The Queen’s Party

Britain is still a monarchical country. Even as the ruler’s power diminishes, the subjects’ eyes are still on King Tony What will it take to make him to abdicate? When will he decide that the ungrateful peasants no longer deserve him and cross the oceans to the more respectful courtiers of America?
Our future still seems to depend on him. But perhaps people would do better to think about the Queen. Husbands listen to their wives when they say it is time to move on and vice versa. Tony Blair is far more likely to take notice of Cherie than the Cabinet.
I confess to rather admiring her. In part, it is sympathy. The wife of the Prime Minister is subjected to the cheapest bitching about her clothes and appearance, which are nobody’s business but hers. She gets all the insults that come with living in 10 Downing Street but none of the power. A picture editor once explained to me that she was cursed with a mobile face. If you were talking to her, you would see only an animated and handsome woman. But if a newspaper wanted to do her down, all its photographer had to do was freeze the frame while she was in mid sentence and readers would get a picture of what looked like lunatic in mid gibber.
She shouldn’t only be pitied. To her credit, she talks a great deal of sense when she isn’t giving turgid lectures on the history of PMs’ wives. Her speech on torture for Human Rights Watch earlier this month deplored the barbarism seeping into the Western anti-terror strategy while dismissing the wilder demands of civil liberties lawyers. It was the best attempt to get a difficult subject right I’ve heard.
For that, I can forgive the fact that she is a sucker for every snake-oil selling quack, New Age gobble-de-gook peddler and iffy estate agent with overvalued property to off load.
Assuming she’s in her sensible mode, what’s she going to be thinking now? From her point of view, she’s burned her boats, or rather Tony has burned them for her. She was a brilliant lawyer who might have gone to the House of Lords. But the English law has no place for celebrity judges, and I can’t see her picking-up much of a legal career once Blair’s gone. The life of a Prime Minister’s wife is all she’s got now. She’s become a career ‘swanner’ with little else to do but swan round the receptions at important events, saying the right thing and talking to the right people.
It shouldn’t be that way. We should be a mature enough country to accept that the PM’s wife or husband can have a career of his or her own. But we aren’t and I can’t see Cherie telling Tony to give up what he and the media have given her for the sake of little or nothing in return.

A thousand actors have launched into Cole Porter’s These Foolish Things with that aching line, ‘A cigarette that bares a lipstick’s traces…’ But no longer. Cigarettes with or without lipstick traces will be banned from the West End.
In Act One, Scene One of Look Back in Anger John Osborne instructs Cliff to complain about Jimmy’s pipe and light a cigarette in retaliation. From now on Jimmy and Cliff will have to begin at Act One, Scene Two.
‘You can, um, light my cigarette, if you’re of a mind to,’ says a nervous Martha to George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. ‘No,’ bellows George. ‘I will hold your hand when it’s dark and you’re afraid of the bogeyman and I will tote your gin bottles out after midnight so no one can see but I will not light your cigarette.’
George had the right answer as far as Patricia Hewitt was concerned. The rest of us can look in wonder at a theatrical world that fought for decades to end political censorship but now allows the bossy boots in the health authorities to tell audiences what they can or can’t see. The gin bottles will be next.

I can’t vouch for the truth of Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl but the rise of the ‘blook’ – books which come out of weblogs – should make conventional authors worry about our standards of accuracy.
For Blogs have one huge advantage over dead-tree publishing. Make a mistake in a book and you have to wait until the next edition to correct it – if there is a next edition, that is. Make a mistake on a well-read website and dozens of busybodies with nothing better to do with their time point it out and force you to make amends. It’s not a pleasant experience, but in the end it produces better writing.

To the new Arsenal Emirates Stadium and to my surprise it is nearly up. They only began construction in 2004 and now the builders say it will be ready for football in August.
The contrast with the overdue and over-budget Wembley stadium is striking to put it at its mildest. I suspect the difference between the two projects is that Wembley had to cope with the Football Association, Sport England and Tessa Jowell and Ken Livingstone sticking their oars in while the Arsenal did not.

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An Inspector Returns

The potentially explosive consequences of the Metropolitan Police’s decision to investigate the sale of peerages are passing many by. The political columnist of the Independent spoke for the Westminster village last week when he wrote: ‘The loans-for-peerages imbroglio’ may be distasteful, but ‘it will probably have little effect on the date of Tony Blair’s departure’.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s supporters argued that it was time to ‘move on’ and have a ‘serious’ debate about different sources of political financing, while lobby journalists assured me that Sir Ian Blair, the chief commissioner of the Met, would never dare take on Downing Street. ‘Everyone does it,’ said everyone in the know, so there is no reason to get excited.

Maybe. But the cynical are just as likely as the politically naïve to miss what is going on under their noses. Those who assume the fix is always in can on occasion be flummoxed by events. Perhaps an overdue bout of flummoxing is on the way, for much of what is coming out of Westminster is close to disgraceful.

No one bothers to deny that Britain is the only democracy in the developed world where seats in the legislature are for sale. Not for sale indirectly – there are many countries where you can’t run for election without substantial resources behind you – but openly for sale like luxury cars on a showroom forecourt which any rich buyer can take away. They don’t deny it because the corruption of parliament is undeniable. The correlation between the honours lists and those who give money to Labour and the Tories or Blair’s pet projects is too strong.

Westminster’s insouciance is perhaps forgivable because Britain has no history of police investigations into dirty money in politics. It is impossible to imagine a similar scandal in the US or Europe because they have democratic second chambers.

If they didn’t and George W Bush or Silvio Berlusconi were selling places in their respective senates, then a special prosecutor in the case of the US, or independent prosecutors of the sort who have so embarrassed Tessa Jowell’s abandoned husband in the case of Italy, would have got to work years ago.

The novelty of the present situation is that the British police are taking political corruption seriously for the first time in living memory. Angus MacNeil, the Scottish Nationalist MP whose complaint began the inquiry, is certainly impressed. He met John Yates, the deputy assistant commissioner who is heading the investigation, last week and said he did not strike him as anyone’s stooge.

It seemed to MacNeil that the Met has grasped a basic point that has eluded many at Westminster: the sale of honours is a crime and has been since 1925. If the police aren’t going to allow themselves to be nobbled, and I’ve no reason to think that they are, then New Labour may be in deep trouble.

Honest officers who know the law and want to enforce it tend not to let off a burglar if he protests that ‘everyone does it’. Nor are they impressed by cries that ‘it is time to move on’. A crime is a crime and the question becomes whether detectives can get the evidence to make the charges stand up in court.

The case of Maundy Gregory, the only other political operator to be convicted of selling honours, may help them with their inquiries. Gregory was a spy and blackmailer who worked as Lloyd George’s bagman. He raised £150m at today’s prices for his master and made a small fortune for himself.

The 1925 act was meant to stop him, but it had no effect whatsoever. Gregory had too much dirt on how Lloyd George’s Liberals and their Tory allies had sold peerages to profiteers from the First World War to be caught by new laws. The fate of Victor Grayson, a brave and flamboyant Labour politician, was a warning to those who wished to challenge him.

Grayson threatened to expose Gregory in 1920 when he announced: ‘This sale of honours is a national scandal. It can be traced right down to 10 Downing Street and to a monocled dandy with offices in Whitehall. I know this man and one day I will name him.’ Grayson disappeared soon after that. He was last seen being taken into a house owned by Gregory. His body was never found, but most historians reasonably conclude that Gregory had him murdered.

What did for Gregory in the end was that he tried to corrupt an honest man. He offered Lt-Cmdr EW Billyard-Leake a knighthood for £10,000. Unlike most of the spivs who bought honours from the Lloyd George government, Billyard-Leake had served with distinction in the war. He was disgusted and turned Gregory in.

Perhaps I am the one who is being naïve, but if the modern equivalents of Billyard-Leake are out there, then New Labour may not be as in control of events as Westminster believes and the ghost of Victor Grayson may yet enjoy a belated vindication as it watches on from an unmarked grave.

Cut those elves down to size

The musical version of The Lord of Rings provoked sour notices from the critics but this eulogy from Rachel Tolkien, granddaughter of JRR: ‘Everything to me that is the most important in the book they’ve gotten on the stage. I think it’s an amazing feat to have made it in three-and-a-half hours.’

No it’s not. The book is filled with ramblings on the origins of Elvish or histories of the High Dwarves of the Low Mountains of Middle Earth which cannot possibly be dramatised. As the film version proved, once all Tolkien’s pseudo-scholarship is gone, all you are left with is a chase movie. There’s this hobbit, he’s got a ring, the baddies want to get it and he has to keep running from them.

What’s amazing is not that the story takes three-and-a-half hours of stage time, but that it can’t be wrapped up in one.

Divine help? I think the SAS had a hand

The complaints from the military about the ingratitude of Norman Kember and his Christian Peacemaker Teams are understandable enough. If others have risked their lives to save yours, even pacifists should have the humility to thank them at once and at length.

To say, instead, that ‘the illegal occupation of Iraq by multinational forces is the root cause of the insecurity which led to this kidnapping and so much pain and suffering in Iraq’ was to insult not only the rescuers but the intelligence of all who know about the policy of deliberate slaughter being prosecuted by al-Qaeda and the Baath party.

Christian Peacemaker Teams greeted the news of its missionaries’ release by saying that ‘they knew that their only protection was in the power of the love of God and of their Iraqi and international co-workers’.

Actually, their only protection turned out to be the SAS.

Yet at least Kember and his colleagues made a commitment to Iraq. They may have done no good, they may have put better and braver men in danger, yet they strike me as preferable to the majority of European liberals who have sat out the conflict.

Civilians are massacred at random: silence. Al-Qaeda hits as many Shia mosques as it can in the hope of provoking a civil war: silence again. No condemnations of barbarism are offered for fear of giving the smallest support to George W Bush and Tony Blair.

The price that has already been paid is a shrivelling of the liberal conscience. If you refuse to take sides in Iraq, you can’t take them anywhere else. From Burma to Darfur, crimes against humanity that would have produced outrage in the Nineties are met with indifference today.

An Inspector Calls

People go on about sleaze without realising that they may be talking about crime. You can’t blame them for their mistake because uniquely in the democratic world the British authorities don’t treat political crimes as crimes. Take the case of the buying of a seat in the House of Lords — and with it the right to decide the laws of the land. After Lloyd George had pocketed a fortune by selling everything from baronies to OBEs, the Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act of 1925 made the buying and selling of honours a criminal offence that should carry a maximum punishment of two years in prison.
I say “should”, but in 80 years, only one suspect has been prosecuted: Maundy Gregory, a spy, blackmailer and probable murderer, who was the point man with the ‘business community’ for Lloyd George’s Liberals and their Conservative allies. He got a mere two months in 1932 and retired to France on release, his silence bought by a generous pension from the Tory Party.
It has been left to the press to blow the whistle ever since. Yet for all the blathering about the “power of the media,” journalists aren’t so powerful. In the end, we’re just citizens with editors. We can’t force the mighty to reveal dirty secrets they would rather keep hidden. We can get leaks and we can get lucky, but we can’t get search warrants.
Independently minded MPs who want to do what MPs are meant to do and hold the executive to account are just as feeble. If your refuse to answer the questions of the US Congress, you can go to jail for contempt. If there’s a whiff of corruption about you in Italy, prosecutors and magistrates will storm in – as Tessa Jowell’s dumped husband has learned to his cost.
But in Britain backbench MPs are like journalists: they have no coercive power. All both can do is make links and ask questions that no one is obliged to answer. As regular clockwork, as soon as we start asking why it was that Bernie Ecclestone, Enron, Lakshmi Mittal and all the rest of the shabby crew gave gifts then got rewards, some buck-toothed, empty-headed public-school boy from the BBC pops up and sneers, “Where’s your smoking gun? Where’s your proof beyond reasonable doubt?”
And, of course, 999 times out of 1000 we can’t produce a smoking gun. There’s no Congress here and no independent prosecutors. In Britain, only the police can obtain search warrants, go through computer records, subpoena witnesses, strike plea-bargaining deals and question suspects under caution.
The Met’s announcement that it is investigating Lord Levy and the alleged sale of honours may just be PR. If it is not, then Tony Blair ought to be worried – very worried indeed – because it means that for the first time in living memory the police are taking the corruption of politics seriously and seeing it for what it always was: a crime.

Take from the poor to give to the rich… that’s New Labour’s super-casino plan

In 2004, before her Italian connection became an embarrassment, Tessa Jowell dismissed opponents of New Labour’s plans to let gambling rip as modern aristocrats determined to stifle the masses’ pleasures. ‘There’s a whiff of snobbery in some of the opposition to new casinos,’ she told the Telegraph. Her critics wanted to keep casinos as ‘the preserve of the rich’ and turn away ‘the big investment that will come from the United States’.
Unlike the snobs, she cared about poverty and was determined to use casino money to regenerate the slums. Top of the government’s list was Blackpool, a resort whose dearest friends have to admit is sorely in need of a stroke of good fortune. Package holidays and cheap flights hit it as hard as cheap clothing imports hit the Lancashire mill towns that once supplied its tourists.

Unemployment, long-term sickness, failing schools and crime have followed and left Blackpool a wretched place. Seaside towns have always been melancholy places out of season; Blackpool can depress you in high summer.

The attraction of using gambling to turn it into the Las Vegas of the north west is obvious and virtually every press report says that Blackpool is the front runner in the race to host the pilot project for super-casinos. Given what it has been through, you would need to be a flint-hearted moralist to say it shouldn’t have the chance to make money.

Yet, to date, it is far from clear if the casino will give money to Blackpool or Blackpool give money to the casino. A study by the Hall Aitken consultancy predicted that a super-casino would merely take jobs from rival tourist attractions. What jobs it created would probably go to east Europeans.

This seems a poor recompense for the public money Blackpool has staked already. Steven Bate, a Liberal Democrat councillor, and one of the few in the local political establishment who believes Blackpool is prostituting itself, has kept a record of the corporate welfare the council is offering. It is promising to compulsorily purchase the land for the casino, which is currently occupied by the police station and law courts.

In a sign of the times, the council will agree to demolish public buildings that once embodied law and order to clear the ground for a gambling den and then spend public money on new homes for the police and judges. It gets better. The council already has spent public money on designing the new casino and finding a developer to put it up.

In the age of globalisation, we’ve seen governments offer tax breaks and other sweeteners to entice multinationals to move to their countries, but I’ve never heard of public money being used to give casino capitalists a casino.

The reason why Blackpool has to pay out gets to the heart of the delusion behind New Labour’s thinking. It’s not the scale of the poverty that puts the casino operators off the town, but that Blackpool’s poverty is not great enough. A report for John Prescott’s office, released last week, said the super-casino operators wanted to be in city centres, and you can see why. Each hopes to lure about one million people a year to play on the 2,000 or so fruit machines.

The infinitesimally small chance of winning the £1m jackpots Jowell is allowing them to offer are meant to keep the punters pumping in the pound coins. Blackpool, like most seaside towns, is too far from the big centres of population to provide enough poor, addicted, desperate or foolish gamblers to allow the casinos to operate seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

What they need are punters who can jump on a bus on a winter weekday, not holidaymakers who disappear in September. Las Vegas is the exception to the norm. Across the world, most money is taken by casinos that are close to their customers.

With a frankness which is unusual for management consultants, Prescott’s advisers warned that New Labour was offering casinos a ‘licence to print money’ and risked bringing more ‘crime and antisocial behaviour’ to city centres. The experience of Australia and the United States shows that they are right. There are hundreds of studies to back them up. One of the most comprehensive was by Professor Earl L Grinols from the University of Illinois, who worked out that super-casinos rely on addicts for between a third and a half of their revenues.

Letting gambling rip meant letting gambling addiction rip and brought with it assaults, rapes, robberies, larceny, burglary, car theft, embezzlement, fraud, lost productivity, unemployment, bankruptcy, anxiety, depression, heart attacks, wife beating, child neglect, child abuse and suicide. He added them up and estimated that problem gambling in the US cost about as $54bn a year.

If you believe that people should be free to spend their money how they choose, then you will doubtless shrug your shoulders and say these prices are worth paying.

Still, even the most committed libertarian should retain a sense of the ironies of political history and marvel at the spectacle of the Labour party encouraging the poor to redistribute what wealth they have to the rich.

An Italian lesson we shouldn’t learn
The police objected to Tessa Jowell’s casinos because they feared their roulette tables would be a money launderer’s dream. A drug dealer could convert his wads of notes into chips, put half on black and half on red then convert the chips back into clean money.

The ‘loans’ to New Labour and the Conservatives from the super-rich go through a more upmarket, legal, laundry than a casino, but the effect is the same and unpleasant stains are washed away. Because big ‘lenders’ can remain anonymous, the ‘loans’ escape unwelcome media attention. If, as so often happens, they are nominated for a peerage, the Lords Appointments Commission need not know about the financial connection, either. And if, as also happens, the ennobled ‘lender’ says months later that he doesn’t want his money back, well, there may be a small fuss in the press, but it will be too late to make a difference.

Westminster journalists see the Brown-Blair rivalry behind everything that moves in the Labour party. They, therefore, explained away Jack Dromey’s rather magnificent outburst against the corruption of his party as a Brownite attack on Blair. Maybe I’m being naïve, but it is just possible that the Labour treasurer is a reasonably decent man who was genuinely shocked that peerages were for sale. Perhaps he sincerely thought that property developers and stockbrokers did not have the best interests of the centre-left at heart, and his anger at £14m in soft money sloshing around without his knowledge was real.

What I do know is that other reasonably decent people, who couldn’t give a fig about the Brownite-Blairite rivalry, hate the Italianisation of British politics and will refuse to lend Labour their votes.

Let your voice be heard
Next Saturday at 2pm in Trafalgar Square, there will be a rally for freedom of expression. I think it’s fair to say that previous generations would be astonished that their descendants would have to take to the streets to demand such a basic right, but after the death threats against cartoonists, it seems we do.

Fortunately, the British National Party is nowhere to be seen and the rally will be filled with democratic leftists, Liberal Democrats, secularists and Iranian and Saudi Arabian dissidents.

With the white far right out of the picture, the brown far right has barged in and Islamic fundamentalists are proposing to hold demonstrations against free speech away from central London. So, if you want to protest on Saturday, you have a choice: for free speech or against? Come on, it’s not that hard a choice. All will be welcome in Trafalgar Square. Dress? Danish.

NS Essay – ‘Thatcherism’s triumph was double-edged. Union militancy pushed large sections of the middle class to the right. Now unions threaten no one and the main threat to middle-class interests comes from the rich’

Middle-class hatred of the upper class used to erupt regularly in Britain. From 1815 to 1914, it inspired the campaigns against rotten boroughs, the corn laws and the House of Lords. It is everywhere in novels from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, sometimes as a dominant theme, in Nicholas Nickleby for example, more often in the background, as in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Today, the old anger seems to be dead. People talk with passion about the gap that exists between the top and the bottom – between rich and poor people and rich and poor countries – but not the gap between the top and the middle. The only modern writer I can think of who uses middle-class fury at the privileges of the rich in most of his plots is James Hawes. Fortunately, isolation has not harmed him and he is very good at it.

The typical Hawes hero realises that working hard and playing by the rules will never get him the family home in a nice part of London he took for granted when he was young. To join the respectable middle class he has to stop being respectable. He must rob a bank, cut a deal with the Russian mafia or humiliate himself on a reality TV show. The system is stacked against the middle class, as the hero in A White Merc with Fins explains, after learning that the children of the rich he thought of as friends at university are from a world whose admission price he cannot afford:

You have slept about and hitched around and your body-clock is locked into the chimes of midnight and the long, slow summers, and now that you have just about realised who you actually are, or might be, you have to go and be an accountant or a schoolteacher or work for ICI developing brave new deodorants.

Fair enough?

What?

Suddenly, the brief yoof-socialist near-equality of college is gone: the nice guy who had the crap old funny GTi is off to see America, the nice girl who subbed your drug experiments has gone to Mum’s spare flat in South Ken to look up some pals in publishing, and little you are left high and dry, wilting towards teacher-training, accountancy or the dole office.

Mum, Dad!

The Imperfectly Launched Young Adults swarm home for more money.

Except Mum and Dad have no money.

Hawes wrote that in 1996. A decade on, his angry young man is as likely to be a woman. She hears that nearly everyone is middle class these days, but everyday life shows her there is middle class and then there is Middle Class. Her parents have modest savings, and helped a little with tuition fees – but that was it. She still left university with a pile of expensive debt and a cheap degree that was next to worthless because so many of her contemporaries had one too. Like a nurse I met recently who spat tacks at how the children of editors and celebrity columnists got jobs that weren’t open to the likes of her, our heroine had ambitions to go into the glamorous world of media London. She found that to gain admission she needed to have taken and partially funded not only a first degree but a postgraduate degree as well. After she had paid for her own training, she discovered, she still wouldn’t get a job that would let her begin paying her bills. Instead, she would have to endure what employers quaintly describe as “work experience”, a refined version of slavery. The deal is that she works for nothing for six months, a year or however long it takes for an employer to condescend to hire her. The employer has the profits of unrewarded labour while ensuring that what jobs there are go to the Right Sort of Person, because those without a private income cannot afford to live without a wage as a rule, our heroine included.

In the culture industries – publishing, theatre, TV, radio, film-making, the fine arts and the genteel end of newspapers – it helps to have a mummy with a spare flat in South Ken, and if her friends are your prospective employers, all the better. In 1936, George Orwell complained in Keep the Aspidistra Flying about “Snooty, refined books on safe painters and safe poets by those moneyed young beasts who glide so gracefully from Eton to Cambridge and from Cambridge to the literary reviews”. The beasts are gliding again. I’m not saying it is impossible to get a job in the arts or the media without family money and connections, but when I meet someone with a familiar name at a party, I no longer ask if they are X’s daughter or Y’s son. It only creates an awkward atmosphere.

When the BBC exploded into one of the world’s most interesting arts institutions in the Sixties, innovation came from grammar-school-educated producers and writers from modest backgrounds. At first glance, modern British institutions seem determined to foster egalitarianism. Diversity is king at the BBC and elsewhere. To be accused of racism, sexism or homophobia is a career-breaking charge because staff are recruited without regard to gender, colour, creed or sexual orientation. Yet look closer, at the men and women who make the decisions. The grammar-school boys are long gone and the managers’ diverse appearance conceals a uniform background in the moneyed class. In the name of diversity, everyone is the same. They will argue for positive discrimination to compensate for sex or race . . . but for class, never.

The striking difference from Orwell’s day is that the Cambridge graduates produce Big Brother and Ant and Dec. I can’t say that’s an advance, although obviously there is more money in it for the beasts, and from a class point of view churning out pap can help knock out the competition their children will face a generation down the line. A TV producer, who still believes the media are honourable, told me how his eyes widened at his child’s sixth birthday party. He had hired an entertainer for the sons and daughters of other media executives. Unfortunately, the act was a disaster. “Don’t worry,” the entertainer told him, “I’ll get them to guess TV show tunes. That always makes them happy.” For once, the sure-fire hit failed. The children stared at the wretched man as he played the jingles for Hollyoaks and Emmerdale. My friend learned what he ought to have guessed years before: television executives do not allow their children to watch the programmes they push at the masses. And who can blame them?

Despairing of ever working for Channel 4 or Tate Modern, our young middle-class woman decides on a middling career. Maybe she joins the public sector as a teacher, or becomes a personnel officer for a private firm. She is bright and competent and is soon earning £30,000 – well above the £22,000 average. Yet she doesn’t feel remotely well off because the gap between what she earns and what her bosses earn is enormous. Local authority chief executives are making £150,000, even though they are responsible for little more than the armies of traffic wardens who find any half-legal pretext to give her a ticket. The average salary of a chief executive is £550,000, even though neither our young woman nor any reputable economist can find a correlation between their pay and performance. They take the money because they can. The gap between £30,000 and £550,000 isn’t a difference within the middle class, it is an unbridgeable gulf between classes.

Part of her grievance is due, no doubt, to the selfishness of the consumer society that writers for the New Statesman denounce so regularly. The complaints are easy to substantiate. The British Market Research Bureau produced figures in 2003 which made the middle class look like depraved drunks at an orgy. “Luxury fever” was gripping them, the bureau declared, and the more luxuries they had, the more they wanted.

It found that nearly half of those earning more than £35,000 a year, and 40 per cent earning over £50,000, said they felt “deprived” because they couldn’t afford items they considered “essential”. They were talking about Jaguars, cosmetic surgery and kitchens with vast cookers and bigger fridges. The bureau blamed the media, particularly television, for spreading decadent tastes. In the past, middling sort of people knew their place and “set their aspirations for their standard of living by their own social class, and the people around them”. Such jeremiads contain a great deal of truth – you have only to look at the debt burden to know that – but blaming the media misses the crucial change in British middle-class life of the late 20th century. Many of today’s rich were middle class 30 years ago. The council’s chief officer did not earn five times as much as a teacher, the chief executive did not earn 20 times as much as bright young women in personnel. Thatcherism made them wealthy for no better reason than they happened to be sitting behind a manager’s desk at the moment their industry was privatised or public service commercialised. Middle-class heads were bound to be turned by the sight of conspicuous consumption with so little economic justification.

Nor do lamentations about greed and selfishness take account of the greatest cause of class tension between the top and the middle: the unselfish act of having and rearing children.

For about a month now women writers across Fleet Street have been repeating the same anecdote in angry tones. The story runs like this: City dealers with six- or seven-figure bonuses are flaunting their wealth by having four or more children. A large family shows that the hedge-fund manager or venture capitalist makes enough for his wife to stay at home – with ample support staff – and for him to educate his brood privately. The story is popping up everywhere because it hits the most sensitive of nerves. In the 21st century, having children comes naturally to the rich and to the poor, as it always has, but our middle-class woman is likely to get in all kinds of trouble if she wants to have a family.

First, she will have difficulties with men, which other women don’t have to lose sleep over. The brute economic fact is that a single mother on a council estate doesn’t have to worry about fathers abandoning their children because the state will pay for them. Equally, the wife of the hedge-fund manager may not be happy if her husband runs off with a girl from Lloyd’s, but her lawyers will make her feel better by taking a fortune in alimony. Our middle-class woman doesn’t want to raise children alone on a council estate, but she can’t be sure of having the money to raise children if her partner leaves. If he pays alimony – and most men do not – her ex is not going to keep her and her children in comfort. Even if she is confident that her partner will stay with her, they will have to find a decent home. Location is everything, as the estate agents say, but in London, the south-east, Edinburgh and, increasingly, Leeds and Manchester, good homes are way beyond their means.

The combination of social and financial pressures has produced one of the most familiar figures of our time: the middle-aged, middle-class woman being prodded by fertility doctors because finding a home she can raise children in and a man she can raise them with has taken her such a long time – maybe too long a time. She may not be starving in Darfur or living in a Glasgow slum, but it’s not a competition and her suffering is real.

If the test results are good and she is still able to have children, she will confront an education system that, despite stiff competition, remains the crowning glory of British hypocrisy. Private schools for the few and comprehensives for the many have created a structure that might have been invented by the caricature capitalist in a top hat from old socialist propaganda. Since the abolition of the grammar schools, the best schools are private, and she can’t afford to send her children there. If she wants her children to have a chance of competing with today’s moneyed young beasts, she too will have to pay a premium, not to a private school but so she can move her family to the catchment area of a good comprehensive, which in all likelihood will be far from her work.

What will she make of her country by the time she has experienced university, work and motherhood? At every stage she will have found that extremes of wealth have determined what job she can get, where she can live, when and whether she can have children and whether her children will get a good education. Ever since the Eighties, we’ve been told that the “politics of envy” is dead and it was Margaret Thatcher’s triumph to make people admire the wealthy and wish to emulate them. Maybe that remains true. But the triumph of Thatcherism was double-edged. Union militancy pushed large sections of the middle class, and many in the working class, to the right. Now the main threat to middle-class interests is from the rich.

It’s not a conspiracy. Employers aren’t consciously excluding young people on modest means, just taking advantage of the mismatch between supply and demand. The media grandees who pump out pap they would never allow their own children to watch, aren’t plotting to keep people stupid, just giving the market what it wants. Conservationists act from the highest of motives when they defend the green belt and don’t think for a moment that they are denying families affordable homes. Supporters of comprehensives believe in equality and never ask why, in 18 years of power, wealthy Tories never insisted on a return to state selection.

Tony Blair knew how the system frustrated middle-class hopes, and probably a part of him still does. The snag for Labour is that his behaviour is now an affront to middle-class values. He has made it clear that he wants to join the super-rich for whom taxes are what the little people pay. His party sells them peerages, his ministers’ spouses advise them on how to shift their fortune from tax haven to tax haven. So used has new Labour become to the world of the wealthy that it mistakes it for the whole world. The most extraordinary moment during the Jowell affair came when one Blair adviser told the Daily Telegraph he couldn’t see what the fuss was about because “everyone has a hedge fund”.

No they don’t, and Labour politicians have been fools for allowing themselves to be seduced by the funny-money men. The British middle class will make them suffer for it.

The Concerned Parents ‘ Guide to Sectarianism

Most of the commentary about tonight’s education vote will be political
thumb sucking. Is Tony Blair the new Ramsay MacDonald, cut off from his
party and dependent on the support of treacherous Tories? Has young Cameron
played a brilliant hand and made his own entry to 10 Downing Street more
likely?
Interesting and important questions, no doubt. But perhaps you would be
do better to look at the parents who send their children to London’s faith
schools to catch a glimpse of the nightmare future Blair’s education
“reforms” will bring.
It’s not the parents who hussle to get their children into faith schools
who are the nightmare: most simply want the best for their children. A
couple I know are typical. They sold up in inner-London to rent within the
catchment area of a Highgate Church of England school, which is selective
in all but name. Like so many others, they lied to the vicar and pretended
to worship a god whose existence they doubted, and moved house once their
children were safely in.
So what? ask nearly all my contemporaries. Ever since the grammar
schools went, the education system has crippled London. Terrible schools
drive parents into the Home Counties and beyond. They leave behind a
limping, lop-sided city overly endowed with the very rich and very poor,
young singles and old age pensioners, but without enough of the middle aged
and the middle class from whose ranks everyone from councillors to charity
organisers are usually drawn.
If parents want to use faith schools as grammar schools, there’s no harm
done, their argument runs, at least they stay in London. But as faith
schools expand, Catholic, Anglican and Jewish schools will be matched by
Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools. The case for them is unarguable as long as
faith schools persist unchallenged. Yet when they come, we will have the
nightmare of children divided by race and religion – the two most noxious
sources of conflict on the planet. They will grow up without friends from
other religions and with different coloured skins.
For how many white children are going to go to Muslim schools, or brown
children to Anglican schools or black children to Sikh schools? If you want
to see the effects of segregation, you don’t have to look to the US Deep
South or Apartheid South Africa – just look across the sea to Northern
Ireland.
Journalists always engage in hyperbole, so I hope I’m being serious and
restrained when I say that if Parliament doesn’t stop Blair and begin to
think about bringing a secular education system, people will gaze back from
a sectarian future and wonder what we thought we were doing when we so
casually allowed our society to be smashed into fragments.

++++

PIC
TO George Clooney’s Syriana, whose incomprehensible plot left me more
shocked than awed. If I understood him, he was trying to say that America’s
policy in the Middle East was “all about oil”.
Ah, so that’s why America insisted on sanctions on Iraqi oil from 1991
to 2003. That’s why Bush spent an enormous amount of blood and treasure
overthrowing Saddam Hussein rather than allowing his friends in the Texas
oil industry to cut a lucrative deal.
What got to me afterwards was that the reviewers ignored Clooney’s
airbrushing of history and praised his “bravery”. Dear me, it is not brave
in liberal Hollywood to oppose Bush. The brave thing to do in liberal
Hollywood is to make a film supporting American policy, which is why no one
does.

++++

WITH THE London Assembly reporting that 40 per cent of public toilets
have vanished, we arbiters of metropolitan taste are worrying about the
correct form for the caught short.
When pubs are busy, there’s no difficulty. The experienced Londoner
slips in and out without making eye contact with the bartenders or the
notice saying “Toilets Are For Customers Only”. Pubs empty of everyone
except disgustingly welcoming staff, however, are a social minefield.
You have to buy something. A pint won’t do because it will bring a
recurrence of your problem in half an hour, so my advice is to order a neat
whisky and if necessary get them in for your partner and children too.
Whisky may wreck your liver but it leaves you and your family in a fit
state to cope with the London beyond the pub doors.

++++

WITH EVEN the University of Oxford saying the internet has allowed endemic
cheating, an old debate has been settled. For decades, supporters of course
work and supporters of unseen exams have argued. “We prepare pupils for
sustained study”, said the advocates of course work; “we prepare them to
deal with a crisis”, said the advocates of exams. Different forms of
testing were meant to discriminate against boys or girls, and each side
accused the other of sexism. So it went on with good points on both sides.
With cutting and pasting from the Net, all that’s over. The only option
is to herd pupils into dusty halls, give them pens and paper and have
suspicious teachers stare at them as they sit an unseen exam. Anything else
and the results will be worthless.

The Freedom to be Stupid

You don’t have to love the English language to disapprove of The Da Vinci Code. A passing respect for your mother tongue is enough to make you wince when Dan Brown takes a chainsaw to the old girl and slices her into clichés and easy-to-assemble sentences. Why millions of people have bought the literary equivalent of an Ikea flatpack is a riddle beyond Brown’s power to solve. It is a page-turner, to be fair, with a mystery that pushes you past the arthritic dialogue of the stock characters.
But when readers turn to the final page with the reasonable expectation that the mystery of the Holy Grail will be explained, Brown refuses to oblige. Like the mediocre reporter who can’t get to the bottom of a story, he says words to the effect of ‘perhaps we’ll never know the truth’ and leaves it there.

I’m not spoiling the ending by telling you this. The problem with The Da Vinci Code is that there is no ending to spoil.

If there has been a worse book published in the past 25 years, then Holy Blood, Holy Grail could well be it. Its three authors present as plausible historical speculation their theory that Jesus did not die on the cross, but had a child with Mary Magdalene. Like so many expats, they moved to France, and their descendants became Merovingian kings in the Dark Ages. The heirs of Jesus survive to this day, feared by the Vatican and protected by an enigmatic institution, the Priory of Sion.

The authors did not withdraw the book when journalists found that their claims about the Priory of Sion came from documents forged on a cheap stencil by a French neofascist conman called Pierre Planchard, who said he was the rightful Merovingian king of France. There was no need to. Exposure of the hoax did not dent their sales, which now stand at around two million. Nor has it harmed The Da Vinci Code, which repeats parts of the story. Around five million British readers have bought one or both of these books. That the authorities allow them to vote and serve on juries should terrify everyone who cares about the good government of our country.

How much of The Da Vinci Code is – ahem – ‘borrowed’ from Holy Blood, Holy Grail is the subject of the plagiarism case at the High Court in London that enters what should be its final week tomorrow. ‘Too bad they can’t both lose,’ said Henry Kissinger about the Iran-Iraq War and I felt the same when I went to the court.

Apart from the feuding authors, no one else seemed to care about the result. The court journalists were pleased that their reports were going round the world. The lawyers were upholding the highest standards of the Bar as they declaimed ‘the Grail has spawned legends, wars and quests’ and ‘the bloodline of the Merovingians continues to this day’ without giggling once.

The only person who looked disconcerted was Mr Justice Smith, a plain-speaking judge from the Northern Circuit. As he scratched his wig and snorted into his bushy black moustache, I wondered if he was trying to work out how his blameless legal career had led to him having to listen to such tosh.

One copyright expert I spoke to shared the general feeling that it didn’t matter who won. Mr Justice Smith’s verdict would present no wider threat to the business of producing fiction and non-fiction, he said, pointing to a near identical case in 1980.

An author called Trevor Ravenscroft had ignored the Holy Grail for once and concentrated, instead, in The Spear of Destiny on the weapon used to pierce the crucified Christ’s side. Ravenscroft said it had brought evil through the ages and inspired the Nazis. He successfully sued James Herbert, a writer in the Dan Brown mould, for stealing his pseudo-history. The sky didn’t fall in and everyone from potboiling novelists to learned academics carried on as before.

Other lawyers are not so sure. David Hooper, a specialist in intellectual property, said the case was something new. The Holy Blood authors are not saying that Dan Brown had copied chunks of their work verbatim. Instead, they are suing him for taking some of their ideas, researching them, playing with them and turning them into a novel. If they win, Hooper believes a chill will go through cultural life as publishers face the next to impossible task of separating original thoughts from other people’s thoughts.

Restricting free use of ideas is the spirit of the age. Firms have claimed copyright on plants and parts of the human genome because ideas are worth more than all other assets. The World Trade Organisation recognised this when it made international acceptance of intellectual property rights one of the central aims of the drive to globalisation in the Nineties.

I hate to be the one who has to say it, but Dan Brown needs to win. If he doesn’t, free thought may be stifled in the name of protecting ideas.

An African crisis Europe can’t ignore

Because the Archbishop of Canterbury preferred twittering about gay vicars to speaking out on crimes against humanity in Sudan, we have had to look elsewhere for men and women with the moral strength to bear witness. On Friday, the staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stepped forward to fill the gap. Unfortunately, they said they were planning to cut the number of refugee workers in Darfur by 44 per cent. State-sponsored violence and counterattacks by Darfurian forces on aid convoys and civilians were making relief work impossible.

You cannot exaggerate the seriousness of the withdrawal. The African Union’s peacekeeping force in Darfur is understrength, ill-equipped, badly led and wholly unable to do the job. The Islamists in Khartoum are threatening to set al-Qaeda on the UN if it sends in its own troops. Meanwhile, Sudan is aiding rebel forces in Chad and Chad is aiding rebel forces in the Sudan. War between the two countries is a possibility.

We cannot bolt the gates of Fortress Europe and pretend the crisis has nothing to do with us. We ought to have learned by now that the people smugglers will bring in asylum seekers and, with them, new racial tensions.

We should also know that the ability of Sudan’s rulers to get away with promoting terrorism could lead to Islamist attacks on the ‘far enemy’ in Europe as well as targets in their backyard.

While we wait for the predictable consequences, this column will have a new feature: What the Archbishop of Canterbury Won’t Discuss. Coming soon: ‘The contribution of the Pope’s condom ban to the Aids pandemic’. I will run it to coincide with the archbishop’s visit to the Vatican.

Invasion of the story snatchers

The only sensible remark made about John Profumo’s sharing of Christine Keeler with a Soviet agent came from Lord Lambton, right, himself a victim of a later sex scandal. It could only have mattered if the affair had been platonic.

Just so. Nothing in the Soviet archives shows that Profumo had the urge to betray his country. Other urges were on his mind. At least in 1963, the press felt the need to justify running a juicy story. The Secretary of State for War meeting a Soviet naval attaché and a call girl at the pool of the proprietor of The Observer was more than enough.

It doesn’t work like that now. The current owners of The Observer enforce the highest standards of poolside behaviour, while today’s newspapers don’t require an excuse for invading privacy. They just invade.