In his review of John Hall’s Ernest Gellner: An Intellectual Biography Stefan Collini says that Hall is unable to explain why Gellner stopped publishing philosophy and began doing fieldwork in Morocco (LRB, 2 June). But Gellner was pursuing that classic issue of Central European political philosophy: how is anarchy possible? Following E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Robert Montagne, he professed to have found the answer in the segmentary tribal structure of the Berbers of the High Atlas. Though the claimed solution never convinced those of us working with Clifford Geertz, it should also be noted that Gellner never held our views against us and was as generous to those who disagreed with him as to students of his own.
Ernest Gellner was two years above me at St Albans County School, an institution distinguished during those war years mainly by an eccentric and largely incompetent staff, two of whom, however, went on to professorships after they escaped. The history teacher referred to, who was also the deputy head, was a lazy sod who would set classes some reading and then disappear to smoke in his small stockroom. I remember often seeing Gellner reading, alone in the library. He didn’t mix much, which was understandable since I doubt there were any boys in his year he would have been interested to talk to. The head was a humourless, prim man, fond of the cane, who refused to allow us to have the New Statesman in the library. It makes Gellner’s achievement in getting a scholarship to Balliol even more impressive.
Supporters of electoral reform in Liverpool would say that we’ve already been given PR, and it didn’t work, but this isn’t something that Ross McKibbin acknowledges (LRB, 2 June). Under first past the post, the Conservatives won the inaugural European constituency of Liverpool in 1979. In 1984 the constituency was dissolved and Labour won the seats of Merseyside East and Merseyside West. Labour held these until 1999, when PR was introduced for the new constituency of North-West England. There were already concerns about FPTP: in 1979, the city’s Labour (38 per cent of turnout) and Liberal (16 per cent) voters were represented by a Conservative MEP (45 per cent), just as the significant Liberal and Conservative minorities found themselves represented by Labour from 1984 to 1999. PR, it was hoped, would go some way towards giving these minorities more of a voice, and creating a more participatory democracy.
In Liverpool, however, electoral reform has had the opposite effect. By locating the city within a wider regional constituency, the centre-left parties steadily lost out even as electoral support for them grew. In the 2009 European elections, with a low turnout and on a bad day for the left, progressive parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats, Green and Socialist Labour) accounted for 63 per cent of Liverpool’s votes, yet the constituency as a whole returned three Conservative MEPs (with just 10 per cent of Liverpool votes), one UKIP (12 per cent), one BNP (7 per cent), one Lib Dem (17 per cent) and two Labour (31 per cent). The Green Party polled more Liverpool votes than the Conservatives and the BNP, but got no MEPs at all. Right-wing MEPs currently outnumber the centre left by five to three in a city whose electorate is becoming increasingly single-mindedly Labour.
By the 2011 local elections, Labour (63 per cent) and Liberal Democrat (18 per cent) votes accounted for more than 80 per cent of the Liverpool total, with the next biggest parties being Conservative (6 per cent), Green (6 per cent) and Liberal (4 per cent). UKIP secured just over 1 per cent of the vote, with the BNP less than 1 per cent. Liverpool has not elected a Conservative MP since 1979, or a Conservative councillor since 1997. Liverpool and Manchester – the two largest cities in North-West England – currently elect no Conservatives at local or national level under FPTP, but under PR have somehow contrived to send to Brussels three Conservatives, one UKIP, and Nick Griffin.
The AV referendum may well have killed the idea of electoral reform for a generation, but when the possibility of reform does re-emerge, perhaps more representative ways can be found to avoid counter-democratic disasters such as the 2009 European Elections under PR.
It seems not to be generally understood (and might so easily have been explained by the Yes campaign) that there is no requirement under AV to rank candidates in order of preference. A mark against a single candidate’s name is admissible, and there is no reason for that designated mark not to be a cross. Given that, the pro-AV campaign could then have made sure to get across that those who wished to vote as they had always done could, under AV, continue to do so. Since those of us who wished to order our preferences would have been free to do so, AV could have been touted as a free-choice system that no one could rationally oppose.
You could say I had been one of Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’, as described by Neal Ascherson (LRB, 19 May). A card-carrying member of the Communist Party, I went to China to work for the Chinese government as a sub-editor in February 1965. A year later, I chose not to renew my membership, and was incarcerated in a small hotel room with my wife and son for two years from 1967 to 1969, the early years of the Cultural Revolution.
Ascherson’s review of Patrick Wright’s book even so left me with the feeling that both were a bit harsh in their account of China’s achievements up to 1954, when our politicians and artists visited the country. When I arrived in Peking 16 years after the Communists took over, it was clear there had been enormous infrastructural achievements. Large parts of the city had been rebuilt, complete with schools and universities, and similar building programmes had been conducted in other cities that I visited. There had been attempts to tackle illiteracy in the countryside, and to provide medical services (at a crude level) for urbanites and parts of the farmlands. I had seen shortages in the Soviet Union on my way to China, but in Peking the food shops were pretty busy. Rice and meat were rationed, but vegetables were piled high in the streets and consumer goods filled the shops.
All this is far too easily ignored by Western commentators today. The Cultural Revolution brought chaos but in its first two years, when I was at large, food supplies to Peking and to other cities remained plentiful. I have visited China several times over the years, and have witnessed the country’s enormous transformation. But the basis of today’s economy was partly laid in the 1950s and 1960s.
Camden New Journal, London NW1
Stephen Smith writes that democracy isn’t something that ‘breaks out’, and that it didn’t ‘break out’ in sub-Saharan Africa after the end of the Cold War (LRB, 19 May). But democracy did do something very like it in sub-Saharan Africa in the early to mid 1990s: right across the continent, one-party regimes were removed, multi-party politics (which had disappeared in many places in the 1960s) re-emerged – fuelled, it is said, by images of Ceausescu’s fate in Romania. It was an urban phenomenon, but there was an open political debate about what democracy might mean in places where it hadn’t been seen for a very long time. Elections were and are being held. The idea of any popular say on economic policy may have been scuppered by a combination of ministries of finance, multilateral donors, international financial institutions, and elite civil society organisations dedicated to the implementation of more or less severe ‘structural adjustments’, but democracy did ‘break out’.
Stephen Smith writes that the Ivory Coast holds a ‘world record’ for the largest foreign population. The honour surely goes to Qatar, where 85 per cent of a population of 1.3 million comes from outside the emirate. The UAE, which has a larger citizen population, is perhaps a more equal contender: 70 per cent of its population is foreign-born. With Kuwait at 69 per cent, Jordan at 46 per cent, Singapore at 41 per cent and Israel at 40 per cent, the Ivory Coast would have to welcome an additional three million people to make the final five.
Jackson Lears writes that ‘in October 1861, when General John C. Fremont freed the slaves in the parts of Missouri his troops had occupied, Lincoln publicly repudiated him and the larger goal of abolition’ (LRB, 19 May). Fremont issued his abolition decree in August 1861 not October. It applied only to the slaves of rebels and only in areas over which Fremont had no control. Lincoln sent a private letter urging Fremont to rewrite his order to conform to the Confiscation Act passed by Congress a few weeks earlier. Under instructions implementing that act issued by Lincoln’s War Department on 8 August 1861, all slaves voluntarily entering Union lines in the seceded states were emancipated. Thus in his letter to Fremont, Lincoln was hardly ‘repudiating’ abolition. On the contrary, his order extended emancipation to a loyal state for the first time. Lincoln explicitly told Fremont that he did not disagree with the ‘principle’ on which the general’s edict was issued. Fremont refused to do what Lincoln asked unless directly ordered. Only then did Lincoln publicly require the insubordinate general to rewrite his order. The issue was civilian rule over the military, not emancipation.
Howard Hotson draws attention to the government’s reliance on the THE-QS World University Rankings, but doesn’t emphasise how heavily biased they are in favour of US and English institutions (LRB, ). In most of the rest of the world students tend to go to the university near their home, so that there is no possibility of concentrating the brightest professors and students in a few elite institutions. In Switzerland, for instance, there is a deliberate policy of sharing resources among the different regions and language groups. This makes it all the more remarkable that the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zurich ranks 18th in the THE-QS rankings.
That academic rankings depend a lot on research performance creates a further bias in favour of anglophone institutions, partly because the rest of the world is less obsessed with bibliometric measures of research output. Also, since English is the language of research publications, and the main academic journals tend to be US or UK-based, non-anglophone academics find it harder to get their work published in so-called top journals.
University of Basel
Penelope Woolfit claims that in your illustration of the Müller-Lyer illusion, one line was drawn nearly two millimetres longer than the other (Letters, 2 June). That isn’t fair to the printers. The definition of the length of a line is the distance between its endpoints, and both lines are very close to 36 mm long. Because the lines are drawn quite thickly (about 0.3 mm), there is, however, a difference between their ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ length. In fairness to Müller-Lyer, the illusion would be better experienced using narrow lines.
Burgess Hill, West Sussex