The Sunday Times

December 30th, 2012

Pesky clerics, Europhiles, nurses’ leaders – it’s all change for you

Since I am so bad at keeping my own new year resolutions, I always make them for other people instead — all too often the same, year after year. Here are a few for 2013.

For rash, intruding clerics Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, as Christ said, and stop interfering in politics. The Archbishop of Westminster must have forgotten this teaching when he gave his Christmas Eve sermon this year. Instead of concentrating on the Christmas message of peace and joy, he made a specifically political attack on the government’s gay marriage policy, accusing the prime minister of “shallow thinking” and calling the plans shambolic and undemocratic. Maybe so, but the Church of Rome is hardly known for democracy or political accountability itself.

For judges Remember your proper place, too: avoid behaving like Sir Paul Coleridge, a High Court judge who last week attacked the government for its approach to gay marriage, saying ministers were pursuing the wrong policies and should be concentrating on marriage breakdown. Right or wrong, judges have no business to make their political and moral views known. It is essential to the rule of English law that they do not.

For Lord Patten and other grand panjandrums Give up your absurd numbers of directorships, trusteeships, advisory roles and do-goodery. It is quite impossible to do so many jobs adequately, let alone well: there would hardly even be time to travel regularly between them. Concentrate on two or three.

Lord Patten, for example, is chairman of the BBC Trust; chancellor of Oxford University; non-executive director of Russell Reynolds (headhunting); adviser to Hutchison Europe (telecoms and transport), BP (energy), Bridgepoint (private equity) and EDF (energy); international adviser to the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale awards; co-chairman of the India-UK Round Table; co-chairman of the British Council’s Italy-UK Annual Conference; and trustee of The Tablet, a Catholic journal. Not even a journalist would pretend to be able to cover so much of the waterfront.

But Patten is not alone: there are lots of grand panjandrums like him who somehow imagine they can be responsible for several complex roles at once. They can’t, and there are obvious conflicts of interest. Stop pretending and give most of it up.

For Conservatives When all else fails, try loyalty. Unless you prefer the silliness of the UK Independence party or the financial recklessness of Labour, now is the time to rally around Dave and George. Remember Gordon Brown and beware of where your disloyalty might lead.

For Tories in charge of arts Try a spectacular U-turn and announce a big new “investment” in the arts. Forget cuts. Modern Conservatives should present themselves as passionate patrons of the arts and shower the artistic “community” with more money than Labour has ever offered. Artists and luvvies of all kinds would be thrilled — and, more importantly, they would have to stop sneering at Tory philistinism. The beauty of this scheme is that the arts budget is minuscule — a mere fleabite — compared with total national spending, so romancing and wrongfooting the luvvies at a stroke would be very cheap.

For all commentators, politicians and celebrities Stop using the word legacy. It was bad enough when egomaniacs such as Blair and Brown were unashamedly obsessed with their own legacies: there’s no need for everyone to go on about it. Discretion is the better part of legacy.

For the learning disabilities lobby Don’t overreact to the terrible scandal of Winterbourne View. Of course such abuse must be stopped immediately, but there is no single solution. Some private homes (rather than hospitals) are positive places for people with challenging behaviour and should not be shut in favour of everybody living in the so-called community. Some people with challenging behaviour have problems so serious that they cannot safely live in the community. Knee-jerk responses and politically correct wishful thinking don’t help people in grave need.

For book editors and reviewers Stop reviewing books by your friends and acquaintances. Above all, stop putting your mates’ books in your books-of-the-year lists. It’s a minor form of corruption that makes people cynical about the literary scene.

For the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Forestry Commission, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Royal Horticultural Society and all others responsible for trees and plants Apologise to the nation for your abject failure to protect our trees, our plants and our landscape from imported diseases. Where were you when we needed you? Next year, if it is not already too late, get a grip and ban all importing of trees and plants until further notice. It’s well known that international hypermobility spreads diseases old and new, far and wide, among humans as well as plants. How is it you cannot bring so much as a sausage into Britain from America, but you can import countless bug-ridden plants from almost anywhere? And why did you not tell us clearly whether it was safe to buy Christmas trees imported from Scandinavia or North America? For the leaders of nursing and teaching unions Take a long hard look at yourselves in the mirror and ask this question: given the state of teaching and of nursing, what is the point of you? For Europhiles, especially the reluctant Explain in simple, unforgettable detail why it would be disastrous for this country — if it really would — to leave the European Union. Eurosceptic arguments are simple and seductive. So if, as every government seems to discover, getting out would be a bad thing, the arguments for staying in must be made childishly clear.

Happy new year.

The Sunday Times

December 9th, 2012

Either reform benefits or curb immigration now

Put yourself for a moment in the position of a Romanian or Bulgarian. The effort will make you feel very glad indeed that you are a Briton. Bad as the austerity cuts may feel here, life over there is truly harsh: poverty means something entirely different.

As a Romanian or Bulgarian you will know that from the end of next year you will have the right to escape from your dismal, corrupt and impoverished homeland and come to live anywhere in the EU. Which country would you pick? The answer is blindingly obvious. You’d be a fool to choose anywhere but the United Kingdom.

That is why it is so alarming that the government refused last week to give official estimates of the numbers of Romanians and Bulgarians it expects to fetch up here in 2014. Keen no doubt to avoid the mess the Labour government got into with underestimating the numbers of Polish and Hungarian arrivals last time round, the coalition claimed in the Commons that it didn’t know how many would come and had no means of finding out.

What it must know, at least, is that there will be a lot. All those waiting for the end of 2013 will have been encouraged by reports from tens of thousands of compatriots already here.

The first, most obvious incentive for them to come is the generous benefits on offer for low-paid workers here compared with the rest of the EU 15 (the member countries before 2004). Only three other countries, according to new research from the think tank MigrationWatch UK, are more generous than Britain — Denmark, Luxembourg and Ireland.

The UK is also more generous in topping up low wages than France and Finland, and substantially more generous than Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the rest of the EU. When living costs are accounted for, low-paid workers in the UK are the second best-off in the EU, after Luxembourg.

One might be inclined to question such startling findings, but MigrationWatch has a good track record for accuracy, ruefully acknowledged by the civil service, no less. It also points out that access to unemployment benefit is much easier in the UK, where there are virtually no conditions attached to entitlement, than in all the other EU countries, which have stricter controls.

In other EU countries, migrants can claim unemployment benefit only when they have worked, and contributed to the system, for a specific amount of time. Admittedly, most of them offer a higher rate to those entitled to it, but a bird in the hand is much better than two birds in the Romanian bush, and there’s always moonlighting.

In many countries the actual amount of benefit depends on previous contributions, and the length of time a person can claim it will also vary in this way. In the UK it’s possible to claim unemployment benefit more or less on arrival, without any limit on how long for. So a worker from Romania or Bulgaria will not be penalised for never having contributed anything in tax or national insurance, and can claim all sorts of benefits, including housing, as soon as he or she can find the way to the benefits office.

This is to say nothing of instant entitlement to free schools, GPs and hospitals, which — imperfect though they are — must seem like paradise to people from impoverished southeastern Europe. Why on earth would anyone go anywhere else? Only Denmark or Luxembourg would have something of the same powerful attraction, but smart migrants would choose a multicultural and English-speaking country that is neither freezing nor boring.

No one can blame new EU citizens for choosing to move to countries where they and their families can hope for a better life. They’d be daft if they didn’t. So it is unreasonable to resent the certain mass influx. What we should resent is the disastrously muddled thinking behind the European project — the notion, among other serious and obstinately blind mistakes, that the free movement of people across all the EU would be a good idea, given that it was to include access to welfare.

It ought to have been blindingly obvious that the EU’s rich countries would have to be very rich indeed if they were to extend their generous welfare entitlements as of right to all the huddled masses of greater Europe. It ought to have been blindingly obvious that there would come a point when the EU’s welfare expenditure would be unaffordable, as it exists at present — even without the vast burden of hundreds of thousands of low-skilled and impoverished immigrants.

Even before the terrible economic reckoning of 2008, it should have been clear that the money was running out and government borrowing, such as Gordon Brown’s in the UK, was unsustainable. Now that is all too painfully obvious.

A generous welfare state is incompatible with the free movement of people, whether inside or outside Europe. The two together are unaffordable. Already the combination is pushing down living standards and pushing up borrowing; soon this will be a political catastrophe, not just in the United Kingdom but all across the EU.

It’s a tragedy already gathering force. The lesser but important question, meanwhile, is why the UK has been so much more generous to EU migrants than nearly every other country in the region. I suspect it is down to a combination of vanity, incompetence, wishful thinking and political correctness.

If every EU citizen can come here and use all the benefits of the welfare state, if people from outside Europe can bring in many of their relatives, once they’ve got leave to stay, if they can join the near 50% of British households that take state handouts of some sort, if all this happens in a deep recession when the tax take is declining scarily, this country will either go broke or have to shut its borders. So, if not quite so quickly, will the other rich countries of the EU. To repeat the point, a generous welfare state — a welfare state at all — is incompatible with the free movement of people.

Theresa May has talked of renegotiating the EU directive on the free movement of people. It can only be talk; this is a cornerstone of the EU and cannot be changed. The government could reduce welfare benefits for new arrivals, in line with less generous neighbours, but that would make little difference in the long run.

For one thing, this country has lost control of its borders. More importantly, the entire system, right across the EU, is unsustainable. If I were a Romanian I would waste no time in getting here before things change.

The Sunday Times

December 2nd, 2012

There is an unspoken fear driving our nurses to cruelty

Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge report, which gave Britain its nobly conceived welfare system, including our cherished National Health Service. But only two days earlier, in the midst of the Beveridge celebrations, the secretary of state for health felt obliged to speak out against a culture of cruelty in the NHS and in social care as well. Jeremy Hunt’s chilling phrase was “the normalisation of cruelty” — perhaps, he said, the biggest problem of all facing the NHS — “where the unacceptable is legitimised and the callous becomes mundane”.

How good it is that he spoke out so unequivocally. But how late. It’s a mystery to me why it has taken so very long for any government to admit the truth. None of the horrors the minister talks about is new.

It must be more than 20 years ago now that I started writing about the dreadful things that were going on in some hospitals. At first my accounts were tentative, based on some shocking observations of my own in several of the great London teaching hospitals. But soon my postbag became so swollen with anguished readers’ stories about hellish experiences on NHS wards that I began to realise something widespread was going on. A culture of cruelty had developed.

At the time it was quite impossible to say so. And when, long ago, a sub-editor (on another newspaper) gave an article of mine the headline “The devil nurses of the NHS“, I felt uneasy: there were and are plenty of fine nurses who would rightly be offended.

But how else would you describe nurses who deliberately and perversely denied painkillers in an intensive care ward to a man who had just had both legs amputated? I saw that for myself in about 1995 in a top London NHS intensive care unit, where my mother was recovering from an operation.

My mother was doing well but she insisted I try to help a man at the other end of the ward who had been screaming in agony throughout the previous night because the nurses had let his epidural drip of painkillers run right down until it was too late to find an anaesthetist to refill it. Now his drip was low again and he was terrified.

So I went to the nursing station and tried politely to explain his fears, whereupon several young nurses very rudely told me to get lost. And sure enough, they let the drip run out and the patient spent the following night screaming in agony again.

A couple of rogue nurses, you might say.

But there was and is too much evidence the other way. I know that public satisfaction with the NHS is generally high and I know there are excellent nurses with an excellent culture of care and compassion.

One example is a post-operative ward in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, where I spent several hours a day a couple of years ago for most of three weeks, supporting a patient with a learning disability. The nurses could not have been kinder or more cheerful. If they were overworked they didn’t let the patients see it. I don’t suppose they were better paid or less busy than other nurses, but something about the culture there inspired them to be the kind of nurse that everyone hopes for. It can be done.

All too often, however, it isn’t, as people are beginning to realise. It’s hardly necessary to repeat all the horror stories that Hunt listed. A mention of the cancer patient at St George’s in Tooting, south London, whose desperate thirst drove him to call the police, or the needless deaths at Stafford Hospital are enough to make the point.

The question is why this culture has developed and why it is so prevalent. It clearly has little, if anything, to do with pay or workloads: the many compassionate nurses in the NHS prove that. Nor do I think a culture of active cruelty has anything much to do with the training of nurses.

I suspect this institutional cruelty is directed mainly at certain kinds of patient. One day I visited a friend who had just given birth in a famous and respected teaching hospital; the treatment on her ward was excellent. But the same evening I talked to a man who had just visited his mother in the geriatric wing of the same hospital and her treatment was horrifying. He had to go in every day to help her eat, to wash her and to demand some attention from the unpleasant nurses; otherwise, he said, she would be lying in vile neglect like the other patients. There were two entirely different cultures in the same prestigious hospital.

It seems to me the worst NHS and social care horror stories usually have to do with the very old or with people who have mental disabilities or mental illnesses. The scandal at Winterbourne View, the private care home that was shut down after the discovery of horrific treatment of the patients, is a case in point: abuse of this kind is becoming more prevalent in society generally, according to government statistics issued last week.

Perhaps that isn’t entirely surprising. We all have complex and fearful attitudes to ageing and to mental infirmities.

Old people, especially the very frail, are a frightening memento mori. One day I, too, they remind me, will lose my teeth and hair and hearing. One day I will probably be querulous or immobile or doubly incontinent. One day I may lose my mind.

Nobody likes to be reminded of all that and most of us try to forget it for most of the time, but nurses can’t. As well as that, they face the constant difficulty of caring for people who are not going to get better and who may not even appreciate what they do.

I suspect something of the same goes for patients with mental problems: they frighten people in a deep but unspoken way. And the way we deal with people who are frightening is usually to dehumanise them.

We can dissociate ourselves from them by pretending they are different from us, that they are other. And, as history has persistently shown, in the dehumanisation of soldiers in combat, as well as in ethnic cleansing, people we have dehumanised are very much easier to abuse; in fact, abuse becomes a way of asserting our much desired difference from them. That’s why people used to jeer at the local madwoman or the village idiot: it’s a form of self-protection.

None of this excuses callousness or inhumanity in the NHS, in social care or anywhere else. To try to understand is not to excuse. But explanations are urgently needed. Without them the culture of cruelty — the “normalisation of cruelty” — will grow. Beveridge would have been astounded.

The high price of our dementia care failures, Letters, page 25. Is this the future of the NHS?, Dominic Lawson, Magazine, pages 68-73

The Sunday Times

November 25th, 2012

The first law of social work: politics trumps parental love

How could any public servant in her right mind snatch three children away from good and experienced foster parents, just because they belonged to a particular political party? Until last week I would have boasted to anyone that such a thing could never happen in this country. Common sense and political freedom prevail here; only totalitarian police states carry on that way.

But then it emerged that precisely this has happened to a respectable couple living near Rotherham. Better-sounding foster parents you could hardly hope to find: the husband was a Royal Navy reservist for 30 years and works with disabled people; his wife is a qualified nursery nurse. For almost seven years they have been approved foster parents to about a dozen children, and were described as “exemplary”.

A few weeks ago they took in three east European children in an emergency foster placement, and everything seemed to be going well. But one day they suddenly received a visit from a social worker and another official, who explained that the children would have to be taken away from them at once because they were UKIP members and UKIP had racist policies.

Whatever one may think of UKIP, it is a lawful mainstream political party, to which everyone has an absolute right to belong. Yet the strategic director of children’s and young people’s services for Rotherham borough council took it upon herself to decide that UKIP’s policies on immigration and multiculturalism were enough to disqualify these parents from looking after “non-indigenous” children. Clearly she has morphed somewhere in her career from social worker to political commissar.

“We would not have placed these children with you,” she said, “had we known you were members of UKIP because it wouldn’t have been the right cultural match.” The tacit accusation of racism is unmistakeable. But as the foster mother said, “We wouldn’t have taken these children on if we had been racists.” On top of the sadness of losing the children so suddenly, the couple feel that they have been stigmatised and slandered, and are afraid they will not be allowed to carry on fostering.

This senior social worker, Joyce Thacker, and the council as a whole are unrepentant. She now says that she does not think UKIP is a racist party (contrary to the foster parents’ account of their meeting), but “there are some strong views in the UKIP party and we have to think of the future of the children … If the party mantra is, for example, ending the active promotion of multiculturalism … I have to think about their longer-term needs.”

This is odd because she then went on to say — and this is the council’s main line of defence — that the children were placed with this couple only temporarily and “were never intended to stay with the family long term”. Why, then, in an emergency placement such as this, would she have to worry too much about their longer-term needs? This inconsistency suggests that she and the council are either muddled or insincere, and I know which I’m inclined to suspect.

Social workers are very often unfairly criticised. That does not alter the fact, though, that thoughtless, obstinate political correctness of the Joyce Thacker variety is rampant throughout social services. Many of them are highly politicised in plain party-political terms as well. It’s a national disgrace and a national disaster. In adoption, for instance, it is such misguided attitudes that make it so very difficult for a child in need to find adoptive parents.

Ofsted figures released last week suggest that only one in eight couples who want to adopt children is approved by social workers.

In the past year, according to Ofsted, 25,380 couples or individuals made adoption inquiries. Only 16% of them (4,145) went on to apply to adopt a child and only 3,048 were actually approved as prospective parents. This is an astonishing drop-out rate, and a terrible loss to needy children.

No one knows why it is is so high. The family policy expert Patricia Morgan pointed out last week that “we are not being told whether people are being turned down or put off. We don’t know what criteria are being used to approve or eject people … to what extent the decisions are being made on grounds of race, age, health or people’s opinions.”

The government’s determination to encourage adoption is unlikely to succeed without better information about what happens to people when they actually try to adopt. One can at least advise that they might do well to avoid Rotherham.

What happens to social workers? What makes them so politicised? One answer is fear. Again and again it emerges that social workers are afraid of being found insufficiently politically correct, lacking in racial awareness or multicultural enthusiasm or determination to assert gender equality. Their better judgment is clouded over.

Victoria Climbié’s obvious bruises and wounds were, famously, ignored by workers, who said later that physically punishing children was part of her family’s African ethnic tradition, which they felt they had to respect. And there are countless other examples of such muddled, fearful thinking. Thacker herself said in self-defence on Radio 4 that she had been criticised in the past for not making sure children’s cultural and ethnic needs were met.

Fear, however, is only a response to a deep underlying orthodoxy that feels fully entitled to impose itself. This orthodoxy is, or was the last time I looked into it, inculcated in social work training. Even if it is changing, the people trained in this ideological thinking are still in their jobs.

The textbooks I saw seemed less concerned with practical discussions of how to deal with social work problems and real people than with an explicit agenda of social change. This agenda is the usual politically correct stuff, not all of it undesirable, but what stands out is its emphasis on the role of social workers in implementing it. That is why a senior social worker actually thinks it is her job to express through her decisions her disapproval of, say, UKIP or of devoutly Christian foster parents, even when a child might be genuinely happy in such politically incorrect surroundings.

The government should take a long, hard look at the training of social workers. The damage is done from the beginning.

The Sunday Times

November 18th, 2012

Repeat after me: our children will fail unless they learn by rote

In Greek mythology the goddess of memory, Mnemosyne, daughter of heaven and earth and lover of Zeus, was the mother of the nine muses; in their turn, these daughters were the goddesses of literature, arts and science. In this world-view, in other words, memory is the mother of all thought: learning, achievement and understanding cannot exist without it.

The ancient Greeks, as so often, were right. Ask any musician, actor, chemist, mathematician, pharmacist or politician. Ask any heating engineer, dancer, Paralympian, draughtsman, gardener, nurse or cook. Memory is acquired (in important part) through learning by heart, or by repetition or rote learning.

Yet, in one of the strangest and silliest aberrations of progressive educational thought in the West, rote learning has become anathema.

It has become such a bad word that the normally courageous Michael Gove in his excellent speech on Wednesday about exams and how children best learn did not dare to use it, even though he was passionately advocating it. Such is the repressive power of the educational establishment and its mindset.

The self-styled progressives of the educational establishment believe that rote learning is mindless, mechanical parroting — the enemy of child-centred learning, of creativity, self-discovery, the development of critical analysis, the understanding of context and all the rest. Their passionate objections are given dramatic shape by Charles Dickens’s Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times, whose name is regularly invoked in horror by people who ought to think more carefully.

Readers may remember the ludicrous moment when Gradgrind, the headmaster, demands from a wretched pupil the definition of a horse. “Quadruped. Graminivorous,” the boy recites mindlessly. “Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

“Now girl number twenty,” says Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”

Dickens knows and we know — it is the whole point of the caricature — that this is not all there is to a horse. Of course not. But it is nonetheless useful basic knowledge. It is knowledge that has been memorised so deeply as to need no conscious retrieval, like musical scales and times tables, like the alphabet and scientific formulae. A biologist, a vet, a palaeontologist and any buyer of an ageing pony could not afford to be without it.

Such information is necessary but, of course, not sufficient. Facts are necessary to learning and to life but they not sufficient. It’s here that “progressives” seem to me to be making a crass logical error. “Old-fashioned” defenders of rote learning think it necessary, but — they fully admit — not sufficient for wider learning. But muddled “progressives” think that if rote learning is not sufficient, it cannot be necessary.

Rote learning must be reclaimed. In his speech last week Gove several times quoted one of his educational gurus, the American cognitive psychologist Professor Daniel Willingham, who specialises in learning and memory. Willingham says: “Research from cognitive science has shown that the sort of skills teachers want for students — such as the ability to analyse and think critically — require extensive factual knowledge.”

There can be no factual knowledge without deliberate memorising as well as other kinds of more passive memory. So memorising, according to Willingham and Gove, is a precondition of understanding. Only when facts and concepts are committed securely to the memory, so that it is no effort to recall them and no effort is required to work things out from first principles, do we have a secure hold on knowledge. But in our culture, even in the best private schools, rote learning seems to be in the intellectual doghouse. Schools don’t promote it; exams don’t test it; children don’t do it.

Educationalists who are against rote learning should ask themselves why our schools have been slipping so quickly down international league tables. Employers complain that school leavers lack essential skills and most universities feel obliged to offer remedial teaching to ignorant students. These poor students are handicapped by a lack of essential internalised knowledge, rather like ambitious violinists who don’t know their scales by heart.

Almost half of all adults in Briton have the mathematical skills of an 11-year-old, according to the media mathematician Alex Bellos. It is wrong. And it’s one of the reasons why students from cultures that don’t despise rote learning are overtaking the disadvantaged children of the rich West.

Westerners always marvel at how good east Asians are at doing sums: they are at the top of the international numeracy rankings. In a fascinating BBC Radio 4 programme called The Land of the Rising Sums, Bellos recently set out to discover why.

Among many other fascinating cultural reasons — Japanese has a more rational, user-friendly way of counting than many western languages, and the Asian use of the abacus develops different parts of the brain, including those used for visualising — he discovered that all Japanese toddlers are taught to sing a kind of numbers nursery rhyme call kuku. It is, in fact, a song of times tables, and they sing it by rote in groups, long before they understand what it means.

This way, it seems Japanese children internalise their tables perfectly, permanently and happily, unlike British children. Bellos tested Japanese office workers in a bar; all were number perfect, and one explained it was the memory of the kuku music that made it impossible for her to forget the tables.

It is perfectly clear that neuroscientists still have a great deal of research to do into how learning works, and which parts of the brain can be stimulated in which ways. But it is also clear beyond a shadow of doubt that rote learning works and that children’s memories absorb and retain far more than those of adults.

To prevent children from memorising by heart — poems, scales, letters, grammar, equations, verbs, vocabulary, dance notation, prayers, historical dates, the periodic table and anything else of interest — is deliberately to close their minds and weaken their powers of thought. Let’s not forget Mnemosyne.

The Sunday Times

October 21st, 2012

Frankel, my dear, you’ll never be better than the horse I knew

The astonishing Frankel is being widely celebrated as the greatest racehorse ever. No one can deny that he is among the very greatest, but, even after his magnificent win yesterday, my own opinion is that he is no better than the late great Brigadier Gerard and perhaps not as good. My view is not based on any expertise: it is based on the unusual experience of being the Brigadier’s sister-in-law, so to speak, and being part of his family throughout his life.

Brigadier Gerard was the cherished darling of the late John and Jean Hislop, carefully bred and nurtured by them, and of much greater interest to them during his lifetime than their two sons or me, their future daughter-in-law. I always felt my father-in-law would have preferred me to be a filly. But at least I had the good fortune, from the age of 19, of watching Brigadier Gerard closely. With family bias I have always been convinced there will never be a greater racehorse.

I am hardly alone. The celebrated jockey Joe Mercer, who rode the Brigadier in all his 18 races, said earlier this year that while Frankel might perhaps equal the Brigadier, he could not better him. A Radio 5 Live panel, convened last Thursday to decide which had been the greatest horse on the flat, came to the same conclusion. Cornelius Lysaght, the BBC’s racing correspondent, the late Shergar’s jockey Walter Swinburn and the jockey turned writer Brough Scott debated the question at erudite length and found the Brigadier the equal of any of the greats.

Whatever the truth, the success of Brigadier Gerard, along with his breeder and owner John Hislop, makes a wonderful British fairy story. It is worth remembering, like our Olympics this year, as a very British achievement. For one thing, thoroughbred racing on the flat as we know it today was a British invention: three great Arab stallions — the Godolphin Arabian, the Darley Arabian and the Byerley Turk — were imported to England in the early 18th century by aristocratic lovers of racing, and all racing thoroughbreds everywhere in the world are descended from these three.

The General Stud Book, the equine equivalent of the Almanach de Gotha, lists every single mating, and my father-in-law was in his day a world expert on breeding. He knew the stud book almost by heart as a result of studying it obsessively during many months spent in hospital after a bad injury while steeplechasing — he was himself champion amateur jockey 13 times running before the war, when, incidentally, he joined the SAS and was dropped behind enemy lines in France. This is a British fable but it’s true.

It was John Hislop’s knowledge of the minutiae of breeding — which bloodlines ran to stamina, which to speed, which to character — that enabled him to breed many successful horses without much money, while he did other work. He earned large sums for advising exotic plutocrats on matings and he was a well-paid racing correspondent. But his heart was in breeding. When a particularly beautiful foal was born to him in 1968 from a mare called La Paiva that he had bred himself, he said immediately that this was the one. He never had any doubt. He named the foal after Arthur Conan Doyle’s swashbuckling character Brigadier Gerard and we, the rather less interesting older siblings in our late teens, realised at once that our new brother was pretty much the Messiah.

Brigadier Gerard was cheaply bred. His sire was a horse of no great distinction owned by a friend and neighbour, the racing enthusiast Lord Carnarvon, who lived at Highclere Castle — now widely known as Downton Abbey — and with whom my mother-in-law played vituperative bridge. Quite apart from my mother-in-law hurling her disputed bridge debts in halfpennies at the unlucky butler at Highclere, this was all a very extraordinary introduction to racing life for me. Up until then I had known only gymkhanas and West Country point-to-points. This was rather different.

I was allowed to visit the Brigadier several times. Even in extreme youth he was the incarnation of the alpha male: an exotic girlfriend of my husband’s brother was kept away from him because, according to my mother-in-law, she wore too much scent and it would distract him sexually. Then, as soon as the Brigadier was old enough to race, he won everything. He never lost. Or, rather, out of his 18 races he lost only one, to Roberto at York, and even then, in coming second, he beat the course record. My mother-in-law used to mutter angrily about anabolic steroids. But while we told her that such talk was slanderous, my father-in-law made the much graver charge that it was unsporting.

Watching the Brigadier race was like a long summer dream, very long ago now, in the early 1970s. Towards the end of a race he would just gather speed and leave the rest of the field behind effortlessly. Then there would be champagne. As things progressed there would be not only champagne, but also roars of patriotic enthusiasm from the crowd for horse, owner and Britain, newspaper headlines, introductions to plutocratic owners, the royal enclosure, the winners’ enclosure, conversations with the Queen, invitations to lunch with the Queen Mother, the full Monty. There was even a moment when the then Duke of Norfolk, to my fury, languidly offered me upon introduction not his hand but his finger. I went about in the turbulent wake of my formidable mother-in-law. As I had few “good” clothes, she would stuff me into dresses she thought suitable; I felt like a female impersonator.

Very early in the Brigadier’s career, when the best was yet to come, my parents-in-law were offered £250,000 for him. That was a huge sum and probably worth at least 10 times more today. At the time there was one of those life-changing conversations in the kitchen discussing it but — although my parents-in-law were deeply mired in debt — the entire family wanted to refuse it. I remember my future husband telling his parents that they would regret it for the rest of their lives if they let the Brigadier go.

Neither my husband nor his brother was interested in horses; they were both highly allergic to them, as was John Hislop himself, but he was able to get extremely powerful injections for most of his life until they became illegal. Even so, both sons urged their father to keep this astonishing horse.

The story doesn’t end well. Brigadier Gerard was not much use at stud. My mother-in-law spent the rest of her life, and the rest of all the money they made, in vainglorious attempts to produce another Brigadier. My parents-in-law died penniless and deeply in debt. But what a life! What a man! What an incomparable horse! And how very satisfactorily British.

The Sunday Times

October 14th, 2012

Girls, I learnt to deal with the gropers, so must you

It now seems that scores of people may have been sexually abused as teenagers by the late Jimmy Savile over many years, some of them on BBC premises. This would not be surprising. Society generally, including the BBC, was astonishingly lax about sexual harassment and even about sexual abuse until fairly recently. Almost any woman working in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s — the time of most of Savile’s alleged crimes — will have stories that would make their daughters’ and granddaughters’ hair curl.

Sure enough, with the Savile accusations, other angry memories are emerging. Sandi Toksvig said last week on The Andrew Marr Show that she was groped while on air by a famous person she refused to name; her complaints at the time were shrugged off. Earlier the Radio 1 DJ Liz Kershaw said that she was routinely groped, even while on air, during the 1980s. One presenter put his hands up her top while she was broadcasting, to fondle her breasts. “Don’t you like it? Are you a lesbian?” was the incredulous response of the person to whom she complained.

Like most women of the baby boom generation I, too, have plenty of nasty memories of groping. My introduction came early. Along with being hissed at and repeatedly pinched in the street in Italy, I found my gap-year odd jobs instructive: until then I had no idea about the old Adam.

When I was 17 in the late 1960s, up from the country, I got a temporary job as a Girl Friday — the title speaks volumes — in a London insurance office. One of my tasks was to take the mail round; there were two unattractive men in suits in a basement office who regularly put their hands up my miniskirt or fondled my breasts when I handed them their letters.

They were entirely unashamed: the trick was to move away fast, or to spill their coffee. When I told them I was leaving, to go to university, they were astonished. “What? Going to Cambridge?” said one. “If we’d known that, we’d never have …” and his voice petered out. I think a young woman today would have been apoplectic with indignation; then, somehow, I was more concerned about how to deal with it.

Later, having proudly got an editorial job at the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong in my twenties, I overheard the editor, Derek Davies, saying in the open-plan office that I wasn’t bad but that my tits were great. “Yes, but not as fantastic as Rosemary’s,” said another man, meaning my predecessor, the clever and now distinguished Rosemary Righter. My immediate boss, actually a kind Australian, told me each morning, with a fully frontal hug, that we should “lock loins immediately”. It was all, as my grandmother might have said, rather trying.

The BBC, which I joined as a trainee at 28, was more trying still. For instance, at my first departmental meeting in general features, run by the late Desmond Wilcox (soon to be Esther Rantzen’s husband), the famous charmer addressed us with a conspiratorial smile and told us loudly before proceeding to business that there was to be “no more effing effing under the effing hospitality room effing table”. That, to my amazement, was the tone taken at the heights of BBC TV.

Some time later Wilcox rang David Frost on my behalf for help with a programme; he told Frost how reliable I was. “Yes,” interrupted Frostie, and I could hear him down the line, “but what are her legs like?” Sex of the most puerile and demeaning kind was certainly in the air — the leering, the casual touching, the insinuations — even in a sober outfit such as general features, and I have no doubt the atmosphere was worse on the other side of the cultural tracks in BBC light entertainment.

I could go on. No one interfered with my person while I was on air, but that may have simply been because I was in sight on television and it might have been awkward for the perpetrator. General sexism, both at the BBC and elsewhere, was much more of a problem for me than groping, but the tendency among some men — with countless honourable exceptions — to see women first as sex objects (if of interest) and secondly as inferior (and not of interest) was deeply demoralising.

However, what strikes me today is that when things were harder, women were much tougher. I’m not talking about the victims of vicious predators here: I mean adult women subject to conventional sexual affront from more or less ordinary men.

Because gropers were almost always more powerful, because they held your job prospects in their roving hands, because complaining was useless, because going to an industrial tribunal meant you’d probably never work again, women realised they just had to deal with it. We tended not to confront or complain; we even tended, as far as possible, not to take it seriously. Don’t get mad — get even, as Americans say, and women have managed to go a long way, not least in television, towards getting even.

Feminists would and did say that those of us who put up and shut up were betraying our sex: only by united female confrontation would men be forced to change. But I wonder. It’s true now that we have legislation and tribunals and human resources departments obsessed with sex and gender, and it’s probably true that many men may have been shamed into keeping their sexual hankerings to themselves. Feminist activists can take credit for this.

What’s less good is that women are encouraged to see themselves as victims. There’s a tendency to rush to the law with dubious accusations of sexism, to the point of dishonesty. Meanwhile, relations between men and women at work have become sexually awkward and embarrassing in a new way: men are frightened of doing the wrong thing, or of being accused of it.

And despite all this, sexual harassment is still with us. The Sunday Times’s Camilla Long did an interview recently with the former Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis and said that, in 90 minutes, “I don’t think there is a part of my body that he didn’t grope.” Clearly the old Adam dies hard — or perhaps I should say the old Andrew.

Because the broadcaster Andrew Marr was photographed recently groping a young woman on a pavement, with a hand down her trousers. If such a man as Marr, the apogee of high-mindedness, right thinking and superior education, and married to a Guardian moralist, cannot restrain himself from fumbling with a girl on his production team, then things haven’t changed much since my youth, or indeed since Adam ate the apple.

The Sunday Times

October 7th, 2012

A cocktail of tolerance and fear guarded Savile’s secrets

Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time? Why didn’t anyone do anything? Those were the questions people were asking after last week’s exposure of the late Sir Jimmy Savile as an alleged predatory paedophile over many years. But they are the wrong questions, asked in the misleading perspective of hindsight. It is all too easy to understand what happened, assuming that at least some of the allegations are true, and how such a man could get away with such crimes. It is no accident that allegations are emerging only after his death, when Savile can neither defend himself nor sue for libel.

The first obvious truth is that ugly rumours almost always surround stars. That being so, it is often entirely reasonable to dismiss nasty gossip about them, and all the more tempting if one has any interest in doing so. Many people knew for years of suspicions about Savile, but there were countless incentives to turn a blind eye.

That doesn’t in the least excuse anyone for ignoring the rumours, least of all those in the BBC who had the power, or the duty, to look into them: entirely inexcusable has been the BBC’s shocking attempt to cover up Savile’s crimes by suppressing its own Newsnight exposé last December. But it does make it less incomprehensible that Savile allegedly got away with sexually assaulting and raping schoolgirls, and possibly a 12-year-old boy, for so long.

Esther Rantzen, a BBC star at the same time as Savile and much photographed with him, has been much derided this past week for ignoring for years, as she has tearfully admitted, the many rumours she heard about him.

It’s all extremely awkward for her, as the righteous founder of ChildLine and scourge of child abusers. Now, having seen the ITV television exposé, she is convinced of Savile’s guilt. “We all colluded with him,” she said brokenly on television, “didn’t we? We turned him into the Jimmy Savile who was untouchable. He was a godlike figure.”

Unaccustomed though I am to defending Rantzen, I do have some slight sympathy. As a star herself, she must have known how much spiteful gossip celebrity attracts: jealousy, resentment and idle malice feed into nasty lies, designed to punish success. During my years in the BBC I heard plenty that were circulating about Rantzen, and I am ashamed to say I believed most of them.

It was only later, when I became a presenter of an arts show myself, and learnt of rumours people were spreading about me, that I realised that defamation is what happens to people who presume to put their heads above the parapet. So I stopped believing rumours, including those about Rantzen. And now I imagine she could easily have seen the persistent rumours about Savile as nothing more than the badmouthing that goes with stardom. So could other senior management figures at the top of the BBC.

As for those who did know the truth about Savile’s crimes, or thought they did, it would have been genuinely difficult to speak out. Whistleblowing takes enormous courage, and is usually punished. We know now that the complaints of a few brave girls were ignored. In one case a girl from an approved school who loudly objected to being groped by Savile was dragged from his arms by staff and locked up in solitary confinement, she says, for daring to suggest that saintly “Uncle Jimmy” was capable of such wickedness.

As for the people in the lower ranks of the BBC and of Savile’s nightclubs, the sources of what Rantzen called “green room gossip”, who may have seen something of Savile’s alleged sexual abuse of young girls, they had little hope of being believed either, even supposing they were prepared to risk their careers by spilling the beans on the sainted Jim. He was a national treasure, a man who raised £40m for charity, who was feted at Buckingham Palace and friends with Diana — box-office gold. Who would prefer their word to his Croesus-like celebrity? Even the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini must have felt intimidated. Once a colleague of Savile’s on Radio 1, he said last week that he had been “waiting 30 years” for such stories to come out. Savile, he said, used his charity work as a lever to prevent his private life from being exposed, and played the press “like a Stradivarius”. When one newspaper called him, threatening exposure, Savile supposedly said: “Well, you could run that story, but if you do, there goes the funds that come in to Stoke Mandeville — do you want to be responsible for the drying-up of the charity donations?” If true, this is yet another excellent reason for many people who lacked any specific evidence about Savile’s crimes to turn a blind eye to the rumours. He was, ITV alleged, a bully, a large and scary man who had been a coalminer and a wrestler. As Gambaccini said, “You just didn’t mess with Jim … and none of us were interested in going there.”

Besides, as people such as Rantzen pointed out last week with unconscious irony, he was a Catholic blessed by the Pope! These days that in itself might have been enough to take the accusations against him more seriously, but then it still conferred a faint whiff of sanctity.

Finally, one of the deepest, because most unconscious, reasons for ignoring all the Savile stories is the worst. It is that until recently few people listened to children and victims of sexual assault or took them seriously. From the 1960s onwards it was taken for granted that pop stars, music celebs and their hangers-on were entitled to make sexual use of groupies, young girls who were erotically obsessed with pop stars.

Much of their music was a mating call aimed directly at underage girls, as you can see from shots of contemporary audiences. And after all, what does the word teenybopper suggest? Most, if not all, pop and rock bands had sex with the chicks they encountered, regardless of their age: in the music world it was the droit de seigneur of the age, and Savile was not alone in exercising it.

Casually using young girls for sex simply wasn’t then seen as the crime it actually was and is. It wasn’t seen as paedophilia, or even as rape. Even those who disapproved of groupiedom often saw the girls as silly slags who deserved what they got, rather as with the underage victims in Rochdale.

Roman Polanski’s famous friends defend him to this day for his sexual abuse of an underage girl in 1977, partly because that’s what stars did then. The only proper and urgent question to ask in all this is whether such attitudes still exist to this day.

Fixing ‘Uncle Jimmy’, News Review

The Sunday Times

September 2nd, 2012

Stop huffing – we all called for this crackdown on immigration

Trying to believe two impossible things before breakfast is supposedly a religious discipline, absurd but unimportant. When it comes to public policy, trying to believe two mutually exclusive things at once can be dangerous: it makes government largely impossible.

In this country the great majority of citizens, nearly 80% according to some research, believe that net immigration should be reduced to tens of thousands a year from a peak in 2010 of 252,000.

The government has promised to do this within the present parliament, with little apparent chance of success but with solid public support. But many members of this same public expressed outrage last week when the UK Border Agency (UKBA) tried to implement the policy by disciplining London Metropolitan University for failing to check up on its foreign students.

This is incoherent. It is a fact that one way would-be immigrants from outside the EU try to get into Britain illegally is through the bogus college and or the bogus student route. There are plenty of bona fide students arriving in this country too, who also want to better their lot, and they should be welcome for many reasons: not least because they bring in money to struggling universities and to the economy generally. However, the number of non-EU students coming here to study is vast. In 2011 more than 320,000 student visas were issued to non-EU students. Altogether 500,000 students and short-term student visitors from outside the EU arrived in Britain. (EU students don’t need visas and can come here at any time for any reason.)

Among all these hundreds of thousands of non-EU students, there are some whose prime purpose is not to study but to settle here. Some may be entitled to bring in spouses and family members under the UK’s generous family reunion rules. They will also be entitled to use public services for the rest of their lives.

It is anybody’s guess how many such students there might be, but a good indicator is that the UKBA has already withdrawn the licences of 500 colleges of further education. These outfits failed to ensure that their non-EU students were entitled to be here, attended their courses or even spoke English.

Some of these colleges were deliberately selling a screen for illegal immigrants. Everyone has heard of them — dodgy rooms above a chip shop with no visible students and no exams. There are agencies in the Indian subcontinent and in Africa touting for clients for such operations.

Other colleges badly in need of overseas student fees are prepared to turn a blind eye to whether the golden goose was a bird of passage or had arrived to stay. Even so, London Metropolitan is the first university to have its licence to sponsor foreign students revoked.

One can argue about the numbers, but the fact is that no one knows what they are.Huge numbers of non-EU students arrive here but this country has no way of knowing how many leave.

It is known that a percentage stays legally, having found work. A Home Office analysis of non-EU students arriving in 2004 found that 20% were still legally in Britain five years later.

No one knows what happened to the other 80%. It’s almost incredible that any government can make promises about controlling immigration if there is no method of counting everybody out. Amazingly, it will be years before one is set up.

However, if the public wants immigration to be controlled, it shouldn’t protest when it is. The UKBA behaved perfectly reasonably. What was unreasonable was its timing, for which the government must take responsibility.

It is depressing how often the coalition has undermined an excellent policy and aroused public fury simply by poor timing. It was not right to make squatters criminals overnight last week without plenty of public advance warning, though the principle of making squatting in people’s houses a crime was right.

It wasn’t right to change GCSE standards in the middle of the academic year, though again the determination of Michael Gove, the education secretary, to raise standards is right.

In the case of London Metropolitan University, it was wrong to get tough without notice with the unlucky foreign students who are already there (genuine or not), or who had made elaborate plans to enrol this autumn.

Their stories are very sad. About 2,600 students, both those already here and those about to come, are suddenly bereft. They’ve lost their money, their university place and their right to be here. Many have only 60 days’ notice to leave.

Even so, despite this unnecessary misery, it must be right to deal sternly with colleges and universities who cannot be trusted to help stop illegal immigration. My own view is that it’s a mistake to expect colleges and universities to take on this trust.

There is so clearly a conflict of interest for them when they are all short of money and rely increasingly on foreigners’ fees to keep them afloat. The vetting of students ought to be done by an independent agency.

Since the country’s policy is to control immigration, the question of the short-term value to the economy of foreign students ought to be irrelevant. Besides, bona fide students won’t be deterred, unless last week’s appalling timing is repeated.

The figures about the economic benefits of foreign students to Britain are highly debatable and don’t include questions of the long-term cost overall of permanent immigrants and their families.

The National Union of Students claims that the income from higher education for foreigners is worth £12.5 billion a year. Universities UK estimates £8 billion. But these figures include EU students.

MigrationWatchUK believes that only £4.8 billion comes from tuition fees and spending by non-EU subjects, and some of this actually includes money earned by students working here. This brings the figure to £4.3 billion a year, but doesn’t include the cost to the exchequer of providing public services such as schools and hospitals.

Cracking down on immigration scams is legitimate when properly done. It’s a great shame that in this case it has been badly handled. But if the public wills it to end, it must will any legitimate means to that end without the usual chorus of incoherent indignation.

The Sunday Times

August 12th, 2012

Sentences are a joke and young thugs are laughing the hardest

The excitement of the London Olympics has largely eclipsed other national news. Perhaps that is why there was such a muted response to some shocking moments in the inner London crown court last Wednesday. On that day Judge Usha Karu handed down sentences to 16 members of a collection of about 50 violent thugs who rampaged through Notting Hill, west London, during last summer’s riots.

Theirs wasn’t just any old spontaneous red-mist rioting. Three local criminal gangs — the Ladbroke Bloods, the Lisson Green Mandem and the Mozart Bloods — had got together and co-ordinated on their mobile phones a plan of violent masked attacks, lootings and torchings in the neighbourhood, having set aside their usual quarrels for these criminal purposes.

Among other terrifying crimes, a number of gang members burst into the Ledbury restaurant and attacked the diners, threatening them with knives, bottles and bats. It was for some of these crimes that 16 of the young men involved were sentenced to various terms in jail last week. Most had previous convictions, many of them for offences with violence.

Their crimes were shocking enough, but worse still was the attitude of the guilty. It was reported that, as the judge was passing sentence, many of the young defendants were whooping, shouting obscenities and laughing. There seemed to be no remorse, no understanding of what they had done, no respect for the court and no fear of prison.

One of them, Karl Jensen, whistled with pleasure when he was sentenced to three years in jail. As he has already been in prison on remand for a year, he could now be out in six months. He had been released from prison for a series of robberies only 10 days before the Notting Hill mayhem. “Thank you, your honour,” he said as he was led away laughing. As well he might.

That such young people (aged 15 to 25) should be such vicious, persistent criminals, so remorseless and so without shame, is profoundly unsettling. More startling still, it seems to me, is the way they are sentenced. It was solemnly reported that most of these 16 were given particularly long jail sentences, some of the harshest sentences handed down after the riots. How the jaw drops. The worst two of them got nine years each, another two got seven years, one got 6Å, another got four and all the rest got three or less.

That doesn’t sound much to me for attacking people with bottles and baseball bats, burning their properties and cars (with the obvious risk of burning people), ripping off their jewellery and in one case pulling off a woman’s wedding ring — and doing all this with malice aforethought, cold-bloodedly and with many previous convictions in most cases.

Nine years does not mean nine years. If your prison sentence is for 12 months or more — as any criminal can discover on an easy-to-read government website apparently set up for the information of lawbreakers — you have to spend only half of it in jail. The other half will be spent “on licence” in the community, which no criminal takes seriously: plenty of crimes are committed by convicts on licence. So nine years means 4Å years, or less for good behaviour, with the rest of the time spent at large in the much put-upon community.

It’s the sort of sentencing that makes a criminal thank a judge. The judges cannot be blamed, of course, any more than thanked: their discretion over sentencing is limited, under strict statutory guidelines. But this status quo cannot be right.

Calls for tougher prison sentences are associated with the sensationalist press and heartless rightwingers. Liberals, resisting them, rightly say that prison achieves almost nothing in the way of rehabilitation and is in any case very expensive. Former prisoners’ reoffending rates are very high, if not quite as high as with “community penalties”, and many people are in prison for the wrong reasons, anyway — they are illiterates or drug addicts or unemployable.

That is all true, but, nonetheless, the first duty of a civilised country must be to protect its citizens. Without the rule of just law a good society cannot exist, as is obvious from all the failed states across the world where lawless gangs cause havoc with impunity. A very serious reckoning for serious crimes is what we need more of in this country.

It hardly matters to an anxious citizen whether a violent thug is sent to jail to punish him, to reform him or simply to put him away: what matters is that he should be kept off the streets for a long time. It would be nice if prisons could somehow start achieving miracles in the way of rehabilitation, and turn these damaged and dangerous young men into model citizens. But that seems unlikely: the prisons are overcrowded and their budgets are overstretched. Besides, even if money were no object, it seems quite likely — however much one might prefer not to think so — that some violent and unruly people are beyond redemption.

There is always hope, but there is also evidence that some people are irreparably damaged by their chaotic upbringing: neglect and abuse have been found to inhibit children’s cognitive development, so that in extreme cases they grow up unable to feel for others — they become youths who can tear off a woman’s wedding ring, or pour boiling water over an old woman to torture her.

Then there is the depressing evidence that some children with brain patterns that characterise attention deficit disorder are much more likely than others to grow up to lead lives of violent crime.

Such things may become clearer with advances in science. Meanwhile experience suggests — horribly unfair though it is — that out of the most alienated, disorderly households children are produced who are doomed to grow up to be a menace to society. Their heartless, remorseless violence, and their willingness to threaten and torture, cannot necessarily be cured, least of all by a short spell in this country’s prisons.

Perhaps they could be helped by extremely intensive, long-term therapy from the most gifted of teachers, at huge cost, but that does not seem a likely prospect in the current economic climate. Perhaps they could have been saved in infancy by adoption, but there is massive state sector resistance to that.

So even a liberal might be forced to consider locking such criminals up and, if not throwing the key away, at least putting it aside for a very long time.