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Vol. 27 No. 10 · 19 May 2005

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Tell me where I’m wrong

In the opening paragraph of his review of David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and Caroline Elkins’s Britain’s Gulag, Bernard Porter attacks me and my book Empire, which he refers to as a ‘panegyric to British colonialism’ (LRB, 3 March). This misrepresents the book. My conclusion is explicit. ‘No one,’ I write, ‘would claim that the record of the British Empire was unblemished. On the contrary, I have tried to show how often it failed to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty, particularly in the early era of enslavement, transportation and the “ethnic cleansing" of indigenous peoples.’

What I do argue is that the British Empire was nevertheless on balance preferable to the available alternatives:

The 19th-century empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. In the 20th century too the empire more than justified its own existence. For the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese Empires were clearly – and they admitted it themselves – far worse. And without its empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.

I am still wondering what part of that argument Porter and other critics can credibly disagree with.

As to my memories of the two years I spent in Kenya as a child, I make it perfectly clear in the introduction that these are not the basis of the book’s argument, which is rooted in modern economic theory and historical scholarship, not least Porter’s own.

Porter wonders why I do not discuss Mau Mau in the last chapter of my book. The last chapter is concerned to explain why the British Empire declined and fell. I try to show that nationalist or other indigenous resistance movements, Mau Mau included, had very little to do with this, compared with Britain’s parlous financial position after 1945.

Niall Ferguson
Harvard University

More like Supermarkets

David Runciman hasn’t got the economics of PFI quite right (LRB, 21 April). More than once he says that Labour has looked to the private sector for additional capital. That argument was widely used by New Labour ministers in the mid-1990s to bring around laggards in the constituencies. The trouble is, it isn’t true (and that’s why you never hear them say it any more). Under PFI, the private sector finances capital expenditure, i.e. borrows the money for it, while the public sector funds it through the annual payments it makes to PFI consortia. Any additional capital is thus paid for by the public sector alone. PFI is a mechanism by which the government borrows through an intermediary (at a higher rate of interest than if it had borrowed in its own name). Allyson Pollock shows in NHS Plc how the high costs of PFI-related debt servicing have led to major reductions in NHS capacity: since 1997, 12,000 NHS beds in England have closed (5 per cent of the UK total), many of them in hospitals procured under the PFI. The first 14 PFI hospitals had their budgets cut by 25 per cent, which they mostly managed by hiring fewer nurses. All Labour’s arguments in favour of PFI now turn on risk transfer, which Runciman rightly takes a jaundiced view of as there is little evidence of the private sector assuming any real risk. The PFI debt bubble and associated contractual problems are already unravelling: witness the Jarvis schools PFI scheme in Brighton.

Pace Runciman, there is every reason to suppose that Blair does not mean what he says when he talks about maintaining the NHS as a non-discriminatory system that is free at the point of delivery. As Pollock points out, he is the first prime minister to introduce time limits on NHS care, and to introduce charges for personal and nursing care in NHS hospitals.

Neil Vickers
King’s College, London

I note from David Runciman’s article that the health secretary no longer answers questions about the operations of foundation hospitals in view of their relative independence. Do we know how much John Reid’s salary has been reduced to reflect his reduced responsibilities?

Richard Guy
Tonbridge, Kent

How the Tories Used to Be

James Meek credits ‘the Labour transport minister, Herbert Morrison’, with setting up London Transport in 1933 (LRB, 5 May). But the London Passenger Transport Board, which brought all public transport under a single management, was established by the (Conservative-dominated) National Government in 1933. Baldwin’s government had been working towards this end in collaboration with the public-spirited entrepreneur Lord Ashfield before MacDonald’s Labour government took over in 1929. Herbert Morrison is indeed to be praised in this connection – it was his scheme that the National Government adopted – but by 1933 he was out of office and more or less running the London County Council, whose chairman was ex officio one of the LPTB’s trustees. London Transport was only one of several public corporations that interwar Conservatives sensibly put in charge of national utilities: the BBC, the Central Electricity Board and the British Overseas Airways Corporation chief among them. Conservatives in those days were not as doctrinaire as they were to become two generations later.

Geoffrey Best

Obstacles to Seeking Asylum

Katharine Fletcher draws attention to the role of ‘incompetent government agencies’ in the application of punitive government policies (Letters, 5 May). As someone frequently called on to produce expert witness reports in regard to the claims of asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East, I have noticed that Home Office case workers and adjudicators are overworked and often have very little time in which to prepare their cases. Melanie McFadyean, writing in the Guardian on 24 November 2004, quoted one adjudicator as saying that ‘typically … adjudicators get case papers at 10 a.m., hear appeals at 11 a.m., and then have only one day in which to consider four cases.’ Under these circumstances, they are obliged to rely on the Home Office Country Information Policy Unit (CIPU) reports. Often these are simply quoted verbatim, irrespective of their relevance or otherwise to the case in question.

Given this reliance on secondary material (few of the case officers or adjudicators appear to be familiar with the real conditions in the countries from which asylum seekers have fled), it is worrying that the CIPU reports are often woefully inadequate. In an analysis of a range of CIPU reports published in October last year, which Fletcher discussed in her original piece (LRB, 17 March), the Immigration Advisory Services (IAS) expressed ‘serious doubts’ about their validity. They also drew attention to the ‘particularly problematic’ use of ‘out-of-date material’. The government announced measures to improve the standard of country reports, but the effect of this remains to be seen. Furthermore, the number of reports has been reduced from 35 to 20. For the many other countries from which people seek asylum, there is no single up-to-date and accurate source of information for overburdened Home Office officials.

The lack of real knowledge or understanding of the conditions prevailing in many countries from which people are seeking asylum, combined with strong political pressure to reduce the number of those granted asylum, often results in crude and essentially punitive decisions. Many of these are then upheld, often in the face of strong contradictory evidence, resulting in unjust outcomes and in untold harm to those individuals who are sent back. Sometimes, these crude decisions, based on inadequate but ‘acceptable’ reports are, rightly, subject to appeal and further legal proceedings, all of which consume significant public resources. While some of these appeals are successful, of course many are not. But it is by no means clear that the eventual outcomes, taken as a whole, truly reflect the balance between cases where there are real risks of harm to the asylum seeker and those where the risks are limited. The frequent failure to determine the outcome of asylum cases on the basis of adequate, up-to-date information, carefully evaluated by an adjudicator with both the relevant expertise and the time to do the job properly, means that it is hard to argue with any confidence, as Matt Cavanagh does (Letters, 31 March), that ‘tax-payers’ money is going to the people who are entitled to it.’

David Seddon

Blood for Oil?

The piece by Retort (LRB, 21 April) brought to mind Blair’s monstrous prewar mendacity: ‘It’s got nothing to do with oil.’ He must have considered what Larry Goldstein, president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal on 16 January 2003: ‘If we go to war, it’s not about oil. But the day the war ends, it has everything to do with oil.’ When the liberators reached Baghdad, the only ministry they protected was the Oil Ministry. Now the newly ‘independent’ government appoints Ahmad Chalabi – convicted in Jordan of embezzling $20m from a bank – to run it.

Sydney Bernard Smith

Along the Corniche

I visited Beirut some ten days after Mustafa Bayoumi’s return to New York (LRB, 5 May). By then a fourth bomb had exploded in Broumanna, east of Beirut. The Martyrs’ Square tent city was quiet and orderly. Mourning citizens continued to pay their respects at the shrine to the former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Preparations were in train for National Unity Day, the 30th anniversary of the civil war’s ‘official’ beginning in 1975.

Bayoumi’s tone is apprehensive and pessimistic. It is plainly discouraging to hear young Lebanese with relatively limited knowledge, and no direct experience, of the 15-year conflict, talking of doing the same again. But meanwhile everyday life in Beirut feels as ‘normal’ and free from tension as one could hope for anywhere. I was staying in the suburb of Hamra. In the evenings its streets are busy with all the usual trades and services: hot food, shirt-makers, shoe-menders, hairdressers, hooting taxis. Along the Corniche Beirutis promenade, jog, roller-blade, power-walk or stroll, chatting, smoking, eating snacks from street vendors. As for restored downtown Beirut, it is Hariri’s great monument, drawing people back to the city centre, to the new shops and the dozens of restaurants and cafés.

No more bombs were reported during April. By 13 April there were fewer than four thousand Syrian soldiers, and withdrawal was eventually declared complete on 26 April. Of course, the bewildering sectarian fractures in Lebanon run as long and deep as ever. But Lebanon’s chief of Security Services, thought to be a central instrument of Syria’s control, resigned within a day of the farewell ceremony. The elections at the end of May offer more encouraging prospects than the last two generations of Lebanese have dared hope for.

Graham Brown

How to Survive the Vortex

Zaphod Beeblebrox does not survive exposure to the Total Perspective Vortex ‘because he has such an enormous ego’, as Thomas Jones would have it (LRB, 5 May), but because he is, without knowing it, in an artificial universe fabricated for him by a Hitchhiker’s Guide employee called Zarniwoop – a universe in which he really is the most important person. I’ve just seen the new film. It’s not as bad as everyone says; sadly, it’s not as good either.

Timothy Knapman
Weybridge, Surrey

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