Wednesday, 2 December 2009

On not being extremely happy

This must be one of the most bizarre opening paragraphs I've ever read. It comes from Jennifer Howse writing on the Times "Alpha Mummy" blog:

I’m in Spain writing a piece for the Times’s website and I caught the last few minutes of a Newsnight last night on Spanish TV. It featured esteemed professor of sociology Frank Furedi, author of Politics of Fear, Therapy Culture and Paranoid Parenting, talking about our outsized fear of risk in modern life, especially as it relates to children. Watching their discussion made me extremely happy to be living in the UK.

Why? Does she actually approve of the over-regulation that makes head teachers demand CRB checks of parents attending carol services, or looks set to force sixth formers to register with the Orwellian "Safeguarding Authority" in order to take part in Gordon Brown's compulsory volunteering programme? She does not. She goes on, with similar frustration to Henry Porter (though with less eloquence), to enumerate some of the absurdities that have made modern Britain a paranoid, paedophile-obsessed surveillance state unmatched in the "free world". In fact, she agrees with Furedi in his campaign against "cotton wool" parenting.

Howse objects to our "overarching culture of fear for parents and children", especially as it affects men:

Many dads I’ve talked to have described feeling conspicuous and viewed with suspicion at the local playground when they take their children. Heather Piper, a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University, described a childminder whose 18-year-old son and her husband aren’t allowed to help her with nappy changing or supervising young girls.

She worries that the sinsiter absurdities of the ISA system have slipped from the headlines. She even praises Furedi's "utterly sensible observation" "there’s a big range between the risk of breaking your neck and getting a graze on your knee and we have to know the difference."

Most other European countries seem to have escaped the quintessentially British mania, almost entirely a product of the New Labour years, which Porter admirably sums up as an "almost sociopathic" mistrust. What we see in this country, as Porter describes week after week, is an excessive concern for children as a group coexisting with the incompetent neglect of those particular children - the Baby Peters - who are actually at risk. It's the worst of all possible worlds: good, well-meaning parents faced at every turn with intrusive bureaucracy, petty-minded, suspicious officialdom and endless unnecessary lectures, while the minority of truly appalling parents slip under the radar screen. Prague-based Sarka, commenting on Porter's latest piece, notes that "even Central Europeans who are used to an amazing amount of bureaucratic regulation and interference are staring at the British in consternation".

All of which makes you wonder - if she's so despairing about the damage done to society by official paranoia and the stifling safety-first culture, why is Jennifer Howes "extremely happy to be living in the UK?" The answer seems to be that Jeremy Paxman had Furedi on his show.

Not only do we have newscasters like Paxman asking questions and follow-up questions and further follow-up questions (compare with most soft-ball interviewers on American TV) but you have academics like Furedi challenging the popular thinking that when it comes to children we need to be more afraid, more careful and more alarmist.

It's true enough that Furedi and those like him (who speak, I think, for the great majority of people in this country) are not banned from the airwaves or, for that matter, from the newspapers. There is no "popular thinking" that we need to be ever-more alarmist when it comes to protecting children. This is unpopular thinking. Indeed, it can scarcely be described as "thinking" at all; it is simply what has happened under a government obsessed by process and outcomes, which has almost no sense of the autonomy of the individual. Yesterday our probable next prime minister David Cameron railed against the Health and Safety culture, and even offered some suggestions about how its worst excesses might be curtailed. I don't doubt his sincerity. I do, however, doubt his chances of success. The damage that has been done is all-but irreparable.

The tragedy is that there is now widespread recognition of the miserable results of the government's determination to "protect" children, even widespread anger, but this is accompanied by an equally widespread shrugging of shoulders. There's acceptance, too. The headmaster who believes that Ofsted guidelines force him to CRB-check parents accompanying their children to a carol sevice - a story flagged up by Furedi, incidentally - went on record as saying "Parents accept it’s about safeguarding the welfare of children. They accept... it’s a necessary chore." Similarly, when Jeff Overs, a BBC photographer, objected to being questioned under terrorism laws for photographing St Paul's Cathedral, he was told that no-one else had complained.

Academic critics like Frank Furedi, campaigners like Jennie Bristow, and journalists like Camilla Cavendish or Henry Porter are part of a culture of dissent, along with the many blogs that concern themselves with these issues. Just look at the comments that follow Porter's CIF columns - hosted by the Guardian, for heaven's sake - if you think there's any real appetite for any more official suspicion and surveillance. The fact that Furedi is allowed onto mainstream news programme is not a sign of a healthy society, however, as Howse seems to think, because a healthy society would never have got into this situation in the first place. Instead of nodding in agreement while Furedi made his blindingly obvious points, millions of us would simply refuse to participate in this madness.

"What the hell is going on in this country?" asks Henry Porter. I don't know. But I'm sure as hell not "extremely happy" to be part of it.