Vol. 36 No. 23 · 4 December 2014

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The state washes its hands

Frederick Wilmot-Smith describes the legal system as ‘a key means of ensuring that the distribution of the benefits of the welfare system is conducted correctly’ (LRB, 6 November). This hides the lengths the government has gone to to deny justice and subsistence benefits to some of the poorest people in the country. Last year it introduced an additional step into the already slow benefit appeals process so that people who have had their Jobseeker’s Allowance sanctioned or their Employment and Support Allowance stopped, leaving them with no income, would be subject to an internal review before being able to make a legal appeal. This additional step can add months to a process that is already too slow to address a very urgent situation. The legal notion of innocent until proven guilty does not apply in the benefits system, which gives out punishment before a claimant can put forward their case.

The legal system as the foundation of the welfare state was significantly undermined in March 2013 when the government, supported by Labour MPs, rushed through the Jobseekers (Back to Work Schemes) Act, in order to overturn a decision by the High Court which had ruled that the government had illegally sanctioned an estimated 170,000 people, denying them a total of £130 million. The DWP justified the retrospective legislation on the basis that, were the £130 million to be repaid, it would represent ‘poor value to the taxpayer’. They also threatened collective punishment of benefit claimants, stating that ‘further reductions in benefits might be required in order to find the money to repay the sanctions.’ The legal system here was not able to provide justice to the hundreds of thousands of people illegally sanctioned.

Izzy Köksal
London SW9

The government’s changes to legal aid and proposed abolition of the 1998 Human Rights Act have received extensive publicity but its chipping away at the Equality Act of 2010 has gone largely unnoticed. First, those wishing to quiz their employers about possible discrimination on grounds of race, sex etc are no longer entitled to receive an answer within eight weeks. ‘Evasive or equivocal’ responses can still be brought to the attention of an employment tribunal, but it is no longer possible to argue that discrimination can be inferred when an employer doesn’t respond within a specified period. Employers are now asked to respond only within a ‘reasonable time’ – and that is as long as a piece of string.

Second, the government is in the process of removing the power of employment tribunals, where they find discrimination, to recommend that the employer concerned take steps to change its ways. From now on tribunals will only be able to recommend that the employer deal with the discrimination as it affects the complainant, not ‘any other person’. In the majority of cases the complainant will already have left the company by the time the tribunal makes its judgment, so whatever wider recommendations it wants to make will be pointless.

These two measures will reduce the chance that claims will be made, and, if they are made, that they will be treated justly. What’s more, as has been widely reported, the fees to set up a tribunal are now £1200. There is an exemption for those on low incomes, but savings are taken into account. The TUC report from June, At What Price Justice?, draws on official statistics to show that there has been a sharp drop in the number of claims since fees were introduced. The journal Labour Research stated in September that ‘sex discrimination cases have dropped by 80 per cent; race and sexual orientation claims by 60 per cent; and disability discrimination claims by 46 per cent.’

Chris Purnell
Orpington, Kent

HH, FSS and IB

I have vastly enjoyed the dust storm between HH and FSS, but does it not cloud the major issues (Letters, 6 November and Letters, 20 November)? First, that Doctor Zhivago was no more than a ping-pong ball in the Great Game between the CIA and the KGB, and second, that it is not a very good novel.

Nick Wellings


Gavin Stamp notes that each of the 888,246 ceramic poppies at the Tower of London represents a ‘British fatality’ and so ignores those from the empire, and indeed elsewhere, who fell in the First World War (LRB, 20 November). The official website for the Tower of London also states that ‘each poppy represents a British military fatality during the war.’ Others have said that the figure represents UK and empire dead. But where does this very exact figure come from? Volume III of the Cambridge History of the First World War gives, in an appendix, the number of soldiers from the army of Great Britain who died during the First World War as 761,000, the total from the Dominions as 198,000 and the total for the British Empire as 959,000, but warns that ‘most works on the First World War present lists of figures without explaining what they cover or how they have been established. The result is a certain level of confusion.’

Whatever the exact number, it seems clear that the Tower of London display represents only a fraction of the deaths of all soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians during the First World War.

John MacAskill
Saffron Walden, Essex

Four Degrees

China and India are big emitters, as David Campbell points out, and their climate change policy is an important factor in the world equation, but what about the others (Letters, 6 November)? Australia’s emissions are negligible in world terms, but some companies make their money by selling Australia’s vast coal reserves to China, among others. In the US some companies make good profits from shale oil. Governments, in Australia for example, support these ruinous activities but do not support companies that try to make a profit from renewable energy resources. Of course there are coal and oil companies in China and India, too. But these countries aim to raise their people out of poverty; Australia is trying to defend an unsustainable standard of living.

Matthias Tomczak
Port Adelaide, South Africa

Two Charleses

The correction offered by Christopher Goulding may itself require amendment (Letters, 6 November). The eldest son of Charles I was no longer Prince of Wales: he was either king by hereditary succession on the death of his father on 30 January 1649; or he had no throne to claim, the monarchy of ‘Great Britain, France and Ireland’ having been abolished on 16 March 1649. Alternatively, you could say he was legitimately ‘King of Scotland’, crowned at Scone on 1 January 1651. The good burghers of Worcester, briefly housing his army until its defeat on 3 September, diplomatically recognised him as ‘King of Scots’. And his devoted companion during his flight after the battle, Henry Wilmot, is most probably not the father of the scandalous poet John Wilmot. The former was in exile in France, distant from his wife and their Oxfordshire estate, for two and half years before the birth of John in April 1647. In my view there are better candidates for this honour.

Ian Roy
London SE3

How to Write about Larkin

Helen Vendler’s review of my biography of Philip Larkin features a masterly analysis of Larkin’s development to maturity (LRB, 6 November). However her critique of my book is muddled. ‘Because of the uneventfulness of [Larkin’s] public life, the biographer is thrown back on the poetry for material,’ she writes. This contradicts her previous sentence: ‘The essential ingredient in the life … was his poetry.’ Is the poetry a stopgap to which the biographer is forced to resort in the absence of event? Or is it the biographer’s ‘essential’ subject?

Vendler claims that my book illustrates ‘the difficulty of pursuing on parallel tracks two such disparate genres as biography and analysis’. ‘Too often, throughout Booth’s narrative, the biographical thread is lost for pages, and has to be resumed after the conclusion of paragraphs of literary commentary.’ This is not true. My ‘analysis’, whether a sentence or two or a paragraph (rarely more), is always intimately woven into the biographical narrative.

Vendler limits her illustration of ‘the unhappy effect’ of my method ‘throughout’ to a single example: my analysis of ‘The Building’. This she misrepresents as typical. She fails to notice that this poem’s unique anti-rhetorical rhetoric dictates an approach different from those I adopt elsewhere. She accuses me of instancing ‘in sequential order, the steps that a poem takes, without asking – especially when he finds the step a failure – why Larkin might have wanted to speak in just that way’. She thinks I am criticising Larkin for ‘failure’ when I am celebrating the success of the poem in enacting the failure of will and hope. It is not a matter of ‘Booth’s strangely disconnected observations of this and that’, but of Larkin’s dispirited rhetoric of ‘this and that’. Vendler has forgotten that ‘a good poem about failure is a success.’

James Booth

Nabokov slips up

Valentin Lyubarsky wonders ‘who is at fault here, Nabokov or his translators’, in the quotation from Pushkin which we have rendered, in Letters to Véra: ‘They say that misfortune is a good school. Yes, true. But happiness is the best university’ (Letters, 6 November). Lyubarsky notes, ‘What is translated as “Yes, true" should have been translated as “Quite possible", if Nabokov was quoting Pushkin correctly.’ He wasn’t. Although Nabokov was quoting fairly accurately from memory, he remembered Pushkin’s ‘mozhet byt’’ (‘perhaps’) as ‘Da eto tak’, which we rendered accurately as ‘Yes, true’. Had Lyubarsky seen Letters to Véra, he would have found that the note to this letter translates Pushkin’s original remark in context, including the ‘perhaps’.

Brian Boyd
Auckland, New Zealand
Olga Voronina
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York

Labour vanishes

Ross McKibbin writes that Labour’s immigration policies are ‘determined by the tabloid press, not by grievances unrecognised by a neoliberal society’ (LRB, 20 November). But the grievances that neoliberalism doesn’t ‘recognise’ exist, whether we approve of them or not.

Paula Kuskow


As a footnote to the correspondence about cormorants, it should be noted that in Britain the shag and the cormorant are different species (Letters, 6 November and Letters, 20 November). The shag is a smaller and scarcer bird, found only in coastal habitats, mainly in the north and west; the cormorant is less fussy, being happy to fish inland waters as well as the sea.

Richard Sellwood
Ewhurst, Surrey

Whose sweater?

It seems more likely that Randall Jarrell described the short story as a work of some length which has something wrong with it, though he may have said it of novels too, as Seamus Perry suggests (LRB, 20 November). In the day I had the chance to play tennis with Jarrell – doubles – on Cape Cod. One day he showed up wearing his wife’s sweater. When this was commented on he replied:

Her sweater is a she sweater
My sweater is a he sweater.
Her sweater has she in it.
My sweater has me in it.

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

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