Vol. 33 No. 21 · 3 November 2011

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Trusting to luck

Ross McKibbin notes that the ‘general neo-Blairism’ of the media has led to a widespread tendency to overstate Labour’s current weakness, yet his analysis of Labour’s policy options seems to suffer from the same syndrome (LRB, 20 October). He argues that Labour needs policies which are consistent with what it did when in office, ‘broadly acceptable to most voters’, and ‘in the interests of an economy now in real trouble’; and he suggests that these requirements can be met only by a very limited menu of modest, pragmatic policies: resumption of the schools building programme, restoration of NHS funding, and expanding the supply of social housing.

Why did McKibbin not mention NHS privatisation? Yes, spending cuts are beginning to hurt, but the privatisation of the NHS will hurt far more, and voters are finally beginning to understand this. Rejecting the legacy of Milburn and Hewitt and reasserting Labour’s championship of the NHS as a public service looks increasingly like a vote-winner. And why no mention of banking? Even though Labour has not offered strong leadership on this issue, ‘most voters’ know that the bankers caused the crisis and are resisting all efforts to ensure they don’t cause another. There would be widespread support for separating high street banks from investment banks and for a clampdown on bonuses; and contrary to the City’s claims, which Mervyn King and Lord Oakeshott have exposed as special pleading, these measures – plus a financial transaction tax, as proposed by Angela Merkel and José Manuel Barroso – would also be in the interests of a more balanced economy.

Seen in this light, McKibbin’s agenda (‘there is only so much the Labour Party can do’) looks timorous and unimpressive, and, as an electoral strategy, ultimately dependent on the coalition making mistakes and the recession being prolonged – i.e. on luck. Now that the neoliberal promise of rapid growth and trickle-down prosperity no longer convinces, it isn’t clear why a strong commitment to re-regulate and tax capital and rebuild the infrastructure of the welfare state would not be electorally popular as well as good for the economy. Or is neo-Blairism so deeply entrenched among Labour MPs that these things would be unthinkable?

Colin Leys
London N4

Labour is doing OK? I don’t share Ross McKibbin’s optimism. Take education. To his credit, Andy Burnham was trying to put some clear water between Labour and the coalition, describing Michael Gove’s free schools as a ‘reckless gamble’. But in his recent reshuffle of the shadow cabinet, Ed Miliband brought in the Blairite refugee Stephen Twigg as education spokesperson, and shifted Burnham to health. Twigg announced his arrival by declaring his support for ‘free’ schools, citing the example of charter schools in America, in particular the Knowledge Is Power Programme (KIPP) schools. More than two million students in America are currently enrolled in charter schools (funded by the state but ‘freed’ from city council control); however, studies show that, once socio-economic factors are taken into account, their results are no better, and in many cases worse, than those in state schools.

At KIPP schools, parents have to sign a contract that binds them to getting their child to school by 7.30 a.m. every day, and making sure he/she stays until 5 p.m. (4 p.m. on Fridays); children will also be expected to attend on Saturdays from nine until one. Summer holidays are restricted to two weeks. Two or three hours’ homework must be completed every night and there is a rigorous uniform policy. Children are expected to move between lessons in silence. Any pupils or parents who do not meet these standards have to leave the school. KIPP schools do not seem to take students with learning difficulties or special needs, although legally obliged to. Attrition rates for pupils and teachers are high.

For many different reasons – chronic underinvestment, the growth of private religious schools, inequitable property taxes – the state education system in the United States is on the verge of disintegration. There is also a troubling racial divide: schools are more segregated than at any time since the 1950s. Apparently some parents are so desperate for educational success that they are willing to consign their children to the equivalent of an educational boot camp.

Labour’s other foray into the education debate has been to condemn the teaching unions’ plans to strike over the cuts in pensions. Opinion polls are evenly divided over whether or not to support them. (In a classic example of Clintonian triangulation, Ed Miliband tried to win some temporary support from the Daily Mail.) The Blairites disparaged public-sector workers as the type of people who ‘would vote Labour anyway’ or wouldn’t vote for an alternative. As a result Labour lost five million votes between 1997 and 2010. It won’t win again without them.

Richard Knights

Who lives?

Thomas Nagel expresses some optimism about philosophy’s chances of altering public opinion on euthanasia and assisted suicide (LRB, 6 October). While it’s certainly useful to define the several points bearing on the distinction between killing and letting die, Nagel is curiously silent on the two issues most often appealed to by conservatives – slippery slopes and the sanctity of life. ‘Allow this,’ they say, ‘and we’ll soon be back in the death camps’; and: ‘Life is a gift from God, not ours to take away.’ The second claim is notoriously hard to budge and may well, in many cases, motivate the first.

Most of those who make some such appeal restrict it to human life, holding that all of us, in contrast to plants and other animals, have a special value just in virtue of being human. What’s hard to budge, then, is the religionist’s entrenched speciesism. Does this infect Nagel’s own position? Perhaps. He says, as if it’s obvious, that although I might choose to save five rather than one, I can’t kill the one to save five. But would he make this distinction if dealing with animal lives? Or would he, as seems more likely, join Nozick, with utilitarianism for animals, Kantianism for people: a rights-based approach for human beings, and aggregating and trade-offs permitted elsewhere?

This question bears on the trickier issue concerning those who are not, in the philosopher’s sense, fully persons. Only rarely does the Alzheimer’s sufferer wish to die, and only rarely, and coincidentally, is it in his interests to do so. And I’m inclined to agree with Nagel that it probably shouldn’t be up to me, via advance directives or a so-called living will, to determine his, or my, future fate. But is no one to have responsibility here? It may in the end be the state’s job to decide when enough is enough. And it may be that we’ll live to regret the passing of less transparency and technology-valuing times, when end of life issues were very often fudged, and pneumonia was welcomed as the old man’s friend.

Christopher Belshaw
Open University, Milton Keynes


The knee-jerk liberalism displayed in one or two of the last volley of letters on New Zealand Maori rangatiratanga fails to take into account that we British have a long history of screwing the natives: the Treaty of Waitangi was nothing more than a weasel-worded excuse for joining Aotearoa to Victoria’s Empire before the French got it (Letters, 6 October). For many of the oppressed tribes up and down the length of the two islands who lived in fear of ending up as slaves and on the dinner plates of their Nga Puhi and Ngati Toa oppressors, the arrival of Victoria’s rule was a heartfelt reason for celebration. Close to my old shack on the Kaipara Harbour north of Auckland once sat a crude wooden representation of Victoria erected in thanks by the surviving local tribes in the middle of the 19th century. Janet McAllister forgets that the only reason her property in Auckland was so easily acquired by its first European owners was that the local Maori had been massacred over 15 years or so of Nga Puhi invasions. Contemporary New Zealand liberals are unable or unwilling to understand that life in early Godzone for most Maori tribes was punctuated at regular intervals by bouts of rapine and pillage that were ended only when the British flag flew over the land. The notorious pillaging cannibal Maori chief, Hone Heke, knew that: his part-time hobby was chopping down British flagpoles.

Chris Wheeler


Susan Pedersen quotes me as saying that the contributions of American scholars writing on British history have been ‘respectable at best’ (LRB, 6 October). I cannot confirm or deny that I used those words in a casual email long since deleted, but I clearly remember the point I was making, which was that no American historian working on British history, and likewise no British historian working on American history, has achieved the authoritative status that Elie Halévy achieved in Britain, Raymond Carr in Spain, Denis Mack Smith in Italy, and Jonathan Spence in China. I was certainly not intending to denigrate the work of America’s British historians. The bibliographical commentary in my 2006 volume of the New Oxford History of England refers to hundreds of authors; a rough calculation shows that words like ‘original’, ‘brilliant’, ‘stimulating’, ‘impressive’ and ‘important’ are attached to books by 71 of those writers. At the time I felt awkward about handing out such encomia, as though I were giving away prizes at a fête, but I am now glad that I did, for I find that 31 of those authors are Americans. This is a remarkably high proportion given that there are far more Brits than Americans who do British history.

Boyd Hilton

Scotland’s Empire

Neal Ascherson was right to argue that most emigration from Scotland has been ‘aspirational’ rather than forced (LRB, 6 October). What jars is the slant of his piece. Does he still not know that whole glens were depopulated and turned into sheep ranches long before the collapse of the kelp industry (1820s) and the Potato Famine (1846)? I have interviewed direct descendants of people evicted from Strathnaver (in 1814 and 1819), who survived by licking oatmeal dust from the floor after their dwellings had been nailed up; from Strathfleet a few years earlier, where houses were torched by estate heavies while the men were away at the French wars; and from Kildonan, where people drove their sheep for miles to a temporary place only to have them savaged by dogs. By all means let us remember the majority of emigrants who made it through to a decent life in America and Australia – as long as we also remember the thousands rough-housed out of their homes (looms burned, fires dowsed with the day’s milk), or the one in six who died of typhus, smallpox and cholera on the emigrant ships.

David Craig
Burton-in-Kendal, Lancashire

Garrison Town

In his gloss on W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, James Wood calls Terezin a village (LRB, 6 October). Surely not. It was originally built between 1780 and 1790 as a garrison town for up to 11,000 soldiers to protect Bohemia from a possible invasion by Prussia. When the Nazis decided to use it as a Jewish ghetto, its eight thousand inhabitants were moved elsewhere to make way for up to 40,000 Jewish prisoners. Although it was never an extermination camp, death rates from hunger and disease were around 4000 a month. Nowadays, apart from a rundown hotel, one or two shops and a café catering for a population of around three thousand, most of whom work outside the town, it is a memorial site with a museum to the 140,000 prisoners taken there between November 1941 and May 1945. As for its being ‘curiously empty’: eerily yes, but curiously?

Roy Kift

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