The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 21st, 2004

Charles told the truth about the lies they tell children

Amid last week’s drizzle, it was a relief to be distracted by a new pre-Christmas pantomime, Know Your Place, presented free of charge by Associated Palace Productions (Westminster and St James’s) and starring those two larger-than-life cheeky chappies, Charlie Windsor and Charlie Clarke. It should run and run.

The prime minister must be delighted that something so absurd has appeared at just the right moment to help bury the bad news about the Child Support Agency (shamefully failed), the schools testing agency (shamefully failed), the survey of university standards (shamefully dumbed down) and the foxhunting fiasco (shameful).

One might almost think that Tony Blair had encouraged his education secretary and John Reid, his health secretary, to distract us with a people’s panto.

Of the two principals, Charles Windsor is a whimsical prince of contradictions, torn between seigneurial self-indulgence and a sense of public duty, devoted both to ludicrous fancy dress and genuine good works.

Surrounded by an underpaid entourage of flunkies, most of them maddened by red carpet fever, he was foolish enough to write an indiscreet memo to one employee that, if filched by another, would certainly land him in an employment tribunal — as indeed it was and has.

“What is wrong with everyone nowadays?” he wrote in exasperation. “Why do they all seem to think they are qualified to do things far beyond their actual capabilities? This is all to do with the learning culture in schools — the child-centred learning emphasis which admits of no failure and tells people that they can all be pop stars or High Court judges or brilliant TV personalities or even infinitely more competent heads of state without ever putting in the necessary work, effort or having natural ability. It is the result of social utopianism.”

Why this overwhelming urge to put inflammatory thought to vulnerable paper? Perhaps, deprived by destiny of the sound of his own voice, Prince Charles has become inebriated with the exuberance of his own handwriting. He is given to maddening ministers with screeds of unsolicited and probably unconstitutional advice in his own hand. Sadly, in failing to understand the limitations of his quaint constitutional role, he risks destroying it altogether.

Enter at this point the other principal, the big-bellied bruiser Charles Clarke, with a supporting chorus of excited headline writers to big him up. Despite his appearance, Clarke is a child of privilege. Like Prince Charles, he was privately educated and went to Cambridge, and he is education secretary in a government supposedly dedicated to education, yet he takes a view of education so anti-elitist that it seems positively anti-education.

It wasn’t on Clarke’s watch that the department produced an education policy document ludicrously called Excellence for All Children but he did, for instance, say: “I don’t mind there being some medievalists about for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.” His contribution last week to excellence for all was to make all schools take their “fair share” of seriously disruptive pupils.

Given Labour’s abysmal failures with education, I don’t know how any Labour education secretary can look himself in the mirror. Yet Clarke has had the effrontery to break ministerial convention to attack a member of the royal family, saying he doesn’t understand what is going on in education and calling him old-fashioned.

There are few loveable characters in this charade. Elaine Day, the angry young woman who is suing for wrongful dismissal, may well have had a miserable time in the prince’s dysfunctional household. If proven, the “inappropriate touching” of which she complains was probably the least of it. But all the same, she took without permission — the word should be “stole” — a memo written to a senior employee from his in-tray and has now made it public.

In the Croydon tribunal she said artlessly that she kept the document as “memorabilia”. Prince Charles unwisely wrote that she was so politically correct she frightened him rigid. Clearly he wasn’t frightened enough or he might have kept the cap on his fountain pen.

What Prince Charles wrote, however unpleasant in spirit and ill-judged in context, was essentially right. He did not, as many headlines have unfairly suggested, say people should know their place and should not try to rise above their station.

The schoolchildren of this country have been doubly betrayed for decades, both by collapsing standards and by ballooning expectations. It is wicked to teach children that they can all expect the moon; ability varies greatly and competition is fierce.

It is even worse to excite unrealistic expectations when children’s genuine abilities have been smothered at Britain’s disgraceful “bog standard” comprehensives and by simple illiteracy. Even Blair admits that one in four 11-year-olds is illiterate and 25% of school leavers are below standard in English and maths.

Whatever may have been wrong with old-fashioned education, at least it taught almost all children to read and write. Yet, these days, all kinds of barely literate people of average intelligence expect professional status or feel they have a right to do something “creative”, when they lack the most basic skills or any outstanding ability. They have been unforgivably misled.

It is simply wrong to say, as Clarke did on Radio 4, that “everyone has a field marshal’s baton in their knapsack”. Everyone does not. It takes a very exceptional person to make a field marshal.

John Reid suffers from the same delusion. Whatever your school or background, he said, “you have it in you, if you use your own endeavours and energies, to be almost anything in this country”. That is quite simply a dangerous lie, because it spreads so much anger and misery, when people are forced to face inexplicable disappointment.

It is a terrible misunderstanding of meritocracy — which is what Clarke and Reid imagine they support — to assume it means everyone is somehow (or could be) of equal merit, with equal success. Innate ability varies, obviously enough. Merit varies. All cannot have prizes, though all can do well in some way.

No one believes these days that anyone should be held back by some long-discredited idea of knowing your place or getting above your station. We do live in a meritocracy, imperfect though it is, and few people would wish to change that.

However, the painful truth is that meritocracy is cruel. It offers no excuses to those who don’t do well. It is even more cruel when teachers and politicians offer false encouragement based on a confusion of meritocracy with socialism.

Socialism is incompatible with meritocracy; even new Labour’s biggest bruisers can’t square that circle, not even by making fun of Prince Charles.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 14th, 2004

There is an alternative to the chaos of childcare

‘It’s the kiddies, stupid.” That seems to be the exciting new election strategy of both the Conservatives and the government. Last week the leader of the opposition and the prime minister were both energetically chasing the mummy and daddy vote. They spoke deferentially of “hard-working families” and announced lots of complicated new policies. How the heart sinks.

Certainly there is a lot that could be done, or perhaps undone, to help parents with the many and various difficulties of bringing up children.

However, there was something deeply depressing about Tony Blair in his triumphalist daddyness, surrounded by breakfasting kiddies at an early-morning club last week, explaining how schools are going to be open longer now, for all ages, all year round, for the benefit of “hard-working families”.

There was something equally dismal about Michael Howard on his knees in his suit among even younger kiddies, his hands covered in blue paint, to display the Conservatives’ determination to do more too for “hard-working families”.

It would be cheering if, for once, a politician could come up with a vote-catching policy without feeling the need to go through a patronising little pantomime, a sort of ghastly electoral beauty contest with children as unwitting extras.

However, I suppose we must all try to rise above the posturings of politicians and attempt to work out what they are really saying. That is difficult, because both sides’ proposals are complicated, Labour’s much more so.

My own view is that an enormous amount could be achieved for parents of all kinds — rich or poor, working part-time or full-time, in or out of the home — with some radical simplicity instead. That would never interest Labour.

Its future is nailed to the mast of complexity, bureaucracy and state intrusion, and more state-sector jobs. It should interest the Conservatives, but I don’t think they’re really feeling radical enough.

Labour has done a lot for — or at least about — parents during its time in office. It has established the Sure Start scheme to deal with children from conception to the age of 14, providing nursery-school places for all three and four-year-olds and more than 1m childcare places, new children’s centres and the tax credit scheme to help lower earners pay for childcare.

A few weeks ago the education secretary promised schools open from 8am to 6pm, both primary and secondary, with breakfast clubs and after-school clubs as well — the hugely ambitious and much derided “wraparound educare”. And last week, not to be outdone by Howard’s childcare initiatives, Blair announced the same thing all over again.

As Margaret Hodge, Labour’s minister for children, once wrote — with evident regret — “for too long the early years of a child’s life have been seen as the private concern of the parents”.

The Conservatives for once take the opposite approach. The first thing Howard said last week was that families, not government, should decide how to run their lives and bring up their children.

He is proposing less regulation, less red tape, more flexibility, more use of school buildings by the taxpayers who own them, more support for informal carers such as grandparents, and for childminders, and more cash in hand to pay directly for childcare for parents entitled to working tax credit.

Parents are to be in the driving seat, he said. They will choose how to spend this money on the childcare they want — such as family or friends — not the childcare ministers think best.

For those who think, like me, that family life and family responsibilities ought to be de-nationalised as soon as possible, this sounds like a step in the right direction.

It even looks like a toe in some clear blue water. But it still looks uncertain whether the Conservatives will be prepared to be even braver and take a real plunge.

The problem with childcare is that it is prohibitively expensive. Obviously enough, if one woman has to pay another woman to look after her young children or her teenagers, it will cost a large part of what she earns elsewhere (net of tax). It cannot be otherwise, except in the relatively unusual cases where the mother is earning hugely more than a childminder or nanny can command.

So as things are today, unless the mother can get care that is in effect subsidised in one way or another — whether by granny or friends or the taxpayer — she won’t really be able to afford it. If childcare were not in fact subsidised most women could not afford to work.

I’ve never quite understood how all this adds up in the economy as a whole, but there it is. Most parents either are forced to work, or want to work, or both, and that is the reality.

The political question is not who subsidises. The question is how the subsidy works. At the moment the state taxes us all quite highly — if you include all new Labour’s new taxes we pay close to German rates of total tax. And then the state hands it back in dribs and drabs for this, that and the other scheme to parents who didn’t choose any of it and may not like it.

It is complicated and confusing and extremely expensive and bureaucratic to run. According to Anne Longfield, the chief executive of the charity 4Children, Labour’s new childcare plans are likely to cost £85 billion over the next 10 years, which would mean spending about 1% of the UK’s gross domestic product on childcare and early years education.

The obvious alternative would be to stop parents paying so much tax. Working parents ought to have extremely generous tax exemptions, transferable if necessary. Parents looking after their own children at home ought to get extremely generous tax credits.

This makes perfect economic sense. We all need children to grow up and pay taxes, after all. It would no doubt at first produce a huge drop in income to the exchequer. But it ought rapidly to become clear that the simplicity of this scheme would mean vast savings in administration. It would also, I believe, make parents and children much happier.

No longer would a working mother (part-time or full-time, low-paid or well-paid) have to be tracked by the men from various ministries to check on her entitlements, problems, options and underpayments.

No longer would armies of schools and minders and outreach workers and health and education apparatchiks have to keep propping up complex care systems and schemes, along with armies of staff and all their demands in flexitime and pensions. Families could simply use their own money to pay for their own solutions.

The taxpayer would still be subsidising families, indirectly, but with much greater simplicity, efficiency and choice. The Tories are thinking about it; Howard mentioned something rather like it, very cautiously, in his speech.

Given the current fortunes of the Conservative party, I should have thought this was a time not for caution, but for conviction.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 7th, 2004

You really don’t have to be religious to be a bigot

There is a disquieting feeling in the air that times are changing. All kinds of events both major and minor are signs of it. Last week, for instance, Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker, was slaughtered on the street in Amsterdam, apparently by another Dutchman.

Witnesses saw him being repeatedly shot by a bearded man in a jellaba, who then slit his throat and stabbed him in the chest. The suspect is a man of joint Dutch and Moroccan nationality and is an Islamic fundamentalist.

Van Gogh had produced Submission, a flamboyantly outspoken film about Muslim violence against women, and the woman who wrote it, the Somalian-Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, says she is afraid that the film was the direct cause of his death.

This was not the first time the two had attacked Islam. Both have made many extreme criticisms, some of his extremely coarse and unprintable. More soberly he had spoken of a “retrograde and aggressive faith”, and she has called Islam a “backward, 12th-century religion”, “misogynist, incapable of self-criticism and blind to modern science”, and described herself as an “ex-Muslim”.

Fortunately, unlike van Gogh, she lives under 24-hour police protection. The Dutch are horrified: tolerant Holland has been for centuries one of the brightest bulbs of the European enlightenment; now that light is going out.

A different and minor incident, which is nonetheless a straw in the same wind of change, was the proposal of Islington council in north London to change the name of St Mary Magdelene primary school, which opened in 1710. It wants to drop the word “saint” for fear of causing offence to other religions. Needless to say this proposal does not come from local people; parents and local religious leaders — some of them Muslim and Jewish — have expressed outrage at the plan.

It is particularly striking that both Jewish and Muslim spokesmen and women have made it plain that this is simply not an issue and they have no objection at all to the word saint, but recognise the history and traditions of this country.

The vicar of St Mary Magdalene says parents feel that Islington council has “been running an anti-Christian agenda, consistently, on ideological grounds, rejecting Christianity”. If it has, it is not alone; there are countless examples across the country of secularist attempts to edit out Christian and post-Christian traditions, with bogus excuses about giving offence.

Then there was the major event of the American election and the decisive victory of the Christian conservatives — the defeat of nuance by conviction. What struck me above all was the fear and loathing that so many people expressed, both over there and here, for the victors.

All the official talk about healing has impressed nobody. Sophisticated liberals felt rage and contempt and astonishment that their country could have been taken over by a bunch of redneck religious fundamentalists and moral majority bigots, who have the nerve to despise them. The response was mirrored over here. The Guardian, for instance, printed the cover of one section funereal black, with only two tiny words in white: “Oh, God”.

All these different events point to the same alarming thing — a new division in western culture along religious lines.

It is not a division within Christianity, although Christians do have their squabbles, absurd though they may seem to outsiders. It is a division along the lines of religiosity. Oddly enough this was a word I heard American commentators using quite neutrally during the election, describing voting patterns. To me it is not neutral. It is pejorative, having to do with extreme excesses of religious zeal.

The division across the western world is between those of any faith or none who are prepared to tolerate everyone else, and those whose faith rejects tolerance. It is a division between the godly and the worldly, as Simon Schama has put it.

On the same side as the godly are to be found a large number of secularistas — militant secularists quite unaware of their own religiosity whose dogmatic intolerance seeks to stamp out religion altogether. It is a divide between triumphalism and tolerance. We are now suddenly being forced to confront that divide, right across the western world and even in the most orderly, prosperous parts of the richest country in history. Bigotry is not only for impoverished peasants.

Some British conservatives have been looking rather wistfully at the political power of American Christians, as if perhaps there could be some sort of moral majority here, too, or at least a usefully large minority, which is silenced and disenfranchised for now. I hope that they abandon such thoughts very soon. While I am not a secularista, I am an agnostic and I fear the spirit described in The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic American novel about intolerant puritanical religion. It is not something to conjure with here.

I was born American and have ties and connections there. My encounters with people of the moral majority there have been genuinely frightening. Highly educated, kind, admirable and neighbourly people believe things which are shocking to educated Europeans.

They believe that homosexuals are evil and should not be allowed to teach in schools. Some look forward to a second coming in Israel or to a kind of apocalyptic rapture. They reject not only Darwin and evolution, but also scientific thinking in general. But it is scientific thinking — not science itself, but its provisional, evidence-based approach to knowledge — that will set us free and keep us free.

Admittedly it is true that religion tends to make people good and useful citizens up to a point — up to the point where they feel driven by a higher father to slaughter an infidel in the street or to persecute homosexuals or to stop scientific research or to force unwanted babies upon unwilling mothers.

Everyone must have some sympathy with Bible Belters and Muslims who point to the slaggy decadence of secular western culture — its teenage mothers and fatherless children, its shabby sexualisation and mindless consumerism. But the well worn idea that people would behave better if only they could get religion is not only impractical and cynical — it is also dangerous.

The real challenge that tolerant, post-enlightenment westerners face as they stare at everyone else across the gulf of religiosity is not religion. It is tolerance. Tolerance is the problem because is cursed with a paradoxical nature; the tolerant are vulnerable to the intolerant and not least in multi-cultural democracies.

In some Midlands towns today for example, where British Muslims are in the majority, some are calling for the recognition of sharia above British law. How can tolerance coupled with respect for local wishes and majority voting respond to that? During the American election people talked of culture wars. I feel that we are in the middle of the beginning of new conflicts, but they are wars not of culture or religion but of religiosity.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 31st, 2004

In one bloody bout Brussels reveals its true hypocrisy

Last week was a bad week indeed for supporters of the European Union. Strangely, however, they don’t seem to have noticed. On the contrary, there has been a lot of crowing and cheering among Europhiles, particularly among members of the European parliament (MEPs) and the Brussels establishment.

They are convinced that their public rejection of Rocco Buttiglione because of his views is a triumph both for democracy and for the European Union and everything it stands for. Yet in bringing down Buttiglione, they were and are in flagrant breach of the fundamental principles of the EU. It is very odd.

Buttiglione is, or was, the prospective European commissioner for justice and home affairs, appointed by Jose Manuel Barroso, the incoming president of the European commission. Buttiglione’s appointment was tactless.

His outspoken views on gays and women were so offensive to many MEPs that they were inspired to get together and bully Barroso into reshuffling the commission and dumping Buttiglione and his unspeakable opinions — contrary, however, to the guiding principles of the European dream.

These principles are clearly laid out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Buttiglione, whatever his views, is surely as well entitled to those rights as any other European but he has been denied them. The charter undertakes to respect the diversity of the cultures and traditions of the people of Europe.

Article 10 guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to “manifest” one’s beliefs not only in worship, but also in “teaching, practice and observance”. Article 11 guarantees freedom of expression to hold opinions and exchange them “without interference by public authority”. Article 21 states that any discrimination based on any ground such as a religious belief, political or any other opinion shall be prohibited. And just in case anyone had somehow missed the point, Article 22 declares that the EU shall respect cultural and religious diversity.

Well, either you respect cultural and religious diversity or you don’t. Personally I don’t. I don’t respect Buttiglione’s view, religious, cultural or other, that gays are sinful. I think it’s wrong and offensive. And there are many other mainstream religious teachings and cultural practices that I don’t respect either such as the caste system, the subordination of women and the suppression of embryo research, to name a few. I disrespect them. I don’t see why I should be expected to pretend otherwise. Nor do I see why I should be denied the freedom of speech to say so.

When people prate on in this country and doubtless all over the rest of Europe about “celebrating diversity” (as in Article 22), I find my blood pressure rising. Why is that now written into practically every company’s mission statement?

Who was it who decided that we are all duty-bound not just to respect, but to “celebrate” diversity? This has crept up on us rather unobtrusively and very fast. As far as I’m concerned there are a great many cultural attitudes and religious beliefs around that I find distasteful or shocking; I find it deeply alarming that in Britain there seems to be a deliberate and increasing conflation in activist literature between culture, religion and race, so that criticising a cultural practice — such as forced marriage or primary purpose marriage — is tantamount to racism.

However, the truth is that hardly anybody does respect diversity, however European, when real convictions are involved, as the defenestration of Buttiglione has made absurdly plain. The MEPs don’t truly respect cultural and religious diversity any more than the Pope does or than Buttiglione. And in his case, far from respecting it, the MEPs aren’t prepared even to tolerate it. Yet they don’t seem to have the slightest suspicion of the comic absurdity of their position or of the ridiculous light it casts on the EU.

The Buttiglione fiasco is an elegant demonstration of what is wrong with the new European high culture as demonstrated in Brussels. It is riddled with hypocrisy and confusion and the kind of totalitarian attitudes that the EU was created to resist. After all millions of people right across Europe are, like Buttiglione, Catholic. Many presumably accept the teaching of the Catholic Church that homosexuality is sinful and abortion too. And many millions also agree with at least some of his views on the role of women.

If those views make him unfit for office, what about them? What about those of other faiths with other conservative views? Should they too be cross-questioned by new EU thought police about their fitness to work in companies committed under countless EU directives to celebrating diversity and promoting equality?

Comically hurried along by poor Buttiglione, we Europeans have arrived at an important fork in the road. We cannot go down both paths at once. One sign is marked the Usual Old Pragmatic Muddle, the other sign is marked the European Project.

The European Project, contrary to its claims about rights and respect, is the endeavour to impose on everyone the values of today’s supposedly enlightened European intelligentsia — that continental club of the like-minded, who have more in common with each other than with their own fellow countrymen and women.

Anyone with any experience of European-led directives in business or services, dreamt up by this intelligentsia, will be well aware of how culturally manipulative many of them are, and are meant to be. The project is an attempt to impose a cultural, religious (or rather irreligious) and political uniformity on 400m very various people.

You could call it militant secularism or you could see it as universal modern values — Europhiles already speak of a union of values. Either way, imposing values — for better or for worse — is entirely at odds with tolerance and the decency of muddled pragmatism. Europeans are going to have to choose.

For myself, like the Irishman in the joke, I wouldn’t start from here. I wouldn’t start with a hugely ambitious charter of rights and freedoms, many of which are mutually exclusive as any schoolchild could have pointed out in the beginning. We’ve just seen last week that religious freedom and freedom of speech mean nothing when they clash with the European ideals of equality.

However, if I did have to start from here, and I suppose I must, I would not choose the way of the European Project. That ways lies absurdity, hypocrisy, intrusion and waste. The European Project is not only statist; it is helplessly bureaucratic, all the more so since it is pursuing unachievable and contradictory ends.

Last week saw not only the affaire Buttiglione. It also saw the signing of the new European constitution, in great pomp and splendour in Rome, despite the fact that at least 10 countries intend to have a referendum and at least three may well reject it. Bloated folly and presumption, coupled with hypocrisy and confusion. That surely cannot be the way to take.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 24th, 2004

Have you stopped beating your pregnant wife yet?

‘Does your husband beat you up?” Last week the government announced bold new plans to make doctors and midwives routinely ask all pregnant women whether their husbands or boyfriends are abusing them.

Imagine the scene. A newly pregnant woman happily goes for her first antenatal check-up, only to be asked, at this emotional moment, the most intrusive, manipulative, personal questions about her relationship with the father of her baby.

Imagine her outrage and distress. And these questions are intended not just to check whether he has, in fact, ever smacked her about, but whether she feels he might and whether he’s ever seemed threatening or upset her, or just been rather nasty.

Such questions can be couched in code; that might be intended to be tactful but it makes it easy to misunderstand them, and to misunderstand the answers too. There can’t be a couple in the land which has never had a single episode of rage and threats, of angry unhappiness. And if the poor woman’s answer, at such an emotional time, is remotely positive, what do you suppose the results will be? You can bet your family credit at your brand-new local casino that she will be put on a register of some sort. An at-risk list. And so necessarily will her baby and its unlucky father, especially if there are other children involved.

Indeed, a health worker who failed to make a note of her suspicions would surely be failing in her duty. Who knows what use such information — right or wrong, or simply misinterpreted — might be put to in future? This monstrous new initiative is a perfect example of what is wrong with the new Labour culture today. It is based on the old socialist assumption that one size does and should fit all. Just because a minority, sadly, needs paternalistic attention, everyone must be subjected to it; because of a few bad fathers, all good fathers must be suspect.

It shows Labour’s habitual, unthinking contempt for privacy, and for the relationship between doctor and patient. It displays the old left assumption that all state sector workers should turn state’s evidence, and state’s investigator. It shows a disrespect for doctors and nurses who would as a matter of course, if they are any good, be watching and listening for signs of trouble with all their patients anyway.

It also shows new Labour’s habitual folly in imagining that directives and form-filling and general micromanagement can turn an inadequate doctor or nurse into a good one. It shows the government’s usual indifference to the dangers of collecting and storing sensitive information. And, in this case, it is based on exaggerated assumptions and exaggerated statements.

Why does domestic violence, like paedophilia, I often wonder, attract exaggeration? Of course, both are truly horrifying, but exaggeration doesn’t help. Actually I think it just leads to outrage fatigue and to unhealthy scepticism. I have come to feel very sceptical myself.

At last week’s conference announcing the government’s new plans for health workers to quiz pregnant women, several Labour ministers used exaggerated alarmspeak; “one in four women will experience domestic violence in their life time”; 30% of domestic violence either starts or will intensify during pregnancy; “a major social problem”; “horrifying statistics”.

That does sound horrifying. But if you start to unravel the figures and the phrases, something different begins to emerge. First of all, “domestic violence” is not at all what you might suppose. It’s not pure Bill Sikes and Nancy; it’s not simply a brutal man raising his fist or his belt to a terrified woman.

According to the new Department of Health resource manual for care professionals, the term covers a multitude of sins, “a continuum of behaviour ranging from verbal abuse, through threats and intimidation, manipulative behaviour, physical and sexual assault and even homicide”. That doesn’t leave much out.

Section 2 of this manual repeats the claim that about one woman in four is likely to experience such abuse at some time in her life. Obviously. With a catch-all definition like that, the figure must be nearer 100%, especially as the definition is extended elsewhere to include “financial” abuse.

Later, the document rather confusingly states that exactly the same proportion of women (23%) are physically assaulted by their partners at some time in their lives (excluding sexual assault), which sounds very much worse. (The Home Office figure, from the British Crime Survey, is lower, at 18.6%). But, at the same time, only 4.2% of the female population say they have been physically assaulted within the past year — a hugely different proportion of women; from very common to uncommon.

Still, if you accept the higher figure, it does seem alarming that between 16 and 59, a quarter of all women may have suffered some sort of domestic physical abuse.

However, the figure involves one or more episodes; so it could mean just one, violent and bitter argument, never to be repeated, or a couple of shameful drunken lapses, much regretted. Or it could mean the sort of serious, repeated criminal assault from which women (and their children) need very careful protection. I feel the figures suggest that the majority fall into the first category, otherwise there’d be more than 4% each year.

And most importantly, the scary figure of 23% also means that the vast majority of women, more than 75%, have not suffered even the slightest incident of domestic violence.

Hurting a pregnant woman is perhaps the worst kind of domestic violence — hurting two or more people at once — and it seems to have a terrifying impetus of its own. The health minister, Melanie Johnson, stated that 30% of domestic violence either starts or will intensify during pregnancy. That sounds very bad, but I feel sceptical about the research cited; it appears both narrow and limited.

Nor could I get government figures for what proportion of women suffer a domestic physical assault during pregnancy: it seems that there aren’t any figures. However, if domestic physical assaults are happening to “only” around 4% of women a year, across the whole female population, one must infer that it is not high in pregnancy.

I am not trying to make light of serious domestic violence. It is a terrible crime. and it causes terrible misery from generation to generation because it affects not just the woman but her children and their health as well. However, (as with paedophilia) there seems to be a tendency for activists in this field, who are regularly confronted with its horrors, to imagine it exists where it doesn’t.

Indeed, activists claim the true figures of domestic violence against women are much higher than we imagine, because women are ashamed to admit to it.

Maybe so — though that is self-evidently a dangerous attitude to statistics — but it does not amount to a licence to cross-question and monitor every single pregnant woman in the country. That is, without exaggeration, an outrage and a very typically new Labour collectivist outrage.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 3rd, 2004

Keeping ‘miracle’ babies alive is a disaster for all

Seven or eight years ago I found myself in a small, homely ward in a hospital for people with learning disabilities in Holland. The air was full of the noise of pain.

The middle-aged patients in this ward were severely disabled: they could not see or talk or sit up or move much, but they were lying on beds or in special chairs. They all appeared to be in great distress.

Most of them were crying out intermittently and sometimes writhing, as if in pain; one or two were restrained with special tapes and straps to stop them harming themselves. Although they were all being tenderly cared for by wonderful nurses, with plenty of personal attention and attempts to comfort and stimulate them, they were absolutely wretched.

The person showing me around the hospital told me that they had almost all been badly damaged at birth — victims of the poor obstetrics of the past.

I commented that good modern obstetrics presumably means there will now be many fewer young patients with such terrible disabilities. My guide shook her head. The numbers are more than made up these days, she told me, by extremely premature babies from neonatal intensive care, who survive — but only at a high cost. In other words, not despite but because of its dazzling progress, modern medicine is still producing damaged babies.

I was shocked but not exactly surprised. Because I have always had a personal interest in disability and the pain it causes to all concerned, I have always felt instinctively wary of the high-tech neonatal intensive care units.

I believe that it is probably a mistake to work so hard to keep premature babies alive, when they try so hard to die and when the likelihood is so high that they will be damaged if they survive, perhaps seriously.

These high-tech wards have always looked too much like laboratories, where nurses and doctors are in effect — whatever their motives — doing painful human experiments to make medical discoveries.

The sad case of Charlotte Wyatt in the High Court last week took me straight back to that ward in Holland. It cannot be right to strive to keep alive babies who will be condemned to a life of such wretchedness.

Charlotte is, it seems, such a baby.

She was born three months prematurely, five inches long and weighing only a pound. Now 11 months old, she is deaf, blind and unresponsive and has no feelings other than continuing pain, according to her doctors. She regularly shows signs of distress. She is sedated and fed through a tube 21 hours a day and needs constant oxygen.

Charlotte has stopped breathing three times and has severe and permanent problems with her brain, heart, lungs and kidneys. Intermittently she is stabbed with needles. She will never be able to leave hospital. For as long as she lives she will be severely disabled.

Charlotte’s doctors do not wish to resuscitate her, should she stop breathing again. Her parents, who are Christians, wish them to do everything possible to keep her alive.

Her doctors therefore went to the High Court last week, seeking permission not to put Charlotte on a ventilator the next time she develops breathing difficulties.

Her parents went there to challenge them. This looks like a classic painful dilemma and it has certainly hit the headlines. However, for once I do not think that it should be so difficult for the court to decide what is right. It is the wider implications that are difficult.

Under current law, parents have the power to decide what medical treatment their child receives. But they cannot insist on treatment that doctors think is inappropriate or causes more suffering than good to the child.

In this case the doctors’ arguments appear to be overwhelming and some of the parents’ arguments appear weak: they have reportedly said that “the hospital are trying to get us to pull the plug” and this would mean “killing our daughter”. That is incorrect.

The paediatrician has said: “I have no wish to stop treating Charlotte. The only thing I feel strongly about is that it’s not in her best interests to escalate her treatment to such that she requires ventilation.” That is far from pulling the plug or killing.

This case seems to be as close as it ever gets to black and white.

What remains a grey area, however, is the question of neonatal care and the constant resuscitation of premature or damaged babies. I wonder whether many people’s attitudes might change if they were aware of the risks.

I also wonder whether so many parents would long so desperately for their babies to be kept alive at all costs if they knew what the personal costs really were. In my experience, this has so far been unthinkable and unmentionable. And I wonder how it happened that this poor baby was, despite her terrible disabilities, medically forced to survive to 11 months.

Why was it ever considered in her best interests to do everything possible to keep her alive? I find it truly shocking. Before all this neonatal high-tech existed, such babies would have died at birth. And for most of human history, God has apparently put up with that.

I am not suggesting that nature knows best. Mother Nature can be extremely cruel. But there are times when medicine, which is supposed to relieve suffering, can be even more cruel. There are fates worse than death.

Two weeks ago, by coincidence, Panorama broadcast a sobering programme about extremely premature babies. It discussed the biggest study ever conducted worldwide, which followed babies born in Britain in 1995 at less than 26 weeks’ gestation — three months prematurely, like Charlotte.

I could not help crying when I saw the tape. The rate of disability is horrifying. Of the 811 babies given intensive neonatal care in the study, only 300 went home; of those, only three children were without any disability at all. One per cent.

A quarter of the children have severe disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness or grave developmental problems. Eighty per cent now have some physical or mental disability, or both, and 40% have moderate to severe learning disabilities (formerly called mental handicaps) as against 1% in the general population (a “moderate learning disability” is a euphemistic term for a serious lifelong handicap).

The suffering of some of their families is indescribable, to say nothing of the astonishing cost of the care.

This programme confirmed all my worst suspicions about what was done to these “miracle” babies. It is experimentation; a doctor in the film admitted that in 1995 they really did not have a clue about disability rates at all. Yet they proceeded with these horrifying, intrusive, painful treatments with their unknown but terrible outcomes. It was only recently that they agreed that these babies feel pain.

As one of the doctors now says, those babies who have survived with severe disabilities represent a medical, social and economic disaster. It is also, and more importantly, a personal and family disaster.

In Holland doctors no longer treat such extremely premature babies. British doctors should follow their example.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 26th, 2004

Adultery is a European right for the seriously married

Adulterers all over greater Europe, but especially in Turkey, have been holding their breath in anxious apprehension; for quite some time it has looked as though the Turkish government, in its self-styled reform of the penal code, would make adultery a criminal offence.

Not only would this have been bad news for Turkish adulterers; it would also have been rather alarming for European Union adulterers, who faced the prospect of having, in Turkey, a new EU member which did not respect the inalienable human right, at least in Europe, to extramarital sex.

After all, Europe is the cradle of adultery, or at least of the cult of adultery; it was the southern European troubadours with their lascivious lute-playing and erotic poetry, directed at other men’s wives, who invented romantic love. Indeed originally romantic love was adultery: marriage was quite different and not romantic at all.

Things may have changed a bit since then, but even so, one’s cultural heritage is one’s cultural heritage, and one doesn’t want it undermined by a critical mass of newcomers who don’t like it. And if a country like Turkey, with its enormous population, not to mention its rather firm police force, were to become part of the new Europe, adultery might come under serious threat.

However, we can all breathe again. On Thursday the Turkish prime minister told the European commission that he would drop this inflammatory proposal, mindful no doubt of the fact, which had previously somehow escaped him, that anyone who attacks our universal human right to sexual satisfaction has absolutely no chance whatsoever of joining the European party.

One can imagine how it happened: his people may have been misled by the Ten Commandments, for example. Fortunately wiser councils have prevailed.

The Turks are not entirely alone in their condemnation of adultery. There are quite a lot of Europeans who disapprove of it, too. Melanie Phillips, my predecessor in this space, wrote a long and passionate piece last week arguing that adultery undermines society by breaking up families. She would certainly not support making it a criminal offence, but she does argue for public and private disapproval.

My own view is rather more traditional. I believe that it is divorce, not adultery, that breaks up families and society. Blaming adultery is simply to misdirect the finger of accusation.

Adultery need not lead to divorce. Adultery need not break up marriages. On the contrary, adultery traditionally has been a buttress against divorce, and could perfectly well continue to be so if people re-examined their undisciplined thoughts and feelings about it.

Adultery is the civilised way of dealing with the tragic fault line of marriage — desire. Marriage in the West usually begins with sexual desire, but while marriage is expected to last for decades, sexual desire certainly does not, whatever anyone’s expectations might be.

There may be some lucky couples whose marriage is conducted in a long rosy glow of undying desire, but my own rather amateur surveys and reading of novels suggest that for most people sexual desire for someone lasts anywhere from a few hours to about two years. After that, with any luck, love will have deepened in other ways.

Yet even so, evolution has played a very nasty trick on us: Eros is like a delinquent child; desire is totally anarchic, it defies married love and, and as George Bernard Shaw famously discovered when he questioned a lady of nearly 90 at dinner, it doesn’t seem to fade with time.

Love and marriage, according to the Fifties song, go together like a horse and carriage. If so, marriage is like shackling the precious carriage of children, family and home to a half-blind half-crazed racehorse, which is certain to career off course.

The traditional solution to this glaringly obvious problem was, failing extreme social repression or possibly the stoning of adulterers, to find a discreet way of gratifying sexual desires privately without upsetting the carriage.

It’s true that this solution was more often available to men, and to the rich — adultery tends to prosper with separate addresses and separate bathrooms. But when divorce was impossible, or very much frowned upon, adultery was less frowned on, and in a way less risky, because it did not usually lead to divorce.

The difficulty today is that divorce has become socially acceptable. Indeed, people often speak of it as something of a duty; for instance, if a man’s friends discover that his wife has been having a torrid affair they will urge him to divorce her at once, for that reason alone, even though it will break up his home and distress and impoverish his children, and he might not, truly, mind very much.

Besides, on the principle that all sexual passion fades, she would probably get tired of the boyfriend quite soon anyway. As someone said of sailors, they tend to come home with the tide.

That is only true, however, in a cultural climate where adultery is tolerated. In ours it is considered insulting, humiliating and totally unacceptable. Indeed a spouse who has been cheated on is despised much more than the cheat, because of the slur on his or her sexuality. That is largely because our culture is so absurdly sexualised.

Sex and sexual gratification are everywhere around us, in everything we see and hear. This gives us a hugely inflated idea of what is due to us sexually, and of how much our identity is based on our sexuality, our sexismo.

Not many things are new in any era of history, but I truly believe this is one. Sex has somehow replaced honour in our sense of ourselves. That has proved to be bad, and possibly fatal, for marriage.

Banning adultery, à la Turque, or stigmatising it as Melanie Phillips recommends, is not the solution. The solution lies in rediscovering the social importance of adultery, but only under certain conditions. There are, or ought to be, rules for adultery.

The first and last one is discretion, to avoid humiliating anyone or threatening the family. Never admit. Never tell. Never hint. The temptation to boast about sex must at all costs be resisted; it is not a very high cost, after all, for the privilege of giving in to sexual temptation.

The second rule, therefore, is to avoid asking too many questions. Turning a blind eye is a central virtue in marriage.

The third is loyalty to the marriage, and very public loyalty. Jeremy Irons, skirting round this delicate subject in an interview last week, said in describing modern marriage that “a modern couple give each other the freedom to flirt with new beginnings elsewhere”. How wrong that is.

Adultery isn’t about new beginnings — that’s homewrecking. Serious adultery is for the seriously married, at least in Europe.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 19th, 2004

Mud, blood and the joy of chasing foxes on a horse

Sometimes, early in the morning, walking down our London street I suddenly catch the scent of a fox. That sharp, suggestive, overwhelming smell takes me straight back to the Dorset of my childhood all too long ago and to powerful memories of the acute joy of foxhunting.

People who have never followed a hunt cannot possibly imagine how deep that pleasure is, just as I cannot understand the joy of coarse fishing. For me it had little to do with killing a fox, though that must have been part of the elemental excitement and fear I felt, and that everyone seemed to share.

It had much more to do with the feelings, close to ecstasy sometimes, of becoming part of a beautiful and much-loved landscape, right there inside the hunting pictures that are only memories to me now, down in the mud and the crowded streams, scratched by the branches of dark woods, out almost flying over open country, hanging about in the wind and the rain under dripping hedges, jostling anxiously among bigger horses in front of an enormous fence, afraid of jumping but still more afraid of admitting it, with all the dizziness of a whole field of people together in full cry, the danger and speed, the romance of the hunting cries, and the strangeness of it, for all its familiarity.

Hunting reunites people, though only temporarily and ritualistically and fairly safely, with all kinds of profound and dangerous longings.

For years I somehow forgot about hunting. My brothers and I grew up and left home to lead urban lives, and the unmistakable scent of a fox, so closely associated with sharp hunting mornings, was something I never smelt again until quite recently when foxes arrived in Notting Hill. Now I catch the scent of those memories quite often.

I have even recently hung a fox’s head, or — as people used to say in my hunting days, and still do, for all I know — a fox’s mask, on the wall, and only partly to annoy any repressive guests. It is there because it has retrieved some intense memories for me.

This long-forgotten mask was given to me out hunting when I was about nine, just after a kill when I was first blooded, and my mother had it mounted on a wooden shield with the date painted underneath, as people did in those days.

I rediscovered it recently, clearing out her attic, and every time I look at it I’m reminded extraordinarily clearly of that bright cold day at Waterston with the South Dorset hunt, and my enormous pride in taking part in this atavistic ritual and in having a dab of blood on my face, and the bloody head swinging from my saddle as I rode home.

Today I feel rather differently. I would no longer want to hunt, partly because I feel that hunting was dying anyway, even without the moves to ban it. The saboteurs must have made it miserable, it has become too self-conscious for my taste, and the West Country is rapidly turning into suburb. Still, for many people hunting remains one of life’s great pleasures.

And what strikes me as hateful and disgraceful about last week’s vote to ban on hunting is that it is a ban on pleasure, for no good reason, or without a good-enough reason. This is the worst kind of destructive Puritanism — denying other people cakes and ale because you’ve never enjoyed them yourself.

The reasons put forward for banning foxhunting fool nobody. They are hypocritical or ignorant or trivial. No serious person can think the quick death of a few foxes matters as much as the prolonged torture of millions of factory-farmed chicken and pigs and cows. No animal lover can think it’s worth putting down 26,000 foxhounds for the sake of a few wild foxes.

No informed person can think that foxes are cruelly torn to death by the hounds; that happens after death, after one quick bite, and is much more merciful than being trapped or maimed by a gunshot. Only a hypocrite would ban foxhunting but allow the more proletarian pleasures of fishing, which is quite clearly a form of drawn-out torture.

Only a hypocrite would say it is all right to turn a blind eye to the distasteful ritual slaughter of millions of animals according to Jewish and Islamic law out of respect for those ethnic traditions, but that the ancient traditions of an old English ethnic minority must not be so spared. Some minorities are more equal than others, it seems, and there’s only one minority here that can be tyrannised by Tony Blair’s “majority”.

People on all sides seem to agree that the real explanation is class hatred pure and simply, or what you might call a different kind of blood sport; the Labour party (old and new) hates toffs and wants to tear them apart, and Blair feels he must let the socialist dogs have their sport or else they may get out of control, as blood-thirsty dogs do when their appetites are thwarted, and turn upon him instead.

Actually, as everyone ought to know, there are plenty of people who hunt who are not toffs at all. But even supposing all foxhunting men and women were indeed toffs, what then? What good would it do any of us if a few toffs were deprived of a pretty much harmless pleasure? If the horrors of 20th-century socialism and communism have taught us nothing else they must surely have demonstrated that there is absolutely nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost by punishing and robbing people just because you don’t like the cut of their gib.

My new colleague Rod Liddle once notoriously spoke out against the Countryside Alliance demonstration in London, denouncing “the belch-filled dining rooms of the London clubs”. He makes my point exactly. Surely there can be nothing uniquely offensive about an upper-class belch? Perhaps Liddle has not stopped to consider what fills the atmosphere of the nation’s pubs and bingo halls.

And even if somehow the upper classes belch differently from the lower orders, surely we are a nation now committed to celebrating diversity and the rights of minorities to pursue their ancient traditions, including belching, without fear or favour. Belching is after all considered polite in some of our newer British ethnic minorities.

Toffs can, I admit, be tiresome. They can be patronising and rude and even when trying to be charming they quite often, perhaps unconsciously, display an extreme sense of entitlement that is irksome. One needs to feel quite full of oneself to deal happily with a roomful of toffs.

This annoyance is not relieved by the fact that quite a lot of them, as well as being titled and rich, are often tall, good-looking, clever and slim, and even rather nice. People who are not toffs may prefer to think otherwise but they are deluding themselves. None of this amounts to a reason for despising toffs, or affecting to despise them, still less for persecuting them.

Now when I smell a fox I will remember, instead of hunting in green and pleasant Dorset, the stench of political hypocrisy and the painful tearing apart of British traditions of tolerance and civil liberty.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 12th, 2004

We preach baby worship but practise baby farming

We have got used to the idea that buzz words are weasel words; they tend to mean just the opposite of what they should. We have come to accept that when politicians and public figures talk eagerly of choice and consultation they mean bullying with only the most transparent pretence of listening to anyone else.

The same goes for buzz phrases. “Spending more time with the family” — now one of the most weaselly phrases in the language — means anything but. The departure of Alan Milburn from Tony Blair’s government last year to spend more time with his children was a particularly shameless example of buzz speak.

One can only wonder what the Milburn “kids” think of their father’s change of heart as he returns to the cabinet after just a year. Who knows? They may be quite relieved that after this year’s experience he is prepared to spend much less time with them.

Yet the buzzing continues; considering the large quantities of paternal egg on Milburn’s face, it almost defies belief that Andrew Smith, on being edged out of office by Blair last week, could bring himself to say that he, too, wants to spend more time with his family.

I find it equally astonishing that Cherie Blair should have acquired the buzz reputation of a devoted mother. No doubt she is convinced she deserves it. Yet she is supposedly a high-powered QC and spends a lot of time accompanying her husband to a great many official and unofficial events. She does quite a bit for charity, she travels a lot and as if there weren’t quite a few obstacles already between her and spending any time whatsoever with her kids, she has written a book that she is now busy publicising and she has just put herself on the books of a public speaking agency. She has also embraced the time-consuming role of ambassador for London’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. Are these the acts of a devoted mother? Hardly anybody seems to find this odd. On the contrary, received wisdom has it that ours is an extraordinarily child-centred society, with role models such as Cherie and Tony and their holy family. Britain is supposedly a nation of baby worshippers, obsessed with its “kids” and longing for more time with them.

As usual the opposite is true. We spend less and less time with our children. We are more and more prepared to hand them over to other people, we have allowed the state to encroach more and more on family life and last week it emerged that the government is about to nationalise parenthood and family life altogether, so that we have to spend almost no time with them at all.

Last Wednesday Charles Clarke, the education secretary, announced a brave new scheme of “wraparound educare” for all, in his chilling expression. He recognises that working parents need not only education for their children but childcare, too, and he proposes to provide it at school. “Educare”? What kind of talk is that? “We need,” said Clarke with earnest confidence, “to create a universal one-stop service for parents”, and he has committed the government to offering school and social care for children for 10 hours every day round the year, including the school holidays, from infancy.

Given travel to and from school, this could well be an 11-hour day away from home for many children. St Bede’s primary school in Bolton is already open from 7.30am-6pm for 51 weeks of the year, providing breakfast, after-school clubs and nursery services for children aged from six weeks to 11 years. From six weeks old means hardly out of the womb. This is baby farming. What else can you call it? Why not hand babies over at birth and have done with them as our forebears used to do? Why not hang them up by the swaddling bands on a hook in some stranger’s hut? We live in a society where people talk of baby worship and practise baby farming. We talk of community and busily undermine the family. I wish I were surprised that there hasn’t been a public outcry over this, but I’m not.

This might perhaps not be so shocking if all schools were temples of plenty, peace and joy. After all, some children really do enjoy some boarding schools. But state schools are not always such havens. Parents all know that there is a serious shortage of good teachers and there are not nearly enough to give proper individual attention, even during the present short school day.

We know teachers are under-trained, under-paid and demoralised, constantly dropping out or taking stress leave, constantly being replaced by substitutes. We know they often can’t keep order and that bullying is a grave problem in most schools, as is violence in many. We know that too many nursery carers are in every way inadequate in numbers, in training and in continuity of care.

We know schools have vending machines selling junk food and drink that make children obese. We know that most school meals are rubbish and that children are allowed to choose the unhealthiest food.

Last week the shares of Compass, the world’s largest caterer, fell by 25%, partly because of unprofitable school meal deals with British education authorities, some of whom budget only 42p-44p per school lunch.

Yet it is to these huge, unhealthy, crowded, ill-run, under-staffed institutions and to a succession of strangers that the government expects us — and not just exceptionally needy parents — to consign our babies from infancy.

If you applied to a pedigree dog society for permission to buy one of its animals and explained that you would be sending it out for care for 10 or 11 hours a day to a kennels down the road — a bog-standard kennels in fact — it would show you the door as an unfit owner. Wraparound educare is not good enough for a valuable dog or even for a pedigree cat.

Yet we solemnly think it is good enough for our children, or at least the government does. And it is taxing us more and more heavily so that it can give us our money back in dribs and drabs and allowances and credits here and there to pay for the ferocious cost of this baby farming, so we can then go out to work for the privilege of neglecting our own children.

“Children,” as Clarke said, “are our most precious asset. How we nurture, care and support them in their early years is a fundamental test of whether a society values individuals and believes in opportunity for all.” How true, for once, how true, whatever he may have meant.


September 2nd, 2004

When it’s mad not to interfere with nature

‘DID you know,’ a psychiatrist asked at a dinner party last week, ‘that if you have a manic depressive parent you have a 35 per cent chance of being one yourself?’ ‘What if you have two?’ I asked sadly, thinking of my own family, but not thinking of the other guests. ‘Would it be 70 per cent?’ An embarrassed silence followed. ‘No hope,’ said the psychiatrist finally, laughing and trying to make a joke.

But, as it happens, there is some hope, at last. With recent developments in genetics, it is now known that there is an important, genetic factor in all kinds of mental illness, and one that can be identified. The hope is that, in the long run, there may be some way of stepping off the miserable, biologically-ordained treadmill to which so many people are condemned by their own genes.

You might think that this latest example of the awe-inspiring progress of science was something that all should celebrate. Yet, astonishingly, it meets with great opposition – as do many other major scientific discoveries.

The development of the relief of suffering, in this century alone, is moving to contemplate. In microbiology and genetic research this progress is so remarkable that you read about it in the ordinary news.

There is, for example, the famous genome project, the mapping of the human genetic code. There are the discoveries, if tentative, of the genetic basis for a surprisingly large number of mental illnesses, including manic depression, schizophrenia and, recently, alcoholism.

Not long ago an American scientist announced that he had found small but significant differences between the brains of homosexual men and heterosexual men. Last week a genetic explanation for dyslexia was found.

Scientists actually talk about the New Genetics.

Such dazzling discoveries – provisional and crude though they still may be regularly encounter fear and resistance. People begin to hold forth about the dangers of interfering with nature, the sanctity of human life, the wickedness of politicians. And this is before anybody has even suggested snipping schizophrenic bits out of anybody.

For example, in an article in Monday’s Daily Telegraph discussing the ethical problems raised by genetics, Dr Myles Harris wrote with feeling of ‘the dangers that lie ahead as computers pursue the soul’. In much the same spirit he issued a warning last year about the moral implications of using a genetically engineered growth hormone that might make old people healthier and stronger, perhaps even happier.

As a member of a family with various (recently recognised) genetic illnesses, this makes me furious. The hope that serious genetic problems, with all the misery they bring, may perhaps one day be controllable is to me a great comfort.

I realise that all these discoveries are still very primitive. At a 1989 conference I attended at the Institute of Psychiatry, on the New Genetics, scientists made it clear that no one is yet close to being able, in layman’s terms, to snip out the bad genetic bits.

These issues are scientifically very complex; it is known, for instance, that manic depression is often closely linked with creativity. One might be the price of the other, as folklore has long suggested. There will certainly, as always, be some ugly choices to be made. But who, seeing the lifelong misery of someone tormented by madness, would not be bold enough to wish for choice? Such choices may come in my grandchildren’s time.

They may even, with the exponential growth in genetic discovery, come in my children’s time.

I feel enormously grateful to the inspired and dedicated people who have given their working lives to offering this kind of hope. And I feel, I confess, a trace of contempt for those morally timid and scientifically illiterate people – I am not referring to Dr Harris – who dismiss these hopes without further thought.

Of course, genetic research and genetic engineering cast up terrible possibilities, and terrible memories, too. This is no reason to condemn them out of hand. Science always offers power both for good and for evil. What particularly angers me is the nave and sentimental view that these developments, at the sharp end of science, are somehow against nature.

Humankind has never accepted what nature (or God) has sent. Our history is full of attempts to change nature – to bring more rain, to make women more fertile, to fend off plagues, to ease the pain in the dentist’s chair.

It is part of nature that humans try to change their lot. Sacrifices and prayer alike were attempts to interfere with nature or God’s will; science has followed, somewhat more efficiently.

Discussing the dilemmas ahead, Myles Harris asked in his article, as so many people tend to do, ‘Who are we to judge?’ There is only one response to that, and I believe it is a clinching argument: who else is there?