Good riddance to the freak show that shamed Britain (and no, it wasn’t Big Brother)

Back to the present today and another biting article from the sharpened pen of Richard Littlejohn. His target here is New Labour and that really isn’t the issue. Everyone is entitled to their opinion on political parties and he just so happens to have a very public platform from which to air his. I was going to just ignore this article as it really isn’t saying anything new and feels a bit like a slow news week filler (because the death of Ted Kennedy, continued election protests in Iran, the ‘end’ of the war in Darfur and continued ramifications of the ‘Libyan Inncident’ are seemingly not worthy of Richard’s comment right now). However, I couldn’t get past a few of the comments he makes which we shall look at now.

The entire article is written in what I imagine he hoped would be a witty and sly allegory between the end of Big Brother and of the New Labour party. So he uses contestants instead of MPs and audience instead of electorate… Anyway.

“New Labour has demeaned its contestants and audience alike, coarsened our culture, debased living standards, promoted a climate of bullying and exhibitionism and lowered Britain’s standing around the world. It has become a byword for corruption and incompetence, obsessed with sex, greed and racism.”

Well let’s just start with this shall we. Exactly how has our culture been coarsened by New Labour. What does that even mean? It seems now every time someone says something on television that is deemed immoral, insulting or just displeasing to the readers of Richard’s very paper, there are swift apologies, sackings, resignations and the sphere of freedom given to entertainment is contracted that little bit further. If anything, I’d say culture is being tamed and is much the worse off for it.

Britain’s standing around the world has been on a decline since people started pointing out that travelling about in boats, occupying and enslaving countries and calling them ‘ours’ was perhaps not the nicest thing and maybe we should give things back. Under Richard’s beloved Conservative party we saw the unnecessary and damaging war over the Falklands because we felt we had the right to some islands on the other side of the world. Britain supported the first gulf war, made no action to stop the atrocities occurring in many African nations throughout the eighties and nineties and put across such a euro-skeptic and isolationist from for most of those two decades it’s a wonder the Channel Tunnel ever opened.

Finally, how exactly are we anymore obsessed with sex and greed (we’ll get to racism in a moment). That Thatcher and Major governments were devoted to the accumulation of wealth and the building of a fully operational consumer society. As for sex, we saw just as many so-called scandals in the Tory party as we have in Labour. The truth is less that New Labour themselves have bred corruption and sleaze and more that any party in power for a long period of time will be to some extent overpowered by it’s own success. This isn’t a New Labour problem, it’s a power problem.

As for racism, I for one am glad we’re a country ‘obsessed’ with racism (if that is indeed the case) as perhaps we can use that obsession to lessen the amount of it that occurs. Richard is always so worried about his freedom of speech being limited he rarely stops to consider his responsibility of speech. The freedoms given to him to say whatever he likes about whomever he likes should be used with the respect they deserve, not to decry anyone of a different faith or with a different skin tone or (gods forbid) someone with less money or no job. If New Labour has instilled us with an obsession regarding prejudice then this is not something we should be critisising for. I don’t want to live in a country that’s regarded elsewhere as the place where ‘they don’t like anyone different’.

“Housemates included an effete public schoolboy, a former ship’s steward, a dour son of the manse, a blind man and his dog, a gay public relations man and his exotic Brazilian boyfriend, and a scary, former convent schoolgirl who quickly became known as the Wicked Witch.”

I have noticed a trend with Richard and other Daily Mail columnists to be much harsher on female politicians and public figures than male. They get the cruelest names, the most attacks on their looks and the constant disparagement of their ability to do their job. Of course this should not be a surprise to anyone as a fair number of the columns are solely about the non-existence of misogyny or how women have ‘never had it so good’. Whatever your views on Ruth Kelly, is it fair to label her as scary and call her the wicked witch whilst the men are pretty much given a label of what they are. Peter Mandleson is predictable defined by the fact he his gay and had a partner who was not British. Really Richard? Thirteen years and you’re still on that tired bandwagon?

“More than four million CCTV cameras were erected all over Britain so that every move of the audience could be captured, too, and used in evidence against people putting out their dustbins on the wrong day.”

Oh and this bandwagon too (ir should that be rubbishwagon). I will never understand why the rules of dustbins upset him so much. In a world where close to 2 billion people have no access to clean drinking water and a good 75% of them are also starving, I would think the fact out rubbish is taken away on a weekly or biweekly basis would not be something to fill pages and pages of newspaper every single month. We could of course go back to the Victorian era where everyone was white, no-one talked about sex, queers will killed and everyone knew their place. Oh and rubbish was generally left in the street or dumped in the rivers. Yes, I’m sure Richard would enjoy that life much better, especially if he had to work in a factory as he believes every unemployed person should be forced to.

“From the start, the show was mired in controversy, after one of the housemates, Cookie, was caught having sex with another contestant, a flame-haired civil servant called Gaynor.

Ally, the house bully, a recovering alcoholic and pornographic novelist, with a history of mental illness, forced Cookie to leave his wife or face eviction.”

Yes because being about to write erotica AND having overcome an addiction AS WELL as suffering from depression means you should definitely not be in power. Actually, you shouldn’t be allowed to have a job at all, better go on benefits wouldn’t you say Richard? I always felt sorry for Robin Cooke that he was made a total scapegoat for New Labour’s obsession with being the anti-sleaze party. I’m not condoning infidelity but as one in two marriages now ends in divorce it’s going to happen in parliament and sometimes, the details will leak. In the grand scheme, I’m not sure it should be punished or require public apologies but there’s a discussion for another day.

“[Blair’s] emotional reaction when the popular royal housemate, Diana, was killed in a car crash in only the third episode made TV history and proved to be the defining moment of series one.”

Yes, even Richard finds it hard to critique this one, especially as his favourite royal family did not come off so well from the whole affair. Better to just breeze over it I think.

“New Labour’s resident village idiot, Two Jags, was captured on film punching a member of the audience during the warm-up to the second series. He was the clown you loved to hate, always raiding the fridge while the other housemates were asleep.”

But surely Richard giving those protesting layabout sum the old one two is exactly what they need? Hasn’t the country wanted leadership that wasn’t afraid to apply the carrot as well as the stick? Or does that only apply when said leader is not a working class man from Hull? (Again, I’m not condoning John Prescott’s actions, violence is never, ever the answer and I do not want politicians in power who lash out because their suit get’s a bit eggy. All the same a surprising about face for Richard “bring back corporal punishment” Littlejohn).

“Then there was Blunkett, the first blind character, who formed a passionate attachment to the only American housemate, Kimberley, drafted in on the strength of her performance as Snow White at Disneyland.

Viewers were captivated by Blunkett unravelling as he launched a demented paternity suit to prove that he was the father of Kimberley’s baby.”

Of sex and infidelity, by my count, the Conservative 1979-1997 run is still in the lead.

“Today, the programme is a shadow of its former self. Only two of the original cast remain: dour, Scottish sociopath Gordon and gay PR man Mandy, the self- styled Prince of Darkness.”

NEVER FORGET THAT PETER MANDLESON IS GAY. HIS POLITICS DON’T MATTER, ANY GOOD HE DOES IS IRRELEVANT WHEN COMPARED TO THE FACT THAT HE IS A GAY MAN! HE HAS SEX WITH OTHER MEN!!! DIDN’T YOU KNOW? AND HE LOOKS A BIT LIKE A VAMPIRE. A GAY VAMPIRE. BECAUSE HE’S GAY. THE GAY.

“After Blair was evicted in 2007 and went on to become a global star, earning millions of pounds a year, Gordon attempted to become the main character, but ratings continued to slump and he soon realised there was nowhere to hide.”

Once again, if this is truly supposed to be a commentary on thirteen years of Labour government, Richard is somewhat ignoring some key events that have led to the current unpopularity of the party.

“Other housemates were drafted in, notably Jackboot Jacqui, a disciplinarian schoolteacher from the Midlands who marked her arrival with an ostentatious flash of cleavage. For a while, the tabloids were fixated upon her breasts and her enthusiasm for punishment.”

WOMAN HAS BREASTS! AND DOESN’T WANT TO COMPLETELY COVER THEM! Ok, I’m going to have to stop accidently hitting caps lock. Honestly for a man who writes so often about the Burqa and the Niqab, Richard get’s very upset when any woman decided to wear something any less than a nun’s garb. Unless they’re a ‘smoking twenty year old hottie’, then it’s “phwoar ma’am don’t mind if I do”. Am I being unfair? Possibly a bit and for that I apologise but this sort of comment after at least discussing some of the policy of the men in the party infuriates me. He takes Jacqui Smith and reduces her to nothing more than a dominatrix figure to be laughed at. How carefully Richard uses disciplinarian and then mentions her breasts and how she likes to punish. Not ten paragraphs ago he was talking about how New Labour had brought on an obsession with sex, I think we might be seeing where some of the impetus has come from..

“As New Labour has resorted to increasingly desperate and cynical stunts, viewers have stopped watching, the sponsors have dried up and the show has run £1.3trillion over budget.”

Well the budget is somewhat overrun yes, I don’t think anyone can argue that the current financial status of the country is relatively dire but I would love to know how any other government would have dealt with a global economic crisis of the scale we’ve seen across the past two years.

I also note in this whole article Richard doesn’t mention anything about what the government has achieved in it’s time in office. No comment on fox hunting bans, smoking age changes, improvement in education from the Major years (in terms of funding and teacher training), legalising civil partnerships, championing the Northern Ireland Peace process, devolution, regulating the House of Lords… some of these things are subjective but they have none the less been achieved. The government is far from ineffectual, they’ve done things I don’t agree with and things I do but to reduce the whole thirteen years to an allegory with a low quality reality TV show is simplifying things to the level of pointlessness.

On second thoughts perhaps this is nothing more than slow news week filler, even if it is filled with Richard’s usual stereotypes of women in power, gay men, liberal ideology and of course those ‘bloody bins’. Don’t worry Richard, under the next government, I’m sure that your favourite ‘dole scum’ will be hired to come and eat your rubbish on a daily basis. And you can whip them while they do.

“The final episode is due to be broadcast next May. We will all be glad to see the back of it.”

And how long will that last I wonder? And which party would you like to replace them Richard… oh, he’s gone home.

Advertisements

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.

———

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.

————

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.

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.

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.

—————

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.