Marriage is dead on its feet, but it’s still the best safeguard for a future Baby P

A glorious example of the pocket intellectual’s most basic argumentative error today from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“The Canadian figures show that  a child is 50 to 100 times safer with natural parents than with a step-parent in the home. The British research found married homes were 33 times safer than those with serial boyfriends. Stable marriage safeguards children.”

Correlation is not causation, nor does it imply causation. I see ‘Peter”s  research and I raise him, as an example, Sidebothama, Heron and ALSPAC Study Team (2006) Child maltreatment in the “children of the nineties”: A cohort study of risk factors Child Abuse and Neglect 30:497-522:

“This study supports previous research in the field demonstrating that a wide range of factors in the parental background, socio-economic and family environments affect the risk of child maltreatment. By combining factors within a comprehensive ecological framework, we have demonstrated that the strongest risks are from socio-economic deprivation and from factors in the parents’ own background and that parental background factors are largely, but not entirely, mediated through their impact on socio-economic factors.”

The Office of National Statistics don’t collect data on marriage by socio-economic status, but taking a couple of proxies, we can have reason to believe that it is deprivation which is underlying both marriage rates and incidence of child abuse in the UK. Taking the most recent data on marriage rates in the UK¹: starting on page 36, table 3.1 – married couples with dependent children tend to be better educated than either co-habiting or lone parents with dependent children². Turning to maps 5.2 on page 74, the geographical distribution of marriage/co-habiting/lone parent families broadly mirrors the geographical distribution of wealth. If you’re unmarried with dependent children, you are more likely to live in a poor area and have a poor quality education. Taking these as proxies for socio-economic status, unmarried people with dependents are more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. Given the research linking poverty to likelihood of abuse, it seems likely that poverty is co-determining abuse and marriage, providing a sensible alternative explanation to their correlation.

On this basis, ‘Peter”s conclusion is somewhat wide of the mark:

“But all those who have connived at the dismantling of marriage, and continue to connive at it, should recognise their own grave guilt in sacrificing the welfare and happiness of children to the selfishness of ‘liberated’ adults who ought, above all, to be shielding the young from harm.”

Marriage is not the good we should be pursuing, but a distraction. Consider how we might ‘promote’ marriage – the discussion tends to be around tax breaks and other financial incentives. Leaving aside for the moment considerations of the efficacy of such policies³, given that you’re more likely to be married with children if you’re middle class to start with, these policies would have the immediate effect of redistributing wealth to the middle-classes. This wouldn’t necessarily entail a decrease in funding for poverty reduction, but would be less effective in reducing abuse than a comparable increase in poverty reduction spending would be. If our object is reducing abuse, giving money to those who already don’t abuse for living lives emblematic of their low likelihood of abuse as an incentive merely to remain in that emblematic state seems counterproductive. To put it more simply, if marriage is merely a symptom of being well off, and abuse a symptom of being poor, we should be treating the root causes of poverty and the marriage will look after itself.

It’s easy to look at the world at some arbitrary point in the past (‘Peter’ chooses 1965 as the date when, for him, everything started going badly wrong), pick differences between then and now and see patterns. We could draw graphs linking global temperature and Tesco’s market share, women in parliament and divorce, number of countries in the EU and UK birth rates. Their correlation, however, would not be enough to imply a link, or enough to base policy on. The fact that you’re less likely to be abused if your parents are married is not a good reason to promote marriage if it’s only another way of saying you’re less likely to be abused if you’re well-off. It would be nice to believe, as ‘Peter’ seems to, that marriage is the panacea for all social ills, but it’s almost certainly more complicated than that.

————

¹ Incidentally, if you’re looking for an eloquent precis of the difference between correlation and causation, you could do worse than the box on page 39.

² Tables 3.9a and b, page 43, show the knock-on effect from this, as you’re more likely to continue in education if you’re in a family with married parents, educational status and marriage acting in a declining spiral.

³ Such policies seem to rest on the assumption that people will happily live together if only there was enough financial incentive – that a couple of hundred a year from the government will save troubled marriages, or that such money will encourage people whose relationship is not solid enough for them to choose to marry currently to form a stable and lasting marriage. Which n those terms, it seems more likely that such policies will merely reward people who were staying together anyway.

Advertisements

What are you ashamed of Ms Winslet… there is absolutely nothing wrong with being middle class

Much ado about nothing, courtesy of Stephen Glover:

“I suspect Ms Winslet may be exaggerating a little. I mean the idea that she was working class is rubbish. And the fact that she is at such pains to lay claim to this accolade tells us a great deal about Kate Winslet, and quite a lot about modern attitudes to class.”

To bring you up to speed, Kate Winslet gave an interview to Marie Claire in which, among other things, she laid claim to working class origins. Stephen feels this is important.

“What fascinates me is that Kate Winslet should be so anxious to pretend that she is working class. Why disown your origins? Is there, in the back of her mind, something wrong with being middle class? Has it almost become a dirty word?”

Stephen here begs the question – he assumes that Winslet is ‘disowning’ her origins, rather than merely disagreeing with him over what they are. For example, Kate may be a good Marxist and believe that, since her father clearly was not party to the ownership of the means of production, he was working class. Alternatively, following Thompson and Hickey ¹, she may feel that the preponderance of blue collar and service sector jobs her father took, combined with his low income made him working class. To put it simply, she may disagree with Stephen’s reading that:

“Her error is to confuse a person’s class with the amount of money which he or she earns. Our Kate thinks that because her family was poor it was working class.

But there have always been people who earn more money through hard, physical work than some members of the middle class do in less strenuous occupations. Equally, there are impoverished members of the aristocracy.”

Here Stephen is confusing class with social grouping – an aristo who relies on his labour to survive is working class, in the same way that a working emo is, for the simple reason that however you define it, class is not an inherited genetic trait. Simultaneously, Stephen appears to be following the aforementioned Thompson and Hickey by calling the professional sector ‘middle’ and the manual sector ‘working’ and ignoring Kate’s assignment of her father to the latter. The money here is a straw man – Kate says that her father was poor and blue collar, not just poor.

From this uncertain base, we get to the meat of the piece, as Stephen has a pop at the sort of person Kate might be:

“There is, though, a sizeable group of people, usually Leftist, sometimes intellectual, sometimes pseudo-intellectual, who sneer at traditional middle-class values.

These might include hard work, thrift, a certain moral conservatism (though that is not so closely associated with the middle classes as it used to be) and a suspicion of fashionable trends, whether in art or fashion.”

The very idea of traditional values and conservatism (moral or otherwise) is a ‘Rightish’ one, based as it is on the status quo which favours the ruling social groups – the money, the landed, the religious and the male – so it is unsurprising that those who sneer at them tend to fall on the left. Indeed, the label ‘leftish’ tends to be applied only to those in opposition to such values, regardless of their actual political alignment – feminism, for instance, tends to be seen as ‘leftish’ despite its clear libertarian underpinnings in the right to self-determination and freedom from constraint. There is also a problem here in Stephen’s post hoc appropriation of traditional values as being ‘middle class’ – the fact that he feels Kate to be of middle class stock yet (possibly) in opposition to these values suggests that they are not definitional, but merely coincidental, that is, values often held by the middle classes rather than values which define someone as being part of the middle class.

So when Stephen asks:

“Why would someone born into this class wish to disown it?”

it’s a non-question. The ‘disowning’ suggests a rigid and obvious categorisation which is not the case. Stephen’s proposed answer (“For reasons of snobbery, I suggest.”) is mere mud thrown at people who disagree with his conception of the the correct values to hold. It is possible to see yourself as middle class and passionately disagree with the values Stephen feels are ‘middle class’, just as you can see yourself as working class and share them. The former position isn’t snobbery, any more than the latter is grasping. Snobbery is feeling superior to someone else merely by virtue of some defining feature, such as being comfortable with your perceived class – and writing an article to prove it.

—————

¹ eg. Thompson, W. and Hickey, J. (2005) Society in Focus Boston, MA: Peason

We CAN turn back the clock and make our schools places of excellence. Here’s how…

An extraordinarily wrong-headed column on education today from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“All the solutions to all our problems are obvious but shocking.”

Which is reassuring, as I had previously thought that the complexities of life from which our problems arise would lead to equally complex solutions. I for one am quite glad that our fixes will be quick, and can only hope that the solutions ‘Peter’ suggests will also be effortless and painless with regard to me.

“Teachers need to be given back the power to use corporal punishment. We should leave the European Convention on Human Rights and other treaties which prevent the operation of commonsense British laws.”

One of the things which is interesting about the argument for corporal punishment in schools is that it’s never made in other areas – for example, if we take that most disciplined of institutions, the British Army, no one suggests that it needs to add slapping its recruits around a bit to its roster of punishments. Even in terms of convicted criminals, the debate tends to revolve more around making prisoner’s lives more difficult through enforced labour and harsher imprisonment conditions than it does around physical violence¹. There seems to be something special about schools and children that renders violence a useful solution to their discipline problems. Were this the case, it would be fascinating, as it would overturn the large body of psychological research that finds that positive punishments are less effective than either positive or negative reinforcement. ‘Peter’ seems to be unaware that research in this area (eg.) in fact suggests that this is not the case, and that corporal punishment is not helpful in putting children on the straight and narrow. We should be careful about enacting commonsense measures which the evidence suggests are ineffecatious.

“The school-leaving age should be reduced to 15. Secondary schools should be divided between the vocational and the academic, with selection on merit.”

This falls short of ‘Peter’s previous calls for a re-introduction of the grammar school system, but suffers from the same problem – its ahistoricity. If we assumed that everyone were the same and started from the same point, the segregation of children’s futures at 11 might not be so objectionable. However, in the world as we live it we have children who are naturally advantaged by supportive parents, nurturing home environments and access to stimulation and a culture of intellectualism at home, while we also have children without such advantages and with positive disadvantages such as family histories of academic non-achievement. To expect schools by 11 to have ironed out these advantages to such a degree that stupid rich children get the vocational education that they ‘merit’ while their intelligent poor counterparts are groomed for the life of intellectual activity that they ‘merit’ seems a bit fanciful. However, should schools not be able to do this we are left with a system which confirms educational and class divides, making them generational. The taxes of the underclass will go to confirming their status in the underclass, which is not so much a restoration of “order in our State” as a further corruption of it.

“The law permitting ‘no-win, no-fee’ lawsuits should be repealed. So should the Children Act 1989 and the other social workers’ charters which have robbed sensible adults of authority for two decades.”

Here I believe ‘Peter’ is referring to The Courts and Legal Services Act (1990) which opened the way for conditional fee agreements. The particularly interesting thing about these is that in the first few years since 2000 when Legal Aid was abolished for personal injury claims the number of people claiming compensation for personal injury fell suggesting that, rather than making it being easy to seek compensation, things are actually harder. It’s also worth remembering that ‘compensation culture’ isn’t about whingers getting money they shouldn’t, but about the realisation of a legal and social right which, in many cases, will largely go towards the costs of incurring an injury. Schools owe a duty of care to their pupils, and this will remain the case if it is harder for pupils to seek compensation for injuries incurred while at school. Making it harder merely introduces injustice into the system while simultaneously removing the incentive for schools to ensure that appropriate standards of care are met. Quite how abolishing the Children Act (1989) – with its seemingly sensible provisions insisting children are educated and protected from ill-treatment or neglect and that local authorities seek to reduce the need for interventions and, where possible, enable the family home to be maintained – will help the education system is unclear. This is somewhat weak – if ‘Peter’ is really proposing genuine solutions, he should at least explain how these solutions will resolve genuine problems, rather than just listing things he dislikes.

“Then we should embark on a Restoration Of The Married Family Act, which would end the many-headed attack on stable married families and restore the lost position of fathers in the home, one of the major causes of bad behaviour by boys.

Divorce should be difficult. Every social institution, every law, tax-break and benefit, should discriminate clearly and unapologetically in favour of those parents committed to each other by the marriage bond.”

Given the obvious benefits which already flow from being in a stable relationship if you have children, not to mention the unpleasantness of relationship breakdown and divorce, it is hard to see what difference tax breaks will make. Divorce is not easy, especially if you have children, representing as it does the failure of a common project with someone who was a major source of support and an independent arbiter of your self-worth. It would be interesting to know who ‘Peter’ is aware of who is having a happy and painless divorce but would have equally happily stayed together were there a little more money in it. Equally, while the incentivisation of stable relationships is understandable, how many people would actually marry for the money? It seems more likely that this would not disincentivise having a child out of wedlock, but merely penalise it further than in its natural state (and being a single parent is hardly easy), meaning further hardships for the child to cope with ensuring further difficulties in school.

“There are plenty of people still living who can testify that when such rules operated, millions of British people lived free and happy lives, learned useful things in orderly schools, did not need to be under police surveillance, pass through metal detectors on their way to classes or be watched by CCTV cameras.”

‘Peter’ is here confusing correlation with causation – the fact that things were different in the past does not mean that these differences are the causes of our current difficulties. For comparison, when such rules operated the Soviet Union held sway over the whole of Eastern Europe, but it is unlikely that the discussion and enactment of the Children Act brought about the end of Communism. Factors such as rising inequality, the generational compounding of such inequality, the lack of access to recreational facilities in our inner cities, changes in diet and  erosion of communities will have played a part. Simply making things harder for children and families on the margin, be it through punitive beatings, restriction of access to legal rights or financially penalising them will not improve the situation.

—————

¹ Although, if you can find a copy, Smith (1934) Corporal Punishment for Cruelty The Howard of Criminal Justice 4:15-18 gives an interesting view on the state of the debate at a point where people were still suggesting that flogging prisoners would do some good.

Fred the Shred’s an easy target, but we should all beware of the nihilists of the Left… itching to reduce this country to anarchy

Here’s a cheery column from Stephen Glover:

“There is an emboldened nihilistic movement bubbling below the surface whose beliefs are profoundly anti-progress, as well as being injurious to the poor in the West and the Third World. In a way they are far worse than the old communist Left, which at least aspired to running an efficient state. This new lot abominates cars and aeroplanes and technology – in short, most of the achievements of the modern world.”

The attack on Sir Goodwin’s Edinburgh property was merely the first skirmish of a bigger war, one that threatens the very heart of our civilisation.

“Just remember that their prescription is not to introduce moderate reforms, but to pull the system apart so that, if they have their way, we will end up eating soya beans, riding about on donkeys and growing clumps of maize in our back gardens.”

The anarchists are coming. Be afraid.

There are a couple of things that we might want to consider before we start barricading our properties to protect ourselves against Swampy’s massed hordes. For one, how are we moving from a single attack on a media hate figure¹ to the overthrow of everything we hold dear?

“Listen to the statement made to Edinburgh’s evening newspaper by those who attacked Sir Fred’s house: ‘We are angry that rich people … are paying themselves a huge amount of money, and are living in luxury, while ordinary people are made unemployed, destitute and homeless. This is a crime. Bank bosses should be jailed.’

Simple souls, no doubt. But also revolutionary ones. And they speak for a growing constituency of anti-capitalists whose analysis of the economic recession – if that is not too grand a word – is fatally encouraged by the Government’s and the media’s jihad against Sir Fred Goodwin and his ilk.”

So, Stephen makes two claims: that this view is revolutionary, and that it speaks for a wider constituency. Well, it’s not that revolutionary, it’s actually quite reactionary in as far as it is singling out a small group of people for special treatment as scapegoats, rather than addressing the causes of the imbalances in the system. It doesn’t overturn anything, it merely adjusts unfavourable outcomes after the fact. Revolutionary would be nationalising the whole banking sector and re-organising it as a collection of mutuals run for the benefit of their members and employees, for example. Retaining the same system with the same people at the top creaming off a little less is not a revolution. With that in mind, how broad a constituency do they speak for? Well, quite a large one – the Mail, among others, thinks it is high time we looked at remuneration.

Does this constituency necessarily overlap with those wanting to overthrow the capitalist system? No, not even Stephen can conclude that it does:

“A single attack on Sir Fred Goodwin’s Edinburgh house hardly signifies the beginning of mob rule”

So why the shoehorning? If you want to talk about the anarchist mob, why not just have a run at the Wombles preparing for the forthcoming G20? How can we justify the fear that the media is turning us anarchist?

“Is this really what the Government, even the BBC, wants? No one doubts that many bankers, Sir Fred among them, have made unforgivable errors. The sensible response is to introduce reforms so that the same thing cannot easily happen again. The anti-capitalist brigade wants to tear down the whole edifice. Alone, they were pretty harmless and peripheral. With ministers and the media acting as their helpmates, and declaring that capitalism has disastrously failed, they could become dangerous.”

Stephen is equivocating here on the idea of the failure of capitalism. Capitalism has failed: it has failed to pull the underclass up, it has failed to to prevent the gap between rich and poor from reaching such unpleasant levels, it has failed to provide stability or security to the middle classes. These aren’t things it was ever aiming to provide, or which, conceptually, it was ever likely to, but from a human point of view it is a system which fails to give us important things. This is not the same as the system failing in the sense that it doesn’t work – it still works better than controlled economy and people are still better off, in some senses at least, than they would be under anarchism or similar systems.² I have yet to find a media source or minister who is proposing an alternative to capitalism (I’m happy to be corrected on this, as ever). While they’re happy to talk about systemic failures, such as the inability to solve poverty, they do not talk about the system failing.

The media and government, rather, seem to be calling for exactly what Stephen is calling for – reforms to make the system a little less abhorrent. His conclusion, on this basis, is completely unjustified:

“Lay off the bankers. Stop exciting the mob. Let’s hear some robust arguments in favour of free trade, capitalism and open markets. They have produced enormous wealth before, and will do so again, while the policies (if they can be so dignified) of the protesters who will be on show in London next week would lead only to anarchy, poverty and chaos.”

This begs the question, because it automatically excludes reforms of banking pay as part of the solution. It excludes discussions of whether free trade does provide enormous wealth, or whether they lead for anarchy, poverty and chaos for some. These discussions are not ‘exciting the mob’, they are the necessary activities of democracy.

Stephen has conjured an image of rabid anarchists attacking the institution of private property³ to conclude that all arguments against the status quo are out of bounds and all critics are as bad as each other. The argument is poor even were the threat not so overstated. If Stephen wants to reduce the threat to bankers, there is no better place to start than looking at his own paper’s coverage of them. From there he can start thinking about how he can modify the capitalist system to be less piratical. Using the damaging of property of a media hate figure as a prop for the entire edifice of expropriation because you don’t want to discuss reform or your own approach to social problems is a much worse solution.

——————-

¹ Interestingly, Stephen feels that the BBC is largely to blame for the demonisation of Sir Fred Goodwin (“I freely admit that all newspapers have played their part in turning Fred the Shred into Public Enemy Number One, but the organisation which undoubtedly went further than any other was the publicly funded BBC, which is charged with being neutral and even-handed.”). Now, the Mail provides examples like this: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9; and more throwaway lines as found here: 1, 2, 3, 4; throwing up your hands and saying ‘The big boy hit him harder’ in no way absolves you of the responsibility. This is a common enterprise across the media – the Mail has happily contributed to the construction of Sir Goodwin as a hate figure and the responsibility for people treating him as such lies squarely on their shoulders as much as anyone else.

² For very good libertarian and fraternal reasons, anarcho-syndicalism is still a ‘better’ system if you’re starting from scratch, but given our starting point in a capitalist system, there is no way you could achieve this without mass suffering. ‘Better off’ is relative to where you start, and from where we are, I’ve yet to see a better alternative to some form of capitalism.

³ Using Google Street View – “Incidentally, though there is no evidence that they played a role in this instance, Google’s new on-line street maps will be a marvellous aid for voyeurs, as well as for anyone who might want to burgle or damage your home. They show every house in 20 cities, including Edinburgh, and will be extended to many more. Where on earth is the public benefit?” – which Stephen wants to suppress, in spite, presumably, of robust arguments for free trade and capitalism.

Sorry, why should the NHS treat people for being fat?

Rather noxious little piece today by Amanda Platell. To summarise briefly, we shouldn’t waste money treating fat people, because they deserve their fatness.

“Ah, say the fatties, but you can’t deny us medical treatment, any more than you can refuse to treat an alcoholic who needs liver surgery, or a smoker who develops lung cancer. I agree that these, too, are the result of individuals choosing an unhealthy lifestyle.

But the crucial difference is that you cannot cure cancer by stopping smoking, nor replace a liver by becoming teetotal. The vast majority of the chronically overweight, by contrast, could ‘cure’ themselves simply by following a healthier lifestyle.

Quite simply, with a cash-strapped NHS that can’t even afford to treat the dying, we must stop indulging the self-indulgent.”

And, to summarise again, what the column misses is the fact that the similarity between the clinically obese and the alcoholically is often precisely that they didn’t choose their unhealthy lifestyle. This is something Amanda edges round the side of in her anecdote about her doctor friend and the patients completely unable to follow a healthier lifestyle, but then totally misses:

“I have a friend who runs a weight-loss clinic at a London GP’s surgery, and she tells me that at times, it’s the most soul-destroying job. ‘I have patients who come in and swear blind that they eat a healthy diet, and can’t understand why they’ve been piling on the pounds,’ she says.”

When said doctor asked them to list what they were eating, the patients reported “fizzy drinks, fried food, snacks throughout the day”. Amanda concludes from this that they were lying when they said they were eating a healthy diet. Not they were telling the truth, but weren’t aware that the junk food was bad for them, which would seem to be the more obvious conclusion to draw from the guileless admition that they were eating unhealthy food after initially saying that they weren’t. Presumably Amanda is keen to avoid  the trap she subscribes to ‘liberals’:

“I laugh outright when I hear the oh-so liberal lament that the obesity crisis is due to the gap between the rich and the poor. The poor, we’re told, eat junk food because it’s all they can afford. The rich have the ‘luxury’ of a healthier diet.

Set aside, for one moment, the monstrously patronising premise contained within this theory, which implies poor people are too stupid to take care of themselves.”

This is a straw man¹. We can happily accept that the patients above are not stupid while still seeing them as ill-informed. Which is unsurprising, when papers like the Mail actively agitate against health education schemes as redolent of nannyism. Amanda may well be able to take care of herself, watching ‘Jamie’s Ministry of Food’ and having been brought up in an Enyd Blyton novel:

“We swam, ran, climbed trees, played football. We ate healthily and lived healthily.”

but for those living on council estates, situated in the middle of food deserts, attending schools whose playing fields have long since been sold off, whose benefits do not stretch to free access to the local swimming pool and free lessons to enable them to use it, whose habit of processed food makes healthier options taste bland, things are a lot harder. It’s fine for Amanda to claim that the gap between rich and poor doesn’t cause obesity, but she’ll have to explain the very solid link between poverty and obesity (here’s the Office of National Statistic’s most recent dataset) by some other means. The idea that it’s self indulgence alone is less convincing than the more nuanced view that it’s to do with the lack of ready access to healthy food, a cost disencentive to buying healthier, less processed food, a lack of access to sporting and recreational facilities, a lack of education about healthy foods, the generational compounding of the above, co-incidence of contributary factors like alcohol consumption and smoking, a lack of employment and incentive to self-development, and a lack of social support. Especially since it conveniently ends up concluding that the best course of action is one that serves the interests not of the poor and obese, but of Amanda Platell and her middle class friends:

“In principle, I’m against any form of NHS rationing. The great joy of the health service is that it is free at the point of use, regardless of the medical condition that necessitates it. But obesity isn’t an illness. It’s a self-induced condition.”

Frankly, if you’re against any form of NHS rationing then you’re a fool – there are, and always will be, treatments whose benefits are so marginal that they are not worth the expense. Obesity treatments do not fall into this category – they give a chance to people society have failed. It’s easy to call for things to be taken away from people we don’t know, and don’t spend time with. It’s easy to say:

“The fact is, the current politically correct non-judgmental policy is not only failing to solve Britain’s obesity crisis, it is actually fuelling it. What’s needed instead is some tough love.”

when you don’t feel any love for the people in question. That’s self-indulgence; having someone else take the hit so you don’t have to. Only these people will be paying with their lives. This is repugnant.

—————

¹ While we’re talking about straw men: “Consider, instead, a simple truth: it is no coincidence that the poorest nations on Earth do not suffer from an obesity crisis – only the rich ones.” Which must be a joke inserted by a mischevious sub-editor.

Poverty? It’s just a lie the Left uses to destroy the middle class

What I find interesting about today’s column by Peter Hitchens is how close he is to those he opposes without realising it. Take his line on selective schools:

“New Labour’s real untouchable Clause Four has, for the past five decades, been its furious, foaming-at-the-mouth hatred for selective state schools. Why? Because such schools offered real social mobility, earned by merit.”

Now, he’s right that selective schooling is meritocratic, up to a point. Its limitation as a system is that not everyone starts from the same point – as he says slightly earlier in relation to child poverty  “the children in our most deprived households have no responsibility at all for the conditions they live in”, and the same is true of any child. Selective schooling appears to offer every child a chance to climb the greasy class ladder, but below a certain level your chances of having the support, facilities or environment that would allow you to pass the 11+ are fairly small. In a two-tier system, attendance at a selective school offers sufficient advantage to confirm middle-class status while non-attendance reduces your chances of achieving it further. Rather than being a avenue of improvement from one class to another, selective schooling acts to entrench social position. In a selective system, the children who have no responsibility for the conditions they live in become the parents who have no responsibility – they follow the only path open to them, model their behaviour on that which surrounds them (Peter’s “grim mental diet of TV slurry and an almost total absence of good examples in their lives”) and raise children just as innocent of it all as they were.

The reason for the focus on child poverty isn’t because children make us gooey eyed, but more the practical consideration that if you can get them while they’re young, you have an opportunity to break with the past – in the same way as the vision of a meritocratic selection process moving children up from one class to the next. The Labour scheme is, in that sense, identical to the Hitchens scheme. It’s also similar in that, thus far, it’s failed. Peter is right to question it in exactly the same way that we have a right to question the failure of selective schooling to end poverty previously.

To do so on the grounds that:

“[Labour ministers] just aim to ‘close the gap’ between them and the remaining working households, the hated ‘middle class’.”

seems a little short-sighted though. Essentially the complaint here is that the taxation system that has been imposed has been imperfectly redistributive, with the money coming from the wrong people. However true that is, the lack of imagination behind the redistribution is more damning. ‘Closing the gap’ was never going to be enough, because it accepts the distribution of individuals amongst socio-economic classes as it currently stands. It says it’s OK to have an underclass so long as they’re slightly richer than they are at the moment. It is in principal as selective schooling is in practice. It is ridiculous to replace the one with the other.

Peter’s response to this, that the fact that both schemes are failures means we should regress to the one that at least worked on paper, is as illegitimate as his reasoning:

“The middle classes are not good because they are better Off. They are better off because they are good. This is the fundamental truth that socialism has always hated.”

Socialism, as I understand it, says that given the same opportunities, anyone has the same chance of being good, because essentially all people are the same. Peter appears to be accepting this earlier in his piece – children have no responsibility for the conditions they live in, they’re just children. The middle classes are good, by and large, because they came from middle class backgrounds that allowed them to grow up good. Rewarding the middle classes for being good by permitting a two-tier educational system that ensures their children will also be good does not allocate resources on the basis of desert, as he implies, but does so on the basis of the hereditary principal. If Peter wants to oppose comprehensive schooling, he’ll need to do better than that.

Both Peter and Labour want a society in which every individual has the chance to grow up ‘good’. Neither of their plans has worked, and neither will work. That we’re still discussing this 12 years into Labour’s term is staggering. That the solution Peter’s offering is no better than selective schooling is more so.