The open letter is hardly an innovation as a means to publicise a message. The art of the epistle – letters bound by formal gestures, often written for some didactic purpose, and frequently sent to groups of people rather than individuals – flourished in ancient Egypt and on into ancient Greece and Rome. Cicero’s De Officiis, considered for much of Western history the foundational text of moral philosophy, was written in the form of a letter to his son. And in general there is a fluidity between Cicero’s letters, his philosophical and rhetorical works, and his speeches; while Plato’s dialogues share with epistle writing the manner of making broadly public an exchange explicitly between two or a narrow group of participants. These are the strengths of the open letter: it offers the sense that something confidential, a belief or sentiment hitherto privately held, is being graciously revealed to the world for the sake of clarity, guidance, or knowledge.
Ovid’s Heroides spurred another related form: that of epistolary verse or prose, which from the 18th century attained new popularity through the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson, with decisive contributions also from Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and later Fyodor Dostoevsky. Many of the epistles of the New Testament, most notably the Pauline epistles, are essentially open letters, intended to be read in front of congregations.
Encyclicals and papal bulls are types of open letter. More narrowly conceived, in its modern bearing the open letter continued to impact world literature: Émile Zola’s intervention into the Dreyfus Affair, his open letter ‘J’accuse…!’, caused Zola to flee to England to escape prosecution, with the term since becoming a shorthand to invoke all manner of perceived injustices; and I have previously discussed on this site the letter of international protest arranged by James Joyce against the publisher Samuel Roth, whose literary magazine Two Worlds Monthly had been illicitly excerpting the text of Ulysses.
The writers Ludwig Lewisohn and Archibald MacLeish – with MacLeish having practised law – drew up the protest for Joyce, and sent copies to be signed by luminaries of the arts and sciences. It was issued to the press, with 167 signatories including Albert Einstein, Benedetto Croce, H. G. Wells, and T. S. Eliot, on 2 February, 1927. In full the letter read:
‘It is a matter of common knowledge that the Ulysses of Mr. James Joyce is being republished in the United States, in a magazine edited by Samuel Roth, and that this republication is being made without authorization by Mr. Joyce; without payment to Mr. Joyce and with alterations which seriously corrupt the text. This appropriation and mutilation of Mr. Joyce’s property is made under colour of legal protection in that Ulysses which is published in France and which has been excluded from the mails in the United States is not protected by copyright in the United States. The question of justification of that exclusion is not now in issue; similar decisions have been made by government officials with reference to works of art before this. The question in issue is whether the public (including the editors and publishers to whom his advertisements are offered) will encourage Mr. Samuel Roth to take advantage of the resultant legal difficulty of the author to deprive him of his property and to mutilate the creation of his art. The undersigned protest against Mr. Roth’s conduct in republishing Ulysses and appeal to the American public in the name of that security of works of the intellect and the imagination without which art cannot live, to oppose to Mr. Roth’s enterprise the full power of honorable and fair opinion.’
On through the twentieth century, important open letters include Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from Birmingham Jail on nonviolent resistance to racism, and Bill Gates’ Open Letter to Hobbyists on copyright infringement. Open letters are commonplace within politics. Yet beyond all of this rich history, it seems that on the campaign towards the United Kingdom general election 2015, the open letter has fallen subject to gross misuse. Over the past month, prospective voters in the UK have been bombarded with open letters. This clearly owes much to the tactics employed in the build-up to last year’s Scottish independence referendum, which saw celebrities and then business leaders issue open letters both rejecting and supporting Scottish independence; before the heads of England’s three main parties published a signed vow promising more devolved powers provided the Union was retained.
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At the start of last month, 1 April, on day three of the official election campaign, The Daily Telegraph published on its front page an open letter under the headline ‘100 business chiefs: Labour threatens Britain’s recovery’. The actual content of the letter was in small print across three columns just beneath the headline: dwarfed not only by the headline, and a purple banner above declaring an ‘Exclusive letter to the Telegraph’; but also by the main body of the newspaper’s front page, which listed – with their various honours – all the signatories. Despite the headline, there were in fact 103 signatories in total: an apparently unfathomable number, so that it was deemed more impressive to simply state ‘100’.
The letter cited the Conservative Party’s ‘flagship policy of progressively lowering Corporation Tax to 20%’ as key to spurring jobs and economic growth, continuing to assert that ‘a change in course’ from a Conservative government would ‘threaten jobs and deter investment. This would send a negative message about Britain and put the recovery at risk’. A line at the close of the letter affirmed ‘This letter is signed in a personal capacity’. The Labour Party had just faced some bother for taking out an advert in the Financial Times, quoting the concerns of six business leaders regarding Britain’s possible exit from the EU – and making mention of the companies headed by the six individuals. While these individuals had made the quoted remarks, some were unhappy with the palpable politicisation of their companies.
This letter courtesy of ‘100 business chiefs’ was characterised by the Telegraph as ‘the biggest ever endorsement by business leaders of a political party’ and one that ‘will further undermine the economic credibility of Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, and Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor’. Likewise the Conservatives indicated that this was as no open letter witnessed before, calling the intervention ‘unprecedented’. While many of the signatories came from the ranks of known Conservative supporters, who have already donated millions of pounds to the party, several others previously lent their support to Labour.
Chancellor George Osborne acclaimed the signatories of the letter as constituting a ‘roll call of British economic success, innovation and job creation’; and sought to bolster his party’s economic standing by referring to improved growth figures for the end of 2014, although on the counterbalance the figures from the Office for National Statistics also showed that the UK’s current account deficit had widened in 2014 to 5.5% of GDP. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, taking the open letter at face value – as the earnest expression of a united body of business leaders, rather than a prescribed document with names attached – asserted that his party were the true safeguards of economic stability. And Vince Cable and some members of Labour suggested the letter had been planted by the Conservatives.
By the evening of 1 April, Labour had mustered an open letter of their own, it too with more than 100 signatories, made up of ‘working people’ from ‘all walks of life’ desiring a Labour government which could ‘put working people first’. The party had spent the day focusing on the firmer ground of zero-hour contracts, positioning itself as speaking on behalf of the average worker, rather than the overpaid chief executives who the Telegraph had rounded up.
The rhetoric of ‘working people’, ‘hardworking people’, ‘working families’, people who want to ‘work hard’ and ‘get on’, has been roundly abused over the last five years, linked with spending cuts and fears over immigration more than a genuine concern for people’s well-being. There has taken root a sense that an ill-defined ‘work’ – regardless of its content, its duration, or its monetary recompense – is the sole reason and justification for our lives.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith was typically hyperbolic last week when he proclaimed that Labour ‘hate people who get up early in the morning and work’, and that a person put to work is the equivalent of a life saved. And David Cameron’s announcement on Wednesday of a law against tax rises should the Conservatives resume power – utterly meaningless, as the law would last for only one parliament, and could surely be revoked were there any desperate need: the equivalent to locking up the sweet jar, which in the Conservatives’ case contains their neighbours’ sweets – was a last-gasp appeal to the concept of hard workers. Yet Labour have largely resorted to responding to the agenda set by their opposition, and have therefore offered only variations upon the theme, increasingly co-opting the same sort of rhetoric.
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Whether or not they were content with Labour’s letter from ‘all walks of life’, on 7 April more than 100 doctors ostensibly took it upon themselves to publish an open letter in The Guardian, criticising the Conservatives’ handling of the National Health Service. Indeed, this open letter was framed as an act of diagnosis: The Guardian headed the letter ‘Senior doctors assess government’s record on NHS’. This was a much more extensive document than the previous two: opening with a decisive ‘verdict’ that ‘history’ would judge the government’s record a destructive failure, the letter went on to discuss the ill-effects of Andrew Lansley’s 2012 Health and Social Care Act, encroaching privatisation, facility closures and growing wait times, and continuing failings in the realms of primary care and mental health.
The letter concluded with an unequivocal call to action: ‘The NHS is withering away […] we are left with little doubt that the current government’s policies have undermined and weakened the NHS […] We invite voters to consider carefully how the NHS has fared over the last five years, and to use their vote to ensure that the NHS in England is reinstated.’ Yet as Labour had done with the Telegraph letter from business chiefs, the Conservatives decried this letter from doctors as a ‘Labour stitch-up’, and accused Ed Miliband of attempting to ‘weaponise’ the NHS.
Interestingly, The Guardian published this letter online rather than following the example of the Telegraph and leading with it on the cover of one of their print editions. And somewhat wryly, the image chosen to accompany the letter online – positioned above the text – was of David Cameron, from a Conservative Party poster during the run-up to the general election of 2010, promising to spare the NHS from spending cuts. The image was evidently used here to indicate a broken promise; and while Cameron’s brightly made-over face, fixed expression, and watery eyes were surely meant as markers of a firm and openhearted commitment, he just as readily appears insincere, gazing emotionlessly through the viewer.
After a lull in all this letter publishing, the beginning of this week saw The Daily Telegraph return to the fray, this time with a letter from over 5,000 small business owners. Depicted as another ‘major intervention’ by businesses on behalf of David Cameron and his Conservatives, again the Telegraph splashed the story on their front cover: with purple text again stressing the exclusive nature of the letter, and the full headline a quote from the letter taking up half of the page.
This headline suitably encapsulated the point of what was another brief composition, with businesses, unlike doctors, evidently too busy to engage in an argument of any sustained length. The headline read ‘Businesses like ours have helped to create 1,000 jobs a day since 2010. We would like to see David Cameron and George Osborne given the chance to finish what they have started. A change now would be far too risky’. This time, however, the letter in full was held for online publication, with only this quote and a summation of its message offered by the newspaper.
The letter was described as ‘organised’ by Karen Brady, a businesswoman and the Tories’ small business ambassador, perhaps most famous for her role on The Apprentice; and was published online accompanied by a full list of signatories. David Cameron tweeted the ‘clear message’ from small business owners, with the hashtag ‘#SecureTheRecovery’. But it has been received more dubiously and has faced more criticism than the first Telegraph open letter.
Far from an organic outpouring of support for Conservative policy, it is clear that the letter was orchestrated from within Conservative campaign headquarters, and simply distributed for party members to sign. More, closer scrutiny of the list of signatories has revealed duplicate entries, workers falsely attributed as business owners, the problematic inclusion of charities as small businesses, and the inclusion of businesses now defunct, among other irregularities.
Open letters such as these endeavour to use experts and expert systems as a means of swaying the public. The world of business is presented as a recondite realm, and voters are expected to bow and kneel before the faintest manifestation of its mysteries. With the health of business portrayed as the determining factor in the nation’s health, a word from business leaders on their personal preferences is meant to dictate how and why we vote. Meanwhile the demands of business remain forces of nature to which we must meekly succumb, whether it means accepting soaring bonuses and tax avoidance measures, or refusals to pay a living or even minimum wage.
In other contexts, the open letter remains vital. However ahead of the general election, the glut of political open letters has served to demean their value. It is notable that those published have engaged largely within the framework of a two-party system increasingly upset, as the sequence of televised debates have instead placed smaller parties on an equal footing with the Conservatives and Labour and their middling offspring, the Liberal Democrats. In this way the emergence of these open letters has felt somewhat outdated even as they have been embraced with unseen vigour as a campaign tool. But more than this, these open letters published over the past month have eschewed genuine expertise and insight for narrow and easily discerned party political ends.