The souring of the middle classes

Social mobility is where it’s at these days. It is the holy grail of contemporary politics. Nobody dares question it on any political side; you cannot sit at the round table of power without being a true believer. It means – or is supposed to mean – opportunity, equality and fairness. To be passionately in favour of it is good. To fail to “deliver” it is bad.

What social mobility actually means is joining the middle classes – the hard-working, educated and respectable bourgeois masses of middle Britain. However, something shocking was revealed last week. The middle classes are not by any means as respectable as we thought. In fact they – I will not say “we”, though I do to my shame belong to the middle classes, because I do not wish to associate myself with their turpitude – are criminals.

Shock and awe greeted the publication of a report last week from two academics at Keele University. “The moral majority is a myth”, according to a headline in the Mirror. The Express promised to explain “Why middle England is a secret hotbed of crime”. It seems from this survey that 61% of the population admit to pilfering and peculation, from paying builders and au pairs in cash, stealing office stationery, padding insurance claims, asking well-placed bureaucratic friends to bend the rules, keeping quiet about getting too much change in shops, selling faulty secondhand goods and failing to pay the TV licence – 62% of them do so repeatedly. The middle classes are as bad as any. “The law-abiding majority which politicians like to address is a chimera,” says the report.

As Professor Susanne Karstedt, one of the authors, said: “Contempt for the law is as widespread in the centre of society as it is assumed to be rampant at the margins and among specific marginal groups. Antisocial behaviour by the few is mirrored by anticivil behaviour by the many.” Neither need nor greed, she says, can explain why respectable citizens do such things.

I wonder. First of all I wonder about the findings. Her study interviewed only 1,807 people. Perhaps the middle classes can be discredited as an entirety on the basis of such evidence. On the other hand, perhaps they can’t. But assuming the study is right and the middle classes are doing these dastardly things, I wonder whether there isn’t an obvious explanation, which as Karstedt suggests has little to do with need or greed. I suspect these misdemeanours are an expression of middle-class resentment and revolt. Society, they might feel, hasn’t been so civil to them, so they are becoming less civil to it. This is not immorality, necessarily; it is civil disobedience.

A civil society is based on common consent and shared respect. That means, among other things, that civic virtue must be fairly rewarded. Taxpayers and law abiders should be consulted and respected and enjoy the returns of good behaviour. They should be able to feel their efforts benefit themselves as well as others and they should be able to take pride in both. When they no longer do, their inclination to civic virtue will be undermined. They will become demoralised and disaffected and sooner or later will start breaking rules and laws they no longer consent to; illegal fox-hunting is an example.

That is what has been happening to the British middle classes. They have been mocked and derided for decades. It was not so long ago that middle England was a term of abuse. Now, though politicians may try to show more respect to them, the truth is that the middle classes are getting the fuzzy end of the lollipop.

The rich, the poor, the unemployed and the underclass all do relatively well in contemporary Britain. By contrast the middle classes are pinched and squeezed and bullied wherever they turn. It is as if they were being punished for their thrift, their prudence, their hard work and their aspirations – made to pay and pay again, while those above and below them are not. The result is that they are learning to behave as badly as those above and below.

Taxation is only a part of this, though it is a large part. Taxes here are high now; we recently overtook the Germans in our tax burden. While the rich can find legal ways of avoiding it, and the poor get clumsily reimbursed or offered credits, the middle classes have no escape. Yet they see their rising taxes squandered on schools, hospitals, prisons and police services that are all performing badly and getting worse.

If, in despair at their local schools and hospitals, they move to a better area, they will face punitive stamp duties on their horribly expensive new houses; if they want to hire a nanny or an au pair they will have to pay her taxes out of their own taxed income while other less responsible women get masses of subsidised child care – subsidised by middle-class taxes.

If they want to send their children to university, they will find that they are discriminated against by deliberate policies. If they want to leave something to their children, they will find their houses now attract so much death duty they will have to be sold. Their investments – taxed three times before death, as earned income to be saved, as interest and on capital gains – will be taxed again after death. Their pension schemes have been raided and in some cases shut or ruined.

Underlying all this, and probably irreversible, has been the recent loss of shared social identity and shared social purpose in this country. Ten years of uncontrolled mass immigration and cultural upheaval under Labour have weakened the ties that bind society together. Too much diversity has quickly come to mean too little solidarity, and that means much less inclination to pay taxes willingly for the welfare of alien newcomers, many of them apparently working in the black market or exploiting the NHS. Even Margaret Hodge has woken up to this obvious problem.

And cheating is catching. The result is that despite all the government’s expensive efforts, it seems we have less and less social mobility upwards into the middle classes. What we have instead is moral mobility downwards from the middle classes. The demoralised bourgeoisie is slipping into the moral indifference of the upper classes and down into the petty criminality of the masses. Some holy grail.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 17th, 2007

Should we limit immigrants to Europeans?

For years the baleful shade of Enoch Powell silenced debate about immigration numbers, however rational. Playing the numbers game, as it was called, was always associated with the even more shameful misdemeanour of playing the race card.

As recently as November 2003, David Blunkett as home secretary blithely announced that he could not see the need for a limit on immigrants, nor did he think there was a maximum number of people that could be housed in this country.

This astonishingly silly comment passed almost without protest; it was expressing the unthinking orthodoxy of the day. It was fortunate perhaps that Blunkett and the government believed that numbers didn’t matter, since they hadn’t the slightest idea what the numbers were.

The director of enforcement and removals at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate admitted last year that he had not “the faintest idea” how many illegal immigrants were living here. Not only has the government lost control of this country’s boundaries; until recently it didn’t think that mattered.

How quickly things change in politics. Now even the most right-on Labour figures are playing the numbers game, with the race card up their sleeves. Last month Margaret “Enver” Hodge appeared to be doing just that with her announcement that indigenous people in her constituency of Barking felt justly aggrieved that they could not get council housing, while recent immigrants could. They had indeed “a legitimate sense of entitlement” that should not be overridden by new immigrants. The wind was clearly changing.

Sure enough, last week numbers became mentionable again, officially. Ruth Kelly, the minister for communities and local government, issued a startling report by the Commission on Integration and Cohesion. Integration indeed. Until recently integration was a dirty word, almost as sinister as assimilation.

This report announced findings that must be startling to anyone who has tried hard to toe the multi-culti line. It says that black and Asian Britons – nearly half of them – think we have let in too many immigrants.

Almost 70% of everyone questioned by a Mori poll for the commission thought so, including 47% of Asian and 45% of black respondents. The poll also showed that 56% of respondents believed some groups – mainly immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees – received unfair priority in the allocation of housing, health services and education. Respondents were “very sensitive about freeloading by other groups”. At the same time only 36% believe immigration is good for the economy.

It is hard to know what to make of the idiocy of this government, discovering so late in the day the consequences of its wilfully ignorant and undemocratic immigration policies. Nevertheless one should be thankful for small blessings. There are a few. For one thing, because it’s now official that so many ethnic minority Britons are worried about immigration, the race card has in effect been torn up and thrown away. One can hardly accuse ethnic minorities of playing it.

Another blessing is that multiculturalism has suddenly and rather sneakily been dumped. Late in the day ministers are discovering what should have been blindingly obvious. The dogma of multiculturalism has made immigration and race relations much more painful and difficult than they need have been. The social policies based on it have kept people in ghettos and bred mistrust and suspicion.

So it’s as you were, then, with multiculturalism. Now at long last we have integration and cohesion. Let’s hope it’s not too late to undo some of the damage.

Kelly’s report makes some sensible suggestions, none the worse for being ridiculous U-turns. The policy of providing masses of translators and translations for countless languages is to be dumped. It has meant that newcomers are not obliged to learn English, and frequently don’t, which means they are unable to integrate even if they wanted to; they can live here deaf and dumb to the rest of us. Good riddance to it.

However, changes such as this, no matter how sensible, fail to address the central question of numbers. It ought always to have been self-evident that numbers matter; to think otherwise is to believe that a raft will never sink no matter how many people clamber onto it.

Of course immigration is to be welcomed, or at least tolerated. Of course immigrants have done great things for this country. Of course there is a moral argument for rich people in favour of taking in poorer foreigners. And of course asylum seekers deserve asylum. All the same, this small and populous country cannot possibly accept the many millions who would like to come here.

This government, or its successor, ought to be bold enough to consider openly what might be the optimum number of people living here – or at least the number beyond which more would be intolerable. Some think we have already reached it, to judge from letters to this paper last week about housing. Most do not, but some day we certainly will, unless immigration is brought under civilised and thoughtful control.

No one would wish to turn away genuine asylum seekers. No one can turn away migrants from the European Union, whether we wish to or not. The result is that we already have far more prospective immigrants than we could hope to accommodate.

The number of genuine asylum seekers is limitless and the number of EU migrants, with incontestable rights to settle here, is as good as limitless. Surely it follows that the group that morally or legally has less right to come here is therefore the immigrants who are neither EU nationals nor spouses of Britons. So, no immigrants except asylum seekers and Europeans?

There is nothing racist about this suggestion; plenty of Europeans, and most asylum seekers, are of non-European ethnic antecedents. There are Moroccan Frenchwomen or Indonesian Dutchmen; Europe has become a melting pot. Certain exceptions could be made, as ever, for immigrants who would bring exceptional wealth or skills with them. It is, at the very least, time for the government to talk openly and fearlessly about numbers.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 10th, 2007

Build on the green belt, and build now

It is only with great restraint or great affection that our children stop themselves from telling us to sell up.

Our children used to have to wait until we died to get their hands on our assets, if any. Now it seems they can’t wait. They beadily eye our ridiculously overvalued homes and it is only with great restraint or great affection that they stop themselves telling us to sell immediately and hand over some capital. Surely you would be happier in something smaller, they suggest. Get out, grandma, is the message and often well before we are a grandmother.

It’s not that they are greedy. It’s that they are beginning to be desperate. Property prices have risen to such dizzying heights that most cannot hope to buy a first home without help.

The average home in England costs seven times the buyer’s earnings; as recently as 1998 it was about five times earnings, but by 2026 it will be 10 times, even if the government succeeds in its plans to promote more house building. Most young people will be unable to afford to buy their own homes at all.

This was the warning last week – if we needed a warning – of the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit, a new government think tank. At the same time the Council of Mortgage Lenders reported that nearly half of first-time buyers under 30 were getting help from their families.

That leaves the other half, of course – of first-time buyers whose families can’t help them and an increasing number of hardworking and capable young men and women who realise that they may never own their own homes.

That has been true for generations; countless people didn’t even dream of being property owners. What is different now is that the successful and well educated middle classes are feeling the frustration and powerlessness that used to be confined to the lower orders. This has always been socially divisive. With prosperity and higher expectations it has got worse and it is compounded by the way that house prices are inflated near the best schools. This is the beginning of a crisis.

Everybody knows why property is so expensive. There aren’t enough houses and flats. Everybody knows that the answer is to relax the Soviet-style planning restrictions and build lots more, fast. But many people, including some of the most powerful and vociferous, have resisted the explosion of building that is needed, both to provide housing and to bring down prices.

I have myself, if only mentally. The blue remembered hills of my childhood in Dorset have been disappearing; the empty valleys, deserted beaches and forgotten woods are now noisy and crowded and, to me, spoilt, although not for those who now enjoy them and never knew them as they were. None of it is my back yard, except in my mind, but I have always had great sympathy with nimbyism.

However, the time has come to accept that there will have to be a great deal of building in places like that, particularly in the south of England, and probably in your back yard. The inflated cost of housing is a terrible social evil and to do nothing about it would simply be wrong. We are short of about 800,000 homes in England alone, maybe more. With increasing immigration and rising birth rates that number will grow fast: 1m immigrants have arrived here in the past decade and about 223,000 new households are formed every year.

We will have to accept a lot of building on greenfield sites and green belts and it will have to be low rise and low density. People overwhelmingly hate flats and long for houses with gardens. We will have to accept the suburbanisation of whole swathes of the country. However, it may not be quite as bad as we imagine.

The person who forced me to change my mind is Dr Oliver Hartwich who, with Professor Alan Evans of Reading University, has written three housing pamphlets for the think tank Policy Exchange. They argue that our attitude to planning is distorted by some powerful myths.

One is the idea that building on brownfield sites is the answer. It sounds good but the problem is that there aren’t enough of them to make much of a dent in the problem. Only about 14% of the houses we need could be built on them, according to the Rogers report. Besides, they tend to be in the wrong places where people don’t want to live and work.

Another myth, according to Evans and Hartwich, is the argument that Britain is a small and overpopulated country with little green space left. I’ve always assumed this myself; for one thing, a satellite photograph of Europe by night shows that the south of England is hugely more ablaze with light than anywhere else in Europe.

However, Evans and Hartwich argue that only about 8% of land in Britain as a whole is urban, a much lower proportion than in the Netherlands, Belgium or west Germany. In England about three-quarters of the population live in cities of more than 20,000 inhabitants and use only 7.2% of the land. The assumption that the southeast is the most urban is wrong, too; the northeast is the most urbanised region, with 22% of the area under urban land as against 17% in the southeast. The southwest and East Anglia have a much smaller proportion – between 6% and 7%.

As for the disappearance of rustic vistas, the authors quote research claiming that the proportion of UK land used for agriculture – 78% – is the highest in the old (preenlargement) European Union bloc, which has an average of 64.2% – again, the opposite of what people generally think.

The idea that concreting over green fields is bad for the environment is something they also call a myth. They argue that towns with plenty of garden space are better for biodiversity than some farmland, where pests and birds and weeds are eliminated. Urban and suburban gardens are full of interesting and unthreatened species.

In other words, a massive boom in house building will not necessarily be quite as destructive as one might fear. However, even if it were, it would still be right to bite the bullet. As things stand, government planning controls are distorting the property market with disastrous social consequences. They are promoting inequality, resentment and nasty, crowded housing of the wrong kind. Even the most recalcitrant nimby must see how unjust and dangerous that is.

We need more than jail for child abuse

Incredible though it may seem, there are hundreds of thousands of paedophiles living among us, perhaps next door or on the next floor. That, at least, is the estimate of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and nobody has seriously questioned its research. According to the NSPCC, 16% of all women and 7% of all men interviewed said they had been physically sexually abused before they were 12. That would amount to one in nine children.

Although I find this hard to believe, I cannot dispute it. What I find even more incredible, and do dispute, are the comments on Friday of Jim Gamble, a senior policeman in charge of child protection. He said on the BBC’s Today programme that “the scale of paedophilia means that we need to look beyond the criminal justice system for answers. Judges should consider [police] cautions rather than jail”.

That was startling enough but perhaps there is a case, given that there are only 80,000 prison places (occupied by more than 81,000 prisoners), for not jailing people whose only offences are to look at child porn on the internet. I do not think it is a good case but these are, at least, people who have not directly harmed a child in person. But what Gamble went on to say was truly astonishing.

“Some predatory paedophiles,” he continued, “should be offered treatment instead of being locked up.” He explained that he meant “where there is evidence that a person may benefit from a caution and can be managed”. All the assumptions in this are wrong. First is the assumption, with a predatory paedophile, that there is any “treatment” that works – and indeed that paedophilia of any degree can be treated.

Second is the assumption that dangerous offenders can be efficiently “managed” in the community, whether treated or not. Third is the assumption that there is “evidence” in such situations, which can inform decisions. And lastly there is an unspoken assumption that a person given to perverse pleasures “of the viewing kind” will stop at that.

Finally there was Gamble’s astonishing recommendation that people who found themselves gripped by paedophile urges should come forward, ’fess up and ask for “help”. Would-be kiddy fiddlers will step forward about as soon as pigs get wings.

Consider the figures. According to Home Office research into sex and violent offenders, astonishing numbers are driven to reoffend. More than 90% of those considered at very high risk will reoffend, as will about half of all at high risk and about a third of medium risk offenders. Clearly treatments to prevent paedophiles reoffending – talking therapies, antiandrogen drugs and antidepressants – are at best extremely unreliable.

What’s left is containment in jail or supervision in the community. Locking someone up has at least the benefit of removing him from temptation. But consider what community supervision amounts to. Under present minimum standards, registered sex offenders considered low risk are visited by a police officer once a year, and those at medium risk are seen every six to nine months. If that seems inadequate, the minimum for those much likelier to offend seems quite unacceptable – a visit only every three to six months for a high risk offender. Those at very high risk get looked in on just once a quarter.

It would take immense care to monitor such a person and stay wise to their notorious deceptions. The mentoring buddy schemes in North America suggest spending at least three hours a day with an offender. Then you have only to think of the disastrous failures in this country of probation orders and tagging in general. You might almost as well skip it altogether.

It’s true that agencies have discretion to visit people more often, which they use. But to keep a close eye on known offenders, let alone those who’ve merely received cautions, is clearly quite impossible. The point of multi-agency public protection agreements, set up in 2001, was to get different agencies to talk to each other without demarcation disputes. Perhaps they do so more than previously, though I can’t help feeling sceptical, given the inefficiencies of police, probation and welfare agencies.

Given all this, police cautions and community supervision seem inadequate. The question is what, if anything, could be done instead. With serious and persistent offenders – the men who are addicted to the most disgusting abuse – the only answer is segregation. Prison sentences come to an end but their tragic tendencies don’t. Some bloggers have been suggesting dumping them on offshore islands, rather like leper colonies, for their own protection as well as ours. That seems extreme; gated communities might be more humane but they would have to be slightly involuntary.

At the other end of the paedophile spectrum, with those who are obsessed with internet images of children, there are some practical steps that could be taken without horrifying civil libertarians. I don’t know whether this obsession is necessarily a precursor to something worse but it is an evil in itself, since it involves harm to the children in the porn trade.

Perhaps something could be done about it without putting brakes on that great engine of universal freedom, the internet. It might be possible to persuade those of us who aren’t paedophiles to demand internet security software that blocks paedophile websites and material. Market leaders would build such blocks into their software, shaming other producers who did not do so. Internet cafes and offices would use it.

As a result a person of perverted tastes would have to make a conscious effort to buy unusual software to get access to paedophile people or material. If he were under suspicion or trying to argue that he accessed some porn group by “mistake”, he would have to explain why he hadn’t protected himself against such embarrassing and indeed illegal accidents.

Alternatively the government could insist that all internet service providers block this stuff. That can’t be difficult to do – the Chinese government manages to screen out most references to Tiananmen Square and democracy.

Pure nonsense about drink and babies

Respect. Empowerment. Personal responsibility. Independence. These are the words that new Labour spokesmen and women chant as the answer to every problem. Yet what they mean is precisely the opposite. Their true approach to the rest of us is one of disrespect, disempowerment, infantilisation and a growing dependence on the state.

What other conclusion can one draw, for example, from the government’s dramatic announcement on Friday that women should henceforth not drink a single drop of alcohol during pregnancy for fear of harming their unborn babies?

That is untrue and the government knows it is untrue. There is no evidence that a tiny sip of wine or beer represents a risk to the foetus. And there is no evidence that there is anything dangerous about the existing cautious guidelines to pregnant women, according to which it is safe to drink a couple of units of alcohol a couple of times a week.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists itself (which the government did not bother to consult on this matter) thinks it’s quite safe. “It remains our advice,” said a spokesman, “that one to two units once or twice a week is not harmful to baby or mother.”

Nobody has any evidence that it is, not even the people who have issued this terrifying edict. Fiona Adshead, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, admitted that while the new warning was meant to send “a strong signal to the thousands of [pregnant] women who drank more than the recommended limit”, it was not in response to any new medical evidence.

Nonetheless the government wants a total abstinence warning to be put on alcohol labels and packaging. So a dire new government warning can be issued to bully and frighten pregnant women and burden the drinks industry, without any reason. Taxpayers fund this misinformation.

Meanwhile, realising that this new alarm is causing great anxiety to mothers who followed the existing guidance, or who (like me) followed the more indulgent guidelines before that, and fear we may have blighted our unborn babies’ brains with an occasional glass of sauvignon blanc, the Department of Health has done a most undignified and unscientific somersault; it now, preposterously, reassures us that we haven’t put our infants at risk. But if that is true, what can possibly be the purpose of the new zero alcohol scare?

Given that it’s embarrassingly clear that the government issued a warning in the full knowledge that there is no scientific justification for it, one struggles for an explanation. It is hard to choose between conspiracy and cockup; perhaps it is a toxic mix of both.

This nonsense is a perfect paradigm of the new Labour mentality. In truth they see the public as idiots, who need simple messages, constant supervision and intervention. Scaring them is a good way of controlling them. It also provides work for idle bureaucratic hands so that apparatchiks can justify their jobs and pensions. What’s more, bogus scare stories have a convenient way of obscuring real scare stories; images of drunken mummies and damaged babies can be relied on to distract us from the collapse of the NHS and Patricia Hewitt’s personal via dolorosa as the humiliated secretary of state.

Dr Sheila Shribman, the government’s maternity tsarina, says that “although there is still scientific uncertainty about the precise impact of excess alcohol” – and, one should add, what exactly an excess of alcohol is – “on unborn babies, we believe the time is right to introduce a strong consistent approach right across the UK”. She and her people are worried about research showing that 9% of expectant mothers drink more than the recommended limit, and in old and new Labour-think one message must fit all. The figure might sound serious, although one should remember that some of this delinquent 9% drinks only a glass or two more a week than their more virtuous sisters.

And one should remember that there is always a sector of the population – at least 10% – which is unkindly called the underclass, and which suffers from a heavy concentration of all the worst social problems, including alcoholism. You would expect at least 9% of pregnant women to behave irresponsibly, one way or another.

However, the delinquency of a few pregnant women should not mean that the rest of us – 91% of us – ought to be treated like a nation of ninnies; there’s no reason why the government should consider all of us too irresponsible to be trusted with the truth, too infantile to act wisely upon it, or too dependent on the state to determine our own views and behaviour.

Most women are extremely careful of their unborn babies. To make a recommendation that will be followed only by those who don’t need advice anyway, and ignored by those who do, to submit the majority to the folly of the minority is the worst sort of old-fashioned socialist engineering – insulting, intrusive and worse than useless.

Not enough is known about the effects of alcohol on babies. People metabolise it differently and the risks vary between individuals, although it is not known how. Foetal alcohol syndrome is a disastrous result of heavy maternal drinking and alcoholic poisoning in the womb; it involves mental impairment and sometimes physical abnormalities. Fortunately it is comparatively rare. World Health Organisation figures suggest that one baby in a 1,000 is born with this condition worldwide, but populations vary hugely and it’s anybody’s guess what the proportion is in this country; there have been no studies.

The National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome doesn’t know what the number is and nor does the Department of Health; it doesn’t collect figures. Nor does it collect figures on the much more nebulous and controversial condition called foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. In the face of all this uncertainty, the government is simply not in a position to offer advice, even supposing we wanted it or trusted it.

How about looking for some facts before leaping into an unnecessary new initiative? But that’s not the new Labour way.

But who cares about the pupils who fail?

It is a pity that downward mobility is an inescapable part of the social mobility that everyone is so fervently recommending. In all the fuss about grammar schools and selection there is a distinctly nasty undertone. Some of the most passionate defenders of grammar schools seem to me to take a somewhat heartless view, possibly because many owe their own success to a good grammar.

It is my experience that there is nobody more dismissive of the underprivileged than people who have fought their way up and out of modest backgrounds. “I’m all right, Darren” is what they’re saying in code. If not quite that, they are at least expressing a concentration on the brightest children and their upward mobility, rather like their own. But what about all the rest? After all, the rest make up much more than half the school population.

The ardent defenders of grammar schools often have little to say about those children, and perhaps little interest in them. I too am all in favour of doing everything possible to offer the brightest children the best possible education for the country’s benefit as well as their own; I am all in favour of upward mobility and I am all in favour of the selection needed (in some form) to produce it for them.

But what about the real pain involved for the children who failed the 11-plus and were consigned, so young, to a second-rate secondary modern and a third-rate future? And what about the inevitable downward mobility, which is an inescapable part of the social mobility that everyone is so fervently recommending? Besides, it’s better understood now that intelligence is too varied and too complex to be properly assessed by a fairly crude IQ test at 11.

Any morally respectable education policy ought to be equally concerned about the average child, the less bright child and the late developer and, for that matter, all the bright children who would, for all their obvious gifts, have failed the old 11-plus.

There are some distinguished people today (whom I won’t name) who fall into that category, and who, like the not so distinguished John Prescott, have never got over it. Paying careful attention to all schoolchildren and how best to teach them in their own interests is not just a matter of what we call social justice these days, or what is morally right.

The political calculation that the public won’t wear grammar schools may well be wrong, but all the same the Cameroons are broadly right. If we are to have a monolithic state education system, it cannot be one that separates the wheat from the chaff at 11. What was more or less acceptable just after the war, in much less egalitarian and aspirational times, is no longer acceptable today in a publicly funded universal state system, as David Willetts says.

It’s true that grammar schools generally worked well for the chosen, and it is usually a mistake to destroy something that works. Margaret Thatcher to her shame has the distinction of closing more grammar schools than anyone else. But now that there are so few grammar schools left – and why not leave them alone as Conservatives propose? – this is a moment to reform our disastrous education system in a humane and imaginative way.

The Cameroons are at least trying to catch the moment and it is rapidly becoming a defining moment for them. Not surprisingly they are finding it difficult. They accept what all but the most diehard socialists now admit: that children need to be taught with other children of similar ability. Children cannot learn well in classes of mixed ability. That’s been demonstrated beyond denial. But this involves selection, somehow, and the Cameroons are anxious that selection should not mean segregation.

I do not believe that most Conservative supporters, even those clamouring for grammars, want segregation either, in practice; it has, after all, a nasty way of segregating one’s own children in ways one might not like or expect. But in practice it is difficult to select without segregating.

Willetts speaks enthusiastically of setting and streaming as the way to square this circle but I am unconvinced. Until recently both were anathema in the “educationist” orthodoxy, which in great part explains the shocking failure of comprehensive schools. Nonetheless both have been brought back to a degree. However, as a total solution it seems unpromising. While I agree with Willetts’s general approach, I doubt whether he and his policy wonks have done the research on the numbers.

In any contemporary nonselective school, there is an obvious practical problem with trying to teach all children with their peers. In each year group of, say, 100, there will be a lot of children of roughly similar ability, clustering round the norm, who can indeed be settled and streamed well.

But there will also be a few children of high or very high ability along with some who are slow or intellectually impaired, and there won’t be enough of these children to form workable classes even in a large comprehensive. That’s simply a matter of numbers, because of the usual distribution of intelligence across the population.

Among 100 unselected children you would normally expect only nine or 10 of high or very high ability at the most, and only five or so of very low ability. When I say high ability, I mean – crude though this measure is – an IQ of 120 or more.

At both top and bottom it would be impossible to find enough children in a year group of 100 to put together a classful of like-minded pupils; you couldn’t have classes of two or three. Simply saying the magic words “setting and streaming” will not make this problem disappear. In theory one could have bigger schools, but huge schools are bad for children. Many comprehensives are simply too big.

The Conservatives will have to come up with subtle solutions to this problem to have a credible education policy. I think the answer is to abandon a monolithic school system and encourage a variety of different schools, including access to special schools for the few who need them, and great mobility between schools.

By its complexity this would take the sting out of any questions of selection – there would be no obvious educational sheep and goats, no obvious hierarchy of schools – and this is what the Conservatives are considering. Meanwhile, they are right about grammar schools.


May 13th, 2007

Children with a burden beyond bearing

With broken voice and trembling lip, a-quiver with self-righteousness, Tony Blair bade us farewell last Thursday. He ought to have saved a few of his choked-back tears for the thousands of young children who have to look after their sick or disabled parents with little or no help.

A day earlier the Princess Royal Trust for Carers had issued a report showing that there are at least 175,000 young carers in this country. Some are as young as five and nearly half are aged between eight and 15.

They are forced to look after mothers who are mentally ill or dying, after fathers who are partly paralysed or incontinent, after brothers and sisters who are disturbed or disabled; they are robbed of their youth and their education in the painful process.

This terrible scandal is not new. The prime minister – he of the “Every Child Matters” initiative – ought to have known of it for years, or his ministers ought to have told him. His mysterious chancellor boasts complacently that he has brought millions of children out of poverty. But it is simply wrong to say so when 175,000 child carers carry the emotional and physical burden of changing their parents’ nappies, either metaphorically or literally. Of these children, at least 13,000 spend more than 50 hours a week caring for family members. What is this if not Third World-style poverty?

In fact the numbers are almost certainly much higher, as many children are afraid to seek help in case they get taken away for fostering or their addict parents get sent to jail. (There are also, according to estimates, about 250,000 living with drug-using parents.) But even a tenth, a thousandth, of that number would be a national disgrace.

As an interview in this newspaper’s magazine recently revealed, the individual stories of such problems are heartrending. A 10-year-old called Lauren described her life with her paralysed mother, getting her up, getting her onto the commode, emptying her urine gadget into the lavatory and then worrying about her all day at school. “After lunch on Saturday, when the carer has gone, we’re housebound.” In October a girl of 13 died after taking an overdose of morphine pills meant for her terminally sick mother, whom she had looked after since she was nine. The coroner at the inquest wrote to Beverley Hughes, the children’s minister, who later claimed that the government had such children’s needs “in the frame”. Some frame.

We have a vast, hugely expensive welfare state designed to protect everyone from the extremes of hardship and want. What is the point of it, with all the extra money that new Labour has thrown at it, if it cannot look after children like these? How is it that money cannot go as a priority to them?

Instead, incredibly, the government proposes to do away with the two central funds aimed at helping them – the carers’ grant and the children’s fund. Between them these two funds provide about £334m a year and contribute towards many projects for young carers, but by next April they will be abolished. The money will be given directly to local authorities; charities fear that it will be absorbed into the bottomless pit of council spending and will no longer be directed at young carers.

Meanwhile, recent figures suggest that the numbers of children in relative poverty rose by 100,000 to 2.8m in 2005-6, and Gordon Brown has wasted about £2 billion on wrongly calculated welfare payments.

Any fair-minded person must agree that it is hard to administer a large and complex social security system. Equally, though, it is clear that these children’s problems are proof of institutionalised failure in social services – a lack of proper priorities and communication, partly or largely brought upon them by government.

Every sick or disabled adult must come across countless other people – social workers, doctors, nurses, mental health teams, learning disability teams, teachers, physiotherapists, ambulance drivers or care services workers. How is it, then, that all these people fail to alert the council to the suffering of the child carers and their families? How is it that other adults who know the children – their teachers, their friends’ parents, their neighbours – don’t either themselves help or bully social services to do more? Why don’t social services do more, prompted or not?

Part of the explanation is the government’s unwise decision to split social services into two parts, as of April last year; children’s services now come under the education department and adults’ services under the health department. Social services have different bosses within government and different organisational structures.

This change was intended to link schools and children’s social services, but the gap between children’s and adults’ services has grown wider. It is also true that mental health and disability services are adult services and there’s evidence that the focus these teams put on the needs of their adult clients means that they don’t necessarily see them in their role as parents and don’t have responsibility for their children either.

Everyone is supposed to communicate with everyone, but it doesn’t always happen. Given the burden and stress of social work and the shortage of money in local authorities, that is hardly surprising.

Parents who need social care also have to pay for it. I cannot understand why they should if they are not rich – and you need to be very rich to be able to afford large amounts of such care – but so it is. Although councils do not demand the full commercial rate for personal care, they still charge and the cost each week can quickly become horrifying. People turn to their children instead, which is convenient for the councils’ coffers.

This seems to me to betray the postwar ideal of shared social insurance. That surely means little if it doesn’t mean protecting people like this in a way they can afford. It seems crazy to me that everyone gets medical care free, but the poor do not get social care free, except in Scotland.

It would be better to charge some people for National Health Service treatment and take care, free, of the most needy and their unfortunate children. How about it, Gordon? The £2 billion that you carelessly mislaid would have helped. And so would the cost of the Olympics.

Possessed by the past

In my father’s house: Elegy for an Obsessive Love

by Miranda Seymour

Simon & Schuster £14.99
Of all the fantastic creatures in the great British bestiary, one of the most fascinatingly cruel is the upper-class brute. This outstanding book is a very funny and very sad portrait of a particularly fine specimen of the species, George Fitzroy Seymour, a man remarkable for little except preserving a great house and causing great pain. “Three obituaries!” a fierce old relation wrote after George died, with the dismissive nastiness he himself was prone to. “What on earth for? Whatever did he do?”

What he did, for all his lack of worldly success, was to feel and to inspire grand obsessions. His own obsession, overshadowing all his other feelings and most of his life, was his overwhelming passion for Thrumpton Hall, a vast and beautiful Jacobean house; through his petty nastiness, his flamboyant cruelty, his fantasist’s charm and his emotional incontinence he inspired a painful obsession with him in his clever daughter. The book’s subtitle is Elegy for an Obsessive Love; that must surely refer to both obsessive loves, hers as well as his.

George’s daughter is the literary critic and biographer Miranda Seymour. Although exceptionally well equipped to write this book, she has clearly found it painful to do so. She refers several times to her mother’s misgivings about it and she thanks her brother for his forbearance. At the beginning, after her acknowledgments and just before a diagram of her extremely grand and rich family tree, she has chosen a striking quotation. “It seems, perhaps, a strange and unnecessary thing to go prowling back into the recesses of the past and to lift the decent curtain which has covered the weary ugly follies.” This, startlingly, was written by Miranda’s maternal grandfather, Lord Howard de Walden, from Gallipoli in 1915 in a letter to his five-year-old son.

What is most striking perhaps is that a man should write in that way to a tiny boy: it suggests an almost autistic indifference to the person he is talking to, which was common, if not quite characteristic of the upper classes, up until George’s lifetime — an inclina-tion to ignore feeling or to deny it or repress it, and certainly not to talk about it; the “weary ugly follies” are to be covered, at least. And yet the author has chosen to lift the damask curtain upon a great deal of sensational ugliness and folly. It is a story of heartfelt love and loathing, told with wit, delicacy and a considerable amount of understated indelicacy as well; it is also a delightful period piece, an evocation of a very recent time that is long gone, a lost world of great houses and ha-has, of servants packing, of great wealth and shabby gentility, of crushing taxes and crushing remarks, and of a brutal idiom that has almost disappeared, replaced by others.

George Seymour was an appalling snob and obsessed with appearances, which is partly why he was obsessed with Thrumpton, to which he was not born. Rather like Sir Walter Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, who constantly read the Baronetage and worried about freckles and harsh lighting, he was concerned not only with pedigrees but also with persons. In this spirit, and unsatisfied with the quality of his wife’s hair and his daughter’s as well, George made them both wear wigs; he had them painted in wigs in a family portrait, which is reproduced in this book. This he did to an underconfident teenage girl in the 1960s, who had to endure the misery of disguising her guilty wig on beaches and in swimming pools, and her father’s sneering at her shy figure. When later her husband was neglecting her, her father wrote with spiteful false sympathy, “My poor darling, you really are a grass widow now . . . Don’t you wonder what people must be thinking?” He threw one of her early books into a flowerbed in front of a collection of guests and took no interest at all in her career.

On one of her happiest evenings as a young girl with him, when he took her, for the first time in her life, out to dinner, he volunteered the confession that he had had a passionate affair with a family friend; years later, Miranda discovered from the woman herself that this was just one of her father’s many lies and grandiose fantasies. parricide is its comedy and the subtle undercurrents of ambivalence beneath it. These painful stories are funny in their brutal way, when told with this skilful balance of frankness and understatement, and softened by understanding. And after George’s death his daughter finds peace and beauty in the house, and a hint of reconciliation. Like many people, she has discovered that her relationship with her father has improved a great deal after his death. This is a book of “weary, ugly follies”, certainly, but it is far more than that; it is a heavy-hearted but light-handed reflection on love, memory and truth. That must be the writer’s justification for lifting the decent curtain on these tragic-comic scenes.

However the book is only partly about George’s relationship with his daughter; it is also about his unfortunate wife, whom he abused in a series of different ways. Having been flamboyantly unfaithful to her with other women in his youth, he turned to leathers, bikes and boys in his anguished middle age, with tragic results. Miranda more than suspects he married her mother for her money — she was thought to be a great heiress at the time, but, owing to some upper-class vagueness about money and wills, her expected inheritance didn’t materialise. As George lay dying at Thrumpton in 1994, his wife was closeted in a small bedroom in another part of the house; he did not ask for her, and she did not go to him.

It is hardly surprising that his daughter’s first response to his death in the beloved house is to rush outside and scream “Free! Free!” Unfortunately, she wasn’t and isn’t. If this book was an attempt to lay her father’s ghost, it has by her own account failed; George Seymour is a spectre who refuses to lie down and he still haunts Thrumpton, which is now hers.

What prevents this book from being an enraged form of parricide is its comedy and the subtle undercurrents of ambivalence beneath it. These painful stories are funny in their brutal way, when told with this skilful balance of frankness and understatement, and softened by understanding. And after George’s death his daughter finds peace and beauty in the house, and a hint of reconciliation. Like many people, she has discovered that her relationship with her father has improved a great deal after his death. This is a book of “weary, ugly follies”, certainly, but it is far more than that; it is a heavy-hearted but light-handed reflection on love, memory and truth. That must be the writer’s justification for lifting the decent curtain on these tragic-comic scenes.

Available at the Sunday Times Books First price of £13.49 (inc p&p) on 0870 165 8585 and

Miranda Seymour, was 32 when her father took up with Robbie, the unemployed, barely literate teenage boy who was to become ‘the passion of his later life’. For more than a decade, Robbie, above far right, shared George’s bedroom as well as his love of motorbikes. Miranda’s mother never complained — even on her 60th birthday, which she celebrated alone while her husband and his beloved took an overnight bike trip to Scotland.

Blair’s ruinous legacy of beta children

Legacy is a word that Tony Blair has made ridiculous, like many words that new Labour has robbed of meaning, such as choice or consultation. His legacy to this country’s state school children, for all his bold promises, is not an education system that has been carefully enriched, but something that has been rashly squandered.

The proof is everywhere; whether you look at social mobility, basic literacy and numeracy, exam standards, bullying or truancy, everything has got worse. If more proof were needed, it emerged on Friday that thousands of parents and children are joining an exodus from state education.

According to the Independent Schools Council, nearly 40,000 more children are being educated privately than when Blair came to No 10 in 1997. This is despite the fact that many private school fees have doubled in the same period, and despite the fact that there has been a drop in the number of British children of school age.

It brings the total number of children who have opted out of state education, their parents thus paying twice for schooling, to more than 509,000. More than half a million children. One in seven in London, one in four in Edinburgh and nearly a quarter of all sixth-formers.

This is what is known as voting with your feet in despair at Blair’s education policies (which cost £34.5 billion a year). More families would follow if they could: a Mori poll showed that nearly half of all parents would send their children to private schools if they could afford to, although most people can’t. Their children are trapped in comps aptly described by Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former press spokesman, as “bog standard”. Many of them are places of danger and disorder. Some legacy.

What a betrayal, too, of the cherished ideal of good, free and suitable schooling for every child, of an opportunity for every child to do his or her best. Admittedly meritocracy can be as harsh as plutocracy or aristocracy. Meritocracy means inequality; children’s innate abilities are not equal. But all the same most people seem agreed that when poor children from poor families could rise in the world through good state schooling, when ordinary children could overtake the children of privilege – which they could easily do in the era of orderly old-fashioned grammar schools but cannot now – Britain was a better place.

The important question now is why half of all parents fear state schools so much. Why will parents make such huge sacrifices to go private? If you have three children at a top boarding school, that is £75,000 a year after tax. If you have two at an average private day school, that is £18,000 a year after tax and that sum has doubled since 1997.

The answer is perfectly simple. Private schools offer high standards both in education and in personal and social upbringing, of a sort that all too many state schools abandoned long ago. All private schools, academic or not, make pastoral and individual care a high sales priority.

They offer different kinds of school and different kinds of education for different children – from super bright to average to downright difficult. Discipline is enforced. Bullying is stamped on. Delinquents are expelled, except from special schools designed for delinquents. Private schools offer good pupil-staff ratios: one teacher for every 9.7 pupils in the private sector, compared with 1 to 17 in the state sector, with much lower teacher turnover and few problems of discipline, attendance and so on.

Private schools vie with each other in offering wide ranges of subjects from astronomy to tuba lessons; state schools have made modern languages optional after the age of 14 and their music and sports provision – the pride of private schools – is abysmal. Their maths and physics teachers are sometimes unqualified.

There are some poor private schools but informed parents and a free market soon bring them either up or down and out. The failing schools in special measures in the state system could not survive in the private sector. Which is one of the reasons so many parents vote with their feet when they can – if not to private schools, then at least to nicer state school catchment areas.

The main reason, however, has to do with a social fault line that has cracked wide open under new Labour, although Conservative governments are partly to blame. The problem is not just one of educational standards. There is a new kind of class system, which has less to do with snobbery than with safety and survival.

Perhaps some people did once avoid state schools out of snobbery, preferring their children to mix with the “right” people; things are different now. Parents are terrified of their children at the local state school mixing with the “wrong” people – children who are uncontrolled and uncontrollable, ill-mannered, disaffected, ignorant, semi-criminal, semi-literate or perhaps unable to speak English.

Parents will not willingly send their children to fend for themselves among children like that, to be distracted from their all too limited educational opportunities by bullies and underachievers. And why should they? I refused to send my son to the local inner city comp for that reason. It was not snobbery. It was not even that he was very academic or suited to a highflying school. It was that the only state school around would be worse than useless; it would do damage.

Horrible though it is to say so, there are now only two kinds of children in this country, regardless of social class. We have alpha children and beta children. The alphas, born to alpha parents of all classes, are well mannered, well disciplined, sociable, responsible and hard working, or willing to be so. Betas are not. They are the tragic result of Blair’s failure with education, his failure with social mobility and his wider social policies.

Beta children are not just unfortunate themselves; they inflict their misfortune on others. They turn their schools into beta schools and they quickly turn alpha pupils into beta pupils. It takes only a small critical mass of betas to blight a school. No wonder that aspirational alpha parents do whatever they can to keep their children away from the betas and the beta schools in the state sector. As I say, some legacy.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 29th, 2007

How foolish to let Harry play soldiers

If Harry were to go to Iraq and be captured, he would be lucky to lose only his ears.

‘We are awaiting the arrival of the young handsome spoilt prince with bated breath and we confidently expect he will come out into the open on the battlefield. We will be generous with him. For we will return him to his grandmother but without ears.”

This might sound like some savage medieval fairy story, or primitive warrior saga. Unfortunately, it is all too contemporary and all too real. It is the very recent threat of Abu Zaid, commander of the Malik Ibn Al Ashtar brigade of the Shi’ite Mahdi Army militia in Iraq, promising what his men will do to Prince Harry if he goes with his regiment to fight in their country.

Actually if Harry were to go to Iraq, and be captured by one of the many armed factions openly after his blood and his name, he would be very lucky to lose only his ears. He would be much more likely to lose his head, horribly and publicly, on footage seen repeatedly all over the world, across the internet, after weeks or months of public humiliation and torture.

Meanwhile the most terrible questions of ransoms and trade-offs would be endlessly debated, to the shame and alarm of the British and their allies, and to the joy of Islamist extremists all over the world.

The effect would be desperately inflammatory all round; symbols have great power, particularly in unsophisticated cultures – this red-haired, blue-eyed, hard-living young man is a prince of the kufr, the unbelievers, and the decadent West to many, and to others his capture would be a mad Muslim atrocity too far – and it is extremely likely that Harry’s ears (if not his head) would be the casus belli of a much wider and even more terrifying conflict than the one going on now. Already Harry’s photographs are being circulated in Iraq and bounties being promised: this is a disaster waiting to happen.

The top brass of the British armed forces are clearly useless at public relations – the recent fiasco over the naval hostages in Iran is proof of that – but you might have thought that even they would have spotted something so glaringly obvious: the risk – high or low, and in this case very high – that Harry might be captured in Iraq is, and always was, absolutely unacceptable. He should never have been allowed for an instant to think he would be allowed to go.

That is clearly very hard on him, of course. He wants to act like any other professional soldier, and take just the same risks and show just as much courage, which no doubt he would.

But Harry can never be like any other soldier; he was born to a symbolic role, whether he likes it or not. I simply cannot imagine why General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the general staff, ignored this obvious and inescapable fact when he decided so inexplicably last year that Harry should be allowed to go to Iraq, and why even now he is dithering about changing his mind.

Harry has supposedly said he is not afraid to die, and there is no reason to doubt his courage. But death is not the worst thing in a very dirty war, either for him or for his country.

The risk of his capture is not the only problem, though by itself it is quite enough to keep him at home. There is also the extreme and exceptional risk to any men serving with him. That ought also to have been obvious to the top brass from the day Harry enlisted, and indeed before then.

Last Friday the front page headline of The Times, above a picture of soldiers bringing home a coffin from Iraq, was “Dry run attack forces Prince Harry retreat”. Senior army officers say they believe a fatal attack last week on two British soldiers in Iraq was a rehearsal for an attempt on Harry’s life.

The attack was made on a Scimitar reconnaissance vehicle, which is the type of vehicle Harry will use, in a part of the country where he will serve. If army sources are right in their fears that insurgents are well-enough informed to target Harry and his troops so precisely in this way, then the prince’s men are at especially high risk, as well as the prince himself. He cannot want that, and nor can their senior officers or their families.

And it is and always was so very obviously the problem with letting the poor boy go. His loyalty to his men alone should keep him home, to keep them (rather than himself) out of exceptional danger. The hard truth is that they would be safer under another officer, as would their entire base and the whole military endeavour in Iraq.

The problem began when Harry was encouraged, or allowed, to think, under General Sir Mike Jackson, that he could be a real soldier – I’m not sure that Prince William ever was. No matter how well Harry and his brother did at Sandhurst, no matter how great their officer potential, no matter how inspiring their courage or their leadership, they could never have hoped to do anything more than playing at soldiers, for all the resoundingly obvious reasons.

You have only to think of the horrifying videos of Ken Bigley, or the draped coffin of Corporal Ben Leaning, killed in the supposed “dry run” attack. The fact that Prince Andrew was allowed to serve in the Falklands war is irrelevant; the circumstances were entirely different, and in any case he shouldn’t have gone. If Harry was too young to appreciate that, his senior officers certainly were not.

It is perhaps the greatest hardship of being born royal, or at least a senior member of the royal family; it means being not as others are. It means leading not a real life, but a ritual life, for much of the time; it means both the loss of freedom and responsibility, very often.

It is a hard lot, in that sense, as Harry must be finding, and as his father has clearly so often felt. It is not easy, under such constraints to find a role that is personally satisfying, however much one might believe that the royal role is worth playing. Those many people who believe that the monarchy has served us well and is well worth preserving, ought perhaps to spare a thought for the personal cost to its members, and allow them to enjoy the privileges of their position, however spoilt they might sometimes seem – since they are forced, whether they like it or not, to endure its pain.