Sir: The elephant in the room in the handling of the pandemic (‘A tragedy of errors’, 29 May) is the civil service, which has become the problem in government rather than the solution. Repeated disasters of problem management — from the blood transfusion scandal to Hillsborough to the failures illuminated by Dominic Cummings — reveal an inability to make precise decisions, accept errors and move on. This is especially illustrated by the Home Office which is no longer fit for any purpose. The difficulties encountered by the Windrush people are a case in point. The incompetence and sheer nastiness is breathtaking. It is apparent that we are governed by the civil service as the Chinese are by the Communist party, and the Treasury is the equivalent of the presidium.
Sir: It was good to see The Spectator recognising the positive aspects of Dominic Cummings’s select committee appearance. For many years, senior public sector leaders have been calling for greater challenge and candour from their staff. Unfortunately, this rhetoric all too often hits the realities of human nature. Individuals are generally unwilling to criticise those that dispense promotion and reward, and those in charge are often far less receptive to challenge when it does actually arrive. Mr Cummings has given us a shining example of such candour and challenge from someone who was at the very top of government.
Crime and punishment
Sir: Had Owen Matthews studied medieval history alongside modern history at Oxford he wouldn’t have written that the West has been trying sanctions since 2012 (‘Bear-baiting’, 29 May). Things were the same in 1548, with 300 western masters and doctors prevented from coming to Ivan the Terrible’s Russia. Four decades ago President Ronald Reagan, like Joe Biden now, tried to stop our pipeline to Europe. I may be stating the obvious but in their approach to my country your politicians are erring in good company. And our Kremlin-backed media always gleefully reports their imposing newer sanctions as if exposing a pathetic snake oil salesman.
Sir: Rebecca West would have been astonished to read that ‘single women such as Rebecca West had children with their lovers publicly and did not retreat to the country or to quiet villas in St John’s Wood’ (Books, 22 May). What absolute rot. Upon becoming pregnant by H.G. Wells, and after giving birth, Rebecca was shunted to one country boarding house after the other (her own family was too ashamed to take her in), completely dependent on Wells to ‘set her up’. Her writing career was put on hold. She presented her child as a nephew, and told him that Wells was his uncle — a lie he believed for years. If this constitutes having children with her lover ‘publicly’, I’d be curious to know what shame and subterfuge looked like. True, West went on to become one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but the years-long hiatus in her career caused by having to walk on the eggshells of Edwardian morality because of her illegitimate child may have deprived us of genius we will never know.
Helen Macleod Atkinson, great-niece and literary executor of Rebecca West
Kingston, NY, USA
Sir: Two recent pieces (‘Parent trap’, 8 May and ‘The lives of mothers’, 22 May) raise the problem of the high cost of childcare. Against this background it is astonishing that the government is depriving families of the many benefits — including affordable childcare — of the traditional au pair. It is not as simple as Isabel Oakeshott states in her article that au pairs need visas; rather there is no visa route available to a young person from Europe wanting to come to the UK as an au pair. Parents have relied on au pairs for decades and offered in return accommodation, the opportunity to live as part of an English family and ‘pocket money’ of £100 a week. This package is very unlikely to be attractive to a British job-seeker. So why is the government putting this obstacle in the path of parents, and in particular, of mothers wanting to make a full contribution to the country’s economy?
Sir: The cartoon on p10 of the 29 May issue of The Spectator depicts a soldier confronting a Gunpowder Plot member holding a bomb amid barrels, presumably in the Palace of Westminster in 1605. The trooper is wearing the celebrated ‘lobster’ helmet of the New Model Army created during the Civil War at least 35 years later.
Salt in the wound
Sir: Melissa Kite’s article about Walkers salt and vinegar crisps (‘Notes On…’, 29 May) omitted to mention a much more egregious and unfathomable change that was made to the product some years ago: the switch from a blue to a green bag. Everyone of a certain vintage (as well as most of Walkers’ competitors) knows that salt and vinegar crisps come in a blue bag. I know not why some marketing numpty decided several years ago that they had to be in a green bag, but if I had a pound for every time I’ve picked up a blue packet in hurry and had to suffer the disappointment and displeasure of cheese and onion, I would quite possibly be as rich as Gary Vinegar (sorry, Lineker).