The Sunday Times

July 15th, 2012

The maths is simple: it just costs too much to grow old

Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour chief secretary to the Treasury, famously left a note on his desk for his coalition successor saying there was no money left. He was absolutely right, but the general response was one of hilarity and I don’t think enough people took him seriously. There really is no money, or rather there isn’t enough money by a long way to pay for the things we have come to think essential in a welfare state like ours, such as decent care for old people.

Things are bad enough already. Already too many frail old people live alone and largely ignored, with only a few minutes of help or “social care” each day with their most essential needs. And they are the lucky ones: councils have been cutting back hard on social care and increasingly only the neediest can hope to get anything. And anyone with savings of more than £23,250 — excluding a flat or house — is not entitled to it.

Although the coalition gave local authorities £2 billion for extra social care for the elderly, it did not ring-fence the money, so it doesn’t always reach the old people who need it. The result is a sad grey crowd of people who are cruelly called bed blockers: old men and women who no longer need hospital care but whose lonely, unattended dwellings are not fit for them to go home to.

Meanwhile, when a person needs to go into a residential home, councils are required to pay the fees, but only when a person’s assets, including residential property, are worth less than £23,250.

Currently that means many people — about 40,000 a year — are forced to sell their houses or flats to pay for care homes. This is a cause of great bitterness — a bitterness that will grow if the rule about including one’s home in the assessment is extended to social care. On top of that, the system is complicated, bureaucratic and pretty much a lottery, varying from council to council. But things are not going to get better, whatever politicians might like to promise.

Last Thursday the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) announced in a chilling report that the escalating costs of an ageing population will mean yet more national austerity. Pointing out that the proportion of people over 65, who now make up 17% of the population, will rise to 26% by 2061, it estimates many increased costs, in care of the elderly, health and pensions, amounting to an added £80 billion a year in today’s money.

In the next 20 years, the number of people over 70 is set to rise by 50%, reaching nearly 10m, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The OBR states that Britain’s public spending will be “clearly unsustainable” over the next 50 years, despite the spending cuts. So, far from care for the elderly rising above today’s inadequate standards, it is almost certain to fall further below them. There’s no money now and in future there’s going to be even less.

Presumably that is why the government’s white paper and draft bill on social care, revealed last week, avoided the 64-squillion-dollar question, which is how in a time of increasing poverty the country can hope to pay for it — even as it is, let alone as one might like it to be. Forget the nuts and bolts; I agree for once with the gorgeous, pouting former Labour health secretary Andy Burnham, who said that “with no answers on the money, this white paper fails the credibility test — it is half a plan and … may raise false hopes among older people”.

Sometimes I think there isn’t much hope, true or false. This may be an insoluble problem. It may be that we are just beginning to face the fact that the welfare state and the expectations people have of it are no longer affordable. Austerity doesn’t begin to describe what will have to be a revolution: the old expectations and the old sense of entitlement will have to go. At the same time, those who can pay will have to pay more. Here are some suggestions about paying for care of the elderly, most of them unpleasant.

Universal benefits must go. The thinking behind them is out of date, and both unaffordable and undesirable. Scarce public money must go only to the neediest, through means testing. Universal bus passes (which cost £1 billion a year), winter fuel allowances (£2 billion) and free television licences must go. I’d say the same about child benefit (£11 billion). The well-off don’t need a heating handout that would hardly pay for a large dinner party, and the fertile don’t need perverse incentives to have more than two children.

Everyone must accept that their savings, including their homes, may have to be spent on paying for care in old age. There’s no universal right to leave one’s property to one’s children.

It’s true that those without assets may get much the same care as the provident, but there are many reasons why people end up penniless, not all of them bad. Besides, would anyone like to see a two-tier care system under which the “undeserving” elderly are offered a lower level of care?

Anyone who does have enough savings in some form to pay for the difficulties of old age should be glad of it and proud of it — and so should their children. Many adults actually have to impoverish themselves and wear themselves out to look after elderly relations; at least those whose parents have assets can be spared that.

Taxes of all kinds must rise hugely, or else there will have to be a large hypothecated tax upon people reaching old age. Services to old people must be reduced. In future they will have to rely more on their families, neighbours or charity. Families should be given big tax incentives to look after their own old people, or even other people’s.

NHS and social services must be amalgamated somehow, so the inadequacies of social care are no longer dumped on hospital beds, at much greater cost to the taxpayer. Health service care must be rationed for the very old. Palliative care of every kind should be available, but not ambitious treatments.

There should be fewer old people. I’ve often felt the best thing one can do for one’s children is to die before real infirmity sets in. The taboo against deliberately shuffling off this mortal coil, as people did in other cultures in the interests of younger people, is wrong. Most people say they never want to be a burden to others in old age; it would be good if more of us felt able to prove we mean it, by taking a timely and pleasant walk up the snowy mountain. Especially since there’s no money left.

The Sunday Times

July 8th, 2012

A girl’s life wasted for £250,000 a year and they dare to call it care

Charles Dickens had a great deal to say about a system of care for troublesome or unwanted children that shipped them up north, out of sight and out of mind, regardless of the outcome, to take their chances among wicked adults.

He invented — or rather he revealed under the guise of fiction, since such places existed — Dotheboys Hall in his novel Nicholas Nickleby, which remains an icon of cruelty to children to this day. In those days children were sent to places such as Dotheboys because they were illegitimate, disabled, financially inconvenient or unwanted.

These days problem children are sent up north for different reasons, supposedly in their own interests, but the outcome all too often seems remarkably similar. I wonder what Dickens would say today about a system that condemns children to a care home in Rochdale to be preyed upon by vicious men because nobody seems able to stop it and protect them or even know where they are.

All this is hardly believable in Britain, in the 21st century, after more than 50 years of welfare state promises to care for the most vulnerable. It has taken many years, and a revolting sex grooming scandal in Rochdale, for the political establishment to wake up and begin to believe it, but the facts are finally emerging about the neglect and abuse of supposedly “looked-after” children in residential care homes.

Two all-party parliamentary groups, one for runaway and missing children and adults, the other for looked-after children and care leavers, published a report of their inquiries last month and it’s now no longer possible to ignore what is going on. Some of these homes are doing an excellent and often extremely difficult job. But the way the system works, or rather doesn’t work, means that all too many are a disgrace and perhaps even worse than useless.

A similar report by Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, published last week concludes that the care system is not fit for purpose: its author said she had never before come across the scale of violence and sadism that she had discovered when writing it.

Lamenting this, Tim Loughton, the children’s minister, has admitted that to know the extent of the problem is impossible because the data collected by police, care services and Ofsted are “raw and erratic”. As David Simmonds, chairman of the Children and Young People Board, has said, the issues are obscured by a “statistical fog”.

That means nobody knows how many children go missing or for how long: the education department thought the number for last year was 930, while police estimate that there were 10,000. This is astonishing. It also means that Ofsted reports are frequently inadequate, failing to note low qualifications or signs of abuse.

It means, too, that police have not been told about care homes in their manor. The lack of good staff and training means that some professionals, rather in the brutal spirit of Wackford Squeers, perceive these children as “troublesome” , “promiscuous”, “criminals” or “slags who knew what they were getting themselves into”, as if they were doctors blaming underfed children for having rickets.

In the midst of all this Dickensian horror there is a shocking fact that isn’t Dickensian at all. In the 19th century there was no public money, apart from charity, for unfortunate children. But today the average amount of money spent by the state on each “looked-after” child in a children’s home is £200,000 a year — a huge sum.

In fact a single-person home in Rochdale charged a local authority £252,000 a year to care for one girl, offering “expert” 24-hour care and supervision. Despite this payment she was regularly drunk, disappeared often for weeks at a time and was persistently sexually abused by countless men near the home, while Ofsted gave the place a clean report.

All this for a mere £252,000. The waste of public money is nothing in comparison with the waste of this young girl’s life and chances. But, in its lesser way, it is a national scandal as well. The cost of keeping some 5,000 children in care homes, excluding associated costs such as council administration, social services deliberations, public inquiries, policing and so on, is close to £1 billion a year. So much money and so much misery.

I have checked with some leading voluntary sector providers of high-quality social care and asked how much money is needed in their experience. They reckon that to provide a single person with 24-hour one-to-one care, including trained staff, pleasant accommodation and food and other expenses such as transport, entertainment and clothing, would cost £140,000-£145,000 a year, tops, even in the south of England.

In practice many individuals may not want to live alone; they may benefit from sharing staff support and may not need staff who are awake at night. If so, the total costs could be significantly lower. It is my experience, too, that good residential social care can be provided for such sums, although it does not include profit.

There is nothing wrong with making a profit out of any useful service. But when experienced and reputable voluntary sector organisations can offer such a service for £140,000 or so, it is odd that local authority commissioners feel obliged to hand over an extra £100,000 on top to private care home providers. How is it that public servants are so reckless with public money? Why are they bamboozled by greedy private providers? It is obvious that a child could go to a top private school — and there are plenty of nice, comfortable boarding schools for rich misfits, where their problems are dealt with using as much enlightenment as possible — and still have plenty of change from £250,000: about £220,000 in change, to be precise. This would pay for three highly qualified 24/7 carers at £30,000 a year and still leave well over £100,000 for accommodation and all other expenses.

While nobody wants to penny-pinch on the cost of looking after the most troubled and unlucky children, £100,000 net of round-the-clock care seems excessive. When £250,000 is carelessly thrown at a personal disaster without solving it or even containing it, one can only say that public sector commissioners are not just deeply incompetent but also irresponsible. Why have there been no public sackings or public humiliations? The culture of childcare agencies is clearly much worse than useless.

The Sunday Times

July 1st, 2012

Here’s one form of child abuse we simply have to live with

Nothing, in all my years of journalism, has aroused such frenzied responses among readers as the subject of circumcision. If my main purpose were to excite the maximum number of emails and letters I would write about nothing else, such is the public obsession with it.

So it was hardly surprising last week that when a German court in Cologne ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal there was a public outcry — especially as this was in Germany.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” into the right to religious freedom and “an outrageous and insensitive act”. Likewise, the Central Council of Muslims in Germany called it “a blatant and inadmissible interference” in the rights of parents.

Other Muslims and Jews across the world, and those who express sympathy with them, have risen up in outrage. Germany’s foreign minister quickly added his voice by saying that “religious traditions must be permitted in a tolerant society”. Heiner Bielefeldt, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on religious freedom, told German radio that the court’s reasoning was “nonsense”.

It wasn’t. No reasonable person could think it was nonsense or wrong. The court ruled that this type of circumcision should be made illegal — it did not itself have the power to do so — because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people — babies or children — who had not consented to it.

However, the court said boys who were able to give informed consent for circumcision should be able to have it done: this would mean that the religious tradition of circumcision would not be lost among those who value it. But in the case of babies, according to the ruling, “the fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighs the fundamental rights of parents”. How can any reasonable person call that nonsense? It seems self-evident to me that cutting off the foreskin of a baby boy is a primitive, tribal form of child abuse. Quite apart from the question of consent, the procedure is painful and there are some risks attached to any surgery; the case in Germany arose because a four-year-old Muslim boy who had been circumcised started bleeding profusely two days later and was taken to the University Hospital of Cologne, where officials called the police.

The idea of taking a knife to an unsuspecting infant and cutting something off one of the most sensitive parts of his body, permanently changing its appearance and, perhaps, its sensations, has always seemed to me shocking. It is, objectively, a form of genital mutilation.

The argument that such a bizarre practice is an important part of religious freedom in the modern world carries no weight at all. If freedom of religion and the principle of religious tolerance are such overwhelming arguments in western legal decisions, then why not permit the stoning of women, the killing of homosexuals, the amputation of thieves’ hands and much else in Islamic law? There are plenty of practices required by certain religions that would not for one instant be tolerated in the West. One of them is female circumcision, otherwise known as female genital mutilation. And while not all Muslims and others who practise it consider it to be an absolute religious requirement, there are many who do, and who deeply resent western liberal attempts to stop it worldwide.

It’s one of the many mysteries regarding western double standards that while the circumcision of girls is abhorrent and illegal, even in its least invasive forms, the circumcision of boys is acceptable and widely practised by parents who are not in the least religious themselves.

This was true long before epidemiologists discovered that removing the foreskin offered some protection from sexually transmitted diseases: long before then, circumcision had become normalised. But one could imagine the howls of public contempt if religious leaders and human rights campaigners protested that people must in the name of religious freedom and tolerance continue to have the right to mutilate the genitals of little girls.

What’s wrong here, tragically, is article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. It is hard to believe that all those responsible for this noble manifesto, with their universalist ideals, really can have thought that all religious practices, everywhere, should be enshrined under the umbrella of equal rights.

Some of the authors, surely, must have known that religion is far from a vicarage tea party everywhere in the world. They must have known that some religious practices are, as the Cologne court pointed out, at odds with other central human rights.

Yet because of article 18, people worldwide have considerable force behind their demands for procedures such as male genital mutilation. What makes it worse is the growing conflation in recent years of religion, culture and ethnicity: Muslim women’s insistence on the right to wear the niqab or the hijab, whether or not such a requirement is truly koranic, is an obvious instance.

All the same, while I think the Cologne court was entirely right in its opinion, it was entirely wrong to offer it. Hardly anything could be more inflammatory to Muslims and Jews worldwide, hardly anything could be more symbolic to them of rejection and the painful truth is that it comes particularly badly from a German court, for reasons that need no explanation. Until now male circumcision has been a grey area in Germany and not necessarily illegal. That’s surely how it should stay for the time being.

In the real world, at least in the worlds of hygiene and medicine, surely the realistic view must be that male circumcision should be tolerated because any harm it might do to the child is minor compared to the harm a ban would do to public feeling.

God knows, so to speak, what the real point of circumcision is, but at least male circumcision is not aimed, as female circumcision specifically is, at destroying sexual pleasure.

Its risks in the developed world are tiny and its newly discovered protection against sexual diseases makes it almost desirable. The Protestant Henry IV of France famously said, on becoming Catholic to take the throne, that Paris was well worth a mass. Today one could say that international religious harmony is well worth a foreskin.

The Sunday Times

May 6th, 2012

Sorry, oafs, no toxic tweet will stop the brainbox babes

Twitter has enabled people to say in public the nastiest things they really think — for the first time in history and with impunity. It is fascinating. Everyone must be curious about what other people actually feel, simmering beneath what they’re prepared to say out loud, but until recently it has been almost impossible to know. The internet has changed all that.

Unsurprisingly, what has emerged is that the things that people really feel are sometimes revolting and frightening, as Sigmund Freud pointed out long ago. What’s more surprising, perhaps, is that some of them are astonishingly misogynistic: so Louise Mensch MP found last week, when a cacophony of disgusting things was tweeted about her after she had voted against a select committee report on phone hacking that included a statement strongly criticising Rupert Murdoch.

Mensch’s view was the final report ought not to have included this statement since it went beyond the committee’s remit and in any case hadn’t been discussed. She spoke out very publicly, appearing on television and forcefully arguing her case in a confidently adversarial spirit. But the point, surely, is not what her view was. The point is that this woman was suddenly deluged by a torrent of violent and sexual abuse on Twitter, almost all of it from men and most too revolting to print — except on Twitter. Stuart Hyde, chief constable of Cumbria police, who is also nationally responsible for e-crime, said some of the tweets were “pretty horrendous” and could be illegal.

One can perhaps understand the political rage that some of these tweeters feel, but for them to express it in such terms suggests an intransigent misogyny — a fear and hatred of women that feminism has hardly touched. The idea that a woman must be kept in line by sexual humiliation, or that it is acceptable for men to fantasise in public about doing so, is astonishing in a developed society. We associate that attitude with medieval cultures in backward societies, not with literate British men with computers. I had thought that in my adult lifetime these primitive male responses had been at least suppressed. But the old Adam dies hard.

What is it about Mensch that has drawn down upon her this terrible, primitive roar of male sexual deviancy? I realise that many of her attackers are driven by a loathing of anything that might be called right wing in general and in particular by a loathing of the media mogul. But that doesn’t seem to be explanation enough. There seems to be something extreme about the misogyny, as if Mensch’s real crime were something to do with her sex.

She is not alone. Other women who dare to enter into public controversy, such as certain political columnists, report the same kind of distressing abuse. The annoying thing about Mensch, I suspect, is that she is that rare and alarming creature, an alpha female. She has it all: she is brilliant and beautiful. She is clever, famous and a babe.

I don’t want to exaggerate: I have several reservations about Mensch. But no one can deny that she is both good-looking and articulate. Compared with most women MPs she stands out like a racehorse among cobs — a woman who can really pace the men.

Blair’s babes of old were by comparison a drab, beta collection.

Mensch is quick on the intellectual draw, she speaks coolly and incisively without hesitation or repetition, she is not at all deferential or tentative, she usually has a trained lawyer’s precision and she wears her beauty with understated elegance.

This might all seem a bit much, perhaps, to those beta, gamma and delta males who have been howling like Caliban on Twitter: such women are an intolerable threat. It is hard not to feel that some men do still particularly resent women who are not only successful but beautiful as well. (Women may do, too, but at least they do not express their feelings in dreams of violent sexual attack.) Such a woman is a double affront to their status and to their sexuality: she is by virtue of her public success more powerful and by virtue of her glamour out of their sexual league. As Doll Tearsheet unkindly puts it in Henry IV, Part 2, as a sexual putdown to a lowlife suitor, “I am meat for your master.” Alpha women are doubly demoralising to any man who feels insecure on such points.

The problem is that most men in this country aren’t used to such women, because they are still unusual in public life. It is only recently that women of any description have made much of an appearance in public life here. By contrast in much of Europe and the United States, for some reason, alpha women are well established; the brilliant, elegant Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, stands for them all without apparently arousing blasts of misogyny.

Perhaps European men are more confident about themselves than Britons. Whatever the reason, here after decades of third wave or fourth wave feminism, such women are still few. Clearly such change takes longer than one might hope and so far, while women excel in many things, it is rare to find a truly outstanding woman in public life who is also very good-looking, particularly in politics: even Margaret Thatcher, though handsome, was far from babe-licious.

The result has been that some unreconstructed British males are not yet able to deal with such rare birds: they are an intolerable threat to the men’s atavistic idea of their place in the scheme of things. However, the men will have to get used to them appearing in ever larger numbers. Two perfect examples of this type of woman are the detective heroines in the Danish and American versions of the TV series The Killing. Played by Sofie Grabol and Mireille Enos, both women are babes, but with an intent, serious manner and a scraped-back ponytail, much like Mensch, as if to signal that their beauty is beside the point, even if it cannot be denied. They are driven, dedicated to their work and the equal of any man. At the same time they are cool and powerful.

These are the women of the future. There are already a few in the House of Commons — the Conservatives’ A-list produced many more interesting women than Blair’s babes — along with a couple of pioneers in the Lords. Progress has been made.

There are few men who, without the supposed anonymity of the internet, will say nasty things about women. But Twitter suggests that no matter what women prove about themselves, there is something elemental about misogyny and we may never quite be rid of it.

The Sunday Times

April 29th, 2012

If freedom means seeing our kids defiled by porn, I opt out

Freedom of expression is extremely precious. People all over the world who don’t have it envy those of us who do and some are even prepared to die for it. And one of the many almost miraculous features of the internet is that it has brought freedom of expression to countless millions, even those in the least free societies. But one wonders if this noble ideal should embrace the freedom to deluge our computers and our children’s minds with ceaseless pornography. I doubt that those who face torture and death in prison in the cause of freedom of expression would think so, or would think they should die so that 10-year-olds can stare at images of men and women coupling with animals.

The internet is awash with such stuff, and a great deal worse, and many children see it. In this country, six out of 10 households where there are children have no filters or firewalls in place to block out “adult content”, as it is quaintly called, and 52% of British children report having unsupervised access to computers in their bedrooms.

It would hardly be surprising if, as research last year suggested, one in three 10-year-olds has watched pornography online, 81% of 14 to 16-year-olds have done so regularly and 70% of parents of children who say they watch porn are happily unaware of it.

These figures are given in a report published a few days ago by a cross-party inquiry led by Claire Perry MP into online child protection. The group came together to examine the current system and review the arguments for and against network-level filtering.

The big question surrounding internet porn is whether to have opt-in or opt-out — whether to leave individuals who want to avoid adult content on their computers to opt out by asking for a personal filter, or whether to require network service providers to block all such content and leave those who want access to opt in by asking for it.

Opting in to pornography would be extremely simple to do (mobile phone service providers already have a filtering system for people under 18) and would have the obvious advantage of combining protection with freedom.

At first glance it is hard to think of any argument against it. With opt-in, people over 18 would be as free as they are now to watch on demand whatever bouncing bosoms or seriously depraved filth they fancy, but those who don’t want it would not need to have anything to do with it. They wouldn’t have to worry that their children were watching it secretly or clicking on to it by mistake.

What precious freedom is at risk from that? It is what the inter-party report has recommended and last week the Labour party came out in support of it. However, the government (in the person of the unlucky culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt) is against it. Last week Hunt said an opt-in would infringe civil liberties and that later this year he will publish plans for an opt-out system under which all internet service providers must ask each of their web users if they want access to pornography and to tick a yes or a no box accordingly.

This is strange coming from a Conservative. There can be no doubt that if Hunt’s aim is to protect children as far as possible from internet pornography (as David Cameron has eloquently promised to do) then this is the wrong choice, as opting out is obviously a far less efficient way of protecting them than opting in. One wonders what, exactly, his objection is.

The only one I can think of, as far as civil liberties go, applies just as much to Hunt’s opt-out and it is that in both cases a person wanting to watch pornography must identify himself or herself to the internet service provider.

Given what we know about internet security, it is almost certain that lists of such people will be kept and copied and will become available to others sooner or later. If the price to pay includes being on some future “list of shame”, this could be enough to deter some porn fanciers from opting in and that might constitute a constraint upon their freedom.

However, I cannot say I have much sympathy. If porn fanciers think there is nothing wrong with watching porn — and it seems that porn sites are far and away the most visited sites on the internet — then they should feel no embarrassment about being known to do so.

In any case, the point is that from a civil liberties view Hunt’s proposal is no better than that of the parliamentary group. This is odd coming from a Conservative minister in a Conservative-led coalition — neither conservative in the civil liberties sense nor conservative in terms of family values.

Where there’s muck there’s brass and it is hard not to feel — as Labour and others have suggested — that money lies at the bottom of all this. Internet porn and its related advertising are super-profitable and it would be quite a blow to those profits if the number of internet hits was suddenly to drop — perhaps substantially — as a result of government legislation.

It’s not surprising that the industry strongly opposes opt-in. Last week two shadow ministers said in its support that Cameron’s closeness to Google, the internet giant, means the coalition is too weak to take adequate action over “this modern-day form of pollution”. The government ought to answer that accusation.

Underlying all this fuss is a shared assumption that pornography really does pollute children’s minds and perhaps adults’ minds too, and that the explosion of pornography everywhere has contributed to a hyper-sexualisation of society, an obsession with body image, an increase in violence, the objectification of people and a trivialisation of relationships.

I share that view, but one has to admit that the evidence is so far extremely weak . No causal links have yet been established between pornography and, for example, violent sexual crime or increased promiscuity, despite what common sense suggests. Common sense can often be wrong and, as Bertrand Russell unkindly said, it “is the metaphysics of savages”; at any rate it certainly isn’t science.

We don’t know how pornography affects children, and we can’t even agree on what ought to be rated “adult material”. All the same, there is absolutely no reason why, in the bogus name of freedom, we and our children should be exposed to any of it. Unless, that is, we specifically choose to.

The Sunday Times

April 8th, 2012

Forcing the great equality lie into school has squeezed learning out

Some of the worst ideas of socialism refuse to die, despite having been tested to destruction. One of the most disastrous has been the belief that education should be used for social engineering. According to the orthodoxy of the past 40 years, schools and universities should be made to promote equality, fairness and social mobility. Elitism, competition and selection became dirty words in this mind-set. Yet at the same time the role of education was to deliver meritocracy. The tragedy — and it has been a tragedy for millions of schoolchildren — is that this toxic ideological muddle has brought education low without actually achieving any real social mobility.

It is hardly necessary to point to the failures of education over the past few decades since they are so well established by evidence. School-leavers’ literacy and numeracy standards are shockingly low, as employers constantly complain. Our schools are falling down the international tables. A-levels, despite howls of denial, have been debased: they have become much less demanding, and the proportion of A-level applicants getting A grades has rocketed. Top universities are now obliged to give new students remedial classes. And so on.

You might think parents, teachers and even educational theorists would finally have got the message that something isn’t working and start thinking differently. Yet it seems they can’t. They seem stuck in the old, undead mind-set. As Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said last week at a conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, lobby groups of all kinds expect teachers and schools to solve too many of society’s problems: “It seems that the first answer of many to almost any problem in society is to give a duty to schools to tackle it, be it obesity, teenage pregnancy or knife crime … every other week I am presented with proposals from one well-meaning group or another to add something ‘socially desirable’ to the curriculum.”

No doubt all these groups are indeed well-meaning. But to believe that it is the responsibility of schools to sort out these intractable problems when they struggle to provide even a minimal education is daft. Imagine the predicament of a teacher in an average secondary school with a large “inclusive” class of children of all aptitudes and social backgrounds. This vast unteachable mix is one of the worst results of the national obsession with equality. The teacher is already struggling to meet the all-too-various educational needs of her pupils. How is she supposed to administer an antidote to social deprivation, abusive families, mental disturbance and violent pupils when she can barely keep order? As Gibb rightly said, if schools filled the curriculum with social issues there would be no time left for academic subjects. He sees his role as resisting those pressures so schools can concentrate on educating pupils: “My view is that the best way for schools to tackle social problems … is to make sure children leave school well educated. That is the best way out of poverty.”

Well said, but why does it need saying at all? Why, after all the failures of social engineering of the past, isn’t that obvious? Underlying this confusion is a refusal to face unpleasant facts. The first is that equality is a myth. Inequality and unfairness are real enough and often very ugly. But the unswerving pursuit of equality in education can also be ugly and is always counterproductive. It is in practice unfair to everybody. Brighter children are used to improve the educational experience of less able children, holding them back unfairly and reducing their future educational chances — a nasty kind of equality.

The second nasty fact is that equality is at odds with meritocracy. That ought to be obvious, but time and again commentators talk of the need for equality in education to promote meritocracy. What they seem to ignore is that true meritocracy is unequal: the ablest rise to the top to grasp the glittering prizes and form new privileged elites, while the rest are left behind. Nor do they examine why some children rise up while others don’t, beyond denouncing privilege and “creaming off”.

To judge from the constraints upon what politicians can actually say, much of the public still seems to be in the grip of a fuzzy egalitarian dream. It is beautifully summed up in the oxymoronic slogan of Blair’s Department for Education: “Excellence for all.” Quite clearly, all cannot have excellence or excel. Excellence means pre-eminence, superiority, towering above others, from its Latin root.

I don’t doubt that if all children received the same advantages as the privileged few, they would all do vastly better and some would excel. But environment is not the only thing that matters. That’s proved by the experiences of all the luckiest and most successful families.

Clever Mr and Mrs Yuppie shower attention, stimulus, tutors and top schools on their children and what do they discover? They find that one or two of their children may be bright enough to pass into the top independent schools and universities, but a third child might fail to do so. That is because he or she is not as innately bright as their siblings. Not all children are born equally able, even in the Yuppies’ world.

In other words, the outstanding successes of the most privileged children cannot be explained away by privilege and money, as the leftists say; the children have to be very bright as well.

Clearly there are lots of children from less privileged backgrounds who are innately bright but who fall upon thorny ground. It is a disgrace that so few children now get a chance to prove their abilities. They have to watch with their poor A-levels while universities quarrel about positive discrimination, which won’t necessarily help them anyway.

The unmentionable truth is that no one actually knows how to find those children or who they are. The idea that bright children are equally represented in every socioeconomic group and that all groups should be equally “represented” at university is nothing but a lazy, unexamined assumption. It may be correct, but there are reasons for thinking it might well not be — assortative mating among the most privileged is one.

Trying to impose equality on all has succeeded in only one thing: destroying meritocracy and imposing mediocrity and failure on most schoolchildren. Socialism in its most insidious form remains undead.

The Sunday Times

April 1st, 2012

Hands up, all those who voted for welfare queens and kid gangsters

Looking at photographs last week of the young men who shot and paralysed a five-year-old girl in a shop in south London, and of the teenager who gunned down two young British men in Florida, and then reading the final report of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, I was reminded of the immortal words of Dr Heinz Kiosk: “We are all guilty.”

Dr Kiosk, a progressive psychoanalyst, was one of the great comic characters created by Michael Wharton under the pseudonym of Peter Simple in the 1960s and 1970s, to be laughed at by people such as me who despaired of the flabby left-liberalism of the time and the loss on all sides both of common sense and of conviction. Another unforgettable character was Dr Spacely-Trellis, the “go-ahead” Bishop of Bevindon and author of God the Humanist, who seems to live on today in the person of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And laugh we did.

But perhaps Dr Kiosk ought now to be revisited. For these extremely bad boys are the product of our society — of our social dispensation. Whether or not we are all to blame for our current social arrangements, there is an obvious sense in which people get the societies they deserve.

Admittedly the rioters, the shooters and the delinquent, feral gangs are all to blame for their shocking crimes. But it is not just that they do bad things: many of them have become bad in themselves, brutalised like child soldiers by their bad lives. Who or what made them so bad? Who or what failed to make them good? This is Dr Kiosk territory, but perhaps he wasn’t entirely wrong.

We know, broadly, that “those to whom evil is done do evil in return”, in the words of WH Auden’s great poem September 1, 1939. Today we could extend that, thanks to recent developments in medical science. Neglect is not an active kind of evil, or at least it hasn’t been thought as such, in the way that physical and sexual abuse clearly are. But actually because of the damage neglect can do to a child’s cognitive and social development, from the first moments of its life, it is a very great evil. Those who are badly neglected will do evil in return as well.

Neglect is everywhere in inner-city ghettos. There are single mothers with many children by many fathers, some out of work, some addicts and many subjecting their children to chaos. Hovering round these unlucky children like predators are gangs, which terrorise them into joining and then make them take part in horrifying tests of loyalty, such as gang rape and shooting. If a child has escaped neglect and abuse at home, he or she can hardly escape the terror and corruption of the gangs. The south London estate where Damilola Taylor was killed was pretty much hell on earth.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company in London, takes in many children who are severely damaged, both by bad and neglectful families and by the gangs all around them. Commenting last week on the way we now vilify delinquent children and gang members, she argued that a small proportion of them are as severely damaged as soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is according to brain research now being undertaken among Kids Company children. That is hardly surprising.

It is no longer controversial, though it was unheard of in the heyday of Dr Kiosk, that chronic maltreatment alters young people’s neural pathways; it weakens the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that restrains emotions and impulses. As a result, the limbic system and the even more primitive “reptilian brain” have more sway over a person’s behaviour. Hence the uncontrolled and unfeeling violence of some boys: their own lives have been wrecked and they go on to wreck others. And this is just the beginning of new scientific explanations of behaviour.

The ways in which children’s natures can be damaged are obviously immensely complex and varied. And the question is, however much one would like to prevent such damage, whether it is actually possible. Isn’t it quite likely, or rather, unavoidable, that there will always be a number of desperately dysfunctional people “bumping along the bottom”, to use the phrase from the riots panel’s final report last week? I once knew a boy for a couple of years who by chance was a typical example of this problem. He went to a rough local school and lived with his brother in a council flat, while his single mother lived in another one with her child by another man and “worked nights”; he barely knew how to eat with a knife and fork. He was bright, articulate and charismatic. But soon he got into bad company and he began terrorising other children, and then tortured at least one boy to stop him giving evidence about some thefts. Finally he was removed for a while under an Asbo, but he soon reappeared. This attractive, clever boy had turned into a monster — turned or been turned.

A few years ago I encountered the celebrated Charles Murray, who first wrote about the notion of an underclass in The Sunday Times. I told him this boy’s story and asked what could be done about such teenagers. Forget him, he said. It’s too late for him to change. We should concentrate on the very young.

Even if Murray is wrong, the cost of trying to turn around such people and their families, their housing, their schools and their streets is unimaginably high, even supposing it could actually be done. At the end of last year, in response to the riots, David Cameron announced a policy to spend £448m on helping 120,000 of the country’s worst problem families, via a network of troubleshooters. That works out at less than £4,000 a family. And in most cases it does not even include visits from the troubleshooters: their role would merely be to co-ordinate existing state agencies. This is just a tiny drop in a vast ocean of harm.

That harm comes from policies accepted by voters over decades — policies that have led to a vast increase in single parenthood, in welfare queens and feckless fathers in workless households, in chaotic families, in violent classrooms, in increasing illiteracy and innumeracy, in uncontrolled street gangs and in the creation of vast ghettos boiling with ethnic tension. That is what has damaged these guilty children.

And so Dr Kiosk has proved himself right at last. We are now all guilty. At least, all those who, in the spirit of the ultra-progressive Dr Kiosk, voted for the irresponsible policies that led directly to this social breakdown are guilty now.

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.