The Spectator

Letters | 8 December 2016

Also in Spectator letters: Andrew Gilligan defends cyclists, mapping mistakes, teaching, hymns and how to knot a Brigade tie

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Taking precedent

Sir: In his excellent piece on the Supreme Court Article 50 ruling (‘Brexit in the balance’, 3 December), Joshua Rozenberg says that the 2015 European Referendum Act was not drafted with sufficient precision. But surely the whole basis of having an unwritten constitution is that the law is therefore interpreted on the basis of precedent — i.e. what is not stated.

Jeremy Wright should keep the government’s case simple. Parliament’s own sovereignty is derived from the people. The European Referendum Act of 2015 was passed by both Houses of Parliament, clearly giving a mandate from Parliament. Our legal system works on precedent. None of the other four national referendums (Northern Ireland, 1975 EU Referendum, AV and Scotland — along with various regional referendums) have been considered to be ‘non-binding’. Nobody ever suggested that the permission of Parliament was required for them to be enacted. Or that the government could not use the Royal Prerogative. That is the essence of unwritten British law. And by the way, it doesn’t say in the Act itself that it is ‘advisory’. Only in the notes. This is a key drafting point.

The truth is that even if the Supreme Court does not overturn the Article 50 ruling, most senior Brexit MPs do not regard this as a reason for constitutional despair. Far from it. Privately, they admit that it is much better to have legal clarity now than when the government is in mid-negotiation. What the judiciary cannot change is the principle — as set out in 1885 by A.V. Dicey in his Law of the Constitution (which all 11 Supreme Court judges will have read before qualifying) that ‘in theory Parliament has total power. It is sovereign.’ Expect the sovereignty of Parliament — and the will of the people — to be proven when the brief bill authorising Article 50 sails through Parliament. Any attempt by the Lib Dems in the Lords — however buoyed up by their success in Richmond — to disrupt this bill would be upper-chamber political suicide.

William Cash

Bridgnorth, Shropshire

Cycles don’t pollute

Sir: I know it’s prohibited to use facts and evidence in any debate about cycling, but if Barry Winkleman (Letters, 3 December) would like to visit the official ‘London Air’ website which records pollution levels, he will see that pollution along the capital’s new cycle superhighway routes has fallen since they were installed. This is because up to 70 per cent of the rush-hour traffic on those roads is now composed of vehicles which emit no pollution whatsoever.

Andrew Gilligan

London SE1

Snowflakes must adapt

Sir: Toby Young’s tongue-in-cheek inspiration for a new consultancy service aiming to keep Generation Snowflake protected from a normal office atmosphere is misdirected (Status anxiety, 3 December). It is they who should have to adapt, not the rest of us.

Mike Kaye

Nocton, Lincoln

Pat answer

Sir: A cartographical misdescription that deserves to be widely known (Books, 26 November) is to be found in Thomas Kitchin’s mid-18th-century map of Northumberland, in which a hill in the southern foothills of the Cheviots is erroneously given the name Cowshit Law. This was evidently repeated in early editions of the Ordnance Survey map of the area. Cushat, as the local term for a woodpigeon, is normal usage and no doubt was at that time. It doesn’t take much imagination to listen in on the conversation on a Northumbrian hillside in a howling gale between Mr Kitchin and a shepherd, whose rendering in his local dialect of the unknown ‘cushat’ was misheard.

Gilfrid Baker-Cresswell

Wooler, Northumberland

Paper chase

Sir: If Charles Moore would like to see current GCSE exam papers (The Spectator’s Notes, 19 November), they are available online from the various exam boards’ websites, even if ‘examinees are not allowed to remove the modern GCSE equivalent from the examination hall’. He will not be surprised by what he finds.

Simon Briston

Frome, Somerset

New world order

Sir: Given the petulance and unreasonable attitude of EU leaders such as Juncker, Verhofstad, Hollande, Banier, Tusk and Merkel — to the point of playing with the future of their own expats — I have stopped purchasing wines from the EU. Unfortunately, my knowledge of new world wines is patchy — particularly when it comes to quality reds. Could Messrs Ray and Anderson focus on these for a while, please? After all it’s those countries that Britain needs to build trade with.

Rodney G. James

Brasschaat, Belgium

How to recruit teachers

Sir: Peter Inson (Letters, 26 November) quotes a recent OECD report about ‘declining standards’ in education. A different OECD report last year showed that teachers’ salaries in England fell by around 10 per cent between 2005 and 2013. Yet the same report made a link between school performance and teachers’ pay. Do many people realise how desperate the recruitment situation in secondary schools has become? Physics and maths graduates, for example, are being offered tax-free training grants of £30,000. Other subjects like modern languages have grants of £25,000. How will the dream of higher standards (currently being rolled out at high speed in new curriculums at both GCSE and A-level) be implemented unless we are able to attract the best graduates into the profession?

Finlay Murray

Harrogate, Yorkshire

Pro-bono protestor

Sir: Taki refers to the anti-Trump protestors on Fifth Avenue in New York as paid imbeciles (High life, 26 November). I can assure your readers that one such protestor who is an acquaintance of mine is a pillar of society, a woman of high intellect, a paragon of virtue, and unpaid.

Jackie Clare Wood

Menlo Park, California

Express to Harlow

Sir: The Cockshutt correspondence on names (Letters, 3 December) reminds me of the conversation purported to have taken place between the actress Jean Harlow and the venerable Margot Asquith. When the former addressed the Grand Dame as ‘Margott’ she received the delicious reply, ‘No my dear, the “t” is silent, as in Harlow.’

Martin Paling

Guildford, Surrey

Another silly name

Sir: My esteemed colleague at Bedford Modern School, the late Dan Dickey, once dispatched an unwell pupil back to his boarding house during a lesson. Asked by the housemistress who had sent him, the blushing lad said, ‘I don’t know his real name but the boys call him Mr Dickey.’

Paul Habershon

(Bedford Modern School staff 1969–2006)


Spirit guide

Sir: Rod Liddle wonders how vodka gets into prisons (‘Prisons should be nicer places? Nonsense’, 26 November). The answer is that prisoners distil it. Those that are on ‘privileges’ because they are pretending to be good are allowed to cook their own food, using raw ingredients. They gather the vegetables and peelings and then make vodka, which is distilled in their rooms. Simple.

On a visit to a prison I was shown this being done and offered a snifter. I was also asked whether I would smuggle drugs in, because ‘I wouldn’t be a suspect.’

Janice Atkinson MEP

UK Delegation, Europe of Nations and Freedom Group

Campaigning with McMogg

Sir: As Jacob Rees-Mogg’s volunteer driver during the 1997 general election campaign, I can categorically state that the make of car in which we crisscrossed central Fife was a Mercedes (Spectator Life, Winter 2016). McMogg was something of a curiosity on the estates of Glenrothes, where Labour and the SNP battled it out. Unfailingly polite, he wore a frilly blue rosette the size of a large frying pan, which prompted one young lad to ask: ‘Is it a dog show?’ We campaigned with Obama-like intensity sustained by Mars bars which he refused to buy for me — but not because he is mean. Far from it — as the rules stipulate, he refused to ‘treat the electorate’. There is no one like him. Jacob Rees-Mogg is a national jewel and he should be our next Speaker.

Nicky Dunne

London W12

Corn lore

Sir: I cannot be alone in my bafflement at finding a fairly common anachronism in quality period drama. I refer to the maize crop which featured in one episode of BBC’s Close to the Enemy, set in 1945/6. Stephen Poliakoff is a serial (sorry) offender in this — a field of maize also featured in a wartime epic about his family some years ago. Then there was the dramatisation of My Uncle Silas with Derek Jacobi, which also featured authentic peasants in period outfits with oxcarts and so on… and a ruddy great field of maize. One fears one has nodded off and that we have been transported to the Americas. Maize, as far as I am aware, was not grown as a crop in these islands until at least the early 1980s. You may call me an anorak, but you’d have thought someone else would have noticed.

Anne Booth

Shaftesbury, Dorset

Knot right

Sir: Fear not, Lord Remnant (Letters, 3 December). With regard to the potential Irish Guards Officer’s Brigade Tie faux pas, I believe he has a grand future. On a recent trip back to the UK, I was picked up by a former quartermaster in the Irish Guards (the Micks) on Colchester station for having my Brigade Tie incorrectly tied: blue, red, blue is correct. He made me re-tie it then and there on the platform. I left the army 25 years ago.

It just goes to show that the Micks forgive their own. Septem juncta in uno.

Niels Jensen

Captain, Irish Guards (1989–1994)

Hong Kong

Cheese riddle

Sir: I enjoyed Christopher Hawtree’s review of The Oxford Companion to Cheese (Books, 3 December), with its feast of information for discerning turophiles. Unfortunately, he forgot to mention the best preserved riddle of all time: what cheese is made backwards?

John O’Byrne


Minor detail

Sir: Ysenda Maxtone Graham may well crave the minor chord at the end of ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ (‘In praise of Advent’, 26 November), but she will be hard-pressed to find it. The final chord of the tune ‘Veni Emmanuel’, which is, in fact, in the Aeolian mode, is indeed that of E minor. However, few organists are able to resist the temptation to change the last chord of the last verse to one of E major. This is a simple trick but the effect is striking, producing the frisson of expectation which your columnist so desires.

Joseph Sentance

Organist, St Stephen’s Walbrook, London EC4