The Sunday Times

March 25th, 2012

No tragedy is complete today without our hysterical emoting

The word unspeakable seems to have reversed its meaning. When truly unspeakable things happen, such as the shooting of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse last week, or the massacre of teenagers in Norway last year and of Scottish schoolchildren in Dunblane in 1996, one might imagine that those not directly concerned would have the decency to stay silent, while the bereaved confront their loss and the authorities try to discover what happened.

That used to be the British tradition. What happens now is quite the reverse: nobody seems able to stop speaking. In all these cases the horrifying news was greeted by a feeding frenzy, with people churning and thrashing in their anxiety to express an explanation or, best of all, a feeling.

Much the same was true of rather different tragedies, such as the loss of children in a bus crash in Switzerland or the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and of the shocking collapse on the pitch of the Bolton Wanderers footballer, Fabrice Muamba. People with no, or little, connection to what had happened simply couldn’t stop emoting hysterically.

When, for example, the news broke that a lone assassin had killed several people with a bomb in Oslo and then gunned down perhaps 70 young people on an island, every horrifying detail was picked over. Of course this unspeakable massacre was something that had to be spoken of, in the sense of being reported, but it was not necessary to dwell on every conspiracy theory, every statement from a politician who wanted to start a debate about immigration in Norway, every public figure who wanted to be seen displaying his tender heart and every detail that could be found of any known victim. Worst of all were the maps of the island showing where each body was lying, when some of them had not yet retrieved.

That last obscenity reminded me of the time of the killing of the children in Dunblane, when one newspaper printed a map of the town, marking all the houses in which a victim had lived. This was shameless rubbernecking.

Long before anyone could possibly know what lay behind the Norwegian atrocity, no matter how often the police said they did not have enough evidence to begin to explain what happened, we were titillated with theories. The same was true of the Toulouse killings. There was widespread speculation that the murderer was an anti-semite of the neo-Nazi variety, or that he was an all-purpose racist (since he had killed three soldiers of north African descent as well), and later that he was a crazed Islamic fundamentalist operating alone.

Nothing has been proved so far. But all the unnecessary theorising succeeded in distressing and dividing all the various “communities” who might be concerned, whether as victims or scapegoats. Meanwhile the candidates in the French presidential election vied with each other to make the most of it all. The point is that nobody understood what had happened and these conjectures served no obvious purpose except to scratch some public itch for sensation.

At the same time it seemed, as ever, cruelly disrespectful to the dead and their families to use such horror as entertainment. The right response to such atrocities is to respect the grief of the bereaved by saying only what must be said. Outsiders ought to wait for the facts to be known before holding forth about lessons to be learnt and wake-up calls.

Such calls are often cover-ups for the real motivation of the rubberneckers.

Something else is going on. As so often, a public interest argument is used as a fig leaf for a selfish private interest — in this case, a need to be personally involved with intense emotion in sensational circumstances, a private need to be part of a public moment of extreme drama.

When Muamba suffered his cardiac arrest on the pitch last weekend it was quite understandable that everyone around him, his fans as well as his family, should have been overwhelmed with shock. Millions of people like me who had never heard of him before then felt sorry and wished him well. But something quite different and much less honest took over, as it does more and more these days.

A mawkish sentimentality appeared, just as it did after the death of Diana. Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers arranged a pre-match minute’s applause for Muamba, even though he was not dead but, mercifully, alive and getting better. Real Madrid players wore get-well-soon messages on their shirts and Gary Cahill of Chelsea dedicated a goal he scored to Muamba, his former team-mate, and revealed a T-shirt with the slogan “Pray 4 Muamba”, which was no doubt intentionally picked up by television cameras. Meanwhile saccharine messages buzzed around the blogosphere about how the response to Muamba’s illness had brought out the best in football and made people proud of the sport. With due respect to Muamba and his family, this is largely nonsense.

When Diana died, a man in a crowd said her death had meant more to him than the death of his own wife. After the Norwegian slaughter an American columnist claimed, quite absurdly, that “we are all Norwegians now”. These misguided comments are clear pointers to what people seem to want from moments of high public drama. They want to be part of it, not just to share in it. They want to identify with it, both emotionally and socially — both weeping and wearing the T-shirt, so to speak, no matter how little contact they had with the fallen hero or heroine, the tragic victim or the murdered child. Presumably this must be because this bad thing somehow makes them feel good.

It would take a social anthropologist to explain why. One could guess that it has something to do with the emotional poverty of our ordinary lives, our unmet needs for ceremonies and tribal allegiances. It could have something to do with our increasing need for celebrity and the hope that a little of the stardust of someone famous with whom we identify closely will fall upon us. It might be just a constant and growing need for attention, which is what such public dramas confer widely on those who exploit them for that purpose.

Whatever the explanation, it is hard to excuse: it is emotionally untruthful, it is emotionally unintelligent and it is emotionally incontinent — and all in the name of true feeling. Unspeakable, really.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

March 18th, 2012

Good work, Dr Woolly if you meant to destroy your church

What is the Archbishop of Canterbury for? That is the question Rowan Williams leaves behind as he heads off to Cambridge. When he took office, he was widely thought to be a good thing, and a good man, and the question didn’t at first present itself.

Generally agreed to be a liberal intellectual, an independent thinker and a man of great moral integrity, he seemed quite likely to do a reasonable job as archbishop, whatever that means. In the event he has proved to be a great disappointment to all kinds of people inside and outside the Anglican tribe. He leaves behind more anger and division in the church than he found. Worse than that, he has managed to bring into sharp relief one of the few things it is certainly the job of an archbishop to obscure — the awkward question of the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Admittedly Williams became archbishop at an exceptionally difficult time. Whatever he did or failed to do, the bitter division in the church about homosexual bishops was certain to split it, sooner or later. There is no compromise possible between those who will not accept gay priests, or indeed those African Anglicans who despise homosexuals, and those who share Williams’s acceptance of them as equals. There are too many other views and feelings within the church that are wholly at odds with each other, such as the ordination of women. Leading the Church of England must be like herding ferrets: the job is impossible, as things stand.

Williams might have been the man for the hour, full of radical integrity as he was supposed to be. However, the first signs were not good. For instance, he had made it clear he believed that invading Iraq would be immoral and illegal. Whether or not one agreed, that was and is a reasonable moral view. However, no sooner had he been appointed archbishop than he said that he would in fact support military action in Iraq but only if it were cleared by the United Nations.

This defies belief. Here was a spiritual leader from a free and open society, known for his holiness, saying that something is morally wrong unless the United Nations says it’s okay. Williams had described himself as given to asking awkward questions, but clearly he had not asked many about the UN — that collection of kleptocrats, autocrats, mass murderers and horse-traders. Besides, it is the duty of a spiritual leader to lead, not to vacillate. For, as the Bible says, “if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle” — the battle here being for the integrity of the Anglican church.

Williams’s disastrous comments about sharia were a revelation of his unfitness for office There has been something consistently uncertain about the sounds Williams makes. He will sometimes denounce something only weeks after having supported it: his very public attack on Cameron’s big society policy came only a few months after openly praising it.

Even his admirers accuse him of drawing out long negotiations with verbiage. Sometimes his pronouncements are mind-bendingly opaque. What he writes can be so badly put and difficult to understand that it makes one question his supposed cleverness: surely clarity is the sign of a good mind. Yet one of his clerical friends coyly praises his “carefully judged opacity” — not the mark of a man of integrity, surely.

At other times Williams has simply compromised his own beliefs. Long before he came to office he made this promise to gay Christians at the Lambeth conference of 1998: “We pledge we will continue to reflect, pray and work for your full inclusion in the life of the church.” He may well have done a lot of praying and reflecting, but today this looks like a promise he did not keep. Politically that’s understandable for an archbishop determined to keep the church united, impossible though that must be.

What is not understandable morally is his treatment of Jeffrey John, a gay canon whose appointment as suffragan bishop of Reading Williams had approved in 2003. Soon afterwards, under pressure from aggressive anti-gay Anglicans and their allies among the bishops, Williams, together with John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, forced Jeffrey John to stand down, to give up his bishopric. That was bad enough but — according to the late Colin Slee, the former dean of Southwark — it was done with shocking unkindness and bullying over two miserable days. This was not just pusillanimous; it was cruel of both men.

So here we had a woolly-faced, woolly-minded, wordy man of inconsistent and incoherent views presiding over a miserably divided church. However, that didn’t seem to matter, broadly speaking. The usual English muddle might continue for years.

However, all that changed with Williams’s disastrous comments about sharia in 2008. It was a truly astonishing revelation of his unfitness for his office. He actually said that we must “face up to the fact” that some British citizens do not relate to the British legal system and that Muslims should not have to choose between “the stark alternatives of cultural loyalty or state loyalty”. Worse was to come. He went on to say that, although the ideal situation is one in which there is one and only one law for everybody, a pillar of Western democracy, nonetheless at the same time this very pillar — well, “I think that’s a bit of a danger”.

The danger is Williams himself. If the Archbishop of Canterbury will not uphold the principle of equality under the law, and actually questions it ex officio, he has become a social menace. Through this and his other woolly-minded meddling in politics, lacking any mandate but using his privileged religious position within the establishment to do so, he has encouraged other religious leaders to feel they have the right to do the same. That is very dangerous.

If members of a small, dwindling minority faith such as the C of E can have seats in the Lords and ritual authority, why not all other faiths? Some of those other faiths are growing fast — perhaps, in the name of equal representation, they should have more seats than the fading Anglican bishops. The antics of the Archbishop of Canterbury have made that question unavoidable. And the best answer to the question is the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Perhaps that is what the opaque, faintly comic archbishop really achieved — inadvertently to create an awareness that the Church of England must be disestablished. Williams has turned out to be the Mr Pooter of the Anglican Götterdämmerung.

The Sunday Times

February 26th, 2012

The Mademoiselle killers have Missed the point

So farewell, then, Mademoiselle! The French government has banned the word, according to headlines in Britain last week, because it is discriminatory, sexist and suggests virginity and availability. The phrase “maiden name”, in French nom de jeune fille, is out as well, since it too suggests virginity, availability and patriarchal injustice to boot. In future all French women must be known as Madame, as a sign of equality with men, who are all called Monsieur, whether they are married, unmarried or virgins (available or otherwise).

Actually the facts are not quite so silly. What happened last week was that, under great feminist pressure, François Fillon, the French prime minister, invited ministers, in flowing abstract prose, to instruct France’s bureaucrats to drop from their forms and correspondence all terms such as Mademoiselle, maiden name, nom patronymique and husband’s name. Henceforth the term Madame should be used for all women, and maiden names should be termed either family names or names of usage. However, the old, discriminatory terms may still be used on bureaucratic forms and letters, until stocks run out. What thrift! La nouvelle austérité, perhaps.

Overwhelmed by France’s grave economic problems, Fillon might have found better uses for his time than doing battle with the word Mademoiselle. It really isn’t much of a problem. Nobody has to use it, and some women prefer to. Any experienced form-filler can write what she chooses on bureaucratic bumf, and in any case there are far more serious battles to fight on behalf of women who are truly oppressed. The only good thing to be said about this is that at least the French have had the good taste to avoid anything like the ugly English Ms. Ms isn’t even a word; it is an affront to our language and few people feel sure how to pronounce it.

Madame, by contrast, is a good title, and French people use it, all the time, of anyone who isn’t a teenager. Mrs for all women would not be bad here — it is just an abbreviation of Mistress (as is Miss). When, in the 1970s, English-speaking feminists were trying to impose Ms on us all, I tried to argue for Mistress for all women. It sounds much better and it has a long history behind it: for centuries it was widely used to refer to any grown-up woman, regardless of her marital status. At least Fillon’s office and the feminists behind him mean to use a good word that already exists and is exactly parallel to Monsieur.

However, in my view there is nothing at all demeaning about being called Mademoiselle or Miss. It may indeed suggest that one is unmarried, though masses of very married women have positively chosen to be called Miss for generations, such as Miss Monroe and Miss Taylor, and even me: I prefer Miss, too. But what could a feminist object to in the suggestion that a woman might be unmarried? Why should that be demeaning or discriminatory? Old-fashioned girls who fear being left on the shelf may dislike it, but progressive feminists reject the very idea of such a shelf, or so it seemed.

All the same, there is a sense in which I sympathise with Fillon’s faintly comic “invitation”. I’ve always felt there is something unpleasantly patriarchal about expecting a woman to drop her birth surname on marriage and take on her husband’s. There is no point in it; merely an unacceptable historical reason. Historically, in many cultures, a woman on marriage abandoned her birth family — was given away, in Christian churches — and became part of her husband’s family. If she had any money of her own it became his, even in England, until the Married Women’s Property Act of 1882. Until then a woman’s identity, property and children became subordinate to her husband and his family.

Losing one’s surname at marriage (admittedly, one’s father’s) is unmistakably a hangover from this patriarchal thinking, and one does not have to be a campaigning feminist to see that and to object to it. What astonished me long ago, when I tried to keep my own surname on getting married, was the fierce resistance I met from men and women. Almost my only active support came from my delinquent mother-in-law, who told me that while at first she had been angry about my silly behaviour, she had then reflected that I might write any old rubbish in the papers, with her name on it, and that at least she would be spared that. When I pointed out that the name was her husband’s, not hers, she became cross again.

Before my wedding, my mother sent me to her elderly solicitor to discuss the legalities involved in keeping my own name, which in fact was and is easy. He found the question hard to understand. For hundreds of years, he told me, women had been taking their husband’s names upon marriage, and he could see no reason not to. Soon despairing of explaining, I asked whether he knew anything much about women’s lib, as it was then still called. He failed to see the relevance and remained mystified, until suddenly a cunning smile crept across his face. “I think I have it! I think I have it!” he exclaimed. “What did you say your future husband’s name was? Hiscock, was it?” Attitudes have changed since then.

However, attitudes in France, one can only say, are still lagging far behind. Fillon and his allies may feel proud that they have struck a blow against sexist terms, but it seems to have escaped their notice that the entire French language is institutionally sexist. It really is odd, in a supposedly anti-sexist culture, to divide words into masculine and feminine. Worse still, lots of feminine words in French are constructed in a horribly masculinist way, by taking a masculine word and adding a feminine ending! Yes, girls, a feminine ending!

For example, one of the campaigning feminist groups putting pressure on Fillon is called les Chiennes de Garde, which literally means not the Guard Dogs, but Guard Bitches. Chienne is what you get when you add a feminine ending to chien, going from dog to bitch. C’est extrêmement sexiste, especially from a regiment of feminists.

Those of us who are native English speakers must be unendingly grateful that English adjectives and verbs are gender-neutral: ours is not a sexist tongue. But feminists in France should lose no time in forcing the prime minister to restructure the language, rather than quibble about the charming and harmless word Mademoiselle. Or Miss, for that matter.

The Sunday Times

February 19th, 2012

Rise up, tolerant secularists and drive faith from public life

It takes only a small spark to relight a smouldering fire. Such a spark was struck recently in Bideford town hall in north Devon: a few days ago a High Court judge ruled that it was unlawful for local councils to include Christian prayers in their formal meetings. This was in response to a legal challenge from a former councillor and atheist, Clive Bone, in association with the campaigning National Secular Society. Bone had objected to the intrusion of Christianity into the corridors of power, humble though they might seem in Bideford.

This unimportant ruling was enough to rekindle the embers of Britain’s faith wars. Eric Pickles, secretary of state for local government, blustered on the radio about this country’s Christian heritage and how illiberal and intolerant this was and how the government would soon be changing it all.

Bishops and archbishops protested, predictably. Baroness Warsi, a Muslim, during a quasi official visit to the Pope, called on British society to resist the rising tide of “militant secularism” and to fight for faith to have a place in public life. Quoting the Pope’s fears regarding “the increasing marginalisation of religion”, she urged us to feel stronger in our religious identities, not least in Christianity.

The prime minister made his usual pro-faith noises. As the crackling of the fire grew louder, the Queen herself spoke out at Lambeth Palace in defence of all faiths, which would have surprised her forebear Henry VIII. She also said — with what anguish one can imagine — that Anglicanism has been commonly underappreciated and occasionally misunderstood.

Not only occasionally, according to Britain’s most famous militant secularist, Richard Dawkins, who appeared again on the field of battle, or rather on the Today programme, arguing that most people who think they’re Christians are wrong. Of those questioned in his Ipsos Mori poll, 54% said they considered themselves to be Christian but, when asked why, fewer than three in 10 said it was because they believed in the teachings of Christianity. Rather than personal belief, the reasons of 72% were much more likely to be social, to do with the customs of their tribe — not that the poll used that phrase — surrounding birth, marriage, death and charity. Most hadn’t looked at the Bible for a year or more and never prayed outside church at all.

Predictably this caused an uproar. You get the impression, as usual, that Dawkins and the militant secularists all enjoy it hugely, although he himself was infuriated to be wrong-footed on air about the full title of Darwin’s The Origin of Species.

All this is nasty and alarming. For generations in this tolerant country people of Christian background who are themselves unbelievers have not usually found it necessary, or polite, to trash Christianity aggressively in the inflammatory way of Dawkins and his supporters. I sense something mean-spirited in the extremes of his attacks, even though I agree with his views: he lacks something important that most people have or at least understand in others; 19th-century phrenologists would have called it the bump of religiosity.

A sense of the numinous, a longing for ceremony, a love of the religious punctuation of the year, a need for a regular time to examine one’s conscience, a passion for church music — these are all things that appeal to Anglican unbelievers such as me and to unbelievers of all traditions. That is what lies behind Alain de Botton’s grand schemes of cathedrals for the faithless, impossibly rational though they are.

Lord Rees, the astronomer royal, once expressed these feelings particularly well. An unbeliever who nonetheless goes to church, he said in an interview: “I share with religious people a concept of the mystery and wonder of the universe and even more of human life and therefore participate in religious services. Of course those I participate in are, as it were, the ‘customs of my tribe’ which happens to be the Church of England.”

It is my tribe, too, and in many ways I have loved it, fearful of real religious faith though I am. Anglicanism is the tribe from which the highest ideals of modern, secular morality have evolved. So until recently I have been strongly against aggressive secularists in spirit, although I largely share their opinions. But things have changed rapidly. The terms of the conflict are quite different now. It is hardly an exaggeration to speak of faith wars.

It is a mystery to me why so many people in public life keep saying that faith is a good thing and we’d all be better off if we had more of it. That seems to me a very flabby-minded and sentimental assumption, arising from the limp-wristed Anglican tradition in which faith rarely amounted to anything remotely challenging to anyone.

Faith is not necessarily a good thing. Some faiths hold views that are repellent to most people and certainly to the indigenous Christian tribe. More importantly, faith itself is the problem. No one can argue with faith. If God or scripture says gays are wicked, or if someone believes her faith insists on a chador (even if she is mistaken), that is that.

Most faiths in Britain are actively competing for an acknowledged place in the public arena within the Establishment. If Anglicanism is an established part of the state, if this country is technically speaking a theocracy, why in the name of equality should not all other religions have a piece of the action too? That’s the urgent but unspoken question. It is hard, however much one might fear the tenets of certain other faiths here, to think of any good reason why not.

That is what we are seeing. The growing number of sharia courts in this country is alarming. Yet the Archbishop of Canterbury has defended them. I can’t help suspecting his reason is that he is so anxious to insist that faith has a place in public life and so aware of the unfairness to other faiths of the status quo, that in logic he cannot help himself. Understandably this enrages the secularists and also the more moderate observers, who are alarmed by the incontrovertible tenets of certain faiths.

That is why, however obtuse and unattractive they may seem, the militant secularists are on the right side in the faith wars. It is why, however reluctantly, the polite and tolerant secularists will have to join them and win the war. There can be no place for faith anywhere at all within the political establishment, no privileged space within the public arena.

The Sunday Times

February 5th, 2012

Science says the left is smarter – guess who’s got common sense

What rejoicing there must have been last week, up and down the land, in left-wing and bien-pensant circles. For it is now official: rightwingers really are more stupid than leftwingers, just as leftwingers have always thought and often said. That, at any rate, is the finding of a large study at Brock University in Canada, published in Psychological Science. Bring out the pink champagne, all you Bollinger bolsheviks!

The Canadian paper analysed UK studies of more than 15,000 people in 1958 and in 1970, which (among other things) compared childhood intelligence with adult political views. As a result of their number-crunching, the authors believe that a person’s political stance is related to his or her IQ — in particular that there is a strong correlation between low intelligence and right-wing politics.

“Cognitive abilities are critical in forming impressions of other people and in being open-minded,” they say. “Individuals with lower cognitive abilities may gravitate towards more socially conservative right-wing ideologies that maintain the status quo. It provides a sense of order.” Not only that: the authors argue that lower IQ is associated with greater prejudice, such as racism, and that “conservative ideology represents a critical pathway through which childhood intelligence predicts racism in adulthood”. So dim people will be attracted to conservatism, and conservatism will lead them to racism and homophobia.

This must be manna from heaven to all those on the left in this country who are feeling rather discredited and left out of things. Now it has been shown, they will claim, that anyone who doesn’t agree with the left must be stupid, and probably racist too. Repulsive, in fact. And while that is not precisely what this study says, it is what it will be taken to mean by those who want to hate and despise anyone who thinks differently from themselves. That was exactly the thinking of my youth in the 1970s, when my student days were made miserable by censorious socialist bullying and triumphalism.

I hope that political debate in this country is no longer so deeply unintelligent as to take any of this stuff seriously. With any luck a respectable amount of survey fatigue has set in: most people must have learnt to be wary of such studies, with all the usual cognitive bias and necessary imperfections, and wary of the notion of IQ itself. In any case, I do not think that the left will be able to make much political capital out of this. For even if rightwingers were less intelligent than leftwingers — which I don’t for a moment accept — that would not necessarily make their politics wrong. Nor would it make leftists right, just because they were brainier.

Politics is a matter of judgment — the art of the possible, with the judgment to recognise the possible. But intelligence is not the same as judgment. In fact the cleverest people can quite often be rather silly politically, like the brilliant James I, who was called the wisest fool in Christendom. Judgment and common sense are no respecters of intelligence — indeed I suspect they follow rather different neural pathways from those through which IQ-test aptitudes travel, and may exist only by chance alongside high intelligence.

“All brains and no intelligence” was a phrase I often heard in my childhood from country people, and highly though I respected brains and IQ myself, I recognised that by intelligence they meant judgment and that IQ and judgment are not necessarily to be found in the same person. One has only to think of Gordon Brown, whose abysmal judgment did so much damage.

Besides, if these Canadian findings were right, and if rightwingers were thicker than leftwingers, because right-wing ideas appeal to lesser, narrower minds, you would expect the Conservative front bench to be less intelligent than the bench opposite. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Labour front bench, with a few exceptions, is cognitively rather undistinguished. Many Conservative frontbenchers, by contrast, have formidable IQ credibility, for what it’s worth.

Staring cleverly at the cameras are David “Two Brains” Willetts, William Hague, Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve and Alan Duncan, all positively overburdened with little grey cells, not to mention the prime minister, who got a first in PPE at Oxford, which (if nothing more) unquestionably requires a high IQ. George Osborne may have got only an upper second, but the school he went to, St Paul’s in London, sent a standard letter to me when I was thinking about my son’s future, warning parents that it wasn’t worth a boy applying unless his IQ were 120 or above. Such an IQ puts a person in the top 6.7% of the population, intelligence-wise, and suggests that if the chancellor is right-wing, that has nothing to do with his IQ.

Plenty of conservatives are bright. As the crossbencher Lord Rees-Mogg, for example, has frequently pointed out in his column in The Times, both he and his Tory MP son Jacob have quite exceptionally high IQs. The Canadians’ suggestion that conservatives must be dimmer than lefties leaves me speechless with incredulity, given my own experience of many years as a journalist. The obvious point is that countless numbers of people, past and present, private and public, have been both very intelligent and somewhat right-wing.

But there’s the rub. What is right-wing? Leftists tend to use it as a term of abuse, as if it were a monolithic state of original sin and wilful stupidity. In fact, even more perhaps than the term left-wing, the term right-wing covers a multitude of attitudes and dispositions, more defined by what it isn’t than what it is. Perhaps in Canada, as in the United States, there is a simpler, coherent view of what is right-wing — the sort of horrifying orthodoxy of the right on display in the American election campaigns.

But in the gentler, more nuanced political atmosphere of this country, many people’s political attitudes are a mixture of views both left and right and anything in between. I am constantly disappointing TV and radio researchers, who assume they’ve found a right-wing commentator, with views that don’t fit any right-wing mould. It is obvious that no supposedly scientific survey could come up with a usable, quantifiable definition of right-wing and left-wing: the subject is much too contentious for bean-counting. I am afraid that for left-wing triumphalists the day of glory has not arrived after all. Keep the Bollinger on ice.

The Sunday Times

January 29th, 2012

We can have human rights or welfare – but not both

Fairness is the obsession of the moment. It constantly, ceaselessly dominates the news. From welfare caps to fat cats’ bonuses to expelling foreign rapists and terrorists, the nation has suddenly become hypersensitised to fairness. To take welfare, the prime minister insists that the government’s plan to cap benefits at £26,000 a year, the equivalent of a salary of £35,000, is a “basic issue of fairness”: it is clearly most unfair to those who work that people who don’t should have a much larger net income than they do, and often live somewhere much nicer too. Most people agree with David Cameron.

But vociferous bishops in the House of Lords, including the meddling Archbishop of Canterbury, think quite otherwise; they, in their usual intellectual muddle and general ignorance of the facts, cry out that it’s unfair to deprive some children of child benefit and drive them into poverty. This sort of line is passionately backed by The Guardian and its allies, in defiance of the facts, as unforgivably unfair.

Unfair, again, is the cry against Firuta Vasile. She is a Romanian woman who came here legally in 2007, on her own with her four children, supposedly to find work, and spends a few hours a week selling The Big Issue on the pavement. Earlier this month, on top of the £25,500 of welfare benefits she already gets, she won the right to be housed at public expense as well: she took a case to court (with taxpayer-funded legal aid) at which it was determined that selling The Big Issue meant she was self-employed and therefore entitled to housing benefit.

This will, of course, apply to countless others. And while all fair-minded people ought to admit that they would do just what Vasile has done in coming here to better her life, there’s something obviously unfair about her story. So, too, is it unfair to us that Abu Qatada, the fundamentalist rabble-rouser, benefits claimant and criminal, cannot be thrown out of the country he has abused, because of factors outside this country’s control: surely it is unfair that his human rights trump ours.

Meanwhile, there is a national uproar about the unfairness of fat cats’ pay and bonuses. Gone are the innocent, optimistic days when nobody cared much what the filthy rich took out of their companies, or why. Who can disagree that the whole compensation culture for fat cats is horribly unfair? All the same, these questions of fairness seem to me to miss the point. These angry debates are like the squabbles of a dysfunctional family that finds itself picnicking on Vesuvius: they are blithely unaware of the rumblings of something much more urgent — the impending explosion of an entirely different world dispensation, when the minutiae of generous welfare payments will be swept away in the lava of international change.

Fairness itself is an idea that is rapidly going the way of the dodo. You cannot have fairness without frontiers, but with globalisation frontiers are a thing of the past. Fairness needs protection — protectionism even, within the physical borders of a shared idea of what’s right — and if frontiers are breaking down under forces outside our control, the idea of fairness will break down with them.

Our old idea of fairness was based on the idea that we on this rich little island could create and maintain a welfare state based on an ideal of what is fair — not necessarily equal, but fair enough, and becoming less unequal. People paid into the common wealth and took out, depending on their circumstances. That was only fair. But that was decades ago, before the time of mass travel, mass migration and the information revolution that inspired global changes including the international human rights movement and its courts.

Many of these changes have been good, or mostly for the good. But the weakening of frontiers has had big consequences. To take the question of vastly unequal salaries and sheltered assets: all this is a direct result of the mobility of the filthy rich, in a globalised world. As Peter Mandelson pointed out only last week at Davos, his government hadn’t foreseen how much globalisation would create income inequalities. And individual governments are largely powerless to do anything in the direction of fairness.

Then, to take welfare, the right has argued for a long time that multiculturalism (following rapid mass immigration), in insisting on so many different identities, has been deeply divisive, and has undermined our shared sense of responsibility towards all those with whom we can identify. So, too, has mass migration in itself.

Before long the liberal left came round to this view: in an influential essay in the liberal Prospect magazine its then editor, David Goodhart, argued that multiculturalism had weakened the social ties that bind, including the willingly shared ties of social security. That’s been exacerbated by welfare tourism, fake asylum seekers and the unaffordable entitlements of unlimited numbers of foreigners such as Vasile. Equally, the willingness of some eastern Europeans here to work, live and save hard, while softer Britons recline on welfare cushions, has caused new native resentment of the native undeserving poor.

According to the British Social Attitudes survey, attitudes to welfare have been becoming rapidly less generous. In 2007, 32% of the population agreed the government should redistribute income from the better-off to the less well-off, while only 22 years earlier, in 1985, the number had been 51%. Similarly, the number believing that the government should “definitely” provide a decent standard of living for the unemployed fell from 42% of the population in 1985 to only 10% in 2006.

This is an astonishing flight from fairness, as it used to be understood, and I think it is partly because of a growing feeling that the whole thing is no longer fair, and not worth supporting. The fact that governments have not had the will or the competence or, in many cases, the right to control the country’s frontiers is partly what lies behind this sense of unfairness.

The plain truth is that life isn’t fair.

Governments cannot make it fair, least of all in a globalised world. On top of that, international economists agree that welfare as we know it, fair or unfair, is becoming unsustainable. What we should be talking about is not fairness but survival.

Lack of incentives fuels our benefits culture, Letters, page 26. The great welfare balancing act, News Review, page 9

The Sunday Times

January 22nd, 2012

No, m’lud, it’s not real remorse but can I avoid jail anyway?

Justice must be seen to be done. Even more importantly, perhaps, injustice must not be seen to be done. But injustice is precisely what was on display at the crown court in Manchester last Wednesday. On the steps outside, just after his conviction, a vicious young thug was defiantly dancing and punching the air in delight with his heavily tattooed fingers.

Daniel Chrapkowski was celebrating because even though he had been found guilty of grievous bodily harm against a young passer-by, injuring him badly, he had been let off jail. All Chrapkowski got for this unprovoked attack, to which he admitted, was 160 hours of community service and an electronic tag for two months.

This is the astonishing outcome of what happened one night in Manchester last January when Chrapkowski and two friends — one of them on bail at the time for a violent offence — were spending their time assaulting wheelie bins and tipping rubbish over the street. A young man walking home with his girlfriend asked them what on earth they were doing. Their response was to attack him, one of them meanwhile boasting that he had just been let out for GBH. Chrapkowski punched the man in the face and tripped him up, before he and another repeatedly kicked and punched him in the head and stomach. Then all three ran away, leaving the stranger unconscious and bleeding.

Their victim, Joseph O’Reilly, needed many hours of hospital treatment. His jaw was fractured, his brain was bleeding and later he had to have a metal plate fitted into his face. He was in pain for weeks, suffered dizzy spells and then collapsed and had to return to hospital a few months later. He still suffers from dizziness, anxiety and numbness in his face and mouth.

The first thought that comes to any reasonable person’s mind is that any man who does that to another man ought to be slung straight into the slammer and kept there for a long time. If prison is for nothing else, it is for locking up violent criminals who hurt people, especially when they do so for no particular reason. There’s room for argument about most other crimes, about the point of prison and the poor chances of rehabilitation, but not about this. Grievous bodily harm is most grievous. Letting Chrapkowski: jailed for people off for it doesn’t seem to be justice. Letting the perpetrators walk the streets unpunished is wrong and unsafe. And seeing someone celebrating the leniency of the court in such a case, right outside that court, is an affront to public morals.

There have been the usual cries of outrage. But it would not be right to blame the judge, Martin Steiger QC. He was only obeying orders, or rather the sentencing guidelines that apply to all judgments. The maximum tariff for GBH without intent, as in this case, is five years. And, as usual, the judge must take mitigating factors into account, and remorse is one.

Chrapkowski did express remorse in court — or at least it was expressed on his behalf. Katie Jones, his defence lawyer, said: “He is extremely remorseful and wishes to apologise to the court. It is extremely out of character.” Presumably she meant that his violence was out of character but it became apparent all too soon that remorse was extremely out of character in his case. At least, he didn’t feel it for very long. In short, he fooled the judge.

There is something very wrong with a not GBH mitigating factor (especially in such a serious crime) that is so exceptionally easy to abuse: remorse is a good way to pass jail and return to Go, and for that reason it is a card that is played in the courts every day, by cheats as well as by the honest. Not only can a judge be fooled, like anyone else, but the system seems to conspire in this folly. A defendant’s barrister might easily be tempted to suggest to her client — if he doesn’t already know — that cries of remorse will do him a lot of good in court.

I heard from a legal expert recently that there’s a sort of code in court to enable fastidious barristers to enlighten the judge: if a defence barrister expresses her client’s remorse in particular terms, it means she is conveying to the judge that she herself is sceptical about it.

Probation officers and social workers, who are generally opposed to prison sentences, may well give formal assurances to the courts of their clients’ remorse, even if they are doubtful of it.

Dr David Green, director of the Civitas think tank, is certainly sceptical about the claims of remorse in the courts. “If we accept that the primary duty of barristers is to justice, then I think the legal profession in recent times has lost its way, morally speaking,” he said.

“A lot of lawyers coach their clients in what to say to help them give plausibility to their pretended remorse … On questions of guilt and innocence generally, I suspect many lawyers do now sail very close to the wind in presenting their clients’ cases to the courts.”

If protestations of remorse are so prone to abuse, perhaps sentencing guidelines ought to be reconsidered yet again. Perhaps remorse ought not to be a mitigating factor in serious crimes of violence such as GBH, except in unusual situations where it is unmistakably present. At the very least there should be much heavier requirements of proof. But, more broadly, this miserable case brings up most of the usual questions that anger the public about sentencing and about villains not being sent to jail.

A maximum of five years — in effect 2Å — does not seem enough for beating a man half to death, and senselessly. In any case, the number of people convicted of serious, prison-worthy crimes who are now let off with suspended sentences has rocketed since Labour’s 2003 Criminal Justice Act came into force in 2005. It is getting bigger under the coalition. In 2005, of all such prison-worthy convictions, only 1.8% of convicts were given suspended sentences (5,610 people). In 2010 the figure was 9.8%, which means 34,176 serious offenders, some of them like Chrapkowski, were at large instead of in jail.

What the public knows is that the jails are full of the wrong people — the mentally ill, addicts, self-harmers, people of low intelligence and the illiterate. These people need quite different treatment. Yet what it sees is that dangerous people, who without any doubt ought to be in jail, are let loose.

Whatever it is, it doesn’t look like justice being done.

The Sunday Times

January 15th, 2012

Obese and useless, our state cannot even feed its children

It is hard to believe that in this country, in the 21st century, there are people who need food parcels. Food hand-outs. But so it is.

Last week I went to a small, unremarkable-looking cafe, in a drab part of deprived inner-city Plymouth, that hands out food parcels. By halfway through the afternoon the volunteers there had given out 25 boxes’ worth, enough for at least 50 people: many of the parcels are for ordinary families who have homes, not just for people one might imagine such as those sleeping rough or drug addicts.

I wonder how many people know that food parcels are far from rare in this country and quickly becoming more common. Early last year I was shocked by a news report that food parcels were being handed out in Okehampton — also, by coincidence, in Devon. Food parcels in green and pleasant Devon? And not only that — more were needed. The Okehampton Baptist church food bank had gone from providing one or two parcels a week to between 40 and 50, partly because of a sudden rise in redundancies in the town. I had imagined this need for food parcels was unusual, local and temporary. But that isn’t so.

There are perhaps as many as 200 places across the country handing out free donated food parcels right now, and there is little that’s unusual or local or temporary about it. Most of them are linked to the Trussell Trust and most are very recent.

The trust, which runs the only such network in Britain, estimates that the number of people fed by food banks could swell to 100,000 in 2011-12 and soar to 500,000 by 2015 — half a million people by the end of this parliament. And these are ordinary people: among the hungry, the homeless are now in a minority, according to the trust. Buddy, can you spare a tin of beans? At the Oasis cafe in Plymouth, people come and go, and some are there discreetly with vouchers for food, issued by a social worker or a doctor. In the back, volunteers are busy packing donated tins of meat, vegetables and fruit with dried foods, cereals, instant mash and long-life milk or milk powder: it is a standardised food parcel list and, although well considered and practical, it’s bleak. Bleakest of all was the note at the bottom about “extra treats when available”: one of the four was jam. That sounds like my mother’s childhood before the war, in the Hungry Thirties, when she saw other children walking to school barefoot, clutching a lump of bread and suet for their lunch. The sight of ordinary parents, ashamed of their own poverty, having to rely on the most basic of charitable cans and jars to feed their children is like the world of Dickens.

It is difficult not to feel completely enraged by such sights. What is the meaning of a welfare state if it cannot prevent these things? Last year Britain spent £110 billion on welfare (along with £121 billion on healthcare and £122 billion on pensions) and despite this eye-watering outlay, charitable food banks were springing up faster than ever: the Trussell Trust network launched 88 new ones in 2011 alone. With that kind of welfare money to spend, not one single food bank should be needed.

Of course it is true that the new signs of hardship to be seen around the country are the markers of austerity Britain. But today’s economic climate isn’t enough — at least not yet — to explain the existence in the country of hunger. What explains it in large part is waste. A few days ago it emerged that over the past two years — in parallel with the rise of the food banks — the government has wasted £31 billion of taxpayers’ money.

The National Audit Office published figures showing an institutional inefficiency in national and local government spending: defence costs and the private finance initiative (PFI), along with the notorious National Health Service IT system, have frittered away the most, but the benefits system squanders about £3.3 billion every year through error in payments and fraud. Meanwhile, there has been more than £10 billion in uncollected tax. That £31 billion amounts to a very large chunk of the £81 billion of savings George Osborne is trying to make within this parliament.

Commenting on this as the chairwoman of the House of Commons public accounts committee, Margaret Hodge was scathing about the incompetence and lack of commercial sense involved in Whitehall. It is “blindingly obvious”, she said, that frontline services could be saved by tackling the tens of billions of pounds of waste in the system. How true. How urgently necessary. But I wonder how she — or anyone — proposes to do that.

The problem lies in the culture of the civil service, and in local government as well, where deeply uncommercial attitudes combine with overweening ambition to micro-manage everything. An uncommercial attitude is the one displayed by local authorities several years ago that notoriously awarded PFI contracts to school dinner providers for 25 and 30 years. The ignorance and the childlike lack of awareness of market forces and the very point of a PFI almost defy belief.

Such desperately incompetent contracting and the mentality behind it is common — institutionalised, you might say — in the state sector: the anecdotes are legion. Beyond that there is the usual tendency of bureaucracy to feed upon itself and to grow bigger and bigger — and less and less necessary — almost uncontrollably. These departments have become Augean stables and it would take a mythical Hercules to clean them and make them fit for purpose.

Given all that, the only hope of stopping the waste — or some of it — is to demand that central and local government should take on much, much less. The state has become too bloated to be healthy or up to the task: it is obese and it is sick. It should be starved into competence. That means — and it is something only austerity will enforce on state sector resistance — greatly reducing and simplifying what it sets itself to do.

Local social services departments, for instance, should pare themselves back to the most essential work, abandoning everything else — however worthy it might sound — such as equality and diversity programmes, sex education outreach projects or drop-in for transsexual travellers and absolutely anything that does not directly deal with want — want of the most basic social care, want of a safe home and, above all, want of food. If people have to turn to charity for food, what on earth is the point of our elaborate welfare state?

The Sunday Times

January 8th, 2012

Don’t sneer, pretty prigs, we don’t all get beauty free

There are few spectacles more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodic fits of priggery, to borrow a thought of Lord Macaulay’s. Cosmetic surgery, recently in the news because of a leaky breast implant scandal, can be relied on to bring the prigs out in force. Last week the press and the blogosphere were buzzing with people anxious to condemn any female who was decadent and feeble-minded enough to want to have a better bosom or to be dissatisfied with her appearance at all.

So far from sympathising with unfortunate women who are neither rich enough nor well informed enough to stay out of the clutches of the worst of the beauty bandits, they said with one voice that if these women’s implants were leaking, it served them right. Opinion was divided as to what, if anything, the National Health Service should do about it, but there was an unmistakable note of schadenfreude.

Downmarket prigs have enjoyed regaling each other over the blogosphere with the cry of “tough titty”. Upmarket prigs showed an equally silly complacency and wilful misunderstanding of the human condition. Cristina Odone in The Daily Telegraph came straight out and said that if a vanity breast job goes wrong, that’s just tough, although of course she didn’t say titty. And she dismissed the preoccupation with their appearance that drives women to consider cosmetic surgery of any kind as “neurotic vanity”.

In The Times Alice Thomson said breast enhancement is quite unnecessary given the availability of the “great bra”; it can’t be blamed on men or sex, she believes, but is really about “competition between women, a one-upgirlship and an obsessive quest for airbrushed physical perfection”. Roald Dahl’s Matilda and JK Rowling’s Hermione, she opined, would never have a nose job.

This all seems to me quite astonishing — a wilful and condescending dismissal of some of the plainer facts of life. Cosmetic intervention — or having work done, as Californians say — is as old as civilisation for a very simple reason: beauty, like youth with which it is so closely entwined, is power. Everyone who is honest must admit that. Being born beautiful, or even just quite attractive, confers all kinds of advantages upon both sexes. There are countless studies showing that pretty children get better responses from adults, more attention at school and develop more confidence.

Good-looking women, generally speaking, get jobs more easily, get better jobs and earn more than plain women; curiously enough this injustice is enjoyed, even more so, by good-looking men. Beautiful people of all sexes have a greater choice of sexual companions and more chances of raising their status by fair means or foul. Blondes really do have more fun; so do beauties. I can say from personal experience that suddenly acquiring an impressive bosom (in my case on having a baby) makes a truly astonishing difference to the amount of attention a woman gets.

This is all extremely unfair and one would surely expect enterprising people to kick against this injustice and do whatever they can to grab a bit of extra beauty. One would surely expect people to try to hang on, despite the ravages of time, to whatever they were born with. And who can blame them? They just want a piece of the action that others so unfairly enjoy. This is not neurotic vanity or self-obsession: it is unsentimental realism. For those who enjoy great advantages to sneer at the attempts of others to aspire to some of those advantages seems distinctly mean-spirited to me.

Odone writes that she would never contemplate cosmetic surgery, even though she has a “nutcracker profile and breasts like mosquito bites”. Some mosquito. Odone is an attractive woman with a good figure, married to an attractive man, and she would in any case have other sources of power and pleasure in her success as a writer and her wide network of friends. Incidentally, many of her successful acquaintances (and mine), to judge from my observations at parties, have had a lot of “work done”— and not only the women.

As for Thomson’s rather complacent claim that the heroic Matilda and Hermione would never have nose jobs — how does she know? Most aspirational women, both upmarket and downmarket, already do a great deal — short of surgery — to up their beauty ante. Professional hair colouring, a perfect tooth implant, some ferocious drugs to deal with acne, a touch of Botox, a little light lasering — all these are refinements on the ancient pursuit of beauty and if they are safe, so what? Meanwhile, pharmacology is getting ever closer to transforming old skin into new and flawless complexions.

I cannot count the times people praise a celebrity for avoiding cosmetic surgery and daring to be natural, when in fact she (or he) has almost certainly had a lot of excellent work done. It’s just that the public doesn’t recognise good work. If it has ever struck you that an older celebrity who doesn’t appear to be lifted at all is nonetheless remarkably free from bags under her eyes — or , increasingly his — that is probably due not to the knife but the laser. Fraxel laser zapping can make tiny amounts of scar tissue under the bags, which will magically shrink the skin just a fraction, smoothing out the puffiness. And so on. This will enable the celebrity to soldier on without looking past it. Cosmetic work is the new keep-fit, both in terms of the survival of the fittest and in terms of fit as attractive.

The simple point is that if beauty (along with youth) is power, then the loss of beauty and youth is the loss of power. To seek beauty — exchanging an ugly nose for a pretty one, say — is to seek power in life, or to try to retain power. Men feel the same as women about all this and more are having “work done” — getting “man boobs” removed is increasingly in demand.

Of all the cosmetic procedures on offer, breast implants do seem to be one of the worst to me, even if they are done by a top surgeon. It can hardly be a good idea to cut into all that hypersensitive tissue, let alone to insert alien substances. Even worse are facial fillers, which now seem to be very risky indeed.

What’s wrong, though, is not the desire for beauty or a bigger bosom. What is entirely wrong is that the beauty industry, which is a terrible Vanity Fair of bandits, charlatans and quacks, is so loosely regulated. That is the scandal. But it is no reason to sneer at less fortunate women for doing what rich women have always done more successfully, time out of mind. That’s priggery.

The Sunday Times

January 1st, 2012

Don’t strike, cut council tax and kiss goodbye to Scotland

Making new year resolutions for myself is something I gave up long ago. Instead I make them for other people. But some of these resolutions have to be made again, year after year: people just won’t be told. So I’m including a couple of the hardy perennials in my list for 2012.

World leaders Learn from the recent past how very little is achieved and how much harm is done by invasion. Leave taking out rogue nuclear installations to the Israelis.

Civil service Public-spirited public servants everywhere — teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, hospital administrators, probation officers, police officers — should follow the example of Gandhi and respond to Whitehall oppression and bureaucratic red tape with peaceful passive resistance. Gently say no to paperwork. Refuse to fill in the forms and refuse to read the guidelines. Bin all the bumf. Only something very extreme will convince Whitehall that public servants must be relieved of the crushing burden of bureaucracy. And don’t worry about getting blamed or sacked. No one ever does, apart from whistleblowers. (As Sharon Shoesmith, head of children’s services in Haringey when Baby P died, so memorably said in May: “I don’t do blame.”) United Nations Clean up the UN Human Rights Council (as it is now called). For years it has been one of those intolerable scandals that people somehow tolerate. It even included Gadaffi’s Libya until last March and to this day includes Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, China and Uganda.

Europhiles Explain in clear English the advantages of ever-closer harmonisation with Europe and of the European constitution. Europhiles always address Eurosceptics as if we are too stupid to understand the great European project. Eurosceptic arguments have always been simple and easy to follow. If Europhile sophisticates cannot come up with an equally plain and powerful case, we shall be forced to think they have not got one.

Eurosceptics of 2012 Remember that being right always puts one in the wrong and try not to resent it.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Say no more. You have chosen to support sharia in your country and you have chosen not to support homosexual priests in your church. That general line is medieval.

David Cameron Avoid flashy parties until, like Tony Blair, you are free again to associate with the ghastliest people you like. Make your ministers tell you all about their closest friends, in case one of them turns out to be another Adam Werritty.

The secretary of state for Scotland Set up a referendum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland asking voters whether they would like Scotland to be made independent. The result would be a resounding yes and would save the Scots the bother.

Trade union leaders Look in the mirror before you try to start any strikes. Presumably you became trade unionists to better the lot of ordinary people. Striking this year for impossible deals will only make things very much harder for millions of those people.

Baby boomer haters However much you may resent the lucky generation that amassed property and savings, don’t forget that the value of their assets is being deliberately eroded by government policies. Near-zero interest rates, inflation, poor investment returns, falling house prices and rising health costs will ensure many have a miserable old age.

Councillors Learn from councillor Stephen Greenhalgh, the December pin-up of the TaxPayers’ Alliance. The leader of Hammersmith and Fulham council in London has cut or frozen local tax for six years and nearly halved the council’s debts while residents’ satisfaction has soared. His determination proves what great things can be done even in hard times.

Refuse collection officials Drop the daft idea that it is safe or acceptable to collect rubbish less often than once a week: twice a week is what is needed. We’ve actually had maggots. Where are the health and safety people when you need them? Mike Farrar, chief executive of the NHS Confederation Continue to bully the government to tell the truth about the real costs of the National Health Service, including the rocketing costs of care of the so-called hospital bed-blockers. One in four people in a hospital bed has dementia and there were reports last week that over-80s were blocking emergency departments because they could get no care in the community. Without huge spending on GPs, district nurses and social care, hospitals will before long be unable to function.

People in their child-bearing years Don’t have more than two children. Only the rich can afford to have lots of babies. The children in the big families of the poor and unemployed are supported by the taxpayer and that might well change.

The Pope Repent publicly and spectacularly for all the institutionalised child abuse that the Catholic Church has ignored or covered up.

Political leaders (except theocracies) Keep religion out of political discourse. It is divisive and politically unwise. Above all, stop hinting that only religious people can be good: there is plenty of evidence the other way.

Housing ministers Direct people away from southeast England. Offer people council or subsidised housing to those entitled to it anywhere but there. The drying up of the River Kennet is just one of many signs that this part of Britain cannot sustain more people.

Everyone Best foot forward, as they used to say in the first world war trenches. And happy new year.