In Karl Miller’s comments and the compendium of snippets about Margaret Thatcher, one of the most important aspects of her ministry goes unmentioned (LRB, 25 April). It was her onslaught on local councils, through capping and regulation, that left little incentive for anyone to get involved in local politics, and resulted in virtual oblivion for the ‘political class’ outside London. Ten years ago the London correspondent of Le Monde remarked that the UK is ‘the most centralised country in the world after North Korea’. Although New Labour recognised the disastrous consequences by talking up regionalism, and the coalition the Big Society and ‘localism’, it’s clear why neither of these approaches had substance. Westminster (members, ministers, mandarins, the whole molehill) has never let go of its self-regard and imperial sense of power, even if it has to make do at present with ruling an unravelling group of islands.
Ross McKibbin observes that ‘From Grantham to the Ritz’, as an imagined title for Thatcher’s memoirs, doesn’t have the admirable ring of Labour memoirs of the form ‘From [modest background] to Westminster’ (LRB, 25 April). This prompts recollection of Joseph Goebbels’s memoir Vom Kaiserhof zur Reichskanzlei, published in 1934 on his – and his party’s – long hoped-for move from the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin to the seat of power. It reached number 15 in the Nazi-era bestseller list. Yours for 15 euros on Amazon.de (used).
I could not but sympathise with Ross McKibbin’s tearing critique of attempts to stereotype welfare claimants (LRB, 25 April). However, I am in Germany at the moment and the first point made in discussion of the subject here is Merkel’s: that the EU accounts for 9 per cent of the world’s people, 15 per cent of its GDP and 50 per cent of its welfare payments. Even if these figures are only approximately correct, and the intention is that the EU stay competitive in a globalised world, the question is where are you going to cut. ‘It’s bound to be pensions,’ a young Free Democrat politician told me. ‘They are so expensive and the demographics are impossible.’ Others argued improvements in medical technology and the ensuing cost made healthcare an equally inevitable target. Most would have agreed with McKibbin that you can’t do much by saving on what you spend on the unemployed. The discussion has no nice ending. The politics of slashing pensions or health spending, both focused chiefly on older voters who will turn out in numbers to vote against either thing, are damn near impossible. The one certainty would appear to be that by 2050 enormous cuts in both will have occurred.
Complaints about the BL
Inigo Thomas is too kind to the British Library (LRB, 25 April). The architectural problems aren’t limited to the exterior. They’re even worse in the reading rooms themselves, where the open-plan layout allows all the noise in the service areas – bleeping from electronic scanners, ringing telephones, fax machines, conversations between staff and readers etc – to go straight out into the reading areas, causing constant distraction and irritation.
Of course the collection is great, and for many readers that’s all that matters. Excellent too are the staff in the reading rooms. But it isn’t a library that’s kind to serious readers. Letting in undergraduates means that every spring the reading rooms are swamped with intruders who aren’t doing research at all but merely swotting course textbooks before exams – and annoying readers (and library staff) with their adolescent antics. This cynical bums-on-seats policy has caused no end of bad feeling. Nor is it the only example of management’s disdain for core users. Undergraduate exam periods apart, most of the noise in the reading rooms is caused by the library’s own equipment and staff: yet it refuses to install silent scanners or non-ringing telephones. Concerts in the piazza are so heavily amplified that the noise disturbs readers in the reading rooms – but not the managers, who consider the endless events and sideshows ‘just as important’ as the library itself. Those of us who work in the traditional humanities are particularly badly treated. Consider the open-shelf displays of scholarly journals in the reading rooms: they include current issues of hundreds of scientific and technical journals, social science journals, and even librarianship journals, but not one journal in literature, history, philosophy, religion, art history or musicology. When a reader proposed setting up a display for journals in these subjects, management flatly denied there was any need for it. Still more upsetting is the grossly defective digital catalogue. It not only fails to incorporate the printed subject indexes from the pre-digital period – a major omission – but inexcusably fails to inform readers of that omission. This has deprived unwitting readers of thousands of relevant references and caused serious damage to their research.
Destiny v. Democracy
David Runciman writes about the racism of the Democratic Party in the South and how it deformed US politics (LRB, 25 April). The Vietnam War is an example of how foreign policy was affected. JFK wanted to appoint William Fulbright, the Arkansas senator, as his secretary of state. Fulbright wanted the job. But his record of opposing civil rights ruled him out. The man who did become secretary, Dean Rusk (also a Southerner, from Georgia, but no supporter of segregation), proved to be a strong proponent of US military involvement in South-East Asia. Fulbright became one of its most prominent opponents. A cultivated and intelligent man, he’d made his deal with the devil. Being a segregationist at home allowed him, as he saw it, to be an internationalist in the Senate – but not at the State Department. Fulbright’s racism helped enable a world-historical blunder.
David Runciman writes that FDR ‘regularly holidayed in South Carolina, where he apparently felt at home’. But FDR’s vacation spot in the South was Warm Springs in Georgia, not South Carolina. It makes a difference – at least to us.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Bulwark against Bolshevism
Donald Mackenzie attributes the ‘fascination’ of the British with owner-occupation to their overwhelming interest in augmenting their equity in their property (LRB, 9 May). Would that it were so, for then perhaps they would be more rational about home ownership and renting.
Pushing owner-occupation became a right-wing political aim in the late 1920s and 1930s because it was a ‘bulwark against Bolshevism’. Until the Second World War, an illegal collusion between building societies, solicitors and builders was allowed to reduce the purchase deposit for the lower middle classes and the securely employed working class. The system was known as ‘the builder’s pool’ and it offered, in effect, houses on hire-purchase during the biggest private house building boom Britain has ever known. As builders put money on deposit with building societies as a security against mortgage default, some of them were starved of capital and ‘jerry-built’ houses, which triggered the mortgage strikes of 1938-40.
Thatcher made her own vigorous sally in this political direction by selling council houses at a discount. Nevertheless, there is a reason for the general interest in equity in housing: the British are forced to pay far too much for their houses.
Afraid of the Nurses
John Kirkham, writing about the crisis in Mid-Staffs, is curiously partisan (Letters, 25 April). Paul Taylor did not refer to the cruelty of the nurses as a major factor (LRB, 11 April). Nor is there any evidence that the Francis Report ‘ducked the real problem’, as the nursing unions were simply not an issue. For those of us who live in Stafford and watched the disaster happen, one of the still unaddressed scandals is the shameful treatment by management of whistleblowers among medical and non-medical staff.
There were clearly instances of callous behaviour, and investigations are ongoing. But laying blame on individuals will not do. Mid-Staffs may have been a uniquely mismanaged institution, but some of the problems were national in scope. The hurried admissions in A&E were caused by the government’s waiting-time target of four hours, at a time when Stafford was ‘chronically understaffed’.
The blame seems to lie principally with the bodies that oversaw the disasters, or rather did not. Ultimately in health, as in education, the authorities spend too much time ‘gaming’ the data instead of focusing on effective provision. This was never picked up at Mid-Staffs, and it appears that achieving foundation status came to be the priority. The ombudsman system is not sufficient to combat a determined attempt to manipulate the statistics.
Terry Eagleton’s summary of the history and practice of exorcism left me feeling there was a gap in his knowledge of modern mainstream Protestant approaches to the issue – for example, in the Church of England (LRB, 9 May). Or is it that a change in terminology, designed to lessen the emotional excesses sometimes associated with exorcism, has camouflaged the practice so well that non-specialists are unaware of its presence? In 1975 the House of Bishops issued guidelines, which are still in place, relating to what is now widely known as the ‘ministry of deliverance’, and in every Anglican diocese in the country the bishop has an adviser (or advisers) overseeing this work.
Reverend Prebendary Paul Towner
Latin for Girls
The Latin textbook used by Emma Dench in the 1970s sounds suspiciously like Latin for Today, used at the girls’ school I went to in the 1940s and originally published in the 1920s, when it really was ‘a new approach’ (LRB, 9 May). It was certainly a lot more fun than Kennedy’s Latin Primer, then the only alternative.
Nick Richardson tells us that James Lasdun’s stalker ‘is unusual in that she is female – 90 per cent of stalking is by men of women’ (LRB, 25 April). The British Crime Survey (now CSEW) has shown consistently over many years that each year between a third and a half of all stalking victims are men, but male victims rarely report it and the police and the courts do not take them seriously when they do. Indeed, what makes Lasdun’s case unusual is not that he was a male victim and his stalker was female but that he reported the offence, with the same result as in Britain: no arrest, trial, imprisonment or subsequent treatment of the offender. The truth is, there are as many crazy women out there as men.
To this retired GP subscriber the use of ‘Huntingdon’s disease’ instead of ‘Huntington’s disease’ to describe Woody Guthrie’s fatal illness caused some surprise (LRB, 9 May). The disease is named, not after the Cambridgeshire town, but after the man who first described its detailed manifestations and heredity in 1872, George Huntington.