The Spectator

Feedback | 5 March 2005

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Lay off the Tory tabloids

Douglas Hurd advises us to ignore the campaigns of the popular press — and, by implication, the people whose concerns they ably articulate (‘Time to fight back’, 26 February). Hurd has spent his professional patrician lifetime disdaining the opinions of ordinary people. That is why the party he and his fellow grandees — Heseltine, Howe and Patten — drove into the ground by 1997 is in such a parlous condition today. It is the press that has provided the only opposition to Hurd’s neo-Blairite agenda, and has vigorously rejected the policies so dear to him: coddling criminals, bending the knee to Brussels and grovelling to foreign despots everywhere. Yet, at a time when all right-thinking people (in both senses of the term) should be uniting to rid us of the most disastrous, dictatorial and dishonest government of modern times, Hurd’s considered counsel is to reject the Conservative press.

The Tory party will never regain popularity and power until it reconnects with the real worries of the British people, so powerfully articulated by the Tory tabloids Hurd loathes. He has clearly never forgiven Margaret Thatcher for grasping this truth.

Nigel Jones
Lewes, East Sussex

Putin the puppet

In his article ‘Why Putin sells missiles to Syria’ (26 February) Simon Heffer writes that President Putin’s hard-line foreign policy represents a danger to the EU. He argues that by siding with Syria and Iran and meddling in affairs of the Baltic states the Russian leader is trying to get back at the West for being ‘outmanoeuvred and impotent’.

Mr Heffer, along with many other commentators, is missing one important point: Putin was plucked from obscurity and installed in power by President Boris Yeltsin for one reason only — to preserve the existing status quo in Russia for as long as possible and with every means possible. The so-called strong man image that has been conjured up by his spin-doctors, most of whom had worked for Yeltsin, is a ploy to fool the Russian people and not the West. And all the supposedly hard-line decisions in foreign policy are part of the same game. If you look at the way Russia’s influence in the world is rapidly diminishing, you would realise that Putin is losing out on all fronts of his foreign policy. The West has nothing to fear from Putin, whose presence in the Kremlin was initiated to safeguard the interests of Yeltsin’s family and their cronies.

Guided by his new secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, who knows Russia well, President George Bush is well aware of the situation. That was why he did not put any serious pressure on Putin publicly in Bratislava, knowing perfectly well that Russia does not pose any substantial threat to the West.

Alexander Nekrassov
London NW5

Children need ‘Rat play

I agree with Leo McKinstry that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a ‘scandal’, but he only goes halfway to why in stating it is just ‘naughtiness’ (‘Not ill — just naughty’, 26 February). ADHD is linked to the suppression of rough-and-tumble play, otherwise known as ‘Rat play’ — appropriately, as experiments with the young of rats as well as other animals show that they need it to grow up neurologically healthy and to develop the capacity to learn. Children need it too.

The American researcher Jaak Panksepp, in a chapter on Rat play in his Affective Neuroscience (OUP, 1998), describes an innate ‘play system’ in the brain. Boys and girls both have it, but boys’ play is naturally rougher — which schoolteachers don’t like. Many more boys are diagnosed with ADHD than girls. Panksepp notes ‘the widespread pathologisation of rough-and-tumble play in the American school system’.

The same thing is now happening here: children are becoming hyper and can’t sit still in class because they are not allowed to run in the playground. They are being drugged into the compulsory niceness which is part of our society’s project to become politically correct and risk-free.

Sean Haldane
London E12

Patten’s patter

In his otherwise excellent article on the folly of selling arms to China (‘Selling out to China’, 26 February), Andrew Gilligan falls into a familiar trap: failing to recognise when Chris Patten is joking or being mordant. He writes: ‘There was a need, he [Mr Patten] said, to satisfy China’s “amour-propre”. Beijing, he said, was “humiliated” by being bracketed with the likes of Sudan and Burma.’

I saw this again and again in Hong Kong, where I covered Mr Patten’s entire reign as governor. He would make a little joke such as suggesting he knew nothing about China. The next day some of the local papers would shriek, ‘Patten admits ignorance of China’. Beijing knew this not to be true. That’s why the government there called Mr Patten, among other things, ‘a whore for 10,000 years’.

Jonathan Mirsky
London W11

Tutorials are sacred

James Howard-Johnston suggests that some of the most stimulating students are the ‘hot-air specialists who concoct essays out of very little hard material’ (‘Save the Oxford tutorial’, 26 February). Well, yes, if the evidence they draw on is reliable and their arguments are robust.

His principal argument is that Oxford’s academic strategy green paper proposes the phasing-out of tutorials. It does no such thing. Indeed, it calls for all disciplines to cement the position of the tutorial by specifying the number of sessions which students should expect to have. It notes in passing that the idea of standardising one tutorial per week across the university has been rejected in favour of higher figures, varying from subject to subject.

The purpose of the green paper is to map out a strategy to enable Oxford to remain at the forefront internationally of research and teaching. As the tutorial is, to use a bit of the management jargon that Mr Howard-Johnston dislikes, one of its unique selling points, why would the ‘university authorities’ wish to diminish it? We don’t, we want to enhance it. I say ‘we’ because I am one of the tutorial fellows currently numbered among those dread authorities.

Bill Macmillan
Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Academic), University of Oxford

Poles put us to shame

It is not only America in particular that puts our health system to shame, nor is it rich Western countries in general (‘Die in Britain, survive in the US’, 12 February). Last May I was in Krakow, Poland, and about to set off for a two-week cross-country walk when a mysterious pain struck my neck and shoulder. After six days of increasing agony (by which stage sleep was only possible by means of a great deal of vodka), I found a blue cross on a map of Krakow, walked across the city and into the hospital at five minutes past noon.

At exactly one o’clock I walked out again, having been examined by two doctors (one speaking perfect English) and had four X-rays, on the strength of which a consultant osteopath sent me off to the chemist with a prescription handwritten in Latin, where I was given three weeks’ worth of sleeping tablets and painkillers, both of which worked. The total cost to a non-resident, non-national, non-taxpayer in this relatively poor non-EU country? £30.

Back in my own country, I had to wait five days to see a doctor, who prescribed painkillers so weak they had no effect whatsoever (when I told him this, he replied, with that bedside manner for which the NHS is notable, ‘Well, they’re not Smarties, you know’), and then six weeks to have X-rays, after which a further two months elapsed before I was able to see an osteopath, who was unable to come to a diagnosis. The problem eventually resolved itself, but with no thanks whatsoever to the NHS.

Peter Whyte-Venables
Ludlow, Shropshire

Save the moon bears

Paul Johnson’s article (And another thing, 19 February) does not present the whole story of China’s moon bears. During a long stint as a correspondent in China, I investigated Animals Asia Foundation’s activities in Sichuan and came to the conclusion that the organisation is deeply misguided if it believes that working in tandem with the Chinese regime is helping to save the moon bear from extinction. In fact, it is doing more harm than good.

There can be no denying that AAF has rescued some bears from the cruel conditions in which they had been kept in south-western China. But to do so the organisation entered into agreements with the Chinese authorities, accepting assurances that farms were being closed down without being permitted to investigate and verify these claims. AAF also paid farmers a bounty for the bears that arrived at its Sichuan property, thus creating a market for the animals.

The stockpile of Chinese bear bile is growing, and animal welfare specialists say the Chinese authorities are working hard behind the scenes to have the moon bear delisted as an endangered species, based on the numbers now in captivity.

Once that has been achieved, the next step is to begin exports of bear bile products — which not only include bogus medicines, but such frivolous consumer items as teas and shampoos. Bear bile has been an ingredient of traditional Chinese medicine for a relatively short time, and any claim to include it in the ancient pharmacopoeia is as false as saying that it alleviates liver cancer and short-sightedness.

AAF may help individual bears, but it is doing great damage to the species as a whole.

Lynne O’Donnell
London E14

Hunting is no mere pastime

So Anthony Famularo thinks those of us who care about fox-hunting are ‘silly’ (Letters, 26 February). Much has been written in similar vein by those who care nothing and understand even less about the countryside. Such people are wrong to mock. Hunting is a great deal more than a mere ‘pastime’ — a word so often used to trivialise the sport, as though it were of no more significance than watching football on telly.

Football-supporting really is just a pastime and results in a great deal of bigotry and harm. But would anyone dare to call football supporters ‘silly’ for making a fuss if it were their sport that had just been banned by a spiteful government in order to pacify a bunch of chippy backbenchers?

Julia Pickles
London SW1

Forbidden to pay taxes?

Can Bill Woodhouse (Letters, 19 February) tell me exactly which laws forbid us paying public money to organisations that do not keep proper accounts and that condone fraud? In particular, if they prevent the UK government making payments to Brussels, do they also forbid me paying taxes to fund UK government departments whose books the Audit Commission has repeatedly declined to sign off? I seem to have read somewhere that the Department for Work and Pensions has fallen into this category for three years running.
Paul Magrath
London N5