The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 2nd, 2005

Be compassionate, let doctors speed death

We know not the day and we know not the hour. Death has many terrors, even for the most stoical and the most pious: we don’t know how it will come, either. If I am to die from a drawn-out and painful illness then I hope that I will have to look after me a doctor I can trust to protect me from that particular terror.

I hope I will have a doctor who will help me to decide how much pain or distress I can bear and — if necessary — who will be prepared to give me enough of the right drugs to ease my departure from this world, and even to hasten it. I want my doctor to give me some control over my death or, if necessary, to take it over for me. I know that the people I love most feel the same and I have many friends who are discreetly grateful to courageous doctors who have done this for their dying mothers and fathers or for their friends and lovers.

Yet this extraordinarily compassionate service is a serious crime in this country. Euthanasia is widely regarded with horror. Last week a retired doctor was severely punished by the General Medical Council for planning to help an old friend to die. Michael Irwin was struck off the medical register on Tuesday for obtaining pills to give to Patrick Kneen, who had terminal prostate cancer and was afraid of a painful death.

Irwin prescribed some temazepam for himself, planning to give it to Kneen. But when Irwin arrived at his friend’s bedside Kneen was too ill to take the pills and later died in a coma. So Irwin did not help him to die; he merely intended to. For this he was disgraced; the GMC found him guilty of acting unprofessionally, inappropriately and irresponsibly and told him that he had abused the trust placed in him as a doctor.

That judgment makes no sense at all to me. As I say, I hope that when my time comes I will have a doctor as brave and compassionate as Irwin was. Of course there is a problem with prescribing drugs in a way that is technically dishonest, which Irwin plainly did. He admitted as much. On the other hand both he and his friend were active supporters of euthanasia and were campaigners for a change in the law — Irwin is a former chairman of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society — and both men knew and had publicly expressed their feelings about it. For Irwin to abuse his friend’s trust in this case would have been to have ignored his fears of a painful death when he himself, as a doctor, could offer a way out.

What happened — as always happens in such cases and as happened with the unfortunate Diane Pretty who campaigned unsuccessfully to avoid a terrible death — is that someone else did more or less what Irwin recommended anyway, but without calling it by its name. Someone else mercifully gave Kneen barbiturates for pain and he died. As Irwin said: “That’s what’s called terminal sedation but which I call slow euthanasia. It’s the current hypocrisy in the medical profession.”

I always thought, at least until recently, that hypocrisy had a useful place in human affairs and often in medicine. I used to think that it would be a mistake to legalise “assisted dying” since it could so easily be abused. Yet I’ve also always thought that it is often right and that the law should turn a blind eye whenever possible.

It does happen a great deal, although for obvious reasons it is not easy to know how much. According to one expert, British doctors help more than 18,000 people a year to die. This was the figure suggested by Dr Hazel Biggs, director of medical law at the University of Kent and an authority on euthanasia, when in September last year she gave evidence to a select committee examining Lord Joffe’s private member’s bill on assisted dying for the terminally ill.

Given such large numbers and a couple of nasty recent cases of nurses killing elderly patients more or less to tidy up their wards, I’ve come to think that there is no place for ambiguity in any of this.

Irwin refused to be ambiguous; he refused to be hypocritical, which is of course why he got into trouble. He could have spared himself a lot of bother by keeping quiet. But he chose to speak out and admit what he had in mind and — whatever the other less obvious aspects of this case — we should all be grateful. Physician-assisted suicide, or assisted dying or whatever else you call it, is going to become more and more important as people live longer and longer and as a larger proportion of the population is old or very old. It will be too important to be left to discretion or to benign hypocrisy.

There is another reason, too. The uncomfortable truth is that the temptation to end older people’s lives with or without their consent is going to grow. People already speak casually of hospital bed-blockers, meaning old people who do not really need a bed in an acute ward but have nowhere else to go. I will never forget a chilling Chinese expression I once heard for the old — “the useless mouths”.

An enormous part of National Health Service annual expenditure goes on old people. Department of Health statistics for 2002-3 show that 30.3% of all NHS spending — approaching a third — was spent on people of 75 or older; 46.7% — approaching half the entire NHS budget — was spent on people over 64. These proportions have gone up noticeably since 2000-1 when the corresponding figures were 27% and 41%.

Sooner or later these startling figures may catch the attention of the dwindling proportion of young people who are working to pay for all this. Some older people — I realise I am treading on taboos — may feel that it is not unreasonable at some point to consider, in the Japanese expression, taking a last walk up the snowy mountain.

In view of this I think any decision to do with the hour of our death ought to be returned unequivocally to the patient or to the patient’s chosen representative. For that reason I hope that Joffe’s controversial bill will succeed, although I think it is much too limited.

A more extensive bill would set free all those who want to die to do so with dignity. Also — and it’s a pity that those who passionately oppose euthanasia do not see this — it would, by laying down clear rules and restraints, protect all those who do not want to be pressed into the arms of the grim reaper before their appointed hour.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 25th, 2005

To fight segregation, first you stop trying

How late it is, how late. At last Trevor Phillips of the Commission for Racial Equality has dared to point out the obvious: we are sleepwalking towards segregation.

The British have prided themselves on good race relations, at least in most places and particularly in London. But the truth is rather different, as the recent bombings have forced us to understand, and as the Burnley, Bradford and Oldham riots of 2001 and the Cantle report might have made us appreciate sooner. We are not as different from the United States as we like to imagine. We may be becoming more like them.

As Phillips said last week, there are walls going up around some ethnic communities, particularly those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origins. More generally there is surprisingly little contact between different ethnic groups and maybe less now than previously. Last year the commission found that 54% of white Britons could not name a single good friend from a different race and fewer than 10% could name two.

More strikingly, young people from ethnic minorities were twice as likely to have a circle of friends exclusively from their own community. This year the figures show even less mixing. The well-worn idea that children are colour blind and will mix quite naturally at school is mistaken. Research suggests that children are slightly more segregated in the playground than at home.

Regardless of the unintended consequences of misguided housing policies, which have flung people into ghettos, it is natural for people to want to live with their own kind. At last it is beginning to be possible to admit this obvious fact without being called a racist, because it is clear that it is not only white people who like living with their own kind, whatever that might mean. Everyone tends to. White people may choose leafy ghettos in suburbs, while according to Saira Khan, the young businesswoman star of the television series The Apprentice, the “guilty secret” of her (Pakistani) community is that “so many of us live in ghettos not because we have to but because we want to”.

I don’t think there’s any guilt attached to living with people you want to live with, and a great deal to be said against forcing people to live somewhere else. Ghettos only matter when they present problems. However, when living with your own kind turns into apartheid, when it means ignorance and mistrust and resentment of other kinds of people, then it is dangerous and can even be explosive.

By now even left-liberals admit that all this has been made much worse by official multiculturalism that encouraged segregation, separate values and even separate languages. British society has become alarmingly fragmented alarmingly quickly. The question is what, if anything, should be done about it.

I passionately believe that “doing things” — at least in the sense of government and quangos and councils actively doing things — is usually a large part of the problem. Playing with Fire, a play by David Edgar that opened last week, makes exactly this point. The subject is the complex causes of some race riots much like those of 2001. In the plot heavy-handed Whitehall interference in the running of a Yorkshire council, with intrusive targets and grants and ethnic manipulation, does a lot to inflame resentment and to light the touchpaper of the riots.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that over 25 years the race relations industry has exacerbated race relations in this country. The answers to segregation, if there are any, lie not in doing things but in stopping doing things, as far as officialdom is concerned. Phillips’s proposals to tinker with school populations and university entrance are just more of the same old mistakes — almost certain to make things worse.

My modest proposals start with the suggestion that we should stop worrying about race and racism. Crude old-fashioned colour prejudice is not usually the problem any more; when it is, there are laws to protect its victims. All the anti-racist audits and outreaches and targets and ethnic bean-counting generally should stop at once, leaving public servants to get on with providing frontline colour-blind public services. Even if the hydra-like growth of initiatives to ensure perfect numbers of ethnic representation, right down to questions about ethnic parking (like one I received from my council), were practicable — and they aren’t — they are counterproductive. They make everyone hyper-sensitive about race. They inflame grievances where few exist.

It also seems entirely obvious that we should stop creating new faith schools in the state sector. Mixed schools can do something, if only a little, to bring children and parents together in a community; schools segregated by religion promote segregation and cultural apartheid. This is unfortunately more true of Muslim schools than of others. The chief inspector of schools commented in January that some Muslim schools failed to provide pupils with the tools they need to live in modern Britain.

Yet Tony Blair is proposing to allow the number of state-funded Muslim schools to grow along with other religious schools. At the moment there are five, but there are about 100 private Muslim schools that the government wants to help move into the state sector. It intends to make that easier by temporarily relaxing certain standards. This is subsidising segregation. The solution is to create no more state religious schools at all.

When it comes to how people feel about each other, which is what counts, official solutions rarely work. If anything can be done, it will be from the bottom up, simply from people getting to know each other, recognising how important that is.

Last week the mosque nearest to me in North Kensington, London — it is also an Islamic cultural centre — invited local people for a discussion on community cohesion, followed by lunch. The centre is close to the estate where two suspected bombers were arrested in July so more community cohesion would be welcome.

We the guests found ourselves discussing all sorts of local concerns and projects and in the process getting to know some local Muslims. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of little events like this, unexciting though they might sound. If it is not too late to make a difference, then this — slow and informal though it may be — must surely be one of the best ways forward.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

September 18th, 2005

Pity the poor children left to Blair’s care

When people come to look back on the legacy of new Labour they will feel a deep indignation that, for some reason, is expressed at the moment only by very few. Labour has always prided itself on being the caring party, champion of the underprivileged and the vulnerable. Yet the people who have done worst out of new Labour are children, particularly the most deprived children.

Despite the posturing and promises, despite the thousands of initiatives and the billions of taxpayers’ money, Britain’s most vulnerable “kids”, as the prime minister calls them, are in many ways worse off than in 1997. In others they are no better off. What a legacy. What a disgrace.

Labour’s education policies have proved a very expensive failure, particularly for the least privileged children. In August the government admitted it had failed to reach its own targets for standards in primary schools. In September it had to acknowledge the same failure in secondary schools. Meanwhile it emerged that private school children are on average two years ahead of state school children. A study also found that private day schools cost less than state schools if true costings are compared like for like. The government has also presided over a decline in social mobility.

Equally bad is last week’s startling news of the failure of the Sure Start scheme for deprived children under five. Of all Labour’s projects this was one of the dearest and most vaunted. It was inspired by the American Head Start programme and since its launch here in 2001 the government has spent £3 billion on a range of pre-school programmes in targeted areas, such as childcare, parenting classes, training to help mothers into work, health advice and various other schemes. The idea was to lift the neediest children out of the cycle of poverty by helping them and their parents, all too often their lone mothers.

However, an independent academic research project by Birkbeck College found that Sure Start isn’t delivering anything. Researchers found no discernible difference in children’s development, language and behaviour between those living in Sure Start areas and those elsewhere. It also showed that some children of teenage mothers — those often most in need of effective help — did worse in Sure Start areas than elsewhere.

It simply defies belief. This was a serious government-sponsored evaluation involving 8,000 children under five and costing £20m. Both the National Audit Office and the Commons select committee on education have already been critical of Sure Start too.

The government’s response is simply to say that it is too early to evaluate the scheme, even though it was ministers who put pressure on researchers to get some results out quickly. Almost incredibly, they are pressing on with plan A, to increase the Sure Start centres from 500 to 2,500 over the next three years, and add 1,000 more by 2010. This is so preposterous it would be funny, if it weren’t so serious. American findings about Head Start are highly debatable and inconclusive too.

Yet Tony has faith, so Sure Start must continue. There’s even an element of loaves and fishes feeding the 5,000 about his faith, because although Sure Start centres are to increase more than fivefold, the government is only planning to double its spending. But then social engineering was always a matter of blind faith and wishful thinking.

The real problem for children in inner cities is family breakdown. Programmes such as Sure Start only tackle the symptoms, not the malady. They aggravate the disease too. Until recently politicians were afraid to say that broken families and lone parenthood are bad for children, particularly for the poor, even though there has for years been an incontrovertible mass of evidence. It was seen as judgmental and discriminatory, or at any rate bound to frighten the voters.

Even now the Conservative leadership contender David Davis is wary of making this obvious point. As he said last week:

“If a Conservative politician observes that children have a better chance of living fulfilled and gainful lives when brought up by two happily married parents, he is likely to be pilloried as narrow-minded.”

That is still true, although as a lone parented child he is well placed to speak out. It may be some time before other Conservative politicians drum up the conviction to talk seriously family-friendly. Meanwhile there are a few brave voices crying out in the wilderness — some of the right-of-centre independent think tanks such as Civitas and the Centre for Policy Studies, which have the luxury of indifference to popularity. They have been saying for some time that family breakdown, and the poverty and social breakdown that follows from it, is encouraged by government intervention. The tax and benefit system provides incentives for couples to split up. They are better off apart (or “off the books”, concealing their partners). It makes it just as desirable for a teenage girl to have a baby on her own as any other option she might have.

People on the left and even on the right have passionately resisted the truth for years. But now it is beginning to be impossible to ignore the evidence. Last week Civitas published a survey showing the perverse incentives of Labour’s tax and benefits system in comparison with family friendly provisions in France and Germany. Needless to say, they have far less family breakdown and lone parenthood. We have more lone parents and teenage pregnancies than anywhere else in western Europe.

Here when an unemployed unpartnered person becomes a lone parent their financial situation improves substantially, unlike in France or Germany. Here it is financially advantageous for couples with children, where both parents are on the minimum wage or unemployed, to part. The tax credit system favours children who live with a lone parent rather than with both. Fathers who work and stay married (or partnered) are penalised. They would be better off divorced.

The figures are on the websites. Civitas publishes them. So does the Centre for Policy Studies, which revealed equally startling evidence earlier this year. We have a government that is actively promoting family breakdown and the evils that follow from it, and then applying expensive sticking plaster to gaping social wounds. Odd how few people yet feel angry.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 7th, 2005

A shocking death on the No 43 bus

‘I have always depended,” said Blanche DuBois, the tragic heroine of A Streetcar Named Desire, in one of her most famous and most ironic lines, “on the kindness of strangers.” That can be a mistake, as she discovered, and as Richard Whelan may have realised nine days ago as he lay bleeding to death on a streetcar, or rather on a No 43 bus in north London, ignored and left to his fate by almost everyone around him. In all the horror of recent weeks in London, I think Whelan’s story is one of the saddest and perhaps one of the strangest.

We have heard a great deal about the compassion and heroism of bystanders after the bomb blasts of July 7 and of the spirit of the Blitz. Yet at almost the same time, in the centre of the same city, the response of bystanders to the violent attack on Whelan was shocking for its absence of compassion or heroism or even the faintest hint of common humanity. In its way it is much more troubling than the threat of more terrorist attacks.

As is the way with sudden and shocking events, some of the details remain unclear. However, it is a fact that Whelan and his girlfriend were sitting on the top deck of a No 43 bus at around 10pm on July 29 when a young black man started shouting and throwing chips at people. At this, most or perhaps all of the passengers apart from Whelan, his girlfriend and the troublemaker moved downstairs. The man then started abusing Whelan’s girlfriend, and when Whelan told him to stop, he responded by stabbing him several times with a knife.

The girlfriend began screaming for help, loudly enough for the passengers below to hear her, but nobody moved. The murderer went slowly downstairs and got off the bus. After him, the girlfriend came down, white faced, apparently deeply shocked and perhaps very confused. At any rate, for some reason she, too, got off the bus. Richard Whelan came down too, but he collapsed bleeding on the bottom deck of the bus.

What happened next is in a way even worse. Almost nobody was prepared to help this young man as he lay dying. Even though it was quite obvious that his attacker had fled and there was no longer any danger, almost nobody came forward to do anything, not even to comfort him. There were plenty of people around — the bus was about half full — but they turned their eyes away and very soon got off. Yet the victim was not bleeding very heavily; the squeamish or those afraid of Aids had little excuse to turn away. It’s not as though he looked weird; he seemed, as he was, a nice young man. Admittedly there is a terrible risk in giving evidence about a violent crime; in this country the defence — ludicrously and inexcusably — has the right to know a witness’s private address. But one can comfort a wounded man without agreeing to give evidence.

There was only one woman who was prepared to do something for Whelan. Admittedly we only have her account of what happened, and she has chosen to speak out anonymously, which seems odd. It’s also true that it is easy, in extremities, to get things wrong. All the same, this Good Samaritan is certain that she was at first quite alone. Nobody would help her, though she asked again and again.

She tried to get the poor man to lie down, she tried to cover his wounds with her jumper, she called 999, she held his hand and tried to keep him awake until the ambulance arrived. Meanwhile two people refused to give their clothes to cover him. By now Whelan was lying very awkwardly, shaking and sweating, perhaps going into shock, and drowsily slurring his words. After a while two young women did try to help as well; but by then the only people left on the bus were Whelan, these two girls, the bus driver and the teller of this story. Everyone else, she said, had just melted away.

One can only wonder why. Not so long ago it would have been unthinkable for a busload of Londoners to ignore such a terrible thing. Ever since I heard this account I have been wondering how long ago that was, and when and why things have changed. Admittedly one should be wary of waxing too romantic about Britain’s traditions of civic society and community spirit. There were centuries when the British were hardened to suffering and ignored it daily all around them. In the early 18th century abandoned babies could be seen dead and dying in London gutters and most people endured the sight fairly philosophically. In being distressed by it and setting up his famous Foundling hospital, Captain Thomas Coram was sensitive for his time.

But, equally, it was in the 17th century that John Donne wrote that “no man is an island, entire of itself” — an idea so appealing as to have been turned into a cliché. For many generations this has been, until recently, a generous enough country for people to have at least some sense of fellow feeling, some sense of community.

Now, suddenly, it seems to be disappearing, in big cities at least. My belief is that this is one of the evil consequences of having a society (at least in cities) that is too diverse and — more importantly — that has become diverse much too quickly. Remember the heartless, hellish estate in south London where poor Damilola Taylor was stabbed to death in a kind of multicultural bedlam. You cannot impose massive social change without preparation, then leave wishful thinking to do the rest.

Some newspapers and columnists like me have been saying for some time that too much diversity risks stretching the bonds of community to breaking point. In order to feel responsible for others you need to identify with them in some way, and identity, by definition, means a notion of sameness — not ethnic sameness but some important sense of sameness that needs time to develop. “Any man’s death diminishes me,” Donne wrote in his Meditation “because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

That is true, but only if everyone is listening to and can hear the same bell. In a society that is too diverse there are too many different bells and they become jangled; the call to fellow feeling is lost in the cacophony. We become strangers, and the default mode for strangers, in a complex and changing society, is not kindness.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 31st, 2005

Confronted with our own decadence

It takes a long time to react fully to a disaster. After the first shock comes a kind of disbelief. So it has been with the two terrorist attacks in London. It is only slowly that people have begun to recover and come to terms with their feelings and it is only slowly that they begin to reflect on the wider implications. Our perspective and our focus need to be sharpened by time.

One of the things that strikes me more, not less, forcibly as time has passed is the contempt that Muslim extremists feel for us. They despise us for our decadence, and I feel more and more forced to accept the painful truth that they have a point. I don’t want to exaggerate; there are many things about Britain that are still great. People have shown courage and compassion in response to the bombings, and a restraint that is truly heroic. And the police have discovered and arrested the failed suicide bombers with an efficiency that is anything but decadent.

All the same, it can hardly be denied that with all our celebrated freedom, and all our wealth, we have somehow created a society that is characterised by growing disorder, uncertainty and loss. For a long time now Britain — or rather many of its institutions and traditions — has been suffering from a loss of nerve and a loss of will which amounts to a national moral funk.

The results are everywhere, in each day’s news. There is a connection between working-class lager louts looking for a fight and rich kids vomiting and copulating drunkenly in public, both here and on holiday abroad. Standards in public life have fallen very low, whether it’s the prime minister’s wife or a slaggy Hooray Henrietta on a Cornish beach or simply Big Brother.

And there is a connection between all that and the miserable failure of Britain’s schools; illiteracy here is beyond belief, disruptive behaviour is normal, exams and degrees have been debased and ministers have just had to concede that social mobility — once the pride of British society — has declined in the past 30 years and has actually fallen since Labour came to power. The education secretary has come up with the contemptible sort of gimmick that passes for a political initiative these days; she has promised (at a cost of £27m) to give every baby a book bag, containing volumes like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, to encourage parents to read with their children.

What’s gone wrong in education is a template for what’s gone wrong in other institutions. Hospitals, for instance, are badly run, filthy and in financial trouble, despite all the reforms and all the cash that have been directed at them. Last week, for instance, it emerged that though the NHS desperately needs more doctors, hundreds of junior doctors will find themselves without an NHS job when their contracts end this week; there are not enough jobs for them. The British Medical Association blames this astonishing situation on poor NHS planning.

The immigration system is characterised by incompetence that is the same in kind but perhaps even more astonishing in degree; the truth has finally emerged after years of government and evasion. And there can be very little doubt that the failures of the immigration system have created serious and unnecessary social problems here, including a comfortable environment for terrorists.

There’s a thread running though all this and what has been happening to the army. Whatever the rights and wrongs of human rights legislation it is quite clearly horribly wrong to demoralise officers and other ranks with threats of legal action (other than their own courts martial) at a time when they are facing extreme danger in extreme heat in the service of their country. It is not just wrong. It is decadent.

For if we lack the will to defend ourselves, or rather to defend those who are there to defend us, we are simply rolling over and showing to the world’s scavengers and beasts of prey the soft underbelly of decadence.

It has been decadent to let extremist imams preach hatred and violence on the pavements here. These people could perfectly well have been sent to prison under existing legislation concerning incitements to violence or to racial hatred. But somehow the authorities lacked the will or the conviction to do it.

What connects all these things is an unwillingness, which has developed since the Sixties, to stand up for things that matter. I think it began with an unwillingness to reproach our own children. Some of my parents’ generation were very lax with their children; people began to speak of the permissive society. And since then parents (including me) have seemed ever less able, or willing, to control and discipline their children. The very word discipline sounds almost prehistoric and possibly abusive.

Yet without proper discipline from parents, children can never develop self-discipline. And it is on self-discipline and self-restraint that a civilised society rests. With a loss of self-discipline goes a loss of standards of behaviour, a loss of efficiency and a loss of a sense of what matters. There is a very painful tension between instinct and society; that is the tragic discontent of civilisation, repression its painful price. The right balance is hard to find, and harder to maintain. But we can see today in Britain and in the West generally what happens when that balance fails.

I don’t suggest that this loss of conviction affects everyone. Yet it has to be said that almost nobody has really done much to resist what has been done to our institutions and our manners. There has been a long march through the institutions of a nameless and shapeless ideology, misleadingly called political correctness. It is far more important and powerful than that name suggests and it is largely responsible for the long decay of the institutions and has contributed a lot, indirectly, to the decadence I’m talking about.

Multiculturalism, for instance, has been deeply demoralising to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways, undermining their values, undermining a sense of common purpose, above all undermining the confidence of the host country. Even leading multiculturalists now, belatedly, agree on that.

Despite all this, I do, now for the first time, feel a faint glimmer of optimism. One of the responses to the bombings might be a new awareness of what matters most, and how best to defend it. If that means a new sense of purpose and a new sense of conviction, then perhaps some good will have come out of this evil.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

July 10th, 2005

The blitz spirit versus common sense

Terrorists will not change the British way of life, the Queen said on Friday. But they have. We will not be intimidated, we will not be terrorised, the prime minister said on Thursday. But we have been. When terrorists seek to change our way of life, he continued, we will not be changed.

But they are both wrong. We have suddenly been changed and still, in the aftermath, are continuing to be changed — “changed, changed utterly” as WB Yeats wrote in his famous poem about the Easter 1916 republican uprising in Dublin, which many at the time regarded as an atrocity and which was the precursor of more than a century of murder, terror and grief.

Terror works. I am thinking particularly of what it does to young people, to children old enough to be beyond simple comfort and to young adults. My children and their friends are teenagers or young adults and I suspect they have suffered a sudden, irreparable change for the worse in their outlook.

There is some sort of unspoken convention that at times of disaster one should speak only in the spirit of the blitz. Certainly some people are obliged to; the Queen and the prime minister have a duty to encourage us and set us an example of hope and stoicism as best they can. But I am not sure how heavily this duty weighs on journalists.

In the war on terror, as George Bush calls it, truth has all too often been a casualty — for instance, the reporting of the atrocities in London has been done through a haze of skilful propaganda with a shocking hint of sentimentality — so perhaps it is permissible for journalists to say things that are less positive, even at such a time as this.

Intelligent young adults, who have grown out of their teenage indifference to news or who have been forced out of it by last week’s bombs, are quicker to sense insincerity than older people and normally they have more tender feelings — they will have been more shocked and distressed than the middle-aged by pictures of injury and mutilation, or of people wandering about in a confusion of grief looking for missing relations or lovers. These images hit younger people harder. And — which makes it all much worse — the thoughtful ones are often more critical in the best sense of the word.

Imagine how it looks to young people, especially Londoners. They are confronted with something terrifyingly disorienting, but they are fed platitudes. They are told constantly that we are fighting the war on terror with all our might and means. Our values will fight their values, they are told, and ours will win. But this is nonsense.

In particular this demagogic clarity is nonsense. The whole thing is miserably complex and imponderable. It’s not possible to fight a war against an enemy one can hardly identify (as now) and whose values — coherent or incoherent — one must be uncertain about; besides, there is no law of life that ensures one set of values must defeat another. What matters in war is power and terrorism has immense power, whether or not it has any coherent purpose. One can be defeated by chaos and it did seem on Thursday that chaos is come again.

Besides, while waging war proper is difficult (as in Iraq) terrorism is easy, no matter how hard rich countries try — perhaps with considerable success — to forestall it, as Thursday’s almost casual, small-scale attacks have proved. I could easily go down to the Tube at any moment with something lethal in my bag.

In any case, and most tragically, young people here know that our government and the US government deliberately lied about the reasons for taking the war against terror, so-called, to Iraq. The motive was something else and it is still unclear what it was; the exposure of the lies has failed to expose the real motive.

I have talked to a couple of young people who look with deep cynicism at the way George Galloway MP was denounced and insulted last week for saying what many people believe. I am no fan of Galloway and he may well be wrong in believing last week’s bombs were an inevitable consequence of the invasion of Iraq, but his freedom to say so, as an elected politician, is surely one of the finest of those of our (sic) western values that are supposed to defeat “theirs”, whoever “they” are — something we don’t know yet.

The hypocritical inconsistency is glaring and is not lost on the young. There is something stronger and better, surely, about facing terrible things with as much openness and truthfulness as anyone can bring to bear, yet what we are offered on television is heart-warming motivational cliché and far too much heart-chilling sensational detail.

One of the many evil effects of the bombings will be a new level of uncertainty and distrust among young people about our rulers and our opinion formers. That is tragic because they face uncertainty on every side. They have grown up to see most of the certainties of their parents’ generation fade away and for many of them Thursday must have been a terrible coming of age, a loss of almost all certainty.

Even without terrorism, their safety on the streets has been uncertain for some time, with new and rising levels of violent street crime. Their homes are unsafe in inner cities too, for similar reasons, and they know the police can or will do little to protect them. The value of their exams and university degrees are increasingly uncertain. So, too, are their job prospects; the only certainty in employment is that they cannot hope for job security or even a long-term contract, and as for a pension they know now that the subject is covered in a shroud of anxious uncertainty and that their parents may become dependent on them.

Their safety in hospitals is newly uncertain, their chances of making a long-term marriage or relationship are increasingly uncertain. Their feeling that the West might do something constructive about Africa and the Third World is quickly fading into cynical uncertainty. And their generous belief in a multi-ethnic society and the great British values of tolerance is being exposed to ever greater uncertainty.

I hope I am not exaggerating. But I do think that something has changed utterly. If young people are not to retreat from uncertainty into disaffection and despair — like the terrorists themselves — what they need is less lying, less sentimentality and more truth.

Mad, bad or simply born that way?

It is not often that one feels profoundly sorry for a young man who has bludgeoned his loving parents to death, taken their credit cards on a spending spree in America and then pretended they were away in Spain while their bodies rotted for weeks in his childhood home. All the same I did feel very sorry last week for 19-year-old Brian Blackwell, who was convicted of this terrible crime on Wednesday. He sobbed uncontrollably in the dock and wrote a miserable statement about how he missed his parents, how he longed to turn back the clock and be a child again.

There is something entirely pathetic about him. He is an exceptionally intelligent boy, who left school with glittering prospects as a medical student — yet his first weirdly revealing question to the police on his arrest was whether it would be cold in jail. It emerged in court that he is a habitual fabulist and liar with a weak grip on reality and a determination to live out some of his fantasies. All this quite obviously adds up to someone with something seriously, mysteriously wrong with him.

Not long ago he would have been condemned in the tabloid newspapers and probably in the courts as an evil monster. Today justice is beginning to be more merciful and the judge in this case accepted that this wretched boy, although not insane, suffers from acute narcissistic personality disorder and therefore could not be charged with murder. He was able to plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. Presumably this makes little practical difference. He will be locked up indefinitely and rightly so. But the story raises some extremely troubling wider questions about moral responsibility.

It must be right to make allowances for people with diminished responsibility or with mental illnesses, as the courts do and as we all do. But recently it has begun to seem that the notion of personal responsibility is being eroded by medical diagnoses. It is being medicalised. Indeed, personality itself is being medicalised, in the sense of having supposedly scientific labels attached to it. Narcissistic personality disorder of the sort that Blackwell suffers from is just one form of borderline personality disorder — a concept only about 30 years old.

Oliver James, the medical psychologist, claims that about 80% of convicted prisoners suffer from a personality disorder and most of them from more than one. That may be true — although I am sceptical — but it has some troubling implications. Why, for instance, were Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken so heavily punished and morally denounced if they were merely the victims of their own personality disorders and if they are not to blame for their startlingly weak grasp on reality? Why is anybody punished in prison for behaviour beyond his control? Equally one is tempted to wonder what the status of these personality disorders really is. What is the science behind them? I suspect that borderline personality disorder lies very much in the eye of the beholder. The medical and quasi-medical practitioners concerned do not agree on the causes or the criteria of such disorders nor on whether they exclude or include psychopathic tendencies. The latitude in all this is so great as to be distinctly unscientific. There are no objective measurements. Experts do not even seem to agree whether personality disorders are treatable.

In truth the distinguishing characteristics of one or other of these disorders would apply to some degree to almost everyone. If I found myself in the dock for any crime, I would certainly plead a personality disorder in mitigation and I am confident that I would qualify. That does not mean that personality disorder doesn’t exist, but it does mean that while there isn’t much scientific method involved, one ought to be cautious about the use of such labels.

Instead, however, we are getting freer and freer with exculpatory labels. While once children were called stupid, lazy, naughty or obstinate, now we have many syndromes and disorders — all still imperfectly understood — that medicalise their behaviour. We have attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia or fragile X and now — currently fashionable — autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If my child or yours is wilfully untidy, lazy or disruptive, there is often a genuine case for saying that it is not really his fault. In ordinary life this can be very helpful.

For years the behaviour of some of my nearest and dearest and the destructive choices they make has been a mystery to me and sometimes a painful mystery. (No doubt some of them would say the same about me.) I’m thinking of the charming and loveable person who endlessly finds new ways to mess up her life and alienate her friends. I’m thinking of the serial wrecker of relationships. I’m thinking, too, of the person whose weird little compulsions drive him and his relations almost mad with frustration. Then there is the employer whose coldness and real cruelties are something he himself cannot understand.

The fairly recent idea that these people are not choosing to behave as they do but are driven by conditions outside their control — which may well be largely biologically determined — can be an immense relief. It can bring understanding and acceptance — although not, of course, in the case of brutal murder. But how far is it practical or even acceptable to make such allowances in the real world when decisions, and judgments, have to made regardless?I think it is highly likely that the biological sciences will in time replace our primitive understanding of personality and responsibility with something much more sophisticated. The subtle interaction between nature and nurture will probably become much better understood, not least the physical changes to the brain of early traumatic experience and the environmental triggering of inherited predisposition.

Western culture is based on an idea of an integrated, coherent, solid-state self and on the related idea that we are all equally morally responsible. Yet now that science is gradually displacing these central ideas and pushing back the boundaries of responsibility and of normality itself, we are left with a growing hole in the centre of our moral universe; it is becoming harder and harder to believe in the necessary myth of equal individual autonomy. That’s what is most disturbing about this brutal murder.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 26th, 2005

The tie and the kirby grip aren’t so trivial

So farewell, then, to the tie. Last week the editor of Tatler magazine reported that Sir Andrew Turnbull, the outgoing cabinet secretary, made a speech in which he welcomed a future without ties and hinted that civil servants will soon be wearing open-necked shirts. If Turnbull was right and not momentarily maddened by the exceptionally hot weather then perhaps the disappearance of the tie may finally be upon us.

Perhaps civil servants all secretly wish they were Tony Blair, with his open-necked shirts and exciting sex life. On the other hand it may simply be that they have realised they don’t matter much or at least that nobody trusts them much any more and so they don’t need to bother with this last accessory of respectability.

After all, the people who started the trend of going tieless were people whom nobody trusted in the first place — artists, film producers, media executives and junk-bond traders. The few people whom we need to trust — our doctors, lawyers and accountants — still have to wear ties (unless they are women). But no doubt even this is disappearing and before long our consultants will examine us in blousons and bomber jackets and undertakers will dispatch us in sober designer casuals.

I find myself oddly sorry. It’s not that I particularly like ties. I had to wear one for many years at my secondary school, with a high-collared pinstripe shirt, and I know how uncomfortable they are. In weather like last week’s it is cruel and unusual to expect a man to wear one, or a schoolgirl for that matter. What’s more, many ties are irritating, carrying silly secret messages that I can’t decipher about clubs and sports and things to which I wouldn’t want to belong even if I knew what they were.

Besides, though they may often be a mark of belonging and superiority — Guards, Eton, high fashion or whatever — they are at the same time an emblem of repression as well. The tie is the outward and visible sign of an inner and internalised middle-class submission. This, incidentally, includes all those Guards, Etonians and others who are not in fact middle class or would not like to be thought so. I mean a submission to a grown-up and bourgeois sense of duty, to an idea of respectability. Putting on a tie was a sign of identification, right down to the level of Mr Pooter, with people who matter. People who did not matter, such as women and proletarians, went tieless.

So there’s an obvious sense in which it would be absurd to regret the passing of the tie. Besides, an overpriced coloured ribbon round the neck is not the only, or even the best, way for a man to look cool and couth. Men can look wonderful in classic suits with ties, but I prefer the deconstructed men’s suits that appeared in the 1980s in beautiful materials, worn tielessly with elegantly plain white T-shirts or Nehru-necked shirts from Issey Miyake — another uniform, certainly, but much more elegant and practical.

Even so, despite logic and sense, abandoning ties feels to me like yet another abandonment of a discipline that might not matter in itself but which, taken with other rapid castings-off of similar little disciplines, is perhaps part of a more general loss of manners and civility.

You see it everywhere. There was a time in my teens when there were quite strict standards about how respectable people behaved in public. That has been largely abandoned, along with the idea of respectability itself. The streets where I live in London are swarming with people behaving badly and looking worse.

Rich or poor, educated or semi-literate, they wander about dressed like slags or hoodies or trailer trash with exposed bellies and thongs and distressing piercings, sucking obsessively at plastic bottles like babies, chewing compulsively on gum, masticating on smelly junk food from cartons that they throw onto the pavements, with their toxic chewing gum, cigarette butts and bottles, talking dirty with a ferocity once restricted to the upper classes and the racing fraternity.

Unable to endure a moment without oral or aural stimulus, they listen ceaselessly to music on their earphones, causing a maddening cacophony of hissing and buzzing on public transport, or shout about their private lives into their mobiles, quite indifferent to the assault on others of the noise they make. These are the egalitarian bad manners of advanced democracy.

This abandonment of public modesty has been rapid. A few years ago it would have been considered unthinkably vulgar for the prime minister and his wife to canoodle in public and talk about their sex life as the Blairs do. Perhaps we can look forward to civil servants doing the same.

Women have abandoned the high — admittedly very rigid — standards of Royal Ascot. Thousands of them go dressed like the silliest of slags, exposing unappetising flesh, stray bra straps and rat-eaten hairstyles and get roaring drunk. Privileged schoolgirls go about dressed like jailbait.

Nurses in hospitals have abandoned the high — admittedly very rigid — standards of matron, with hierarchical uniforms and never a hair out of place. Today their hair is uncouth and unkempt, flopping unrestrainedly (and unhygienically) over their faces and their patients. In offices, too, people have abandoned old-fashioned — perhaps rigid — hierarchies, in favour of first names and matiness and equality, which is profoundly confusing to all and sometimes rather disastrous. Nurses complain that there is no proper chain of command on wards.

When I was a teenager I was excited by the new informality. It seemed much better that people should be less formal, less inhibited. “Damn braces, bless relaxes,” as William Blake said and as student revolutionaries all quoted. Had I been a student nurse I am sure I would have been demonstrating against compulsory kirby grips on hair.

Blake was wrong, too. A civil society needs quite a lot of braces and cannot entirely relax its standards. Minor bad manners are at one end of a continuum with seriously bad antisocial behaviour and social breakdown at the other extreme. Civilisation will no doubt survive the disappearance of the tie (and the kirby grip) but it will not survive the abandonment of all the minor restraints of social convention; they are not as trivial as they seem.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 19th, 2005

Explaining the inner death of a good man

A biographer in search of a subject must usually cast about among people who have achieved something. The lives of people who have achieved absolutely nothing in worldly terms, who have known little but misery and chaos and who leave almost no traces of themselves behind them might seem much less promising for a biographer.

People like that are usually consigned to the fiction shelves or the sociology department. But the book that nearly won last week’s Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction was the story of just such a life and it is one of the most remarkable and touching biographies I’ve ever read. It also raises more urgent, contemporary questions about the human condition than almost any other biography I can think of.

The book is Stuart: a Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters. Stuart Shorter was, when his biographer first saw him, sitting on a square of cardboard on a pavement in Cambridge at Christmas time in 1998, an impossible man of 30, broken-toothed, hairy, filthy, weird looking, the sort of man people edit out of their consciousness.

When Masters, his future Boswell, bent down to hear him speak, Stuart whispered: “As soon as I get the opportunity I’m going to top myself.” He explained an elaborate plan to make his suicide look like a murder: he was going to taunt all the drunks coming out of the pub until they’d have to kill him to get a bit of peace. It had to be murder, Stuart explained, slurring his words. “Me brother killed himself in March. I couldn’t put me mum through that again. She wouldn’t mind murder so much.” That was both true and also typical of Stuart’s gallows humour.

Stuart Shorter was, or became, a junkie, dosser, alcoholic, thief, convict, illiterate self-harmer given to black mists of rage, and a violent sociopath with delusional paranoia and a fondness for what he called little strips of silver, meaning knives. He even held his small son hostage with a knife during a police raid. He was also, or had been, as his biographer slowly discovered, funny, sensitive, courageous, unimaginably resilient, imaginative, witty, thoughtful and intelligent, although years of drugs, drink and liquid coshes in institutions had scrambled his brains. He collaborated with this biography but told the writer to “make it more like a murder mystery — what murdered the boy I was?” He did not live to see it: he fell under the London to King’s Lynn train one night in 2001 near Waterbeach, where he came from.

Who or what murdered the boy he was or might have been? Or was he, tragically, born to become what he did? Reading his story, the most ferocious of biological determinists might pause; at every stage of Stuart’s life bad things happened to him and nature was probably not much kinder to him than nurture. The biography is told backwards, just like a murder mystery in which we know the terrible denouement but we don’t know how everything got so tangled up.

According to his mother, Stuart was a happy-go-lucky little boy, chatty, curious and determined. Life seemed quite good, if poor, in a Cambridgeshire village with his brother Gavvy, a married mother, a good stepfather and two tiny step-siblings. But biology gave him a violent alcoholic for a father, long gone, and a form of muscular dystrophy that made him walk in a funny way. It would give him life-long pain and a serious heart disease.

Horribly bullied about his “spaggy” walk, Stuart was suddenly and for no apparent good reason sent on a daily “spaggy bus”to a school for children with severe disabilities. Bullied wherever he went, he was repeatedly sodomised for years by his older brother Gavvy and another boy, as was his little sister.

At one time Stuart begged his mother, with violence, to be taken into care and he was. Gavvy later killed himself out of remorse, not long before Stuart met his biographer. At the special school he was buggered and abused by the charismatic head teacher, who was later jailed. Quite enough — although there was a great deal more — to explain Stuart’s mystery.

Driven to despair by the bullying of local boys, he finally found the courage one day to head-butt one of the biggest bullies, turned into a really scary mad bastard and remained one. But there were also powerful biological factors. The book makes a convincing case that he suffered from borderline personality disorder, which is the most intractable (and untreatable) of biological life sentences. Jack Straw, when home secretary, notoriously complained that he couldn’t force people with BPS into mental hospitals, dangerous though they may be, because they are not mad, can’t be treated and are therefore not certifiable.

One could also argue, reading between the lines, that Stuart showed signs of attention deficit disorder. Those two syndromes could work together disastrously. Some controversial American research claims that attention deficit is highly associated with crime and violent antisocial behaviour in later life and can be detected in the brain scans of very young children.

In a rather similar spirit, a confidential Home Office report revealed by this paper last week argued that children as young as three can be identified as potential criminals by their behaviour in nursery schools or by a family history of criminality. Nursery staff should be trained to spot children born to be hanged, as the old saying had it.

Perhaps it is, or might be, possible to spot future troublemakers, and certainly one of the many questions raised by Stuart’s life is how to protect people like him, and the rest of us, from their blighted future. But it seems unlikely in practice, no matter what scientists of every ilk might discover, that any proper use will be made of such knowledge. Straw’s notorious response should warn against the most scientific sounding of solutions.

So, too, should the tragic persistence of human error. Again and again a little common sense might have rescued Stuart, but common sense is rare. Getting the simplest thing done always seems strangely impossible. We understand much better why bullying is so psychologically disastrous, but schools still cannot control it. In the face of such intractable problems one can only say, with Arthur Miller’s character in Death of a Salesman: “Attention should be paid.”

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 12th, 2005

Follies of Contrary Mary and ‘our crowd’

Of all the exotic beasts in the British bestiary of public life, there is no more flamboyant specimen than Mary Warnock. Even at 81 this furiously energetic creature is still rattling cages. It is quite clear she loves the attention. Some, including Lady Warnock, have argued that elderly creatures should be put down once they become a nuisance to themselves or others, but it would be a pity to deprive the public of such an entertaining spectacle as Mary and her many mood changes.

It may be that she is one of the last of an endangered species, an evolutionary subset identified as “our crowd” by one of its astutest members, the late Lord Annan. And if we mourn the extinction of even the nastiest little Indonesian gnat, why should we not value the existence of the last few specimens of the 20th-century liberal mandarinate? There is a case for saying this remarkable creature should be cloned before she expires, which as an advocate of human cloning in extreme circumstances, she might perhaps endorse.

There do, however, seem to be some who would happily exterminate Warnock and her kind, if their consciences would allow them. Last week she enraged many, including me, with her recantation of her earlier views about special needs education. She and her commission of 1978 did truly terrible damage to children, families, schools and education generally over more than 25 years.

They decided that children with disabilities should be educated in normal schools alongside normal children and that the distinctions between very different disabilities should be blurred. Indeed she was responsible for introducing the catch-all, right-on term “learning difficulties” for all problems, from permanent intellectual impairment to minor problems with reading.

When all this was translated into the 1981 Education Act, special schools were — and still are being — closed, regardless of their merits, often against the anguished protests of children and their parents, and hugely to the detriment of normal classroom teaching. It has been a national scandal.

Now Warnock admits she was wrong. She admits her policy has had “a disastrous legacy”. She says the idea of “inclusion” — the ideology that drove her committee’s findings — “was sort of a bright idea in the 1970s but now it’s become a kind of mantra . . . but it really isn’t working”.

“Bright idea”! How frivolous and amateurish that sounds, as if the back-of-the-envelope bright ideas of the great and the good — of “our crowd” — had some special validity. Warnock has also said governments must recognise that “even if inclusion is an ideal for society in general, it may not always be an ideal for schools”. But what about the child? What’s missing here, in a tellingly collectivist remark, is an ideal of the person, the little person, or rather the millions of them, who have been sacrificed to this “sort of bright idea”.

This is the unmistakable voice of the bossy amateur reformer, the do-gooder equipped with a formidable sense of entitlement and of her own ability, born and bred to bully people, in Jane Austen’s immortal words, into peace and prosperity.

Who is Warnock and who does she think she is? She is a successful philosopher from a driven middle-class family. “In my family,” she once said, “we were brought up to believe we were the best. There was simply no doubt about it.” Always, by her own account, desperate for success and desperate to be famous, she made her way into the ranks of the great and the good — that exclusive mandarinate of the quangocracy who appoint each other to create the country’s moral and social climate. “Rarely,” another quangocrat said of Warnock, “can an individual have had so much influence on public policy.”

It’s not enough that we have a government backed by only 22% of the electorate; many of those in real power — the largely government-proof clique to whom successive governments outsource their thinking and their embarrassments — are the the living incarnation of democratic deficit. We are too incurious about them.

Everyone always says, for instance, how brilliant Warnock is. However, I think more scepticism might be in order about her and her like. Her thinking on disability was clearly shallow and conventional, which is to say slightly and uncritically avant-garde for the time. The notions of “inclusion”, “normalisation” and “social role valorisation” were both highly politicised and untested, based on American egalitarian social engineering and blindly adopted by liberal wishful thinking in this country.

On such difficult matters only the most rigorous thinking will do — along with a modesty in the face of the complexity of human experience. I have come across Warnock only once, when she gave a talk on Jean-Paul Sartre to my school, and I was shocked, surprised and delighted to find that, in my schoolgirl opinion, her reasoning was sometimes poor, particularly off the cuff during questions from my uppity self. Perhaps in the cosy coteries of “our crowd”, people often get a name for qualities they don’t possess. Buggins might be Muggins.

Perhaps this is unfair to Warnock. One must admire her honesty and her courage in admitting her mistakes — several on matters of life and death. One has to admit her intentions have been good. Even her constant attention-seeking and her apparent snobbery may not matter much. What’s wrong with her, oddly enough — although she seems like a cross between a Wodehouse aunt and a Victorian philanthropist, with a uniquely English dowdiness — is that her mindset is not very English.

In all her committees and her changes of mind and her alarming pronouncements — on embryos, mercy killing, cloning, disability or the uselessness of the old — she seems to have lacked a particularly English and Scottish empirical pragmatism and the modesty that goes with it. She talks that language but seems to lack that sensibility.

Generally speaking, generalisations are best avoided, especially with difficult ethical subjects. That means avoiding universal “bright ideas”, or at least avoiding imposing them on others, especially universally. I suspect Warnock’s mindset is characteristic of her species; unfortunately it is a species that is far from endangered.