Sir: In his article ‘Putin’s gamble’ (3 March), Paul Wood quite rightly mentions that one of the key reasons why Russia played hardball in Syria was Assad’s willingness to block the efforts of Qatar to build a natural gas pipeline through the country to supply Europe. This would have undermined Russia’s market power in Europe, and weakened Russian leverage over Europe when defending its actions in Ukraine. Some of the strategic issues at play in Syria exist in Libya, but to a lesser degree. Libya supplies Europe with gas from large offshore deposits through the GreenStream pipeline to Italy. Qatar tried for years to get Muammar Gaddafi to agree to its investment in Libya’s gas industry so it could undercut the Russian position in the European energy market. It failed and that explains why it poured money and weapons into some of the forces, notably different Islamic militias, which succeeded in overthrowing Gaddafi in 2011. This gas angle is one which few analysts of Russian strategy on Nato’s eastern and southern flanks seem aware of. When Russia intervened in Syria, it had good reasons for doing so.
Non-alcoholic? Yes please
Sir: I disagreed in the main with Freddy Gray’s observations about non-alcoholic drinks (Spectator Life, 24 February). Without wishing to virtue-signal, upon giving up alcohol for Lent, I found an excellent and economical non-alcoholic beer called Bavaria Premium, which delivers the requisite salty-sweet ‘hit’. Additionally, I feel sympathy for the oft-maligned millennial. They quite understandably want a more grown-up drink than Coke or orange squash but their generation can’t afford to get drunk. Any unwise comments or actions can these days lead to social exclusion or even worse.
Defence of Sunderland
Sir: I am a ‘disgusting, drooling, knuckle-dragging Neanderthal’ from Sunderland and, for once, agree with James Delingpole (‘Will Remainers ever learn to forgive?’, 24 February). I am fed up with the repeated criticism heaped on my home town simply because it was the first place to declare after the EU referendum. People in the north-east are generally kind, straightforward, friendly and funny; they are not xenophobic philistines. The reasons why the majority voted to leave are complicated, not least being that the economic boom which has benefited the south has done little to reinvigorate the north. London is seen as a remote city-state, within which successive Westminster governments have neglected their responsibilities to the regions. The vote was not anti-European but more anti the EU administration, which is regarded as a self-serving, unaccountable, bloated bureaucracy.
I now live in London, a constituent of Jeremy Corbyn, with neighbouring constituencies being those of Keir Starmer, Tulip Siddiq, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry. In this rarefied milieu, the subject of Brexit is discussed frequently, and in terms similar to those described by Mr Delingpole; yet hardly anyone is able to pinpoint Sunderland on the map.
Sir: Andrew Marr (Diary, 3 March) expresses ‘sympathy for the striking college lecturers’ because ‘they didn’t have big pensions to look forward to in the first place’. University teachers who complete 40 years of service currently retire on half their final salary. Not only is this indexed annually to inflation, but if their spouse or partner outlives them, they will receive a half-pension for the rest of their lives. I spent 21 years as a university academic. As a result, I now receive a university pension worth some £20,000 — £40,000 if I’d served out my full time. Such a sum might sound like chicken feed to Marr, but it comfortably outstrips the £28,000 national average salary for people who are still working.
Hastings, East Sussex
Sir: James Clunie (‘Merchants of doom’, 3 March) does a typical whitewash job in defending the indefensible: the short-selling of borrowed shares. I wonder what the many struggling buyers of Persimmon Houses, already aghast at the millions paid out to that company’s directors, think about seeing another £200 million going to City shorters? How can it benefit the owner of a share to see its price artificially reduced? The fact is that the underlying owners of such shares have not knowingly given their permission to have them lent: the question is often buried in the small print. Many fund managers decline to lend shares to this faux market and it is to their credit.
So qui bono? The custodians of lent shares pick up a broking fee. Does this go to the benefit of the collective investment? If so, it is arguably justifiable. If not, it is reprehensible. But how many shareholders, asked directly, would give permission for their shares to be used for speculation? It is time the financial regulating authorities had a closer look at the whole contrived share ownership shenanigans.
House of Lords, London SW1
The clap of the owls
Sir: Christopher Fletcher (‘Notes on Otmoor’, March 3) refers to ‘the silent beauty’ of short eared owls. He will, however, be startled by a loud clap over his head if he walks anywhere near their nest, as they bring their wings together smartly with extraordinary percussive effect above their body to warn him off.