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Inbox 93

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Editor’s Letter

Welcome to the Easter Term edition of CAM. It feels far too early to start thinking about what comes after the pandemic – but whenever that moment does finally arrive, top of the economic agenda will be the ‘productivity puzzle’. Key to raising living standards, productivity has flatlined since 2008. Professor Diane Coyle sets out why she thinks a re-examination of how we value capital of all sorts is long overdue.

Elsewhere the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope, argues that the humanities are as vital to the modern world as the sciences, and Professor Giles Oldroyd sets out why a radical approach is needed to address the sustainability of food production.

Finally, this year’s new graduates will have two things on their minds: finding a job and, if the rules allow it, finding somewhere to live. We discover how housing policy is playing out around the world, and delve into the archives to discover Cambridge careers advice – since 1899.

On these topics – and on all things Cambridge related – we look forward to your contribution to the debate by post, email or on social media.

Mira Katbamna (Caius 1995)


Frank Wilson’s letter (CAM 92) seems to suggest that activism is an alternative to democracy. In a democracy, activists have the opportunity to establish their own political party or draw the attention of the main political parties to the “policy blunders” and “injustices” which they consider are in evidence.

Hugh Wrigley (Clare 1960)

Mother of parliaments

I not only enjoy reading CAM but tend to believe almost everything I read in it. Having spent all my working life in the House of Commons, I did enjoy the feature on parliamentary reform in issue 92. But readers deserve reassurance that the suggestion in Professor David Feldman’s piece that some MPs “have no secure, indoor access to the chambers” is not correct. All MPs (though not peers) have offices within the secure perimeter, even if some are indeed obliged to take their chances with the weather. There would be a self-evident security risk if MPs did not have such access. He is absolutely right that the buildings present serious problems, whether best solved (as Parliament has already agreed) by an ambitious restoration and renewal programme or by a new building, as David suggests. Either will, of course, be very expensive.

David Natzler (Trinity 1970)

Professor Tombs should resist the temptation to abolish the House of Lords altogether. The report of the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords (from 2000) explains why a second chamber is essential and shows how that would bring a range of expertise and different perspectives to bear on the consideration of public policy issues, improving the scrutiny of legislation and of government actions, but without undermining the role of the House of Commons. Reform of the House of Lords is necessary and overdue, and it must be done carefully; but there is undoubtedly an ongoing need for Parliament to have a second chamber.

David Hill (Caius 1973; Secretary to the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords, 1999)

Unsurprisingly, since your four experts were drawn from the legal and political fields, there was not a single mention of the need for greater representation in Parliament of members with a scientific or engineering background. Parliament is responsible for spending huge sums and most of it involves science or technology, in whole or in part.

Tony Hanwell (Christ’s 1956)

Consensus among parliamentarians is seldom a great idea because it flies in the face of public opinion. Voters commonly disagree sharply, if not quite “tribally”, about the big issues of the day. We hold elections to see which side is in the majority, and it is the duty of MPs to argue over policies, as they feel they should. It was gloopy, elitist consensualism that led to the (thankfully bloodless) revolution of Brexit. Parliamentary ding-dongs are a sign of democratic strength.

Quentin Letts (Jesus 1986)

Public service. Private good?

Your recent article on the importance of procurement in shaping the governance of public life was spot-on. One area where this is particularly pertinent is urban development, where procurement processes have a material impact on what gets built in UK cities. In your article, Dr Fazekas points out the importance of public interest and transparency. However, public-private contracts for the development of housing are shrouded in secrecy because of their commercial sensitivity. Consequently, while buildings and places are inhabited by all, they are controlled by elites through opaque contractual relationships.

Hannah Williamson (Downing 2012)

Always on my mind

In popular culture, and especially movies, robots are played by humans. I suggest we will have reached a point of significance (the ‘Cohen singularity’) when robots play themselves in movies.

Jack Cohen (St Catharine’s 1961)


I was fascinated to read the article about the Cambridge University Tape Recording Society (CAM 91). As a green undergraduate in my final year in 1969, I decided to submit a recording of a piece I had written, a clarinet concerto, as part of my music portfolio. Enter the Society which, despite short notice, did a superb job. Fifty years on I still have the tape, and a duly digitised version of it was performed at a programme of my music compiled for my 70th birthday three years ago. Congratulations to the Society and to all who were involved!

Shelagh Godwin (née Claxton) (Newnham 1966)

I purchased a Ferrograph Series Seven reel-to-reel tape recorder from CUTRS Secretary John Dawson, to record and replay original music written and performed by College friends. Mixtapes for College parties were also a staple use of the Ferrograph, which I am proud to say I still own to this day.

Robert Stoker (St Catharine’s 1972)

This idea must die (‘Irish’ history, CAM 91)

Not the least of the many tragedies of the Irish Civil War was the execution of Erskine Childers (Trinity 1889) on trumped-up gun possession charges. His final words were addressed to the firing squad: “Take a step or two forward, lads, it will be easier that way.”

Nigel Sherratt (Trinity 1971)

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