My visit to Fat Central on a mission to find out who’s really to blame for our obesity crisis

So. Today we turn the spotlight on Amanda Platell who is here to make sure we know why fat people are fat, the big fat fatties. Let’s begin with a balanced and calm opening from Amanda herself.

“I find obese people unappealing in almost every regard. They are physically unattractive, they lead unhealthy lives, they take up too much space on public transport, and (most of all) they are a strain not only on their clothing but on NHS resources.”

It’s really the taking up too much space on public transport that I find the most offensive and confusing. Attractiveness is in the eye of the beholder so if a bit of padding is not Amanda’s thing that’s fine, for every person who shares her opinion there is another who wants a woman with curves or a cuddly man (and indeed some who want even more, I’m not telling Amanda she shouldn’t fancy tories). But public transport? Is this really an issue? If it is, I must admit it’s one that has completely passed me by.

Amanda continues, blaming lack of self-control around food and then making statements of mock-outrage at how, whenever she voices these sorts of opinions, she receives lots of angry letters. I have my own views on why she might receive these letters but for now let’s hear her reasons. Who do you get letters from Amanda? Who?

“From fat people, of course. Because they say they can’t help it – it’s society’s fault, the government’s neglect, the curse of a fat gene or heavy bones.

And joining in their chorus of protest are the bien pensants of the Left who, because they believe only the power of the state can transform people’s lives, indulge the fatties’ sense of victimhood and cosset their over-indulgence with the protective embrace (and generous hand-outs) of welfarism.”

I could be wrong but I’m not sure we have a fat benefit, if we do, will someone please tell me where I can sign up? The frustrating thing already with this article is we all can see where it’s going and we’re barely a quarter way through. “Fat people are fat because they eat too much and do too little exercise.” Well, yes, in SOME circumstances this is almost certainly the case but why are they eating too much? And why are they exercising too little? And what about those who have gained weight due to genuine medical conditions? And why does it bother Amanda as much as it seems to? And also why at no point is it mentioned that people DO have different body shapes and some people gain weight easier than others and some are naturally curvy and… oh let’s just go back to her shall we.

“There are other factors, too, of course. In particular, in our consumerist, throw-away society we have stopped placing a priority on home-cooked meals as an essential part of healthy family life.

Not just for their role in bringing the family together, but also as a way for parents to fulfil their duty to their children and nurture them physically as well as spiritually.”

Well that’s a bit of a left turn? Is Amanda saying that parents already nurture their children spiritually? Because previous articles such as this and THIS suggest she has as much time for the modern world’s parenting skills (or indeed lack of the same) as she does for Dawn French’s Terrry’s Chocolate Orange adverts. Let’s rewind however, the point about a consumerist society is a valid one and it made in many other papers and columns from both ends of the political spectrum. Where the cheapest food on the market is nearly always the most unhealthy in terms of quality and content, the logical expectation is for the average weight to rise. However, has this stopped home-cooked meals? With the likes of Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, Delia Smith et al, I’d say the value on home cooking is higher than it’s ever been.

“New research has revealed that one in three children-in the West Midlands is now either overweight or obese. One in three!”

I can’t find this research (and I’ve looked quite hard) so I can’t comment on its veracity. However, being an ex-resident of Birmingham, I feel that one in three is a VERY high estimates unless we’re taking overweight or obese from the BMI index… ah yes, that’ll be it. Sorry, I have to go on a small tangent here and point out what everyone already knows, BMI is outdated, outmoded, unstructured and fails to take into account some basis principles of body such as bone weight, muscle to fat mass ratios, water retention and the difference in physical make-up of humans from difference racial backgrounds. Almost all footballers and definitely all rugby players would be ranked as obese if one went on BMI alone not to metion a whole host of swimmers, boxers and people who engage in regular manual labour. Muscle weighs more than fat so someone who works hard in the gym toning and building muscle might be incredibly healthy but on the BMI scale, would be told to lose weight.

Anyway, as Amanda doesn’t mention BMI, we should get back to the article in question. She pulls no punches at all pointing out that members of her family are fat and whilst she loves them, it’s pretty much their own fault and she has no sympathy. She does not, unsuprisingly, go into detail as to just how fat they are and what, if any, problems their size has caused them. Perhaps she’s saving that for her next article.

“Nowhere is this problem more acute than in the town of West Bromwich. So that’s where I headed, notebook in hand.

Let me say immediately that I met many wonderful people in West Brom and that it is somewhat unfair to have picked on this town alone because flab is a national problem. But I didn’t invent those statistics and I had to choose somewhere to investigate this disturbing national phenomenon.”

Well, it’s good to know that you are not picking on the people of West Brom directly Amanda and you’re just there because of maths. Oh no hang on a second:

“The High Street in West Bromwich is typical of the pitifully rundown town centres around Birmingham where the once close-knit working-class community thrived on steady hard work, but with the closure of factories now flounders on welfare (it has one of the highest levels of families on benefits in Britain).”

There we go, the loss of that close-knit working-class “wasn’t Coronation Street a great documentary” community from the days of yore. Children would run down the cobbled streets in clogs chasing a metal hoop, men were real men and would come home from the factory with a pay packet and the knowledge of a home cooked meal waiting for them, women would stick by their husbands no matter what and… no sorry, I can’t go on, I’m going to cry. It’s interesting that Amanda often talks about the loss of the community spirit in towns across the country. Somehow, she always seems to forget that that particular trait is incredibly prevalent in many of the ethnic minority communities. I can’t for the life of me think why.

Meanwhile, back in West Brom circa 2009:

“Everywhere, there were fat people. Men with stomachs so large it must have been decades since they’d seen their toes; women so overweight they had rolls of fat cascading down their backs, their thighs so large they couldn’t walk, they waddled.

More troubling still were the huge number of people on motorised buggies – every one of them obese. Others staggered along supporting their bulk by leaning on shopping trolleys. It doesn’t take long to see that immobility is the inevitable outcome of a lifetime of obesity.

Saddest of all, though, were the young kids, just teenagers, with arms so fat they stuck out from their sides, legs so large their feet pointed outwards. I’m sorry if that sounds cruel. But until we recognise the reality of the problem, we’ll have no hope of beating it.”

That’s it Amanda, what these people need is a good sharp shock from your pen. It’s so simple, they just don’t know their fat do they? They’ve been so busy scrounging off the welfare state they have no idea what size they are any longer and what they really need is a middle class journalist in their midst holding up and mirror and saying “Look at yourself, just look, you disgust me”. There’s nothing better to make you motivated to eat better and exercise more than feeling the scorn and hatred of the popular press.

The next line is my favourite:

“Just as in a war zone, it’s important to bring home the horrors of the frontline, not some sanitised PC version.”

A war zone? Are we not perhaps blowing this out of proportion somewhat? No? Oh ok, please continue. Amanda interviews some ‘case studies’, two girls who work in a café who describe themselves as plump and she kindly corrects them as on “…the roll call of the town’s obese” (although in the paper, not to their faces as that would be mean). Then after listening sympathetically as they blame the government for their condition (wasn’t she ridiculing people who did this just a few paragraphs ago), she manages to wander off onto another of her pet hates.

“West Bromwich boasts a vast new art centre called The Public that cost £65m to build and is universally despised.

The town could have had an Olympic-class sports centre for that kind of money. The locals would have settled for a half-decent swimming pool. Instead they got a giant white elephant.”

Yes those liberals and their art. Clearly such a place can only persuade more people to waste their time trying to be creative when they should be out getting proper jobs in factories and sweat shops just like the one Amanda does. Interestingly, this isn’t the first attack on this building made in the Mail as you can see here. Also, figures on it’s actual cost seem to vary from £50million to the Mail’s quote of £65million.

Whatever the actual cost, The Public has brought jobs, tourism and entertainment to a city which is by all accounts including Amanda’s, in dire need of investment. Additionally, there are at least two swimming pools in West Bromwich and a whole host more in nearby Birmingham all funded by the council. I’m not suggesting there shouldn’t be more, everyone likes a swim but it’s not as if The West Midlands is having a chlorinated water drought.

“Yes, people worried about their weight, but said they didn’t know how to lose it. They wanted help and saw it as the Government’s responsibility, not their own.”

My main issue with a majority of Amanda’s articles is she doesn’t seem to be able to decide exactly what she thinks. Take the above statement, are people fat because they’re lazy or is it because they’re uneducated? Should they have taken control of their own bodies from day one or is it the governments fault?

“West Brom may have no swimming pool, but it has fast food outlets galore. And then there are the cake shops – I’ve never seen so many of them in my life, their windows groaning under piles of iced buns and custard cakes.

Down the road at the popular Pie Factory pub you can get a ‘Desperate Dan’ meat pie – all 4lb of it – for just £8.99. It’s enough to feed a family of four but is sold as a meal for one.

You couldn’t eat healthily in this town if you tried. And I did.”

So perhaps, for a few lines, Amanda and I are on a similar page (not counting this one). Ignoring the fact that she is continuing to contradict herself from what she said at the beginning, the point she is making regarding the quality and type of food sold in a poor urban area such as West Brom and how it can have a direct impact with the health of the people living in that area is one I’m totally onboard with. Still, I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for her, it’s almost as if she get’s no joy out of food and see’s it as an enemy combatant in her never-ending fight. How often does someone really go for the ‘Desperate Dan’ pie alone? I like a pie, possibly more than most, but even I might veer off at some point through 4lbs of mean and pastry. I don’t think it’s the only product the Pie Factory produce.

Our intrepid reporter moves on from here to speak with people who run a fat fighting group. From the quotes, they sound like perfectly reasonable persons and not nearly as judgmental as Amanda herself.

“’It is clearly linked to poverty and deprivation,’ says Rosemary, though she concedes that ‘there are many poor countries in the world where people are far more deprived and yet no one is fat’.”

Oh she concedes that does she? I can just imagine how quickly Amanda got that line in after Rosemary’s sympathetic outlook. There is a near insumountable difference between the poor areas of a rich, developed country, that has the technology at it’s disposal to produce cheap food at literally the click of a button and the poor areas of a deeply poor country, one that has not had an industrial revolution or, if it has, it’s been one forced through in a few decades instead of two centuries. I can’t help but feel that this would be considered a moot point. In Amanda’s article, just as in many Daily Mail articles on obesity, if poorness caused people to be fat, why are the poorest in the world starving.

“But while Rosemary and Gordon are justifiably proud of their scheme and optimistic it will make a real difference to the obesity problem in the area, what it cannot do is alter the endemic blame culture.

The tragedy of the welfare state in places like West Bromwich is that it breeds a hopelessness and a helplessness, a poverty of ambition, a reliance on the state so great even the size of a person’s backside is blamed on the Government.”

The welfare state causes obesity? But I thought the problem had nothing to do with wealth or income? I wonder if Amanda has considered what would cost the NHS more, some people suffering from ailments brought on from an unhealthy diet, or those same people suffering from a whole range of diseases and illnesses because they did not have the money to buy clothes and food. As I say, I’m just wondering.

“Surely if ever there’s one thing each and every person can take charge of it’s what they put in their mouths and the number of times they get their bums off the sofa and out in the fresh air to exercise. It costs nothing but willpower and a decision to be accountable for your own life and your own health.”

And thus every person who is incapacitated by ill health or literally cannot afford “good food” or has bigger problems to worry about that the size of their ass is reduced to being both stupid and lazy. But hold on, it get’s better (and by better I do mean worse).

“But I’m not holding out much hope for the good citizens of West Brom. They will go on getting fatter, more immobile, more unhealthy and, ironically, even more of a drain on the very state they blame, as they queue up for their hip and knee replacements and fill doctors’ surgeries for diabetes and heart problems.”

Does everything in this paper come down to money? Well, yes actually, it pretty much does. Also, Amanda was very clear she didn’t want to ‘pick’ on West Bromwich and yet that hasn’t stopped her having a snide remark handy at every possible opportunity.

To give this some balance, she does pass on some credit to Kayleigh (the one she added to her ‘obese list’ earlier) by saying she is working and trying to get on with life. However, it is a small respite from her true views.

“I had thought the sight and plight of people in Britain’s fattest town might soften my attitude to the obese, but while I have sympathy for the individuals I spoke to, I’m sorry to say my overall thinking has only been hardened by what I witnessed.

In a world where many suffer terrible diseases through no fault of their own, it’s hard to muster up much sympathy for those whose ‘illness’ is self-inflicted, who refuse to take any responsibility for their bodies and actions, who blame everyone but themselves for their misery – then leave us to foot the bill.”

So what is your answer Amanda? Should the government be helping or would that be interfering? Should we be banning unhealthy foods and closing MacDonald’s or is that just Nanny Stateism? You say people should take responsibility and yet lump blame on the government for building an arts centre instead of a swimming pool? The girl you interviewed is trying to make ends meet and earn a wage yet you would have her putting money towards weight watchers classes instead of saving.

The frustrating thing about this entire article is it lumps all ‘fat’ people into one group. It gives them all the same attributes as lazy, slovenly, greedy and a drain on society. It also makes sure to be clear that they are all of ‘lower class’ and most are on benefits which are paying for their increasing weight. It makes no account for personality or personal circumstances. It makes no differentiation between those who gain weight because they just eat too much and those that have struggled with physical and mental illnesses which have caused a dependency on food. Also, it takes the absolute argument that “BEING FAT IS BAD”. There is no room for the fact that there have been fat people throughout history, that some people are perfectly happy with the size they are and that others find them attractive, fancy them, fall in love with them and *gasp* even have sex with them.

In a country were women are told daily to lose weight, shave their bodies, cover up wrinkles, calve off cellulite, dye their hair, iron their clothes and look like airbrushed celebrities from dawn to dusk, I would think Amanda would encourage some sort of variety in the people around her including the variety of size so we aren’t conforming to the “liberal media’s” view. She never talks about an epidemic of underweight people? Is that because they don’t exist? Or because they fit a social ‘norm’ already divised by the media as to how we think we know we should look.

And with that bit of covelution. I’m off for a burger. And I’m going to enjoy it!

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Insults that betray the bigotry of gay zealots

Another almost overwhelmingly depressing column today from Amanda Platell. I think of all the Mail‘s writers, Amanda is the hardest to read – her columns are, almost without exception, viciously judgemental, spiteful and negative to a point where they become quite upsetting to read. Working my way through the snapshots of aggression she takes each week is a draining and dispiriting experience and one which sorely tests my sense of living in a world of positivity and hope, surrounded by equals deserving of my understanding and love. I mention this because central to Amanda’s main column this week is a complaint:

“In articles for this paper, I have committed the heresy of stating my belief that married heterosexual couples make the most suitable candidates to be adoptive parents.

In return, I was subjected to a vile and filthy campaign of personal abuse from the gay media. In one online forum, a contributor suggested the only reason I held such views was that I obviously ‘wasn’t getting enough’.

That’s the sordid level of debate we’ve now reached about an issue with profound implications for the most vulnerable children in our society.”

Amanda is completely right – one of the central principles of this blog is that, in responding to negativity, we need to elevate the argument beyond personal attacks and vindictiveness. Although I often feel that my moderation falls just the wrong side of being po-faced, I think it’s important that the debates we have are civil if we are to generate light in them, and not just heat¹.

This is something which works both ways. The following all appear on the same page as Amanda’s justified and fair complaint about personal abuse:

“We’re used to her craven, attention-seeking publicity stunts, but even by Madonna’s standards, the news that she’s exchanging Kabbalah vows with new toyboy boyfriend Jesus is puzzling.

Then again, if the legal reason she can’t adopt Malawian orphan Mercy is because she’s a single mother, it’s not so much a marriage of convenience as of conveyance.”

“He says he [David Beckham] ‘only has eyes for Victoria’. Yes, but what about your other body parts, Dave?”

“Artistic, inspiring and so modest with it. Is there no beginning to Ms Frostrup’s talents?”

“At first glance, the new pictures of the original Calendar Girls 10 years on was a bit much to, er, bare. But in this body-fascist world, any woman who feels good enough about her body to strip naked at 75 earns my admiration. I just pray they don’t do a 20th anniversary version.”

“Pass the sickbag, Sarah. Paris is a tacky celebrity who’s made millions out of being an airhead. Mrs Brown already has one lost cause at home – she doesn’t need to go searching for new ones.”

“The most astounding thing about the ill-tempered exchange between BBC News 24’s presenter Carrie Grace and Lord Foulkes was that this very forgettable, middle-ranking news presenter gets paid £92,000, while co-presenter Simon McCoy gets £190,000.”

So, we have the impugning of the motives of the relationship arrangements of Madonna, a slur on the current fidelity of David Beckham based on old allegations about his sex life, a snide personal attack on a successful broadcaster, an almost hilariously hypocritical review of a charity calendar², a snide personal attack on Paris Hilton rolled into the doubting of Sarah Brown’s judgement³ and a snide personal attack on a news reader. This is the sordid level we’ve reached.

I don’t want to attempt to justify abuse of Amanda Platell, I think it’s wrong. What I will say, though, is that the Buddhists are right when they suggest the world is acting on you as you act upon it. If you live you life in the life states of animality and anger, the world returns your actions to you on the same terms. If your career is based on weekly personal attacks delivered to strangers, can you be so surprised when strangers see you as a fair target for personal attacks? Any such attacks are not justified, any more than an attack on David Beckham is, but they are inevitable.

This is particularly the case when you are seeking to deny human rights based merely on your own prejudices. It is not heresy to suggest “that married heterosexual couples make the most suitable candidates to be adoptive parents” – it is merely incorrect, based on an ignorance on the research that shows gay and lesbian couples to be as suitable as straight couples. To suggest that view is “backed by an increasing weight of academic evidence” is factually incorrect, and I would encourage readers to complain to the PCC to ask them to correct this. As an introduction to research in this area, I would recommend The American Psychological Association’s ‘Lesbian and Gay Parenting‘¨, and for readers to move from there to the massive and increasing number of studies, meta-analyses, reviews and governmental reports in this area. This would be a much more constructive reaction to Amanda’s column than personal abuse would be – a shining of light into the dark.

It would also avoid Amanda’ fear that:

“No, the real danger of this hate campaign is, first, that it unjustly tarnishes the whole gay community, thereby provoking the very homophobia it seeks to condemn. And second, in its rabid attempt to defend the rights of gay couples, it overlooks the rights of adopted and fostered kids to be raised with a mother and a father.”

Instead, it would show up Amanda’s homophobia for what it is – a position taken against the gay community on the basis of prejudice and ignorance rather than evidence. It is homophobic to oppose equal rights for gays and lesbians purely because they are gay and lesbian. Given the overwhelming evidence that gays and lesbians make parents just as good as any straight couple, there is no non-homophobic reason to oppose their inclusion in the adoption system. In opposing Amanda’s attack on such inclusion, this would be defending a much more important right for children – to be brought up in a loving family.

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I’m sorry for the over personal nature of this post – I genuinely find Amanda upsetting, viscerally so, and haven’t found a way of distancing myself from that emotion and dispassionately commenting on her negativity and aggression.

¹ And, as ever, where I fall short I hope to be corrected by readers.

²I believe I’ve mentioned before that if you’re apologising before you say something, you probably shouldn’t be saying it. Delivering an ‘anti-body-fascist’ comment either side of a ‘body-fascist’ one doesn’t undo the harm of the ‘body fascism’, but merely underlines it. Particularly when you’re doing so in a newspaper so obsessed with the figures of celebrities.

³ It’s worth noting here that Sarah Brown actually met Paris Hilton, so is arguably in a better position to judge ‘what she’s really like’ than someone basing their opinions on Paris’ public persona.

¨ In passing, we can put this ‘debate’ down as another of the Mail‘s conspiracy theories. Amanda, and fellow columnists, are asking us to believe that every scientific body to have pronounced on the matter, the peer-reviewed scientific journals in which positive research is published, the governments that are advised by such research, the charities (such as the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, whose comments were the starting place for today’s column) who have taken a position in line with the governments’ – that all these groups are acting against the evidence, or fabricating false evidence, to further the agenda of a minority. How ridiculous does your conspiracy need to be before you accept the alternative? What could be the motivation of these groups? Is the American Paediatric Association really run by a gay mafia?

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.

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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.

Mrs T defeated the miners – and then replaced them with homophobia outreach workers

One of the striking things about the Mail‘s columnists in general is their lack of positive vision – take today’s column from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“Margaret Thatcher was a failure. It is time, 30 years after she entered Downing Street, that her admirers forced themselves to admit it.

For a start, if she had been the great success they claim, we would never have needed to suffer the current rule of Gordon Brown, or the disastrous years of Anthony Blair.

Almost every good thing Mrs Thatcher achieved has already been overturned, reversed and wiped out.

By contrast, the Labour Party devotes much of its time to making sure that the damage it does can never be undone.”

So far fair enough – the bit about Labour is entirely negative, but by saying Thatcher failed ‘Peter’ is suggesting at least some sort of positive plan against which her time in government can be measured.

“True, she reduced the number of direct employees of Whitehall.

But the jungle of quangos grew and grew, and so did the slithering, choking, parasitic bindweed of local government and the unwieldy, Soviet-scale monstrosity of the NHS.”

Here we have hints – ‘Peter’ is broadly for smaller government. This isn’t especially visionary, as it assumes that small government is good in itself – particularly in terms of quangos, local government and the NHS – without justifying this or saying where the benefits lie, but it’s a start. We can assume from the Soviet comparison, for example, that smaller government would be less bureaucratic and thus more responsive, so there may be some implicit positive vision. As it stands though, this is essentially an unjustified statement of negation of the current state of things.¹

“Challenged to come up with a lasting achievement of Thatcherism, her admirers often tell us how hard it was, in the days before British Telecom, to try to get a new phone installed.

So it was. But have any of these people had any recent dealings with that fearsome, greedy and arrogant monopoly, BT?

BT and the other former nationalised giants are now regulated by the State but responsible – in reality – to nobody. Is this an improvement?”

This would seem to be quite positive – ‘Peter’ wants renationalisation of State infrastructure – but this positivity is hedged by the sense that we’re returning from the negative present to the negative past. BT, it would appear, was horribly under-regulated both then and now. Taken with ‘Peter”s earlier desire for an end to quangos (which include regulators), it’s unlikely that this would a much better world than the one we live in now. Alternatively, ‘Peter’ wants to retain BT’s freedom, but with tighter regulation from a state employing less regulators, which seems somewhat over-hopeful. We’re left with the feeling that ‘Peter’ is pushing change despite the lack of obvious benefit, purely because he doesn’t like BT.²

“We also used to have a number of state industries – coal and steel – which, for all their faults, made or provided things the nation needed.

They’ve gone. Now we have regiments of condom outreach workers, facilitators and homophobia monitors, all costing much more than coal miners, and far less useful.”

Again, this seems to be a hint of positive vision – ‘Peter’ wants a break with market forces that reduced the costs of steel and coal by making them more cheaply overseas and a return to statist economics where a premium was paid for keeping people in employment. How he hopes to make this fly in the cut-throat capitalist world we’re living in, or how to do this without increasing people employed directly by Whitehall or building up a ‘Soviet-scale’ monstrosity at the Ministry of Industry, he doesn’t say. It’s a bit like those conversations you have in the pub where you suggest bringing Shearer and Cole back to sort out England’s problems up front – it’s positive to be sure, but not the most sensible of visions. It, too, suffers from being hedged slightly as it appears to only be there as a comparison for the list of people currently employed by the State. The idea is that we couldn’t afford either, but at least the coal miners were less unaffordable. Like the return to the unpleasant past when BT really was B, ‘Peter’ wants to go back to the days when the police beat gays with impunity but coal was plentiful. Alternatively, ‘Peter’ might be making the even less nuanced point that everything is rubbish, coal and community work both, and we should scrap the lot. Which isn’t so much a positive vision as an fully negative view of both past and present.

“But what about the unions? Didn’t she defeat them? Well, sort of. But who needs stroppy shop stewards now that we are chained up by the intrusive labour laws of the European Union, so that every employer, large or small, lives in constant fear of a ruinous employment tribunal claim?

The European Union is at least as much of a threat to jobs and profits as the Transport and General Workers’ Union ever was.”

Here, at least, we have some idea of what ‘Peter”s bright new future looks like – a free hand for those whose money is made from the surplus value created by their employees. It’s negatively defined in terms of the removal of the hard-won rights of employees to be treated as human beings and the European Union’s on-going project to stop companies passing things off as things they aren’t³ This, presumably, is where his smaller state is coming from – less rules means less oversight is required and thus less overseers. Essentially we institutionalise the arrogance of BT, even if we are now renationalising it, or at very least shift its arrogance onto its workforce and not its consumers.

“Above all, she failed to fight the cultural revolutionaries who wanted to undermine marriage, dissolve the family, sexualise children and use State schools as an egalitarian sausage machine, turning out brainwashed Leftists by the million.”

Again, we have equivocal positivity – a vision defined in opposition to the present. The case isn’t made for marriage, the circumstances which led to the dissolution of the family or sexualisation of the family (and so whether any government could have held them back) are not considered , the aspects of the school system which are problematic are not named. We’re left to assume that the ideal government would have done something. We’re back in the pub saying that what England need to do is score more and concede less. Which leaves us with the conclusion:

“The real counter-revolution, more badly needed than ever, will have to come from somewhere else.”

The revolution in favour of what? The present is bad, fine, but the past was as well. ‘Peter’ wants less of the bad things of the present – if only we got rid of the bad things, without re-instating the bad things of the past, we’ll be OK. We could regulate some things more, some things less, by employing less people doing different things more cheaply and, hey-presto, inevitable utopia. Things will be better purely because there will be less bad things. As an idea, that’s sound enough, but I can’t help but think it’s a little simplistic – how will things be better, and what effect will the removal of the bad things make (after all, if they’re fully bad, someone would have removed them already)? Running things down is easy, but without an alternative it is completely pointless and does nothing but add to the nihilism and depression that it claims to rail against.

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¹ Looking still at the NHS example, we would have some serious questions, starting with ‘what form does this smaller NHS take?’ – are we talking more private provision, the same provision on a smaller/cheaper staff, an increase in treatments offered, a decrease in treatments offered? Where do the benefits lie – lower taxes, better service for some, for all, a re-adjustment of treatment priorities to maximise utility, an end to ‘post code lotteries’?

² This isn’t to say that our situation wouldn’t be greatly improved by returning national assets to the nation – simple economics suggests that if a company isn’t paying a dividend to faceless investors in return for their purchasing of its shares from a third party in the hope of getting a dividend then that company has that much more money to invest. ‘Peter’, however, doesn’t say this.

³ For every piece of legislation demanding straight bananas, there are any number preventing companies pretending that their ground-meat sandwiches constitute burgers.

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.

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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.

Why CAN’T Gordon say sorry?

Interesting consideration of the nature of apology and of agency today from Stephen Glover:

“One questions whether this is the letter of a normally functioning human being. He [Gordon Brown] could, and should, have written that he was sorry that Ms Dorries had been hurt by the repulsive email sent by a man whom he had chosen to employ. That would have been the kind and honest thing to have said. But such sentiments are not even hinted at. And because the Prime Minister was at pains to disassociate himself from the activities of his feral sidekick, he was unable to bring himself to apologise.”

A number of claims to unpack here: that Gordon Brown could have written to say he was sorry; that he should have done so; that this normative claim is due to the fact that he had chosen to employ the person who caused the suffering; that this would have been the kind thing to do; that this would have been the honest thing to do; that Gordon Brown wanted to distance himself from Damien McBride; that this was the reason that could not bring himself to apologise. Now, one of these is uncontroversial – Brown could have apologised; one probable – that Brown was trying to distance himself from his employee; one is speculative – that he couldn’t apologise because of this desire for distance; the rest are dubious or incorrect.

Let’s distinguish here between two senses of being sorry – sorry for and sorry that.¹ Only one of these two senses is the apology which Stephen expects. I can honestly say I’m sorry that emails were sent, or that offence was caused – I think the whole affair is thoroughly lamentable. However, I can’t say that I’m sorry for sending the emails, or for causing offence, because I am in no way connected to their sending or the offence they engendered. Gordon Brown has said the second sort of sorry, the letter of his which so disappoints Stephen expressed ‘great regret’ not only for this particular bad thing, but for all bad things of the type that ‘affect the reputation of our politics’. Just so you don’t think this is mere vapidity on his part, he backs up his words with a letter tightening up rules on political advisers, doing, in his words, ‘all he can to avoid this happening again’.

This is an expression of sorrow rather than an apology and that this is insufficient for Stephen’s purposes suggests that he is gunning for the first sense of sorry, being sorry for having done something. Now, Gordon didn’t send the emails and Stephen doesn’t suggest he endorsed, condoned, solicited, commissioned, devised or so much as knew about the emails. As a result, he is seemingly expecting Gordon to apologise for something someone else did.² How meaningful would we find such an apology?

Stephen seems to suggest that Gordon is in some way culpable because he employed the person who sent the emails. It’s worth remembering at this point that Damien was breaking the rules which governed his job and doing something that Gordon regrets. It’s one thing to criticise a man for knowingly employing someone who does regrettable things, it’s another to blame him for actions his employee has done on the sly knowingly contravening the guidelines which are in place to prevent it. It’s like blaming him for funding an employee’s drink problem when that demon is exercised only after work hours – it’s true that the funding is enabling the fulfilment of the addiction, but this is neither known nor foreseeable.³

In light of this then, where do we stand on Stephen’s earlier claims? Would an apology from Gordon been the kindest, most honest thing to do, or would it have been false and inappropriate? Is the lack of apology due to Gordon trying to distance himself, or is there actually a genuine distance there? The reason this matters is Stephen’s climax:

“And now? Mr Brown may have a more developed sense of morality than Mr Blair, yet he employed as a trusted lieutenant a man who disseminated scurrilous emails that would have brought a flush of shame to the face of Richard Nixon.

Mr Brown’s character is writ large in that short, disgraceful letter to Nadine Dorries. It is a terrifying thought that he can employ a man like McBride, while continuing to reassure himself that he has a finely developed moral compass.”

This is a distraction. Stephen’s drawing conclusions on a man’s morality from the actions of an underling and a letter he sent not apologising for employing that underling. Meanwhile, the economy, schools, hospitals, transport, two wars, any amount of international development, communities, agriculture, the regions, the environment and any number of other things rage outside. While Stephen is constructing intricate orreries of political figures reputations, the world goes on. The moral character of the Prime Minister is not what should be concerning us – the spin and evasion that reduces accessibility of our elected officials, the struggle for power rather than the debate of ideas, the fact that a government employee considered this a worthwhile use of their time, these should be concerning us. The fact that this has become a morality play only further confirms in the minds of the average individual the fact that politics is completely disconnected from their lives. Even if he were responsible for the emails, the problem would not be Gordon’s character, but the fact that he wasn’t doing what he’s paid to do. The longer we waste our time on this, the more important decisions will pass by unnoticed and the more solvable social problems will be overlooked. Let’s judge people on their actions, but do so on the ones that actually matter.

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¹ I’m ignoring the sense of being sorry on behalf of, which would only really apply where the person who did the bad thing is unable to form an apology themselves (we apologise on behalf of children, for example), partly because I doubt Stephen wants Gordon to apologise on Damien’s behalf (I think he’d prefer it if they both apologised) and partly because there’s a fairly large debate to be had on the meaningfulness of an apology for something done by someone who isn’t actually sorry themselves.

² Imagine Gordon took this further, and tried to make amends and ask for forgiveness – would it make sense for Nadine Dorries to offer him forgiveness for Damien’s emails?

³ To Stephen’s claim that this was foreseeable  (“In other words, Mr Brown knew the kind of man he was employing. He was drawn to him. He picked him out.”), there are two obvious rejoinders: that you can legitimately hire someone for their desirable aspects even when these have undesirable flip-sides and that one would expect better from a PR guru than to be caught gossipping in writing.

At last! A judge speaks up for British laws but when will we wake up to the REAL folly of human rights?

An interesting example of how a series of assertions do not equal an argument, from Melanie Philips:

“Lord Hoffmann, the second most senior Law Lord, has questioned the court’s constitutional legitimacy, ridiculed its judgments and said it should get its nose out of our national affairs.

Given the fact that human rights law has effectively become a secular religion for the higher judiciary, this is what you might call a flying wig moment.”

The moment in question is this lecture to the Judicial Studies Board, which is a good and an interesting read. To nutshell it, Lord Hoffmann has no problem with the concept of universal human rights, but feels that their interpretation and application should be a national matter. He fears that the unelected European Court of Human Rights is appropriating political power, after the fashion of the American courts, something it is ill-placed to do given its lack of understanding of the British context in which laws are applied and its inconsistency in application. Or, as Melanie puts it:

“For this country has seen its laws and values turned inside out because of the obeisance paid to the rulings of the European human rights court.

In some cases, these have unilaterally challenged moral norms without public opinion even being consulted, and have undermined concepts such as family life, truth, social order, citizenship and law itself.”

It is very difficult to know which specific laws and values Melanie is referring to, and so how she thinks the European Court has undermined them. It would be interesting, taking just the example of the undermining of family life, to see examples, as the Court is specifically set up to defend, among other things parental rights and the respect for private life, family life, the home and correspondence. If it is undermining the concept of family life, it is doing very badly. I would suspect, given Melanie’s feelings on the subject, she is thinking here of things like the defence of civil partnerships and of adoption by, and IVF for, same-sex couples. If this suspicion is correct, I think we would disagree – here the right to a family has been extended from its conventional limits to others who previously fell outside of it; this isn’t an undermining, but a confirmation.

Moving on from these vague assertions, Melanie says:

“But the issue is much deeper than how the European judges have behaved. The real problem lies with human rights law itself.

The liberties of this country traditionally rested on the fact that rights were not codified but grew out of English common law. As a result, everything was permitted unless it was expressly prohibited.

Once codified into statute law, however, rights became dependent on what the courts said they were. So, far from expanding our liberties human rights law has diminished them.”

Which is a specific assertion, but again one that appears implausible given that our initial objection to the Court was its application of universal liberties without regard to local context. When a petitioner asks the Court to rule on whether their national law is depriving them of their human rights, and are successful, their liberties have been extended – liberties that had been denied them by their local legal system and which, through the compound interest of case law, would have meant denial for future generations, not just in identical cases but also in vaguely comparable ones. The very point of the Court is to look at things which have been expressly prohibited and extend liberties by expressly permitting them.

In addition to this, the idea that you could somehow lose rights by writing them down is an odd one. What is codified in the Human Rights Act (1998), and the principles which the Court is enforcing, are essentially a set of benchmarks, standards which laws must not fall beneath. The situation with regards courts defining rights is the same as it ever was because courts were, and still are, the arbiters of what behaviour is in correspondence with the law. The difference now is that we have an appeal against that law and its enforcement. Essentially, we all now have the liberty to question the justice of laws and their enforcement through the appeal to an outside observer. This is an exponential expansion of liberty. In the face of this, Hoffman’s objection is a somewhat weak one – the very point of a universal principle is that it ignores local context; if your trials deny human rights, they deny human rights, regardless of whether the local populous think they’re fine or historically they’ve always been that way.

Melanie is right to highlight Lord Bingham’s thoughts in this area:

“Lord Bingham, the former senior Law Lord, actually declared that the Human Rights Convention existed to protect vulnerable minorities against the majority. So majority opinion, it seemed, was essentially illegitimate and the judiciary would use human rights law to do it down.”

I don’t think I can improve on Lord Bingham himself in providing a riposte to this argument:

“It is, however, plain that the robust and independent-minded member of Parliament is rarely able to make an effective impact when faced by a determined government. Governments for their part are understandably anxious to retain the support of the electorate and accordingly concentrate on measures which will earn the gratitude of a majority of the voters. Thus Parliamentary opinion is likely to reflect the opinion of the majority and show less concern for the interests of minorities. It is accordingly possible, looking back over our history, to identify a number of groups who have been either unpopular or disregarded and whose rights and freedoms have as a result been of little or no Parliamentary interest: Jews, Roman Catholics, dissenters; vagrants, vagabonds, beggars, gypsies; married women; children; prisoners; mental patients and the disabled; immigrants of various kinds, asylum seekers, aliens; homosexuals; strikers; single mothers; paedophiles. All of these have had occasion at some time or another to feel that the defence of their rights by a sovereign Parliament was something short of whole-hearted.”

The problem Lord Bingham highlights is not the illegitimacy of majority opinion, but the fact that, where it is illegitimate, it is very difficult to overturn. The judiciary’s job is to ensure equality under the Law for everyone who comes before it – at some point that has to mean rejecting unequal laws. Or, as Melanie puts it:

“As a result, it has been used as a judicial battering ram by those determined to up-end this country’s core values. The police and even the security service have been paralysed by the fear of damaging the rights of one ‘grievance group’ or another.

Christians have come under the human rights cosh for expressing a preference for heterosexual couples to adopt children.

Most egregiously of all, human rights law reduced asylum and immigration policy to chaos and destroyed this country’s control over its own borders.

This was the result of the uniquely zealous way in which English judges interpreted Strasbourg’s rulings against torture, making it impossible to deport suspected terrorists to any country suspected of abusing human rights.”

I was not previously aware that condoning torture had been a core British value, that receiving public funding to discriminate against a minority was a core British value or that having the security services and police target and isolate specific communities was a core British value. That these are core values and, if so, that they are defensible one is something I will need to be persuaded of, which Melanie does not attempt. Notice she also doesn’t here invoke her earlier complaint about liberties being lost through codification – although in a real sense liberties have been lost, they were liberties to infringe the liberties of others, which is not a liberty that’s readily justifiable. I am not sure what the Act or the Court has done wrong here, and do not see the argument made. So when Melanie concludes:

“To some of us, of course, that is precisely why we should leave the EU, in order to restore our powers of self-government and democracy as expressed through our own laws.”

I cannot see why she does so. She appears to be yearning for the days when the law was arbitrary and political, merely because the application of external benchmarks has prevented the persecution and discrimination of groups she doesn’t like. Which is exactly the sort of diminishing of liberty she protested about the Court making.