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.

Sunday, December 06, 2009 | Comments (1)

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?

Sunday, November 29, 2009 | Comments (0)

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.

Sunday, November 22, 2009 | Comments (1)

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.

Sunday, November 15, 2009 | Comments (10)

Busy-bee MPs have lost their real purpose, so let’s cull some

In these dark days we all try to find little moments of amusement. Fortunately there is plenty of laughter still to be had at the MPs’ expenses comedy. Now that Sir Christopher Kelly has published his plans to punish MPs for their greediness and their silliness, and consign them to miserable backstreet bedsits, we can all sit back and enjoy their squeals of unselfcritical outrage. What is much more fun, though, is the fury of the MPs’ wives at Kelly’s idea of stopping them working for their husbands. Suzy Gale, married to the Conservative MP Roger Gale, is leading a cross-party group of MPs’ wives — and a few husbands who work for their spouses — who intend to protest vehemently. There have been tantrums in the Commons tearooms and talk of joint legal action. Suzy Gale says Kelly’s proposal is a mess and “we are jolly cross”. Now that’s telling them. How I laughed. I haven’t heard that expression since I left the hockey fields of my old-fashioned girls’ school rather a long time ago. We must not judge people by their dialects, I know, but a mature and educated woman, wife to a veteran legislator, who uses such a locution at such a time can only be called out of touch. Another political female who is comically out of touch on such matters is Helen Goodman, the work and pensions minister. Kelly has recommended that MPs should no longer be allowed to charge for cleaners or gardeners on their expenses. In response to this, Goodman solemnly announced last week that women would be put off standing for parliament unless they could have cleaning ladies on expenses. What’s more, she is accusing Kelly and his reforms of sexism, because it is women who usually do the family cleaning. The best of the joke is that she earns more than £96,000 a year as a politician at Westminster. I wonder why it hasn’t occurred to her to do as the rest of us do and either clean up ourselves or pay for a cleaner out of our own taxed income. Out of £96,000 one might have thought that should be feasible. How on earth does this minister for work imagine other working women manage? Perhaps she somehow doesn’t understand that there are millions of women and men out there who are sorting out their domestic cleaning without handouts from the taxpayer and also managing to confront domestic sexism, should they encounter it, without governmental support. A woman who can’t make her husband help with the housework, one way or another, or handle it on her own is hardly likely to have the political skills one might expect even of the humblest backbencher. Yet this is the calibre of minister that the present system does and must raise up. The funniest thing of all, though, is so many MPs’ passionate protests at the unfairness of all this. “Well,” the rest of us can say, grinning widely, “now you know what it feels like. You, at our expense, have been imposing unfairness upon all the rest of us, in all aspects of our lives, so fast and furiously that we could hardly keep up with the growth of our resentments and your injustices. Of course there’s been a great deal of unfairness to MPs. But if you can’t take it, you shouldn’t dish it out.” What emerges is that we no longer have any clear idea of what an MP is for. All sorts of ill-considered assumptions have led us to the point where we feel obliged to support an MP with his spouse and children, in two households, complete with constant travel, assistants, childminders, gardeners, cleaners, white goods and all the rest. The true cost must be ferocious; it’s normally something only the rich can do. Yet until now the public has not objected to this dubious idea. Most people do object to the sleight of hand by which parliament tried to pay MPs enough to cover all this through the back door of expenses. Even so, it seems, many people still think MPs ought to be able to have a full family life in two places — London and their constituency — and travel constantly as a family between them, but perhaps without any domestic cleaning. Kelly’s idea that MPs should accept a hotel room or bedsit when away from home on parliamentary business has seemed harsh, even to those who loathe politicians: it would be rather gloomy and would be all too likely to encourage yet more adultery and home-wrecking among MPs, who are oddly prone to it anyway. However, given that the MP system is more than ready for creative destruction, if we started from first principles and asked what an MP is for, we might arrive at some radically cost-cutting conclusions. Why is it necessary for MPs to spend so much time in their constituencies anyway? What do they have to do? And why live there? In my view, MPs waste huge amounts of their time and our money in their surgeries, doing things other people should be doing, and doing better: advising people on their problems with planning, healthcare, social services, schools, racism and sexism, dealing with minor grievances and eccentrics and acting — in some places — as paralegals for large numbers of constituents who are having citizenship difficulties with the Home Office. MPs should not be social workers or amateur therapists, or ombudsmen or paralegal outreach workers. They should be something different. But what? Members of parliament once had a function in making Westminster listen, occasionally, to the voice of the shires, the pits, minorities and the concerns of the people they represented. With mass communication and focus groups, that’s no longer necessary: such things can be better done by professionals, and are. MPs once had the function of thinking and voting independently, according to their best judgment. With the parliamentary whipping system, that is now impossible, at least for anyone aspiring to real power above the back benches. MPs once had the function of deciding the main policies of the country. With the growth of the European Union, most of that has been ceded to Brussels. The truth is that the constituencies don’t need them and Westminster doesn’t need them, or at least very many of them, and there’s no good reason we should pay so many so much. We do need more of the best minds on select committees, and more of the ablest from the real world outside. But generally we need fewer MPs, much less of their time and a great deal less of the expense of them. That is a cheering thought.

Sunday, November 08, 2009 | Comments (0)

Labour’s secret scheme to build multicultural Britain

Can the recent success of the British National party be explained by the misguided immigration policy of the government? That was the killer question from the floor during the notorious episode of Question Time 10 days ago. Four times it was put to Jack Straw, the justice secretary, and four times he avoided answering it. Until that evening I had thought Straw was a fairly decent sort of bloke, for a politician. No longer. In a man so central to the new Labour project, who has served in cabinet under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who has been home secretary and foreign secretary, evasion on such an important subject is shocking. In his first evasion Straw waffled about Enoch Powell’s recruitment of immigrants to work for the National Health Service. But that was more than 40 years ago and, as David Dimbleby pointed out, Labour has been in power for the past 12 years and Straw should answer the question. Again he waffled irrelevantly, this time about identity. Dimbleby challenged him for a third time: “Are you saying there is no worry about the scale of immigration in this country? Is that the point you’re making? I can’t get out what you’re saying.” Straw responded by saying that new figures show a reduction in the rate of increase in migration and added something about the new points system, all of which was offensively irrelevant. So, for a fourth time, Dimbleby pressed him to answer the question. Again Straw failed to do so, but concluded by saying: “I don’t believe it is.” It was a farce. As Baroness Warsi, the Muslim peer, protested: “That answer is not an honest answer.” Watching Straw’s face, I was puzzled about what he was thinking. Was he knowingly dishonest or had he somehow blinded himself to all the facts about the mass immigration of the past 10 years and its consequences? An answer emerged the next day in a London evening newspaper. I then learnt that giving Straw the benefit of this doubt had been naive: the explanation is much more sinister. In an astonishingly insouciant article Andrew Neather — a former adviser to Straw, Blair and David Blunkett — revealed that Labour ministers had a hidden agenda in allowing immigrants to flood into the country. According to Neather, who was present at secret meetings during the summer of 2000, the government had “a driving political purpose” which was: “mass immigration was the way that the government was going to make the UK truly multicultural”. What’s more, Neather said he came away “from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended — even if this wasn’t its main purpose — to rub the right’s nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date”. Ministers longed for an immigration boom but wouldn’t talk about it, he wrote. “They probably realised the conservatism of their core voters: while ministers might have been passionately in favour of a more diverse society, it wasn’t necessarily a debate they wanted to have in working men’s clubs in Sheffield or Sunderland.” The revelations get worse. “There was a reluctance ... in government,” he wrote, “to discuss what increased immigration would mean, above all for Labour’s core white working-class vote.” The social outcomes that ministers cared about were those affecting the immigrants. This, Neather explains, shone out in a report published in 2001 after these confidential deliberations. One must question whether this is true. Needless to say, Straw has denied all this and Neather has since tried to back-pedal. But I believe he meant what he said the first time, precisely because of where he was coming from as a true supporter of immigration, urging Brown to be more open about its great benefits. His were not the words of someone fearful of immigration or angry at the government’s open-door policy: Neather is the personification of the toxic supporter. As for Straw’s credibility, he lost it on Question Time. Accepting Neather’s allegations, it is hard to decide which is the worst of these crimes against morality and democracy. To frame a radical social policy, with wide-reaching consequences, just to embarrass and marginalise the opposition party, is grotesquely immature and irresponsible; it is the behaviour of spiteful children mucking about with our destinies just to settle imaginary scores. That’s pretty bad, but it is just as bad for the Labour party to abandon and hoodwink its traditional supporters — the core white working-class vote, those on whose shoulders the Labour party was built — and to ignore their wishes and “social outcomes” in favour of a mass of strangers. It is little wonder that sensing this abandonment, which we now know was deliberate, many white working-class Labour voters are tempted towards a party that does acknowledge their grievances. Knowingly to impose a transformative policy without truthfulness on the government’s side or informed consent on the people’s side was simple fascism — and to do so with silly propaganda about multiculturalism and unjust sneers about racism has made these injustices only more bitter. Under these circumstances, Labour’s obvious gerrymandering by mass immigration — black and ethnic minority people are very likely to vote Labour — is perhaps the least of its crimes. To accuse Labour of failures and worse in its immigration policy is not to exonerate the Conservatives. They have failed again and again to confront the real problems of immigration. They are to blame for abandoning the policy of counting everyone out of the country as well as in, which they did on grounds of cost in 1994. Of course it was expensive, particularly before the arrival of time-saving technology. But it is obvious that if you abandon any attempt to know whether a visitor has left, according to the rules of immigration, then you have given up control of your borders and what would also be a useful security measure. That policy could and should be reinstated, as should the rule to crack down on marriages arranged to get British nationality; that is a clear abuse that could be restrained by bringing back the primary purpose rule, which Labour abandoned on coming to power. There are lots of such practical things that could be done to ensure immigration is controlled in future. But the first thing to do is to expose the patronising lies, the seigneurial arrogance and the criminally foolish social engineering of the Blair-Brown regime; it does not deserve the name of Labour government.

Sunday, November 01, 2009 | Comments (0)

The BBC lynch mob proved BNP leader Nick Griffin’s best recruiters

Nick Griffin’s appearance on BBC television last week ought to have been a triumph for free speech and a disaster for him and his racist views. Unfortunately, one cannot quite say that. It is true that no matter how much Griffin tried to ignore the question or change the subject, in his attempts to present himself as moderate or even reformed, his mask kept slipping; we kept seeing the vicious, smirking face of racism beneath. No reasonable person can deny that, and that much was good. However, in several important ways the programme was a disgrace and a disaster and I watched it with growing dismay. It cannot be an accident that a YouGov opinion poll carried out the next day found that 22% of voters would consider voting BNP in a local, European or general election. This is a result, I am convinced, not of giving Griffin the oxygen of publicity but, on the contrary, of trying very publicly to stifle him. The immense value of freedom of speech is partly that it enables reasonable people to expose through open argument what is wrong with the views of unreasonable or wicked people. It also enables individuals who are perhaps being tyrannised by the majority to defend their views rationally, without being howled down or shut up. It was a triumph for free speech in this sense that the BBC allowed Griffin’s views to be tested by open debate on television. But what happened on Question Time on Thursday fell disgracefully short of this ideal. Griffin was tormented like a crazed bull in a bullring. The studio audience was almost entirely hostile, hurling banderillas of rage and contempt at him, and most of the panellists felt obliged to wear their indignation ostentatiously on their sleeves. The scrupulous manner of David Dimbleby, the chairman, was an honourable exception to this unpleasant form of emotional grandstanding, and so was the calm good sense of Sayeeda Warsi, the Conservative peer, but otherwise Griffin was thrown to a sanctimonious mob. To see a man savaged by mass emotion is an ugly sight, however bad he may be. There were some very good and sharp questions from the floor, admittedly, but there were also many that were just expressions of personal contempt, a few so extreme that I am surprised the BBC allowed them. Yet the whole point of the exercise, surely, was to press him into saying what he really thinks, so we could judge it, rather than to keep hearing anguished cries against racism with which we already sympathised. Imagine — because it is essential to freedom to remember the reverse case — if Griffin were a refusenik in a totalitarian state, publicly abused in a humiliating show trial. Wouldn’t we be outraged by the spectacle? What happened on Question Time was not rational debate. It was argument by emotion, argument by abuse. It was the very opposite of free speech. At times the show was truly infantile, with people interrupting each other in their frenzy. Dimbleby himself protested against it at one point. It struck me at the time as an emotional lynching. Griffin has since used the word, with some reason, and says he intends to take legal action. And while a man who, like Griffin, has chosen to associate with a top Ku Klux Klan leader has little right to object to lynching, the point is not about him. It is about us. We should not let ourselves become a lynch mob. What happened on Question Time has most certainly given comfort to the enemy that is the British National party and to those tempted to join. They are now entitled to say that their man was set up and psychologically abused by the liberal establishment and by a chosen multi-ethnic studio audience. Sure enough, the BNP claims it has received thousands of new applications for membership — not, in my view, as a result of the BBC giving Griffin airtime, but as a result of the disgraceful treatment he received. What this episode points up is the debasement of public debate everywhere. Question Time has been degenerating in recent years, like other chat shows, into an irritating cacophony of voices, an emotional gabfest. Dimbleby, his brother Jonathan Dimbleby, Nicky Campbell and other leading media figures are more than capable of running a disciplined and rational show — but this is not what the media masters think the public wants. They think the public wants tears and trembling and blood on the wall, metaphorically speaking, and I am afraid they may well be right. That is what explains that rapid growth of the studio audience, who are not there to argue but to emote; emotion means better ratings and it has also come to suggest greater authenticity. What Griffin’s Question Time also showed was, for lack of a better word, the pusillanimous political correctness of the BBC and its lack of moral courage — something not peculiar to it, but characteristic of most public debate today. Deciding to involve a studio audience and then rigging it, to get the sort of response that’s felt to be right, is a form of moral cowardice and it happens all the time. The BBC should not have chosen an audience that was so deeply hostile to Griffin. The point of that can only have been an attempt to prove its non-racist credentials and must have been a red rag to any BNP sympathiser. And why on earth would one choose politicians to debate with Griffin? Politicians have their own public relations agenda, obviously enough, as Jack Straw’s shameful and repeated evasions about immigration so damningly proved. Emotional point-scoring for that agenda will obviously be more important to most politicians than plain truth-telling, as Straw also proved. The justice secretary kept trying to evade the urgent immigration question from the floor just as disgracefully as Griffin kept trying to evade the racism question. And, finally, it was quite astonishing, in an important and contentious national event of this kind, to choose a panellist who doesn’t seem to represent anything British very much, although she was naturalised in 1997. What was the point of having the American-born-and-raised writer Bonnie Greer? Actually we can guess, I regret to say, and the point will not be lost upon the BNP. She was there to be black and to emote against Griffin, which she did with an offensively silly flamboyance. To abandon reason and to adopt emotion in attacking the BNP will be entirely counterproductive, as we can already see. The sleep of reason breeds monsters.

Sunday, October 25, 2009 | Comments (1)

Whatever age children start school, teaching will be dire

Education, education, education. Last week the chief executive of Tesco, the country’s largest private employer, said publicly that school standards were “woefully low”: teenagers leave school unfit for work and employers “are often left to pick up the pieces”. Sir Terry Leahy, the Tesco boss, is not alone in taking this bleak view: the head of the Confederation of British Industry said many of its members shared Leahy’s opinions. The chief executive of Asda commented that “no one can deny that Britain has spawned generations of young people who struggle to read, write or do simple maths”. We do not need these top employers to tell us this. We know. The evidence for it is so familiar. Occasionally I wonder what, after all his promises, Tony Blair feels about his government’s betrayal of schoolchildren. Last week he was spotted in Westminster Cathedral visiting the bones of St Thérèse of Lisieux. Perhaps he was hoping for divine intervention on this and other matters. Earthly intervention was on offer last week, however. Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University published his long-awaited independent review of primary education on Thursday and made some radical suggestions. His team’s view of what has happened in primary schools under Labour is exceptionally bleak: the report finds that successive ministers have imposed on teachers an unprecedented degree of control in a system with “Stalinist overtones”; it accuses the government of introducing an educational diet “even narrower than that of the Victorian elementary schools”. What the report recommends is delaying formal education until children are six, concentrating before that on play-based learning; abolishing Sats and league tables and replacing them with assessments by teachers; extending teacher training; and introducing more specialist teachers for subjects such as languages and music. One can only say, along with poor illiterate Vicky Pollard of Little Britain — an icon of failed education — “Yeah but no but yeah but no.” Yes, of course “formal education” isn’t necessary or desirable for five-year-olds, if “formal” means what it usually does. Yes, of course the best education for young children should be fun and playful and interesting to them, if that is what a “play-based curriculum” means. Of course many children can easily be put off learning for ever by excessively formal education. Of course it is true that better, more enjoyable teaching is the way to improve attention and discipline among little children, rather than stricter rules. Of course the current curriculum for five-year-olds is absolutely daft in its manic, stupid, unrealistic scope — try reading it. Of course Sats are worse than useless and should be dropped. Of course league tables have been counterproductive. And of course it is true that this government has tried to micromanage teachers’ every working minute, driving many of them out of the profession; the word “Stalinist” is right. Yes but no but: none of this is simple. I oppose any rigid, narrow education that blasts the joy of childhood and destroys children’s natural longing to learn — the teaching style of a Victorian elementary school. But I don’t believe that the teaching children get in year 1 these days is at all formal, in that sense — rather the reverse. I don’t imagine you see that kind of formal primary education anywhere now, except in private schools. What can the report be getting at? I suspect that at the root of its objection to “formal” education is a dislike of the government requirement — much ignored — to teach all children phonics from year 1; that is, from the age of five or so. Primaries have been too focused on the three Rs, the report says, to which one can only reply that if this is true, there is something horribly wrong with their focus — a clear case of aiming low and missing. One does not have to be Thomas Gradgrind to believe that a primary education that doesn’t teach all children to read, quickly and well, within a year is a failed education. A child who can’t decode words confidently at seven is a child handicapped for life. That doesn’t mean all children must start at four or five or six — many are not ready in any way, although others may already be fluent readers at three and four. But phonics itself — at the right age — can, with a well-trained, charismatic, fun-loving teacher, be good fun, as well as fast and efficient. It is forbiddingly formal only in the hands of poor teachers. Everything depends on the quality of the teacher. A bad teacher can put any child off anything. A bad teacher will be bad at play and play-based teaching, too, yet many have already retreated into it, imagining, wrongly, that it is easier. It is harder. Doing it badly — leaving deprived children who can hardly talk to grunt at each other in little groups — is worse than useless. Bad teaching is at the heart of all this. It’s true the Labour ministers have tried to micromanage teachers in every way, but there was a reason. They recognised, like their predecessors, that there were too many inadequate teachers getting poor results. But rather than sack them or revolutionise teacher training, they chose to try to make education teacher-proof by micromanagement. Daft, but understandable. Micromanagement is what you do when you don’t trust the employee. What’s wrong with the Alexander report, for all its right-minded ideals, is that its proposals depend on trusting teachers. And the truth is that teachers here and now cannot as a group be trusted. That’s why the curriculum and league tables and Sats were originally introduced, counterproductive though they proved. I apologise to the many good teachers out there. But the system has been brought low by poorly qualified, trained and motivated teachers, supported by their unions. Between them they managed to subvert the literacy hour, for example. Ask any turnaround head teacher what the most important change has to be and it is invariably to sack the bad teachers first, which is always extremely difficult. Poor teachers have been tolerated too long: the Alexander report says there is no evidence for Ofsted’s claim that schools now have the best cohort of new teachers in history. No single thing is more urgent, or more neglected, in education policy today than to put a bomb under teacher training and the outdated, lazy orthodoxy that has almost wrecked English teaching traditions. That’s what is most needed. Teacher training, teacher training, teacher training.

Sunday, October 18, 2009 | Comments (4)

Barack Obama should never have accepted this tainted prize

How we laughed when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel peace prize. It was like giving a man a gong for helping to put out a fire that he himself had been stoking up. It was almost as funny as the news in 2007 that Tony Blair had been appointed a special peace envoy to the Middle East — yes, the Middle East — on behalf not just of the United States and Russia but also of the United Nations and the European Union. For those who enjoy gallows humour, the regular appointment of mass murderers and kleptocrats to the UN’s human rights commission is also quite amusing. How do all these circles get squared? What makes these international bigwigs put together all these preposterous deals? One thing is reasonably clear, through the fog of war and diplomacy, and it is that there is nothing reliably noble about the Nobel prize. Many of the people who ought to have won it didn’t. Several who certainly shouldn’t have won it did, such as Yasser Arafat and Le Duc Tho of communist North Vietnam. So I should not have been surprised to hear that Barack Obama has been offered the prize. What does surprise and sadden me is that he has accepted it. Like millions of other people, I admire Obama. I, too, was caught up in the general elation that a country with a shameful history of racism, my father’s country, could find a clever, well qualified, eloquent and charismatic candidate who was also black and then vote him into the White House. I thought then, and I still hope, that he may achieve great things. RELATED LINKS Obama's Nobel prize is snub to Bill Clinton However, the glaringly obvious point is that Obama hasn’t achieved anything very much yet. As his Texan predecessor might have said, so far he has been all hat and no cattle. That is hardly surprising as he has been in office for less than 10 months, but it is both foolish and wrong of him to accept a prize for something he has not achieved. Perhaps he wanted it because two eminent fellow Democrats, Al Gore and Jimmy Carter, have got one too. As an American commentator said, it is like accepting an Oscar now for being likely to make an Oscar-winning movie next year. It casts great doubt on Obama’s judgment and integrity — can’t he see the Nobel nonsense for what it is? — and gives comfort to his critics. It makes this apparently decent man complicit in the sentimental ruthlessness and meaningless verbiage of most international bodies. But perhaps, for all Obama’s appearance of being better than them, he is really one of them, not one of us. It is anyone’s guess what the Nobel peace prize people are really up to. If it is odd to give out the prize before the winner has reached the goal, it is odder still to nominate him when he has barely crossed the starting line: the committee’s nominations for the Nobel peace prize this year had to be sent in by February 1, only 12 days after Obama had become president. Obama did almost nothing of any importance during those 12 days at the tail end of the Nobel nomination period. This is very Alice in Wonderland — all prizes to be declared before the start. It is also the way of the wicked old world and for that reason it is something a good man should be seen to avoid. Can it be that Obama is already intoxicated with the exuberance of his own celebrity? For that is all he is so far — a well-meaning super-celebrity. The Nobel people claim they are trying to promote what Obama stands for; they want to endorse his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy” and to encourage people to “go along with his concept of zero nuclear power”. They also claim there’s nothing new about awarding the prize for good intentions; that’s why Willy Brandt got it and Mikhail Gorbachev. One of their number said the committee wanted to encourage Obama, another said his win would help Africa. One can only feel grateful that they did not offer it to encourage Tony Blair for his high-flown rhetoric in his early days about healing the scar that is Africa and generally speaking about saving the world. The story of Blair is a cautionary tale that the Nobel committee ought to have studied before choosing Obama to bear the unbearable burden of world peace. Like Obama writ small, Blair came to power in Britain on a powerful wave of euphoria as an eloquent, decent man who really cared about people and who promised that his government would be whiter than white — I apologise to Obama and to black people generally but that is how Blair expressed his moral aspirations — and all kinds of people believed in him. For reasons I cannot understand, Blair quickly became much admired among international power brokers — and still is. But the inescapable truth is that he left office in deep moral disgrace, having (among other things) tricked his country into a terrible war; even the Nobel committee might have been embarrassed had it made the mistake of offering the untried Blair an anticipatory peace prize in 1997. I don’t mean to suggest that Obama is anything like the discredited Blair. But anything is possible. Stuff happens. The Nobel committee betrays an astonishing political naivety in endorsing Obama as a man of peace when the world is so unstable, the choices before him so imponderable, the power of the American establishment so unavoidable and when we still know so little of his real calibre. I can’t help suspecting there are other explanations behind this award. I suspect it isn’t about ideas or policies so much as about feeling. It’s about a feeling which is usually considered adolescent — the emotional hunger of the groupie. Adults now, more and more, seem to display the emotional incontinence of the teenager; in the case of Obama, this is made all the more acceptable because he is black. I suspect that Obama appeals to Nobel committee members, as to countless others given to hero-worship, both for the stardust he gives off and for the feelgood effect he has just by being black. Idolising Obama means you are a good person. This is inverted racism but I suspect it’s there: would a white man, just like Obama but not black, have been offered this prize? The question constantly asked by Sacha Baron Cohen’s subversive Ali G character keeps coming back to me: “Is it ’cos I is black?” And the answer in this case is probably yes — another excellent reason for Obama to turn down this prize and to earn his laurels for himself.

Sunday, October 11, 2009 | Comments (0)

Glitterati throw their ugly halos around Roman Polanski

If Vanessa George, the nursery school paedophile convicted last week, were somehow to escape from justice here and stay safely in some other country for 30 or so years and turn during that time into a celebrated writer or film maker, lionised internationally for her talent and charm, I wonder what her glittering friends would say then, in 2040, about her terrible crimes of today. Would they insist that she is such an outstandingly gifted person and a delightful friend that no one should now hound her back to justice for what she did? Would they say that what she did, all things considered, was not so very bad? Would they protest with all the power of their celebrity that it is unfair to hold her to account now so much time has passed and now that the children in question want to avoid reliving in court the distress of what she did to them — although it probably wasn’t, ahem, quite so terrible as all that? Of course they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t dare. And this obvious point serves to prove another one that ought to be obvious but somehow isn’t: it is quite wrong for anyone to claim that Roman Polanski, the film director, ought, for any reason, to be let off legally or morally for his paedophile crime of more than 30 years ago. I accept that having unlawful sex with a child of 13, although entirely wrong, isn’t quite so monstrously unnatural and repugnant as sexually assaulting tiny children. All the same, what Polanski did to a young girl would strike most people, then and now, as truly vile. I wonder what all his showbiz friends would think if a middle-aged Polanski penetrated their unprotected little daughters, especially if it involved alcohol, sedatives, oral sex and buggery as well, as Polanski’s victim has always claimed. Actually, I don’t wonder. They would go insane with rage. They would use all their PR powers to make an example of him. So it is distinctly odd that, forgetting the innocence of their own darling daughters, they have rallied to Polanski’s defence. In response to his arrest last weekend in Switzerland, celebrities such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Salman Rushdie, Milan Kundera, Pedro Almodovar, David Lynch, Harvey Weinstein and Robert Harris called indignantly for him to be freed at once. So did Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland, and two French ministers. Whoopi Goldberg, the actress, actually claimed, in his defence, that she knew “it wasn’t rape-rape”. All this is difficult to understand, particularly when it comes largely from the world of artists — writers, actors, film makers and so on. What is supposed to distinguish artists — the claim they make for themselves — is a profound commitment to truth and feeling. In the name of truth and feeling they can usually be relied upon to rally together against the abuse of power and, indeed, pride themselves on their role as defenders of the weak and as moral arbiters. So why is it that the truth-tellers feel so passionately determined to protect a self-confessed child abuser? Admittedly, the truth may be a bit of a casualty here, partly because the American system of plea bargaining tends to muddy the moral waters. Polanski decided in 1977 to plead guilty to one crime in order to avoid facing many more and worse charges; it is hard to know, in such cases, what a man really is, or considers himself, guilty of since he is more concerned with a deal than with the truth — and so is the court. Charged at first with rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomy and a lewd and lascivious act (oral sex) upon a child under 14, and giving illegal drugs to a minor, he then, under the plea bargain, admitted to unlawful sexual intercourse with a girl under 14, but fled the United States before he was sentenced. The girl, now a woman who says she has forgiven him and doesn’t want him to be locked up for ever, still stands by her story that he’s guilty of all the original and horrifying charges. Polanski made her a large out-of-court settlement some time ago. All one can conclude is that whatever happened was bad. No mother or father would want anything like it done to their pubescent daughters. What would make it far worse is their little girl being put upon by a scuzzy old showbiz goat more than three times her age, who likes banging random chicks in glitzy showbiz pools and pads: Mulholland Drive, where it happened, was called “Bad Boys Drive” by Hollywood sophisticates. As even Goldberg said: “Would I want my 14-year-old having sex with somebody? Not necessarily, no.” So why the cries of outraged support from bohemia? There is a horrible irony in the way Polanski’s defenders talk of his family’s horrible suffering under the Nazis, as if his victimhood somehow excused his victimising someone else. And would those supporters argue that Nazi war criminals should also be allowed to put their crimes behind them, now so much time has passed, and live free from fear of prosecution and retributive justice, particularly if they are rather talented and charming? Of course not. What seems to be going on here is an overwhelmingly powerful loyalty between members of a narrow caste — the glitterati. What distinguishes this super-privileged clique is that most of its members made their way into it by their own talent and hard work, so they have a great sense of entitlement and — to judge from their attitudinising — a huge and unselfcritical sense of moral superiority. They are not restrained by colonial or class guilt, nor in many cases by a rigorous education: they feel that what people such as them want and like and think must be pretty much okay because of who they are — beautiful, talented, charming, successful and so on. Other people’s rules — different people’s rules — don’t necessarily apply. The instinctive solidarity within the super-successful castes is quite remarkable. You get exactly the same thing among bankers and masters of the universe, among top Eurocrats and probably among the few remaining Nazi criminals lurking in South America. How else can one explain the scandals of greed and corruption that Eurocrats tolerate among themselves but which they would denounce with genuine contempt among other people? The word hypocrisy is quite inadequate; this is an extreme form of cognitive dissonance — the state of believing mutually exclusive things at once without recognising it. Sociologists call this blindness to the flaws in one’s friends the halo effect, a rather unfortunate term in this case. But it’s no excuse for condoning paedophila in any of its forms.

Sunday, October 04, 2009 | Comments (4)