The Sunday Times

December 5th, 2010

Poverty can’t be solved without the notion of stigma, Mr Field

The government’s poverty czar, the Labour MP Frank Field, has issued a report into child poverty and what to do about it. Child poverty is still with us, despite all the money that Labour governments threw at it — about £134 billion since 1999. Labour had to admit last January that its promise to end child poverty by 2020 could not possibly be met.

As Iain Duncan Smith has said: “The UK spends more public money on children than most other advanced countries and gets some of the worst results.” Severe child poverty has actually been increasing; 1 in 8 children in Britain now lives in severe poverty. All in all, Labour failed to identify the long-term causes of chronic poverty, simply throwing more and more money after less and less success.

So Field has been considering a different approach, one which he claims will challenge some of the “1940s welfare state sacred cows”.

His view is that the cure for the cycles of poverty is not simply more money. It is to address the other kinds of deprivation in the poorest children’s lives; because of their parents’ inattention or ignorance, such children are talk-poor, story-poor, word-poor and play-poor. They’ve been taught next to nothing about manners or self-discipline or even sitting quietly to eat a family meal.

Recently it has begun to be understood how important this kind of poverty truly is. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it stunts the developing brain, which has mostly been formed by the age of three.

As Nick Clegg pointed out recently, children from poor homes hear 616 words spoken an hour, on average, compared to 2,153 words an hour in richer homes. By the age of three, that amounts to a cumulative gap of 30m words, an insuperable disadvantage in developing language and thought or that articulate confidence of children from talk-rich homes.

By age five, when children arrive at nursery school, it is almost too late to rescue the deprived ones emotionally and intellectually; each year the gap between their achievements and those of luckier children grows wider and wider. It is meaningless to talk of equal opportunities for such children; they have not developed the ability to grasp them.

Their life chances have been blighted in their infancy and not primarily because of their parents’ poverty. Their parents’ poor parenting matters more than poverty, according to Field and many others, which is anathema to the old left. An obvious proof of this is that some poor children here, such as the Chinese, do outstandingly well at school. Poor parents can be very good parents, if they know how or are taught how.

That’s why Field has proposed his alarmingly named life-chance indicators for testing children’s cognitive, emotional and physical progress every year.

These tests would also be used to test whether disparities between the poorest children and the rest were being reduced; service providers would be judged on this, although it is hard to imagine how. All this would be part of a new foundation years scheme from womb to the age of five, placing heavy emphasis on these crucial years on how to be a good parent.

There would be parenting classes throughout school life, a rationalisation of children’s services and much greater outreach to the families, with many more healthcare visitors, which the coalition has already promised to do by providing 4,200 extra Sure Start health visitors. The Sure Start scheme for early years education would still be used but would have to be radically reformed and “turned upside down”.

All this sounds very reasonable. It’s true that Labour’s materialist obsession with public money as a panacea is an old Labour sacred cow. As far as poverty goes, it’s true that Labour wasn’t working. Nor was Sure Start, which David Blunkett set up; it was hugely expensive and ineffective and if it is to be preserved at all it desperately needs a serious change. But none of this strikes me as particularly new, or particularly radical. There is a real danger that Field’s proposals will lead to more of the same because the thinking behind them is not very different.

What was wrong with Sure Start was that it was based on a muddle. It was supposed to be aimed at the most deprived children and the Sure Start centres were set up in deprived areas. But the old Labour obsession with stigma — the idea that people would be stigmatised by being singled out as problem families — married up with the old Labour obsession with universality, the idea that giving it all to everyone in the name of equality would avoid stigma. But quite clearly you cannot target the neediest, to raise them out of poverty, while at the same time refusing to target anyone at all because it’s stigmatising.

What happened was that all the lovely Sure Start centres and all their lovely free services for children and families were colonised by middle-class mothers living in inner-city areas close to the poor neighbourhoods, who began to feel entitled to it. Meanwhile, the neediest mothers didn’t visit the centres at all, partly because they felt ill at ease, or feared officialdom, or wanted to disguise some welfare scam. Personal outreach to these mothers in their homes largely failed, partly because there was and is a serious shortage of health visitors.

Field seems to have inherited this muddle. In his report he says Sure Start must return to its original vision of providing the greatest help to the most disadvantaged. But later, almost to contradict himself, he says the danger in Sure Start returning to its original purpose is that it might no longer be seen as a “non-stigmatising universal service”. Therefore all families should be drawn in. You just cannot have it both ways.

For one thing, providing the middle classes with services they don’t urgently need, or dreaming up events and ceremonies they might like, to draw them in, would be hugely expensive and bureaucratic, just as it has been until now.

And it sounds like the old statist, egalitarian mentality. As Field says more than once, the purpose of his report and his proposals is greater equality, “to change over the longer terms the distribution of income”. Lifting children out of poverty to much greater life chances is one thing, and obviously good in itself, in so far as it can be done. Doing so in order to change the distribution of income is quite another and it sounds to me exactly like “a 1940s welfare state sacred cow”. Something much more radical is needed.

The Sunday Times

November 28th, 2010

Ugly words but true: welfare does encourage larger families

Conservative politicians should be issued with a list of forbidden words. High at the top should be “stock” and “breeding”. Not far down should be “deserving”, “irresponsible” and “duty”. Perhaps there should also be a general Tory requirement to avoid making any public statements at all unless given the party seal of approval as “safe with words”.

Alastair Campbell was right about this in his determination to keep even the most insignificant of Labour backbenchers on message, because in these high-surveillance days it isn’t what you say that matters so much as the way that you say it: there are ears and eyes and bloggers everywhere. And there are plenty of politicians, as we know to our merciless delight, who have a disastrous gift of the unacceptable gab.

If only, for example, Howard, soon to be Lord, Flight had had such a list, or had been under such a general self-denying ordinance, he wouldn’t be in such trouble now for his impromptu remarks in a newspaper last week. He wouldn’t even have given the interview, because it was entirely unnecessary to anybody or anything, except perhaps to his own amour propre. And as he himself said in that interview, “partly because of media scrutiny, MPs feel they cannot say anything except the blandest nonsense”. How true. They are right. Why, only days after Lord Young’s disastrous comments, did he not follow his own advice? Flight was unwise to open his mouth at all before he is safely installed in the House of Lords. But for some reason he chose to give the London Evening Standard the benefit of his views, including his thoughts on the government’s child benefit policy, which will cut payments to those earning more than £44,000 a year.

“We’re going to have a system,” he said, “where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive but for those on benefit there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”

Later, talking of sharp rises in university tuition fees, he said he feared that, as with child benefit, the rich would be fine and the poor would be subsidised, leaving what he called the “lower middle” trapped in the middle and unable to improve themselves (or, presumably, to improve their numbers).

Any fair-minded person must see that while Flight expressed himself foolishly and insensitively, in no-go words and in some confusion about class and income, there is nonetheless some truth in what he said, especially if one considers the entire interview, which of course headline writers and political enemies never do, as he should have known. “Not very sensible” of him, to use his own words, but even Red Ed Miliband is starting to talk in his incoherent way about the “squeezed middle”.

Flight has been forced to grovel in public, and his future is in doubt because David Cameron is understandably furious at his idiotic outburst and the blogosphere is full of rage, but there is something wrong with public discourse here if ordinary people cannot take a fair-minded view.

The media reacted as if this were a top story. They were quick to see a resemblance to the notorious remarks of Sir Keith Joseph, who said in 1974 that “our human stock is threatened” by the rise of poor unmarried mothers. But Flight said nothing of the kind. He may be rather unaware of life as it is lived — he seems to be suggesting that life on about £40,000 is lower middle-class when in fact only 15% of the population earns this or more — but he is not a Nazi; there isn’t the slightest whiff of eugenics or class supremacism in what he said, however lordly his manner. When he referred to “breeding”, with all its tabloid connotations of rabbits and licentious untermenschen, he was referring to the reproductive reluctance of the middle classes.

There is some evidence that tax and benefits influence the number of children people choose to have, which is what Flight was suggesting. In 2008 the Institute for Fiscal Studies reviewed the impact of new child-related welfare, such as Gordon Brown’s tax credits, which increased as the number of children born to a family increased. This study found that between 1999 and 20003 government spending on such benefits went up by 50% in real terms. At the same time there was an increase of 15% in births among low-income families.

One might argue that the coalition government’s plan to stop paying child benefit to higher-rate taxpayers (those earning more than £44,000) is hardly likely to discourage better-off people from having the number of children they want — child benefit makes less difference to better-off families, although it is still important to families on £44,000 gross earnings. But this argument ignores the other cuts that higher taxpayers now face, on top of the new child benefit cuts. These working households will have their tax credits removed and will also face much higher rail fares.

There is also the important fact that families on welfare have more children and are given bigger houses at the taxpayer’s expense, while working families are not, yet cannot afford to buy bigger properties in the private sector if they do have more babies.

There can be little question that Flight is largely right: the rich and those on benefits can afford to have big families without changing their lives much, while working families, even many in the top 15% of earners, cannot dream of doing so. That isn’t fair or prudent, given the huge difference between the life chances for children in welfare families and children in more independent working families.

The system amounts to a set of perverse and unjust incentives in family life . To say that is not in any way to hint at “stock” or “breeding”. If fairness were to be at the centre of such benefit policies, it would mean restricting child benefit to only two or three children; this would mean that, apart from the rich, all families, including welfare families, would face the same limit to the number of children they could afford — the limit now faced in practice by most parents who are not on welfare.

It has always been good sport to jeer at public men and women who make crass political mistakes, and I enjoy it as much as anyone. Politicians are fair game, especially when they haven’t the slightest idea of how they seem or sound to the rest of us. But sometimes I feel there is a nastier mood surrounding such sport these days: it has turned into a gladiatorial bloodlust, and the victim is frequently not just the politician but also free speech and truth.

The Sunday Times

November 21st, 2010

The gaping immigration doors our MPs are too timid to close

The true legacy of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and new Labour is different from what they imagined or intended. They bequeathed a population explosion due to uncontrolled immigration during their time in office that will almost overwhelm this country unless the coalition government is bold enough to try to control it now.

So far there is little sign of the necessary courage. Coalition ministers’ talk last week of limiting the number of skilled migrants from non-European Union countries is like whistling in the wind. Skilled immigrants are not the problem, either numerically speaking or in themselves, though many actually do unskilled work when they get here. The skilled account for only 20% of total non-EU immigrants. The government’s proposal to cap their numbers, desirable or not, will barely touch the scale of the true problem — a permanent population swelling so quickly by other immigration pathways that it is already putting unexpected burdens on maternity services, primary schools, housing, infrastructure and the NHS, all of which face cuts as well.

It emerged last week that this population growth will also, if unchecked, turn white Britons in this country into a minority in our children’s lifetimes, in little more than 50 years. That, at least, is the prediction of David Coleman, professor of demography at Oxford, which he made in Prospect magazine and in a learned article in the Population and Development Review.

These predictions are based on reputable statistics. In 1998, just as Labour came to power, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) predicted that the population would rise to 65m in 2051 and then slowly decline. Only 10 years later, ONS figures published in 2008 projected that the UK population would rise by 12m more than that, to 77m, by 2051, and then to 85m by 2083, mostly as a result of immigration. If migration were taken out of the equation, according to Coleman, numbers would be very different — the population would settle at about 62m in 2061. And assuming the ONS recent net annual immigration levels of 180,000, white Britons would become a minority after about 2066.

One might say it doesn’t matter whether or not white Britons become a minority. What matters is the culture of a country, not the colour of its citizens. Besides, by the end of the century, so many people will have made mixed marriages and mixed-race babies that the category of white Scottish or white English will have lost any real meaning. Actually, I think there are many people who feel it does matter, even if they can’t quite explain why, and are furious that such great change has been imposed on them without consultation, and perhaps without forethought. Others point to the divisions of multiculturalism and evidence about higher levels of happiness in homogeneous societies.

Regardless of such inflammatory questions, there can be little doubt that numbers do matter. The question is what the government should do, beyond dithering about caps on skilled workers. Frank Field gave some considered answers to the problem in the House of Commons last Thursday, all of which the government should adopt if it dares. But there was something depressing in the sight of this courageous man, famous for his independence of mind, explaining patiently how much the public has longed for open debate on immigration, how their MPs have for years appeared deaf to the question, how there has not been an immigration debate in the chamber of the House of Commons within living memory and how crucial it is to debate it — to a dreary scattering of no more than 20 MPs. Twenty! Why weren’t there hundreds of MPs? Were they frit? Listening to Field, the Migration Advisory Committee and others, it seems to me there are some perfectly obvious steps to take with non-EU immigration. If the coalition is to meet its promise to reduce net migration from 196,000 to 50,000 a year by 2014, it must first of all stop giving a virtually automatic right to citizenship to people who come here to work. There’s no need to take permanent responsibility for them and their families, who also gain the right to settle here.

Then government should strictly control the study route. The system is being notoriously abused, particularly in bogus English language schools, from which students just disappear into the undergrowth. There were 362,000 students last year, and this year to June the number is up by 26%. Foreign graduates should no longer be granted two years here after graduation to look for a job — there are fully 600 institutions that award degrees — while we have 9%-10% unemployment among recent native graduates.

The marriage route ought to be strictly limited, too. I would say the new insistence on speaking good English (from later this month) is not enough to discourage arranged marriages from the Indian subcontinent. Such marriages could equally well be arranged by British families between suitable young people already in this country. Government ought to be very bold — which it won’t — and bring back the primary purpose rules, dropped by Labour, under which men and women were not allowed to come into this country primarily for the purpose of contracting an arranged marriage or getting British nationality.

Another route into this country that ought to be limited is the families pathway. As well as children and spouses, the parents, grandparents and other dependent relatives of a British citizen or person settled here can apply for the right to settle here permanently — and are likely to get it, especially if there are so-called compassionate circumstances.

I suspect that not many people realise that one successful immigrant — one new bride or groom — can bring with him or her such a large number of dependants, including the elderly, who will immediately have the right to use the overladen NHS and to certain other expensive benefits. Who would not, in a perfect world, like to open their arms to the world’s poor and unlucky, and welcome them? But on this imperfect island, with its hugely expensive welfare system, it is simply not possible, and it is hard to imagine who could have dreamt up such an unrealistically generous scheme.

If our politicians do not dare to challenge Labour’s population legacy, and act boldly, then in the time to come they will seem as culpable as Brown and Blair.

The Sunday Times

November 14th, 2010

Glory be, archbishop – a benefits system that’s fair to the taxpayer

It is a strange fact of public life that when this country’s spiritual leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, chooses to speak out on a major political matter, he is usually wrong. It is becoming almost reassuring: one can take the opposite view with some confidence. Rowan Williams has felt obliged to comment on Iain Duncan Smith’s radical reform of the benefits system, announced last week in the white paper Universal Credit: Welfare that Works. Concerned of Lambeth has “a lot of worries” about the new system for putting pressure on people to work or lose their benefits. “I don’t immediately think it’s fair,” he said.

In truth, far from being unfair, Duncan Smith’s upheaval of the welfare system is being introduced in the name of fairness. What is unfair is the current system. What is unfair is that people who struggle to work are often little better off, or even worse off, than people on benefits, who wisely avoid work because it doesn’t pay — the benefits trap. What is unfair is that working people on low and moderate incomes pay high taxes to support people in idleness who could perfectly well work.

The unemployment benefit system has proved a disaster. Nearly 2m children grow up in workless households — more than almost anywhere in Europe — both poor in fact and poor in expectations, with blighted futures. Some 7.2m adults and children in Britain live in homes that are entirely reliant on benefit, according to the Office for National Statistics.

More than 4m jobs were created in the past 14 years, but 70% of them went to immigrants: unemployed local people either couldn’t or wouldn’t do them. Social mobility has actually decreased in recent years, while the number of people in severe poverty has increased.

Meanwhile, the total welfare budget has risen by nearly 40% since 1996, to £87 billion in 2009-10, and we have a crisis of social care and the need for harsh spending cuts. The truth is that welfare is often unfair, and urgently needs to be made fair. Even senior Labour politicians are beginning to acknowledge this in public, at long, long last.

It is a mystery to me that taxpayers have quietly acquiesced in all this for so many decades. A contorted mindset has developed in which there’s nothing wrong in claiming benefits you don’t truly need, and — equally — there’s nothing foolish in paying taxes for other people to abuse the system. This mindset seems to have taken deep root even among intellectuals such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, or indeed the comedian Frank Skinner.

Last week Skinner wrote an extraordinary article saying he felt there was nothing wrong in claiming unemployment benefit while deliberately avoiding work, as he and many of his friends did for several years in the 1980s, to lead a very modest life reading and drinking cheap sherry on the dole, or “free money” as one friend called it. His logic seemed to be that his theft from the taxpayer was only very small; he didn’t seem to understand that it is the exhausted woman on the bus, with low-paid work and heavy responsibilities, who is paying for people who, like him, are workshy, or who see the dole as a state scholarship for the creative.

I have met many actors who take that view, as young rock musicians always have. But what is fair about that? What is fair about the countless black-economy workers who claim unemployment benefit, in a double fraud? The fact that bankers and fat cats are guilty of much worse does not make benefit fraud acceptable. There was a time when most ordinary people would have been too proud to take money from poor taxpayers as much as from the rich ones. The welfare culture has destroyed such proper pride.

It is that culture that Duncan Smith and the coalition government are trying to change. Whether it is actually possible to change such a very distorted and deep-rooted growth is one of the many known unknowns facing the entire welfare shake-up. However, the essentials of the government’s universal credit system seem reasonable and overdue.

Broadly, in the biggest welfare revolution since Beveridge, the existing work-related and out-of-work benefits will all be brought together in one payment in 2013-14. (It will not affect disability living allowance or child benefit.) The amount claimants receive will take account of their changing circumstances, with monthly adjustments, rather than annual ones as now. Genuine claimants need not fear losing benefits, and it is intended that people will always be better off working and better off for every hour they work.

Supposedly, this universal benefit will replace the confusion, complexity and perversity of the current system, cut back fraud and make claiming and paying simpler and fairer. But there are sanctions attached: people who refuse to accept a reasonable job offer, or who fail to apply for a job or to attend mandatory work activity courses, will have their benefits cut for at least three months, or in extreme cases for three years; the same will apply to fraudulent claimants. They may not be granted hardship benefits for any of that time either.

No one, in fairness, can argue with any of that. And most people don’t — there has been a great change in public attitudes. A YouGov/Channel 4 survey showed last week that 66% of respondents, including 57% of Labour voters, think that jobseeker’s allowance should be withheld from people if they turn down a job or a job interview. And 69% supported coalition plans to give people stricter tests for disability living allowance.

The common complaint about the proposed universal credit is that it will distress and disturb the vulnerable — those with disabilities, mental illnesses or simply nebulous problems that make them pretty much unemployable. But there is no reason at all to think that people who are really unable to work, or not ready for work, will be dealt with any worse than they are today. And there’s reason to hope that some will get actual support in preparing for work.

Of course it’s true that jobs may for a while be scarce, but there is an unending demand for unpaid work, for helping hands, which Duncan Smith’s proposals intend to exploit, to help the vulnerable. It is true that no one can know whether these reforms will fall foul of known unknowns — such as HMRC’s unreliable IT system, or the job market, or the culture of those who administer the new system — or of some unknown unknowns.

But one thing we can know is that the reforms are intended to make things fairer than the way we live now.

The Sunday Times

October 31st, 2010

The palatial injustice that shelters in housing benefit

Fair is the new political buzzword. The Labour party and the liberal Left thought for decades that they had a monopoly on fairness, but the Conservatives and the coalition government have laid aggressive new claim to it, and with some justice. For there is no doubt at all that fairness lies at the heart of their new plan to cap housing benefit, however harsh it may seem. The existing welfare system is deeply unfair and ought to be changed, on moral grounds as much as economic ones.

As David Cameron said in the Commons last week: “The point everyone in this House has got to consider: are we happy to go on paying housing benefit of £30,000, £40,000, £50,000? Our constituents working hard to give benefits so people can live in homes they couldn’t even dream of? I don’t think that’s fair.”

Of course it isn’t fair. For now, at least, the prime minister is holding his ground, despite the predictable splutterings of fury, including a disloyal outburst from Boris Johnson, who burst forth about “Kosovo-style social cleansing of London”. Ignoring this low blow, Cameron in Brussels riposted: “Paying over £20,000 a year for the housing benefit of some families is too high. I do not think taxpayers will understand why we are being so extravagant.

“People pay their taxes knowing that we should be helping to house people, that we should be protecting the vulnerable, we must be helping the needy … there are many people who earn less than £20,000 — their whole income is less than £20,000 — who are paying taxes to house people who are getting rents of £25,000, £30,000, £40,000. They don’t see that as fair and neither do I.”

Nor, incidentally, does the Labour party, according to its election manifesto.

Clearly, needy and vulnerable people must get help with housing, but taxpayers cannot be expected to house them in the most expensive districts, like central London. Nobody has any universal human right to live in Westminster or Fulham or the leafiest parts of Bristol or Manchester.

People who aren’t entitled to benefit — currently that’s people whose total incomes are over £16,000 a year, or who have savings of over £16,000 — don’t have any such right, and they do what anybody reasonable would do. They accept they cannot live in Chelsea and find somewhere in greater London, where rents are lower. They might prefer to live within a Bath Oliver’s throw of Harrods, but they are realists; they know, too, that plenty of people from rural areas who aren’t entitled to housing benefit cannot afford to live in the lovely village where they grew up, but have to move elsewhere.

Almost all the young adults I know in London, some of them in their early thirties, accept that they must rent a room in a shared house, with a shared living area, and go to the outer reaches of the city to find one, or move out of London. Why should all this be any different for people who are entitled to housing benefit? By what right should they have better, more expensive accommodation than hard-working people? Of course, some people on housing benefit are working, but far from all of them.

According to government figures, of the 21,000 people across the UK who will be directly affected by the proposed new caps on how much families can claim, including 17,000 in London, the majority are out of work. Labour MPs have pointed out that working households claiming housing benefit make up 14% of the total housing benefit caseload. This undermines their own insistence that this is not a discussion about the unemployed — to some extent it is.

There may be many very good reasons why people are not working, just as we know there are many bad ones. But we know there is abuse of welfare. Three out of four people applying for the new version of incapacity benefit either failed the new medical test or didn’t even bother to turn up for it. Last week brought news of widespread social housing scams too: at least 50,000 council properties have been illegally sublet by tenants, sometimes at huge profit.

Of course, it is entirely wrong to suggest that people without work are necessarily undeserving in any way. But it is also wrong to insist that they get more expensive housing than people who are working, and helping to pay for their schools, hospitals and unemployment benefit as well.

Labour politicians have made a political error in protesting against these caps. For a hard-working, low-paid family to live near unemployed people who are living free in better, expensive housing, in a city where there are lots of jobs, while perhaps earning a tax-free bundle in the black economy, it must be almost unbearable. The surprise is that people aren’t angrier than they are. There will be a lot of support for the new housing benefit caps.

Besides, though the caps will cause hardship and dislocation, they are not in themselves unreasonable. Restricting the housing benefit to £250 a week (£13,000 a year) for a one-bedroom property and to £400 a week (£20,800 a year) for a four-bedroom place is not enough to drive people right out of London, still less out of cheaper cities. It’s enough to rent somewhere in lots of places, as any check of average rentals will prove, many of them not far from the centre.

Some people will be obliged to move and that will be painful and disruptive, but it might also bring improvements. Schools outside the inner cities are often better and the cost of living is less. With any luck, this policy will bring down the vast rental inflation positively brought about by Labour’s policies, which encouraged profiteering among private landlords. And it will reduce the ludicrous cost on the public purse of housing subsidy which, in the last decade under Labour, has risen from £14 billion to an impossible £21 billion.

To describe this necessary policy as Kosovo-style social cleansing is shameful and an insult to those who have suffered real horrors. Boris Johnson has brought political manoeuvring to a new low.

It is understandable that people will be anxious. And it’s true some of the poorer and more unfortunate Londoners (as elsewhere) will be moved out of the city centre. There certainly should careful consideration of exemptions and special cases. But there’s nothing essentially unfair about it, in terms of the real world in which most people live. It’s only in the womb-to-tomb mindset of welfarism that such unfair entitlements have sprung up and taken root. What people need to understand is the odd fact that the welfare system can be extremely unfair.

The Sunday Times

October 24th, 2010

Offering an addict money kills free choice, Mama Snipper

It should be self-evident that there are some people who should not have children, at least not at certain stages of their lives. Anyone addicted to drugs such as heroin, crack or crystal meth cannot be fit to be a parent and ought not to have children. Not only will such addicts be chaotic, deranged and destructive parents, prone to crime and prostitution. They are also highly likely to poison their babies in the womb, passing on their terrible addictions and causing their children life-long mental and physical disabilities. They will almost certainly condemn their children to the notorious hardships of life in so-called “care”, being sent from one foster home to another.

But it is even more self-evident that nobody should forcibly stop anyone having children. That way totalitarianism; that way eugenics; that way horror.

However, there is one rather tubby, complacently self-confident American woman who thinks she has found a way between this rock and that hard place. Barbara Harris offers drug addicts money to have long-term contraception or to be sterilised, to stop them having babies. Her bribe is currently $300, or about £190. Having started a charity called Project Prevention in the US to do this work, she came to Britain last week to launch it here. One heroin addict from Leicester has already taken the money and had a vasectomy on the NHS.

Major players in the addiction world have been quick to condemn Barbara Harris. Simon Antrobus of Addaction said that Project Prevention exploited very vulnerable people… at probably the lowest point in their lives. Martin Barnes of DrugScope called it “exploitative, ethnically dubious and morally questionable”. He demanded to know who “would be targeted next — smokers, the poor or the mentally ill”. Professor Martin Prince of the Institute of Psychiatry was so outraged that he called on the home secretary to ban Harris from entering the country again.

Civil rights organisations, liberal doctors and men and women of the cloth came forward to protest against the “stereotyping” and “stigmatisation” of addicts, and the assault on their rights. Some critics have even argued that an addict’s rush for temporary or permanent sterilisation would put an unfair burden on the NHS, as if the cost of adult and baby drug addicts and disabled children were not already an extreme demand on NHS resources. And the blogosphere was alive with indignation. The word “sterilisation” is enough to deprive people of all their powers of ratiocination.

I admit that there’s something about Harris that makes me uneasy. There’s something of the American mama grizzly about her; she has said nasty things about spaying bitches that have unwanted litters. But Harris’s own experience and what must truly be generosity ought to settle that unease in part: she’s a woman who had six children herself with her husband, Smitty, and then went on to adopt four others, all born to the same drug-addicted mother.

One of those children has written a public letter about her story: “My name is Destiny Harris and I am 20 years old. I tested positive for crack, PCP and heroin when I was adopted at 8 months old by Barbara and Smitty Harris! When I was tested at the age of one, they told my mother that I would always be delayed because of my prenatal neglect. It turns out that the real neglect occurred in foster care for 8 months after birth.” Destiny and her siblings were lucky; and, as her adoptive mother says: “I don’t believe anybody has the right to force their addiction on another human being.”

Many people in this country do, in effect, promote such a right — and it may be that Harris is right in her belief that large numbers do not understand the implications of doing so. Babies with mothers addicted to the worst drugs (including serious alcohol addiction) are likely to be born with brain damage, learning disabilities, facial and skeletal deformities and other handicaps. Many such babies are born both in the US and here to women who get pregnant every year and give birth again and again to babies whose destiny is grim. And while early adoption would be the best option, there are few people who want to take on such damaged babies or, in the UK, get the chance to adopt babies of a different colour from their own, however damaged.

Drug addiction programmes in this country were already pitifully underfunded, even before the cuts. The NHS refused recently to give figures for the cost of treating babies born addicted to drugs, but it is probably several hundreds of pounds a day for each child. And these are children who are very often nothing but a nuisance for an addict who wants to feed a habit, not a baby.

A British judge, Nicholas Crichton, said last week that over 18 years he had dealt with many, many drug-addicted mothers: “Taking the sixth, seventh or even eighth child away from one mother is quite common. I have even had to take the 14th child of one woman away… A psychiatric report recorded that one mother said every time she has a child forcibly taken away she gets pregnant again to deal with the pain. This is an incredibly complex issue and I am concerned for these vulnerable women. But I am even more concerned for the plight of the children.”

All in all it seems to me that the answer is rather simple. Bribing addicts to avoid having babies is a very good and moral idea. Admittedly, many are not in the best of states to make a good decision, and many will just take the money and spend it on the next fix. But it only goes to show that they should not be having babies, if they cannot see beyond £200 and the next hit. What’s wrong, and profoundly wrong, about Harris’s project is that it includes sterilisation.

Long-term contraception for addicts is good because it’s reversible. If the addict recovers, she can then have babies, which she can with any luck keep. I say “she” because long-term contraception, particularly the coil, is safe and easy for women but there’s no equivalent, yet, for men, despite some promising research.

Sterilisation, however, is something to be avoided, for moral and practical reasons. I don’t think it’s right to assume an addict can give true consent to sterilisation in the face of a bribe. And sterilisation by tying tubes is only about 50%-60% reversible for both sexes. It is clearly wrong to tempt anyone towards that. But it is clearly right to tempt female addicts into long-term contraception. Harris should moderate her message. ‘The kindest cut of all’, News Review, page 5 Gillian Bowditch is away

The Sunday Times

October 17th, 2010

With a burp and a pratfall, the comic novel crushes the puritans

Much to the bookmakers’ surprise, Howard Jacobson won the Man Booker prize last Tuesday for his novel The Finkler Question. Many of the literati were surprised too because this book, like many of Jacobson’s, is very funny, and the comic novel is seen in this country as slightly infra dig — beneath the dignity of the serious and perhaps tragic literary novel. Jacobson’s publisher had not even thought it worth submitting his novel to the Booker judges. Predictably, commentators made much of the fact that The Finkler Question is the first comic novel to win the Booker.

Actually, that is not quite true. In 1969, the first year of the competition, Something to Answer For, a supposedly comic novel by PH Newby, won the prize. Only a minority find it funny, but it is an intentionally comic novel. And Jacobson said last week that there were lots of novels you could call comic that have won the Booker. Kingsley Amis’s The Old Devils won in 1986.

All the same, as Jacobson says: “There is a fear of comedy in the novel today. When did you last see the word ‘funny’ on the jacket of a serious novel?” The Booker has been through a period of a certain solemnity, he added. Perhaps that had little to do with the prize. “Maybe culture went through a brief period of solemnification.”

It is one of the oddities of literary life that, while stand-up comedians, sitcoms, satire and funny films are so hugely successful in this country, and while we are grudgingly admired worldwide for our sense of humour, comic novels have for so long been assumed to be of an inferior genre.

Ian McEwan, a dominant literary figure who has won the Booker once and been shortlisted six times, actually said two years ago that he hates comic novels. “It’s like being wrestled to the ground and being tickled, being forced to laugh.”

This attitude is incomprehensible to me. I find being tickled by a good writer into the joy of laughter is not an assault but a delightful seduction. But for decades, novel-writing in this country has largely been seen as a serious, worthy business, grimly dedicated to the sorrows and injustices of the world — or at least to the miseries of bourgeois adultery.

When I was reading literature at Cambridge, comic novels were not even mentioned. Even Dickens seemed surplus to requirements, no doubt because Professor Frank “high seriousness” Leavis didn’t think him worthy of inclusion in the canon of the Great Tradition, at least not until the end of his academic life. The inimitable PG Wodehouse said he never expected to be taken seriously by “the intelligentsia”, who tended, he thought, to look down on comic writing. Comedy could never be serious and therefore never great.

That, of course, is the opposite of the truth. Some of the greatest novels are comic, or what one might call comic, and they do not lack underlying seriousness for those who are able to perceive it. Even more than high seriousness or tragedy, comedy is humanity’s best defence against the harshness and meaningless of life; comedy defies absurdity with absurdity.

As well as the hog-whimperingly funny masterpieces of Wodehouse, particularly those set in Blandings Castle, there are, for example — and in no particular order — all the novels of Jane Austen, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories, Dickens, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, much of Trollope, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, much of Philip Roth, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, much of Milan Kundera, Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and the heartbreakingly funny, elegantly painful short novels of Evelyn Waugh.

If there aren’t many contemporary British comic novelists in this list, I suspect that is because of the repressive atmosphere that for years has hung over the literary establishment. There has been a somewhat smug cult of moral seriousness, probably due to the long-lasting influence of the puritanical and intolerant Leavis. His influence was still powerful when the literary lions and lionesses of the present establishment were young students, and has remained so, despite the onslaught of postand post-post-structuralism. It gave rise to a politicised and functional view of literature as moral improvement.

More widely speaking, I suspect there is a natural bias against humour in the leftist mindset, which has dominated all cultural life for nearly 50 years, and an inbuilt censoriousness and censorship. We should not forget that under the last, left-lite government, certain kinds of joke were made criminal offences. Like today’s leftism-lite, high-minded socialism has often been distinguished by priggery. It goes with a dislike of vulgar folk taste and sentimental detail, which has expressed itself in minimalism.

There is and always has been something undeniably vulgar and self-indulgent about the comic tradition, from the fool with his pig’s bladder balloon to the music hall knees-up, from the endless mother-in-law jokes to Pete and Dud’s reflections on gauze-covered busty substances in the National Gallery. Comedy captures low life, as well as high life and indeed all life. We all bleed, as Shylock suggested in the voice of tragedy, but we all burp and fart and take pratfalls too, stumblebum clown and countess alike. Comedy is an acceptance of all of life.

That’s because comedy and tragedy are indivisible, in life as in art, no matter what the ancient Greeks may have thought about theatre. In the midst of high seriousness, we are also in the midst of jokes and laughter, and risible embarrassment. It is a kind of emotional stupidity to think that because something makes you laugh it cannot be serious as well.

To borrow a well-worn sentiment from Horace Walpole, comedy is for those who think and tragedy is for those who feel. But great art needs both feeling and thought, both tragedy and comedy. In practice there are no merely comic novels: there are bad novels, good novels and great novels.

At last literary fashion seems to be moving in this direction. Comically, the stern McEwan won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction in May. Wodehouse must be laughing gently from his Blandings Castle in the sky. Comic novels are no longer infra dig.

The Sunday Times

October 10th, 2010

The truth about our schools from a repentant leftwinger

The Conservative faithful at their annual conference are usually politely generous with applause. But their reception of Katharine Birbalsingh, a charismatic young state school teacher discovered by team Gove, was little short of ecstatic. At the end of her electrifying speech on education, they leapt to their feet in a storm of enthusiastic clapping. What she had to say was clearly manna to the hungry Tory soul.

Birbalsingh is an elegant and good-looking deputy head teacher of Indian-Caribbean heritage. After a state school education she went to Oxford, where she says she became a serious leftie, reading Marxism Today and flirting with the Socialist Workers party, before becoming a teacher.

“I have come here today,” she said, tossing her impressive curls, “to expose some of the truths about the education system. My experience of teaching for over a decade in five different schools has convinced me beyond a shadow of doubt that the system is broken, as it keeps poor children poor”.

By now she had the hall’s eager attention.

She began with a story about a young boy called Kane, who was in trouble for bad behaviour. His best friend Mitchel had protested, “It wasn’t Kane’s fault, Miss, he was born with anger management.” At this Kane then said, “Yes, Miss, it isn’t my fault, I am anger management.”

Their garbled words suggest a great deal about the edubabble that befuddles both children and teachers in schools today. And, as Birbalsingh says, “they reveal a deeper culture of excuses, of low standards, in expecting the very least from our poorest and most disadvantaged” and a broken education system in which “standards have been so dumbed down that even the children know it. When I give them past exam papers to do from 1998, they groan and beg for a 2005 or 2006 paper because they know it’ll be easier”. So much for the usual denials.

Competition and “benchmarking” children are considered poisonous, she said: “Exclusion quotas bind our head teachers, league tables have us all pursuing targets and grades instead of teaching properly and the ordinary child … is lost in a sea of bureaucracy handed down from the well-meaning politicians from up above. Kids themselves cry out for structure and discipline.” As for the underachievement of black boys, she argues it’s due partly to classroom chaos and partly to the pervasive fear among teachers of being accused of racism: as a result disruptive black boys are not excluded or reprimanded and it is all the other black boys who suffer: “Black children underachieve because of what the well-meaning liberal does to them.”

Most chilling is her conclusion that “if you are ordinary, in the state system as it is, you do not stand a chance.”

None of this is news but it is hugely encouraging to have it said, unsparingly, by a successful black teacher — someone who could not be accused of racism or ignorance.

Birbalsingh had some forthright comments on left-wing bias in education: “We teachers tend to be blinded by leftist ideology. I, too, have been a victim of such thinking and I come to you today, finally, ready to overthrow the shame that I have felt, literally shame, because in the last election I voted Conservative.”

At this point the hall had the feeling of a revivalist meeting: the repentant sinner makes a passionate confession. “That in itself is part of the problem in education,” she continued. “Many of the necessary changes require right-wing thinking and we teachers instinctively reject such developments because of our loyalty to the left.”

As if to prove her point, Birbalsingh was soon after this speech in Birmingham suspended from her job and sent home — despite the fact that she had got permission from her head teacher to speak — and she now faces disciplinary action. Telling the truth about schools as she saw it, at a Conservative conference, too, was clearly aggravated heresy and unacceptable. She was not speaking about her own school, where she has been for only a few weeks, nor did she identify it, so the suggestion that she has damaged the school’s reputation is absurd. All this has to do with the toxic, leftist school establishment that punishes dissent. “It’s not the school’s or the head’s fault,” says Birbalsingh. “They are shackled by the system which bans teachers from having freedom of speech.” So it seems.

This remarkable woman has neatly identified the problem with education. The question is whether the government has truly identified the solution. I have some doubts. Michael Gove spoke repeatedly in his main conference speech, as he has elsewhere, about freeing schools, freeing teachers, trusting teachers and leaving it to the professionals to make decisions.

Yet if so many teachers are still in the grip of this leftist ideology and if so many teacher trainees continue to be indoctrinated in it, can they be trusted — to use their new freedoms to give it up and do differently? Some will, but many won’t. The school where Birbalsingh was teaching before her suspension has the relative freedom of an academy, yet it seems to be using this freedom in a most unliberated way.

Gove said we have now the best teachers we have ever had. What he bases this on, apart from political courtesy and the inflated A-level grades of trainees, I don’t know. What I do know, anecdotally at least, is that teacher training is still in the grip of leftist ideology. I spoke at length to one bright graduate student doing a part-time post-graduate certificate of education at one of this country’s top teacher training establishments. An Asian from a Third World country, she has been appalled by her experiences. Standards in her own country are much higher.

It is not just that the teaching in college is disorganised, inefficient and patronising, with very little content; she has had practically no teaching on how to teach reading or maths, or on child psychology, or bullying or classroom discipline. She has been told she’ll learn it all on her school placements, but it has been made very clear that students must never criticise their schools. Horrified by poor teaching, low expectations and poor discipline at one of them, and daring to complain, she was told she should learn from bad teaching.

Until an investigation is made into teacher training and what precisely is being taught and not taught to students, it will be pointless to offer teachers new freedoms.

Freedom is a great thing, but it is not a panacea.

The Sunday Times

September 26th, 2010

Please, sir, bin the antenatal class and try shaming gymslip mothers

Imagine a classroom full of 14 or 15-year-olds in a large comprehensive school. “Why, Chenelle,” asks the teacher angrily in front of the class, “did you miss maths and English this morning? I know you were in the building.”

“I couldn’t help it, miss, could I?” replies Chenelle self-righteously. “I was at the school antenatal clinic upstairs, wasn’t I? “Oh,” says the teacher apologetically. “Okay. Well that’s all right then. Sorry.”

Preposterous though this sounds, it is precisely what was recommended last week by the National Health Service quango Nice — the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. A new Nice report about improving antenatal care advised health commissioners to set up antenatal clinics in schools and children’s centres in areas with a high rate of schoolgirl pregnancy.

Nice explains that some teenage mothers are embarrassed in ordinary clinics with older women and are afraid of being sneered at in their GP’s waiting room, or feel medical staff are judgmental: pregnancy would be so much more convenient and non-judgmental at school. Discussing US experiences of antenatal care in school, Nice described with enthusiasm some American programmes that offer healthcare after birth as well as before and also daycare for babies to enable the gymslip mums to return to school.

How the jaw drops. Soon no doubt there will be a recommendation for birthing pools in the school gym, with the attendance of schoolgirl birthing buddies. The fact that this idiocy is well-meaning only makes it worse.

Having antenatal clinics in schools sends out precisely the wrong message not only to schoolgirls — and to schoolboys, too — but also to everyone else.

It suggests that having a baby when still a schoolgirl is perfectly all right and normal. Teachers, mentors, social workers, nurses and doctors will not be judgmental. They won’t embarrass a girl in any way with hints that her behaviour might be selfish and irresponsible, not to mention antisocial. She won’t be taught at school about the life chances of babies born to such mothers. They will be protected from any adults who might take such an embarrassing line by the warm and accepting attitude from one and all at school. It is a schoolgirl’s licence to breed at the expense of the rest of society.

Even worse is the message sent to the rest of the class. Those girls who have not yet given in to the temptation, or to the passing impulse, to have a baby will see that they will receive every encouragement if they do. They certainly won’t be told, for fear of stigmatising anyone, that the babies of girls giving birth under the age of 20 (as the Nice report points out) are at considerably higher risk of stillbirth, neonatal death and perinatal death than babies born to women of 20-34. In plain English, having a baby in one’s teens is risky for the baby — something girls ought to be told and aren’t.

Meanwhile, those boys who tend to get girls into trouble, as people used to say, will see that now it is no trouble at all — rather the reverse. It will be even easier to be nothing more than a babyfather. None of the schoolchildren will be taught, for fear of embarrassing any irresponsible girls, that having a baby without a father is almost certainly to condemn it and you to a life of disadvantage and swells the numbers of the unemployable.

Almost more surprising is the message the Nice recommendation appears to be sending about the law. It really would be very odd if schools were to decide to be cosily unjudgmental about underage sex. After all, the age of sexual consent is 16. Before that age a girl who gets pregnant cannot have given consent legally and therefore whoever impregnated her has broken the law — a law that is in large part there to protect children against paedophilia. Any underage girl — like any woman — is entitled to the best of antenatal care, but to offer that care to underage girls in a state-supported place of education is to give out a very subversive message.

Is Nice recommending that teachers and schools condone underage sex? Does it accept that it is “normal” and should be accepted in schools as normal? The other pupils might well assume so, just as they will certainly assume that teachers condone irresponsible sex and irresponsible pregnancy. There is something decadent about this kind of thinking. It helps to promote, by normalising it, one of the gravest social problems we face — the birth of children into deprivation of every kind, which is hard if not impossible to put right later and which causes misery, unemployment, crime and social unrest.

Of course, if a teenager is pregnant, however irresponsible she may be, she is entitled to maternity care. Such girls are highly likely to have problems and should therefore be identified and followed up by social workers, midwives, doctors, social services and the NHS.

The numbers of young mothers-to-be are quite small and concentrated in deprived inner-city areas. It should not be impossible to target them individually, assigning a midwife to each girl. According to the Office for National Statistics, 8,300 girls under 16 got pregnant in 1997; in 2007 it was much the same — 8,200. More of these girls have abortions now, so today’s figure of babies born is about 38% of those conceived: 3,157 or so. As for girls under 18, the number of conceptions has hardly changed between 1997 and 2007, at about 43,000. Fewer come to term: about 21,500. Those are not enormous numbers compared with babies born overall — 699,000 in 2007. Surely dedicated services could be found for this small number of extremely vulnerable schoolgirls, without intruding upon their schools and schoolfriends.

This Nice recommendation is a perfect paradigm of the flawed thinking behind so many of the best-intentioned policies of the welfare state. Where there is a problem — in this case that pregnant schoolgirls don’t always get good antenatal care — a solution is imposed that makes things worse. Any inadequacy in antenatal care for these girls should be made good by the existing agencies whose job it is.

The real problem is schoolgirl pregnancy, and here what is needed is precisely what Nice wants to do away with: social disapprobation, moral judgment, stern lectures from teachers, funny looks from older women and all the rest, to discourage girls from irresponsible motherhood — all the internal, personal disciplines of a big society, which welfarism has always sought to undermine.

The Sunday Times

September 12th, 2010

The Saatchis: poster boys for Britain’s taming of the Mad Men

Last Thursday evening I stepped into a present-day episode of Mad Men. Since there may be a few people in this country who still haven’t heard about Mad Men, perhaps I should explain that it is an addictive American television drama series set in the early 1960s in a macho advertising agency on Madison Avenue — hence in part its name. Like the admen themselves, the episodes are supremely slick: the plot and dialogue are sharp, the men are square-jawed and exquisitely suited, with the smooth formality of that time, and the women are coiffed and cute and cinched in to match. It is a strange world: brilliant, heartless, cynical, tending towards its own destruction.

The first episode of the fourth series of Mad Men was broadcast to impatient fans in this country last Wednesday. The next evening the legendary Saatchi brothers gave a vast and glamorous party to celebrate their place in the Olympics of advertising — the first 40 years of “the Saatchistory”, as the black invitation cards put it, which presumably include Maurice’s great influence in politics and Charles’s great influence in art.

Walking up the steps of the Duke of York’s Headquarters on the King’s Road, now Charles Saatchi’s art gallery, did truly feel like venturing into the world of Mad Men as it might be today, but writ British. Forty years ago, when the young Saatchi brothers started out in London, they in effect helped to seize the torch from the admen of Madison Avenue and bring it to London, where it has remained ever since. If Mad Men had been set in the 1980s or the 1990s, it would have been predominantly British.

To call the Saatchis’ party glittering would be an understatement. There were scores of gorgeous, hungry-eyed babes and handsome young men on the hunt, drinking limitless champagne; there were celebrities, artists and intellectuals, cabinet ministers past and present, and plenty of the great, good and rich, including Lady Thatcher and Bob Geldof, exuding the vulpine charm of serious success. The guest list will be a useful historical document for social historians.

What the evening made me realise was how respectable advertising has become since the days of Mad Men and since the early days of the Saatchis: the entire Establishment was represented at the Saatchi gallery, and pleased to be there, in a way it would not have been in the days of Madison Avenue, for all the immense power of advertising. Mad Men’s hero, Don Draper, couldn’t have given such a party — and certainly not here.

Forty years ago or so, advertising was not considered quite pukka in this country. The wheels of commerce had to be oiled, of course, but it was a slightly greasy business to many people’s minds. There was a feeling that you couldn’t quite be a gent and an adman, or both a serious man and an adman; there was something too tricksy as well as too commercial about advertising.

This was partly the social snobbery that kept Britain back for so long in the mid-20th century, but there were earnest intellectual objections to advertising, too. When I was an undergraduate, going into advertising was frowned on by the bien pensants: it was thought one of the worst forms of selling out, even worse than public relations. Vance Packard’s book, The Hidden Persuaders, published in 1957, had taught generations of us leftish students in the 1960s and 1970s that the minds of the masses were being immorally manipulated by the dark arts of capitalist admen (and adwomen) for commercial and political ends.

Packard explained how advertising used the insights of psychoanalysis into the unconscious mind and of crowd theories of mass-market behaviour to make us want things without even imagining our desires were being manipulated or actually created. It was Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, who successfully pioneered these ideas in the 1920s and 1930s, almost creating the public relations industry as well.

It was thrilling to read how unprincipled admen slipped just a few imperceptible frames into a TV advertisement to lodge things in our unconscious minds without us noticing — subliminal advertising — rather like inserting cookies into a computer today, although not as efficient.

American ads would also, Packard explained, make more obvious appeals to our collective unconscious: a famous one he cited, if my unconscious mind isn’t deceiving me, was a Maidenform bra campaign. “I dreamed I walked naked [or climbed mountains, or whatever] in my Maidenform bra” was the slogan, trying to appeal to women’s unconscious longings for semi-naked self-display and wish fulfilment, all bundled together around a new bra.

Apparently this was a very successful campaign, but what is striking now is its crudity. Looking back at old American ads, and at the true-to-life campaigns in Mad Men, it is remarkable how unsubtle they often are to contemporary eyes. That is perhaps because subtlety wasn’t yet essential: the audience didn’t appreciate what advertisers were up to. But with the growing sophistication of the audience and the satiation of mass consciousness, subtlety, understatement and indirection became necessary and these are all qualities easier to find over here than over there. That surely is what enabled the British takeover of creative advertising in the period of the Saatchi story.

What British admen were aiming at was not the unconscious but the conscious involvement of the masses: their critical appreciation of advertising as a developing art form, their pleasure in the quirkiness or absurdity of some theme and, above all, their enjoyment of irony in ads. That’s not to say that Americans don’t do irony; that’s nonsense. But the British do it more often, more easily and maybe better. Many of the best British ads have played around with self-mockery, absurdity and even irrelevance.

So the audiences in the States and here can enjoy the ironic British ad but keep themselves a safe ironic distance from it. There’s an agreement that heavy-handed manipulation isn’t going on — the audience is acknowledged to be too smart for that — but instead a sort of aesthetic game, of which only a part is flogging something. That distance, that humour, that obsession with style, that visual elegance have all conspired to make advertising less threatening.

It’s become much less like grubby trade and much more like ungrubby art — in other words, much more respectable. That is why Don Draper couldn’t have given such a party and why Charles and Maurice Saatchi could.