This article is taken from the April 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
Slaves and sources
David Starkey’s analysis of the National Trust slavery project (March) makes some good points. But there is a much worse example of a slave project, that of the Welsh government’s Slave Trade and the British Empire: An Audit of Commemoration, published in November 2020. It is littered with errors and, astonishingly for a report written by at least three professors, relies heavily on Wikipedia with more than 50 citations from that source. Doubtless the authors would not recommend it as a model to their students.
Professor William Gibson
Chandler’s Ford, Hampshire
David Starkey is right to note that “treating the English country house — à la Sir Roy Strong and the rest — simply as an aesthetic phenomenon, or the fragile quintessence of Englishness is not the be-all and end-all”. Studying the houses and writing from a European perspective, the book Empirical Philosophy and the English Country House (Vienna 1992) by Austrian professor Otto Codicil, with Hans Gerstenbacker, supports Starkey’s conclusions that the country houses were consolidations of political power and wealth.
Empirical audits of empire are, in Codicil’s view, crucial to understanding sources of wealth that underpin the power houses.
Starkey, like others, omits a gender dimension, as Codicil points out: the houses and their wealth largely depended on patriarchal primogeniture of inheritance, as the male inheritors were also the exploiters by conflict and speculation.
Emeritus professor, Goldsmiths London university
Alasdair Palmer’s article on lockdown science (March) was interesting, and there can be little doubt that some of the government’s edicts — such as the rule of six — are little more than “cod science”, although it is unclear whether Messrs Whitty and Vallance actually believe them.
However, when assessing SAGE pronouncements, the motivations of the individuals need to be taken into account. To quote Nassim Taleb, “What matters isn’t what a person has or doesn’t have, it is what is he or she afraid of losing,” or to put it more succinctly, “What skin do they have in the game?”
In the case of the SAGE scientists, whichever decision they recommend they will keep their salaries, pensions and knighthoods and the only thing they are risking is their personal reputation and vanity. It is therefore not in their own interest to recommend anything other than the most cautious course of action, irrespective of any harm they are inflicting on the general population or society.
This is the opposite experience of the general population, at the sharp end of the decision, who are losing their jobs, health, education and futures. Ideally, politicians should be able to mediate between these two opposing interests, but they fear the irrational baying of the press and social media.
Politicians may pay the price of their decisions in the future but it is unlikely that the members of SAGE ever will.
In his article “Public Enemy Number whatever” (March), Frederic Raphael says of the 1950 film La Ronde: “Don’t expect too much.” How can he? It is a superb film. It is captivating if only for the performances of Anton Walbrook, Danielle Darrieux and Gérard Philipe. And then there is the theme song — which Mr Raphael has obviously not forgotten.
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