The Spectator

Feedback | 14 May 2005

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Tories must be less strident

Simon Heffer tells us that what the Conservative party now needs, above all, is ‘stability’ (‘The way ahead for Conservatives’, 7 May). But it cannot have escaped his notice that the level of success we have enjoyed in the last decade has been all too ‘stable’, and that this is in no small part down to the influence of those who, like him, insist on seeing modernisation as an evil. Whilst Heffer and his friends resist change, Mr Blair is left grinning ever more manically. Mr Heffer gives him the ammunition to paint politics as a choice between those who believe the vulnerable should be helped, and those who would rather ignore them.

Heffer accuses the so-called Notting Hill Set of ‘inexperience and arrogance’, buttheir sort of Conservatism is surely about allowing people greater control over their lives and not simply offering them the ‘freedom’ to agree with Simon Heffer. Only when the Tories adopt a more liberal, less strident tone can we hope to evict the sorry cabal of window-dressers who now ‘govern’ our country.

Stuart Baran

Jesus College, Oxford

London is safer

There is a simple solution to Susan Hill’s problem (‘Sorry, the doctor can’t see you now’, 7 May). She needs to move to the city where, as she acknowledges, GPs are far more likely to attend her in an emergency. Otherwise I’m not quite sure what the answer is. If it’s the recruitment of extra GPs to make calls to isolated farmhouses, I wonder where the money will come from? Does Susan expect urbanites like me to subsidise her rural lifestyle choice?

Indeed, as she has a serious wasp allergy, the countryside is the last place she needs to be. I would counsel a move to the grubby, but safer, streets of London immediately.

Julian Joyce

Isleworth, Middlesex

Junk these machines

I sympathise with Nicola Horlick’s horror at the unappetising and unhealthy victuals she witnessed being consumed at a picnic on Bank Holiday Monday (Diary, 7 May). The same day I had the misfortune to be in the A&E department of one of our new PPI hospitals in Swindon and was further traumatised to observe vending machines producing the same kind of junk fodder Horlick sees in schools. It seems clear that the Department of Health has neither bargaining room nor real initiative where private enterprise operates in the public sector. If the now muzzled NHS cannot even take a stand on re-educating the public about the evils of an unhealthy diet, then in the long run we will have created a sick society and greater demands for hospital beds. Jamie Oliver — your hospitals need you!

Jessica Johnson

Malmesbury, Wiltshire

Tories need a new ‘narrative’

There is nothing new about the distortion of truth into a coherent ‘narrative’ which encourages popular adherence to a particular world-view (Peter Oborne, ‘What’s truth got to do with it?’, 30 April). The Romans did this. Goebbels did it. Churchill did it. You can see this view of the role of truth explicitly articulated more than 40 years ago at the end of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), when the newspaper editor says, ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.’ Trying a little deconstruction of my own, I’d suggest that Peter Oborne’s (and your) real problem with New Labour’s narrative is that it’s one which more people have found to be congenial/persuasive than the Conservatives’ version. So change the narrative. (A hint about where to start with the rethink: the world didn’t end when New Labour banned fox-hunting, and if the Tories had been in power they, too, would have supported the US in Iraq.)

David Harcourt

Wellington, New Zealand

We are fairly convinced of Peter Oborne’s thesis that lying is on the rise in politics. However, in the same spirit, we want to point out his misrepresentation of so-called postmodern thinkers, like Foucault and Derrida.

For example, Foucault did not think that truth was no more than an effect of the rules of discourse. Rather, he thought that truth always ultimately eludes us and so discourses must be tested to see how they misuse what they call truth. The irony is, therefore, that Foucault would probably be with him on his critique of postmodern New Labour.

Dr Mark Vernon and Dr Paul Fletcher

London SE5

Promiscuity spreads Aids

I enjoyed Frank Johnson’s analysis of the recent papal election (Shared opinion, 23 April), but it is a pity he repeats the canard that the Catholic Church helps to propagate Aids in Africa by advocating sexual faithfulness rather than condom use. I am not a Roman Catholic, but I am a scientist, and the fact is that condom use has not helped to stop the spread of Aids in Africa, and is unlikely to do so in the future. The recent review of the subject conducted for the (not notably conservative) Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/Aids (UNAids) concluded that, where there is widespread heterosexual transmission of the disease, ‘the public health benefit of condom promotion ...remains unestablished. In countries like Uganda that have curbed generalised epidemics, reducing the number of individuals’ sex partners appears to have been more important than promoting the use of condoms.’ The Catholic Church’s recommendations in Africa, however irritating they might be to many Europeans, are therefore medically correct.

James McEvoy

Yale University,
New Haven, Connecticut

Not so bel canto

Peter Phillips (Arts, 7 May) wonders why there should be such a gap between the standards of the Sistine Chapel choir and the average English cathedral or collegiate choir. I agree, with qualifications, that there is such a gap when it comes to the repertory and also when it comes to the actual execution of that repertory. And I think I can explain it.

English cathedrals and collegiate churches of all sorts, including Oxbridge colleges, have endowments that permit them to command the best talent — a word not unknown to sacred Scripture. Since the French Revolution and Bonaparte’s incursion into the rest of Europe, the continental Church has been shorn of her endowments. In France the piety of centuries was annihilated within weeks by Talleyrand’s Assignats. Hence that tragic French phenomenon, les cathèdrales silencieuses.

J.L.A. Hartley

London W8

Critical errors

Tim Congdon’s review of my book The End of Poverty (Books, 7 May) is repeatedly incorrect. Here is a sampling of his errors.

‘But the blunt truth is that malaria, one of the health scourges of sub-Saharan Africa, was coming under control in the final decades of colonial rule.’ This is wrong. While there was some dip in the mortality rate in Africa due to the introduction of chloroquine and other anti-malarials, and while the British colonial governments did exercise some malaria control in African cities and a handful of high-value economic sites (mines, plantations), Africa’s malaria burden remained massive and vastly higher than in other parts of the developing world.

‘He is so ignorant of the basic historical record that he gives the start of the British Raj as 1600.’ This is completely unfair. The book makes perfectly plain that there are two phases of British involvement in India, the first from the start of the East India Company at the beginning of the 17th century till 1857, and the second from 1858, when legal authority was formally transferred from the East India Company to the Crown, until India’s independence in 1947.

‘Some of the comments on Africa are astonishing. What is one to make of the proposition that “Africa lacks navigable waterways wi th access to the ocean for easy transport and trade”? ... Sorry Professor Sachs, the problem here really is governance, not geography.’ Mr Congdon should realise that there is an enormous difference between a river being navigable within interior stretches and being navigable with access to the ocean and therefore to international trade. It is, of course, the latter that I stress in the book.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica online shows plainly that the Congo is not ocean-navigable: ‘These cataracts render the Congo unnavigable between the seaport of Matadi, at the head of the Congo estuary, and Malebo (Stanley) Pool, a lake-like expansion of the river....’ The same is true of the Niger river: only about 10 per cent of the river length is ocean-navigable.

‘Moreover, a repeated finding in development economics is that economic growth is not correlated with the level of aid per head of population.’ Mr Congdon apparently does not realise that most analyses of aid and economic growth are deeply flawed because they lump together emergency and humanitarian aid (which, arriving at times of crisis, is negatively correlated with growth) and aid for investments that stimulate long-term growth (such as support for health and education). In a recent paper, for example, Clemens, Radelet and Bhavnani find that when aid is subdivided into its components, there is a positive relationship between economic growth and the kind of aid that should indeed stimulate growth (including budget and balance of payments support, investments in infrastructure, and aid for productive sectors such as agriculture and industry). My recommendations are about aid as investment.

Your readers are poorly served by Mr Congdon’s review. Fortunately, much of the UK government and public are in the forefront of the fight against extreme poverty in Africa and elsewhere.

Jeffrey D. Sachs

Director of the Earth Institute,
Columbia University, New York

With friends like Taki...

Taki’s column in which he hails the election of Pope Benedict (High life, 30 April) is one of his most richly comic to date. The German Holy Father will, I am sure, be gratified to know that Taki for one will be standing with him as he moves to arrest the world’s ‘spiritual decline’. What I’d like to know is at which point on the road to Damascus did this former cokehead, but still drunken old lecher, find moral probity? Taki’s rant against what he perceives to be societal evils calls out for a whole new definition of the word ‘hypocrisy’.

Manuel Escott

Toronto, Canada

Hitler’s canine guinea pig

Charles Moore made an attempt to convince us that Hitler killed his dog out of pity, in case she fell into Russian hands (The Spectator’s Notes, 30 April). People present in Hitler’s bunker bear witness to the fact that Hitler gave his dog cyanide capsules in order to see what his own death would be like (so much for his love of animals). The result of this was that Hitler chose to shoot himself.

Joan Kilford

Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Literary omission

Leo McKinstry’s interesting article comparing Michael Portillo and Lord Rosebery (‘The trouble with Michael’, 7 May) surprisingly stated that the latter was the only prime minister since Disraeli to have been a successful writer. What about Sir Winston Churchill?

Graham Cooke

London SW20