The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 18th, 2005

Children with a murderous destiny

Last week three shocking trials came to an end. At the Old Bailey in London on Wednesday, a gang of four young delinquents, one of them a girl of 14, was found guilty of beating a man to death on the South Bank and recording the start of the attack on a mobile phone to watch later.

Also at the Old Bailey, on Thursday, a young man was found guilty of the brutal murder of the banker John Monckton and of a ferocious attack on his wife. On the same day in Liverpool crown court an 18-year-old boy was convicted of battering a 10-year-old girl to death a few hours after playing cricket with her, without any apparent motive.

All these crimes are disturbing in themselves; in the case of the four young people who kicked and beat David Morley to death, purely for pleasure, it is also shocking that they were convicted not of murder but of manslaughter. To the woman on the Clapham bus this makes no sense. These four young people — two of them too young to be named in court — were members of a vicious gang and regularly went looking for people to attack for the hell of it. Morley was not their only victim. What is savagely kicking and stamping on a harmless stranger, who ends up dead, laughing all the while, if not murder?

The lord chancellor said last week, in connection with a different killing, that “there is a lack of clarity about the circumstances in which a case should be reduced from murder”. How true.

What shocked me much more about all these cases was the background of the killers. These children and young people were disasters waiting to happen. I do not mean to excuse what they did. I admit that plenty of children from harsh backgrounds avoid murder and mayhem and grow up to lead ordinary lives. All the same, there are plenty of children — and these were some of them — who give clear warning signals. Someone should have paid attention to those signals. Someone should have tried to intervene before those children went to the bad. If their families couldn’t, or wouldn’t, and if school didn’t, then the welfare state should have done so.

That surely is the one essential function of the welfare state — the one duty that justifies its intrusion, its huge size and its immense cost. If nothing else, the welfare state should be there to protect and guide the children of the underclass and prevent them coming to harm and harming the rest of us.

People use the word feral too freely, but in the case of the young people who smashed up Morley, it is the proper word for their wild street life. Their stories are almost Dickensian. They were dropouts in every way, roaming around looking for trouble in attacks they called “all-nighters”. People knew about them. Why was nothing effective done about them, or for them?

Reece Sargeant, the 21-year-old gang leader, was not academically bright or at least did not appear to be. He went to a special school and left without qualifications. He did not manage to hold down a job. These days someone with no qualifications at all is almost unemployable. To be a strong, aggressive young man and unemployable is in itself to be in harm’s way and someone should have been watching out for him: he was well known locally to be a menace. This is surely what armies of social services “outreach” and youth workers are supposed to do,

The aggressive young girl in his gang is the child of an alcoholic father and a drug addict mother who had abandoned her. She was in care, then fostered. Judging from her diary she is barely literate. Of an earlier attack she wrote: “Yesterday I done an allniter wiv BARRY Darren and reece. It was joke aswell we went (?) places. Them lot bang up some old homeless man which I fink his badmire (?) even doe I woz laughen after doe.”

This girl’s co-defendant, Darren Case, was also in need of care and attention. Seventeen at the time, he lived with wheelchair-bound grandparents, had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and had not been to school since he was 13; he was said to be constantly in trouble with the police.

Similarly in the case of the 18-year-old boy convicted in Liverpool of murdering the 10-year-old girl, he too had dropped out of school at the age of 13 because of his psychological difficulties with other children. The efforts of the local education authority to arrange teaching for him had petered out so by 16 he was antisocial, isolated and difficult. At the time of the crime his family was away on holiday.

Damien Hanson, who killed Monckton, was excluded from primary school at the age of 10; even his mother called him “the devil’s child” and by 16 he had four criminal convictions. Despite his youthful criminal record, prison sentences and finally a conviction for attempted murder, he was let out of prison on early release. This was done in defiance of an official assessment that he had a 91% likelihood of re-offending.

One could, I suppose, take the laisser-aller view that in any society there will always be damaged people and bad people and little can be done about them apart from locking them up or building gated communities and hiring private patrols.

That is not the view our society takes. New Labour came to power promising to be tough on the causes of crime as well as tough on crime itself and I believe that even people well to the right of the political spectrum have considerable sympathy with that approach. We know the jails are disproportionately full of young people who are illiterate or who have been in care, or both, and with people who are mentally ill or intellectually impaired — all of whom have been let down by public services as well as by their families.

It is astonishing that in a rich, supposedly civilised society such as ours there should be so many horribly neglected children in the midst of plenty who are let down by their broken families, let down by their failing schools, let down by incompetent social services and health services and constantly moved on and on, from one hardship to another, like Jo the crossing sweeper in Dickens’s Bleak House, until something terrible happens.

They could be identified, early in many cases, and helped; all too often they are not. By 10 it may well be too late. It is a sobering thought at Christmas.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 11th, 2005

They’re desperate to kill the magic lion

There has for several days been a tremendous fluttering in the dovecotes of the liberal intelligentsia; this twittering and squawking has been caused by the dramatic appearance of Aslan, the Christ-like lion in CS Lewis’s children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; the multi-million-dollar Disney film of the book was released here last week to huge publicity. Several prominent members of the commentariat have felt moved to express their contempt and indignation at something that will give huge pleasure to millions of children. If it were not so repressive and censorious, this would be comic.

The problem for liberal intellectuals is that The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, like the whole Narnia series, is overtly Christian, for those that have ears to hear, and therefore religious propaganda and therefore a bad thing. Young minds might be perverted by this insidious stuff. The flames of this indignation have been fanned by the fact that the film has been eagerly taken up by the American Christian right.

The Mission America Coalition has invited church leaders “to consider the fantastic ministry opportunity presented by the release of this film” and the governor of Florida, the president’s brother no less, is arranging for every child in the state to read the book. In this country Disney has appointed Christian Publishing and Outreach, an evangelical group, to promote the Christian ideas behind the film to British congregations. The liberal establishment is reaching for the garlic.

Actually, the film makers and distributors are somewhat nervous about the Christian effect over here; what sells in Christian America might not sell to post-Christian Britain. Some of the cast have been making what sound like secular disclaimers about finding religious allegory anywhere if you want to look for it, as if to distance themselves from any hint of evangelism. However, the fact remains that the story is without a doubt Christian and meant to be so. Lewis said so quite explicitly more than once and any adult with a basic knowledge of Christian lore could not fail to spot this obvious point, not least because to adult minds the allegory is distinctly crude.

To a child’s mind, however, the world of Narnia is a subtle, magical creation enhanced by his or her own imagination. I have never forgotten the intensity of the moment when I first read about Lucy going through the fur coats in the wardrobe out into the snow of Narnia, as if I were Lucy myself. I must have been exactly the right age and I was entranced. I could not understand why my agnostic mother was so dismissive of it.

Now as an adult I understand what she meant; like her I now think the Narnia stories crude, cobbled together in a clumsy pastiche and sometimes distasteful or sententious (a view to which Lewis’s Catholic friend, JRR Tolkien, was also inclined). I rather agree with some of Philip Pullman’s furious blasts against them. But then The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe seemed and was magical.

It is one of the odd facts of the life of the mind that books — and illustrations — that are not very good often give the greatest pleasure to children whose imaginations can be passionately inspired by extremely little. Children often love the second-rate. The Harry Potter stories are a case in point; derivative, pedestrian and clumsy, they nonetheless seem to do the business.

Children are surprisingly indifferent to quality and they are usually impervious to message as well. As a child I did not see that Aslan was Christ, or that he sacrificed himself for wicked Edmund, even though I had had a strong Christian education. Aslan might be Christ crucified in a doctrine you might dislike, in a religion you might reject, but at another obvious level he is just a magic lion in a fairy story.

Given all this, I cannot understand why there is so much antagonism to this film. Why should anyone mind about it one way or another? After all, Disney regularly produces a great deal that is infinitely worse, infinitely more manipulative, sentimental and saccharine. Nobody has to go and see it and most of those children who do will miss any evangelical point, given how ignorant children today are of basic Christian teaching.

Above all, I can’t help wondering why the instincts of secular liberals should be so repressive. It is odd, when one considers that a major part of post-enlightenment secularism is supposed to be enlightened tolerance. Their response strikes me as similar to the response of the British Muslims who burnt The Satanic Verses or the British Sikhs who demanded that a play offensive to their religion be closed.

What both groups have in common — one extremely religious, the other extremely opposed to religion — is a reductive cast of mind. They all suffer from extreme literalism. This is perhaps understandable with religious fundamentalists, including Christians; they all see themselves as people of the book and of the literally true word. With secular fundamentalists it is harder to understand; they have no book or word to refer to; they have no cultural excuse.

To be literal minded is either to be credulous — to believe that ancient writings (and self-contradictory ones at that) are the very word of God — or it is to have a repressed and repressive imagination. In the life of the free mind, by contrast, things can have many meanings at once; things can be true at different levels of the imagination. There are archetypes and myths that are found in all cultures, differently expressed in each, and anyone not oppressed with literal mindedness is free to let them play upon his or her imagination in his or her own idiom.

For instance, it is not necessary to be a Christian to respond to the great artistic achievements of Christian culture; Bach and Mozart and Donne and Caravaggio, as well as poor old Lewis in his way, all still have meaning to the infidel. For unbelievers, religious truths in art are metaphors for other truths. But literalists are the enemies of metaphor and therefore the enemies of art. One might, of course, say that hardly matters; in my experience, art lovers tend to be rather overrated just as philistines tend to be rather underrated. But it is a curious position for members of the enlightened intellectual establishment to find themselves in, along with the fundamentalists. It is rather disturbing, too.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 4th, 2005

The inspectors who praise bad schools

f Her Majesty’s inspectors were to assess the progress of Her Majesty’s government in education honestly, they ought by rights to give it an extremely bad report. National literacy strategy — failed. Sure Start programme — failed. Achievements for children in care — very poor indeed. Planning — weak and inconsistent. Spending — ill considered.

Two major reports published last week have shown that both the national literacy strategy and the Sure Start programme for young children have proved to be worse than useless. In particular they have failed the most vulnerable 20% of children, whom this government had most intended to help. It is hardly an exaggeration to call this a national scandal.

Unfortunately, however, one cannot rely on Her Majesty’s inspectors to give the most objective of reports. One of the many unpleasant facts to emerge last week about the mess the government has been making of our children’s lives is that Ofsted has failed to sound alarm bells. On Thursday Jim Rose’s eagerly awaited literacy report pointed out that Ofsted has somehow managed to find no fault with some of the country’s worst-performing primary schools.

On the contrary, Ofsted inspectors have heaped praise on the dozen primary schools at the bottom of the performance tables. Schools at which only a tiny minority of 11-year-olds achieved the standard expected for their age were described as effective and good value for money. None was listed as seriously weak or in need of special measures — a list that Ofsted has been under government pressure to reduce. As I said, it is hardly an exaggeration to call this a national scandal.

To be fair to the government, it did, presumably when panicked by educational realities and the outrageous cost of the remedial reading recovery programme (£2,500 per child), commission this review. The Rose report has overturned 30 years of fashionable and failed orthodoxy, and new Labour’s botched attempt to reform it through the much vaunted national literacy strategy. Rose recommends a return to phonics, now rather irritatingly called synthetic phonics, to distinguish it from less effective phonics teaching. It simply means your child learns to read by decoding words, putting each sound together as in th-a-t.

Many people have imagined that the national literacy programme was doing this. No, it was undermined from the first by squabbling, and reduced to a hodge podge of different methods used all together, none of which is teacher-proof or child-proof, and all of which fail to teach the simple, essential skill of decoding words by sounds. Today 30% of children fail to learn to read properly by the age of seven, which almost every child ought to be able to do, if correctly taught, including the very slow learners.

At the same time, reports by various authors at Birkbeck College (coyly sneaked onto the internet at the same time as the headline-grabbing Turner report on pensions) argued that the ambitious Sure Start scheme to provide care and early education for children from conception onwards has harmed more children than it has helped.

Either Sure Start has made little difference, or in the case of children from problem families — teenage mothers, single mothers and jobless parents — those who have been through Sure Start scored worse on verbal ability and social competence, and higher on behaviour problems, than similar children who hadn’t. It defies belief. More than £3 billion has been spent. Many billions are earmarked for future spending.

Given new Labour’s high ambitions and good intentions for children, its failure to “deliver on” its promises — to use its annoying expression — is all the more remarkable. The government is failing in its top priorities and not for lack of spending. Child obesity is worse, truancy is shocking, classroom disruption and bullying are shameful, exam standards are collapsing, the brightest children have been failed as well as the least able, testing is at best dubious and the illiteracy level, masked by years of ill-conceived testing, is simply unacceptable. Nothing could be more disastrous.

To send a poor child into the contemporary world illiterate and ignorant is like sending him naked into a Dickensian storm. It is to push him into unemployment, poverty, rage, crime, drug abuse, Asbos and jail. An illiterate girl might just as easily fall into all that and into single motherhood as well, condemned to breed more underclass babies and antisocial teenagers.

There is a perfectly obvious connection between social fracture like this and the killers of Anthony Walker or of Stephen Lawrence or of baby James Bulger; all came from broken, troubled, dysfunctional homes, from the overlooked, under-educated underclass. It is perhaps unfair to blame the government for every social evil, but one can truly blame it for the failure of its education policies and the contribution of that failure to wider social problems. The central question for new Labour now is, or ought to be, what went wrong? And will it go expensively wrong again?

My view is that the problem has been old-fashioned ideology, so long a-dying, and the government’s failure to recognise it, or when it has recognised it, its moral failure to stand up to it, not least because various cabinet ministers have shared the ideology.

Synthetic phonics was condemned by the “progressive” orthodoxy as regimented, repressive, uncreative, old-fashioned and involving grouping according to progress. In practice it has been almost impossible to fight this orthodoxy. Even now most local authorities are unwilling to accept independent new synthetic phonics programmes with clearly proven success records, because they are “commercial”.

Similarly with Sure Start, the need to “target” the most needy was undermined by the terror of “stigmatising” them. As usual, the mothers and children in most need have got least out of it, and indeed have been rather wary of it, whereas the aspirational middle classes have taken full advantage. Sure Start has distracted professionals from the most needy, enticing them into brightly coloured and comfortable Sure Start centres, and away from the hard-to-find families in need in the mean streets.

If the government cannot find ways to bypass left-wing orthodoxy, it is condemned to more of the same disgraceful failure.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 20th, 2005

I’d rather PC Plod than PC Clever Clogs

If the price of freedom is constant vigilance, the price of constant vigilance seems to be constant confusion, at least in Blair’s Britain. I mean Sir Ian Blair, the chief of the Metropolitan police. His Dimbleby lecture last week was most confusing. Calling repeatedly for a public debate on policing, he made an impassioned protest against the silence that has for too long surrounded the police service.

“The silence can no longer continue. The citizens of Britain now have to articulate what kind of police services they want.” But that is odd, because there has in fact been a great deal of vociferous public debate about the police for years, and — contrariwise — if anyone has been rather silent, it is Blair himself.

He was extremely reticent about the shocking death of Jean Charles de Menezes and about the use of the “dum dum” bullets that killed him. And when confronted last week with accusations on all sides that the police cravenly agreed to put pressure on MPs to support the government’s notorious 90 days’ detention without trial — the Met’s most senior anti-terrorist officer was sent to Westminster to lobby Labour rebels — Blair’s response was to resist all calls for an interview and stay silent until Wednesday.

We have learnt from this government the hard way to be suspicious of official calls for a public inquiry. We should by now be even more suspicious, surely, of officialdom’s constant call for public debate, or worse still, in contemporary cant, for a “national conversation”. It is almost as bad as the official obsession with consultation.

All have become weasel words meaning pretty much the opposite; the public is invited to have a say and get its feelings off its many chests and then the apparatchiks will carry on as before, but with a permanent “mandate” — that is, a permanent excuse for doing just what they wanted in the first place. Public consultation has become a way of protecting one’s rear end with a pretence of democracy. “But we consulted,” the cry goes up when there’s trouble.

Yet with anything that really matters, there’s usually very little inconvenient “conversation” or “debate”; a classic example, in a case which really matters, is the home secretary’s proposal, keenly supported by Blair, to reduce the police forces in England and Wales from 43 to 12. There hasn’t been much public debate there, still less an invitation to one. Perhaps there is something revealing in what Blair said about police reform to an interviewer last Wednesday: “I haven’t got time for royal commissions. I want to get on with it.”

In all this — which is, in effect, new Labour think — there seems to be a schizophrenic attitude to popular democracy. On the one hand the public must be consulted and listened to and empowered at the grassroots. On the other hand the man in Whitehall still knows best. Reducing the police forces in England and Wales to only 12 regional bodies is entirely at odds with the ceaseless wittering at all levels of government about localisation.

I don’t suppose for one second that Blair wants my opinion on policing, but since he has unwisely asked for it, I will give it, and not for the first time. He asks whether we think the police are there to fight crime or to fight the causes of crime, to help build stronger communities or to undertake zero tolerance. The question itself is wrong.

The police are not there to “fight the causes of crime”; the police are not social workers or teachers or foster parents or psychiatrists, nor should they be even if they had the time or the money or the manpower. The police are not there to build communities of any sort: a monstrous idea.

The idea that officials of any kind can “build” communities — another piece of modern cant — is alarming. It is part of the unthinking statism of our time. A community is made, almost unconsciously, by its members not by public servants or officials. Officials can destroy communities by bulldozing terraced houses, as John Prescott did, or by throwing poor people into high-rise ghettos, or by ruining schools, but they cannot create neighbourliness no matter how much they spend.

What the police can do is remove the obstacles to community, such as violence and disorder and public nuisances. What they can do — could do much more — is stay so close to the community they police that they can anticipate crime and deter it by their close knowledge of who’s who and what’s going on. Failing that, they are there to catch criminals. You do not need a public debate to discover that that’s what most people think.

Labour’s verbiage about the role of the police — “to build a safe, just and tolerant society, in which the rights and responsibilities of individuals, families and communities are balanced, and the protection and security of the public are maintained” — is just unthinking, undesirable guff.

The question Blair should have asked is not what kind of policing we want. The bottom line — the thin blue line — is clear enough. The proper question is whether the police are effective enough, and if not why not. And if he wants informed discussion he need look no further than a recent report by the think tank Politeia, called Policing Matters. I think he must have read it, judging from some of his remarks in his Dimbleby lecture. But it makes a nonsense of his complaints about silence and the need for informed discussion.

You could hardly get a more expert group of contributors, including a former chief constable and president of the association of chief police officers, a former deputy chief constable and a former chief inspector of prisons. Their research is complex but their recommendations are simple. Better recruitment, higher entry standards, better training, better fast tracking for the most able, better management, less bureaucracy, and above all more local responsibility and accountability and less Whitehall control. Not much about building communities there.

One point on which they would agree with Blair is that the police service doesn’t attract enough high-flyers or intellectuals like himself. Clearly, in the public mind, a policeman’s lot is not a classy one and this has evidently been a thorn in the side of Blair’s vanity for many years. But if high-flyers think and talk like Blair, perhaps the police don’t need many more of them. It would just be confusing.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 13th, 2005

Muslim apartheid burns bright in France

For many years our family had a house in southern France on the edge of the marshes of the Camargue, not far from the beautiful city of Montpellier. When we first arrived it seemed lost in time. It was bull fighting, sea fishing, farming country with hot summers, cold winters and the treacherous mistral wind — la France profonde.

Then the government rapidly developed the beautiful coast for mass tourism and a lot of building went on everywhere. But our village remained much the same, with a bull ring and a church in the main square full of plane trees, a few cafes, a smart pharmacy and not much else. For years we were the only foreigners and while nobody paid us much attention, everyone was pleasant enough. By the end we were on friendly terms with quite a few people.

I say by the end, because we left. We sold the house a few years ago because the atmosphere of the village had gone sour. There was something almost frightening in the air. It is strange to me that people have been so surprised by the past few weeks of burning and rioting in French cities, including Montpellier. It has been obvious for at least 10 years, even to a foreign visitor, that something was badly wrong.

The first sign I noticed, one Easter, was the arrival of a lot of new people, north Africans to judge from their appearance, who seemed to spend most of the time hanging around in the streets looking lost and forlorn. That was not surprising; unemployment in France was about 14% at that time and much higher round there.

What surprised us was the animosity that people in the village felt for the Arabs, as they called them when they didn’t use worse words. Nobody talked to them or played with their children. I think ours were the only children in the main square who did. In every shop there would be angry mutterings among indigenous people about them and us — how they were parasites, thieves and ignorant; they wouldn’t even have their children inoculated. You had to lock your doors. And there were so many of them.

Whatever righteous attitudes we tried to strike, we too became angry when our house was burgled. We had to start locking our door and our car wheels were slashed. Worst of all the benign neglect we had enjoyed for so long — nobody can accuse the French of being excessively welcoming even to white foreigners — changed subtly into something faintly unfriendly. It was as if the locals were suddenly sick of all foreigners, inoculated or not, of the changes they bring and the threats they represent to a nation undergoing a crisis of confidence. Then we began to hear of attacks on local synagogues, usually downplayed. Finally a synagogue in Montpellier was firebombed. We were glad to be out of there.

There is nothing new about the rage and resentment that have set France alight. Our part of France had been Le Pen country for years. La Haine, the celebrated film about a French ghetto just like those which have been ablaze for days, was made in 1995, 10 years ago. So it is odd that it has taken the French so long to wake up to the alarming failure of their much vaunted un-Anglo-Saxon society to accommodate its Muslims.

Perhaps it is unfair to single out the French. The multicultural social model has not worked either and all European countries have been unforgivably slow on the uptake. The riots have spread to Denmark, Belgium and Holland; we have already had riots in England and bombings in Madrid and London.

It is perhaps pointless to look back at the shamefully irresponsible immigration policies that have brought so many European countries to this explosive point. It is pointless to wonder how anyone in authority could have imagined that it would be a good idea to dump enormous numbers of poorly educated Third World immigrants from different societies into unprepared and unwilling, sometimes racist, European host cultures, into hellish high-rise suburbs from Seville to Rotterdam, in numbers so huge that integration became ever more unlikely and ghettos more inevitable. It is done now.

However, we might at least recognise the problem. As usual a great many people are deliberately avoiding it, in particular by editing the word Muslim out of their debates, as if Islam had nothing to do with the dangerous mood sweeping Europe. Poverty and rejection have played a significant part, but there is an unmistakable sense in which the riots are Muslim, consciously so.

Muslims vary and their beliefs vary. But the response of some Muslims to frustration — whether or not the fault of westerners — has been to retreat into more extreme forms of Islam and into the arms of fundamentalists. Yet although we know this, and despite the Salman Rushdie affair, despite the bombs and assassinations that led up to 9/11, despite the recent atrocities, we seem unwilling to recognise that what this can mean is deliberate separatism — apartheid.

Islam in the European ghetto can mean an unwillingness to integrate at all, a desire to practise the faith with as little interference from the geographical host country as possible. An internal security agency in France reported in 2004 that there were 300 communities across the country — roughly the number that rioted — which were “in retreat”, meaning communities marked by fundamentalism, anti-semitism and violence, coupled with hatred of France and the West. It is hardly surprising that there were effective no-go areas normally avoided by police in some of the French riot areas.

Even when Islamism does not aim at anything so extreme as striving for an Islamic caliphate in Europe, it can mean trying to impose Islamic practice and law. According to Amir Taheri, the Muslim writer, some French Muslims are calling for local religious autonomy, as in the Ottoman empire, and it already exists in some parts of France where radicals have imposed Islamic dress, chased away French shopkeepers selling alcohol and pork and shut down “places of sin” such as cinemas.

Even more startlingly, in Canada this year the Islamic Institute of Civil Justice proposed that sharia should take precedence over Canadian law in civil disputes between Muslims. There are sharia courts and councils operating informally in Britain. If Europeans lack the conviction to stand against apartheid and for integration, perhaps before long there will be one in our old village in France.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 6th, 2005

Beware the wrath of the ginger Ninja

The autumn gloom was relieved last week by one of the funniest news stories for many years. On a dark damp street I found myself laughing out loud at the evening headlines. Rebekah Wade, 37, the pouting, flame-haired editor of The Sun, known for her public campaign against domestic violence, was arrested in the wee hours of last Thursday on suspicion of duffing up her soap star husband and giving him a thick lip.

Summoned to the matrimonial home at approximately 0400 hours by two 999 calls, the police felt obliged to take Wade into custody to a local police station, where she spent the morning behind bars. By lunchtime she was released without charge, but not soon enough to make a Women of the Year lunch. The same morning, Steve MacFadden, her husband’s fictional brother in the soap EastEnders, was also reported to have been attacked by his estranged partner. You couldn’t make it up, as The Sun would say. You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh, as Oscar Wilde did say, although for those caught up in the drama it can’t have been funny at all.

TV tough guy decked by Ginger Ninja! Top totty turns tough! Redtop queen floors hardman hubby! Alpha female runs amok! What a pity The Sun’s inspired headline writers were unable to exercise their famous skills on this sensational story; how frustrated they must have felt.

Many aspects of this life-enhancing tale have yet to emerge. For instance, it is not yet clear who called the police. The obvious candidate would be Wade’s husband, Ross Kemp, in need of assistance. It is true that he looks a bit of a bruiser and has played the role of a hardman in EastEnders, but that is only make-believe. In real life he may not be quite so macho; he may have been truly terrified of the fury of the Ginger Ninja.

On the other hand it may have been Wade herself who rang, keenly aware as she is of the danger and the social evil of domestic violence, and anxious to stop herself in her own tracks before she did anything worse. Perhaps it was both of them. We may never know, just as we may never know what the row was about. But it has been fun speculating — the journalistic airwaves have been buzzing with gossip and giggling and the sweet sound of schadenfreude.

Wade has toughed it out and made light of it, as has her proprietor, and her husband has said it was a lot of fuss about nothing. But domestic violence, as Wade in her famous campaign was so determined to point out, is not nothing. If it is serious enough for someone to call the police about, it is quite something. And if the police take it seriously it must be quite something; the police don’t tend to arrest alpha females for nothing.

All the same I admit to a sneaking sympathy for Wade. There can hardly be a journalist alive who hasn’t at some time said one thing publicly but done another; that is human weakness but it isn’t necessarily hypocrisy. And there can hardly be a married woman alive who hasn’t, many times, felt inclined to duff up her husband, if not actually to wring his neck. The old-fashioned idea that women aren’t inclined to violence is a serious mistake. Female domestic violence is much more common than one might imagine.

I learnt that the hard way from my future mother-in-law, a formidable, bad tempered rather large woman. When she had come to terms with the idea that I was about to marry her son, she made the best of things and, to my surprise, offered to pay for me to have plastic surgery on my nose. It was not, in her view, distinguished enough for someone about to enter her family. I muttered in a cowardly way that it was all too risky, and too difficult to find someone reliable.

At that point my future father-in-law, who normally kept quiet on the precautionary principle, for some reason brightened up and said he knew of an excellent plastic surgeon who had done a good job on his nose. When I asked him what had been wrong with his nose he fell silent. So for once did his wife. For what he had unaccountably forgotten, and then just remembered, and what I learnt later, was that she had taken a knife to him and slit his nose quite badly. Fortunately my mother-in-law took no further interest in mine.

So it is that in the best regulated of homes — and my mother-in-law’s household was extremely well-regulated — women can be unpredictably violent. The evidence is rather alarming. One in six men will be the victim of domestic violence at some time in his life, according to Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, then president of the family division of the High Court, in a lecture she gave at 10 Downing Street in 2003. Butler-Sloss extended the term much further than I would, to include emotional and psychological abuse, threats and verbal abuse, but even so her point is right. There is far more female violence at home than our preconceptions allow us to imagine.

Those preconceptions are bound up with a useful taboo against female violence — a taboo that explains the fascinated reaction to Wade’s arrest. Women are constantly tempted to attack men who enrage them, but it isn’t usually in their interests to do so, for obvious reasons. Men are usually stronger and their inhibitions about violence are usually weaker. So women’s inhibitions about violence have to be correspondingly stronger, because they are physically weaker. But I am beginning to wonder whether that taboo isn’t itself becoming weaker.

In the same speech Butler-Sloss said she was concerned about attitudes to domestic violence among young people. I don’t know where her figures came from, but she said that 10% of young women thought it was acceptable to hit their boyfriends or husbands. (The figure for young men was 20%.) For young women that seems extraordinarily high and it doesn’t even count all the young women who don’t think it “acceptable”, but might give in to temptation occasionally.

It wouldn’t be at all surprising, given the growing number of films devoted to women whacking men, and given the increasing amount young women drink, if the number of women desensitised to the taboo were not growing too. The irony of Wade’s arrest is that it has done far more to raise awareness of domestic violence (female) than her entire newspaper campaign. It has also added a little to the gaiety of nations.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 30th, 2005

Not a path to promiscuity, but to sanity

In the entire history of the world, the greatest freedom women have been given — greater than equal legal status, greater than property rights, greater than the vote — is safe, reliable contraception.

Before that, biology was indeed destiny; women found themselves chained (as they still are in much of the world) to a hormonal rollercoaster of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth and breast feeding, followed by another, often unwanted, pregnancy; what is extraordinary, given this upheaval, is not how little women achieved but how much.

It is strange to think that this astonishing freedom is new and appeared only recently, easily within living memory, at the beginning of the second half of the 20th century. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that many people haven’t quite caught up with the idea or adjusted their thoughts and feelings to it and find themselves still resisting the idea of contraception, often in terms of a confused moral disgust.

“Charter for promiscuity” was the front-page headline in one newspaper last week; that was the predictable response of self-appointed family groups, so-called pro-life groups and religious spokesmen to the news that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) is recommending that all girls over 16 should be offered long-lasting contraceptives on the National Health Service.

The guidelines now say doctors should suggest alternatives to the pill, such as injections and implants, which last for many weeks, or intrauterine devices, which last for several years. These alternatives, known rather endearingly as larcs (long-acting reversible contraceptives), are cheap, reasonably safe, easy to insert and hugely more effective than pills, if only because a woman doesn’t have to keep remembering not to forget about them — she can happily forget about them. What larks indeed.

You might think this would be seen as a great blessing. Nice estimates that 400,000 pregnancies a year are unplanned. The abortion rate in this country is high and rising. About half of women rely on pills or condoms, although not as heavily as they should; one in five women under 25 forgets to take her pill at least once month. It is hardly surprising that a recent study suggests that if just 8% of women taking the pill switched to a larc, unplanned pregnancies could be cut by 70,000 a year.

I do wonder how anyone arrives at such figures: women are far from frank about contraception or contraceptive “accidents” or about what they really want at all. But it stands to reason that more larcs would mean fewer abortions and fewer unwanted babies and fewer miserable, neglected children, not to mention huge savings for the National Health Service and social services.

So why the outrage from the usual suspects? Why is better contraception somehow worse? They ought to be against unwanted babies and against abortions but what they seem to be against is sex. For reasons I cannot understand they are convinced that larcs will lead to all too many more larks or what they tend to call “experimentation”.

They are wrong. These days there is no inhibition, which larcs might be imagined to remove, standing in the way of having as much sex as one wants or can get, with or without contraception, with or without the prospect of abortion. That revolution has happened. Larcs will make no difference.

I would be surprised, too, if larcs make any difference to sexually transmitted diseases — as the usual suspects are also claiming. A man sleeping with a woman who has an IUD or three-monthly injections might be tempted to forget about condoms, but that same argument (and same risk) applies to people who rely on the pill.

The truth is that it depends on the individuals. Just as people know perfectly well how not to get pregnant, they also know how not to get nasty venereal diseases; what they do depends on how sensible they are, just as it always has, time out of mind. It has nothing to do with the refinements of contraceptive technology such as larcs — people used to take those sexual risks, or avoid them, long before there was any contraceptive technology.

What the contraceptive revolution offered from the first, for all its minor side effects and risks and with refinements ever since, such as larcs, was freedom. Contraception offers freedom from the risk of doing something wrong — bringing an unwanted child into the world. It offers freedom from all the risks and distress — some would say the evil — of abortion. And it offers freedom to women to have a sexual life without sacrificing every other kind of life.

But freedom, like justice, is indivisible. Sexual freedom for one is sexual freedom for all. Some people abuse it — in fact when one stops to think of the confessions and betrayals in the tabloid newspapers and on the airwaves of the bonking-mad love rats and their slaggy chavettes, of last week’s 16-year-old mother of triplets and her deeply depressing daily round and so on, one begins to think that a great many people abuse it — but that is the price of freedom.

As moralists warned when the original contraceptive pill broke the necessary link between sex and conception, there were bound to be social consequences. There certainly have been, as with the bonking-mad love rats, slaggy chavettes and wraparound tumescent TV. But there has also been a moral change.

Traditional sexuality morality — meaning sexual restraint, particularly for women — was based on that connection between sex and conception: it evolved to protect paternity and patrimony. Now the connection has all but disappeared, as has patrimony, and the less connection, the less restraint and the more empty the morality.

For this reason Christian moralists and others are doomed to failure with their quixotic hopes of getting people to say no to sex or to save themselves for married monogamy; they might as well try to put a genie back in his lamp. Because higamous, hogamous we are mostly not monogamous, and we no longer have any reproductive reason even to try to pretend that we are.

For better and for worse, contraception changed sexual morality. But it is surely for the best that long-term contraception will now make it less likely that unwanted babies will be born to unwilling or unthinking mothers. That is a great emancipation by any standards.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 23rd, 2005

Improving schools is as easy as c-a-t

Education, education, education. How those words ought to haunt Tony Blair. Perhaps it would be naive to imagine the prime minister lost sleep over last week’s Ofsted annual report on the nation’s education. But he should have.

One in four schools in England, according to the chief inspector, offers nothing better than mediocrity. One in five children does not reach the expected level for English at 11, and about 30% fail to reach the expected level in both English and maths. Admittedly the Ofsted report is not all negative; 70% of schools were judged good or better.

But the inspectors found that the government’s secondary school strategy had not brought the promised “substantial transformation” in half of them. Children in greatest need of help were “too frequently” left with untrained classroom assistants and the expensive key stage 3 national strategy was said to be inadequate in one in five secondary schools.

Something else emerged last week that ought to have disturbed the prime minister’s sleep. A little cloud descended on the government’s claims about GCSE successes. It has become clear, largely thanks to a persistent BBC investigation into unpublished figures, using the Freedom of Information Act, that the “record breaking” improvement in school league tables over the past five years is not what it seems. The figures are inflated. They hide a decline in key subjects.

A school’s position in the league tables depends on how many of its pupils pass any five GCSEs at grades A*-C. So the government can and did truly claim that the proportion of children achieving that standard this year jumped by two percentage points to 55.7%, the highest rise for a decade. But bean-counting all depends on which beans you count and why. The GCSE beans have been very oddly counted.

The five beans that each child needs for league table success do not, strangely, have to include English and maths GCSEs. It is difficult to think of a good reason, since it’s obvious that English and maths are the gold standard of basic educational attainment at GCSE. Even more strangely, the vocational GNVQ qualification is now counted as equivalent to four GCSEs, no matter what the subject or grade. It is impossible to think of a good reason for that; it looks like the most manipulative egalitarianism.

Vocational courses are valuable and plenty of children should be doing them. But they are easier academically than GCSEs, they have a high pass rate and are simply not comparable. It is striking, too, that the GNVQ grades make no difference. One way and another, it makes perfect sense for head teachers to put as many children as possible down for them to inflate their league table figures. I don’t suppose the prime minister will lose any sleep about that, however, as according to Chris Woodhead, the former chief schools inspector, he knew about it at least four years ago.

When you count the beans scrupulously, things don’t look so good. When English and maths GSCEs at A*-C are included in the tables, the proportion of successful children drops from 55.7% to 44.1%.

According to last week’s BBC investigation, although 300 mainstream schools went up the league tables, their results in English and maths GCSE went down. And some schools at the top of the league table are getting only a third of their pupils through English and maths.

What is more, the percentage of children getting five or more GSCEs and the percentage getting English and maths have both been flatlining since about 2001. What on earth happened to all the extra millions that the government started spending at that time? And what on earth can Blair do, in the short time that remains to him, and on his own terms, about education? Given the forces of conservatism in the left-liberal teaching establishment, which have resisted most of what he has tried, the answer may be little. But if he is prepared for one last heave he should forget bold new initiatives and concentrate on what’s essential — the simplest standards. He should concentrate on literacy teaching and mixed ability teaching, which are more to blame than anything else for today’s low standards.

He should revisit the national literacy strategy. It was a good idea but it was undermined by educationists who don’t accept “synthetic” phonics (the good old-fashioned way of sounding out words, as in c-a-t makes cat), paid lip service to it but insisted on a dog’s dinner of conflicting methods, which doesn’t work. Unadulterated synthetic phonics does. The evidence is irrefutable.

The prime minister should drop the strategy in favour of a much more basic, universal, teacher-proof synthetic phonics method to be compulsory in all schools. Among other things it would mean teaching children to read with others at their own level, regardless of age.

All the evidence shows that, contrary to 40 years of dogma, careful setting and streaming are best for every child. Mixed ability teaching has been largely responsible for the collapse of English education and the extreme stress that many teachers now suffer, not to mention their pupils. Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, seems to accept this. In yet another education white paper this week (Labour’s wearisome 12th) she will make Labour party history by calling for more grouping by ability and “personalised” teaching.

However, an aide said that “setting is something we would want to encourage but not force on schools”. How feeble. It is high time that it was forced on all schools. Many teachers and educationists are still deeply opposed and will resist “encouragement”. And all schools are thoroughly sick of being bullied by Blair and his years of box-ticking.

He could offer a constructive deal. In exchange for accepting compulsory setting, streaming and synthetic phonics, Blair could agree to set schools free from huge amounts of unnecessary targets and paperwork and self-assessment. That would be a powerful sweetener; it would save schools a huge amount of time and money and misery.

Blair’s tragic error with education is not that he has imposed too much on schools, although he has, but that he has imposed the wrong things. Now is the time to impose the three right things.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 16th, 2005

Dense clouds of drug-induced hypocrisy

“We know of no spectacle so ridiculous,” Lord Macaulay famously said, “as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” We seem to be in the middle of a particularly absurd one right now. Although there are many hugely important questions in public life generally, and even a few in the Conservative leadership struggle, what obsesses the media is the attempt to force David Cameron into some sort of confession about drugs. It is ludicrous and shameful.

Cameron has said quite enough about this to satisfy anyone with a proper interest in his past and quite as much as any public figure could be expected to disclose, yet he has been hounded for days. Goaded yet again on Thursday on BBC1’s Question Time, he admitted that like many people he had done things in his youth that he should not have done.

“I’m allowed to have had a private life before politics, in which we make mistakes and do things we should not,” he said. And then he went on to make a perfectly reasonable distinction between his life before politics and his responsibilities now. To any fair-minded person, that should be that. It’s perfectly clear what he means.

To insist that he ought to say more — and I am astonished by the number of liberal and libertarian types who cry out that he must — is in itself rather dishonest. In fact what we’re seeing is not so much a periodic fit of morality as an even more common fit of hypocrisy.

Cameron’s adversaries are hypocritically trying to whip up an anxious moral frisson about drugs to make him look unelectable. I think they are making a mistake. It won’t. Public attitudes to drugs have changed greatly and if the Conservatives are smart they will recognise that.

Almost everybody in this country who is under 40 has been ceaselessly exposed to illegal drugs — at school, at college, in clubs and pubs, at parties and even at work — and there can be hardly any of them who haven’t at least had a tiny puff. People who never have are either unconventional or else older and belong, like David Davis and Ken Clarke if not quite Liam Fox, to the generation in which drugs were still tried only by a tiny avant-garde minority. These days anyone who knows nothing personally of drugs must seem like a total dinosaur to the younger generation; the Conservative party’s problem is not that it’s nasty or stupid, but that it’s extremely middle-aged.

One thing that young people all think is that most middle-aged people, who have no close up and personal experience of drugs, don’t know what they’re talking about. If middle-aged politicians boast publicly of their inexperience of the drug-taking scene as if that were some sign of moral superiority, they make themselves look foolish as well as ignorant. There might well be some interesting blowback in this moralistic attack on Cameron.

Taking recreational drugs is not in itself a moral matter. It has always been one of the greatest pleasures and greatest consolations of humankind, found in all civilisations. Plenty of recreational drugs are legal in Britain, despite their real risks.

It’s true that since some recreational drugs are illegal here it is by definition a crime to take them, and for that reason responsible public figures certainly should not do so. But that does not mean it is necessarily immoral to do so and most younger people don’t think it is. Drug taking is illegal not because it is wicked, but because it can be dangerous.

For many years I did not appreciate how dangerous drugs could be or would become; my generation used to think cannabis was harmless and I have known plenty of people who’ve played around for years with cocaine or with even more alarming drugs without becoming addicts. Fashionable London is said to be thickly sprinkled with the devil’s dandruff. People joke that the lavatories in bars and clubs are crowded with queues of people desperate for a line and we hear lurid tales about celebrity coke heads, but given the millions of times that people take drugs, it is surprising how few addicts there are.

It always seemed to me that the few who drifted towards addiction were driven there by other problems — some by their own addictive personalities, others by the poverty of their lives or their expectations. It is one of life’s many injustices that the people most likely to get into serious trouble with drugs are those who are already in some other serious trouble, and the law does not seem to protect them.

That is why for years I used to be firmly in favour of decriminalising drugs; I thought that despite the increased risk involved — possibly, to some — it put an end to drug pushing, to habit-supporting crime, to contaminated drugs and to the vast evil empire of the illegal narcotics trade.

All the same, as my children have been growing up I have gradually realised that drugs seem to be getting nastier and evidence of the long-term damage they can do has been mounting. Even contemporary cannabis, grown hydroponically, is several times stronger than the gentle weed of the 1960s and 1970s, and skunk can quickly trigger psychotic episodes in a small minority of susceptible people. It even has a name — skunk psychosis. I’ve seen it in someone close to me. It is terrifying and it has made me suddenly much less sure about decriminalisation. With the democratisation of drugs, the privileged trips of the 1960s have turned into a dead-end highway.

The question of what to do becomes more pressing. The law as it stands does not seem to protect the vulnerable, rather the reverse. Yet nobody seems to know and perhaps there is no way of guesstimating whether decriminalising drugs would make things better or worse. Understandably nobody is willing to make the experiment. All one can say is that ignorance and moralising merely obscure the problem.

Last Friday it emerged that a close relation of Cameron’s has been receiving treatment for heroin addiction; some commentators may claim that this, too, will somehow count against him in the leadership contest. On the contrary, compared with the professed ignorance of his three rivals, his more youthful knowledge and experience so far from being a mark against him should be a mark in his favour. Hypocrisy doesn’t always prevail.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 9th, 2005

Mother care, muddle care and don’t care

A woman’s place is in the wrong, according to the old joke and indeed according to the book of Genesis. In fact, and it is no joke, it is a mother’s place that is in the wrong. That is one of the nastier, more immutable facts of life.

Mothers have been blamed at one time or another for almost everything. If they are too close they smother, they infantilise, they emasculate, they drive. If they are too distant then they neglect, they understimulate, they undermine.

Either way, mothers have been held responsible for almost all the ills that flesh is heir to: from mental illness to sexual dysfunction, from schizophrenia to cross dressing and underachievement, overachievement, attention deficit disorder, obesity and football hooliganism.

So it is hardly surprising that mothers are hypersensitive to criticism. And it is hardly surprising there were howls of anguish last week from working mothers — or at least from vociferous media mothers — in response to news that an academic childcare study by Penelope Leach and others suggests that a mother’s care is best for very young children.

The Families, Children and Childcare study for Oxford and London universities, which followed 1,200 children from three months until age four, concluded that those looked after by their mothers do significantly better in social and emotional development than those looked after by others, who are “definitely less good”.

A kind of pecking order emerged, with stay-at-home mothers on top, followed by nannies and childminders in a homely situation, then grandparents and other relatives, with day nurseries at the bottom as the least good. Young children in nursery daycare, the study found, tended to show higher levels of aggression or were inclined to become more withdrawn, compliant and sad.

Since 450,000 British children under three are in nursery care, and since, according to the chief executive of the National Day Nurseries’ Association, 78% of working mothers say a nursery is their ideal form of childcare, huge numbers of British mothers appear to be firmly in the wrong yet again. It puts the government clearly in the wrong as well because of its plans for a massive and hugely expensive explosion of free nursery care places for the very young, and for its enthusiasm for “wraparound educare” generally.

Evidence along these lines has been appearing for years, much though people try to ignore it. Leach herself has said similar things before.

In the mid-1990s a study by the National Children’s Bureau into nursery care for children under three found an alarming lack of personal contact between staff and children, which meant the child’s need for attachment was not being met. Toddlers were often frightened, neglected and withdrawn, as well they might be when put on the pot by one woman, wiped by another and dressed by a third, most of them underpaid, undertrained and inclined to disappear.

That’s still true 10 years on. Last month it emerged that a study done in Berlin by Professor Michael Lamb of Cambridge University and others showed that toddlers starting at daycare nurseries experienced high levels of stress in the first weeks after separating from their mothers, and showed continuing mild stress for as long as five months. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol doubled during the first nine days, though they appeared to have settled after five months.

Jill Kirby produced a ground-breaking pamphlet for the Centre for Policy Studies two years ago. She cited earlier research into non-maternal care by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that showed children whose mothers were employed full-time when the child was under five had reduced chances of obtaining qualifications, and were more likely to be unemployed and suffer psychological distress in early adulthood. So this kind of evidence has been around for quite a while to dismay the working mother, especially the poorer working mother.

I don’t say all this, in some spirit of censorious maternalist triumphalism. I am not trying to monster working mothers. I am a working mother myself, though part-time and from home.

But mothers are faced with a tragic conflict of interest that no amount of wishful thinking or social engineering or wilful blindness can resolve. A woman wants and needs to work and a baby wants and needs its mother. Whatever happens, sacrifices will have to be made one way or the other. If mothers are to work they will have to abandon their children, more or less. They will have to hand them over to someone else to bring up, and that upbringing may not be much good.

I don’t think there are any easy or universal solutions to these problems. Leach herself is irritated with people who think her study is proof that a woman’s place is in the home. What she advocates is greater choice and more childminding. That might be possible with a radical reform of tax and tax relief to give mothers and fathers a choice of how to spend their money, but that is hardly a new Labour approach.

All one can conclude from this research is that Labour’s childcare plans are not only hugely expensive and impracticable, but have demonstrated that — over this at least — the government’s place is in the wrong.