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Letters

Vol. 41 No. 14 · 18 July 2019

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A Place Like Eton

James Wood’s piece about Eton and its 1980s cohort of future Tory movers and shakers reminded me that the school also produced two of the great 19th-century Liberals, both of them considerably less complacent than Rees-Mogg and Co (LRB, 4 July). Gladstone was a proud old boy, and, as he stated late in life, an ‘out-and-out inequalitarian’. But he turned his back decisively on the inherited Toryism of his youth and radically reshaped the polity he’d grown up in. Lord Rosebery was a much less successful prime minister, but he campaigned energetically to reform the House of Lords (filled, he told one public meeting, with men ‘who have done you the favour of being born’), and was the first chairman of the socially-minded London County Council, ultimately being elected councillor for the working-class constituency of East Finsbury. Rosebery was known as the ‘People’s Peer’, but even he couldn’t escape the grip of his old school. When he died in 1929, aged 82, a recording of ‘The Eton Boating Song’ was playing on a gramophone, as per his request.

Laura Moss
Newcastle

James Wood successfully ‘bumps’ David Cameron up from the middle class, but he could have gone a bit further and reminded us that Cameron is the great-great-great-great-great grandson of the man who became King William IV via his long-term mistress Dorothea Jordan (LRB, 4 July). Claire Tomalin’s biography Mrs Jordan’s Profession (1994) poignantly describes how Jordan was cast aside when it became likely that Prince William Henry would become king, despite the ten children she had borne him.

Huw Kyffin
Canterbury

James Wood tells us that the phrase ‘effortless superiority’ was in common use at Eton in the early 1980s. He glosses it as ‘charmed confidence balanced by strategic noblesse oblige’. The expression is also associated with Balliol College, Oxford – H.H. Asquith had referred to the ‘tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority’ possessed by Balliol men – but there it carries a very different meaning. ‘Superiority’ has nothing to do with manners, but is simply a matter of being better than others at what you set yourself to do, whether that is writing a biography of Winston Churchill or being foreign secretary. At the freshers’ dinner in October 1983, the then master, Anthony Kenny, warned an audience which included Boris Johnson that it is far easier to achieve the effortlessness than the superiority. I now wonder if everyone in hall that night took Kenny’s warning in the proper sense.

Ian Rumfitt
All Souls College, Oxford

Brexit Blues

William Davies writes that a no deal Brexit is ‘the default outcome if nothing else can be agreed on’ (LRB, 20 June). Although it seems to be assumed by all sides that this is the case, there is an alternative legal interpretation of the way Article 50 operates. On 10 February 2017 the QCs David Edward, Francis Jacobs, Jeremy Lever, Helen Mountfield and Gerry Facenna published what is now known as the Three Knights Opinion. It was submitted to the House of Lords in advance of its second reading of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill 2017. It points out that Article 50 requires a decision to withdraw from the EU to be taken by a member state ‘in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’. In the UK’s case those constitutional requirements, in the view of the authors (and following the Supreme Court’s decision in Miller), include the enactment by Parliament of legislation expressly authorising withdrawal on the terms agreed or withdrawal in the absence of agreement: the principle of parliamentary sovereignty means that only Parliament is capable of authorising in this way the changes in domestic law and existing rights that would necessarily follow from withdrawal. Absent such legislation, the Article 50 notification would simply lapse on expiry (the necessary domestic constitutional requirements not having been met) and the UK would consequently remain a member of the EU. As the authors put it, ‘Article 50 cannot have the effect of ejecting a member state from the European Union contrary to its own constitutional requirements.’

Parliament’s subsequent decision to trigger Article 50 has not diminished the force of this analysis. As the opinion points out, the necessary parliamentary authorisation can no more be achieved by Parliament endorsing notification of the UK’s intention to leave the EU two (now more) years in advance of the event, on terms then unknown, than it can by a single ‘take it or leave it’ vote at the end of the process. Unless Parliament enacts legislation expressly authorising a no deal exit, the UK cannot legally crash out of the EU when the Article 50 period expires on 31 October (or indeed, if a further extension is granted, on some later date), given the impact this would have on the rights of British citizens and businesses and on the rights of those of other member states resident or established here.

Davies adverts to the irony of ‘the legalistic nature of the EU itself’ being responsible for the apparent momentum behind no deal. But what would an international treaty look like without legally binding terms? The ironies, in any case, are clear. The mechanism that the autonomy-sapping EU has provided for departure from the bloc expressly defers to member states’ own constitutional requirements, while the parliamentary sovereignty vaunted by many in the Leave camp turns out to be precisely what, on this analysis, means no deal is not in fact the legal default.

The Three Knights Opinion is just that: an opinion. Given its authors’ considerable professional standing and expertise, however, and the persuasiveness of its reasoning, the limited media coverage (beyond a handful of academic articles and blog posts) and near total absence of political attention it has received to date are striking.

Henry Day
London SW2

Unfair to the Gräfin

Richard J. Evans downplays the role of Marion Gräfin Dönhoff in the moral reconstruction of West Germany on the basis of statements she made in support of government policies in the pre-war Nazi period (LRB, 6 June). Evans dismisses Berghahn’s claim that Dönhoff was involved in ‘active resistance’ to the Nazi regime, yet German sources have long acknowledged her part in the resistance in the later Nazi years and in the von Stauffenberg assassination attempt. ‘Most of the German aristocracy were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler,’ Evans writes, condemning Dönhoff by association, but he provides no evidence that Dönhoff was ‘desperate to recover her East Prussian estates’: she argued early on in favour of accepting the changed borders resulting from the Second World War and of the need to promote some form of reconciliation between Germany, Poland and the USSR. Evans rightly locates Dönhoff’s former estates in the present Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg. A plaque on an interior wall of the former Lutheran cathedral there, now a meeting space with small Russian Orthodox and Lutheran chapels, dates the local presence of the von Dönhoff family from the 15th century to 1945. The plaque was installed on the initiative of Marion Gräfin Dönhoff and marks a clear renunciation of any property or territorial claim.

Evans leaves Dönhoff in limbo at the end of the war. But it is here that her significance really took hold. In 1946 she became the political editor, and later editor-in-chief and publisher of the newly established weekly newspaper Die Zeit. She left the paper in protest in 1954 when it published an article by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, then returned a year later. Die Zeit played an important role in re-establishing an independent and pluralist press in West Germany, which it continues to play today.

Blaine Stothard
London SW9

Utopian about the Present

Christopher Turner, reviewing a book about council housing, might have made mention of the Housing and Town Planning Act, 1919 (LRB, 4 July). Robin Hood Gardens, the 1970s estate that Turner focuses on, was wildly unrepresentative of council housing as a whole. The houses built under the terms of the 1919 Act, and the estates on which they stood, were much more typical, and unlike many 1970s estates they continue to be attractive and popular places to live. The Act was a landmark event in the history of housing. Although local authorities had long possessed the power to build houses, the great majority had chosen not to, but after 1919 nearly all authorities rapidly acquired a stock of decent homes to let at affordable rents. In Bristol, to take one example, the city council had built precisely 74 small tenement dwellings before 1914, but following the 1919 Act it built more than 1100 in three years. Councils carried on building until they had housed nearly a third of all households in the late 1970s, before the ravages of Right to Buy set in.

The Act’s long-term significance for housing policy wasn’t understood at the time. Indeed it can be argued that ministers saw the housing programme as a temporary expedient, a political necessity as they struggled to manage the transition from war to peace. Lloyd George referred to building ‘a land fit for heroes to live in’, but the aim of completing half a million houses in three years was primarily to do with staving off demands for more radical change, even revolution. That the war cabinet continued meeting for well over a year after the Armistice is a sign of how concerned ministers were about the situation. In September 1919 a Home Office ‘Report on Revolutionary Organisations in the UK’ included a discussion of the way agitators in Glasgow were using the ‘housing question’ to gather support; it was noted that the delay in starting to build houses was having deplorable results. Whether the threat of revolution was real or not, ministers took it seriously. The political salience of the housing question broke Treasury resistance to the idea of central government subsidy in aid of council building projects, and the Act introduced the principle that the revenue costs of council housing should be shared between tenants, ratepayers (who included tenants) and the Exchequer. In different forms that tripartite system endured until 1989.

The other breakthrough achieved after 1919 was that for the first time the working class gained access to semi-detached houses on low-density estates. Historically it was almost invariably the case that urban housing for all classes was terraced, but from the middle of the 19th century the middle class discovered the advantages of the semi-detached form. For the working class, however, the narrow-fronted terraced house continued to predominate right up to 1914. The idea of refashioning urban areas along ‘garden city’ lines had been pioneered before 1914 at Letchworth, where the architects Raymond Unwin and Barry Parker developed cottage-style houses that became the template for much of post-1919 council housing. It has been argued that the focus on building high-quality houses on low-density estates was as important as the number of them. It was precisely because garden city standards had been unaffordable before 1914 that they were so attractive now, as proof of the government’s commitment to building a land fit for heroes.

However, the people who managed to secure a council tenancy after 1919 were not drawn from across the working class as a whole. It turned out that the costs of building the new houses were much higher than had been expected and so were the rents. This inevitably excluded the poor, who only began to gain access in the 1930s, when councils were instructed to concentrate on rehousing families from slum clearance areas. To understand the rise and fall of council housing since 1919 it is necessary to see that housing policy in Britain has always been based on the idea that the market would provide for most people most of the time. In times of extreme market disruption after the two world wars the state stepped in to provide good quality council houses primarily for the skilled working class, leaving the poor to fend for themselves in the nether reaches of the private rented sector. When market conditions favoured private builders housing policy was redirected towards the removal of the worst conditions. So Turner is correct to say that by the 1970s council housing was being reduced to the role of safety net. The introduction of the council tenant’s right to buy in 1980 simply made this much more obvious. The decline of council housing has been brought about by entirely deliberate acts of policy. The dream of a decent home for all still seems a long way off.

Peter Malpass
Bristol

The Slum Next Door

Wordsworth’s ‘unlovely cell’ was of course at that notorious slum known as St John’s College, Cambridge, not, as I wrote, at the notorious slum next door known as Trinity College (LRB, 4 July). I apologise to both those august institutions. There are just too many slums in Cambridge.

Colin Burrow
All Souls College, Oxford

A Long Way from Julie Christie

Joanne O’Leary quotes a character in Yiyun Li’s novel Kinder than Solitude referring to Doctor Zhivago’s ‘giving up his life when he could not catch up with Lara in the street’ (LRB, 4 July). We aren’t told whether Li herself remembers Yuri’s death in this way, or whether it was something she chose for her character. Either way this isn’t the scene as Pasternak wrote it but as David Lean filmed it.

In the novel Yuri’s last moments – he is on his way ‘for the first time to his job at the Botkin Hospital’ – are spent overcome by nausea inside a broken-down tram. He feels ‘an unprecedented, irreparable pain inside’ and realises that he has ‘committed something fatal’. In fighting to leave the tram, desperate to believe that fresh air will revive him, he struggles against people crowding the tram’s rear platform, who snarl at him and won’t let him pass. Finally reaching the pavement, he collapses on the cobbles and doesn’t get up again. Passers-by stop briefly to look at his body, some of them curious, others disappointed ‘that the man had not been run over and that his death had no connection with the tram’. Some think that the body should be taken to a hospital, others that the police must be called. A foreign woman dressed in purple hurries by without waiting to see what will be decided. She is ‘Mademoiselle Fleury from Meliuzeevo, now very, very old’, a Swiss subject who, after 12 years of trying, has finally been granted the exit visa that will allow her to leave Moscow and return to her own country.

As for Lara, Pasternak shows us ‘a grey-haired old lady in a light straw hat with cloth daisies and cornflowers, and a tight-fitting old-fashioned lilac dress, puffing and fanning herself with a flat parcel she carried in her hand … She was tightly corseted, weary from the heat, and, sweating profusely, kept wiping her wet lips and eyebrows with a small lace handkerchief.’ A very long way from Julie Christie. She receives no further attention. ‘Evidently she was arrested on the street in those days and died or vanished no one knew where, forgotten under some nameless number on subsequently lost lists, in one of the countless general or women’s concentration camps in the north.’

As Pasternak makes bitterly clear, it is as the forgotten detritus of history rather than the culmination of epic romantic drama that his characters meet their end.

Ken Head
Cambridge

A Simple Comment

I don’t think that authors should complain about fair criticism. I do protest, however, at one thing: bracketing my book together with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s The Victorians (LRB, 6 June). That is unkind.

Adam Sisman
Clifton, Bristol

The Socialist Lavatory League

One of the classes of desperate citizens that Owen Hatherley didn’t mention is long-distance road runners (LRB, 9 May). Their plight was largely unrecognised until Paula Radcliffe’s spectacular emergency on the way to winning the 2005 London Marathon. When (long ago now) I was first training for marathons, I acquired an almost encyclopedic knowledge of toilets that were still open in North-East London (and an equally good knowledge of handy hedges and ditches in areas where toilets were no more). In later years I became shrewder and split my long training run into several shorter sections with a proper ‘pit stop’ at the end of each. This worked much better.

Of course, race days present different challenges, as Radcliffe discovered. A friend of mine, running in the London Marathon in 1983, suffered an emergency need while somewhere in the Isle of Dogs. ‘Have you got a toilet I could possibly use?’ he asked a local lady watching the race from her front garden. Her apparent friendliness might have been taxed when four other runners followed my friend up her narrow staircase.

Richard Bunce
Enfield

Jenny Diski

I am organising a symposium on Jenny Diski, to be held at Oxford University on 7 April 2020. The title is ‘Jenny Diski: A Celebration’, and the keynote speaker is Blake Morrison. I would be delighted to receive proposals for papers on any aspect of Diski’s writing. These should take the form of a 200-300 word abstract, and the deadline is 1 September 2019. Please see the call for papers on the Oxford Department for Continuing Education website for further details.

Ben Grant
Kellogg College, Oxford

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