The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 6th, 2009

Toff-baiting, the dangerous sport that will hurt you too

‘Will you join me,” Sir George Young (Con) asked the Rt Hon Harriet Harman (Lab) in the Commons last week, “in condemning the prime minister for launching a class war against those with aristocratic connections who were educated at a public school?” Answer, not surprisingly, came there none. For Ms Harman has aristocratic connections and was educated at a leading public school. She was therefore in an awkward spot: if she, with her toff cred, has been found acceptable at the highest levels of a Labour government, it is hard to see why that same toff cred must make David Cameron unfit for high office, as Gordon Brown sneeringly suggested last week. She wisely ducked the issue and sat down. The rest of us, however, are not obliged to duck the issue. We can join in condemning Brown for trying, with his demented smirk, to let slip the dogs of class war. He may well fail, as he did in Labour’s ludicrous by-election campaign last year at Crewe and Nantwich, when party activists in top hats and tails mocked the Tory candidate as a Tarporley toff, until he won the seat with a huge 17.6% swing. But this does seem to be the beginning of another Labour onslaught on Tory toffs. An early salvo has been John Prescott’s emotionally incontinent performance in a radio interview as he blustered and stuttered about background and education and money and unfairness. Eric Pickles, for the Conservatives, added to the fog of class war by going on about being working class himself, as if he in person could serve as expiation for any Tory toffery that cannot be denied. The only important question here is whether toffs — any toffs, of any party — are fit to represent us politically. Those who suggest not have to explain why. Is it that toffs have no right to represent us because of their class guilt or our class hatred? Or is it that they are not capable of representing us, because they are too limited by their background? Is there something about being rich, highly educated and well travelled that makes them unfit for office? To say so is not only mean and dishonest. It is dangerous as well. Snobbery is a two-edged sword. For what if the kettle turned on the pot? The posh toff kettle could say the prole pot from a sink estate or a bog-standard school, whose education is poor, whose experiences of the wider world are necessarily narrow and who knows little of commerce or culture or wider society, is surely limited himself or herself. These days, of course, it is unacceptable to say of a person of limited background that those limitations are a handicap. I shouldn’t be surprised if it were illegal, under the rulings of some equality body. And yet it is acceptable to suggest, and to repeat all over the media, that people of a background that is far from limited are by virtue of that background unfit for public office. Brown’s jibe at Cameron was that his tax policy proposal was “dreamt up on the playing fields of Eton”. A rational person must ask what is necessarily wrong with a policy dreamt up on, or rather from, the playing fields of Eton. Whatever one may hold against Eton, nobody can deny that its playing fields have fostered hundreds of outstandingly talented, inventive men who have served this country outstandingly well. The only problem with the playing fields of Eton is that not everyone can play on them, and that is a feeble reason for denouncing the policies of those who have: what is at issue is the policy, not the person or indeed the fields. Everyone must know how, historically, inverted snobbery and toff-bashing became acceptable. Good manners and proper feeling have always demanded that nobody should patronise anyone of modest background, yet in the past toffs regularly did so nastily, without even bothering to disguise their feelings of superiority and entitlement. That was hateful and still is but that does not make it right to inflict the same wrong on the inoffensive toffs of today. I am not an apologist for toffs; my experience is that they vary hugely and some are dreadful. There were some unspeakable toffs at Cambridge when I was there. A group of them once tried to throw me into King’s College fountain, objecting to my dishevelled leftie appearance, I suppose, and reminding me of the toff brutality described so mercilessly by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall. Like every woman of my generation, I know what it is to be insufferably patronised by men. I sympathise with anyone who is condescended to, for any reason. Even so, I have no sympathy for the widespread desire to write toffs off as useless or to assume that they are all “out of touch”, in the usual indictment. It comes, I think, from the much wider contemporary idea — a piece of contemporary cant — that only people who have experienced something personally can understand it. Perhaps this is a by-product of the 1970s feminist insistence that the personal is the political. According to this thinking, since toffs haven’t, presumably, had the same experiences as most people, they cannot understand or speak for most people. This idea is surprisingly widespread and surprisingly important. In disability politics, in my experience, many people assume that you cannot understand what disability means unless you have direct personal experience of it. I discovered this when I found that if I said unpopular things in meetings I was shouted down, until it occurred to me to say that I did have close personal experience of disability — at which point I suddenly found it possible to get a hearing and to be taken seriously. This is all wrong. If human understanding were limited to direct experience we would still be living in caves. What humans have is imagination — the liberation of the imagination vastly extended by the power of education. Imagination means that men can write exquisitely about women, for instance, without the personal experience of being female. Scientists can dream up new things far beyond personal experience, and some have indeed done so from the playing fields of Eton. Slaves can dream of freedom, without knowing what it is. Even the poshest of toffs might have the imagination to see life as others see it, or the intelligence to come up with a coherent political policy, despite the grave disadvantages of an outstanding education and the best that a good background can offer. To pretend otherwise is to be a hypocrite, or else a desperate, dog-whistling politician.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 29th, 2009

Our hospitals may be bad but our regulators are worse

Another week, another hospital scandal. The story is beginning to be all too familiar: dozens of patients dying needlessly, in filthy conditions that would shame a Third World country. It emerged on Thursday that inspectors making unannounced checks in October on Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust discovered a collection of horrors: blood spattered on floors and curtains, mattresses soaked with foul-smelling stains, contaminated equipment, a high rate of pressure sores among the elderly, long waiting times in the accident and emergency department and, worst of all, poor nursing care, with old people deprived of food, attention and dignity. As a result, about 70 people in the care of the Basildon and Thurrock trust may have died needlessly: its mortality rate is a third higher than the national average. Ministers and media expressed shock and horror, but within hours there was news of another scandal of just the same sort. On Friday the regulator Monitor, which supervises NHS foundation trust hospitals, announced it had sacked the chairman of the Colchester Hospital University NHS Foundation Trust: Colchester also has higher than average mortality rates. Monitor charges the trust with poor leadership, long waiting times, poor infection screening, poor children’s services and worsening patient satisfaction. It is not often that someone gets sacked these days — something must be really bad. That makes three hospital horror stories this year, counting the reports in March about conditions at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust; 400 people died there needlessly. Monitor has concerns about a further eight trusts. What on earth is going on? It is bad enough that we have some — perhaps many — dreadful hospitals, even though the NHS budget has tripled in the past decade. What is even worse is that it seems difficult to have any confidence in the many people and organisations responsible for overseeing hospitals and anticipating these problems — not just bad hospitals but bad supervision. Why has it taken so long for these bad practices and poor outcomes to be noticed? The mortality figures have been available for more than 10 years. In the case of Basildon and Thurrock, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the new independent regulator for all health and social care in England, was the body that inspected the trust and published the dreadful findings. Yet last month it posted on its website a glowing report on the trust, giving it 13 out of 14 for cleanliness and 5 out of 5 for keeping the public healthy. This report, astonishingly, is still there. The CQC knew this information was wrong; it must have realised the report would be misleading to the public who went to the site to check hospitals’ performance. Yet it has left the report on its site. One can only wonder about the information on other hospitals. Why should one trust any of it? Baroness Young, the chairwoman of the CQC, found herself in an impossible position last week, confronted with this inconsistency. Wriggle as she would under the probing of the Today programme, she could do no better than to say her organisation is only eight months old and the report on the website was done months ago under the previous regime — the Healthcare Commission — and things are going to be much better now. She failed to deal with the problem of public trust. She also failed to inspire confidence in her strange attack on the methodology of hospital mortality figures provided by Dr Foster Intelligence, an organisation the public might actually be able to trust. It is a partnership between the NHS and the Dr Foster unit at Imperial College; it provides monthly and carefully adjusted mortality figures across the NHS, which are known for their reliability and which have directly prompted all the recent investigations into problem hospitals. Dr Foster now makes a point of writing to all NHS hospital chief executives to warn them when their mortality rates begin to rise. I wonder what Baroness Young thinks is wrong with the figures or their methodology. The rest of the CQC seems to think they are all right and a useful tool for looking at hospital performance. In fact, everyone seems to accept the Dr Foster figures apart from a few ministers. On Saturday morning, for instance, Andy Burnham, the health secretary, called for an investigation to uncover high death rates across the NHS. But that information exists already, in neat monthly packages from Dr Foster Intelligence; there can be no point in calling for it, other than wearisome politics. Altogether this government’s NHS policies bring to mind an interfering child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Since 1997 we have had six secretaries of state for health. That means an average of two years in post. It is impossible for anyone to understand the essentials of our byzantine health service in such short fits of attention. As for the regulators, including the one Baroness Young seems to think was not up to snuff, we have had at least three upheavals of regulations under Labour — the Commission for Health Improvement, then the Healthcare Commission and now the CQC. Such constant change must be at odds with good management. It is hardly surprising that the public has become so suspicious; there may not be many data about the death of trust in this country, but the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Who monitors the monitors? Not only hospital regulation is at issue. All around us this question keeps emerging. To the weary citizen, the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war looks just another attempt to avoid any awkward truths. No one is to be on trial; no one is to be blamed. No one has to appear, either, and Macavity Brown, to his shame, won’t be anywhere to be seen. Who is there to insist on what’s right? The Ofsted report last week was deeply depressing for its cautiously expressed findings — failing schools, illiterate children and poor teaching. What’s worse is that Ofsted and its predecessors have been inspecting and reporting fairly cheerfully for decades, while standards have fallen lower and lower. The Walker inquiry into banking is yet another affront to an angry public. Who is there to insist on public probity? That is the question, sadly. Who will guard the guards themselves?

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 22nd, 2009

Sadly, most people with a learning disability should not have children

When my little sister was a child in the 1960s, we never said to her that she was mentally handicapped; no one in our family would ever have considered doing so. One day, though, when she was about 10, she received a visit from a social worker, as she did occasionally, perhaps because my mother was receiving money from the council, and this person left my sister in tears. “She says I’m mentally handicapped,” said my sister, sobbing. “What does that mean?” I asked, hoping the social worker had not said anything even more upsetting. “She says it means I can never get married and have children.” My sister is now, like me, a woman of a certain age although, unlike me, she has never married. We are very close, although we live two hours apart. We speak on the phone at least once a day and recently she has begun to email me as well, with help from care workers. She is usually on my mind and never more so than last Thursday, when BBC2 transmitted a documentary called Emma and Ben, about a young couple with Down’s syndrome who are deciding whether or not to get married. In the end, despite their obvious love and tenderness for each other, they decide against marriage, but they go through a lot of anguish along the way. One of Emma’s concerns is that she would not be able to cope with babies, although a care worker points out that getting married need not mean having children. Even sadder than the fading of the couple’s dreams was, to me, Emma’s constant reflection on her predicament as someone with Down’s and on the limitations that she feels, which we, the viewers, come to understand a little. Anyone who has ever been close to such a situation, or to anyone like Emma or Ben, will be moved to tears by this film. Its transmission coincides with a recent news story in Scotland about another young woman with a learning disability (LD) who very much wants to get married. Kerry Robertson, a pregnant girl of 17, fled with her fiancé from her home in Dunfermline to escape the powers of Fife social services. Local social workers made them cancel their church wedding in September, and all their plans for the flowers and the reception, on the grounds that Kerry lacks capacity, in the legal phrase, to understand the implications of getting married. They have also told Kerry they may take her baby away after birth because of her learning disability, in the baby’s interests. All these things are unspeakably difficult. You don’t need much imagination to have some idea of the shock and misery of Kerry and her fiancé, or of Emma’s anguish or of my sister’s heartbreak. I myself have had so much experience of the frustrations and hardships — as well as the happiness and achievements — of people with learning disabilities that I can never think or write on this subject without intense feeling for those concerned. So it is with a heavy heart that I say I believe that, in most cases, it is probably a mistake for people with learning disabilities to marry and have children. Every case and every person is different, of course, and in an ideal world everyone with LDs would have enough good and wise care workers to help them through all their choices in life. But this is not an ideal world, and in our real world, with its looming spending cuts, there are two glaring problems. One is the cost of care workers and another is the question of what happens to children born to a parent or parents who are intellectually impaired. It is a point of principle in the disability lobby that all people with LDs have every right to have and to keep their children, and it is indeed a universal human right. I entirely sympathise with the underlying feeling, but I believe it is all too often wrong. A senior social work manager boasted to me once that his proudest professional achievement, in line with this rights-led and inclusive philosophy, was to facilitate the marriage of two people with LDs, one of them blind, who then had two babies. When I asked what support they received, he said they needed 24-hour care, which involved three full-time trained workers on eight-hour shifts, with agency workers on top if anyone was sick. I hesitate even to try to put a cost on this. Yet in the same organisation other people with LDs were having their modest care packages cut by hard-pressed councils, while countless others were getting no care at all, desperately though they needed it. We live in a world of rationing and, with Britain’s frightening levels of debt, this is going to become ever harsher. Last week, for instance, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence announced that liver cancer patients could not have a drug that might extend their lives, because it was too expensive; there are terrible choices to be made about the use of public money. Even if money were no object, there is still the problem, with parents with LDs, of their children’s development. There is a growing body of evidence (across the entire population) that children whose homes are talk-poor, whose parents can’t or don’t communicate with them well and who can’t make careful plans and boundaries for them or help them with schoolwork, are children brought up to serious distress and exclusion. It is hard enough to be an adequate parent with supposedly normal intelligence. For someone of very low intelligence it is even harder. That is presumably why so many — 50%-60% — of babies born to parents with LDs are taken away by social workers, a horrifying thing but arguably, in many cases, the least worst thing to do. People with LDs who want children are said by their advocates in pressure groups to have “learning disabilities, not loving disabilities”. I think that avoids the issue. Love is not enough, although of course love is essential. Besides, a learning disability may in some cases involve emotional problems as well, including autism and challenging behaviour, which will make loving and consistent parenthood extremely difficult. I hate to be someone who thinks social workers may be right, sometimes, in removing a child from parents with learning disabilities. I hate to be someone who thinks it is unwise and unfair to encourage people with LDs to have babies and I certainly wouldn’t attempt to stop anyone. But wishful thinking is sometimes at odds with a sense of responsibility, as I think Emma and Ben came to feel. There are some things in life that all the love you have cannot change and cannot make better.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 15th, 2009

Oh nurse, your degree is a symptom of equality disease

One of the government’s sillier initiatives was its announcement last week that in future all NHS nurses must have a university degree. From 2013, all would-be nurses will have to have taken a three- or four-year university course to enter the profession. The disastrous consequences of this ought to be obvious to the meanest Whitehall intelligence. All sorts of people who might make excellent nurses will be put off, and lost to nursing: anyone who is not particularly academic; anyone who — frankly — is not particularly bright; anyone who has a vocation to care for patients without wishing for the most high-tech training; anyone who is unable to take on a mass of student debt on a nurse’s poor pay; any late entrants — and this at a time when the NHS is desperately short of nurses. Rare though it is for me to agree with any trade union, I believe the nursing unions Unison and Unite are right when they say that there is no “compelling evidence” that degrees for nurses would improve patient treatment. I have come across a great deal of anecdotal evidence quite the other way: that nursing degrees on a university campus with too little practical hospital experience have recently been producing graduates who are all too often, in the words of one consultant, “a liability on the wards” — not necessarily “too posh to wash” but often not much good at it, or at the important clinical observations that go with it. To say this is not to dismiss the value of demanding degree courses for any would-be nurse who is suited to intense academic and technical study. Such nurses should be able to take degrees and already can, though one might argue about the nature of the present courses: more than 25% of nurses already hold a degree. However, not all would-be nurses are suited to a university degree; just as people vary hugely, so do nurses, so do the nursing roles they are fitted for and so does the training that suits them best. Plenty of the best bedside nurses are not academic, and much essential nursing work does not depend on the dizziest heights of training. There is more than one way to be a “supernurse”, and a degree is not enough. As the nursing unions said last week, “The emphasis should be on competence, not on unfounded notions about academic ability.” The health minister, Ann Keen, has been making predictable noises about providing higher-quality healthcare, but the real motivation beneath all this, quite explicitly, is the desire of the Royal College of Nursing and the nursing establishment to raise the status of nursing, and to end the stigma of the “doctor’s handmaiden”. Nurses — or rather those who claim to represent them — want to have the status of professionals, on a level with doctors, and part of being a professional is having a degree. So nurses must have degrees. All of them. What’s particularly depressing is that this obsession with status is not unique to the nursing establishment; it has become a national obsession, of which this is just one expression. It’s what explains the feeling that everyone must go to university now and the government’s determination to turn 50% of all school-leavers into undergraduates, regardless of the consequences. (There have been some suggestions that the government welcomes the idea of sending all nurses to university because it will effortlessly bump up the student numbers closer to the promised 50%.) When I was a child only very few people, and only those of supposedly high learning and intelligence, called themselves professionals and had concomitantly high social standing. Now, increasingly, everyone is described as a professional, even journalists occasionally. This unthinking pursuit of professional status and distinction has been hobbled from the first by the uncritical pursuit of equality, as if there were no real differences between people; it is hard to proceed in both directions at the same time. If, in the name of equality, at least half the country, rather than a tiny academic elite as before, must have a degree, degrees must become easier, to suit a wider range of intelligence, and universities must accept a greater number than before of students who are less bright. If half of all sixth-formers need good A-levels to get to university, A-levels must become easier. If in the name of social justice more people ought to get upper seconds and firsts, degrees will have to become easier. But, quite inevitably, a degree that is easier is also by definition less professional. And a degree that is held by many is a degree that by definition has lost some of its status. You cannot have both equality and professional status: the attempt leads to some strange absurdities. A few years ago, when I was visiting a small day centre for young adults with marked learning disabilities, a member of staff proudly showed me some artwork and some typed pages produced by three young women as part of their submission for an NVQ certificate. Having just met these girls, I knew they could barely communicate, and certainly could not read or write, so I asked how they could have produced such written work. Their tutor admitted that they had done so “with support” and when I expressed doubts, she overrode them firmly, saying she thought “everyone has the right to a qualification”. Clearly she felt — she can scarcely have thought — that social inclusion in the form of a qualification was more important than the objective value of that qualification. That is the reductio ad absurdum of the muddled thinking that has overtaken us. Few would go so far, even in the disability lobby. However, it is not quite as remote as it might seem from public policy. For if, as many people think, 50% of the population should have university degrees, why not 75%? And why stop there? After all, that would be discriminatory. Why not degrees for all? And so — why not for all nurses? Tony Blair once declared that we are all middle class now, despite all the evidence to the contrary; these days he could almost as well say we are all professional now. Such has been the collapse of standards and the debasement of language and thought under his new Labour experiment.


November 9th, 2009

The case for forcing birth control on unfit mothers

The Dutch are odd. They seem so moderate, so practical, so sensible – a nation of considerate egalitarian cyclists – yet they take their virtues to extremes. They pursue common sense to a fault. For instance, there are plenty of arguments in favour of mercy killing, yet few nations feel quite able to make it legal. The Dutch did, with enthusiasm, long ago. The same is true of legalising cannabis and prostitution. Another example of this tendency emerged last week. Reports hit the blogosphere that a Dutch socialist politician, Marjo Van Dijken of the PvDA party (the social democratic Labour party), is putting a draft bill before the Dutch parliament recommending that unfit mothers should be forced by law into two years of contraception. Any babies wilfully conceived in that period should be confiscated at birth. Unfit mothers would mean those who have already been in serious trouble because of their bad parenting. There is, I suppose, a grain of common sense behind all that, but Van Dijken has taken it to what seem like scary extremes. One imagines Dutch do-gooders on bikes, descending on all the imperfect mothers of Holland and bearing away their babies in countless bicycle baskets, like totalitarian ex-post facto storks. In person Van Dijken sounds less alarming. She explains that the professionals who come into contact with families in difficulties all say the same thing. They see the same problems repeated again and again in certain families. It’s obvious from when social workers are forced to take the first child into care that it won’t be the last. Dijken’s idea is to try to prevent a new pregnancy in a family whose existing children are already in care until the situation has improved enough for them to be able to come back home. Two years might be a suitable period. If, after the suggested two years of compulsory contraception, the family is still not safe for children, the contraception order could be extended by a judge’s review. “If there’s a better way, a less invasive way, I will never mention my proposals again,” she says. If hers is not the answer to the problem, the question remains: what should be done about unfit parents? Children are increasingly being damaged by them. At the extremes, chaotic mothers who are prostitutes or addicts or mentally ill or just what my own mother called inadequate are condemning their children to the same miserable and disordered lives. Man hands on misery to man, as Philip Larkin wrote, and so does woman. Less extremely, many children are also being damaged by parents who are not so obviously unfit, but still bad enough to do serious harm. On Friday questions by Michael Gove, the shadow education secretary, revealed that more than 4,000 children aged five or under were suspended from school in Britain because of their troubled and violent behaviour. Of the 400 suspensions of children aged just two and three, 310 involved physical assault and threatening behaviour. Numbers of exclusion in all groups under 11 are increasing, mostly because of uncontrolled or violent behaviour. According to Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, nursery and primary schools are seeing more parents who have simply lost control: “It’s down to poor parenting.” Very bad behaviour at school at an early age is just the tip of a disastrous iceberg; hidden under the surface lies a future of illiteracy, unemployment, crime, broken relationships and unhappiness. Even before children of unfit parents get to schools, their destiny is blighted. Increasingly scientists are beginning to understand that neglect retards cognitive development or impairs it – as with the extreme cases of children in Romanian orphanages, who have never recovered from the personal and sensory deprivation they suffered. Language skills and social skills not learnt in infancy may never be learnt; trauma will be hard-wired into the brain. In plain English, an infant whose mother never reads or plays with him or her, who is constantly uncertain what will happen next and whether he or she will eat, or whether the mother will be enraged or demanding or high, is a child with a permanently damaged future. The cost of bad parents to such an individual is terrible, but it is also very high to the rest of society. Given all that, it cannot be right for inadequate mothers to go on giving birth to babies who are destined to be damaged and to inflict damage on others. Equally, it seems wrong to think of interfering with a woman’s freedom to have a baby. So we are left with the question of which evil is greater – interference with the mother’s freedom or the damage to her child and to society. As John Stuart Mill said: “To bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind, is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society.” A moral crime, I agree. But Mill goes on to say that “if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the state ought to see it fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. Taxing unfit parents, rather than temporarily sterilising unfit mothers, might seem more acceptable. But there are several glaring problems with this solution, too. Such parents won’t have any money to tax. And besides, the most unfit parent of all is the state; in this country its nurslings are condemned to exceptionally high rates of illiteracy, poverty, crime and mental illness. On Mill’s argument, the state here ought to be taxed for the disastrous treatment of its “looked-after” children. A simpler way to reduce the number of damaged children would be to give parents incentives not to have more than two children; after two, benefits would be withdrawn and larger housing could be withheld. It seems to me unfair to deny people any children at all. But it might be right to reduce the number to two. That would be fairer to taxpayers than expecting them to support families larger than their own and it might persuade genuinely unfit mothers that it is not in their interests to keep producing babies; they will be better off without. It is time that, like Van Dijken, we started asking these extreme questions.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 8th, 2009

Busy-bee MPs have lost their real purpose, so let’s cull some

In these dark days we all try to find little moments of amusement. Fortunately there is plenty of laughter still to be had at the MPs’ expenses comedy. Now that Sir Christopher Kelly has published his plans to punish MPs for their greediness and their silliness, and consign them to miserable backstreet bedsits, we can all sit back and enjoy their squeals of unselfcritical outrage. What is much more fun, though, is the fury of the MPs’ wives at Kelly’s idea of stopping them working for their husbands. Suzy Gale, married to the Conservative MP Roger Gale, is leading a cross-party group of MPs’ wives — and a few husbands who work for their spouses — who intend to protest vehemently. There have been tantrums in the Commons tearooms and talk of joint legal action. Suzy Gale says Kelly’s proposal is a mess and “we are jolly cross”. Now that’s telling them. How I laughed. I haven’t heard that expression since I left the hockey fields of my old-fashioned girls’ school rather a long time ago. We must not judge people by their dialects, I know, but a mature and educated woman, wife to a veteran legislator, who uses such a locution at such a time can only be called out of touch. Another political female who is comically out of touch on such matters is Helen Goodman, the work and pensions minister. Kelly has recommended that MPs should no longer be allowed to charge for cleaners or gardeners on their expenses. In response to this, Goodman solemnly announced last week that women would be put off standing for parliament unless they could have cleaning ladies on expenses. What’s more, she is accusing Kelly and his reforms of sexism, because it is women who usually do the family cleaning. The best of the joke is that she earns more than £96,000 a year as a politician at Westminster. I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to her to do as the rest of us do and either clean up ourselves or pay for a cleaner out of our own taxed income. Out of £96,000 one might have thought that should be feasible. How on earth does this minister for work imagine other working women manage? Perhaps she somehow doesn’t understand that there are millions of women and men out there who are sorting out their domestic cleaning without handouts from the taxpayer and also managing to confront domestic sexism, should they encounter it, without governmental support. A woman who can’t make her husband help with the housework, one way or another, or handle it on her own is hardly likely to have the political skills one might expect even of the humblest backbencher. Yet this is the calibre of minister that the present system does and must raise up. The funniest thing of all, though, is so many MPs’ passionate protests at the unfairness of all this. “Well,” the rest of us can say, grinning widely, “now you know what it feels like. You, at our expense, have been imposing unfairness upon all the rest of us, in all aspects of our lives, so fast and furiously that we could hardly keep up with the growth of our resentments and your injustices. Of course there’s been a great deal of unfairness to MPs. But if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t dish it out.” What emerges is that we no longer have any clear idea of what an MP is for. All sorts of ill-considered assumptions have led us to the point where we feel obliged to support an MP with his spouse and children, in two households, complete with constant travel, assistants, childminders, gardeners, cleaners, white goods and all the rest. The true cost must be ferocious; it’s normally something only the rich can do. Yet until now the public has not objected to this dubious idea. Most people do object to the sleight of hand by which parliament tried to pay MPs enough to cover all this through the back door of expenses. Even so, it seems, many people still think MPs ought to be able to have a full family life in two places — London and their constituency — and travel constantly as a family between them, but perhaps without any domestic cleaning. Kelly’s idea that MPs should accept a hotel room or bedsit when away from home on parliamentary business has seemed harsh, even to those who loathe politicians: it would be rather gloomy and would be all too likely to encourage yet more adultery and home-wrecking among MPs, who are oddly prone to it anyway. However, given that the MP system is more than ready for creative destruction, if we started from first principles and asked what an MP is for, we might arrive at some radically cost-cutting conclusions. Why is it necessary for MPs to spend so much time in their constituencies anyway? What do they have to do? And why live there? In my view, MPs waste huge amounts of their time and our money in their surgeries, doing things other people should be doing, and doing better: advising people on their problems with planning, healthcare, social services, schools, racism and sexism, dealing with minor grievances and eccentrics and acting — in some places — as paralegals for large numbers of constituents who are having citizenship difficulties with the Home Office. MPs should not be social workers or amateur therapists, or ombudsmen or paralegal outreach workers. They should be something different. But what? Members of parliament once had a function in making Westminster listen, occasionally, to the voice of the shires, the pits, minorities and the concerns of the people they represented. With mass communication and focus groups, that’s no longer necessary: such things can be better done by professionals, and are. MPs once had the function of thinking and voting independently, according to their best judgment. With the parliamentary whipping system, that is now impossible, at least for anyone aspiring to real power above the back benches. MPs once had the function of deciding the main policies of the country. With the growth of the European Union, most of that has been ceded to Brussels. The truth is that the constituencies don’t need them and Westminster doesn’t need them, or at least very many of them, and there’s no good reason we should pay so many so much. We do need more of the best minds on select committees, and more of the ablest from the real world outside. But generally we need fewer MPs, much less of their time and a great deal less of the expense of them. That is a cheering thought.


November 2nd, 2009

A golden chance for the BBC to return to what it’s good at

Now is the time for all good men and women to stand up and defend the BBC. Of course it is true that Auntie has turned into a greedy, confused vulgar old bat. The people looking after her are greedy, confused and irresponsible themselves, but she must be protected.

The BBC was, and could easily be again, something to be proud of, a force for good and unique in international broadcasting. It would be a great national loss if the Ross-Brand Radio 2 scandal were used as an excuse to destroy Auntie by all those who would love to see her brought down.

I share the general view that it is unforgivably nasty and cruel to torment a harmless man, publicly on air, by insulting him and his granddaughter in messages on his answerphone. The recording of these messages is much worse than the edited reports: Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand were like a pair of psychopathic school bullies on acid and even suggested that their victim might kill himself.

It is a mystery to many millions, and to me, that anyone should for an instant consider broadcasting such a piece of sadism, let alone the BBC. But Ross and Brand have their defenders. Such stuff has an enthusiastic audience and so the editors at the BBC must have thought at the time, when they decided to let this programme go out. Defending Brand and his show last week, Noel Gallagher of Oasis said: “You know what? There’s now a massive divide. Them and us.” That’s true and the BBC was on the wrong side.

Admittedly the waters are slightly muddy.

It is not so far clear, from the BBC’s own website report, that Andrew Sachs did refuse to give his permission to use the material. It may not be relevant that his granddaughter works as Voluptua, the Goth vampire stripper, for the group Satanic Sluts, has boasted about her liberated lifestyle and had indeed slept with Brand. And it is important that the BBC and its artists should be free to be offensive, within reason, or as people now say “edgy”, although if in doubt they can rely on the commercial media to take up the burden. It’s not as though sexual innuendo, bullying and abuse are underrepresented on the airwaves, edgy or not. Even so, the whole episode is without a doubt bad enough to call the future of the BBC into question.

This could be a wonderful opportunity.

Bloated old Auntie could at last be subjected to tough love and restored to her former glorious purpose by a strict new regime of self-denial and self-discipline. Instead, we see media jackals hovering.

Commercial television would love to be rid of the unfair competition suffered from the BBC – and understandably so. It is entirely wrong for a public service body such as the BBC to compete, with taxpayers’ money, against private sector media groups. So it’s hardly surprising that they welcome the corporation’s disastrous embarrassment.

Meanwhile, television apparatchiks and the great and the good come up with all sorts of hopeless tinkering to sort this injustice out, such as top-slicing – each one more complex, tedious and unworkable than the last. You cannot share out bits and pieces of the BBC’s public sector protection to the private sector. It always was a self-contradictory nonsense.

In all this the forces of commercial competition are supported by those who see no need for subsidised television at all – a motley collection of latterday Mary Whitehouses, extremist free marketeers who obviously don’t see much foreign television and those who wrongly think the BBC’s political bias is reason to shut it down.

Indeed it is quite hard for the BBC to defend itself these days. Quite apart from general dumbing down, vulgarisation and liberal bias, it has had plenty of scandals. As John Humphrys pointed out on the Today programme last week, there have been three in only a couple of months and each time the trustees talk about tightening editorial control. They are doing it again, having been astonishingly spineless throughout this drama. To hear Sir Michael Lyons, the top trustee, on the radio last week, or Sir Christopher Bland before him, is to hear what is wrong with the great and the good in our day – ineffective, overcautious, overprotective and with all the decisive elan of Dickens’s Circumlocution Office or, as Kelvin MacKenzie put it last week, “a diamond-encrusted dud”.

Meanwhile, the BBC has put out a remarkably nasty comment about the Queen and her genitals. And to my astonishment in Little Dorrit, Andrew Davies’s lavish BBC adaptation of the Dickens novel, a genteel Victorian lady was made to remark to a single gentleman that she thought Chinese ladies were different “down there”. Apart from being the most sensational anachronism, it is astonishingly vulgar – typical of the vulgarisation of the BBC, even in its best work.

I still believe that the BBC could rise like a phoenix from the ashes of its reputation if it tried radical simplification. The corporation should drop most of what it does. It shouldn’t be providing silly chat shows, game shows, local radio, pop stations, breakfast television, bought-in programmes and all the low-skilled, low-grade rest. The simple way to make these cuts is to remain firmly on the right side of Gallagher’s divide – the side of civility and maturity, of high standards, of education, even of elitism, of fairness and decency, of the good and of the best. That’s what the BBC is for.

First of all, it should abandon the commitment to serving every audience, a pledge made long before the explosion of the commercial media: others can do that. Besides, plenty of audiences are actually undesirable, such as the hard porn community and the paedophile community and the Wossy apologists.

The BBC should ignore them and serve audiences that need protection from the cold winds of the market or the stale breath of populist taste; it should dump programmes that others do as well unless it can do them better and stick to doing well things that others do badly or not at all. Quality news, documentaries, drama, education, religious programmes and comedy come to mind.

This would save the BBC millions and since, as Mark Thompson, the director-general, said not long ago, the BBC is “wallowing in a Jacuzzi of cash”, it ought to be able to do a lot less a great deal better. How about some value for all that money?

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 1st, 2009

Making Dramas Out of a Crisis

Just as fact is often stranger than fiction, so reality is sometimes more theatrical than theatre. Both Lucy Prebble’s acclaimed new play Enron and David Hare’s The Power of Yes deal with recent financial disasters and both suffer from the problem that what has been happening in reality is so spectacular and so complex that it defies the confines of drama. The greed, the vanity, the recklessness, the bizarre financial vehicles, the creativity, the pathological dishonesty, the unforgivable ignorance, self-deception and political irresponsibility all demonstrated by real people who are still alive (apart from a few suicides and heart attacks) have no need of the embellishment of the imagination. The financial and political forces driving all this are too difficult to explain within the conventions of a play. A better medium for such messages may be the documentary film. Several excellent documentaries have been produced about various aspects of this crisis. These have been enlightening and mesmerising, challenging one’s memories and ideas in a way that the best theatre does. For example, BBC2’s documentary about the fall of Lehman Brothers, The Love of Money, easily outshone The Last Days of Lehman Brothers, a BBC drama released at the same time about the same events. Reality — the real dishonesty, anger or shock on real people’s faces, coupled with a well-scripted factual explanation — was much more gripping than drama. Similarly, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, an independent documentary from 2005 about the spectacular rise and fall of the energy company, is both more startling and satisfying than Lucy Prebble’s version. That is not to say her Enron (at the Royal Court until 7 November) is not enjoyable. It’s easy to see why it has already had a huge success in Chichester, and will soon (most unusually for a Royal Court play) be transferring to the West End. The production is slick and fun and funny, rather in the way that Caryl Churchill’s 1987 Serious Money was a delight — singing and dancing with energy and visual imagination. As Enron develops, three blind mice appear inconsequentially at times. They are the members of the board, blind to the massive fraud being concocted. Meanwhile, the hubristic chief executive and his crazy finance director are feeding masses of toxic debt to menacing red-eyed raptors in the corporation’s basement, while upstairs the dealers dance frantically in the hysteria and exhilaration of the bubble in which they exist. The Lehmans are two corrupt twins in a single suit, the chief accountant is a ventriloquist and the lawyers are blind. In the midst of this constant agitation and exuberance, the chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, superbly played by Sam West, blossoms like a poisonous plant from nerd into charismatic master of the universe. This is very theatrical, but as an attempt to explain how the climate of the times made the Enron crash possible, and how the scam succeeded for so long, it didn’t do nearly enough. To turn the chairman, Ken Lay, into a bumbling Texan bore without much involvement when in fact he was wholly complicit, is to diminish both the story and its explanation. Perhaps that is because the writer felt any more complexity would have damaged its theatricality. David Hare approaches this problem in precisely the opposite way. He doesn’t even attempt to give his subject theatrical life. The Power of Yes: A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis (Lyttelton until 10 January) is less a play than an animated lecture. It is spoken journalism with visual aids, in a set which most of the time is barely more than a lecture hall. As Hare’s character says at the beginning, “This isn’t a play…It doesn’t pretend to be a play.” What we get is a playwright painstakingly trying, from a position of almost total ignorance, to learn how the crisis came about. From such a low starting point, he questions economics teachers, intellectuals, bankers, traders, hedge funders, civil servants, journalists — many of them actually named, such as “George Soros”, “Howard Davies”, “Ronald Cohen”, “Adair Turner”, “David Freud” and other real people, who presumably okayed the words Hare puts into their mouths — and he arrives at the best, fairest, simplest and clearest explanation of the whole thing that I have come across (apart from Bird and Fortune’s immortal comic explanation of subprime loans, to be found on YouTube). There will certainly be those who don’t agree with every aspect of Hare’s “story”. And I am not sure that a theatregoer with very little previous knowledge of this subject would be able to follow him right through. But it is certainly worth the effort. As one might expect, nobody comes out of this well, not even the relatively good guys. One who comes out particularly badly is Gordon Brown. Hare’s characters skewer him without mercy and “Hare” appears to accept their evidence. “Brown was completely uninterested in regulation,” says “Howard Davies” (an actor playing the real-life first chairman of the “light-touch” Financial Services Authority, which Brown set up). “He never made any criticism of anything we did.” Another character says, “Brown was happy with the City so long as it generated huge amounts of cash” — an incredible 27 per cent of his total tax take, according to another. “It was his cash cow. Of course he wasn’t going to regulate it.” “Howard Davies” and “David Freud” strongly blame Brown for “stoking up the boom, just when he should have been doing the opposite”, for a general election that never happened. “You say Brown is clever,” says “Freud”. “I don’t think he’s clever.” All this is extremely interesting for those interested in such things (and the house was packed). But it isn’t theatre. And if not, should it be in a theatre? To ask that is perhaps unfair to the production and to the actors, who managed to prevent a very dense text from being boring. But shouldn’t such a creation be presented in the Royal Geographical Society debating chamber or one of this country’s great civic halls? Or is it, on the other hand, a new departure in theatre proper, which theatrical conventions can perfectly well accommodate? The theatre of explication, perhaps? Journodrama? What David Hare has written is something very hard to find anywhere else — a demanding, well-considered analysis intended to enlighten and arouse a passionate response, and meant to be shared in public. If that is not theatre, it is close.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 18th, 2009

Whatever age children start school, teaching will be dire

Education, education, education. Last week the chief executive of Tesco, the country’s largest private employer, said publicly that school standards were “woefully low”: teenagers leave school unfit for work and employers “are often left to pick up the pieces”. Sir Terry Leahy, the Tesco boss, is not alone in taking this bleak view: the head of the Confederation of British Industry said many of its members shared Leahy’s opinions. The chief executive of Asda commented that “no one can deny that Britain has spawned generations of young people who struggle to read, write or do simple maths”. We do not need these top employers to tell us this. We know. The evidence for it is so familiar. Occasionally I wonder what, after all his promises, Tony Blair feels about his government’s betrayal of schoolchildren. Last week he was spotted in Westminster Cathedral visiting the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Perhaps he was hoping for divine intervention on this and other matters. Earthly intervention was on offer last week, however. Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University published his long-awaited independent review of primary education on Thursday and made some radical suggestions. His team’s view of what has happened in primary schools under Labour is exceptionally bleak: the report finds that successive ministers have imposed on teachers an unprecedented degree of control in a system with “Stalinist overtones”; it accuses the government of introducing an educational diet “even narrower than that of the Victorian elementary schools”. What the report recommends is delaying formal education until children are six, concentrating before that on play-based learning; abolishing Sats and league tables and replacing them with assessments by teachers; extending teacher training; and introducing more specialist teachers for subjects such as languages and music. One can only say, along with poor illiterate Vicky Pollard of Little Britain — an icon of failed education — “Yeah but no but yeah but no.” Yes, of course “formal education” isn’t necessary or desirable for five-year-olds, if “formal” means what it usually does. Yes, of course the best education for young children should be fun and playful and interesting to them, if that is what a “play-based curriculum” means. Of course many children can easily be put off learning for ever by excessively formal education. Of course it is true that better, more enjoyable teaching is the way to improve attention and discipline among little children, rather than stricter rules. Of course the current curriculum for five-year-olds is absolutely daft in its manic, stupid, unrealistic scope — try reading it. Of course Sats are worse than useless and should be dropped. Of course league tables have been counterproductive. And of course it is true that this government has tried to micromanage teachers’ every working minute, driving many of them out of the profession; the word “Stalinist” is right. Yes but no but: none of this is simple. I oppose any rigid, narrow education that blasts the joy of childhood and destroys children’s natural longing to learn — the teaching style of a Victorian elementary school. But I don’t believe that the teaching children get in year 1 these days is at all formal, in that sense — rather the reverse. I don’t imagine you see that kind of formal primary education anywhere now, except in private schools. What can the report be getting at? I suspect that at the root of its objection to “formal” education is a dislike of the government requirement — much ignored — to teach all children phonics from year 1; that is, from the age of five or so. Primaries have been too focused on the three Rs, the report says, to which one can only reply that if this is true, there is something horribly wrong with their focus — a clear case of aiming low and missing. One does not have to be Thomas Gradgrind to believe that a primary education that doesn’t teach all children to read, quickly and well, within a year is a failed education. A child who can’t decode words confidently at seven is a child handicapped for life. That doesn’t mean all children must start at four or five or six — many are not ready in any way, although others may already be fluent readers at three and four. But phonics itself — at the right age — can, with a well-trained, charismatic, fun-loving teacher, be good fun, as well as fast and efficient. It is forbiddingly formal only in the hands of poor teachers. Everything depends on the quality of the teacher. A bad teacher can put any child off anything. A bad teacher will be bad at play and play-based teaching, too, yet many have already retreated into it, imagining, wrongly, that it is easier. It is harder. Doing it badly — leaving deprived children who can hardly talk to grunt at each other in little groups — is worse than useless. Bad teaching is at the heart of all this. It’s true the Labour ministers have tried to micromanage teachers in every way, but there was a reason. They recognised, like their predecessors, that there were too many inadequate teachers getting poor results. But rather than sack them or revolutionise teacher training, they chose to try to make education teacher-proof by micromanagement. Daft, but understandable. Micromanagement is what you do when you don’t trust the employee. What’s wrong with the Alexander report, for all its right-minded ideals, is that its proposals depend on trusting teachers. And the truth is that teachers here and now cannot as a group be trusted. That’s why the curriculum and league tables and Sats were originally introduced, counterproductive though they proved. I apologise to the many good teachers out there. But the system has been brought low by poorly qualified, trained and motivated teachers, supported by their unions. Between them they managed to subvert the literacy hour, for example. Ask any turnaround head teacher what the most important change has to be and it is invariably to sack the bad teachers first, which is always extremely difficult. Poor teachers have been tolerated too long: the Alexander report says there is no evidence for Ofsted’s claim that schools now have the best cohort of new teachers in history. No single thing is more urgent, or more neglected, in education policy today than to put a bomb under teacher training and the outdated, lazy orthodoxy that has almost wrecked English teaching traditions. That’s what is most needed. Teacher training, teacher training, teacher training.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 11th, 2009

Barack Obama should never have accepted this tainted prize

How we laughed when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize. It was like giving a man a gong for helping to put out a fire that he himself had been stoking up. It was almost as funny as the news in 2007 that Tony Blair had been appointed a special peace envoy to the Middle East — yes, the Middle East — on behalf not just of the United States and Russia but also of the United Nations and the European Union. For those who enjoy gallows humour, the regular appointment of mass murderers and kleptocrats to the UN’s human rights commission is also quite amusing. How do all these circles get squared? What makes these international bigwigs put together all these preposterous deals? One thing is reasonably clear, through the fog of war and diplomacy, and it is that there is nothing reliably noble about the Nobel prize. Many of the people who ought to have won it didn’t. Several who certainly shouldn’t have won it did, such as Yasser Arafat and Le Duc Tho of communist North Vietnam. So I should not have been surprised to hear that Barack Obama has been offered the prize. What does surprise and sadden me is that he has accepted it. Like millions of other people, I admire Obama. I, too, was caught up in the general elation that a country with a shameful history of racism, my father’s country, could find a clever, well qualified, eloquent and charismatic candidate who was also black and then vote him into the White House. I thought then, and I still hope, that he may achieve great things. RELATED LINKS Obama’s Nobel prize is snub to Bill Clinton However, the glaringly obvious point is that Obama hasn’t achieved anything very much yet. As his Texan predecessor might have said, so far he has been all hat and no cattle. That is hardly surprising as he has been in office for less than 10 months, but it is both foolish and wrong of him to accept a prize for something he has not achieved. Perhaps he wanted it because two eminent fellow Democrats, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter, have got one too. As an American commentator said, it is like accepting an Oscar now for being likely to make an Oscar-winning movie next year. It casts great doubt on Obama’s judgment and integrity — can’t he see the Nobel nonsense for what it is? — and gives comfort to his critics. It makes this apparently decent man complicit in the sentimental ruthlessness and meaningless verbiage of most international bodies. But perhaps, for all Obama’s appearance of being better than them, he is really one of them, not one of us. It is anyone’s guess what the Nobel peace prize people are really up to. If it is odd to give out the prize before the winner has reached the goal, it is odder still to nominate him when he has barely crossed the starting line: the committee’s nominations for the Nobel peace prize this year had to be sent in by February 1, only 12 days after Obama had become president. Obama did almost nothing of any importance during those 12 days at the tail end of the Nobel nomination period. This is very Alice in Wonderland — all prizes to be declared before the start. It is also the way of the wicked old world and for that reason it is something a good man should be seen to avoid. Can it be that Obama is already intoxicated with the exuberance of his own celebrity? For that is all he is so far — a well-meaning super-celebrity. The Nobel people claim they are trying to promote what Obama stands for; they want to endorse his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy” and to encourage people to “go along with his concept of zero nuclear power”. They also claim there’s nothing new about awarding the prize for good intentions; that’s why Willy Brandt got it and Mikhail Gorbachev. One of their number said the committee wanted to encourage Obama, another said his win would help Africa. One can only feel grateful that they did not offer it to encourage Tony Blair for his high-flown rhetoric in his early days about healing the scar that is Africa and generally speaking about saving the world. The story of Blair is a cautionary tale that the Nobel committee ought to have studied before choosing Obama to bear the unbearable burden of world peace. Like Obama writ small, Blair came to power in Britain on a powerful wave of euphoria as an eloquent, decent man who really cared about people and who promised that his government would be whiter than white — I apologise to Obama and to black people generally but that is how Blair expressed his moral aspirations — and all kinds of people believed in him. For reasons I cannot understand, Blair quickly became much admired among international power brokers — and still is. But the inescapable truth is that he left office in deep moral disgrace, having (among other things) tricked his country into a terrible war; even the Nobel committee might have been embarrassed had it made the mistake of offering the untried Blair an anticipatory peace prize in 1997. I don’t mean to suggest that Obama is anything like the discredited Blair. But anything is possible. Stuff happens. The Nobel committee betrays an astonishing political naivety in endorsing Obama as a man of peace when the world is so unstable, the choices before him so imponderable, the power of the American establishment so unavoidable and when we still know so little of his real calibre. I can’t help suspecting there are other explanations behind this award. I suspect it isn’t about ideas or policies so much as about feeling. It’s about a feeling which is usually considered adolescent — the emotional hunger of the groupie. Adults now, more and more, seem to display the emotional incontinence of the teenager; in the case of Obama, this is made all the more acceptable because he is black. I suspect that Obama appeals to Nobel committee members, as to countless others given to hero-worship, both for the stardust he gives off and for the feelgood effect he has just by being black. Idolising Obama means you are a good person. This is inverted racism but I suspect it’s there: would a white man, just like Obama but not black, have been offered this prize? The question constantly asked by Sacha Baron Cohen’s subversive Ali G character keeps coming back to me: “Is it ’cos I is black?” And the answer in this case is probably yes — another excellent reason for Obama to turn down this prize and to earn his laurels for himself.