The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 24th, 2008

Gary Glitter – mad, bad or just dangerous to know?

Gary Glitter is a most unlikely martyr. With his white goatee, hinting at shameless, perverted goatishness, he has been convicted of some revolting paedophile crimes, both here and abroad, including the sexual assault of two little girls in Vietnam.

The details the tabloids have luxuriated in are loathsome and even if the motives of the home secretary – in hastily proposing a populist “Glitter law” to restrict sex offenders’ travel – are not disinterested, there is nothing wrong with her suggestion. Child abusers should be restrained. Few people can doubt that Glitter should be put on the sex offenders’ register for the rest of his life and closely watched, or that other countries are entitled to keep him out.

All the same, Glitter is suffering media martyrdom far beyond his deserts; he is a latterday St Sebastian, lashed to the post of public contempt and pierced again and again with the furious arrows of misdirected indignation.

The force that drives this indignation is not just horror; it is confusion. Everyone agrees that Glitter and offenders like him are dangerous to know but no one is sure, any longer, whether he is bad or mad. Perhaps he deliberately and wickedly did what he did – and the shameless cunning of many paedophiles suggests that – or perhaps he could not control himself, or even understand why he should control himself.

Scientific evidence seems to be growing by the month to suggest that people are not equally responsible for what they do. Individual biology has a large part to play in destiny, as do environment and the complex symbiosis of the two. Some people’s brain structure and brain chemistry may make them less able to control their impulses, more inclined to aggression, less able to understand their own motives or less able to understand the feelings or even the objective reality of other people. This may be compounded by bad childhood experiences with damaged parents which themselves alter brain pathways.

If so, the foundation stone of western morality – the idea that we are all equally responsible for what we do and all equally culpable for our crimes – is being eroded by biology. This process of erosion has begun fairly recently and is gathering speed. It is profoundly alarming.

Glitter is just one conspicuous scapegoat for this increasing anxiety about crime and personal responsibility. He is being punished, above and beyond his offences, for our own loss of moral conviction in the face of serious crime. He is the victim of a communal panic – not just about paedophilia but also about crime and punishment generally.

Some people feel that no punishment is harsh enough for a child abuser. Others believe that the abusers were often themselves abused and deserve pity. Some people, such as Glitter himself, feel that when a man has done his time he has, in the meaningless phrase, served his debt to society. This attitude enrages others and some cry out for castration, chemical if not physical.

One common feeling is that if a man wants to do something so disgusting as rape a tiny child, or a baby, he is by definition mad or at least extremely abnormal mentally. But in this case of paedophilia, curiously madness doesn’t seem to be considered much of an excuse.

Experts don’t seem to agree either. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) lists paedophilia as a mental disorder and the US Supreme Court has upheld the idea of paedophilia as a mental abnormality.

However, there are those – both respectable experts and paedophile apologists – who argue that paedophilia should be removed from this list of mental disorders, just as homosexuality was removed in the 1970s. There is, apparently, some evidence that between 20%-25% of the supposedly normal male population feel sexually attracted to children, according at least to a discussion in the US Archives of Sexual Behaviour of 2002, and react to “paedophilic” stimuli.

This might suggest that there is nothing so very abnormal about paedophile desires, just as other fantasies of violence and revenge are common. It’s true, too, that other societies have tolerated sex between adults and prepubescent children, although I cannot think of any which has regarded sex with babies with equanimity.

There seems to be little or no agreement about what causes paedophilia. The old theory that child abuse itself was an important factor has fallen by the scientific wayside. The existence of a cycle of sexual abuse from generation to generation has not been established. Some studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain suggest that paedophilic men tend to have several differences in brain structure from other men and have one or more neurological characteristics at birth that could increase the likelihood of paedophilia.

However, for every one of these studies there is a crowd of experts to disagree with it. The only point upon which most experts seem to agree is that there is no treatment which can cure paedophilia. The disorder is chronic and lifelong.

Therapies designed to prevent convicted paedophiles from harming children again have little success, according to the expert literature I’ve seen. However, the justice department does not have readily available figures on recidivism among child sex offenders. I should have thought this interesting and important statistic would have been well worth knowing.

In the light of all this ignorance and uncertainty, the public hounding of the ghastly Glitter has been unforgivable. His chances of offending are probably high; he does need to be closely watched for the rest of his life and probably needs to be protected from a vengeful public. If that proves too expensive or too difficult – there are 30,000 sex offenders who need much more surveillance than they get – he will have to be locked up indefinitely.

Whether he can’t or won’t control his taste for children, others will have to control it for him. But it is wrong, given how little we understand about personal responsibility, to treat him harshly and to vilify him, just because we are anxious about that very lack of understanding.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

August 17th, 2008

I’m not religious, but there’s something about funerals

‘Domini, domini sunt exitus mortis.” That is the text of my favourite of John Donne’s sermons, Death’s Duel. “Unto God the Lord belong the issues of death.” The trouble for me is that they don’t, much though I love Donne’s religious writing and many other people’s, too.

Our deaths and what follows do not belong to God: I do not and cannot believe in any kind of divinity that shapes our ends. For me there is no deliverance from death, or through death or by death, as Donne elaborately argues; there is only a deliverance, if one can truly call it that, from life, and that is usually unwelcome.

Last week I went to the funeral service of Simon Gray, the writer. It was held in a handsome Victorian gothic church, with an excellent choir, traditional hymns and a reading from the New Testament. The place was packed with people who clearly loved him. In one of the most moving and memorable parts of the service, Gray’s close friend Harold Pinter managed – despite his illness – to get to the lectern to read a passage from T S Eliot’s Four Quartets. I don’t suppose anyone who was there will ever forget it. At first Pinter seemed almost unable to speak; cancer has damaged his magnificent voice. But soon it became stronger and his power as an actor filled the church . . .

The reading was from Little Gidding, Section V, beginning What we call the beginning is often the end And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.

It ended with the lines a little further on: And all shall be well and All manner of things shall be well When the tongues of flame are infolded Into the crowned knot of fire And the fire and the rose are one.

These words have an incantatory magic, especially when spoken in such a context by such a man. They have great power to move. And yet, to someone like me, someone who does not believe in the Christian God or in any other, they are literally meaningless. I don’t know what to make of them in any serious sense and I wonder very much in what way other people understand them.

Pinter is not a religious man and nor, I am fairly sure, was Gray. Nor, I suspect, were many of the congregation, although I have no idea whether any of them felt the same disquiet that I did.

I imagine that most of them felt, whatever their views, that this rather traditional service was the right thing, in many senses.

I felt that strongly at my mother’s funeral, which was conducted, as she would have wanted, according to the old prayer book’s order for the burial of the dead and its beautiful words. She was an outspoken agnostic, with a leaning towards atheism, but she believed as strongly as I do that our traditional rites of passage are important, if only for the survivors. So, having scarcely ever darkened the doors of our parish church, three minutes from our house, she is now buried in its churchyard.

Something strange seems to happen at one of the most important and terrible moments of life and I hardly believe it is only to me; throughout one of the central moments of our culture and our personal experiences one has to keep editing out, so to speak, the bits that one truly cannot accept. This is even worse if one is unlucky enough to have a silly or tactless vicar, a rash intruding priest who tramples on gentle Anglican ambiguities and uncertainties.

I feel the same reading religious poetry or sermons, some of which I love. Poetry, like religion, is supposed to be about truth, or at least to be truthful, and yet if one has constantly to translate, so to speak, some of its central ideas into another idiom – if one has to translate the religious notion of redemption into something secular, for example – there comes a moment when it loses its power, or at least when one cannot take it seriously.

Some people I talked to, a couple of them actors and agnostics, were not troubled by any of this. They said that they are affected by sound, performance, the power of words; they don’t seem to be confined by my literal-mindedness. I do see that literal-mindedness can be petty and reductive; a great deal of communication happens outside literal meaning. All the same, for an unbeliever what meaning can there be at all in Julian of Norwich’s saying that all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well? Words are only partly music; they must offer sense as well as sensation.

Yet what alternative can there be to one’s own tradition? It is hard, unilaterally and suddenly, to create a new ritual. The famous television executive whose idea of an alternative initiation ceremony for his new baby was anointing him, in front of a crowd of A-listers, with Tibetan yak’s butter proved the point; alternatives tend to get silly. The constraints of tradition are important. A woman friend recently buried her long-term companion in a simple wicker basket in a West Country wood and that doesn’t seem very final, somehow.

We had the same problem with my parents-in-law, who were entirely uninterested in religion although in some ways they were extremely conventional. My father-in-law always made it clear that he didn’t want any funeral rites, possibly to avoid unbecoming scenes on the occasion from my histrionic mother-in-law, so she and her daughters-in-law stayed behind while her sons had him burnt and scattered his ashes on the finishing line at Newmarket. He had been champion amateur jockey for many years before the war and was a great racing man.

That did not strike me as a proper end and my mother-in-law’s was even more unsatisfactory. After her cremation, her sons left her ashes in a Bury St Edmunds crematorium for several years; I used to get tactful calls from time to time from the crematorium staff asking when we were going to remove mother. In the end her sons scattered her around the statue of a horse she had owned. It lacked a sense of an ending.

The issues of death belong to the living although, of course, Donne used the word “issues” quite differently from its contemporary meaning. For the living in our culture – or what was our culture – it is hard to find any better sense of an ending than the comfort of familiar tradition, the incantations of the Anglican rites and the communion not of saints, but of friends.

No more retreat: the right finds its moral nerve

It became clear last week that the mantle of the late Mary Whitehouse has wafted onto the shoulders of Bishop Nazir-Ali of Rochester. Just as she did, he is now standing as a lonely champion of western, particularly Christian, civilisation. Just as she did in her Edna Everage glasses, he with his lavish mutton-chop whiskers cuts a distinctly comic figure.

By a curious coincidence last week, when she was remembered in a television biopic, he published an article on Britain’s morals for Standpoint, a new intellectual magazine, which was also reminiscent of her. He argued that the loss of Christian influence in British life had led to all kinds of social breakdown and had created a moral vacuum that radical Islam threatened to fill.

Though his style is infinitely more sophisticated, his substance is much like hers. “The enemies of the West,” she said in 1965, “saw that Britain was the kingpin of western civilisation: she had proved herself unbeatable on the field of battle because of her faith and her character. If Britain was to be destroyed, those things must be undercut.” Last week Nazir-Ali suggested that the Marxist-inspired cultural wars of the 1960s sought to bring about political revolution through sexual and social revolution. Churches and liberal theologians all but capitulated, and their failure created the “moral and spiritual vacuum” that is so vulnerable to our enemies.

What has now, suddenly, changed is that the bishop has not been derided as Whitehouse was. His article hit front pages and was taken seriously. What has also changed is that Whitehouse’s television portrait, while comically absurd, was kinder and more ambivalent about her than would once have been conceivable. In a year when the legacy of 1968 and the permissive society has been much reviewed and revised, these are perhaps small signs of a wider change. Increasingly people find themselves admitting with embarrassment that Whitehouse was not entirely wrong. Most people, I think, share her fear, despite the lack of clear evidence, that TV and film violence probably brutalise people and inure them to cruelty, happy-slapping, knife crime and all the rest. Although few people indeed now share her (and the bishop’s) curious horror of homosexuality, even the sexually permissive are disturbed by the hypersexualisation of children’s lives and by Britain’s rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases.

While the Labour party, traditionally the champion of liberal permissiveness, has the lowest approval rating ever, the Conservative party now has one of the highest, despite saying things about social degeneration in broken Britain that would have been unmentionable only recently and wholly unacceptable from Conservatives. We are likely to have before long a Conservative government run by a clutch of clever young family-minded, morally conservative toffs; a couple of years ago, that idea would have been laughable. Perhaps it’s true that the tide of 1960s liberalism is beginning to turn. It may be that we have arrived at a defining moment.

The magazine Standpoint certainly seems to think so. (I should declare an interest, as a contributor.) At a launch party for the right-of-centre great and good, the editor, Daniel Johnson, spoke with an almost triumphalist passion about the imperative to defend western civilisation against moral cowardice and intellectual confusion and against adversaries who don’t share our values. I thought I sensed unease among his guests, even though almost all of us must have broadly agreed with him. British conservatives tend to be embarrassed by self-celebration, even in the face of attack. It might in part explain their unwillingness to stand up against the noisy, thoughtless iconoclasm of the 1960s, and the cultural damage it has done. Perhaps they are preparing to do so now.

Nazir-Ali is unlikely to be leading them. His open disapproval of homosexuality brands whatever else he talks about with the stamp of ignorant intolerance. What is more, his indirect appeal for a return to Christian faith as the cure for our social ills is irritating. One does not have to be a practising Christian to subscribe to a post-Christian morality, and to hold it dear. The other serious problem is the way he talks of Islam. He is right that anyone with a public voice should speak out against Islamist extremism, but he must know that people do not listen carefully and often hear Islam instead of Islamist extremism, and he will be seen to be calling for a Christian revival to oppose Islam in general.

However, there is, I think, a reason why Islamist extremism is relevant to this defining moment, if it is one. After 9/11, but in this country even more so after the 7/7 attacks by British-born terrorists, liberal and libertarian conservatives began to think again. These British extremists despised us for our decadence, and we were forced to admit they had a point. For a long time Britain and its institutions have been suffering a loss of nerve and will that amounts to a national moral funk. We have let standards fall in almost everything. From the lies and finaglings about expenses in the House of Commons, to the failures of standards in schools and hospitals, from the sleazy behaviour of public figures such as John Prescott and Cherie Blair to the vomiting of drunken girls on streets, from the sordid confessions of chat shows to the public humiliation of Big Brother, something has collapsed.

Our government’s unwillingness to look after our armed services is a startling example of this. Our soldiers have been sent into danger without proper body armour, with dodgy planes and inadequate tanks, and third-rate treatment in Third World hospitals at home if they are wounded. This is terrifying decadence: for if we lack the will to defend ourselves, or rather to defend those who are there to defend us, we are showing to the world’s beasts of prey the soft underbelly of decadence.

The one good thing, if there could be one, about Islamists’ murderous contempt is that at last it made us understand all this. I don’t think Nazir-Ali, even with a church militant behind him, can put his finger in the dyke of this impending disaster. However, he is at least, like Whitehouse, willing to say the unsayable; that is often a necessary driver of change.

Khyra died for want of a single phone call

It is a scandal that six children in modern Britain can simply disappear from the neighbours’ sight without any comment.

There cannot be many public servants feeling as miserable this weekend as Gordon Brown. However, there are probably more than a few among the employees of Birmingham social services. They are being held responsible by the public, rightly or wrongly, for the death of Khyra Ishaq, a girl of seven, who was found emaciated and beyond help in her mother’s house in Handsworth; an ambulance crew was horrified to discover her on May 17, starving on mattresses on the floor in a room with two sisters and three brothers, all aged between four and 12. They were taken to hospital, under an emergency order, where Khyra died. Her siblings were taken into care and her mother, Angela Gordon, and stepfather, Junaid Abuhamza, have been charged with neglect.

If the facts reported last week are correct, Birmingham social services appear to be at fault. Gordon had taken the six children out of school about 10 weeks ago. There was some talk of home schooling and some of bullying. One pupil’s parents said Khyra and her sisters did not like wearing the Muslim headdress at school – her mother is a recent convert to Islam. Hardly anybody had seen the children since.

Whatever the reason, the taking of six children out of school, or one child for that matter, is – or is supposed to be – of serious concern to social services, whose duty it is to establish what has happened to those children and whether they are being educated. You have only to remember the name Victoria Climbié to understand how crucially important this duty is.

For a welfare-dependent mother of six young children, such as Gordon, to stop sending her children to school is – or ought to be – an unmistakable alarm signal. Besides, all home schooling is supposed to be supervised by council workers. Yet according to Khalid Mahmood, the local MP, an educational support worker visited Gordon’s house once but failed to get in and it seems that, despite the reforms after Climbié’s death, Birmingham social services did nothing further about the family or the children’s schooling.

The council has refused to comment and the matter is now sub judice. The question of how far social services may be to blame for Khyra’s death will have to wait. However, a heavy weight of responsibility lies with the so-called community, which is to say with Khyra’s family’s neighbours and relatives. Behind their stories to the media of shock and sympathy lies another, darker one of indifference. Social services cannot be watching us all the time, nor would we want them to be. And mistakes will always happen. Whether we like it or not, a great responsibility for people’s children lies, or ought to lie, not with the council but with their neighbours – with us.

In a street of small terraced houses with back gardens it is almost incredible that six children should in effect disappear from the neighbours’ sight without any comment from them, but that is what seems to have happened. Various people have said they had not seen the children for several weeks. Shabir Mohammed, whose mother lives next door, said he had not seen anyone at the house for the past few months. He may have thought the family had moved.

However, others could not have thought so. Several believed that the children (whom they had not seen) were so hungry that they were stealing bread; a Polish woman living nearby said Khyra’s mother had recently accused her of giving the children bread. “The mother was very angry,” she said. “I told her nobody had given her anything. I can only think this poor girl had gone into our back garden and taken bread from the bird table.” This woman at least could not have supposed the family had left the street. Yet almost nobody saw them after their last day at school 10 weeks ago.

Khyra’s aunt Valerie, her father’s sister, said she had not seen the children since last year, five months ago. She had been to the house four times since then to try to see them but each time had failed to get a reply. I don’t know at what intervals she came – there was something unsatisfactory about her interview with the BBC and she described herself as “curious” – but she, too, appeared to think the family was still there. Of her brother, Khyra’s father, there are no reports.

Some of these people, you might imagine, would have wondered what had happened to these six children, once so often seen on the street. Some of the children they played with might have asked their parents why they didn’t come out any more. Someone might have cared enough about them or their parents to be interested in whether they had moved away. Some of these people might have wondered whether something was wrong. Or perhaps people in this street are so indifferent to each other, so unconnected by any ties of culture, so mobile, so dysfunctional and so asocial as not in any sense to form a community. In any case, either they didn’t know and didn’t care to wonder, or else they did wonder but didn’t care to say anything.

I don’t know which explanation is more depressing, but at least something can be done about the second. It is understandable that people hesitate to rat on their neighbours and report them to the social. For one thing, people in failed communities are often afraid of the authorities. Their natural instinct is to avoid them at all times. A word to social workers about the screaming kiddies next door might well lead to unwelcome questions.

Then there is the problem that the neighbours might go ballistic if they discovered that you had been interfering and might well decide to sort you out. Coming between a parent and child arouses the most savage emotions.

However, there is for once a simple solution. Neighbours who suspect that children are being abused need not call down the might of social services. They can anonymously ring one of the charities that deal with child abuse and get some advice. If necessary the charity could investigate independently and, what’s more, protect the whistleblower. Some obvious choices would be Barnardo’s or the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children or the Children’s Society. A call like this might have saved Khyra Ishaq.

All rise for Cherie Blair, Judge Dreadful

Indiscreet and vulgar, she is a disgrace to the law and she is a disgrace to our sex. She gives other women a bad name.

Does Cherie Blair matter? That was one of the pressing questions of last week, although arguably not the most important. There is a lot of her about at the moment, but is she someone we can afford to ignore? The serious-minded answer would presumably be yes. The serious-minded person would of course be missing the guilty pleasures of vulgar gossip, schadenfreude and righteous indignation that Ms Booth Blair has provided so richly for the rest of us and so inadvertently with her appalling memoirs and shameless interviews – her style combines Wag with Pooter – but what is there otherwise that is worthy of attention?

The awkward fact is that Cherie thinks she is going to be a judge and, given her high opinion of her gifts, a top judge at that. She already does some occasional judging as a recorder, although with typical immodesty she refers to herself as a judge already. What she does and says in public, and what private matters she chooses to reveal in public, do matter. It raises the question of what we might expect from a judge and whether she should become one.

Her chances of becoming a proper judge ought to have been finished at the time of her Bristol flats scandal, when her behaviour was tricksy and her public excuses accompanied by tears and ridiculous claims about having too many multi-tasking and mumsy balls in the air to attend to awkward details. Try telling that to the judges at the Court of Appeal: they will not be moved by sobs and lilac eyeshadow.

However, I hadn’t heard any murmurings that she was unfit for judicial office until last week, after extracts from her memoirs had appeared. A former senior judge, Gerald Butler QC, said that Cherie should resign as a recorder and had no chance of becoming a senior judge: “If she wants to tread this path of making money by outrageous comments, that is up to her, but I don’t think this is a job for a judge. It shows a complete lack of any kind of decency. It is the kind of conduct which demeans the legal profession. It is altogether disgraceful.”

More soberly, another lawyer, a senior barrister who sits on the Bar Council, said that “one of the important factors in being a judge is being able to exercise judgment, and part of that judgment is being trusted with confidential material”.

Throughout her time in Downing Street, and especially now in her book, Cherie has shown that her judgment is often abysmal and that she cannot be trusted with confidential material. If you read all the vulgar details about her tubes and ops and spats and hots, the whole gabby, greedy, sorry tale, you realise that she is not merely indiscreet; she simply does not do discretion.

At one point she writes: “I had never been taught the meaning of the phrase ‘discretion is the better part of valour’.” I could not help smiling. That is quite impossible to believe. It may of course be that in her impoverished dysfunctional home, with her saintly nan and mum, discretion was not much discussed, but at her outstandingly good Catholic girls’ grammar she must most certainly have been indoctrinated ceaselessly about the importance of discretion and those many virtues which come under its umbrella – modesty, humility, tact, delicacy, judiciousness, forbearance and truth. However, as with contraception, there are some Catholic teachings that Cherie has decided to ignore or couldn’t abide by. Perhaps temperamentally she is incapable of discretion.

That might not matter. There are plenty of pleasant occupations for people who don’t do discretion, such as journalism or making well-paid speeches. However, if there is one place where discretion is essential, it is the bench. Judges, so far at least, have been admirably discreet, whatever their personal foibles. The fact that Cherie envisaged no danger to her ambitions as a judge in writing and behaving as she has shows in itself that she is not fit to be one.

Some people have expressed surprise that she should have aroused such anger and contempt, particularly among women. The usual explanation for such unsisterly attacks is envy. And certainly there are many things a woman might envy about Cherie’s life. However, I think there is an entirely different and good reason for the resentment. Just as she is a disgrace to the law, she is a disgrace to our sex.

I hate to use the phrase “role model”, but I imagine that Cherie sees herself as one. Her book gives that impression. It’s true that she has achieved a great deal: to become a QC from a difficult background, even with an exceptionally good education, and even at a time of positive discrimination in women’s favour in the law, is something rightly to be proud of.

Her love of her husband and her extended family is endearing. People who know her say she is kind and funny, but publicly (and in this book) she embodies most of the things that people – men – told me in my childhood were wrong with women and why women could never hope to compete equally with men. I tried, and many of my women friends and acquaintances tried, to prove such people wrong. Cherie has done a lot to prove them right. She is the kind of woman who gives other women a bad name.

Women are so emotional, so impulsive, so irrational, I used to be told. Women are not logical; they are inconsistent and easily taken in. Women are so obsessed with status, with their husbands’ status and with material possessions. Women are indiscreet and gossipy in a way men are not. All this is true of Cherie Blair.

There was Carole Caplin. There was the outburst at the party conference about Gordon Brown lying. There was her use of the name Cherie Booth QC on Downing Street notepaper, a perfect example of a woman trying unfairly to have it both ways. There is her shocking gabbiness, her tabloid revelations about toilets and childbirth and fancying her husband rotten.

On top of that she is quite obviously obsessed with making money and buying properties, exploiting her husband’s office in the process with a sense of entitlement that is astonishing. In all this, rather like Diana, Princess of Wales, she is something of a heroine of our times, an emotional and cultural weather vane. In that sense she does matter.


May 13th, 2008

Abu Qatada should stay, but not in comfort

He should be denied access to public services and if he can’t feed his children, they should be taken into care.

A red mist of rage must have descended on millions of respectable citizens last week when the Court of Appeal decided that Abu Qatada, the Jordanian Islamist, will be allowed to stay in Britain. Supposedly the right-hand man of Osama Bin Laden in Europe and the spiritual leader of Al-Qaeda in Europe, convicted in absentia of terrorist offences in his native Jordan, this undesirable alien had won his appeal against deportation.
On Wednesday three judges overturned a decision by the special immigration appeals commission to deport him, saying Qatada could not be sent to Jordan because he might not receive a fair trial there: evidence that might have been obtained through torture by Jordanian intelligence services might be used against him.

Unless a final expensive appeal by the Home Office to the House of Lords succeeds, Qatada will released from Belmarsh prison in London and permitted to carry on inciting fellow Muslims at our expense. He gets about £1,000 a month in welfare benefits.

It surely cannot be right that such a man can live here with impunity, on benefits, while so many decent people are kept out or sent away. The contrast with the respectable Ghanaian woman with cancer who was recently deported to die in her own country, as she had no entitlement to National Health Service treatment, is particularly shocking.

Qatada is not British either; he does not even have a right to stay here, as the indefinite right to remain for which he applied in 1998 has never been granted and he arrived in this country on a forged Emirates passport. Yet, unlike the harmless Ghanaian, he is free to make full use of our hospitals, schools and public housing.

Fury must be the first and most powerful response. If this is the consequence of Britain’s commitment to universal human rights, there must be something wrong. I am dubious about universal human rights.

However, one does not see clearly through the red mist of strong emotions. The fundamental question, whatever one thinks of human rights in general or Qatada in particular, is whether we want to be a country that condones torture, or connives at it, or is indirectly complicit in it. I do not think so. Torture is an abomination. I cannot think of any circumstances under which British law should excuse it or overlook it or fail to protect someone from it, even if that someone is Qatada. Whether torture goes on sometimes in the extremities of war is another matter. What’s important is that the law should not condone it.

Even if one thinks a nasty end too good for Qatada and his like, the point is that we should not wound our own consciences, or corrupt our ideals of civilised behaviour, by abandoning him, or anyone, to the risk of torture. The same goes for the lesser risk of an unfair trial in a country where evidence obtained under torture may be used. That last point is the only one on which Qatada succeeded with the appeal judges and it might seem to be straining a point at that.

However, the principle holds; it is wrong for British law to wink at torture. As far as I am concerned, the international notion of human rights is irrelevant to this very British principle. If it were legally all right to throw an apparently guilty man to the lions abroad, it would then be permissible to do the same to a man who might be innocent. That would be the beginning of the end of justice in this country.

Given that, the much more difficult question is what to do with someone such as Qatada since he cannot, for the sake of our own consciences, be thrown out. The most obvious thing would be to try him here for at least some of the many offences he is supposed to have committed and lock him up for as long as possible.

It is rather mysterious that the law has recently taken away so many of our freedoms in the name of fighting terror, yet Qatada remains free to cry havoc with impunity. The Home Office does not explain in detail why he can’t be tried for anything; it mutters the usual things about inadmissible evidence and the protection of sources, but it’s unconvincing. If there are legal impediments to trying such a person in this country, they should be removed.

And there must be ways of using evidence without betraying sources.

It’s sometimes said that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service simply haven’t been bold enough. The rate of convictions in terror cases is 92%, so perhaps they should be more confident in bringing cases forward. However, if Qatada and those like him genuinely cannot be tried here, there are other things that could be done to protect the public. The first would be to deprive him, as an unwanted foreigner who would normally have been deported, of the rights and privileges of living here.

Because of his behaviour, his rights are forfeit. He should be denied benefits. He should be denied access to public services and so should his children; if he couldn’t feed them, they should be taken into care. The people of this country should not have to pay him to put themselves in harm’s way.

If Qatada claimed he was innocent of all trouble-making, as he does, he should be offered a deal; he could publicly recant all his terrorist ideas, denounce other terrorists he supposedly knows and regularly urge all Muslims to stand together against terrorism; then he would be treated as others.

If the human rights lobby protested, as it would, it should be ignored; any relevant legislation should be amended, flouting human rights agreements where necessary. Qatada was never granted any right to live here permanently. He was therefore never granted the rights of a British citizen and he shouldn’t have them.

Without all those comforts and advantages he might – who knows – leave of his own free will. In any case this would send a message, in the terrible new phrase, to other such people that Londonistan, and all that it stands for, is a thing of the past. There will be no comfort for them here.

Now that Qatada is here it is too late to say, as the Conservatives have done, that much stricter controls should be imposed on people coming into Britain. Given the state of the immigration services, that is unlikely to happen. However, we can at least make unwelcome foreigners feel unwelcome.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 10th, 2008

Archbishop, you’ve committed treason

My text for today is “Hold fast that which is good”: 1 Thessalonians 5:21. These are words I heard so regularly in prayers at my Anglican girls’ school that I have been unable to forget them. I draw them to the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who seems to have forgotten them. At least, he seems to be losing his grip on what is good in this country and, indeed, to be throwing it away with both hands in his curious suggestion that aspects of sharia should be recognised in English law.

In an interview on Radio 4 last Thursday, Rowan Williams said that the introduction of parts of Islamic law here would help to maintain social cohesion and seems unavoidable. Sharia courts exist already, he pointed out. We should “face up to the fact” that some British citizens do not relate to the British legal system, he said, and that Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”.

What he went on to say was more astonishing. He explained to the interviewer, in his gentle, wordy way, that a lot of what is written on this confusing subject suggests “the ideal situation is one in which there is one law and only one law for everybody”. He went on: “That principle is an important pillar of our social identity as a western liberal democracy.” How true.

However, he continued: “It’s a misunderstanding to suppose that that means people don’t have other affiliations, other loyalties, which shape and dictate how they behave in society, and the law needs to take some account of that.”

Stuff like this is bad for the blood pressure, but I listened on. “An approach to law which simply said there is one law for everybody and that is all there is to be said . . . I think that’s a bit of a danger.”

What danger? And to whom? The danger, surely, is rather the archbishop and those who think like him, who seem unwilling to hold fast that which is good. What is good and best and essential about our society � it isn’t merely a matter of “social identity” � is the principle of equality before the law. That principle and its practice have made this country the outstandingly just and tolerant state it is; it is one of the last remaining forces for unity as well.

What is also good and essential to this country is the law itself. It has evolved over centuries from medieval barbarities into something, for all its faults, that is civilised. Our law expresses and maintains the best virtues of our society. Anybody who does not accept it does not belong here.

When other legal systems or other customs clash with ours, we prefer ours, to put it mildly. At least we should; what has troubled me for years is the way that exceptions and excuses tend to be made, in the name of multiculturalism, for practices of which we do not approve. Victoria Climbié’s terrible bruises were ignored because of assumptions about the cultural norms of African discipline. Last week it emerged that someone in government has sold the moral pass on polygamy: husbands with multiple wives in this country are now to get benefit payments for each wife.

In the midst of all this moral confusion and relativism, is the premier prelate in the land holding fast that which is good? Far from it. He is recommending multiculti legal cherry-picking, in which individuals would be free to choose the jurisdiction they preferred for certain matters. He even admits that his proposal introduces, “uncomfortably”, the idea of a market in the law, “a competition for loyalty”.

One encouraging sign is the almost universal fury that our foolish archbishop has aroused: he has miraculously united the irreconcilable in opposition to himself, from Christian extremists to mainstream Muslims, from Anglican vicars to godless Hampstead liberals, from Gordon Brown to backwoods Tories.

The archbishop and his few supporters insist that the media have misrepresented him and not many people have actually read the learned speech that he gave to a learned audience after his inflammatory radio interview. They are wrong. I haven’t seen any serious misrepresentation in the media, and reading his speech several times doesn’t exonerate him. Nor does it increase respect for his judgment, his command of English or his powers of ratiocination; he is woolly of face and woolly of mind.

In any case, you do not need to follow anybody’s argument to understand that legally recognising aspects of sharia is either unnecessary or undesirable. If the aspects in question accord with English law (the Anglican archbishop is speaking of England, presumably), there is no need to offer any extra provision or recognition for religious courts. They are of no interest to the law. If they don’t accord with English law, they are unacceptable and should be repudiated, or even prosecuted.

All this has nothing particularly to do with it being Islamic law at issue. The same would apply to any other religious law: Hindu, Mormon or wiccan. However, there is a lot to be said against sharia and the desire of a reported 40% of British Muslims to live under it. That explains, in part, the present outrage. Sharia is rightly feared here: it is disputed, sometimes primitive, grievously in need of reform and wholly unacceptable in Britain.

So what possessed this troublesome priest to stir up this predictable fury with his divisive and unnecessary suggestions? Why did he choose to speak not just in a quiet academic meeting but also in the public glare of The World at One? And cui bono? It has most certainly not been good for ordinary British Muslims, as they well understand. It has, however, given comfort to Muslim extremists, who will see this as the thin end of their Islamist wedge.

Williams’s behaviour looks like vainglorious attention-seeking, but it is also something much worse. To seek to undermine our legal system and the values on which it rests, in a spirit of unnecessary appeasement to an alien set of values, is a kind of treason. It is a betrayal of all those who struggled and died here, over the centuries, for freedom and equality under the rule of law and of their courage in the face of injustice and unreason. Theirs is the good that we should hold fast and so of all people should the Archbishop of Canterbury. Otherwise, what is he for?

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 3rd, 2008

The joyous freedom of the frisky fifties

There is a sense at fiftysomething of burdens falling away, of old struggles abandoned

In these gloomy days it is cheering to be told that it’s fun to be 50, particularly if one is 50. It is not, we were informed last week, that 50 is the new 40 or the new 30; it seems that fiftysomething is positively better than fortysomething or thirtysomething – friskier, flirtier, fitter and much less depressed than those unhappy people clinging miserably to late youth, as we now call it. And that’s not all: old age is apparently happier than middle age and just as happy as youth. Things can only get better, as the Labour party used to say.

The two sources for this uplifting news are what one must call mixed. One is a survey commissioned by Saga magazine, the sprightly publication for the overfifties; it found that 65% of those questioned who were aged 50 or more said they were sexually active, with 46% of these saying they “got between the sheets at least once a week”. That doesn’t sound frightfully frisky to me, but does at least suggest signs of life. What’s more, many of the respondents said they found sex more fulfilling and “less pressurised” than in their youth.

Emma Soames, the glamorous editor of Saga, said: “These findings shatter the myth that once you hit 50 your sex life is over. There is less pressure than when people were younger and it is likely that you feel more comfortable about your body.” She went on: “Forget about the dirty thirties or the naughty forties. The frisky fifties are having the most fun.”

There is a downside to all this. More and more of the frisky fifties, not to mention the sexy sixties and scintillating seventies, are getting STIs, or what they in their youth used to call VD. Lots of respectable elderly ladies and gentlemen are now shyly visiting clap clinics because, apparently, they were under the impression that only young people got herpes and gonorrhoea. Perhaps the government should start free refresher sex education classes, along with free bus passes. But the encouraging aspect of all this is that older people are getting about a bit, making new friends and taking gentle exercise in this way.

The other source of consolation about time’s winged chariot is a rather weightier psychological survey of 2m people in 80 countries, by two economists. Professor Andrew Oswald and Professor David Blanchflower have found that 50 really is more fun. They don’t exactly put it that way; they argue that a miserable middle age is a global phenomenon, regardless of money, gender, family and health.

What they mean by middle age, confusingly, is not fiftysomething, but forty or even thirtysomething. They have found a worldwide, U-shaped curve of psychological wellbeing with the most miserable period in the forties. This midlife depression is universal, it seems, and Britons are most depressed at 44. “Only in their fifties,” says Oswald, “do most people emerge from the low period,” and by 70, someone in good health is as likely to be happy as a 20-year-old. So the fifties really might be friskier.

This idea that there is something better and brighter about advancing old age is too good to disbelieve. I intend to get up every day reaffirming my faith in it. Sceptics of course might well say that the fifties and the sixties are an awkward age, at least in this country. Many baby boomers are caught between the needs of elderly parents and dependent adult children who can’t afford to leave home. What lies ahead does not look good – rising taxes, low-earning children, a much reduced pension, filthy hospitals, nasty old people’s homes and almost no chance of social care at home.

All the same, among fiftysomethings who are reasonably well and well off there are signs that life is getting better, both relatively and absolutely. And they call themselves middle aged for far longer – well into their sixties, it seems. Recently, skiing in Austria, I noticed that underneath the bobble hats of the people swooping confidently down the slopes, the hair was almost always grey, or else expensively streaked Knightsbridge blonde. Thirty or 40 years ago one didn’t see grey hair on ski lifts. Now it’s quite common to see skiers of 70 or 80, and 50-year-olds feel quite young.

People over 50 often look surprisingly young as well, compared with their parents’ generation. That is partly because they – perhaps I should say we – reject the idea of getting old; it is anathema to baby boomers who remember the Who in 1965 singing “Hope I die before I get old”. This extended youth isn’t only a matter of attitude; it’s also largely due to modern medicine and modern nutrition, if not always a little modern cosmetic intervention.

However, clinging to youth is clearly not the secret of happiness in middle age, although looking young may contribute to it. The secret, I suspect, has more to do with letting go. We seem to be hard-wired to do it. There is, at least for the fortunate, a sense at fiftysomething of burdens falling away, of old struggles abandoned, of a new freedom from the torments of ambition, or at any rate a better way of dealing with them. For women the oestrogen wars are over and men are less the slaves of their own hormones too; this makes relationships all round a great deal less complicated.

There is something liberating about feeling that one is on the home straight; the race isn’t over yet, but most of it is behind us, like the anxieties along the way, and the outcome seems much more understandable and somehow much less important.

Our sons and our daughters are beyond our command, as Dylan said, and while it is sad to lose them to independence, it seems to come at the right time, again as if we were hard-wired to accept it. Years of the exhaustion and daily preoccupation of looking after young children fall away and suddenly there seems to be more time. We may worry that our little grey cells are dying in their millions, but there’s plenty of evidence that older people, until dementia sets in, often use their brains and talents more efficiently than the young.

These days some people probably do have the powers of late youth with the freedoms of middle age and old age. As to whether the fifties are any friskier than before, however, I doubt it.

As an old lady supposedly said to George Bernard Shaw, when he asked her at what age women lose interest in sex: “I haven’t the least idea. You see, I’m only 83.”

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 13th, 2008

A tot of hypnosis stopped me drinking

Over the Christmas period I was suddenly surprised by faith. I don’t mean that I found God; I mean that over a few days, against my preconceptions, I become a true believer in hypnosis. On December 5 I went to a hypnotherapist to be hypnotised into stopping drinking, and it worked.

As a scientific materialist, I have always been sceptical about alternative therapies. There may just be something in black boxes or Rolfing or homeopathy, but there just isn’t enough evidence – or in some cases any evidence – that they work. There certainly isn’t enough scientific evidence about any of them to justify chancing National Health Service money on them. All the same, hypnotism seems to have done something remarkable for me.

It began when my GP, who is a friend and knows I love medical talk, was discussing treatments of fashionable obsessive compulsive and eating disorders: he remarked that hypnotherapy seemed to work surprisingly well for some people. “Does it work for drinking?” I found myself asking. He replied that it was worth trying and recommended someone nearby.

This is not a confessional column. I am not proposing to use the word alcoholic. I reject the notion of middle-aged, middle-class binge drinkers. All I am saying is that I recognised late last year that the time had come for me to take control of alcohol before it took control of me; there are alcoholics in my family, and my husband’s parents conducted life afloat on a choppy sea of dry martinis, carefully chosen wine and digestifs. Hypnosis sounded quick, and if it worked, easy. So off I went.

If I had expected someone alternative looking with a beard I would have been disappointed. I was met at the door by a middle-aged man in a suit, who led me through an elegant house full of books, and spoke of an earlier career in business in the Far East. His manner was that of an Oxbridge don, though gentler.

He told me he might be able to help me, and that it would quickly be obvious whether he could or not. In any case, I would need two sessions at the most. He would give me a CD and he would teach me the beginnings of self-hypnosis as well. This inspired confidence – my experience of alterative therapists, and I have trawled round many for journalistic reasons, is that they are not usually inclined to say that it will quickly be obvious if they cannot do anything – rather the reverse.

My hypnotist offered me a comfortable chair in a quiet room and we talked at length. He explained his process and I explained my problem; then we discussed what I wanted to do about it. His process seemed simple. We were to prearrange a suggestion for myself – I decided mine should be to refuse all drinks, except one or, at most, two glasses of wine once a week to overcome writer’s block, if necessary, when writing this column. Then he would make this suggestion to me while I was under hypnosis.

First he talked me into a trance, to see how well that went. I was afraid that I would be too obstinate or too sceptical to be suggestible. I was worried that I might find the process funny, or that it wouldn’t work, and I’d have to pretend out of politeness that it had. But it did work. Over about 20 minutes he talked me down into a state of deep relaxation – like intense meditation – which induces a slightly altered state of consciousness. In this state one is supposedly more receptive to hypnotherapy, but only to suggestions of which one approves. I felt detached and relaxed but exceptionally aware at the same time. My neck lolled over and started aching, but even that did not disturb my mood until the hypnotist talked me out of that state.

Since this had gone well, after further conversation the hypnotist induced the state again, and made our agreed suggestion to me, as I lay back blissed out. Then he talked me out of the trance state and invited questions. A few days later I came back and he taught me a technique of self-hypnosis to reinforce my “suggestion”, and another mind-trick called anchoring, which helps to deal with moments of temptation. Then I wrote a cheque. That was it.

All I can say is that it worked. I am sorry to say that I haven’t used the CD or the self-hypnosis technique. Even so, through the Christmas parties, the trials of Christmas itself, the dark days of the end of December, I did not drink, except for a glass of wine a week. I still haven’t. I have sipped fizzy water. I have wanted to say no. The only exceptions – which revealed something surprising to me – were on my birthday, a week before Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve.

On my birthday a few friends came for a drink round the Christmas tree and, readers, the man tempted me. My husband, handing me a glass of champagne, said I should certainly have an occasional drink on a special occasion, and try not to be boring and puritanical. So I took a sip. But I didn’t want it! I felt bad about it! I didn’t even want to hold the glass, and quickly put it down. And I am someone who drinks champagne like water, given the opportunity. The same thing happened on New Year’s Eve; under pressure to be more fun, I drank two small glasses of wine, didn’t want them, didn’t enjoy them and immediately developed a headache that lasted until the next day. And I am someone who has almost never had a hangover. Writing this column over Christmas, I found myself pouring my hardly touched glass of wine into the kitchen sink, to the astonishment of my little Irish nephews.

This resolution may not last, I know. It isn’t always easy. I do miss drinking, both when gloomy and when cheerful. I do feel that I am not much fun, stone cold sober at parties, and – equally – I notice that drinkers often turn into bores. I am planning a dispensation for holidays abroad. But I feel extremely well, I have hugely more energy, my memory is better and although I haven’t lost any weight, I’m told I look much better. Best of all, I have proved to myself that I can stop drinking if I mean to. As to whether it is hypnosis that stopped me, I shall probably never know. Perhaps the sessions were just a rite of decision-making, a formal recognition that I had made up my mind. Perhaps on the other hand, hypnosis does work, at least for some of the people some of the time.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

January 6th, 2008

The nasty choices needed to save the NHS

July 5 this year will be the 60th birthday of the National Health Service. The NHS has come to occupy a place in the national psyche that is almost religious: every politician has to declaim, sooner or later, and often, “I believe in the NHS”, or face electoral limbo. Anyone putting forward serious criticism or suggesting change risks heartfelt disapproval, as if both our sole article of national faith and our most powerful repository of identity were being desecrated.

So it is hardly surprising that almost before the new year had begun both Gordon Brown and David Cameron had come forth with statements of impassioned commitment to the NHS. Brown got in first but his effort backfired hilariously with his comments about the rights and responsibilities of NHS patients seeking treatment; the media, in the absence of much news, headlined this as a threat to deny treatment to fatties and smokers � something that is often done already, but at which the prime minister was unwise to hint.

Cameron followed with his tribute to its founding idea of fairness for all. And tomorrow Brown is going to deliver what is inevitably called a “keynote speech”, rousingly entitled The Future of our NHS: Personal and Preventative. Since it can no longer be denied that all is not well with the NHS, both men are calling for something that their parties have discussed for several years � an NHS constitution.

Oddly enough it doesn’t have one; it has been the typical British muddle, based on a noble and impossible idea � comprehensive and equal treatment for all, free at the point of need.

I suppose a constitution might be a good idea, although personally I wouldn’t start from there. But the point is surely that any constitution will be quite useless unless those who write it are prepared to grasp several nettles which politicians have for decades found too painful to touch.

First is rationing. Nearly all of us now know that the NHS � the taxpayer � cannot afford to pay for all the treatments and drugs that are already available, still less for those that will be developed in the future.

The demand is going to be almost infinite; tax receipts are not. As more conditions become treatable and patients’ demands become more sophisticated, this problem will soon be a great deal worse.

Everyone knows this and most people admit it, except for politicians. Doctors and think tanks have been pressing the government to recognise it for years. The Institute for Public Policy Research reported in 2000 that the public would lose confidence in the NHS unless the government admitted that state healthcare must be rationed. Indeed it already is, one way and another.

For instance, Saga magazine and Populus have published a survey suggesting that one in six people over 50 had been denied treatment on grounds of cost. More than half the doctors replying to a survey in Doctor magazine said patients were suffering as a result of being denied treatments on grounds of cost. The chairman of NHS Alliance, which represents NHS trusts, commented that “rationing is the great unspoken reality”.

The other nettle that nobody wants to grasp is fairness, or to use that infuriating cant word, “equity”, which seems to conflate fairness and equality. Equal treatment for all is a first article of faith. However, it never has existed and never could, simply because doctors and nurses vary hugely in their abilities and experience. Even in the same hospital, two surgeons will have very different death rates, particularly in certain specialities. Patients, too, vary hugely in their ability to make the best use of services, right down to taking their medicine properly. All this is unfair, but unavoidably so.

Fairness and equality are at odds with what both Brown and Cameron say they want � local power, professional autonomy, devolution and diversity. That inevitably means having the notorious postcode lottery: one GP surgery or one hospital will do things differently from another. I am in favour of breaking up the monolithic power of the NHS altogether and having services offered by autonomous providers. But if you want a unitary NHS, it cannot be both localised and centralised. All this falls firmly into the category of “no easy answers”. That is precisely why it is high time to reconsider what exactly a National Health Service can realistically provide: most of the assumptions of 1948 are no longer relevant.

The idea of a free and universal service has been abandoned with the introduction of charges for dentistry, glasses and prescription. So has the principle that everyone is entitled to the same care � smokers, fat people, old people and heavy drinkers are already denied treatment and some candidates for dialysis or organ transplants inevitably find themselves at the bottom of the list.

If politicians were prepared to face these intractable problems, they might come up with unpleasant suggestions for rationing. I would start with the beginning and the end of life. It does not seem right to me that hugely expensive efforts are made to keep very premature babies alive only to lead a life of severe disability. Nor do I think it is right to strive to keep very old people alive; there was something to be said for pneumonia, “the old man’s friend”.

In the “national conversation” that Brown will undoubtedly call for tomorrow, I would mention that nearly half the NHS budget is spent on people aged over 64 and nearly a third on those over 74. These proportions are rising, according to Department of Health statistics for 2002-03 which I got in 2005; last week the department told me it could not give me updated figures as it does not keep them. I wonder why not. Are they considered too disturbing?

If I were elderly I hope I would consider my need for expensive cancer drugs less important than a young mother’s. Equally, although my default response is always for the freedom to smoke or hang-glide, I am entitled to feel differently if your freedom to give yourself coronary artery disease and diabetes competes with my child’s medical treatment. I regret to say Brown is right about that. These are all nasty thoughts, but without thinking them through the NHS will not survive many more birthdays.