The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 29th, 2004

Africa, wonga and Scratcher: a morality tale for our times

Life, as has all too often been said, is much stranger than fiction. It beggars belief often and it often outdoes fiction writers, which is why they rarely make things up. From Tolstoy to Hanif Kureishi, they write about things and people they know, which is why friends and lovers get so angry.

You don’t need to make things up, least of all about Africa, which has always been so rich in extremes and absurdities. It was not comic genius in Evelyn Waugh to write his great novel Scoop about a bogus revolution in Africa; it was merely close and brilliant observation with only a light touch of the fantasist’s art.

So forget fiction. For sensational holiday reading over the long weekend you need look no further than last week’s newspaper accounts of The Coup That Wasn’t in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. Even Waugh would have hesitated to over-egg the pudding of this story quite as much as the most respectable newspapers did, hampered though they are by the laws of libel.

I don’t know which part of this story is most implausible. It is high classical tragedy, it is Monty Python, it is pantomime, pathos and bathos all horribly entangled, with a dazzling cast. We have Simon Mann, an Old Etonian mercenary and former SAS officer who smuggled a message from a filthy Zimbabwean jail demanding a “large splodge of wonga” from Scratcher and Smelly and others to get him out.

Both Smelly and Scratcher (and others) have an awful lot of wonga, as it appears to be called in this cautionary tale, although it is not an African word but a Romany term meaning moolah, dosh or loot. However, Mann did not get out, whatever anybody may have done for him; on Friday he was found guilty in a Zimbabwean court of attempting to buy arms for an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea, an exceptionally wretched country with huge oil reserves.

Scratcher turned out to be Sir Mark Thatcher, wayward son of the legendary Margaret, a man who left Harrow with only a couple of O-levels and who has a title only because his mother asked the Queen not for a peerage for herself, but for a hereditary baronetcy for her husband, thus ensuring the elevation some day of her dearly beloved son to a distinction that she must know he little deserves, unless getting rich mysteriously quick entitles you to a title these days, which perhaps it does.

He is now said to be extremely rich and lives — although currently under house arrest and the threat of extradition — in great luxury in a millionaires’ ghetto in South Africa. Curiously enough — so small is this weird world — none other than the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea is Scratcher’s neighbour in this same ghetto.

Smelly turns out to be Ely Calil, a friend of Scratcher as well as of Mann; he is an extremely rich and reclusive Lebanese entrepreneur and oil trader living in serious splendour in Chelsea, who once had a spot of bother in the massive French Elf oil scandal but emerged without any charges against him. No self-respecting story teller would dare to use the names Scratcher and Smelly. The connotations are too obvious for fiction — Scratcher for you-scratch-my-back and Smelly for stinking rich. Scratch and sniff but don’t scratch too deep.

Serious splodges of wonga would be needed for a coup, obviously; you would need mercenaries and guns and ammo and helicopters and mosquito spray and cash for bribes, presumably, and no doubt all the expensive kit that poor William Boot in Scoop had to buy from the top London tropical outfitters.

Of course, I have no idea whether a coup was really being planned or, if so, who was involved. This is a story bristling with “allegedly” and “reportedly” and assumptions of guilt by association. And the verdict of a Zimbabwean court hardly seems to cast much light on the matter one way or another.

But there is allegedly a “wonga list”, compiled by a young Englishman (now helping the South African police with their inquiries), of rich people prepared to finance the alleged coup in exchange for rich pickings in an Equatorial Guinea under new management.

Smelly and Scratcher have firmly denied any involvement in any such thing. Meanwhile, the perjured peer and ex-con Lord Archer — he of the “fragrant” wife — has cropped up in the story like a minor character from one of his own novels. We also have doughty Carol Thatcher, twin of Sir Mark, distraught about her mother’s anguish and declaring that she doesn’t think much of Africa or of her brother.

Then there are two wicked African rulers, Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Obiang of Equatorial Guinea; it is hard to guess which is worse but it might be Obiang, who is alleged to eat the testicles of his enemies (when dead) to enhance his virility. Medically that would be unwise; he may perhaps be unaware that cannibalism is known to lead to kuru, a nasty disease rather like bovine spongiform encephalitis.

Then we have the playing fields of Eton and of Harrow, we have the oil fields of the equator and we have a supporting cast of fantasists, chancers and wrong ’uns out of Oxford, out of Africa, out of the Middle East, in a web of unedifying complexity. Underlying all this is torture, starvation and kleptocracy, and the white man grabbing greedily and stupidly at Africa yet again. Allegedly.

I keep wondering rather guiltily why I am enjoying the whole thing so much (and I am assuming that most other people share my low tastes). It would be nice to be too high-minded for schadenfreude.

In extreme cases like this, when reality seems so exceptionally sensational and fantastical, the news takes over from religion and from film and fiction in providing morality tales. However jaded we imagine we are, most of us still long for morality tales.

Most people love spy thrillers and gangster movies because they are about good and evil and how to be and how to measure oneself. And there are some simple morals in this complex tale that can make us all feel rather better about our much less exotic, less enterprising lives.

For instance, and in no particular order, it is not only wrong but also stupid to interfere with Africa for any reason; the risks are too horrible. Equally, there is little outsiders can do for Africa, however good their intentions. The only thing that the West could do is to stop providing safe places for kleptocrats to hide their stolen money.

There are not many ways of getting seriously rich that are entirely honourable. The most virtuous of mothers can be putty in the hands of the least virtuous of sons. Women often prefer their less deserving sons to their more deserving daughters. That makes perfect sense in terms of evolutionary biology and such mothers are driven not by their judgment but by their genes.

Being extremely rich seems to make you more, not less, hungry for money. Gated communities are bad for people. Watch out for people who talk in mannered class-driven slang. Greedy and amoral people are often surprisingly brave; courage can be value-free. And moral lessons are much more interesting when demonstrated in the university of life than in the closed academies of fiction.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 22nd, 2004

A family’s grief can teach us nothing about the war

Anyone who has a low opinion of Tony Blair and John Prescott ought to have been absolutely delighted by their embarrassing public denunciation by Rose and Maxine Gentle last week.

Gentle and her daughter are in mourning for Fusilier Gordon Gentle of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, their son and brother, who died when he was only 19 on the day the American coalition handed over sovereignty to the Iraqi interim government. He was blown up by a roadside bomb in Basra after serving only three months in the army.

Mother and daughter went to Downing Street where they were received not by the prime minister, who is busy on his lamentable holiday jaunts, but by our deputy prime minister — he of the white-water rescue that wasn’t — to express their anger at Gordon’s death and their demand that Blair should resign. They made various other angry accusations and in the end walked out on Prescott in contempt.

That seems to me entirely reasonable in itself. The Gentles are and ought to be free to make their feelings known like any other citizen. But when they were interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme on Friday in the prime political slot at 8.10am, demanding that our troops should be pulled out of Iraq, I found that I was angry.

This was a classic example of the contemporary infantilisation of public debate — a deliberate emphasis on personal feelings rather than on rational, dispassionate adult argument, on the assumption that, like infants, we the public are not mature enough to respond beyond personal feeling and can’t be expected to. This is convenient commercially since the infantile corresponds so closely to the sensational, and there are megabucks to be made out of all that sensational emoting.

There is probably little that one can or should do to stop the independent media capitalising on this or splashing such personal, emotional responses, and it would be a bad day for Britain if protests like the Gentles’ were not aired widely.

But for a public service broadcaster and an influential, reputable political programme such as Today to splash such personal emotion across the airwaves as if it amounted to serious debate is another matter. The BBC should not be taking part in this infantilisation of the listener, least of all when exploiting the bereaved at the same time. It should be a bulwark against the trivialisation of public discourse.

The terrible grief of the Gentles and their understandable anger have no bearing on the rights and the wrongs of the invasion of Iraq or the deployment of troops.

Their dreadful personal loss does not give them any special insight into what is going on in Iraq and certainly no insight that they did not have before Gordon died or that families of surviving soldiers in his regiment do not have. They are entitled to their views but you can be absolutely sure that if Gordon had not died, his mother and sister would have been of no public interest whatsoever. As it is, they teach us nothing.

The death of even one soldier is, of course, terrible. Everyone thinks so. But it can make no difference to my view or yours about the current complexities in Iraq or about the invasion.

The BBC should have had nothing to do with the Gentles, especially as it seems that they may have links with anti-war lobbyists, who may perhaps be exploiting them as well.

The Gentles’ Today interview is a glaring example of the infantilisation of debate, but it is only one of many. The massacre at Dunblane produced plenty, for instance. As soon as media sharks had arrived, in their feeding frenzy they began asking the shocked inhabitants — in almost the same breath — both for their feelings and for their views on gun control.

This was our media at their contemporary worst. For obviously enough there is no special reason to suppose that a particular person in the street has any well-considered views at all on gun control, or on anything else, merely because a sensational shooting has just taken place that has probably profoundly disturbed them.

And equally obviously a person who is probably in deep shock is hardly in the best state to give her views at all, well considered or otherwise. It was not only a failure of human kindness to ask them; it was a serious intellectual mistake and one that has been rapidly creeping up on public argument.

In serious argument you cannot generalise from the particular. That used to be an old chestnut of school philosophy lessons: you cannot extrapolate from one instance or from one personal experience, and most particularly not from one unusual experience. That was why in the bad old days women had such a poor reputation for intellectual rigour. It was believed that women argued purely personally, from personal experience.

Whether that was fair to women, the objection was reasonable enough in itself. It is unsound to generalise from your own limited personal experience, for obvious reasons. But these days, I suspect, the reasons may no longer be so obvious, if only because of the dumbing down of general education.

Judging from last week’s reports about A-levels, I wonder whether more than a minority of A-star students would know the meaning of the word “extrapolate”.

With all due respect to my sex, I have long suspected that the dumbing down of the media has also, in part at least, been due to the feminisation of the media, following the increasing power of women generally and of feminists in the media.

Sixties feminists came up with the slogan “the personal is the political”. This was entirely understandable because for so long personal feelings had been too much repressed in western culture, privately, publicly and politically. But with feminism came an extreme overreaction and today the personal is hugely overemphasised.

It has almost reached the point where if you do not have direct personal experience of something, you may be considered unqualified to speak about it, no matter how much expertise you may have. Contrariwise, a person who does have direct personal experience of something, however uninformed, inexpert or unqualified she may be otherwise, will be listened to seriously.

For instance, on the subject of disability I have various views that are far from politically correct and I occasionally speak publicly about them. I might well expect to be silenced or at least hissed. But because I have the standard required personal experience — a close family member has a disability — my views (which have nothing at all to do with her disability) are always tolerated.

Such are the absurd consequences of the touchy-feely approach to argument. But it isn’t funny. It is dangerous because this anti-rational approach has quickly come to dominate public argument.

Curiously enough it is not just a failure of intellectual discipline. By an odd paradox this emphasis on emotion quite often involves a failure of proper emotional discipline, too, as in the response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and, in its different way, the Today programme’s exploitation of the grieving Gentles.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 1st, 2004

Death isn’t the worst thing in life, and we deserve a choice

Until recently there were only two certainties in life — death and taxes. Taxes were left to the politicians and death was left to providence or to fate. Now there is only one certainty, because death has become ambiguous, and besides we no longer leave it to providence.

Science and technology have made it easier to monitor — but much more difficult to understand or decide about — the process of dying, or even exactly what we define as the moment of death. Precisely because we know so much more, it has become more and more difficult to agree on when life has ended.

Equally, ideas have changed about when precisely life starts. There are those who are troubled by stem cell research at the microscopic beginning of life. Questions of life and death are no longer left entirely to deities or to experts; they are questions we now all ask, and more and more, people expect the right to decide the answers for themselves.

Many people will remember the very sad case of Diane Pretty in 2002, a terminally sick woman facing a very unpleasant death who longed for the right to be helped to die. She fought extremely bravely through the courts, ill though she was, and in the end she lost – both the legal battle and her life; she died as she had so much feared.

There were many people at the time, including me, who felt she should have been able to choose the moment of her death, probably through an overdose of anaesthetics, under very controlled circumstances, but necessarily with the assistance of a doctor or nurse. The law said no.

The law was wrong; the wishes of the individual should come first, particularly in a case like hers where all reasonable counter-arguments could be met. Besides, what she wanted is more or less what has happened up to now anyway, in many, many cases, but informally and therefore not as a legal right.

I can’t count the number of friends who have told me with great gratitude that their elderly mothers and fathers were gently eased out of life, and out of the great pain and distress of a terminal illness, by a good doctor who genuinely wanted the best for the patient and listened carefully to all concerned.

Upping the painkillers to lethal levels is in effect mercy killing, and if done with all due respect, it is truly merciful. Diane Pretty was wronged.

However, these things are never simple. There are hard cases the other way too, like the case in the High Court last week of Leslie Burke, a postman from Lancaster who is terminally ill with a degenerative disease.

His fear has been that at some point in the course of his disease, after he has become unable to move or speak, doctors will withdraw artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH), without which he would die.

Mr Burke does not wish medical people to decide upon the hour of his death; he doesn’t want ANH to be withdrawn at all.

On Friday he won his battle; the High Court ruling on his case has now made it significantly more difficult for doctors to withdraw life-sustaining treatment from seriously ill patients.

Until Friday, doctors had discretionary powers to withdraw such treatment, depending on their judgment about a patient’s quality of life. But naturally enough it is possible that a patient who could not speak or move might have a different view from the doctor’s about his quality of life.

As the old joke has it: “Who on earth would want to live to 103?” And the answer is “Anyone of 102”.

It must be quite terrifying to imagine that when you become unable to communicate, but are possibly still conscious or wishing to live, or are simply determined to leave your departure from life in the hands of God, somebody can take away your life-support system.

Now, as a result of the Leslie Burke ruling, this will be very much less likely. Guidance to doctors from the General Medical Council will have to be redrafted. Where a patient has made no living will, doctors will be able to withdraw life-sustaining treatment only according to a much more rigorous standard of whether the patient’s life has become “intolerable”.

And if there remains any doubt, the judgment adds, the question should be resolved “in favour of the preservation of life”. Naturally enough, Mr Burke is very pleased with Friday’s decision, and it is very easy to understand why, and to sympathise with him.

All the same, I do not think this is a ruling that will do anything for the freedom of the individual to decide for himself the hour of his death, when what he wants is to die.

The “intolerability” of the judgment is as long as the proverbial piece of string, just like “quality of life” — so no progress there in either direction. The problem is that, where there is any doubt among doctors and nurses about whether treatment should be withheld or withdrawn, the question should be “resolved in favour of the preservation of life”.

What’s more, the judgment adds that where there is no consensus among professionals, or relatives and carers, any decision must be authorised by the courts.

It seems to me that while it is good to return power to the patient in such cases, it is a mistake to reduce the power of families and to add to the power of the courts.

No case is like another, and there are already plenty of safeguards against high-handed and unthinking practice. What this really means is bad news for people who wish to be helped to die when the time that is really appropriate — when life becomes intolerable — comes.

Already they have been denied the reasonable legal right to do so, as Diane Pretty’s case so painfully demonstrated. Now it will be much harder for doctors to help them unofficially (extra-legally or scarcely legally or maybe illegally) — something I myself have been counting on if need be, for myself and for people close to me.

I understand the fears of the disability lobby, about a hidden wish to get rid of people. It is true that some seriously ill people are seen pretty much as bed-blockers, and that must be resisted.

However, death is not the worst thing in life. And those who choose death should not be prevented from doing so by the anxieties or the squeamishness of those who feel differently.

I say squeamishness because I think there is a semi-conscious, rather censorious distaste for those who do not value life at almost any price (I mean their own lives or their unborn babies’ lives).

Perhaps in this country it is one of the last remnants of Christian teaching. But there are other traditions, such as stoicism, that are no less moral than Christianity, no less scrupulous, but which take a different view of life and death.

We know not the day and we know not the hour, but if there are any decisions to be made about death, we certainly do know who should make them.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 18th, 2004

When we’re afraid to trash a religion or three we’re lost

The one thing that unites British society, or ought to unite it, or used to, is a love of freedom. It is a love of freedom that informs the best of British philosophy, political thought and social reform, as well as British inventiveness, eccentricity and comedy. It is also a love of freedom that has drawn foreigners to this country, in preference to other places.

People’s deep respect for freedom here is something I’ve taken for granted, for as long as I can remember. Perhaps, however, I’ve been mistaken.

In retrospect it seems to me that many freedoms have been gradually eroded here – in particular, freedom of speech. It is not just that it has been curtailed in some ways, both by law and by the politically correct thought control that has overtaken public services and education.

Worse still, perhaps, the unthinking presumption in favour of free speech, the unexamined respect for it, has itself become weaker. The wish to silence people and a pusillanimous willingness to be silenced, both legally and socially, have been growing stronger.

Traditionally, the standard British form when anyone said anything monstrous was to mutter about defending to the death his right to say it. There are so many excellent reasons for taking this line that it is hard to know where to start. One is that if people freely say what they think, then you know them for what they are, and you can publicly denounce them and their views. But now, increasingly, when someone says something seriously offensive there are cries on all sides not only to bully him into silence, but to pass a law to make it illegal for anyone to say anything of the kind.

Last week Nick Griffin, leader of the British National party, said some very offensive things about Islam and Muslims on television in an undercover documentary. For example, he described Islam as a “wicked and vicious faith” which teaches that Muslim men can have any infidel women they can take by force or by guile. In the programme he claimed, inaccurately, that he could go to jail for talking like that. In fact he was wrong.

Trashing a religion, or religious beliefs, or people who hold certain beliefs, is not against the law. Not yet. But sure enough, cries went up all round for there to be a law against it. To be more precise, there were calls for David Blunkett to hurry up and produce the legislation he has promised to make incitement to religious hatred illegal.

The Muslim Council of Britain said that the programme underlined the urgent need for the government to introduce legislation not only outlawing incitement to religious hatred but ensuring that it is unlawful to discriminate against anyone on religious grounds.

The same repressive cries went up when Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric, came to London earlier this month as the guest of our preposterous mayor of London. Al-Qaradawi is said to hold views that are absolutely loathsome to most people here, including me. He is supposedly in favour of child suicide bombing, wife beating and executing homosexuals by burning or stoning to death, in the name of Islam. Public figures rose up, united in their indignant demands that he should be driven from the country. That was nonsense.

Unless he was planning, while he was here, to say something illegal, in contravention of British laws on incitement to violence or incitement to racial hatred, al-Qaradawi was entitled to the freedom to say whatever he liked. And as only he could know in advance precisely what he was going to say in his speeches here, it would have been quite impossible to arrest him in advance on the suspicion that he might say something unlawful. Hardly surprisingly, he did not.

By a ridiculous irony, if legislation were indeed passed in Britain that effectively prevented anyone from attacking religious beliefs, it would then be impossible to denounce those such as al-Qaradawi, whom the bien pensants were so anxious to silence, unless one took the view that by giving vent to such views he was, just by doing so, himself inadvertently exciting religious hatred against Muslims.

For there can be little doubt that there are some views held by some Muslims, even by an allegedly moderate scholar like him, that do indeed arouse hatred and contempt here among many in the non-Muslim majority.

It should have been axiomatic to everyone in this country that al-Qaradawi and Griffin must be free to say what they like about religion, however offensive anyone else might find it, and however ignorant and misguided they might be.

The idea of a law against free speech ought to be outrageous to us one and all, yet we have a home secretary who does not even appear to understand the problem. A law to curtail the freedom to criticise
religion, or a law with that effect if not precisely that intention, will be a social and political disaster.

I cannot count the distinguished British philosophers who have argued decisively that truth and understanding can only be approached by free and open argument.

Scientific knowledge can only develop by argument and counter argument; for centuries organised religion has opposed free argument, the Inquisition silenced Galileo, and all theocracies that suppressed free speech have kept their societies in poverty and ignorance. An ill-conceived respect for religion, for any religion, and a fear of offending should not be allowed to do that again in this country.

I have often wondered how and when it became true that there began to be “so many things one can’t say”. My readers’ letters over many years have constantly made that complaint, and judging from them,
there seem to be a great many ordinary people who are deeply angry that they are somehow being silenced, written out of the national plot. Read Michael Collins’s brilliant elegy to the white working
class of south London, The Likes of Us (see News Review, page 5). Read it and weep, as my colleague Bryan Appleyard says.

I suspect it began with Enoch Powell’s notorious “rivers of blood” speech. Its inflammatory, exaggerated tone, and his manipulation of the press at the time, made it impossible thereafter to speak at all
of the enormous pressure put upon the white working classes by mass immigration suddenly imposed upon them.

Silencing people is not just wrong. It is not just a serious cultural error, with very negative cultural consequences. It is also dangerous.

It is now known that one of the greatest sources of stress and concomitant depression and anger is a lack of a sense of autonomy -feeling powerless, unable to get and stay in the driving seat of your own life.

It is most common, obviously enough, among the poorest. And the people who suffer most when free speech is taken away are the people with least autonomy -free speech is the last freedom of those who
have nothing else, no other power – neither status, nor wealth, nor education.

A law that takes yet more free speech from them, as from us all, will probably have the effect of driving yet more of the dispossessed straight into recruiting offices of the BNP. Let people speak freely; if they are wrong, they will soon condemn themselves.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 11th, 2004

If we’re to buy into marriage we need prenuptial contracts

The story of Ray Parlour and Karen Bruce is a modern morality tale. She was a young Essex girl who grew up in a redbrick terraced house in Romford and became an optician’s assistant, and he was a teenage football player on an apprentice contract with Arsenal.

They met in 1990 and by 1999 they had produced three children and he had become a football star. But meanwhile Ray had started drinking heavily, partying long and late and getting into quite a lot of laddish bother.

His cheekbone was fractured during a bit of a ruckus at Butlins in Bognor Regis. Then there was the night in the cells in Hong Kong. And although they lived in a mock Tudor home in Hornchurch, Essex, with six bedrooms, two garages, a swimming pool and electric gates, and although he was earning squillions, life for Ray and Karen was not all sweetness and light.

According to Tony Adams, the former England player and captain of Arsenal, “it became a long-standing joke between Ray Parlour and me that the birth of a baby was a good excuse for a bender”. But reader, she married him. In 1998. In 2001 he told her he did not love her any more and in 2002 they were divorced.

Now in 2004, Karen, 33, has made history. She was all over the front of the newspapers last week, smiling as radiantly as on her wedding day (also pictured), or possibly even more radiantly, after the Court of Appeal award. “Footballer’s ex-wife wins a third of his future income” according to one headline. This is on top of the 37% of the family assets that she already has, including two houses. So she will be receiving more than £440,000 a year of his future salary.

She says she’s “over the moon”. The public response was swift. “Fleeced” said The Sun. “Arsenal star taken to cleaners”. The message was clear: “Who dares weds”.

So this fairy story gone wrong has turned into a morality tale, or rather into a tale that very much needs but lacks a moral. Can it be right that an ordinary girl cleans up such immense sums on divorce, no matter how devoted she has been, no matter how much domestic work she has done with her own fair hand and no matter how hard she has struggled to keep her man off the bottle and fit enough to play the beautiful game?

Contrariwise, can it be right for a man to dump his teenage sweetheart, whom he married for richer and for poorer, without sharing his riches with her as well as his problems? But most of all, can it be right for the aforesaid teenage sweetheart, wronged though she may be, to lay claim to a man’s future earnings as well as to his substantial and unexpected earnings during the marriage?

What sort of precedent does this set and could even King Solomon himself judge such matters? This is all very tricky. In fact the Parlour case is very unusual. All is not what it seems.

For instance, these huge annual payments will be reviewed after four years; they were not intended to be riches for life and indeed the judge has instructed the former wife to save the greater part for the future, when her ex-husband may well be, in her QC’s cruel phrase, in a football “twilight”. And for all the uproar last week and talk of landmark decisions I don’t think there are any particular morals that can be extracted.

Modern divorce is a hopeless muddle, because modern marriage is a hopeless muddle based on all kinds of unexamined and conflicting ideas; the Parlours’ tale is merely an extreme reminder of that painful muddle.

In my view the worst confusion that bedevils both marriage and separation is the underlying one between romantic sexual love and contractual obligation — two notions about as opposed to each other as one could possibly imagine within normal human affairs, yet regularly yoked together, incompatible though they are, in the creaking harness of marriage.

On the one hand we imagine that we marry for love, but on the other we tacitly assume — according to the evidence and the decisions in the divorce courts — that we also marry for child rearing, security, granny care, domestic services and social cohesion, all of which are often the enemies of sex and romance: Eros is an anarchist and disappears at the first signs of repression or problems with the mortgage.

Despite all this we also somehow imagine that if love has drifted away we are quite justified in breaking that tacit contract. It has become more and more morally permissible. The idea of fault, or more precisely of fault affecting the financial settlements of a divorce, was abandoned long ago.

This has always seemed odd to me. It is often said that both parties in a divorce are equally to blame, but the repetition of a cliché doesn’t make it true. Quite often there is more blame on one side than the other. In any other contract than marriage that would certainly be taken into account in resolving a dispute.

Marriage is the most important contract, for ourselves and for the wider world, that most of us will make, yet men and women sign up to it daily on an erotic high without mentioning the terms of the contract, still less examining them.

In this country prenuptial contracts, made by the prudent few, are not recognised in law. We seem to suffer some sort of cultural squeamishness that prevents us recognising (as other cultures do and as Hollywood film stars tend to) the commercial nature of marriage.

Whatever the dreams of love, the marriage market or at least the mating market is a market like any other. We all have commodities to buy or sell, starting with youth, beauty, charm, earning power or wealth and going on to whatever qualities buyers in the market might want. Giving up any such commodity — say when a woman gives up her earning power to look after the children — is an opportunity cost and in a proper contract that ought to be recognised.

For people who are lucky, who continue to love each other and who stay married, it’s not necessary to think in these commercial terms. Their illusions can remain intact. They don’t have to wonder who contributed what or who never could have expected half as much on her own merits alone or was only after the money in the first place. For the rest, who divorce or separate, the contractual nature of their expectations becomes all too painfully apparent, but in retrospect.

Divorce will always be difficult. As Tolstoy said, all happy families are the same but all unhappy families are different, and it would be quite impossible to think of any principles in law that could be both universal and just. So the sensational and sensationally different cases that come before the courts tend to make the law look a bit of an ass.

That is why the time has come for prenuptial contracts — or perhaps pre-reproductive contracts for those couples who can’t face the actual word marriage. Prenuptial contracts could be designed by each couple as mutually agreed and detailed statements of intent, in all kinds of eventualities, so that each would know what to expect in the case of divorce.

Prenuptial contracts would, of course, mean much less work for lawyers, but that is another excellent reason for having them. I bet Parlour wishes he had had one.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 27th, 2004

There’s a murderous mix in our inner-city schools

Last Wednesday afternoon Kieran Rodney-Davies was stabbed to death near his home in Fulham by a gang of boys who wanted his mobile phone. He was only 15, about the same age as his attackers, and he was out on an errand for his mother.

At one moment she had a sensible, charming, funny, loving son and at the next he was bleeding to death in the arms of a weeping friend.

This is the nightmare of every inner-city mother in the country. We have sons who have been menaced and robbed and beaten, in streets both rich and poor, by children not much older than themselves, often just for the hell of it. The streets of London are not safe for teenage boys.

One might assume from Kieran’s name and address in a smart part of London that he was a child of privilege. In a way he was, in that he came from a good home and had been brought up to be kind and helpful and to stay out of trouble, and such a careful upbringing is a privilege these days, especially for a boy whose mother is a single parent and lives on a council estate.

However, the truth is his degree of privilege made no difference; there is a terrible equality about the dangers of inner-city streets today.

After my first feeling of immense sympathy for Kieran’s mother, my second feeling was one of fury. It seems scarcely possible that Britain’s inner-city streets have in less than 20 years been allowed to become so disgracefully dangerous with little or nothing to anticipate it, to stop it or even to protest.

These days 25% of all street assaults and robberies are thought to be carried out by people under 18, increasingly including girls. Such children carry out more than 50,000 muggings a year in London alone.

My son and his friends have been threatened and mugged and stalked constantly. The first time it happened to my son was in daylight after school outside McDonald’s in Notting Hill.

He was 12 at the time. The time that school gets out is becoming increasingly dangerous. Bad teenagers get let out from the restraints of school, such as they are. Other even worse teenagers are hanging round the school gates waiting to prey on the pupils.

It is hardly surprising that people who can afford to get out of the inner cities are doing so as fast as they can. It’s a mistake to call this white flight, although it is predominantly white at present. Strictly speaking, it is rich flight and responsible flight — middle-class flight. It is a racing certainty that ethnic minority parents who have enough money will very soon and very fast be joining the queue to the burbs. I imagine Kieran’s mother might very well have preferred to bring her son up in a safe, leafy suburb with a good school had she had the option.

Tony Blair’s latest proud new initiative — yet another one — disclosed on Friday, was to entice the middle classes back into inner-city state schools by promising new improved facilities and standards in new improved city academies. This is just silly.

What’s wrong with inner-city schools these days, as he must know, is not so much the schools — the ideology or the facilities or the funding or the teaching — as the pupils. White flight is the flight of responsible middle-class parents from feral, violent, illiterate schoolchildren, who will terrorise their own children and wreck their education. Such parents can hardly be expected to put a sticking plaster of middle-class morality on the gaping wound of social breakdown.

The notorious comprehensive where I live has an exceptional head teacher, who is rapidly improving it, plenty of money, dedicated teachers and wonderful facilities.

However, I could not send my son there because of some of the other pupils. They are too dangerous. Others, while not precisely an active menace, are highly undesirable company by any standards.

The idea that a new IT block or some specialist music teaching would change my mind is laughable. The children are the problem, and their problem is community breakdown in a fragmented society.

Kieran’s horrible death reminded me very much of Damilola Taylor’s. Damilola, too, was stabbed near home by a group of schoolchildren and left to bleed to death. Both were good black boys killed by bad boys, black or white.

And the question behind Damilola’s death is the same, and remains unanswered. How did such a desperate culture develop among inner-city children in a rich and well-meaning society like ours, so that innocent children of all backgrounds live in fear and sometimes in terror? I’ve often thought that there are obvious answers and we’ve been busily avoiding them for many years.

Communities have been breaking down in inner cities because too many strains have been put on them, with little thought about what community is. Community depends on a degree of social cohesion and that depends on a critical mass of familiarity, shared language, shared tradition and shared moral attitudes.

What has happened in inner-city areas like those in London is that too many different people have been thrown together too fast in too many areas that were already deprived.

A degree of social diversity can be excellent. But extreme diversity is the enemy of community, as we have seen. Extreme diversity has stretched the bonds of community beyond breaking point in some parts of Britain. More diversity will be worse.

When Damilola was murdered in Peckham, southeast London, the ethnic composition of the area (according to the Peckham Partnership) was 43.4% white, 15.9% black Caribbean, 26.6% black African, 4.1% black other, 7.9% Asian and 2.2% other. The serious tension between some of these groups is well known, not least between Caribbeans and Africans.

The critical 1997 Ofsted report for my local comprehensive pointed out that there were more than 100 nationalities represented in the school, with the pupils speaking more than 70 languages and 58% of them learning English as an additional language; 300 were refugees or asylum seekers.

More than half of all schoolchildren in greater London are now “non-white”. And according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics, one in 12 people now living in this country (about 8%) came here as an immigrant, with a sharp increase since Labour took office.

Naturally enough, this does not count the numbers who have arrived illegally, which may be much larger, as an immigration official recently suggested in court. That’s to say, at the least 8% of people here are recent arrivals, not established British-born people of immigrant forebears.

We know now that the immigration system is widely abused and out of control. We also know now that too much diversity is dangerous, not least to children, and perhaps most of all to ethnic minority children. I wonder whether Blair has an exciting new initiative about that or whether he prefers still to hide behind accusations of racism.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 20th, 2004

The awful truth: we may all be criminally irresponsible

For people who believe passionately in personal responsibility, last week was a bad week. Several strange and terrible stories came to an end, coinciding with the curious case of the “love gene” of the prairie vole. All these stories bring into sharp, unpleasant focus the old question of how far each of us is truly, equally, responsible for what he does, for better or for worse. And in me they have all tended to bring out the biological determinist.

Some of the worst news stories had to do with paedophilia. In Belgium on Thursday, Marc Dutroux was found guilty of unspeakable crimes against six girls, the youngest aged eight and the oldest 19. Even his own mother expressed her horror in court at her own “vile” progeny.

Dutroux himself showed no remorse and claimed that he was not a paedophile, “even if it is true that I slipped up with Sabine at a time when I was lonely and needed affection”. Sabine was a 12-year-old girl whom he kidnapped, kept locked, chained up and half-starved in a filthy cellar for 80 days and repeatedly raped. He says she’ll get over it.

Experts appear to agree with Dutroux that he is not a paedophile. My view is that it hardly matters what you call him. There is something profoundly wrong with him. A man who can want to do such terrible things, and then do them and then feel no remorse is not in charge of his behaviour or of his destiny and in that sense is not morally responsible.

I feel the same about Francisco Montes, who last week was jailed in France for 30 years for raping and killing the 13-year-old English schoolgirl Caroline Dickinson.

What struck me, too, from various details that emerged, was how bizarre and out of control his attitude was as well. It was not just that he did something incomprehensibly bad; his own view of what he did and his own later behaviour was incomprehensible, too, in ordinary moral terms.

Perhaps it is rather unfair to speak in the next sentence of the unhappy British crown court judge His Honour Major-General David Selwood, who was placed on the sex offenders’ register last week after admitting paedophile offences. His crime was much less.

He had downloaded 75 indecent images of children on his computer: the pictures were of naked and half-naked boys between eight and 14 years old. He tried, risibly, to justify this illegal interest by saying that he was curious to see how easy it was for somebody with limited computer skills such as himself to find such images on the internet; he maintains that he has no sexual interest in children.

One can only gape in wonderment. This wretched man must have been entirely aware of the terrible risks of visiting such sites, let alone downloading child porn on to his computer and storing it, long after his “curiosity” must have been satisfied. A lowly journalist with little honour or social standing to lose would not dare to do it — even in the name of genuine research — without written permission in triplicate from at least five chief constables.

But this man, despite the dreadful risk of losing everything dear to him — his good name, his job, his pension (neatly retrieved in the event) and the respect of his wife, children and grandchildren — surfed the net in many incomprehensible moments of madness, all for a few photographs. One can hardly guess at how overwhelming the desire must have been, especially in a man of nearly 70.

It might seem even more unfair, perhaps, to let one’s mind wander from this unhappy man to the sexual urges of the prairie vole, but there does seem to me to be a kind of link. Last week scientists at Emory University in Atlanta revealed that as far as voles are concerned, at least, there may be a single gene that transforms the most promiscuous and sexually driven creature into the most faithful and uxorious.

It seems that the prairie vole belongs to the tiny proportion of mammals (5%) that are habitually monogamous and is (by human standards) quite extraordinarily faithful to its mate. The meadow vole, by contrast, is the Don Juan of voles, habitually promiscuous with multiple partners.

It seems that this comes down to brain chemistry and a single gene. The virtuous voles have much higher levels of the hormone vasopressin and of its receptor in the ventral pallidum, a part of the brain that processes rewards, than the naughty voles.

In the Emory experiment the single gene for the vasopressin receptor was taken from the virtuous voles, bonded onto a harmless virus and transferred into the brains of the naughty voles to replicate. In this quite extraordinary experiment, the naughty voles switched from promiscuity to monogamy almost overnight. Vasopressin probably plays a key role in determining sexual fidelity.

In short, gene treatment stops frisky voles being love rats, as one headline put it. As Dr Larry Young, leader of the research team, said: “Our study provides evidence . . . that changes in the activity of a single gene can profoundly change the fundamental social behaviour of an entire species.”

Of course, men are not mice or voles. But as Young also said: “It is intriguing to consider that individual differences in vasopressin receptors in humans might play a role in how differently people form relationships.”

Intriguing is hardly the word for it. Experiments like this, and the many huge leaps forward in brain chemistry and genetics of the past 30 years, keep bringing one back to the same fascinating, painful question.

Is it still possible to believe that people are all equally responsible for their behaviour, when it is becoming clearer and clearer that in some powerful and specific ways biology is destiny, and also that in humans biology is unequal — and this is without even considering the powerful effects of traumatic childhood influences.

In other words, perhaps people who behave unspeakably badly or compulsively or weirdly are at the mercy of atypical biological urges. Perhaps, as so many wretched sex offenders say, they just can’t help themselves.

Vasopressin is also thought to be involved in autism, for instance. Anybody who knows somebody with autism, particularly with serious autism, will know the deadening feeling that there is very little that can be done, at least by psychotherapy. Such people are condemned by biology not to understand how to feel and to behave as others do.

To blame them for their antisocial behaviour would be stupid and cruel. And so, by extension, one’s sense of blame, of moral responsibility, is subtly eroded, starting from the extreme edges of experience but moving towards the centre ground of what we assume is normality.

Moralists are stern about any attempt to turn moral questions into medical (or scientific) questions, and understandably so; our entire civilisation, all our notions of equality and worth, depend on the idea of equal moral responsibility. But the awkward truth, in the light of the growing evidence, is that we are not all equally in the driving seat of our destinies. We believe in this equality not because we think it’s true, but because we think it’s good.

Strange, but Captain Hook has done Britain a favour

Abu Hamza, alias Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, the Egyptian-born Muslim cleric known to the tabloid newspapers as Captain Hook, is almost everybody’s idea of a pantomime villain.

Until his arrest last week at the request of the United States he preached hatred with impunity, he spat loathing at our society while exploiting us shamelessly — and he is a disgrace to British Muslims. It is a great pity that he managed to obtain British nationality and it is even worse that the home secretary is having so much difficulty stripping him of it, even after changing the law.

Hamza makes a nonsense of British law. Only last month he managed to get a nine-month stay of process as a reward for failing to turn up in court for his appeal against the loss of his British nationality, failing to send his lawyer along and refusing to prepare papers for his case. Such is his deep contempt for this country’s scrupulous liberalism. There can hardly be anybody in Britain who does not think we would be better off without him.

You might think, therefore, that we would all be very grateful that the Americans have suddenly come like the cavalry galloping over the hill to rid us of this turbulent priest, perhaps permanently. They will throw away the key if he is found guilty in a US court of the serious terrorist charges the Americans want to bring against him.

Thank you, Uncle Sam, is what we should be saying. And Uncle Sam will probably be quite grateful, too, thanks to David Blunkett’s new one-sided extradition treaty, to have a larger-than-life cartoon-style Muslim baddy to display to the American populace as a glittering trophy of the war against terror.

Yet in this country the sensational “pre-dawn raid” on Hamza’s home in Shepherd’s Bush has been followed not by jubilation but by angry and suspicious questions. Why did we have such an attention-grabbing raid at all? And why now, suddenly? If Hamza has done such very terrible things as the Americans allege, why did not we know?

Assuming that British police and intelligence services did, in fact, know at least some of it, why has Hamza never been charged with even the smallest crime in this country? At the very least the man has been obstructing the traffic and causing a public nuisance in Finsbury Park, north London, for hours every Friday.

During the recent hearing about Hamza’s citizenship appeal, the Home Office’s QC gave a list of reasons why he should be stripped of his citizenship; some were criminal offences and presumably the barrister had good evidence for his remarks. Why couldn’t, or didn’t, we nab and nail him here? What is wrong with our evidence? We now learn that the Crown Prosecution Service is studying a file on his preachings — but why only now?

Various men from various ministries say that Hamza always, in his obvious incitements to hatred and violence, cunningly kept within the letter of the law — but it didn’t sound like that to the man on the Finsbury Park omnibus.

The official answer to some of these questions, as supplied by Blunkett with skilful obfuscation on Radio 4, is:

1) that Britain does not have the evidence the Americans have, at least not for some of the charges, but that

2) Britain did have evidence enough, of some sort, to lead Blunkett to try to withdraw Hamza’s citizenship and that

3) some of the American evidence, being intercept material, would be inadmissible in open court here.

That may soon change. A Home Office review of ways of using intercept evidence is now concluding. It seems likely that there will be a recommendation for legislation to permit some use of such evidence in open court here, as happens in most other countries. So Britain can hardly be accused by scrupulous liberal souls of sending a man off for trial on evidence that would be inadmissible here. By the time Hamza crosses the Atlantic, if his extradition goes through, the evidence will be admissible in Britain.

However, there are other doubts about sending the man off to the mercies of the US criminal justice system. Although there is no risk that he would be executed, much of the evidence against him comes from terrorist prisoners in American jails who may have been swayed by duress or by deals and might not carry a lot of weight in a British court.

Even if Hamza is in the end spirited away, he will leave some awkward questions behind him. In any liberal democracy there is a difficult compromise to be made between freedom and security and the bad smell behind Hamza is that we have got it wrong, somehow.

We have been both too lax and too quick to change the law, when hard cases make bad law. The extradition treaty of 2003, which came into force earlier this year, is one-sided and was not debated in parliament. Detention of foreigners without trial under recent anti-terrorist legislation is a shocking thing and we seem quickly to have forgotten about the men languishing in Belmarsh prison.

What is long overdue is a tough-minded determination not to let the wrong people enter Britain in the first place. In particular we should refuse entry to the wrong imams. A significant minority of imams are doing great damage and bear responsibility for the alienation of some young Muslims, who are being told to hate this country and are being driven into the hands of extremists and terrorist sympathisers.

There is an increasing number of second and third-rate Islamic clerics who come to this country for dubious purposes, by dubious means. Ignorant and prejudiced, they are not spreading the true teaching of Islam but are perpetrating the outdated notion that Muslims are victims of British colonial oppression and encouraging people to rise up against the rule of the white man.

The reason why the imams are not prosecuted is because the non-Muslim community has no idea of what goes on in mosques. If they did know, the authorities would be scared to intervene for fear of being called racists.

All the above comments about imams are not mine, but those of Lord Ahmed, the Muslim Labour peer, made very courageously about a year ago. The way that imams are recruited for British mosques desperately needs reform. The traditional system — hardly a system at all — is disastrous.

There is nothing to stop a mosque recruiting an ignorant, even illiterate person from a Third World village, who knows nothing of the English language or of Britain or of the spiritual and social needs of British Muslims. If nothing worse, he will be an obstacle to the process of integration here. At worst, he might be another Hamza.

Ahmed and others have long been pressing for something to be done about this obvious problem. Now, at long last, it seems that Tony Blair does have a plan for legislation, seen by The Sunday Times, to stop the wrong sort of imams coming. They will be barred unless they are moderate, English-speaking, educated and sympathetic to the British way of life. How late this is, how limited. Still, better late than never.

Perhaps by forcing us to face these difficult questions and giving us every reason to be tough, Captain Hook has done us some service after all.

Children are at the heart of the battle for Islam’s soul

Last week the home secretary boldly urged Muslim leaders in Britain to increase efforts to restrain the extremists in their communities whose teachings inflame racial tension.

A paper published by the Home Office said Britain needs “to break out of the cycle of ignorance and prejudice that fracture communities”. David Blunkett singled out Muslim leaders and called on them as well as the media to deal with the “myths and misrepresentation” that divide communities.

The day before, a public forum called Intelligence2 had held a debate in London to an audience of 700 on the motion that “Islam is incompatible with democracy”. The motion was carried, the majority swayed I suspect by some powerful arguments from Amir Taheri, a distinguished Muslim journalist. After heated debate it became clear how difficult it is, even for well meaning and well informed people, to deal with myths and misrepresentations.

There are serious problems in this country between some British Muslims and the rest of the population and a better accommodation must urgently be found. Some Muslims, particularly the less educated, find it hard to integrate here and to become British in ways that matter. Instead there are too many who are indifferent, contemptuous or enraged to the point of violence and conspiracy.

This sense of disengagement seems to be more marked and growing among the young, according to surveys. Hence the new insistence on the hijab, for example. (Of course there are many who have settled into being British successfully; they are not the problem but part of the solution.) At the same time there is suspicion and anger among the non-Muslim majority, among the educated as well as the uneducated. Anybody who dismisses this as Islamophobia is refusing to face the problem.

Here public discussion is long overdue, however provocative. And it certainly is provocative to suggest that Islam is incompatible with democracy. Belief in the virtue of democracy is a central article of faith in the West, so deeply rooted as to be hardly noticed. Anyone who dissents from belief in democracy is, in western terms, apostate (however much westerners try to avoid that sort of talk). It is to deny those western absolute values — equal rights, equality under the law and the sovereignty of the people.

Of the 57 Islamic states in the world today hardly any have a full democracy in the western sense. Many others are shameful tyrannies. This does not by itself demonstrate that Islam is incompatible with democracy — there could be many historical explanations for that, including interference by western colonialists — but it is suggestive.

Islam, according to the winning debating team, has traditionally not had the language for discussion about democracy. There was no word for democracy itself in Muslim languages until modern times nor even apparently a word for equality. Democracy depends on an idea of equality but, they argued, in Koranic teaching the idea of equality is unacceptable; an unbeliever cannot be equal to a believer. There are other inequalities. To this day Muslim women are not the equals of Muslim men, strictly speaking.

One of the speakers drew up an Islamic hierarchy, from Muslim free men at the top, followed by Muslim slaves and Muslim women, then Jews, then Christians and so on down. There is even a hierarchy for animals and plants. This does not mean inferior beings are to be treated badly, merely differently, according to Koranic teaching. Muslims have shown at some stages in their civilisation far greater tolerance (although not equality) to their subject infidels than have Christians.

However, sovereignty cannot be given to the people under Islam. That would be blasphemy because sovereignty belongs to God and he has laid down the law and the Koran is the last word.

If correct, these are all knock-down arguments. However, they are difficult to square with my experience of Muslim friends and acquaintances — pretty much secularised I suppose — who do not appear to think like this at all and who are clearly thoroughly at home in western culture. The problem seems to be not Islam but religion, and not just religion but religion in its most fundamentalist, literal-minded, proselytising forms.

“Once again wars of religions are ready to devastate Europe. Boheman, leader of a new sect of purified Christianity, has just been arrested in Sweden, and the most disastrous plans were found among his papers. The sect to which he belonged is said to want nothing less than to render itself master of all the potentates of Europe. In Arabia new sectarians are emerging and want to purify the religion of Mahomet. In China even worse troubles, still and always motivated by religion, are tearing apart the inside of that vast empire. As always it is gods that are the cause of all ills.”

That could have been written today, but it was in fact the Marquis de Sade in the 18th century, quoted by Max Rodenbeck in his magisterial piece “Islam confronts its demons” in a recent New York Review of Books.

There seems to be a trajectory in most religions — I won’t say development or progress, although that is my bias — from early dogmatic fundamentalism, through some sort of reformation and enlightenment to a period of tolerance made possible by a trickling away of faith — that long withdrawing roar of the sea of faith of Matthew Arnold’s Dover Beach — so that in the end there are no articles of belief for which anyone is prepared any longer to kill or die.

In fact there is by then little common belief at all. The teaching of the holy texts, once sacrosanct, are reinterpreted metaphorically, personally, privately. Religion withdraws from the public space and so church and state can be separated, which is pretty much essential for true democracy, although we have interesting fudges here and there. Britain is technically a theocracy.

Believers in any faith, Muslim or other, hotly resist such “reform” and fight for their own “reform”, a return to the early certainties, like America’s Christian fundamentalists. All religions have seen long battles between the literalists and those inclined to metaphorical interpretations, tending towards humanism and finally secularism.

In the Muslim world today the literalists appear to be in the ascendant. In fact, however, among educated Muslims, particularly in the West, the metaphorists (or humanists) seem to be increasing. So much crucially depends, hard though it is for British post-Christians to understand, on the religious education of Muslim children here (and all across Europe).

RE is not a soft subject, a time to doze off; it is a matter of cultural survival, of life and death.

Blunkett should therefore take the advice of Lord Ahmed, the new Labour peer, and look as a matter of urgency into the training, recruitment and licensing of imams in Britain. The accommodation we all need is in their hands.

A caring Dracula is draining the lifeblood from families

Bad ideas die hard. One that remains undead, no matter how many stakes are driven into its bad old socialist heart, is the idea that the state knows best. It’s an idea that haunts this country still, despite all the bitter lessons of the 20th century.

Dracula no longer goes about revealing his fangs, however; he is now dressed in a sympathetic disguise. He wears a face of caring and social inclusion and is wrapped in the vast, all-embracing cloak of human rights. Under the guise of the human rights agenda, and all its good intentions, the spirit of socialism is undead and well, here in Britain.

Last week’s news of the 14-year-old schoolgirl who, without her mother’s knowledge, had an abortion arranged by a 21-year-old “health outreach worker”, is a case in point. This girl is still a child legally, still in the care of her mother, and yet her school and her outreach worker and the medical staff involved were all prepared to exclude her mother from the serious crisis she faced, and to take it upon themselves to advise and direct her child in her place.

I suppose it is possible that there might be some special circumstances which haven’t yet emerged that might justify such an outrage. There are, sadly, a few mothers who are so inadequate or so threatening or so mentally disturbed that they ought to be kept away from their daughters, particularly at times of great need. However, this girl’s mother appears to be perfectly normal, and is even a care worker herself. Admittedly it doesn’t say much for her judgment that she has given details of the story to a tabloid newspaper, but that is — after all — sadly normal these days.

It is news to me that a girl well under the age of majority can, by law, have a serious medical intervention, like an abortion, without the consent or knowledge of the mother (or father). Doctors are usually extremely wary of proceeding without parental consent, without careful legal advice, and rightly so. Abortion can have many psychological repercussions and carries some medical risks.

Quite apart from that, there are moral questions about abortion, and practical questions about how a girl’s parents might help her or which doctor they’d prefer her to see. Any mother who is deliberately excluded from such discussions, just because her young and irresponsible daughter is afraid that she might be angry and upset, is being deliberately deprived of her responsibility for her child, by people who might not even know her. For this to be a matter of normal practice is absurd. It is taking the idea of patient confidentiality to the point of stupidity.

As the law stands, it seems a minor can have an abortion without parental consent if two doctors agree that it is in her best interests and she is competent to understand the implications.

It is glaringly obvious to me that a young and irresponsible girl, irresponsible enough to have knowingly “taken a risk”, is unlikely to understand the implications, even after quite a lot of caring chats with health workers. Indeed in this case the girl soon afterwards said she hadn’t been ready to make the decision, and would probably have told her mother and kept the child, given another chance.

The best people, normally, to help a young girl understand the moral, social and emotional implications of life are her family, particularly her mother. That ought to be the presumption. Here, the presumption seems to be the other way. It is a totalitarian presumption; you can almost see Dracula’s cloak twitching.

I don’t mean to suggest that we live in a totalitarian state. Nonetheless, undermining the family is something that totalitarian states have always tried to do, and driving a wedge between parents and children is one of the traditional ways of doing it.

The reason is obvious; the united family has always been strongly resistant to the power of the state. I don’t really suppose that there has been any well-articulated conspiracy in this country to undermine families, or any conscious attack on family values. But quasi-socialist policies have served those purposes well since the war, in particular the attempted nationalisation of the family by the welfare state.

Today it is not ideals of welfare, specifically, but ideals of human rights that threaten the family, and swell the power of the state and the intrusive armies of quangocrats and functionaries, to impose those rights on us.

Poor foolish 14-year-old Melissa has the “right” to patient confidentiality, the “right” to a lonely trip to a clinic, supported by a text message from her outreach worker, and the “right” to deceive her mother, because she has a “right” to underage sex; a case was reported last week of a girl of 13 who was taken away from her adoptive parents because she has a “human right” to a sex life and they were trying to stop her.

The disabilities lobby is obsessed with rights. In a field I know quite well, people with learning disabilities have pressed upon them their “right” to have a baby (though not necessarily their “right” to keep it), and even their “right” to sit on juries or to be trustees of complex organisations, even though their disabilities, sadly, disqualify them.

A right appears to be something that someone rather fancies, or thinks is a right, no matter how unrealistic, and they seem to be limitless. New ones emerge all the time, as do jobs to “support” them.

However, some rights are more equal than others. We do not often hear of a mother’s right to the authority of a mother, or a mother’s right to information about her young child, or a mother’s right to contest the decisions of doctors or nurses or teenagers.

Last week the creation of a new monster superquango was announced. A new and powerful Equality and Human Rights Commission will take over in 2006 from the three “rights” quangos we have already — the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission. It sounds even more aggressively active than they are.

It will be “a strong and authoritative champion for equality and human rights”. It aims at “creating a society that is able to respect and celebrate difference while at the same time recognising and challenging discrimination”.

How the heart sinks. The only hope is that the entire human rights superstructure, here and across Europe, will before long collapse under the weight of its own internal contradictions (as expressed in the self-contradictory mission statement, quoted above).

Even in the deluded world of rights activism, it is clear that rights constantly conflict, as people’s interests do. Equality cannot coexist with diversity. The right to be different conflicts with someone else’s right to be equal. And what about my human right to discriminate? Under what article of faith must I be denied my right to discriminate between doctors, au pairs, care workers, assistants and friends? And so on.

Even the vastest of armies of outreach workers will in the end be defeated by battling against the impossible. Meanwhile, we should reach for the garlic when people talk of “human rights”.