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Feedback | 11 September 2004

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Count me in

As one of the (so far few) Conservative MPs to have publicly supported the proposal to debate the Prime Minister’s impeachment, I was not surprised by Cedric Talbot’s reaction to it from Tokyo (Letters, 4 September). He misses the point and in doing so falls into the trap set by the No. 10 machine. It wants us to forget the reasons for invading Iraq used by the Prime Minister in his Commons speech in March 2003 and what we now know he knew or ought to have known then; to concentrate only on the benefits for Iraq that have flowed from the war; lazily to accept that any criticism of the Prime Minister for his conduct in taking us into the war is to tolerate, if not positively support, the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein, to be an opponent of the war and a disloyal critic of our brave troops; to believe that because the Prime Minister has been exonerated by the narrowly focused Hutton and Butler inquiries, his integrity in all things and at all times is not open to doubt.

The argument in support of impeachment is not based on the wrongness of going to war. If it were, I would not support it. It is based on the need for Parliament to check the executive, to remind even the most powerful in our country that they are not supreme, and ourselves that a functioning parliamentary democracy depends on trust and truth. President Bush told the American people why he was leading his country to war, and whether you agree with him or not, no one can accuse him of saying one thing in 2002, something different in early 2003 and something else in 2004. Examine our Prime Minister’s record over the same period and ask yourself if he can claim to have been as consistent or as candid with Parliament, the Parliamentary Labour party and the public as the President was in the United States of America.

Did the Prime Minister know, do and say things in the lead-up to the war which were in fact inconsistent with what he told us? He did not, as Mr Talbot would like to believe, present us with an argument that Saddam, as ‘the world’s number one unindicted criminal’, should not be allowed to ‘get away with it’. I doubt he is saying that even now. He led us to believe that Saddam possessed strategic WMD that were a threat to the region, the wider world and our own national interests and that he would use them unless we defeated him. The secret intelligence which he had seen proved as much. The invasion was sanctioned by international law because Saddam was in breach of numerous Security Council resolutions and in particular 1441.

I voted with the government in March 2003 because I believed that the Prime Minister was advancing a case for war based on the unvarnished truth and because I could not believe that any prime minister, and particularly not one who had set so much store by his personal trustworthiness, would do otherwise. If the Prime Minister had already committed our country to war in a private deal with the President in 2002, he should at least have told his Cabinet at the time — and Parliament when he made the case to us for war in March 2003.

It is the constitutional duty of all members of Parliament, government and opposition, to hold the executive to account, a task made difficult in Westminster, where the executive largely sits in and on the Commons. This government has a majority of 165 over all other parties. Save in a few notable exceptions it has been a supine majority that does what it is told and has forgotten, if it ever knew, that it should do more than lamely follow its leader. Call me naive, but not a cheerleader for Michael Moore.

Edward Garnier
London SW1

Desperately seeking war

You write (Leading article, 28 August) that in the run-up to the war Chirac and Schröder were looking for ‘excuses to do nothing’ (as though this was somehow perverse in spite of your admission that Iraq ‘posed no serious threat’ to us). This is simply untrue. Pre-invasion, the French and German alternative was for Unmovic to continue their work with treble the number of inspectors and to extend the no-fly zone across the whole of Iraq. A peculiar way of doing nothing.

Meanwhile Britain and America were determined to do all they could to scupper any hope of peace, including it seems, lie to their own people, as they desperately looked for excuses to go to war.

Ian Taylor
Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire

A-levels are ace

Peter Oborne raises a number of issues to contend with my assertion that the rise in A-level grades is the product of higher standards of teaching and learning (Politics, 21 August). I think it is important that I answer them one by one.

First, he says universities now regard A-levels as a ‘worthless measure of achievement’. In fact Professor Ivor Crewe, president of Universities UK, said on results day that A-levels had the full support of universities as a key indicator of applicants’ achievements. Only 2 per cent of students gain three A grades at A-level. As for his example of Huddersfield University’s oversubsidised physiotherapy course, the current requirements for entry are three Cs at A-level, which means they could distinguish between candidates by using higher grades if they so wished.

Secondly, the diagnostic test used by Coventry University is not a good basis to condemn the A-level. While the A-level syllabus has changed, the test has not, so the subject matter is different. The test does not include topics that today’s maths A-level students can take, such as dynamics and kinematics of a particle moving in a straight line or plane, and critical path analysis.

Thirdly, he says that soldiers with a C pass at maths GCSE struggle with basic fractions and have to take a Ministry of Defence remedial maths programme. I find it very hard to see how a candidate would be able to gain a C at GCSE without being able to do fractions when fractions could be necessary in up to 40 per cent of the GCSE.

I do not say that the 14–19 system is perfect. That is why we set up Mike Tomlinson’s review, and he will come forward with proposals later this year looking at how we stretch the most able, boost participation, improve the vocational training on offer and reduce the burden of assessment.

However, Mr Oborne’s points do not stand up against the independent evidence which shows that standards have been maintained. At a time when Ofsted, the independent inspectorate of schools, says the standard of teaching has never been higher, we should expect to have rising levels of achievement in our schools and colleges.

David Miliband
School Standards Minister, London SW1

Regional spin

Martin Vander Weyer (‘Regional forecast’, 4 September) is right to draw attention to the stealthy advance of regional government. Here in the north-east John Prescott’s campaign to persuade us that we do want it is in full flow. We all recently received a government leaflet, ‘Your Say’, which purports to set out the issues in advance of November’s postal referendum.

Readers will not be surprised to learn that it is a heavily ‘spun’ document. For example, the Yes and No arguments are illustrated by people with their thumbs up or down, respectively. Those with thumbs up are an attractive smiling lot. Those with thumbs down merely scowl. The message is clear: vote yes, be happy; vote no, remain unhappy.

More seriously, we are tempted by the financial savings to be made in Durham and Northumberland if the present two-tier local government is replaced by new ‘unitary’ authorities. What is not given is the cost of a new regional assembly, which we may be sure will far outweigh any savings at the local level. Nor is it explained why we cannot realise these savings without a regional government on top, as local government will only be rationalised in the event of a Yes vote.

This is curious, as the leaflet assures us that a regional assembly will only exercise powers currently held in Whitehall and by various quangos. If that is so, why should local government reform be conditional upon it? One suspects that regionalism is as much about centralisation ‘up’ and devolution ‘down’ — hence the reason that less genuinely local representation will be required.

The political upshot is likely to be that Labour and the Liberals (the two are pretty much indistinguishable in this area) will end up running every bit of the north-east, instead of just most of it. Hence Prescott’s enthusiasm for the project.

Jeremy Stocker

Dishonoured heroes

Anthony Daniels’s review of Dr Mayhew’s book The Reconstruction of Warriors (Books, 4 September) omits to mention Sir Archibald McIndoe’s most famous patient, Richard Hillary, author of The Last Enemy, a Battle of Britain classic.

Hillary was an incredibly handsome young man, but when he was shot down in September 1940 his face was so horribly burnt that the nurse at McIndoe’s hospital burst into tears. McIndoe patched him up, and he persuaded the RAF to let him fly again. For the second time he was shot down, this time fatally.

Mr Daniels asks whether the present generation would be capable of similar sacrifices. Those of us who fought in the war might feel that it is not a question we can answer. In many cases we had our careers blighted. When we came back after six years we were told regretfully that we were now too old. The clerk who became a squadron leader was expected to go back to being a clerk, while his old colleagues who managed to avoid the services had shot up the promotion ladder.

Churchill in his memoirs wrote that ours was the finest generation that Britain had ever produced. It was nice of him to say so, but fine words butter no parsnips.

Dennis Outwin
Great Yarmouth, Norfolk

Housewife historians

I am the ‘Gloucestershire housewife’ James Delingpole describes in his review of the Channel 4 documentary Secret History: Sink the Belgrano as outraged that the Argentine cruiser had been sunk outside the total exclusion zone (Arts, 10 July). I would like to put it on record that I was deeply distressed by his flippant description of me and my ‘instant armchair expertise’.

He arrogantly assumed that housewives, i.e., those who choose to bring up their own children rather than rely on others to do so, are not well educated. I am a Cambridge MA and have particular knowledge of the Southern oceans including the Falklands area. After graduating in 1947 I entered the WRNS as a meteorological officer and in 1950 married a fleet air arm observer.

Channel 4 based its programme on Penguin’s Classic Military History The Falklands War 1982 by Martin Middlebrook. Because of the controversy that followed the sinking of the Belgrano, the Parliamentary foreign affairs committee held an inquiry, published in 1985 as ‘Events Surrounding the Weekend of 1–2 May 1982’, which was a very complex document, released when Parliament went into recess and never debated.

As a result the Belgrano Action Group was formed, which held a public inquiry in 1986 and produced a report, now out of print but available for study in the British Library and elsewhere. Therefore my knowledge comes directly from Parliament and from the United Nations Association’s own library.

Diana Gould
Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Simian sobriquets

Corrupt, vicious and incompetent — the President of Equatorial Guinea may well deserve all of these epithets (‘Help me, wonga’, 4 September). But ‘a monkey’ and ‘the ape’? Such language tells us more about Rod Liddle than it does about President Obiang.

John Reynolds
Wadhurst, East Sussex