Letters - June 2011
A selection of readers' correspondence with the editor, Paul Lay.
Tim Stanley’s article ‘The Democratic Delusion’ (April 2011) made for uncomfortable but thought-provoking reading. There is a conflation of democracy with all the other rights and freedoms that make up our liberal societies in the West. Yet if democracy is an essential, why is the participation rate in the ‘greatest’ democracy, the USA, less than 50 per cent for all but high-profile presidential elections? If it is essential, why is it only so in the political realm? Why do we not practice economic democracy?
The employees at McDonalds, for example, have their lives shaped for them far more by their employment than by four-yearly political voting. Yet the most vocal advocates of intervention in faraway lands seeking to bring the benefits of political democracy to benighted peoples would never dream of allowing employees to have a say in the running of their employers’ concerns. This would cause chaos and the breakdown of society – arguments very similar to those used by opponents of the Reform Bills of 1832, 1867 and 1884 in the UK.
Today democracy is routinely regarded as an end in itself rather than a means to a better and fairer life for all. Unfortunately it is not a panacea for the ills of societies and can in fact produce inflammatory situations that have severe repercussions – the Weimar elections of the 1930s, for example, the victory by Islamic fundamentalists in the Algerian elections of 1991 and the coming to power of Hamas in Gaza.
Democracy is only one of many structural factors that make for a good society. And it is not necessarily the most important – ask anyone suffering from preventable disease in Malawi whether they would prefer a vote or a health service. To fight in the name of democracy sounds noble enough but in reality even the Chartists were campaigning for means to greater ends as any study of their individual component parts will show. The term Fundamentalist Democrat may not be the oxymoron it at first appears – just look at all the ditching of principles that Nick Clegg has sanctioned to get a shot at electoral reform.
Dr David White
Worthy of Swift
I was rather amazed at the possibility that W.S. Gilbert meant anything other than satire, or maybe sarcasm, rather than ‘extolling’ Victorian institutions (‘He was an Englishman’ by Ian Bradley, May 2011). Two love-struck rival lords sing ‘When Britain Really Ruled the Waves’ in Iolanthe, my favourite political Gilbert and Sullivan opera. The best line is: ‘Throughout the wars [Napoleonic], the House of Lords did nothing in particular and did it very well.’ It is a delightful parody of aristocratic pride. If it was sung in jingoistic style in the thousands of amateur productions up and down the country that existed in the 1950s and 1960s, I would be surprised. But maybe our Co-op choir, who put on annual performances in the Co-op Hall in Sheerness, Isle of Sheppey were somewhat more Labour Party oriented than most.
I can still see the wonderful performances of those works through the prism of joyful childhood and early teenage years, so proud that my father was fiddling away in the Co-op orchestra. I made it into the chorus twice. It would pain me to think that, despite everything, Gilbert admired the institutions he so brilliantly mocked. Surely we can allow him to have changed his mind by 1909 when he turned down the Liberal electioneers; the effect of age maybe. You only have to listen to the downright republican lyrics of The Gondoliers to understand just how radical Gilbert was.
Apparently he was vetoed for the knighthood that Sullivan had already achieved, due to Queen Victoria’s displeasure at first hearing it at a command performance at Windsor Castle. Eventually he was knighted, though in the Edwardian age. I agree completely with Bradley; Gilbert is a true heir of Swift.
Muswell Hill, London
With reference to André Pelchat’s comments (Letters, May 2011) considering the alleged moral superiority of the Conquistadors to the Aztec, Maya and others, whereby he draws attention to the practice of Europeans in inflicting torture on witches, Jews and heretics by burning: surely a more apt comparison is with the common European practice of hanging, drawing and quartering which shows cruelty far in excess of anything practised by the indigenous peoples of Central and South America.
Not So Bonnie
The ’45 was not, as Jacqueline Riding writes, ‘the second Jacobite Rebellion’ (‘Charlie Will Come Again’, April 2011). There were three previous attempts on the British mainland to restore the Stuarts after 1688, all of which involved at least one battle (1689-90, 1715-16, 1719).
Riding’s article also implies that the Battle of Prestonpans in September 1745 occurred after the fall of not only Edinburgh, but also Carlisle and Penrith, whereas it happened only after the fall of the first-named. And to say that Penrith ‘fell’ implies a siege or some form of resistance, yet the Jacobite vanguard simply marched in.
Further, the Hessian troops were not part of the British army, but contract troops hired to supplement the regular army and she offers no reference to the Dutch/Swiss troops employed in England in 1745.
Finally, to refer to the Duke of Cumberland as simply ‘the Butcher’ is to reveal a lack of awareness of both contemporary reports of the man and recent historical research, which offers a more balanced view.
To be fair, the remainder of the article is very interesting, but the introduction is not encouraging.
Dr Jonathan Oates
Light on Boswell
Unfortunately, the reference to unlit gaslights in the streets of Glasgow ‘at the mid-point of the Age of Enlightenment’ conflicts with the chronology. I would have thought that the ‘mid-point’ would have been about 1760 but street gaslights were not introduced in Glasgow until September 1818.
More specifically, Boswell died in 1795 and so this example of early 19th-century Calvinist-inspired enterprise in Glasgow could not have been one of his experiences of the contrast with Edinburgh.
Perhaps oil or tallow lamps were subject to similar constraints in the 18th century, but I have been unable to find the local history source referred to in the article.
Seisdon, South Staffordshire
Michael Bloch’s article on Mecklenburg-Strelitz (‘England’s Ruritania’, April 2011) was a genuine eye-opener. I knew that the Windsors had some odd relations, but this dynasty took the biscuit. There has been a lot of piffle written about the royal wedding, so it was good to see History Today take an original and enlightening approach to the subject.
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Food & Drink
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology