other lands of Our America’, but this letter was written to a Mexican friend and pleads for Mexico to find an ‘effective and immediate way of helping … its own defender’ – i.e. Cuba. If the ghastly spectre of US imperialism could scare up some Mexican assistance for his cause, Martí was willing to conjure it up.

On the other hand, one of his last letters was to Maria Mantilla, his illegitimate adolescent daughter, in New York City. Strangely certain that he was about to die, Martí took leave of Maria by recommending that she found a bilingual school for young girls in Brooklyn. He gave precise instructions as to curriculum and pedagogical method and describes a vision of Mantilla moving attentively among her young charges. This doesn’t seem like an evocation of life inside a ‘monster’.

Mantilla went on to become the mother of César Romero, Golden Age Hollywood’s quintessential Latin lover, who is best remembered for playing the Joker in the television version of Batman.

Esther Allen
New York


Susan Gubar’s sub-heading, ‘What Do You Mean “We", White Woman’, described as ‘provocative’ by Nina Auerbach in her review of Gubar’s Critical Condition (LRB, 6 July), must be a misquotation of, or reference to, Lorraine Bethel’s poem ‘What chou mean we, white girl?’ Gubar’s leaching the original of its blackness (‘chou’) and its contempt (‘girl’) is symptomatic of a weakness which was present at the inception of academic feminism. If the inclusive pronoun ‘we’ cannot be used, the case for feminism collapses. Bethel’s poem is dedicated to ‘the proposition that all women are not equal, i.e. identically oppressed’. Those who framed feminism didn’t want to listen to competing claims about what it meant to be a woman. Still less did they want to think that there might be more damaging forms of oppression than patriarchy.

Sally Minogue
Canterbury Christ Church
University College

No Such Thing as a Fish

I was appalled to read that Henry Gee (Letters, 20 July) considers part of my review of his book Deep Time to be an attack on the late Colin Patterson. It was not – my quarrel was solely with Gee’s ossified version of Patterson’s views. I was both a friend and admirer of Patterson; indeed, I published a memoir of him last year in the Biographical Memoirs of the Royal Society wherein my regard for him is evident. Gee also accuses me of authoritarianism, but while it would be authoritarian to describe an author as a ‘fool’ (which I didn’t), it is merely assertive to describe him as ‘out-of-date’ (which I did). The latter is easily rectified by a little reading; there is very little you can do about the former.

Richard Fortey
Natural History Museum, London SW7

What Foucault Surely Knew

Roger Jones (Letters, 6 July) is sure that Foucault knew that Cardano invented the universal joint because the French word for the device is cardan. Such confidence is misplaced. Many years ago a French-speaking garage owner in Switzerland was surprised at my ignorance of the word carter (the French word for ‘sump’ and ‘crank-case’), which he claimed was ‘un mot anglais’. In fact the word is derived from the name of an English inventor, John Harrison Carter, who died in 1903. For nearly thirty years I have been trying to find out about this engineer – but without success.

Timothy Stunt
Newtown, Connecticut

Small Questions about Prams etc

Zachary Leader (Letters, 6 July) wants to know the meaning of the world ‘pram’ in John Betjeman’s line ‘Miles of pram in the wind and Pam in the gorse track’. He shouldn’t be so literal about ‘miles’. To a young, fastidious recoiler from reality, the bulky sway of two or three well-sprung Edwardian prams on a narrow footpath might well have seemed a never-ending cortège attendant on the extinction of youthful freedom.

The poem’s opening lines set up ambivalences of urban v. rural, tame v. wild and so on, and may be a clumsy elliptical reference to roads not taken. Maybe ‘miles of pram’ is stretching things a bit, though as an impressionistic stab at conflating blighted pavements and Surrey pinewoods as well as foreshadowing the fettering domesticity awaiting his adored Amazonian Pams, Joans and Myfanwys it works well enough. Betjeman’s footnote to the concluding lines of an earlier poem, ‘Dorset’, warns of his occasionally wayward preference for sound over sense: ‘put in not out of malice or satire but merely for their euphony’.

Fay Zwicky
Claremont, Western Australia

I was interested to read that Jeffrey Frankland (Letters, 20 July) thinks gorse smells ‘coconutty’. I recently ate some gorse flowers and thought they tasted of coconut, but the park warden maintained that they tasted like peanuts.

Jane Brady

Don’t fence me in

Reviel Netz asks (LRB, 20 July) why a ranger would want to fence in his cattle. Incest is our reason. In some 200 square kilometres of Amazonic savannah, we are more rangers than ranchers, but we fence off 5000-acre pastures for our calves to keep parental bulls from mating with their two-year-old offspring, who get to have their own young bulls.

Incidentally, three-strand fencing costs $450 a kilometre hereabouts, which compares very well with Washburn & Moen's $23.66 for 100 metres in 1880.

Edward Luttwak
Rancho Cotoca
Beni, Bolivia

A Fine Time Together

Posturing little sadists who publicly torture animals to death for money are called ‘bullfighters’. Posturing little book reviewers like Lorna Scott Fox (LRB, 20 July) who elaborately endorse such evil spectacles while claiming to be animal supporters are called, alas, ‘bullshitters’.

Alexandra Stamp

Hot Buttered Toast

In his piece on Hanif Kureshi, Sukhdev Sandhu (LRB, 18 May) quotes Rafi ‘the avuncular, murderous Third World tyrant in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’ saying: ‘For me England is hot buttered toast on a fork in front of an open fire. And cunty fingers.’ In Brendan Gill’s Here at the ‘New Yorker’ Henry Green tells William Shawn, ‘I once asked an old butler in Ireland what had been the happiest times of his life … The butler replied: “Lying in bed on Sunday morning, eating tea and toast with cunty fingers."’

Stuart Pierson
Memorial University of Newfoundland
St John’s, Newfoundland


I feel queasy about querying my own old philosophy tutor but surely Frank Cioffi’s statement (LRB, 22 June) that ‘there would seem to be no formula which will enable us to discriminate true rumour from false’ is not permissible. We may not know the truth or falsehood of a rumour since, according to its Merriam-Webster definition, a rumour is ‘a statement current without known authority for its truth’. If we could, it wouldn’t be a rumour but an opinion, a fiction, a lie or a fact. isn’t this an example of what Cioffi taught us to call a category mistake. Or is it just blather?

Neil Ferguson

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