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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.


February 12th, 2012

Talk her out of breeding and well avoid the pain of taking her baby

There can be few things worse than having your baby forcibly taken away by someone who thinks you are not fit to care for it. I was once acquainted with a woman to whom that happened.

Her lasting anguish was terrible to see. Yet it was clearly right to take her baby away: she could hardly take care of herself, let alone a baby and still less a child. Social services did the only thing they could. Nonetheless, the mother’s face as she repeatedly showed a crumpled photo of the baby to strangers, trying but failing to tell them something, still haunts me.

There’s another image that haunts me. It’s of a young mother in a busy London Underground train with a toddler, a couple of years ago. The little boy was restless, staggering about the carriage, dropping his dummy on the filthy floor and getting under people’s feet when the doors opened.

Mostly his mother ignored him, pushing him away when he wanted to sit on her lap and staring vacantly at nothing. At times she slapped him or shrieked at him, and once or twice she grabbed him, covered him with kisses and clumsily tried to force a biscuit into his reluctant mouth. Watching this miserable scene and imagining the damage that the little boy was suffering, I could not help feeling that his mother should not have been allowed to keep him.

Nobody can take such a decision lightly. I am sure that social workers in this country rarely do so. If anything, one could argue that for too long social workers were too much inclined to leave children with obviously disastrous parents. But the terrible death of “Baby P”, Peter Connelly, in 2007 has changed that. Since the trials of his abusers and the inquiry, social workers have started removing babies from their parents in much greater numbers, recently at record levels.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) released figures last week showing that the number of children referred into care in England rose to 903 last month, the first time it has passed 900. The figure was 698 in January last year and in the high 300s for the first half of 2008.

This increase can partly be explained by social services being more vigilant and trying to avoid another Baby P disaster. But much of it has to do with a new understanding that bad parents damage their children not only by abuse but also by neglect.

As brain science progresses, new academic theories about cerebral development in a baby’s earliest months are being put forwards and often accepted.

It is now conventional wisdom that neglectful parents do lasting damage to their children by failing to love them and cherish them — which means providing their babies’ rapidly growing brains with the proper stimuli to enable them to learn to love, to trust, to talk, to listen and empathise and to develop intellectually and socially.

Children deprived of such stimuli suffer permanent cognitive and emotional loss. Apart from the unhappiness and fear they suffer, they will grow up permanently damaged, to damage others in their turn.

Both the head of Cafcass and the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services said last week that the rise in the number of children taken into care was directly related to a better understanding of child development and the damage that parental neglect can do. Better late than never, is all one can say.

For how long is it right to expose a baby to the risks of permanent damage in a clearly damaging family? In the past social workers have tried to keep chaotic families together as far as possible, believing that, with the right help, children could be left even with very troubled parents — which has led to some terrible, well-documented results.

Underlying this policy was a strong belief in parents’ rights and an ignorance of what irreparable damage was being done. Rather than tear a child from its parents, better to wait and see.

That’s what has changed. Fewer and fewer people involved in child protection now think that way. Problem families should get all the help they need, but the central question, for babies, is one of time. For how long is it right to expose a baby to the risks of permanent damage in a clearly damaging family?

It is not enough to wait for signs of bruising or burning. A parent such as the mother I saw on the Tube is doing daily harm, invisibly but surely and permanently.

How many days or weeks should she be given to change her behaviour entirely — assuming that she is capable of such change? And assuming that effective help is, in practice, available to her? It takes months or years to recover from mental illnesses and addictions, and a person can rarely recover from the cognitive impairment that’s termed a learning disability. Babies can’t wait. Nor can their brothers and sisters.

With extreme reluctance I’ve come to the conclusion that very damaged parents — and the damage must be quite unmistakable — should have their babies removed at birth. However terrible, it is worse to let them keep them. From the child’s point of view, there is no time to be lost: early weeks of damage, followed by the breaking of the child’s earliest attachments, cannot be justified.

Worse still, in a sense, I’ve also come to believe that very damaged adults should be actively discouraged from having children; they should be warned in advance that they are almost certain to have them taken away.

A documentary in an outstanding BBC2 series on this subject, Protecting Our Children, recently showed an unhappy young father watching his disturbed toddler being (rightly) taken away by careful, admirable social workers. Weeks later the child’s mother, now single, voluntarily but tearfully relinquished both their son and her baby daughter. Neither parent could cope with looking after their filthy dog, let alone a child.

It would have been far better if, long before this tragedy, social workers had explained to both why parenthood was not for them, and encouraged them to use long-term contraceptives. Maybe it would even be possible to offer incentives to certain people to use such contraceptives: recent memories of forced sterilisations in India and China chill the blood, but there is a great difference between that and moderate, closely controlled, unforced persuasion.

Rather than respond with cries of “Eugenicist!” and “Nazi!”, people of good sense and feeling should admit the painful truth that some people, sadly, are not fit to care for their children. If that is the case, they should not have them, and they should be actively discouraged from doing so. Hardly anything is worse than having your baby taken away.


February 7th, 2012

Science says the left is smarter guess whos 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.

Countless numbers of people, past and present, have been both very intelligent and somewhat right-wing 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, Uncategorized

December 4th, 2011

Does no one blame Gary Speed? Then weve found our humanity

The football manager Gary Speed was 42 when he killed himself last week, leaving behind a widow and two children. My father was 43 when he killed himself many years ago, leaving behind a widow, three children under five and one soon to be born.

Apart from that, the two men could hardly have been more different. My father was an eye surgeon and an American living in 1950s California. Speed was a Welshman living in contemporary Britain and one of football’s lesser gods. Yet there is a terrible, incomprehensible similarity between them.

What haunts Speed’s family and friends and his countless fans, and what torments anyone trying to come to terms with a suicide, is always the question why. In Speed’s case it is particularly hard to imagine why he became so desperate. Those close to him say he’d never been depressed and had seemed as cheerful and normal as ever only hours before his death. And it is obvious that he had, apparently, everything to live for: a lovely wife and children, great talent, huge success, wonderful prospects and many friends.

My father’s case is equally difficult for me to understand, although for an entirely different reason. No one talked about it at the time and no one talked about it later. His suicide in America was kept secret when our English mother came back to Britain. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I discovered by accident from a French girl in Paris that there was something wrong about his death. How I discovered shows exactly why in those days people close to suicide didn’t talk about it.

My French friend knew some of my mother’s acquaintances in England, so she must at some point have learnt from local gossip in this country something I knew nothing about. After spending the night in her family’s flat in Paris, en route to a gap-year destination, I asked her if her parents, who were strict Roman Catholics, would allow me to stay for an extra night. She asked them and they said they would: they didn’t hold my father’s death against me. After all, I was not to blame, my friend assured me.

Furtiveness and shame make things worse, at least for the victims of a suicide who can have had nothing to do with it: the young children At first I couldn’t understand what she was talking about. She explained it was because of my father’s suicide, a new idea to me. And although her parents believed suicide was a terrible crime against the Holy Spirit and a mortal sin, they were inclined to consider me innocent and only slightly tainted by it. That was in 1967. The next year saw the évènements of 1968 in Paris, but things were clearly still rather medieval in that part of the Faubourg St-Honoré.

This attitude, I soon learnt, was only an exaggerated form of what most people felt, religious or not. Suicide was a disgrace, something unmentionable and something that would reflect badly on the family and children: mental illness was something to avoid and deny.

My mother certainly felt that and so do other members of my family, even now. For a long time they were probably right, I think, much though I resented their attitude. After all, suicide was still a criminal offence in this country until 1961, which was several years after my father’s death. The living victims of suicide were driven for generations into a furtive, uncomprehending solitude of guilt and shame, even into the late 20th century.

Once I had learnt that my father had killed himself, I began as anyone would to question what had brought him to do something so terrible — something so extremely brave, lonely, desperate and unforgivable. To abandon a wife and small children, causing the last one to be born very prematurely, and leaving a legacy of elaborate damage over many decades, is something that takes a bit of explaining: any would-be suicide, however desperate, must be able to foresee such things.

There seemed to be no answer. The evidence I got bit by bit over many years from people who didn’t want to talk about it did not add up. His own sister, to whom I spoke in her old age, had a romantic notion of self-sacrifice in the face of a brain tumour, but that was nonsense. He had, apparently, been depressed at various times but I found it increasingly difficult to rely on anything anyone said. My (now late) mother could barely speak of it and after a while it seemed wrong to question her.

So I shall never understand, and perhaps it is better that way. The truth is occasionally harder to bear than uncertainty. What I do know is that furtiveness and shame make things worse, at least for the victims of a suicide who can have had nothing to do with it: the young children. The adults around a suicide may have played a part in some way, but that cannot be said of the children.

It is sad to live for many, many years with such unanswered and unmentionable questions and, despite my determination not to accept it, with a vague sense of taint. Luckily my mother brought back to Britain many of my father’s medical books and several of them were about psychiatry and psychoanalysis. So from an early age I had some awareness of the mysteriousness of the mind and the many forms of mental disorder.

Later I began to read other books and gradually learnt to understand and to forgive my unhappy father, in general if not in particular. I began to realise how totally overwhelming some periods of mental illness can be and how wrong it is to hold someone responsible for what he may do when out of his right mind.

I also began to understand this from personal experience: depression (a bad term) is now called bipolar or mood disorder (also bad terms) and it is strongly heritable. I’ve always felt lucky I’ve been only touched by it and never struck down; I’m glad, too, that it has forced me to learn true sympathy for people in the grip of a mental illness, as well as for their families.

To come back from all this to the tragic death last week of a hero of our time, I feel overwhelmingly glad that attitudes to suicide have changed out of all recognition in my adult life. Speed’s relations have felt able to be very open about his death, knowing that so far from facing disapproval and incomprehension, they can rely instead on the sympathy of all his countless friends and admirers and even — astonishingly enough — the support of the media.

What’s entirely missing, quite rightly, is any hint anywhere in the media of the old sense of shame and blame. In that sense my father’s case is entirely different from Speed’s and his children’s case from my father’s children’s. In these dark times that is a blessing worth counting.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

October 23rd, 2011

Bolt the door, granny, before they grab your spare room

What a drag it is getting old, as the Rolling Stones sang long ago. Getting old in Britain today means fear for most people — fear of terrible treatment in hospitals and care homes, fear of rising bills, fear of having pensions driven down by high charges and fear of seeing any savings eroded by inflation and negligible interest rates. Old people are openly described as bed-blockers, a growing public nuisance.

Now, as of last Wednesday, the elderly are being described as “bedroom-blockers” in their own homes. They are “house-hoarders”, practically spivs.

These nasty ideas were put forward last week by an obscure leftie charity called the Intergenerational Foundation, which launched a report in the House of Commons, sponsored by Tessa Jowell. It argued that people in their sixties whose children have left home are taking up too much room: their children’s empty bedrooms (and their own) ought to be freed up for young families. These sad old bedroom-blockers should be “nudged” or taxed into “downsizing” to something much smaller and more suitable to their advanced years.

Incredible though it sounds, people over 60 now stand directly accused of wasting space in the houses they own. Wasting space. It doesn’t seem much of a leap of the fearful imagination from wasting space to being a waste of space. The message is getting clearer: as King Lear said bitterly, age is unnecessary. His daughters wanted to make him downsize, too. They bullied him to cut back his retinue of knights and servants to almost nothing. “What need one?” says the heartless Regan. “O, reason not the need!” cries out Lear.

I was reminded of Regan by Jowell last week, but in fact she has been misrepresented in the media. She did not fully endorse the report; nor does she think pressure should be put on old people to leave their homes, although she does welcome debate about housing. All the same, the viperish spirit of Regan and Goneril is evident in the Intergenerational Foundation. Who is it — or anyone — to tell homeowners what they “need” and to suggest that by “clinging” to their homes they are contributing selfishly to the housing crisis and causing profound social problems?

The Intergenerational Foundation exists supposedly to “promote fairness between generations” but it looks to me as though it is, willy-nilly, promoting resentment between the generations in an egalitarian and punishing spirit. One can almost hear the rattle of far-off tumbrils. I was reminded, too, of Omar Sharif in the film of Dr Zhivago, coming back to his huge house after the Russian revolution to find it had been filled with strangers, by government order: he was then forced by an official to pretend that he was delighted. Several commentators have suggested that this country is now in a pre-revolutionary mood, given the anger and fear so widely felt about the likelihood of a double-dip recession. Certainly the generation wars seem to be gathering force.

Perhaps even the most modest of elderly homeowners will find they are now enemies of the peopleEveryone agrees it is frighteningly difficult for young people to find somewhere affordable to live. Rents have rocketed and buying a property is becoming impossible for most young people. Bedroom-blockers are all too aware of it — these young people are hgh helpful for low thyroid their sons and daughters and grandchildren. But it is not the fault of the over–60s. It is just as hateful to blame older people for the housing crisis as it is to blame them for getting old. They are innocent: they didn’t wish for it either. They did not cause the property crisis and the shocking rise in house rental prices. It was caused by stupid and irresponsible government policies over many decades. Now it seems that baby boomers are to be monstered and punished for crimes they did not commit.

Of the many explanations for the housing crisis, the most obvious is the criminal failure of many succeeding governments to build houses, particularly affordable family houses and flats. Shortage breeds high prices. Less often mentioned is the disgraceful failure of the Labour government (and earlier governments) to control immigration, so that several million more people need housing than in 1997.

Another explanation is the willingness over many years of local authorities to give young people subsidised single-person accommodation, particularly single mothers, thus hugely inflating demand. Yet another has been the general failure to sell valuable social housing in prime locations to create much more social housing elsewhere. All this — along with other bad policies and incompetent government — has put extreme pressure on ordinary young families with jobs and children. The answer, however, is not to be mean to granny and grandpa.

An Englishman’s home … or rather, since clichés must move with the times, a British person’s home has traditionally been his or her castle: when the drawbridge is up, the occupants are supposedly free from the attentions of nosy parkers and interventionists. But it hasn’t been so for years. Few of us perhaps know that since 2003 there has been a government “bedroom standard”. Under its calculations a dwelling is deemed officially underoccupied if it has at least two bedrooms more than it “requires”. This would mean there are about 18m “surplus” bedrooms here at the moment.

How the blood pressure rises. It may be necessary to make such measurements in public or subsidised housing, but to suggest that arbitrary notions of “requirement” and “surplus” should be applied by anyone — least of all government — to privately owned houses and flats strikes me as apparatchik speak of the more aggressively socialist sort.

Those surplus rooms may be used for all kinds of good purposes, such as havens for friends and family. Even if they are used for bad purposes — meetings of hellfire clubs or groups devoted to sticking pins into Gordon Brown — it is an outrage for the government or any freedom-loving analyst to suggest it is anyone else’s business why anyone wants “surplus” rooms or what they use them for.

Nor is it any of their business what prudent financial reasons older people may have for “clinging” on to their family homes, such as hedging against an uncertain future. Government and sensible theorists should turn their attention instead to providing lots of new housing and thus bringing prices down fast at the same time.

Hard times make for hard feelings. Perhaps the noise of the tumbrils really is getting louder and even the most modest of elderly homeowners will find they are enemies of the people. What a drag it is growing old.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 14th, 2010

Brown betrays us all to deliver his Diana moment

The trouble with selling your soul is that you get so little for it. Gordon Brown may be about to discover this. The prime minister will be baring his soul on television tonight and — so close to a general election — talking tearfully about the death of his baby daughter and the disability of his younger son. This cannot amount to anything other than selling his soul. Of course, many politicians do it. Politics can be a dirty trade and shroud-waving and chasing the sympathy vote are common enough.

The difference with Brown, and what makes this carefully orchestrated show of manly suffering and husbandly love so shameful, is that he is a man who has prided himself on his integrity. He has boasted of it. He has taken the trouble to inform us of his honesty, his discretion and his Christian convictions — in short, of his much-vaunted moral compass. Privacy and the sanctity of family life were non-negotiable, he claimed, and he has congratulated himself on this point in public.

No one asked him to be so buttoned up, so much the notorious “grumpy robot”. Other respectable politicians, such as David Cameron, have taken a more relaxed line about family privacy — but Brown insisted. In 2008 he announced, in his peculiar tone of dour sanctimony: “Some people have been asking why I haven’t served my children up for spreads in the papers. And my answer is simple. My children aren’t props; they’re people.” Oh dear. They’ve been well and truly served up now. And the disabled son may grow up to hear that his parents asked themselves: “Why, why, why, why us?”

Brown’s moral compass seems to have lost its bearings; instead of pointing true north, it now seems to be jittering in the direction of ravening ambition. I wonder how he will be able to live with it in time to come and whether he will think his honour well sold. A little upward blip in the opinion polls is not much, after all.

I do not doubt that Gordon and Sarah Brown are as grief-stricken as any of us would be at the loss of their daughter and the illness of their son. No one can fail to sympathise with them. That is not the point. The point is that the voters are being practised upon in a shameless way by a politician who, until now, has claimed to be morally above such stratagems.

Now, suddenly, Brown and his team — and, quite obviously, his wife as well — appear to believe they can “reintroduce” the man to the public after all these years in office. They are betting that arousing our sympathy, and allowing intrusive questions about how he proposed and whether he has joined the mile-high club, will make him seem human enough to vote for. And he is clearly prepared to abandon pride and principle in this last-ditch makeover. He and his team are prepared to dump “moral” — his former unique selling point — in favour of “vulnerable” and “authentic”. That means welling up with tears and sharing your most intimate moments on telly.

They are all at it now. It’s almost funny. Only days ago the steely Alastair Campbell astonished anyone interested by choking, apparently, over his powerful feelings about Tony Blair and the Iraq war in an interview with Andrew Marr. Campbell is back in Downing Street to try with his dark arts to turn Brown from frog to psephological prince: perhaps he was giving Brown a little demonstration of how “vulnerable” should be done on television in a brave, manly way.

Then Campbell appeared in another interview, defending Brown’s television performance tonight. As a defence it was not only shameless; it was oddly inept. Apart from a reference to the importance of “authenticity” in modern communications — the usual use of a word to mean its opposite — he avoided the central moral questions of whether the prime minister ought to be going on prime-time television at all, crying about a personal matter, or whether the public longs for more reticence.

Instead Campbell talked about the importance of getting politicians onto programmes such as the Piers Morgan show, about how Blair got lots of viewers when he appeared on the Des O’Connor show and about “presentational issues”. And he remarked: “I think the point is that ultimately you’re in an election year.” Indeed. With such defenders of his “authenticity”, Brown hardly needs detractors.

We have reached an extremely depressing low in contemporary politics. The prime minister is so desperate with ambition that he will sink to depths he despises to cling to power, even though he must know that most people are sick of him. His wife is unscrupulous enough to urge him and to help him to do so. His advisers, such as Campbell, are cynical enough to give it a go even though they know the chances of Gordon getting it right are not good, given his extraordinary lack of emotional intelligence.

At the same time, Campbell and the team despise the voters so heartily that they scarcely bother to disguise what they are doing. Morgan, who will be Brown’s television interviewer tonight, is a known Labour supporter and the interview was given to him to be certain of the best possible result. Campbell’s defence of Brown’s interview was, in its indifference or blindness to the intelligence of the viewer, worthy of Brown himself. He dared to speak of “authenticity”.

It is also depressing that we are getting a deliberate return to the emotional incontinence of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Blair — the constant exploitation of supposedly personal suffering for personal gain, a constant dramatic representation of authenticity, rather than the thing itself.

Diana’s rolling eyes, Tony’s trembling lips and Cherie’s swollen eyes were the most obvious signs of a widespread sentimentalisation of culture. For a while, in recent years, perhaps since the departure of Blair, none of that has seemed quite so excessive. But now it’s back, or at least the people around Brown are trying to bring it back. Make Gordon more like Tony.

The question is how far they will succeed and whether, if they do succeed, that will do Brown any good in the polls anyway. You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, and it must be admitted that it is not wise to overestimate the electorate. I wonder which way it will go. It is a depressing question but, whichever way it goes for the country, the results aren’t likely to amount to much for Gordon Brown.

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

December 6th, 2009

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

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

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 29th, 2009

Our hospitals may be bad but our regulators are worse

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

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 22nd, 2009

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

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

The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 15th, 2009

Oh nurse, your degree is a symptom of equality disease

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