The Sunday Times

September 5th, 2010

Hawking’s proved one thing – religion is revived and kicking

‘God didn’t do it.” “God didn’t create universe, says Hawking.” “Has Hawking seen off God?” These were some of the hundreds of headlines last week in response to extracts from Professor Stephen Hawking’s new book about the creation of the universe, The Grand Design.

Whether by design or not, Hawking created a furore: thousands of articles and blogs, as well as stern rebukes from the religious establishment. Most impressively of all, perhaps, this theoretical physicist was top of the tweets last Friday. God and Hawking were trending worldwide, as they say on Twitter.

It is useful for those of us who imagine that an indifferent agnosticism has taken over to be reminded how much many people, even in this godless country, care about such matters. However, a lot of the fuss was a flurry of media nonsense. Professor Hawking did not say that God didn’t create the universe, still less that God doesn’t exist, although I suspect that is what he thinks.

What he said in the published extracts when discussing the multiple universe theory — the M-theory — is: “Just as Darwin and Wallace explained how the apparently miraculous design of living forms could appear without intervention by a supreme being, the multiverse concept can explain the fine-tuning of physical law without the need for a benevolent creator who made the universe for our benefit … Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

I cannot imagine why this gets people so worked up. Hawking has said only that it is unnecessary to include God in his theory and, clearly, unnecessary is not the same as non-existent. Those who believe in God, in all his ineffability, have nothing to fear from a scientific hypothesis, and a controversial one at that, which considers the idea of God unnecessary.

Hawking argues that all that is necessary is physical laws, such as the law of gravity, and believers can triumphantly ask, with all the confidence of faith: who made the law of gravity? Whenever attacked by science, as when Darwinism destroyed the religious argument for intelligent design, religion simply retreats further back, into something larger and yet more ineffable, in an infinite regress to somewhere before the big bang, beyond the reach of rational argument in the incontrovertible realms of faith.

As one of the microbloggers tweeted last week: “Stephen Hawking will never prove God doesn’t exist and the God squad will never prove he does. It’s all a load of bollocks.”

I am not a believer. It seems to me that science has pushed God so far into the outer unknowable that the idea of divinity is meaningless. We all, I imagine, have a sense of the numinous — the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the fearful and fascinating mystery — that comes over us when gazing at the heavens, or listening to organ music. But having a powerful sense of the numinous doesn’t mean the numen — divinity — exists, any more than a powerful sense that a child is possessed by a devil means that the devil exists.

Nor does a sense that there must be some sort of divine meaning out there seem a good enough reason to infer a personal God and the doctrinal details of any particular faith, such as papal infallibility or the uncleanness of women or atonement as an insect in reincarnation. Rather the reverse.

My hero on such matters has always been Pierre-Simon Laplace. He was the brilliant astronomer and mathematician, sometimes called the French Newton, who was asked by Napoleon why he had not mentioned the creator in his book on the system of the universe. Courageously Laplace replied: “I had no need of that hypothesis.”

The world seems to divide into those who do need the God hypothesis and those who don’t. I have never understood why. Clearly it is not related to intelligence, although scientific rationalists would like to think so; many brilliant and highly educated people are religious, including quite a few distinguished scientists.

I suspect that brain science may sooner or later be able to explain it. Already there exists a theory that some people have a genetic tendency towards religious faith, while others don’t. There is even a theory that organ music is particularly powerful in inducing a sense of the numinous. That is certainly true for me, just as I cry at the sound of trumpets.

But whatever discoveries lie ahead about the neural circuitry of the believer, it is quite clear for now that religious faith, although outside the realm of reason, is centrally important to many people. The interesting question is whether that matters.

The traditional English view was that it didn’t. After a lot of bloodshed over minutiae such as transubstantiation — whether communion bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ — most people settled into the attitude of Elizabeth I, who did not want to “make windows into men’s souls”.

But now, in a world in which many people take religion a great deal more seriously than they used to, the question arises again. Many people, and not only aggressive atheists, have a new anxiety about the power of religious belief, and the power of religion to promote division, ignorance and evil, as well as good.

My own view is that religion is the idiom in which people do the things they want to do anyway, for good and for evil. They simply use religion to explain or justify the actions they would have undertaken for other reasons. So you get both Christian charity and bloody Christian crusades, Muslim charity and Muslim conversion by the sword, Hindu spirituality and the shameful Hindu caste system.

All these are expressions of human nature in particular contexts: religion is not the source but the justification for things — imperialism, cruelty, exploitation and compassion — which are always with us.

What has changed today is that all societies and different stages of development and their corresponding religions have suddenly been thrown together. In that case, from the agnostic or atheist point of view, religion now does matter in a way that until recently it had ceased to. Perhaps that explains all the fuss about Hawking; religious indifference is becoming a thing of the past. Bang goes the divine creator, News Review, page 6

The Sunday Times

August 29th, 2010

Muslims may object, but we must ban first-cousin marriage

Imagine that you are a young British woman about to enter into a marriage arranged by your parents. It is not a love match, but you consider it acceptable and you like the boy well enough. You are looking forward to a big family wedding. Then imagine you are told by a reliable expert that every baby of this marriage would have a 1 in 10 chance of being born with a serious genetic disorder. That is a shockingly high risk, especially when the disorders in question are terrible, often with progressive damage to the body and mind of a much loved child, over which parents have to grieve helplessly for years.

The expert explains to you that the risks to your children if you marry this particular man are five times greater than those if you marry some other man. With another husband, your risk with each child would be normal, at about 2%. That is simply because the man your parents have chosen is your first cousin and you both come from a long tradition of first-cousin marriage. Surely your response — the only reasonable response — would be to ask your parents to find another husband, who is not related to you, or to find one for yourself.

Put like that, the problem seems simple. Cousin marriage is risky, particularly for groups which have practised it for generations. Closely related first cousins face greater than normal risks of having babies with serious recessive genetic disorders.

To say that is not to criticise anyone for anything. It is not to attack any particular religion or ethnic group or culture. It is merely to state a painful fact, of which people used to be unaware.

However, today this subject is political dynamite; most people don’t dare talk about it at all. That is because the people mainly affected are British Pakistani Muslims: hence the deafening, pusillanimous silence on what should be a serious public health concern.

People have always married their first cousins — Darwin did, Einstein did — and it is legal to do so here. But British Pakistani Muslims actively favour cousin marriage and traditionally have done. About 55% marry their first cousins in this country and in Bradford the number is about 75%.

The result, sadly, is what you would expect. British Pakistani couples account for about 3% of all births here, but they produce nearly a third of all British children suffering from recessive genetic disorders. The BBC reported in 2005 that Birmingham primary care trust estimated that 1 in 10 of children born to first cousins in the city either died in infancy or went on to develop a serious disability due to a genetic disorder.

Many of these problems were discussed by a young British Pakistani woman brave enough to report on this last week on Channel 4’s Dispatches programme. Tazeen Ahmad showed harrowing scenes of a young man writhing and protesting in the misery of his genetic disorder, while his exhausted mother looked after his two blind sisters.

Ahmad spoke of the disabilities and early deaths among her own uncles and aunts, as a result of cousin marriage, and made the general risks plain. What was profoundly shocking was the resistance to these known risks; she spoke to imams, community leaders and parents in a state of resentful denial. Although some younger people seemed more aware, and angry about the intense family pressure on cousins to marry, most people interviewed simply did not accept the scientific evidence. One mother said her children’s disorders were caused by the drugs given to them by the National Health Service.

Worst of all, not a single MP from a constituency with a large Pakistani population would agree to appear on television. Not one was brave enough to run the risk of being called racist or Islamophobic, which is the usual reaction against anyone prepared to talk openly about this subject. Only the redoubtable Ann Cryer, retired MP for Keighley, was courageous enough to appear, calling stoutly for an end to cousin marriage and saying that much of the Pakistani community was in denial about the risks.

It is a national disgrace that members of parliament have allowed themselves to be cowed into silence. (Phil Woolas, like Cryer, is an honourable exception; he warned of these dangers in 2008.) They owe it to their constituents and to the public to face up to and speak out about a practice that causes horrible suffering, to say nothing of the vast cost to the NHS.

Admittedly it is difficult to assess risk. It is also difficult for most of us to understand risk at all, apparently, and even for the numerate the statistics can be confusing or unreliable. Scientific argument is unfamiliar to many of us, including the cousin-mother who said cousin marriage must be safe because all her children were fine.

All this makes it much easier for people who want to ignore a problem to dismiss it as baseless. When Baroness Deech, the bioethicist and lawyer, gave a speech in March about the risks of cousin marriage, she was immediately criticised (and misrepresented) for getting her facts wrong, as people regularly do on scientific matters.

Perhaps her real mistake was to mention in the same speech some other features of cousin marriage — features that are in themselves hotly controversial, as British Muslims are no doubt anxiously aware. Deech said that, although cousin marriages were at odds with freedom of choice, romantic love and integration, they are on the rise. She believes most of them are arranged for financial reasons — to settle debts, or to provide financial support for relatives abroad, to help relatives to migrate to Britain or to provide a ready-made family for an immigrant spouse.

All these things, insofar as they are true, might help to explain the widespread determination among British Muslims to dismiss the problem. The rewards of cousin marriage are great, so perhaps the risks are best belittled or ignored. It is for this reason that I don’t think public health education will help to solve this problem.

Besides, look at the ludicrous failure of sexual health education: sexually transmitted diseases are increasing because, as people used to say in Dorset, there’s none so deaf as them that won’t hear. And comprehensive genetic screening is so far impossible. So to avoid in future the terrible and unnecessary suffering of those many children born with recessive genetic disorders, the government should be brave enough, and compassionate enough, to make first cousin marriage illegal.

The Sunday Times

August 8th, 2010

Networking is the magic circle of public life that must be broken

Nelson Mandela, Naomi Campbell, Imran Khan, the notorious Charles Taylor of Liberia and Mia Farrow, with assorted minor celebrities and hangers-on, smiling broadly at the camera together at a private party in South Africa in 1997 — this was a photo line-up that raised uncomfortable questions last week during Taylor’s United Nations trial at the Hague.

What on earth, one could not help wondering, was the saintly Mandela doing entertaining a man like Taylor in his own house, by his own personal invitation? Public men such as Mandela are, of course, obliged to get their hands dirty, shaking them with all kinds of undesirables from the faintly flaky to the flamboyantly vicious, but they do not, surely, need to invite them into their own homes and give them the endorsement of friendship which that so obviously offers.

Blood diamonds and revolting crimes against humanity — the central questions of last week’s trial — are extremely important. But so, too, is the underlying question of what company people keep. Does it matter? And should they be judged by it? Should they be careful about it? Campbell allegedly flirted with Taylor, as well as accepting diamonds, however small and dirty; her defence is that she didn’t know anything about him at the time, hadn’t heard of Liberia, and didn’t know they were diamonds.

Campbell’s education was sketchy and her face is her fortune, rather than anything else. Even so, as a woman who has devoted a great deal of time and energy to helping charities in Africa, you might think she could have taken a modest interest in African politics generally.

That is not, of course, the way the world works. There seems to be a natural alliance between great beauty, great riches and great power, regardless of almost anything else — regardless of intelligence or integrity. Thieves, fraudsters, mass murderers, plagiarists and psychopaths need not fear exclusion if their price is right. At John Bunyan’s Vanity Fair not many questions are asked, for understandable reasons.

Sadly, Taylor’s presence at Mandela’s house is just what you would expect. It happens everywhere. Kleptocrats, courtesans, fraudsters and posh drug addicts rub shoulders with world leaders and famous comedians, with disgraced politicians, movie stars, bestselling writers and a few of the better-looking aristocrats and royals thrown in for tone.

Perhaps it is unsophisticated to find this rather shocking. It is just “the way we live now”, to borrow the title of Trollope’s famous novel of 1875. Anyone with enough of a handle of riches or fame or sex appeal can easily open the door into the international club of the great and not necessarily very good; their hangers-on and sycophants can come along, too. Clearly it is a bad thing, clearly it is the regrettable way of the wicked world, but on the few occasions I have had the toes of my best shoes in this door I have found the atmosphere extremely interesting and, I regret to say, rather exciting.

I well remember the first time I saw Peter Mandelson at a party — his presence at such a smart, private, right-wing political soirée made me realise that sometimes parties can be more important than party. He was winding himself like a serpent around a couple of Tory grandes dames, hissing flattery, applying snake oil and making himself very popular. I was almost mesmerised myself, although I already disapproved of him, and was impressed to see such an operator. My Conservative hosts knew a great deal more about him than I did, so why was he there? No doubt they would in reply have used the time-dishonoured phrase, “He’s such good value”.

As we know, Mandelson has gone on to party hard and long since then. But perhaps one can party not wisely but too well.

Connections tend to mean co-operation and commitments and obligations, as Tony Blair clearly also discovered in a different idiom. Not for nothing is it called networking: the net of social connections seems very fine, but it can draw very tight and it’s hard to disentangle oneself from the mesh.

What on earth was someone who was European trade commissioner, like Mandelson, doing fratting — as we used to say, meaning cosying up to the Russian aluminium oligarch Oleg Deripaska at a time when his department was investigating aluminium tariffs? It does not suggest the right degree of detachment from such people. And what, come to that, was George Osborne doing there? I suspect that such is the sense of solidarity among the super-rich that they hardly see the need for discretion. Plutocracy and position (and the related parties) trump all other cards.

I was lucky enough to work for the Telegraph group during the reign of Conrad Black and among the many things that made him a good proprietor, in my view, were his parties. For me they were a wonderful source of contacts and ideas, but they were also great fun. Along with all sorts of wits and beauties and politicians among the guests were quite a few rather bad hats: on one occasion I noticed that most of the delightful people standing nearest to me either had been or were going to jail, or would at least suffer a sensational trial. And I once sat next to Henry Kissinger, the man about whom Tom Lehrer so memorably said, when the doctor got the Nobel peace prize, “satire is dead”. It added immensely to the power and the glory of those wonderful parties. There is something horribly seductive about them. One begins very quickly to feel to the manner born. Entitled.

For precisely that reason, there comes a moment when the fratting has to stop.

When super-rich and super-successful people get together, a sense of reality seems to burst into nothingness with the first bubbles of champagne. Friendship, or what passes for it — status alliance, shared holidays and habits — can be very corrupting. Favours that shouldn’t be asked, or accepted, can hardly be refused. I remember when his friends in the press, for instance, wrongly protected Jonathan Aitken before his trial because he was part of the party world. Principles do matter more than parties; it isn’t just priggery to say so. All those in the magic circle feel determined to make sure the enchantment continues, never mind what happens outside among ordinary people. It is corrupting.

My view is that all public men and women should declare not just their assets, but also their friends and all the parties they go to. That might make them more properly careful of the company they keep.

The Sunday Times

August 1st, 2010

Pity the lost boys of privilege – no one had said they’d be cast aside

Icannot quite see myself as a cougar — one of those older women who hunt down younger men for sport — but I have nonetheless spent the past few days sitting round a pool in Ibiza, thoughtfully watching a group of handsome, half-naked, twentysomething men.

They were not my intended prey but my guests: we were spending some time in a borrowed holiday house, with friends and relations coming and going, and it happened that for a day or two I was the only older person there among a group of good-looking young men. I alone was responsible for making sure they avoided any of the obvious trouble that might have beckoned, from starting a forest fire with a cigarette stub to bringing back undesirables from Ibiza clubs.

Spending time listening to them talk about themselves and their many friends, I began to feel sorry for them — not so much as individuals but as a group. They may be the children of privilege, with good parents and good schools behind them, but as young adults many of them seem oddly displaced. Last week’s conversations enforced the impression I’ve had from spending time with other young men in previous years. They don’t seem to know where they belong in the world and, for all their sophistication, they have no particular place to go.

This puts them into sharp contrast with others of their generation. There is an impressive number of twentysomething men with dazzling CVs and manic energy who have been entirely focused on power and glory since they were schoolboys and who are already on the way to success.

For them it has been constant hard work, scholarships, extreme sports, a gift for the sax and an instant job in neurology or law; for the others it is drifting through university, getting involved in a youth scene, drugs and doing odd jobs to finance their dreams of creativity. Only the most talented and the most self-disciplined have the slightest chance of survival in today’s economy.

It seems to me that young men today are either lost boys or world boys. “World boys” is a Cantonese expression I heard long ago in Hong Kong. It neatly sums up those men who instinctively know how to manipulate the world to their own ends. Lost boys are like the friends of Peter Pan, unable to grow up and given to turning past the second star on the right to Neverland rather than pursuing the more unimaginative path to the land of bills and mortgages.

Curiously, this applies much less to their sisters; a large new generation of try-hard “world girls” are aggressively outperforming their brothers, turning into accountants or hospital executives or charity directors and leaving the boys behind and rather puzzled. The young women don’t want to be dropouts or hippies. In fact, they want to do well.

I have been wondering what has happened to make these pleasant, intelligent, interesting young men lose their way, in parallel with so many boys from less privileged backgrounds.

Their fathers mostly had reasonably good jobs and reasonably satisfactory lives, without being as creative as so many young people think they ought to be today. The lost boys won’t accept work that isn’t interesting. Clearly many of them are both impractical and unrealistic to an astonishing degree, at least by contrast with my brothers and their friends at the same age. Perhaps they just sense that the world of their fathers has little place for them; housing is too expensive and jobs are too scarce and they give up.

It is true that today’s lost boys are practical enough to cook a bit, which the previous generation didn’t do at the same age, but otherwise it seems pure luck that they can cope at all, given their general incompetence.

Perhaps it’s a lack of common sense, perhaps it’s over-indulgence by anxious mothers, perhaps it’s because so many of them stay at home with their parents for so long, but I never cease to be amazed by their ignorance. If there is a table top to mark with a wet glass, a car to trash with sand, a sofa to soak with auto tan and water, a heap of washing up to be half-ignored, they will do it.

If not closely watched — not like a cougar but a hawk — they will scatter empty beer bottles and wet towels and leave books and precious mobile phones out all night and, at a time when they could be fathers of young children themselves, leave their bedrooms looking like the scene of a toddler’s tantrum.

At least, unlike a couple of boys from the local sink estate we once took on holiday, they know how to use a knife and fork. As for fixing things, apart from computers they are useless; they know nothing of sinks or fuses or buttons. Yet the boys of my generation, modestly or well off, knew all about such things like a cohort of Scouts.

It may be an exaggeration to imagine that incompetence in minor matters affects a man’s competence in major endeavours, but I suspect it does. Practicality, common sense, the ability to imagine the consequences of what one does matter in everything.

Bottles strewn around mean broken glass, food thrown around means feral cats and dogs. What the Australians used to call get-with-it-ivity is essential to any project and almost any paid employment. The creative entrepreneurs of the same generation as the lost boys have had to be very together, as we used to say — there is great discipline in management, administration, finance, publicity and so on, even in running a couple of small rock bands successfully. Why don’t the lost boys understand that? They are up against much harsher competition than their parents of the post-war generation. Since then the workplace has been democratised — Margaret Thatcher’s Big Bang was a clear sign of that — and girls are now free to compete and do, dreaming of gynocracy.

Nepotism is still with us but it doesn’t work for every well-connected young man.

These days a boy has to be highly motivated, talented — and organised as well — to make use of it. No one will give a leg up to a ditsy nephew any more.

In short, the lost boys are suffering the pains of meritocracy and social mobility, which can take people cruelly down as well as up. The mystery is that their affluent parents didn’t look ahead more carefully and prepare them better for it.

The spoilt post-war generation is often blamed for robbing their children of their inheritance, but what we are really guilty of is failing to teach our boys a sense of the harsh realities of life to protect the less lucky, the less talented and the less driven from getting lost.

The Sunday Times

July 25th, 2010

Marriage vows are obsolete, we need compulsory prenups

Love and marriage are supposed to go together like a horse and carriage, according to the old Frank Sinatra song. But they don’t. In romantic marriage the uncontrollable racehorse of sexual desire has been awkwardly harnessed to the stolid carthorse of duty to drag along a ramshackle wagonload of babies, broken washing machines, property, nasty mothers-in-law, flushing lavatories, dementing old people, bills, debts, routine, suspicion and disillusion.

Out of all this may come in time a profound married love; as my formidable mother-in-law used to say, “The first 30 years are the worst”, and married people may learn to pull together in harness. But these days fewer people are prepared to wait it out, which is why the matrimonial wagon so often lurches off the road. Romantic marriage is inherently unstable.

Modern longevity is making it even more so, according to Cameron Diaz, the actress and social analyst. Last week she pointed out, with a frankness that Hollywood film stars used to avoid until recently, that “with today’s life expectancy you could live another 50 years with that person. I think people get freaked out about getting married and spending 20 or 30 years sleeping with the same person. So don’t do it. Have someone for five years and another person for another five years”.

Not everyone would take such a radical view of marriage and how to avoid its woes.

But there does seem to be some radical legal thinking going on about marriage or at least about divorce — which is a way of dealing with the woes of marriage. The past few decades of divorce policies in this country have clearly failed — that is one reason London is now the divorce capital of the world. People divorcing rich husbands or wives flock to this country to get the most out of them in court, regardless of where they were married or what their prenuptial agreements were, because prenups are not, so far, enforceable in law here; some divorcees even come back to court, after a settlement, to demand more.

Clearly unjust, all this is partly because divorce cases here have historically been bedevilled by the same confusion as marriage itself. It comes from a reluctance to face the differences between a contract and a romantic alliance and the proper consequences of that distinction for a just division of the spoils. Simply put, if when you get married you fail to state your expectations and obligations, or if a prenuptial agreement is not recognised in law and if there is no legal notion of blame, then fairness upon divorce must be as long as an individual judge’s piece of string.

It’s now clear that judges are thinking rather differently, and some are even gently pressing for legislative change in parliament. Senior judges are worried that the High Court’s family division has earned London its reputation for a good place for a lucrative divorce. They are taking a newly tough line with former wives of extremely rich men who try to reopen their divorce settlements. In three recent cases, including one last week, senior judges have thrown such applications out. And in one important ruling earlier this month, the Court of Appeal determined that the prenuptial agreement signed by a German heiress and her French husband should be given “decisive weight” in their divorce settlement. That is not the same as enforcing it but it is a great deal more than taking it into consideration, which has been the situation.

In this landmark case, Nicolas Granatino signed a prenup with his future wife, Katrin Radmacher, a German heiress due to inherit £100m: in both her country and his, this agreement to protect her fortune in the event of divorce would be legally binding. After a while things went wrong, a divorce followed and Granatino got a settlement that might seem generous to many. It was certainly contrary to his prenuptial agreement not to make any claims on her money, as he got a good lump of it.

His wife appealed and on July 2 the appeal judges made their historic judgment giving “decisive weight” to the couple’s prenup and actually reducing the husband’s settlement.

Granatino has now appealed to the Supreme Court. Whatever it may say, the Supreme Court cannot determine that prenups are legally binding here. That would need legislation — and the Law Commission, which is reviewing the subject, will not be making recommendations until 2012. All the same, if the Supreme Court upholds “decisive weight”, that would be a step in the direction of legally binding prenups in this country.

Surely prenups must be right: marriage really is a contract that ought to be customised; the old standard agreement for everyone is obsolete, as ludicrous struggles in court have proved. I think prenups should be compulsory, too, as well as legally binding: everyone should have to make one of some kind, not necessarily about money. And nearly half of all Britons would like one, according to a survey by the internet bank Smile. For the other half, the requirement to make one would concentrate people’s minds on what marriage meant and what their obligations were.

The 2007 Smile survey put together a prenup wishlist, with 10 of the most important terms and conditions. The main concern was adultery, followed by equal housework, shopping sprees, letting your appearance go, contact with exes, snoring, unwanted family visits, breaking wind, leaving the lavatory seat up and control of the remote — a very telling detail. It is a sad little list, but at least it shows some forethought: rushing into marriage without considering what it really might involve is why divorce is often so acrimonious here; in other parts of Europe, which have prenups, there is less bitter dispute and less use of the courts.

A legal obligation to talk about money and marital politics might overcome the astonishing squeamishness people seem to feel about looking ahead and imagining the less good and the worst. Mishcon de Reya, the divorce lawyers for Diana, Princess of Wales, found in a recent study that 9 out of 10 British top earners refuse to sign prenups, even though they know it would be in their interests, because they don’t like talking about money.

It is simply irresponsible not to try to make some provision for an uncertain future, just as it’s irresponsible not to make a will. Prenups might well remove some of the woe from marriage and might even help to keep the rickety matrimonial wagon on the road.

The Sunday Times

July 18th, 2010

Your starter for 10 – isn’t a graduate tax just plain dumb?

There is hardly any subject more painfully contentious, especially at this time of year, than the question of university places — who gets one, who didn’t have a fair chance and, not least, who pays. Lord Browne of BP fame is preparing a university funding review, to be published in the autumn, but quite unexpectedly Vince Cable, the skills secretary, made a pre-emptive headline grabbing speech last week to a collection of university vice-chancellors. He suggested, among some other controversial proposals for universities, a new graduate tax.

Actually he called it a graduate contribution, but it clearly is a tax. He may have been trying to nudge Browne’s conclusions or he may have been making soothing internal party political noises to resentful Liberal Democrats, who oppose tuition fees, but the effect of his startling suggestion has been to stir up an educational hornets’ nest.

For those who value academic and personal freedom, for those who hope for a smaller state, more devolution of power and less bureaucracy (along with support for the less fortunate), for those who believe the coalition government stands for exactly that, Cable’s graduate tax sounds like a massive leap backwards. It is a remarkably bad idea — statist, invasive, bureaucratic, demoralising and unnecessary. What’s so strange is that the speech in which Cable recommended it was in many ways both brave and wise.

Of course he was right to insist that university funding is in crisis and hard times lie ahead. His department — 80% of whose budget is devoted to universities — faces cuts of 20% to 25%. A funding model designed long ago for the 10% of the population who went to university in his own youth cannot be applied to today’s 40%. Even without the recession, taxpayers could no longer afford to subsidise such an explosion of students, nor would it be fair to ask them, especially as many courses seem to be of doubtful value.

Cable was also brave to point out that there “could be a law of diminishing returns in pushing more and more students through university … recent data shows rising unemployment for recent graduates”. There is plenty of evidence of graduate disillusion as well. Clearly, as he says, students must pay more for the privilege of a degree, in so far as it is one, at some stage in their careers. “The reality is,” he says, and one can only applaud, that we are going to have to develop a higher education funding model “that ensures good universities receive a reliable stream of income and are less dependent on the state”.

Inefficient universities should be allowed to fail. It is students, not institutions, that matter and they should be able to vote with their feet. Cable is also right that “we need to rethink the case for our universities from the beginning” and that university funding “is not something governments can or should directly control. Universities are independent institutions and should not be directed like Soviet-era tractor factories”.

Three cheers. And obviously he’s right in saying that we already have a form of graduate tax — the student loans system, which is repaid only when a graduate earns enough to start doing so.

It is a total mystery, then, that having come up with the right analysis and the right approach, Cable should trail a suggestion that is entirely at odds with both. Consider what a graduate tax would probably mean in practice, although he himself is vague on the details.

Cable appears to mean that university graduates in England would pay an extra earnings-related university tax for a period over their working lives (yet to be defined), so arranged that lower earners would pay less in total and high earners would pay much more. This tax would be collected by the Inland Revenue, presumably over a long period, and only then (if at all, in practice) returned, somehow or other, to the universities, presumably according to some redistributive system dreamt up by Cable’s civil servants.

Although this “contribution” would start out as a hypothecated tax for university education, history suggests that hypothecation tends not to last; the money goes into the general pot sooner or later.

It is hard to know where to start with the obvious objections to a tax. For one thing graduates who make money do indeed already pay a great deal of tax out of their large incomes. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, entrepreneurs and media people who have been to university contribute large sums to the tax man — and rightly so — long after having paid off many times over the cost of their education.

We already have a kind of graduate tax, as Cable says. Admittedly the student loans system is unfair, as well as wasteful and badly managed. Most of the state subsidy goes to students who are already well off, instead of being directed specifically to the poorest. At least, though, it targets the individual, who then pays his or her university directly, and it could be adjusted for fairness.

Cable’s graduate tax, by contrast, would send all the money to Whitehall to be evaporated in a boiling cauldron of red tape, micromanagement and waste and then dribbled out for some entirely different sector. This is to say nothing of the vast complexity of discovering what graduates are earning from good years to bad years, as they change jobs or lose jobs. Only years after a student had graduated would the money be available and then only at Whitehall’s discretion.

Universities would be deprived of yet more autonomy, becoming yet more dependent on the state, largely indifferent to the wishes of customers, the students — yet more like Cable’s Soviet-era tractor factories, in fact.

What is also curious about Cable’s speech is that he talks of the need to rethink our universities from the beginning, but that is just what he doesn’t do. Like most people today, even many Conservatives, Cable seems content, no matter what he claims, to leave universities pretty much in the hands of the state. But why should the state have any control over universities, other than making sure that the less well-off could somehow afford to go to them? Had he really been interested in radical thought, in academic freedom, in the autonomy of students and universities, and in a bonfire of the statist inanities which have already brought many universities low, he would have come up with something different. Let’s hope that Browne does.

Gillian Bowditch is away

The Sunday Times

July 11th, 2010

If we were to be really honest, billions have a case for asylum

One English summer day in 2004 a young gay Iranian man shot himself between the eyes with an airgun, near a children’s playground in Sussex. He had just heard that his second appeal for asylum here had been refused by the Home Office. He was to be deported back to Iran, where homosexuality is illegal, where gays are persecuted and where he was afraid he would be executed. Iran is a country so barbaric that death by stoning is still legal.

At that time gay men’s requests for asylum here on the grounds that they would be persecuted in their own countries were routinely turned down; gay asylum seekers were often advised by immigration officials to hide their homosexuality by behaving discreetly. No longer. Last week the Supreme Court here decided unanimously that men and women who faced persecution in their own countries because of their homosexuality had valid grounds for claiming asylum and should not be deported.

The Supreme Court gave this judgment in allowing the appeal of two gay men, from Cameroon and Iran, whose asylum claims had previously been turned down. Both men had been told in the usual way that if they discreetly hid their sexuality in their home countries, their situation could be regarded as “reasonably tolerable”.

Overturning this, the Supreme Court found that forcing a gay man to hide his sexuality or to repress it was not tolerable but a breach of his fundamental human rights. The Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees says that members of “social groups” are entitled to asylum if they can establish a well-founded danger of persecution at home, and Lord Hope of the Supreme Court said last week that homosexuals might be considered a “social group” for the purposes of this convention. As of last week, no one like Hussein Nasseri needs to be driven to suicide in this country.

That sounds extremely good news. Who would not agree that homosexuals in danger of persecution have every right to asylum? Who would not be proud of our Supreme Court for making this ruling and of our government for welcoming it immediately? Yet the sad truth is that while the ruling is entirely right in principle, in practice it is absolutely unworkable. It serves to illustrate the way in which this country and others have failed to face up to the insoluble problems of asylum.

The unlucky people in the world with a genuine need for asylum amount not to millions but to billions. Homosexuals alone who fear persecution must number many millions. Life is hard for them almost everywhere, and there are more than 80 countries in which homosexuality is illegal — 42 where it’s illegal for both sexes and 39 where it’s illegal for men only.

In Africa alone the populations of the countries where homosexuality is illegal amount to well over 600m. If one assumes that about 10% of people are gay, that means there are 60m homosexuals from Africa who might well have a strong claim to asylum in Britain under the new ruling. That is not to count the many millions from the Indian subcontinent (about 10% of 2 billion), the Middle East and the Pacific, to say nothing of the obvious risk of fraud.

Clearly not all gay asylum seekers would come to Britain. Some, for instance, might be put off by the way gay clergymen get treated here and are expected to repress their sexuality. There are other countries, including the United States, which will take them in. But, equally, Britain is high on the list of preferred destinations for refugees and we could expect a large number.

The only real reason people in need of a safe haven don’t come here in much greater numbers than now is that they don’t have the means or the information; otherwise we would be almost inundated with vast numbers of genuine asylum seekers. That is beginning to change, and this new Supreme Court ruling augments the change. How many of these entirely deserving asylum seekers can we actually take in? Besides, there is no obvious reason to draw the line at the persecution of homosexuals. There are plenty of other “social groups” at risk of persecution or death, along with lesser infringements of their human rights. I should have thought a girl in fear of a forced or underage marriage would have an excellent case for asylum. Clearly girls at risk of genital mutilation (with perhaps infection and even death) ought to have a case, and they amount to many millions — more than 100m women worldwide have suffered this dangerous treatment. And what about the countless women regularly denied their human rights and persecuted under the inequalities of sharia? Sooner or later this country will have to face the fact that we can’t accept even a tiny proportion of legitimate asylum seekers. When that time comes we will be very much blamed. But the truth is that the finger of blame ought to be pointed at religion, particularly at Islam and Christianity in their more fundamentalist forms. It is because of religion that homosexuals are shamed and ridiculed and persecuted. I shall not be welcoming the Pope on his visit to Britain because of the Catholic Church’s monstrous teachings on birth control and on homosexuality, which condemn many millions to misery in the attempt to repress their sexuality; in this, Christianity is a force for evil. Nor is the Anglican Church much better in its apparent refusal to accept a gay bishop here. And the treatment of gays in the name of Islam in some states is an international disgrace.

The situation is much worse now than when the convention on refugees was drafted, as Lord Hope pointed out last week; more recently it has been “fanned by misguided but vigorous religious doctrine”, he said. He gave the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam in Iran as one example. He also spoke of the “rampant homophobic teaching that right-wing evangelical Christian churches indulge in throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa”.

It is hard to imagine what can be done to resist these evils, beyond helping at least some of the victims. But this might be a moment to accept at long last that religion is not automatically entitled to respect.

When religion is at odds with human rights, when religion is a force for evil, it deserves open contempt. Respect for one’s religion should not be a universal human right and should not be protected in law, least of all when it leads to the lonely death of a man such as Hussein Nasseri. Free to be gay, Message Board, page 21

The Sunday Times

June 27th, 2010

Today, class, we will throw away the poison in our lunchboxes

An obese child is a disgrace to its parents. To see young boys and girls wobbling along the pavements, unable to run, with puffy cheeks, piggy eyes and chafing thighs, deprived of youth, strength and health, condemned by their toxic flab to a sickly life in the underclass, is to watch a national horror story developing before our eyes.

It is a sight that is becoming ever more common in this supposedly sophisticated country. Last week Datamonitor, an independent research company, reported that British children were now getting fat almost twice as fast as American children, eating more than double the amount of snacks, sweets, chocolates and crisps, and gobbling more sugary breakfast foods, ready meals and ice cream. More snacks and ice cream than the lard-butt Americans!

The result is that more than one in three British children between 5 and 13 years old are already overweight or obese. By 2014, 38.6% of British children are likely to be overweight or obese — a rapid increase, if the prediction is correct.

It is a misery in itself for a child to be fat or obese, particularly in a time of obsession with physical perfection and fitness sports. Even worse, obesity means ill-health — diabetes with kidney failure, blindness and amputation, coronary artery disease, joint problems, mobility difficulties and a great deal more. It is wrong to allow children to be subjected to this lifelong self-loathing and sickness: even the most ardent of libertarians would agree that parents should not be allowed to do it.

To be fair to the parents of obese children, it should be admitted that it is hard and expensive to provide a healthy diet. For that reason, fat is a class issue. Rich children are rarely fat, let alone obese; their parents have the time, the money and the will to feed them well. What many children (and adults) like is what is worst for them and, as it happens, usually cheapest and easiest — biscuits, cakes, crisps, fatty snacks, deepfried nuggets, chips and takeaways, all filled with addictive salt, sugar and trans fats, which are sometimes even more addictive in combination. The phrase junk food doesn’t begin to describe such stuff; it ought, along with sugary, fizzy drinks and calorific fruit-style juices, to be called poison.

Just as much to blame as the parents, if not more, are some mass-market food manufacturers. Last week the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the National Health Service watchdog, said — quite rightly and all too belatedly — that trans fats should be eliminated from food in England; other parts of Britain should follow this lead. Trans fats are partly hydrogenated vegetable oils that have the magical effect of making food seem more appetising and longer-lasting; they turn oily foods into semi-solid foods with an extended shelf life.

Found in items such as biscuits, cakes and fast foods, they have no nutritional value but can raise levels of cholesterol in the blood. Clearly, getting rid of this artificial poison by law would be a good idea, though it is probably impossible, given the strength of the food-manufacturing lobby.

Ofsted issued a report on school dinners last week, warning that two in five schools in poor areas are failing to meet requirements for a balanced diet. The schools’ attempts to ensure healthy eating are being undermined by pupils bringing in unhealthy packed lunches, and Ofsted recommends head teachers do more to monitor what each child eats and make recommendations to parents. Of course, one of the tabloids immediately attacked “the lunchbox snoopers”. Ofsted admitted many head teachers are reluctant to go in for such monitoring, for fear of being “patronising”.

The obvious truth is that head teachers ought to be not less but a great deal more patronising. They ought to make it their priority to ensure that at school, at least, every child eats healthy food.

I can never understand why schools give children such freedom about food. When I was young, a time when overweight children were extremely rare, there was none. Every child had to eat the same thing at lunchtime, including horrible beetroot, raw onion and stew with lentils, unless there was a religious or medical reason why not. No snacks were allowed. Milk was compulsory; otherwise there was only water to drink. And nobody was allowed to leave the school premises at any time to buy their own food.

Head teachers today could do a great thing for tomorrow’s adults by forcing children to avoid bad food and snacking all day at school. That would mean at least some of their youthful hours were free of calorific sugar rushes and addictive substances.

It is true that it is not cheap to put together a healthy packed lunch. But schools could help, not least by teaching everyone about nutrition. And, reluctant though I am to put up with interference from any quango, I think child obesity is serious enough to justify Ofsted’s recommendations. Besides, apart from those people so poor they are entitled to free school lunches, it ought to be possible for parents to afford to feed their children at lunchtime; they do so in the holidays.

Surely almost the first duty of a parent to a child is to feed it adequately. The first call on child-benefit money — £20.30 a week for a first child and £13.40 for each sibling — must be to feed them something better than toxic junk food. After all, child benefit is meant for the benefit of children.

Speaking of child benefit, there is one obvious way to ensure the poorest children do get to school regularly and on time (and with any luck eat well there). It is to make payment of the benefit conditional on each child’s school attendance. Any no-show in the morning without a good reason would mean no child benefit for mum.

Admirers of George Orwell will recall his contempt for the stupidity of insisting that poor people should give up cigarettes and sugary tea in favour of raw carrots and brown bread. There is something insulting in suggesting that people living harsh lives should deprive themselves of their few pleasures. All the same, they should not deprive their children of good food, or poison them with bad food, and there can be few people so desperately poor in Britain that they cannot afford a hard-boiled egg — or tuna — sandwich, a chunk of cheddar with an apple or a tomato, and some vegetable sticks, especially if supplied cheaply at school.

Their poverty is one of aspiration, even for their own children’s health, and that is why someone outside the family ought to step in, to rescue those children from the blighted life of obesity.

The Sunday Times

June 20th, 2010

Lower the drink-drive limit and you’re brewing up trouble

In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes, as Benjamin Franklin supposedly said. He should have added risk. Last week a review commissioned by the previous government recommended reducing the drink-drive limit by almost half; it suggested cutting it from 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood to 50mg.

The author, Sir Peter North, a distinguished academic and QC, claims that as many as 168 lives a year could be saved by this reduction. When it is put like that, how could anyone oppose it? Those 168 unknown people who are, statistically speaking, already dead would be given back their lives, so to speak, and several times that number would be spared terrible grief and loss.

I am not sure that is the right way to put it. It is somehow the wrong way to look at risk. The equation is not so simple, at least not in this case. However risk-averse we may be, however we struggle to avoid it, we can never have even a precise idea of what any particular risk is, and when we try to limit it, we necessarily limit our freedom in the process as well.

To take an obvious example, one certain way of avoiding all road deaths would be to ban all road traffic. That, of course, is unthinkable because the freedom of the roads is so important to so many. So the truth, ugly though it sounds, is that we as individuals and as a society do accept the inevitability of some risk of death on the roads. The real question is how much risk is acceptable and how much loss of freedom is acceptable to that end.

The overall picture of driving in this country is impressive. Britons, relatively speaking, are unusually safe drivers; there is far less risk of dying on the roads here than elsewhere. According to figures for 2009 put out by Irtad (the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s international road traffic and accident database), we have the lowest road-user fatalities per 100,000 of 29 leading developed countries; only the Netherlands has a lower rate. Britain scores even more reassuringly on the fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles, being at the bottom of the list. And apart from Sweden we are also bottom of the list of fatalities per billion vehicle kilometres. This is all the more impressive since this country’s roads are exceptionally crowded and busy.

When it comes to drink-driving, things here have improved hugely overall. Drink-driving deaths have fallen sharply since 1967, when the 80mg limit was imposed. Admittedly, there was an increase in drink-driving deaths in 2008 over 2007 (430 from 410), but, according to the North review, the figure is still two-thirds lower than in the 1970s, even though there has at the same time been a vast increase in the number of cars on the road. So the risk is now significantly lower in real terms.

Besides, what causes what in such matters is far from clear. The drink-drive limit in various countries is not always directly correlated to the alcohol-related deaths. A lower limit doesn’t necessarily mean fewer deaths. Britain’s proportion of alcohol-related deaths to the total of road deaths was 17% (with a drink-drive limit of 80mg). That is higher than in Sweden (20mg) or Germany (50mg) or the Czech Republic (0mg), but lower than in France (50mg), Ireland (80mg) and Estonia (20mg). So there’s no clear picture. And surely it’s obvious that there are many intermingled factors, which vary from place to place; among other things, one cannot avoid concluding that French drivers just aren’t very good, either over or under the limit.

However, there is one glaringly obvious risk factor that shines out from the statistics. Anyone who has ever tried to get a young son insured to drive the family car will be aware of it. The most dangerous drivers are young men and the most likely drink-driver to kill or seriously injure someone on the roads will be — as well as over the alcohol limit — young, male, a very inexperienced motorist and quite likely without a driving licence.

About 40% of all such accidents are caused by a driver of between 17 and 24 and that figure hasn’t improved much in the past three decades: it was 45% in 1979. And, according to the North report, younger drivers have a lower tolerance to alcohol as well as being more inclined to take risks. So here is one group that poses an exceptional and unmistakable risk to the public on the roads.

Meanwhile, most of us pose no risk at all. Most of us are fairly good citizens who reluctantly keep our drinking down to the legal limit and grudgingly admit that it makes sense. It is now, quite rightly, socially unacceptable — except perhaps among a few people who feel themselves outside the law anyway — to drink and drive. Most of us — the 99% of us who observe the drink-drive limit — have accepted a considerable loss of freedom in doing so.

It’s hard to go out and keep saying no to a second, very welcome stiff drink after a long day, or turn down some delicious wine, or nag a slightly squiffy guest not to drive home. Drink may be a dangerous drug but it is also one of life’s great pleasures. It brings people together and makes life seem better, or at least more bearable. And in places where people rely on cars, in default of public transport or ruinous taxis, the current drink-drive limit, reasonable though it is, can be described only as socially and personally repressive. An even stricter limit, or after that a total ban, seems to me unjustified, unjust and socially undesirable.

To have any serious effect on drink-driving deaths and serious injuries, the government could stop young people driving until the age of 25. Failing that, it should at least stop anyone under 25 drinking anything at all when they drive. But I very much question whether bringing down the limit for older people — which in this ageing society means most of us — will make any substantial difference. And it might have the perverse effect of making more people flout the law because they no longer feel it is reasonable: it might be counterproductive. Unreasonable laws tend, for obvious reasons, to be unenforceable.

I am all in favour of harsh punishment for drivers who cause accidents when they are over the drink-drive limit. It is criminally irresponsible and unforgivably shameful to hurt or kill someone by driving after drinking too much. Precisely for that reason, the drink-drive alcohol limit ought to be seen to be fair and within the limits of acceptable risk. The new level suggested by the North review is neither.

The Sunday Times

June 13th, 2010

Oh Diane, you’re no more than Labour’s Sarah Palin

If I were Diane Abbott, I would be smouldering with mortification and rage. Just because she is a woman and black, she has been forced by her own party into a position that is humiliating and untenable. Although she herself was able to get only a handful of supporters for the Labour leadership contest and so could not on her own merits make it to the ballot list, she has been pushed and shoved into the race at the 11th hour by powerful Labour MPs who wouldn’t otherwise support her and all, supposedly, in the name of diversity. It is monstrous, or so she ought to think.

As late as a few hours before the ballot list deadline last week, Abbott had the backing of just 10 MPs out of a required 33. So, because it looked as if the leadership contestants would be embarrassingly all-male, all-Oxbridge and all-white, the parliamentary Labour party machine cranked into action: Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, encouraged enough other MPs to nominate Abbott, reluctantly, after they had been persuaded that a privileged all-white male line-up would not go down at all well with the public or the unions.

Even with all this finagling, Abbott’s final supporter gave her his nomination only a few minutes before the deadline. The name for this is not diversity. Its name is tokenism, aggravated by PR manipulation and the deepest of undemocratic cynicism. It is positive discrimination at its most depressing.

Yet Abbott seems quite oblivious of her humiliation. She blithely denies that she has been a beneficiary — I would say a victim — of positive discrimination, yet she herself made much in speeches last week of her colour and gender. She says that if, after 23 years as an MP, “I haven’t earned the right to stand for the leadership then nothing counts for anything”. But don’t the party electoral rules count for anything? Or the freely offered support of one’s peers? Abbott seems to feel thoroughly entitled to run, even though several people who in the end nominated her have no intention of voting for her and even though Harman has made it entirely clear that her reason for nominating her was to ensure that a woman was on the ballot paper.

Three of the other contestants, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have said publicly how important it is to have a “range” of candidates and a “choice”. And the favourite, David Miliband, nominated Abbott himself in the same spirit, although unkind gossip suggests that he hopes the left-wing Diane might also snatch away support from his left-wing brother Ed. Surely all this must have occurred to Abbott, along with the unpleasant idea that David Miliband would not for an instant have nominated her if he had thought she had the ghost of a chance of winning.

It would be extremely funny if she did win. I am not an admirer, but she seems to be just as intelligent as Burnham, if not more so, and nicer than the Miliband brothers. And she could not possibly be more disastrous for the country than Gordon Brown or his protégé Balls. All the same, the truth is that Diane Abbott is the Sarah Palin of British politics, a woman cynically propelled to the fore to serve male interests and party interests; perhaps, as with Palin, there will be a lot of unexpected blow-back, which might be entertaining. Given the disarray in the Labour party, however, perhaps it hardly matters.

What does matter is why there are so few women in British politics — and so few outstanding women. Given the difficulties of enticing women into politics, which all parties have tried, an equally important question, perhaps, is whether the absence of women matters very much. Perhaps the assumption that there ought to be as many female MPs as male is not often enough questioned.

Harman said last week that party rules ought to be changed to ensure that half the shadow cabinet members are women. While many people would not go that far, most people believe there ought to be more equal numbers of women as representatives of the people. But why? Who benefits? Is it the women, the institution of parliament or the voters and their representation? It is far from clear. If there are women who want to become MPs but who are clearly held back by sexism, then it is obviously a matter of justice and equality to help them. Quite a lot has been done about this and there is no doubt more to do.

There are some obstacles that can’t be removed, however. As Abbott herself said in 2003: “I worked out some time ago it is not possible to be a good mother and a good MP.” Having children, a job in parliament and perhaps in cabinet, a demanding constituency, two homes, constant meetings and a lot of travel is a combination many women with families prefer not to take on. Yvette Cooper, a mother of three young children, chose not to stand for the leadership. Besides, the most able women can earn more elsewhere without all these extra burdens. It follows, obviously, that the absence of women politicians is not of itself evidence of discrimination against them.

As for whether parliament would benefit from a greater proportion of women, it would be unwise to assume so. Again there is a general assumption that women bring a civilising, gentling influence into organisations and generally improve things. But the evidence seems to be mixed and inconclusive. Nor is the proportion of women in parliament necessarily a reliable indicator of a good, democratically developed society. Rwanda, Cuba, Costa Rica, Guyana, Belarus, Burundi, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Vietnam and Iraq all have a higher proportion of women in the lower or single house of parliament than in Britain which, with 22%, ranks only 50th equal with four other nations in an Inter-Parliamentary Union world table. The United States stands at 69th equal with Turkmenistan, on 16.8%.

As for whether voters would benefit from having more women MPs that, too, is debatable. Women are underrepresented in the Commons, certainly, as are ethnic minorities. So, too, are poor people, those educated at state schools, those without degrees, young people and pensioners. Should all those groups be represented pro rata as well? Failing that, must one conclude that the Commons does not represent the people and that the executive is not democratically entitled to run the country? That is a crude and unworkable idea of representation. Whatever the answer may be, it is not positive discrimination.