The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 30th, 2007

This way to the darkened room, Gordon

Drop those finely honed instructions and plans, scrap those self-audits and bossy, bloated quangos

Long ago I gave up new year’s resolutions for myself. These days I make them for other people, especially for politicians. It is more satisfactory to watch them breaking the resolutions than to watch myself. This year I am going to make only one resolution for one person. It’s for Gordon Brown and it’s simple. If he can persuade himself to make it and to keep it, he will save himself an immense amount of money, time, work failure and blame. Brown’s new year’s resolution should be to do less. Much, much less.

His attitude should be like that of the drawing room exquisite who said that whenever he felt he should be taking exercise, he lay in a darkened room until the feeling went away. So with our hyperactive prime minister. Whenever he is tempted by an initiative or a pledge, he should immediately open a demanding book – such as one by Adam Smith, whom Brown rather oddly admires – and read furiously until the initiative evaporates.

Quite apart from ethical limits to what government should do, there are natural limits to what government can do well or do at all. Going beyond those limits, or failing to recognise them, will end in disaster, as Brown is finding. One of those many limits is what these days we call “resources”, meaning the wherewithal.

For years we have watched Brown and Tony Blair throwing money at health, education and child poverty, with little to show for it. We have put up with all this astonishingly mildly and are only now beginning to recognise the waste and bossy incompetence with which our money has been squandered.

An independent group that has been trying since 2004 to draw our attention to all this is the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Each year it produces a Bumper Book of Government Waste and next week it is publishing its third annual Non-Jobs Report. It is a protest against the prodigality of local authorities, but since their priorities are dictated by central government, the buck stops at No 10.

The survey paints in some detail the flurries of unnecessary activities that councils take on at government behest and their mounting cost to the taxpayer – all this despite the fact that Brown admitted three years ago that savings could be made by cutting non-essential public sector jobs.

That has been screamingly obvious for years. Whether you consider gender awareness outreach co-ordination work a job that is merely non-essential, or whether you consider it a disgraceful nonsense, we can all agree that it is not and should not be a priority, comparable to looking after the sick and the needy and the disabled, or indeed providing proper schools, hospitals, libraries and rubbish collection.

Yet these non-jobs proliferate, while old ladies lie neglected and unwashed and children in so-called care are moved on again and again, like Jo the crossing sweeper in Dickens’s Bleak House, from one unhappy place to another, while social workers sip caffe latte on trains to away days.

There appears to be no end in sight to the demand for comfortable, overpaid makework. Under Blair and Brown 800,000 new jobs have been created in the state sector. As is now notorious, advertisements for such nonjobs appear weekly in The Guardian’s Society section – a butt of humour to journalists for some years.

For 2007, according to the TaxPayers’ Alliance, the total cost of the jobs advertised there was nearly £500m. That is merely the cost of hiring these people and giving them generous pensions; it does not include the no doubt greater cost of all the wasteful initiatives they are employed to dream up and implement, intruding into everything that local authorities do.

One ought to point out that not all the jobs advertised in Guardian Society are self-evidently non-jobs and some are not obviously state-funded, although in the case of charities they will be so in practice, as charities become dependent on the state. A more authoritative survey would be a breakdown of what one large inner city council does, who does it and why.

Nonetheless, the TaxPayers’ Alliance report is a useful irritant to all those who ought to be trying to cut their coat according to their cloth, including Brown.

I have another document that is even more irritating and ought to galvanise the prime minister into inaction. It’s a 12-page document of minute and statutory instructions for teachers of foundation stage children from three to five. Put out by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and still extant, it contains no fewer than 107 goals for each tiny child, which must be ticked and perhaps commented upon every term. With a class of 25 that means nearly 2,700 individual goals to monitor and tick each year, along with written elaboration where necessary.

What, you may ask, are the important details that the diligent teacher must painstakingly report upon? Here are a few: “demonstrates fine motor control and co-ordination”; “expresses needs and feelings in an appropriate way”; “investigates places, objects, materials and living things by using all the senses as appropriate”; “knows that in English print is read from left to right and top to bottom”. You get the idea.

Even more absurd are “understands that people have different needs, views, cultures and beliefs that need to be treated with respect” and, best of all, “understands what is right, what is wrong and why”. All this for tiny children.

It is not only breathtakingly banal, stupid and subjective. It is also pointless, because it is insultingly unnecessary for good and good enough teachers and useless for bad teachers, quite apart from the colossal waste of their time and our money. It’s a perfect paradigm of what is wrong with Labour. Don’t do it, Gordon. You know it hasn’t worked and we can’t afford it anyway.

Drop all those finely honed instructions and plans, scrap those endless self-audits and life plans and bossy, bloated quangos. Imagine the energy – imagine the money – that you would release if you told government great and small to get off our backs. Less is better, a lot less. Resolve to do it, in this alarming looking new year, and you might become a great prime minister.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 16th, 2007

If you want a plan, sack the bad teachers

Last week Ed Balls, the prime minister’s right-hand man, proudly announced in parliament a new 10-year Children’s Plan to make Britain “the best place in the world for children to grow up”. I nearly laughed.

Balls must surely know that after 10 years of Labour, 10 years of his boss as a dirigiste chancellor and 10 years of heavy spending on education and child poverty, Britain is by several independent measures one of the worst places in the industrialised world to grow up, unless you are rich.

In February a Unicef report on child poverty in rich nations put Britain last out of 21 countries on various measures of wellbeing. The number of children in poverty, one of Gordon Brown’s greatest concerns, increased by 100,000 in 2005-06. The details of failed education policies and missed literacy targets must be almost as sickening for the government as they are for parents: Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) figures this year showed Britain falling fast down an international education league table and at the bottom of a social mobility league. A report for the Sutton Trust showed that social mobility in the UK was no better than it was in 1970.

The predictable response of both Brown and Balls to this is yet more government intrusion and yet more micromanagement. The Children’s Plan contains no fewer than 170 pages of initiatives largely based on the idea that when children fail at school it is because their parents have failed at home.

Schools, therefore, will now be required to take over things that parents fail to do: armies of teaching mentors, social workers, health visitors, breakfast club workers, after-school club experts, community police, sex educators and mental health experts.

It is true there will be new parenting support advisers to encourage failing parents to try harder but they will hardly need to; all those experts will do it for them. And schools will come into children’s lives much earlier, with free nursery places for two-year-olds in poor areas and extended versions of wraparound educare. It sounds like, and is intended to be, the state taking over the role of the parent. There is possibly some justification in the case of children from inadequate homes (although the state has an abysmal record in caring for other people’s children). If such plans were well managed, they might genuinely make underprivileged lives better.

However, I suspect that in practice this new official intrusion into every part of an underprivileged child’s life will extend, with unthinking egalitarianism, into every child’s life regardless. What’s more, the knowledge that the school will take over so much – the doctor, the dentist, the after-school club, the music practice, the homework and even breakfast – will tempt better mothers and fathers into parenting-lite. School will provide free (or cheap) childcare for longer hours and earlier years. It will extend the time that parents can spend at work and away from their children and therefore not reading to them. The Children’s Plan runs a real risk of becoming the unparents’ plan.

Fashions come and go in explaining why so many children fail at school. Currently the two favourites seem to be poor parenting and poverty. The Sutton Trust’s research found that bright children from the poorest 20% of households dropped from the 88th centile in cognitive tests at three to the 65th centile at five – a life-changing fall. The least able from the richest 20% of households moved up from the 15th centile at three to the 45th centile at five – an even more striking change.

I do agree that background matters, although you don’t have to be rich to be an excellent parent. However, there is another explanation for why children fail. I remember several international studies that suggested low teacher expectation was mainly to blame for the low achievements of pupils. I would go further and suggest that an obvious explanation is the low quality of many teachers. Contrariwise, a good teacher can compensate for social disadvantage, and traditionally did, especially before the progressive education disaster.

More than 20 years ago Chris Woodhead, the then chief inspector of schools, said there were 15,000 bad teachers in the state system who ought to be sacked; he became a public hate figure. Last month Sir Cyril Taylor, a leading education adviser to the government, said there were about 17,000 poor teachers who should be got rid of; they were, he said, damaging the education of about 400,000. There was barely a murmur of dissent. Things have got bad enough for the truth to be admissible.

It would be a great deal easier to sack a few thousand bad teachers than to impose 170 pages of micromanagement on the lives of millions of parents and children. Teachers’ unions have always passionately resisted the idea of sackings and governments of all hues have weakly given in to them. If they had taken on the unions and allowed head teachers to hire and fire and to pay better teachers more, we might not now find our schools worse than Estonia’s.

The Children’s Plan appears to grasp this nettle. It announced, in its euphemistic way, that government would look “with social partners at whether more can be done to address the performance of teachers who have the greatest difficulty in carrying out their role effectively. . . This should include helping them to leave the profession if that is appropriate”. Well, that’s telling them. The plan also announced ministers would work with the General Teaching Council (GTC) to revoke teachers’ qualifications where necessary. In other words, bad teachers are to be sacked and even disqualified.

However, according to The Times Educational Supplement, this assertion was a mistake. Instead, the existing process of referring competence cases to the GTC will be strengthened. As you were, then. Instead of aiming precisely at one of the central problems in schools – the low quality of teacher recruits, the low entry requirements and the low level of training – the government prefers to spray them with a blunderbuss of misdirected initiatives.

Such is the new Labour way. Despite its excess of planning, it’s not much of a plan and there’s not much new about it

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 9th, 2007

Your attitude will be the death of us, doctor

Of the many strange sayings of President Bush, my favourite is, “The trouble with the French is that they have no word for entrepreneur.” In his inimitable way, Bush both disproved the point he was making and demonstrated that the French do indeed have some wonderful expressions that we lack. English would be much poorer without borrowed phrases such as je ne sais quoi, savoir faire and countless others.

One that sprang to mind last week, as I read about the paediatrician struck off by the General Medical Council for serious professional misconduct, was déformation professionelle. There isn’t an equivalent here. It is the slow process of deformity brought about by a demanding trade or profession, of its nature, rather as a ballerina’s toes are slowly distorted and damaged by her art.

In many cases professional deformation goes with an excess of zeal. Hairdressers are all too inclined to cut hair, whether it’s necessary or not, because haircutting is what they are trained to do. If one exists to solve a particular problem, one tends (and needs) to see that problem everywhere. So occupational bias often goes with zealotry. When it does it can be destructive, as in the case of the disgraced Dr David Southall.

The déformation professionelle of doctors is arrogance and sometimes unfeeling arrogance as in Southall’s astonishing case. I am not one of those people with a prejudice against doctors. There are doctors in my close family and among my friends.

All the same, given their power over life and death, and in Southall’s case, over parenthood, and given the superiority of their knowledge (real or imagined) over people in their power, it would hardly be surprising if some of them were to drift into arrogance. By arrogance I mean a loss of that modesty in the face of life’s great complexity and one’s own shortcomings that is an essential part of wisdom.

In medicine another hazard is emotional coldness. From the earliest stages of their training, doctors are confronted with other people’s fear, pain, grief and death. I can never forget my brother’s accounts of his distress as a young doctor. One of the ways doctors deal with this is to distance themselves from people’s feelings and repress their own. Otherwise they could not function. There must be a balance between professional distance and acquired insensitivity, to say nothing of doctors who arrive at medical school insensitive and arrogant by nature. Any natural deformity will be made worse by the profession.

Southall is a man whose arrogance seems breathtaking. In 2000 he felt able, after watching a Channel 4 programme about Sally Clark, then wrongly in prison for murdering her two baby sons, to ring the police and tell them he suspected the father was the murderer and might harm the remaining child in his care. Southall came to this conclusion without seeing any medical or postmortem records. His accusation was based on his expertise, whatever that can mean in such a context.

To accuse a bereaved father, whose wife is in prison for murdering their babies, of committing the crimes himself, with a view to having his remaining child taken away; to do so without the most carefully examined evidence; to intrude in the case without a professional invitation and worst of all to do so when he was prohibited from intervening in such cases because he had been suspended; and to fail to apologise to the Clarks, strikes me as déformation professionelle at its most monstrous.

The General Medical Council found Southall guilty at the time of serious misconduct and banned him from child protection work for three years. Three years later, last Tuesday, the GMC struck him off the medical register for other reasons. Complaints had been made to the GMC about Southall, including the removal of nearly 4,500 hospital case notes to his own files. The panel spoke of his “multiple failings over an extended period” and his “deep-seated attitudinal problems”, but what finally got him struck off, among other things, was his treatment of a woman whose 10-year-old son had hanged himself.

Southall accused this mother, to her great distress, of drugging and hanging the boy herself; this was in front of a senior social worker who was considering removing her other child. He also brought up with this unhappy woman another possibility, only to dismiss it, that her 10-year-old had died in an autoerotic sexual experiment. The scene as Southall himself described on Radio 4 sounded almost insanely insensitive and improper and would have been so even had the mother been guilty, which she wasn’t.

What is disturbing is that many paediatricians and other doctors support Southall. They claim that he is being hounded by a determined campaign to deny the existence of child abuse. This is nonsense. The country is obsessed with child abuse. So far from denying it, we all suspect it or are encouraged to suspect it everywhere. What Southall is guilty of, and what parents everywhere hate and fear, is extreme arrogance, insensitivity and a general indifference to rules, combined with astonishing power. That is bad in anyone but it is completely unacceptable in a paediatrician dealing with other people’s babies and parents’ rights to keep them.

Paediatricians such as Southall, and social workers, have impossibly difficult jobs. With the best of intentions they might accuse an innocent parent or be tricked by a guilty one. They may often be wrong for the right reasons, or for reasons that though wrong are conventionally accepted.

There may often be telltale signs of abuse when, in fact, there is no tale to tell. Later scientific research may suggest other explanations. Southall’s mistakes may be just that. His real crime is his attitude: his insensitivity and his overconfidence, wrong though he has often been, in what he keeps coolly calling his expertise, as if there were any objective expertise in such cases. Other paediatricians should not try to protect him. If they do, they will bring themselves and child protection into disrepute. And they may be suspected of another déformation professionelle – a tendency in doctors to close ranks, right or wrong.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 2nd, 2007

Rape targets are a violation of justice

If a woman gets drunk and appears to consent to sex, she must in many cases bear some responsibility if sex takes place.

n a country such as ours, which values highly the presumption of innocence, it is odd of the government to announce a target for convictions. That, surely, amounts to a presumption of guilt – a presumption that the government knows how many people are guilty of a particular crime and therefore how many people the courts ought to find guilty of it. That’s not only entirely at odds with the essential spirit of English justice. It’s completely unreasonable as well.

Perhaps that is not surprising in the case of the crime in question, which is rape. The thought of rape has a way of driving out both fairness and facts – something that politicians are ready to exploit. Last week the government announced again its determination to raise what it considers a low conviction rate for rape. Vera Baird, the solicitor-general, said that it would design new “guidelines” for judges and “packages” for juries to clarify the law on consent and to dispel the many “myths” surrounding rape, which are said to keep the conviction rate so unacceptably low.

No doubt this flurry of feel-good intentions was in part a response to a successful speech that David Cameron recently made on the same subject. And on the face of it, it seems tremendously worthy and heart-warming, not to say female-voter friendly. However, it is in fact misleading and unreasonable. Rape is a dreadful crime and it is true that, of the cases reported, only about 5.7% end up with a conviction. But the facts would lead any just and sensible person to dump these self-serving plans for targets and rape starter packs immediately.

At the moment in England and Wales, of the rape allegations that women make to the police only 12% end up in court. Given that 5.7% or so of the reported cases lead to the man being found guilty, that means that 47%, not 5.7%, is the true conviction rate for rape. That sounds entirely different and relative to other crimes it is not low. It is slightly higher than the conviction rate for murder.

If the public had been fed the true conviction figure of 47%, rather than the misleading one of 5.7% or so, people would be feeling much less aggrieved. However, ill-informed grievance is grist to the politician’s mill.

As to why so few rape accusations get to court, there are all kinds of possible explanations other than public indifference to the rights of women. There may be some truth in the feminist view that policemen (and presumably policewomen) are sometimes inclined to dismiss women’s claims as exaggerated or frivolous or unimportant. If the complainants are drunk, or were drunk at the time, they may arouse prejudices in the Old Bill. All the same, the government’s own surveys point in a different direction.

According to Home Office research of two years ago, a sixth of the rape complaints that the police dropped were classed as false allegations. A quarter were dropped because of insufficient evidence or none. A third were dropped because the complainant withdrew her allegations. There are many ways of explaining those findings, but they all tend towards the same conclusion: there are many entirely respectable reasons why so few accusations of rape, true or false, get to court.

I do not want to make light of rape; at its worst it is a dreadful crime and in every case it is unacceptable. However, there does, as always with rape, seem an astonishing amount of room for doubt, even for self-doubt.

Years ago, researching this subject, I read to my amazement the results of a questionnaire in a women’s magazine, in which many readers commented that until they had answered the questions, they had not been aware that they had been raped. Call me oversensitive, but I think one would notice if one was being raped. And if one wasn’t capable of noticing at the time, how could one know afterwards?

In rather the same strange spirit, at least according to a recent Home Office analysis of the British Crime Survey, “only 60% of rape victims were prepared to self-classify their experience as rape”. This is a most odd kind of doubt. If nothing else, it suggests that the subject of rape is surrounded by irrationality.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that when the members of a jury are confronted with a rape case, they will be both confused and cautious. It is not often easy to decide between one person’s word and another’s. It is not easy to decide what a woman really wanted at the time, if she herself doesn’t know or isn’t sure. And it can never be easy to convict a man for taking advantage of a woman he knows well and imagines is up for it, when he will receive the same minimum sentence, of five years in jail, as a sexual predator who violates a stranger. In justice there are degrees of rape and unless the law recognises those degrees, there will be no true justice in court.

As to the question of consent, and particularly consent when drunk, that is yet another can of worms. It is in the nature of many forms of rape that it would take the judgment of Solomon to apportion guilt and blame.

It seems to me that if a woman gets drunk, and is willingly spending time with a man, and appears to consent to sex, then she must in many cases bear some responsibility if sex takes place. It all depends on the details of each story, but women sometimes do give out mixed messages, as any juror will be aware. No amount of distinguished quangocrats and lawyers could dream up a guideline for every possibility.

Apart from creating different new levels for the offence of rape, from drunken errors with a friend right though all degrees of abusing a wife to attacking a stranger or a child, there is little more that anyone can do to find and punish the guilty. And given that, one wonders why the government is striking such attitudes about it. The research needed for the guidelines and packages may take a long time, so nothing needs to happen immediately.

Meanwhile, our government is seriously proposing to hand out carefully packaged material to jurors with the express intention of making them more likely to convict a certain group of defendants. Is this a rape of justice or are we consenting to it?


November 28th, 2007

Quack Michael Moore has mad view of the NHS

The fourth estate has always had a bad name, but it seems to be getting worse. Journalism should be an honest and useful trade, and often still is. But now that journalism has more power than ever before, it seems to have become ever more disreputable. In recent years it has been brought lower and lower by kiss-and-tell betrayals, by “reality” TV, by shockumentaries and by liars, fantasists, hucksters and geeks of every kind, crowing and denouncing and emoting in a hideous new version of Bunyan’s Vanity Fair.

Outstanding among these is Michael Moore, the American documentary maker. He specialises in searing indictments, such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine, and has, without a doubt, a genius for it. Although his films are crude, manipulative and one-sided, he is idolised by millions of Americans and Europeans, widely seen as some sort of redneck Mr Valiant-for-truth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. His latest documentary, Sicko, was released in cinemas last week. Millions of people will see it and all too many of them will be misled.

Sicko, like all Moore’s films, is about an important and emotive subject – healthcare. He contrasts the harsh and exclusive system in the US with the European ideal of universal socialised medicine, equal and free for all, and tries to demonstrate that one is wrong and the other is right. So far, so good; there are cases to be made.

Unfortunately Sicko is a dishonest film. That is not only my opinion. It is the opinion of Professor Lord Robert Winston, the consultant and advocate of the NHS. When asked on BBC Radio 4 whether he recognised the NHS as portrayed in this film, Winston replied: “No, I didn’t. Most of it was filmed at my hospital [the Hammersmith in west London], which is a very good hospital but doesn’t represent what the NHS is like.”

I didn’t recognise it either, from years of visiting NHS hospitals. Moore painted a rose-tinted vision of spotless wards, impeccable treatment, happy patients who laugh away any suggestion of waiting in casualty, and a glamorous young GP who combines his devotion to his patients with a salary of £100,000, a house worth £1m and two cars. All this, and for free.

This, along with an even rosier portrait of the French welfare system, is what Moore says the state can and should provide. You would never guess from Sicko that the NHS is in deep trouble, mired in scandal and incompetence, despite the injection of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

While there are good doctors and nurses and treatments in the NHS, there is so much that is inadequate or bad that it is dishonest to represent it as the envy of the world and a perfect blueprint for national healthcare. It isn’t.

GPs’ salaries – used by Moore as evidence that a state-run system does not necessarily mean low wages – is highly controversial; their huge pay rise has coincided with a loss of home visits, a serious problem in getting GP appointments and continuing very low pay for nurses and cleaners.

At least 20 NHS trusts have even worse problems with the hospital-acquired infection clostridium difficile, not least the trust in Kent where 90 people died of C diff in a scandal reported recently.

Many hospitals are in crisis. Money shortages, bad management, excesses of bureaucrats and deadly Whitehall micromanagement mean they have to skimp on what matters most.

Overfilling the beds is dangerous to patients, in hygiene and in recovery times, but it goes on widely. Millions are wasted on expensive agency nurses because NHS nurses are abandoning the profession in droves. Only days ago, the 2007 nurse of the year publicly resigned in despair at the health service. There is a dangerous shortage of midwives since so many have left, and giving birth on the NHS can be a shocking experience.

Meanwhile thousands of young hospital doctors, under a daft new employment scheme, were sent randomly around the country, pretty much regardless of their qualifications or wishes. As foreign doctors are recruited from Third World countries, hundreds of the best-qualified British doctors have been left unemployed. Several have emigrated.

As for consultants, the men in Whitehall didn’t believe what they said about the hours they worked, beyond their duties, and issued new contracts forcing them to work less. You could hardly make it up.

None of these problems mean we should abandon the idea of a universal shared system of healthcare. It’s clear we would not want the American model, even if it isn’t quite as bad as portrayed by Moore. It’s clear our British private medical insurance provision is a rip-off. I believe we should as a society share burdens of ill health and its treatment. The only question is how best to do that and it seems to me the state-run, micromanaged NHS has failed to answer it.

By ignoring these problems, and similar ones in France’s even more generous and expensive health service, Moore is lying about the answer to that question. I wonder whether the grotesquely fat film-maker is aware of the delicious irony that in our state-run system, the government and the NHS have been having serious public discussion about the necessity of refusing to treat people who are extremely obese.

One can only wonder why Sicko is so dishonestly biased. It must be partly down to Moore’s personal vainglory; he has cast himself as a high priest of righteous indignation, the people’s prophet, and he has an almost religious following. He’s a sort of docu-evangelist, dressed like a parody of the American man of the people, with jutting jaw, infantile questions and aggressively aligned baseball cap.

However, behind the pleasures of righteous indignation for him and his audience, there is something more sinister. There’s money in indignation, big money. It is just one of the many extreme sensations that are lucrative for journalists to whip up, along with prurience, disgust and envy. Michael Moore is not Mr Valiant-for-truth. He is Mr Worldly-wiseman, laughing behind his hand at all the gawping suckers in Vanity Fair. Don’t go to his show.


November 27th, 2007

To understand Brits, watch the rugby

Spectator sports leave me cold, especially on television. Perhaps, in my case, it is because I am one of those egomaniacs who enjoy only the things they can do themselves. I positively resent the 2012 Olympics being held in London. So at the beginning of this period of rugbymania I had been hoping to ignore it altogether.

I did manage to know nothing whatsoever about the group matches, as I am told they are called. But then my husband accepted an invitation to dinner with close friends who have a state-of-the-art television set, to watch the France v England match eight days ago. Even then I thought that I could probably take a book or read the newspaper during the game itself. But my family told me that would be the height of bad manners and I would have to see the whole thing through.

It wasn’t too much of a hardship among good friends, with good wine. But I hardly know the rules of rugby, or of football either, so it was rather mysterious at first. However, I quickly found, against my habits and my prejudices, that I was beginning to take a faint interest. I did once have a very handsome blue-eyed boyfriend who was a rugby blue, so perhaps some blasts from the past were fanning the flickers of my attention. It was thrilling to see how those enormous über-masculine young men could be so savage with each other and yet so docile with the referee.

Rugby certainly does not look as beautiful as football and the France-England game was strikingly rough and tough – as one of the commentators said later, “it was not a pretty game” – but the energy and determination of our boys – yes, our boys – was really touching. Even before it started, my heart really did pound when our side – yes, our side – sang the national anthem and I realised I really wanted them to win, although I was told the French were the much better side and ought to succeed.

Even I could see that was true. The French were faster, neater and more elegant. But the English won through dogged, unyielding courage – through what we call bottle and think of as a great national virtue.

That’s how it seemed to me and I realised I was extremely proud of them and proud of England. I had been drawn by pure social convention into something that was actually a shared national event and if it reawakened a sense of national solidarity in me, presumably that is what it is doing for every other Englishman and woman, of all descriptions, who watched it. I also felt very sorry for the French and thought for a bit of all the things I admire about France. I realised I was actually very much looking forward to the final last night.

This has all been quite confusing. Not only have I been bored, previously, by spectator sport; I have also been very suspicious of the mass mania that surrounds it, particularly football.

At the time of the football frenzy in 2002, I happened to read a newly published book called Defying Hitler, written in 1939 by Sebastian Haffner, a young German intellectual. He was, with extraordinary foresight, trying to describe the cultural history and cultural conditions that made Hitler possible, so to speak.

Apart from a cultured minority class, Haffner wrote, the Germans’ capacity for individual life and private happiness was somehow limited and underdeveloped. “The great danger of German life,” he wrote, “has always been emptiness and boredom . . . with it comes a yearning through ‘salvation’ through alcohol, superstition or, best of all, through a vast overpowering, cheap mass intoxication.” This longing for mass intoxication, he wrote, soon expressed itself in an obsession with sport that overtook Germany.

The parallels with Britain today, I thought when I read Haffner, are striking. British – and English – youth today is notoriously easily bored, easily distracted and unable to entertain itself – easy prey for the forces of mass commercial entertainment and its bogus excitements. The drunken hooliganism that surrounds England football fans is notorious around the world.

Rugby is, after all, another form of football and I have always vaguely assumed that the rabble-rousing call of one must be much the same as the other. So far from being a unifying force for national solidarity and national pride, I assumed that the national obsessions with both association football and rugby football were potentially very dangerous. The drunken hooliganism and casual violence of football fans bring to mind the marauding gangs of the brownshirts in the early Nazi period.

So I felt rather ambivalent about the waves of patriotism sweeping over me while watching a game that I can barely understand. It’s a game that is hugely more violent than football – surely it is hardly less likely than football to inspire drunken hooliganism. But so it seems. People say it’s a class matter; for historical reasons there is something essentially middle class and respectable about rugby, about the players and about the fans. There’s an odd contradiction about the way the more violent game can produce the less violent supporters and vice versa.

Whatever the reasons, it seems to me now, after watching last night, that rugby, oddly enough, is a force for national solidarity. At a time when we complain about the fissiparation of society, the tragic mistakes of multiculturalism and the breaking of the subtle ties that bind us, when there are few heroes around to unite us, there are few truly national events that draw us together, in millions, in real time, around a television set in a spirit of what one can only call patriotism.

This is not something you can teach in municipal Britishness lessons or examine in immigration tests. It’s not something that the cynical Gordon Brown can impose on us in his determination to stay in power; if anything it will strengthen us against the blandishments and manipulations of politicians. It is something spontaneous that brings us – even me and others who may be resistant at first – together with our friends and neighbours, and people of all generations, and reminds us of what we have in common.

And so long as it doesn’t draw us out into the streets, looking for a policeman to glass, it is, win or lose, a force for good.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 25th, 2007

Are men really necessary? Good question

Are men really necessary? Nagging doubts seem to be getting more vociferous, not least among men. Last week there was a great deal of fluttering among the cockerels in the hen house about the proposal to remove the requirement to consider the “need for a father” when deciding whether to offer IVF fertility treatment. This is part of ministerial efforts to make it easier for homosexual couples to have test-tube babies.

If the government is to be evenhanded, it ought to remove the requirement for IVF clinics to consider the “need for a mother” as well, since a gay male couple would not provide one, except biologically. In these confused times, the search for both logic and equality is far from consistent.

Be that as it may, all that MPs are required to do so far is vote to abandon the “need for a father” idea in IVF clinics. This has caused outrage. Angry letters were written to The Times. The Archbishop of York protested that the proposed legislation was designed to remove the father from the heart of the family; Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor said it was profoundly wrong and that Catholics should oppose it, and Iain Duncan Smith went further: it would “drive the last nail”, he said, “in the coffin of the traditional family”.

All this has coincided with a powerful portrait of a group of women living almost entirely without men, or traditional families, in considerable difficulties and managing very well. Mrs Gaskell’s novel Cranford was broadcast last weekend by the BBC to general acclaim. There is hardly a man in it and the brave lone ladies help each other. This was fiction but it does raise the same awkward question: are men necessary?

For nearly 30 years we have seen a subtle but increasing onslaught against masculinity. From the female separatism of the 1970s, when I went to feminist meetings that were open to “women and girl children only”, to the feminisation of the classroom and exams and the widespread use of the word testosterone as a term of blame and abuse, men and boys have come to understand that they are increasingly seen as hairy, smelly, lazy, disruptive, violent and generally rather a bad thing. Women regularly blame their difficulties on men and expect them to make reparation. They increasingly tolerate men only if they take on domestic chores and childcare. Meanwhile, women are beginning to feel truly independent of men, at least financially. It is hardly surprising that men increasingly feel dispensable.

However, that is no reason for seeing lesbian couples and their children as the beginning of the end of family life. Nor is it a rejection of men. Anyone who knows any lesbian parents knows they are usually keen on family life, keen to be accepted into the normal world of parenthood and to welcome men into it, too. They just don’t welcome men into their beds.

Lesbian women who go through the misery of IVF treatment to have a baby, and who make the commitment of marriage as well, are people who by definition want to start a family. They support family life and they want to be part of the ordinary family-friendly world. It may not be traditional family life, but it is closer to it than the behaviour of an irresponsible straight girl who gets pregnant the quick and easy way without thought of providing a companion to help her bring up her child and then relies on state handouts. It is those girls who are aggressively banging nails into the coffin of family life, not the tiny number of thoughtful lesbians.

No, lesbian IVF seekers do not undermine family life. What they do, innocently, and like the lone females soldiering on in Cranford, is undermine men’s idea of themselves; they contribute to a longstanding and general attrition of the power of the male. A man would have to be cocksure indeed not to feel dismayed by the increasing numbers of straight women who don’t appear to need men at all.

There are plenty of boys at the bottom of the social heap who know that no girl worth having will take them on, just as there are many nervous husbands in the middle classes who feel they may soon prove extra to their wives’ requirements. Highflying hedge-fund queens or sensible girls from sink estates: plenty of women are smart enough to work out that in some circumstances a man is a liability. Other women, straight or gay, may be more dependable in the business of getting through life. This is the anxiety that Duncan Smith is expressing.

From a time when women needed – or depended – on men too much, we have quickly reached a stage of overreaction in which all too many women imagine they need men very little. As always the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The answer to overdependency is not separatism. It is proper recognition, of men and of ourselves.

I loathe the word celebration, as it is now used, but what we need, I believe, is a celebration of men and masculinity. If feminism is running according to the usual historical rules, we will probably get one: a backlash is overdue. Men have wonderful qualities which women often lack and need. Men are much more likely than women to be of exceptionally high – and exceptionally low – intelligence; they are on average stronger, funnier and have a better three-dimensional sense and they are usually better at techy things. They are much more likely to be architects, composers, mathematicians, joke tellers and orators and are more inventive. As Camille Paglia once said, if civilisation had been left to women, we’d still be living in grass huts.

However, men are not mostly as good at bringing up small children, according to research from Bristol University published last week. Little boys brought up by stay-at-home dads are less likely to do well at school than other children and the absence of the mother may do emotional damage. Researchers warned that couples should beware of swapping traditional roles.

This is a moment for serious revaluation of men. The women at Cranford managed, despite the lack of men, and so did my mother, who was widowed with four tiny children, and others like her. But it is at great cost and a great loss – and to the children, too. What we need is the rehabilitation of real masculinity, because that is something most of us do need and like.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 18th, 2007

Middle classes are Labour’s whipping boy

‘It’s the same the whole world over: it’s the poor what gets the blame.” In new Labour Britain, the poor still get a rough deal but it’s increasingly the middle classes what gets the blame.

Those who doubt me should have listened to “Red” Dawn Primarolo on Radio 4’s Today programme last Tuesday. She was challenged again and again about Labour’s 24-hour licensing laws. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has just produced a report on public health which points out that the policy isn’t working. Far from creating a continental cafe culture, the availability of alcohol has been disastrous.

City centres, and even market towns, are filled with young binge drinkers ululating, urinating, fornicating and throwing up. Lord Krebs, the main author of the report, describes a street in central Oxford as Vomit Alley – disgusting and dangerous.

Yet Primarolo’s only response to all this new mayhem among the young was to ignore them and to point a finger of blame instead at the middle-aged middle classes. They appear to be the only people whose behaviour alarms her; young people, she claims, are getting the government’s messages.

But as for the middle-aged middle classes – dear, oh dear. They will persist in heavy drinking and, what’s worse, in the secrecy of their own homes. That’s where the risk of “serious harm” is “dramatically increasing”, according to Primarolo. As for the Vomit Alley challenge, repeated by the interviewer, she became distinctly irritable. “Frankly,” she said in her infuriatingly bossy way, “that’s not the point.”

There are those who insist on clinging to the view – the view of the Nuffield report, in fact – that young people drinking heavily and lurching drunkenly round the streets at night, getting into trouble, wasting police time, creating no-go areas and making life miserable for everyone else, is very much the point. But Primarolo brushes them aside. All that concerns her is the one group of people that doesn’t cause trouble of this kind – older people who stay at home and may drink a little more than Primarolo might, in her scientific ignorance, think fit.

Perhaps one shouldn’t expect much of this uninspiring woman; it was Primarolo, as paymaster-general, who presided over the disastrous administration of Gordon Brown’s tax credits, to general distress among the poor. All the same, a strong protest must be made. Primarolo’s silly response is an emblem of something much more serious about contemporary politics.

Those despised, middle-aged middle classes may indeed be getting a bit squiffy, or indeed sozzled, on their sofas. They may be pickling their internal organs faster than they used to. But at least they aren’t upsetting anyone else or breaking the law. On the contrary, in their sober moments they are the backbone of the country. They are the ones who have produced this country’s wealth, pay for its welfare and uphold its laws. And in any case, what possible business can it be of the government’s to interfere in their private pleasures in their private homes?

It ought to be the default position of any civilised government in a freedom-loving country that what people do in private, so long as it harms nobody else and is within the law, is their own affair. Yet the Labour government’s default position, embodied by Primarolo, is the opposite.

Ministers seem to have not the slightest idea of what freedom is. They regard it as normal for Whitehall to have its nose in all our business, from the fridge to the rubbish bin, from the bathroom to the bedroom. So it’s consistent that Primarolo thinks that she should do something drastic about our quiet bourgeois tipples in the sedate comfort of our homes.

All this comes from a simple desire for statist control with which we have become all too familiar and something you might expect from someone who used to be Red, but now new Labour Pink, Dawn. However, underlying it is perhaps something more complex – a nasty, unthinking combination of class hatred and pleasure hatred. This strikes me as more Brownite than Blairite.

The class hatred element has to do with blaming the middle classes whenever possible, no matter how absurd that might be. This is partly due to a desire to show that they are no different from and certainly no better than anybody else when it comes to wife beating, incest, child abuse, crime and so on. This struck me forcibly when the official word went out in the 1980s that nits like clean hair. That was code for the idea that middle-class children have nits just like poorer children. In fact they prefer respectably clean little kiddies – and infestations have nothing to do with poverty and poor hygiene. It was nonsense, of course, and disinformation at that.

The same applies to alcohol abuse. Just because some middle-class middle-aged adults hit the bottle a little hard in the twilight of their productive days, they must be just like the rat-arsed young bingers who drink themselves senseless. In fact, being middle class they are rather worse.

The minister might point out that heavy drinking is not merely a personal matter; it makes people ill and will sooner or later cost the National Health Service a lot of money; that makes it of genuine public concern.

However, it is far from clear what heavy drinking is, what damage it does and to whom. Anyone following the government’s frequent pieces of advice on this (and all other health matters) must feel thoroughly confused. It emerged recently that government figures for safe weekly drinking levels for adults were plucked from the air, in default of any scientific evidence. What’s more, it is becoming ever clearer that individuals respond differently to all drugs, including alcohol, so it’s impossible for anyone, even for Pink Dawn, to say what is an acceptable level for everyone.

None of that will stop the government killjoys trying to dream up ways to stop the middle classes enjoying a tincture at home. There has always been in the Labour party a punitive puritanism. Pleasure and self-indulgence must be prevented, particularly among the middle classes and the middle aged, to punish them for their other privileges. They should know better than to want to have fun. They must be stopped and if they can’t be stopped they must at least be blamed.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 14th, 2007

A good dose of fear will cure our hospitals

National Health Service hospitals have been a disaster not only waiting to happen, but actually happening, for many years. I have received hundreds of bitter readers’ letters in evidence. However, it is a rule of public life that something quite exceptionally dreadful has to occur before anything is done.

Everyone has known for years that serious hospital-acquired infections have been winning their germ wars against the feeble hygiene of many NHS hospitals and have been killing more and more patients. But little has been done about it apart from the usual witterings about wake-up calls.

Now something terrible has happened: 90 people, according to last week’s report by the Commission for Healthcare Audit and Inspection, have died, quite unnecessarily, in three filthy NHS hospitals in Kent, as a result of being infected by clostridium difficile (C diff). The infection may also have contributed to the deaths of a couple of hundred more. And this because of the toxic filth, appalling care and abysmal management in three hospitals in one of the richest countries in the world.

The stories of patients lying for hours in their own excrement, of filthy wards stinking of diarrhoea, of unwashed nurses and unwashed equipment, would shame a Third World country. But this was Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells! Now, you might think, something will be done.

wouldn’t count on it. The response of Alan Johnson, the health secretary, last week was to wash his hands – forgive the tasteless irony – of government responsibility. He put the blame exclusively on the NHS trust – largely for failing to follow government guidelines about hygiene and antibiotics. He emphatically denied what happened in Kent reflects what is occurring across the country.

I wonder what he really believes. He must know that his government has been running, and indeed intrusively micromanaging, the NHS for the past 10 years, precisely so as to change its culture, precisely so as to ensure “delivery” of a “world class” health service.

He must know that his government has almost overwhelmed the NHS with money, protocols, guidelines, employment procedures, information technology – much of it clearly disastrous and with perverse consequences. The whole point of this tyranny of inspection, infection control teams, recording, box-ticking and, above all, the imposition of targets, was to make things better in the health service.

How on earth, then, can a Labour minister insist that it’s absolutely wrong to suggest the Kent failings reflect what is happening across the entire NHS?

In saying so he is flatly contradicting the findings of last week’s damning Health Commission report. This states quite clearly that the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust was obsessed with government waiting time targets and financial targets, to the neglect of infection control. The report also remarked on a number of similarities between this case and its investigation of a C diff outbreak at Stoke Mandeville – “it seems unlikely these similarities are coincidental”, it commented tersely.

Perhaps Johnson hasn’t read that bit. Whatever the case, he could not offer any suggestion that the government should and would change anything after this report. Nor did he speak of lessons learnt: I do believe this government is incapable of learning them.

What strikes me most of all in this horrible story of stupidity, laziness, filth, incompetence, deception and revolting personal habits is the loss of something that used to be widely felt in hospitals – fear. What’s needed is more fear, except among the patients, of course; it’s among them only that fear now prevails.

When I was once anxious about some work I was doing, my kind employer tried to console me by saying that fear of failure is an excellent thing; it is the essence of professionalism. I don’t think I would go so far as to call journalists professionals, but I agree with his point. Fear is a spur. The fear of doing badly drives people to do well. At least it used to.

In these three hospitals it seems some nurses and doctors were not afraid to skip washing their hands, not afraid to tell patients to relieve themselves in their beds, not afraid of prescribing antibiotics without proper care. Managers were not afraid to ignore or fib about infections, to overlook evidence and to pull the wool over the eyes of their nonexecutive board members. Nonexecutives were not fearful enough of such possibilities, nor anxious enough for their reputations, to seek them out. Even after this emerged, managers were not scared of giving the chief executive a glowing reference and a huge pay-off.

All these people ought to have been afraid. But they weren’t, because there are few unpleasant consequences these days of doing one’s job badly. Except in the commercial sector, criticising people’s efforts is frowned on and it’s extremely difficult to dismiss them; the fear of being sacked for incompetence is a thing of the long-distant past in the state sector.

I imagine that’s why nurses often look so slaggy, with untidy hair falling over their faces, wearing hospital clothes in the street. Women doctors’ hair is often just as unhygienic and unprofessional and consultants of both sexes are notoriously bad about washing their hands.

High standards, like hygiene, are a state of mind – a kind of anxious professional perfectionism which insists on doing things well, whether it’s sweeping a room, washing a commode or tying one’s hair back neatly. I know that nurses are often too busy to keep up standards, but I also know that all too often they don’t care about them anyway.

The culture of fear, in which matron would insist on spotless fingernails, perfectly made beds and every hair in place, disappeared long ago, along with a sense of authority and hierarchy in the wards. The same is true in schools and in public places and institutions generally.

The kind of fear that I mean goes with unpleasant things such as blame, guilt and even punishment. It can be repressive. I used to think it was a good thing that the cultural pendulum had swung against an excess of this kind of fear. But now I think it has swung too far. True professionalism and true accountability mean fear, as well as pride and pleasure in doing well.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 7th, 2007

Fear of giving offence is killing our culture

‘So, Minette Marrin – all cultures are equal, yes or no?” This was the challenge put to me live and rather scarily by a BBC World Service presenter a few years ago. She was chairing a debate about multiculturalism in front of a large audience of people who were mostly black or brown. Judging from her manner and from the previous panellists’ remarks, her question was one of those that expect the answer yes, at least from a civilised person.

“No,” I said firmly, but nervously, since I don’t like inviting contempt and anger any more than anyone else. Those were the days when the multicultural orthodoxy prevailed and when it was genuinely hard to point out that cultures that treat women as irresponsible inferiors, that hang young gay men, mutilate criminals and silence debate are not equal to ours. They are inferior and it is not self-evidently racist to say so.

For at least 20 years there was a debilitating fog of moral relativism in the air, a miasma of guilty self-loathing, to the point when some natives persuaded themselves that although all other cultures were equal, ours alone was less equal than others, or might at least be offensive, and should be suppressed. Even the phrase “host culture” was considered unacceptable.

We have moved on since then, supposedly, and surprisingly suddenly. Many prominent multiculturalists, including the Commission for Racial Equality itself, have recently performed swift U-turns and the bien-pensant orthodoxy now is that multiculturalism has been a divisive failure. Integration is the new big thing.

The host culture is no longer to be demonised, but to be accepted and respected. Even manipulative politicians, such as Gordon Brown, now realise that saying so will do them no harm these days. It might seem, superficially, that the Victoria Climbié report and the massacre of 7/7 in London, among other shocks, have brought us back at last to our cultural senses and our cultural self-respect.

Not entirely so, unfortunately. There are still signs that many people are in the grip of the old orthodoxy; its hold on public institutions and the public mind seems to be remarkably persistent. A week ago The Sunday Times reported that some Muslim workers in Sainsbury’s are refusing to check out purchases of alcohol on the debatable ground that it’s against their religion. Whenever the sinful stuff is presented by a customer at the till, the Muslim expects an infidel colleague to hurry over and sully his or her hands with the transaction instead.

This is preposterous and a depressing sign of the times. But the painful truth is it would be just as preposterous to blame the Sainsbury’s Muslims. For years now ethnic minorities have been encouraged to insist on their cultural differences and on their human right to have these differences respected and actively promoted. It is hardly surprising that they have responded by doing so. It is those who have encouraged them who are to blame.

The point about this story is not the absurd demand, but that Sainsbury’s gave into it, quite unnecessarily, of its own free will. It wasn’t even being pressed to do so by any prominent Muslim figures. Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, said last week: “This is some kind of overenthusiasm. One expects professional behaviour from people working in a professional capacity and this shows a lack of maturity. The fault lies with the employee who is exploiting and misusing their goodwill.”

Surely the fault lies with Sainsbury’s, for cultural funk. And it lies with all those others who out of some strange abandonment of common sense – such as the government’s laissez-faire guidelines on wearing Muslim veils in schools last week – bottle out.

Think of the headmistress in Yorkshire who removed stories about pigs, including the Three Little Pigs, from her school in case they might offend her tiny Muslim pupils. Think of the councils that have banned Christmas, or hot cross buns, or the council worker who banned a flyer about a Christmas service from a council notice board but held a party to celebrate Eid.

I remember being shown round a good care home for young people dying of a terrible degenerative disease. Unable to move, talk, see, hear, taste or eat, they had to be spoon-fed pureed food and the staff told me proudly that they made a point of respecting cultural and ethnic differences. In practice this meant that one person (the only person who was not 100% British) had a great deal of meat in her puree (unlike the others) because she was a Turkish Cypriot, from a meat-eating culture.

I could only assume these care workers were the victims of extensive brain washing. Theirs was the behaviour of underconfident and undereducated people who have been ceaselessly bullied by ideologues.

This example is trivial, but there are countless well documented cases that are not trivial, because cumulatively they constantly wear away at our customs and our identity – we being the host culture. In many cases Muslims (or Jews or Hindus – or Cypriots no doubt) who are asked to comment say publicly that it was all quite unnecessary. They would not have been offended at all and nobody had bothered to ask them. People in the grip of this daft racial correctness take it upon themselves, or make others feel obliged to go far further than good manners or common sense or the law would take them.

In the case of European Union regulations this is known as gold plating and the British bureaucrat is notorious for it. Some – perhaps a lot – of the European red tape and rules that we love to hate may not be European at all but British, added on to satisfy the strange moral imperatives of interfering apparatchiks. Ethnic gold plating is even more mysterious; it comes from a decadent loss of belief in ourselves, in our own culture and in its superiority – warts and all – to others that may threaten it.

No well mannered person wants to go about pronouncing that western civilisation, particularly the British variety, is better than others. But sometimes it is necessary to risk giving offence, to defend what matters. It may not cause offence; it might even command respect.