Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Explaining the peace paradox

Much talk today about the so-called "UK Peace Index", a piece of research put about by something called "Vision of Humanity".  It shows that Britain has become "11% more peaceful" over the past decade.  In particular, there have been dramatic falls in the rate of recorded crime, especially dramatic crime - since the middle of the last decade.  The trend is a global one - at the very least, it is mirrored in other Western countries - but the fall in crime in the UK is particularly marked.

The reports led to much head-scratching among the constitutionally pessimistic media, who rely on everything becoming progressively worse.  "Despite the fall in violent crime across the country, the public tends to perceive that Britain is much more violent than it is in reality," reports the Daily Mail, with a completely straight face.  Why might the British public have an exaggerated fear of crime, I wonder? 

Still, there was a crumb of comfort for the Mail, which was able to report "wide variations between dangerous inner-city areas and far more quiet rural regions" (and to dub Lewisham the violent crime capital of England).  But highlighting these unsurprising statistics misses the point that crime has fallen everywhere, even in Lewisham, which was always going to be more violent than the sleepy Norfolk village identified as the most "peaceful" part of the country.  Midsummer Murders is supposed to be fiction, after all.

So yes, crime has fallen.  But why? When crime was rising in the 1980s, it was fashionable to blame Thatcherism, de-industrialisation, unemployment, rising inequality and other economic causes, but as the tooth-sucking Mark Easton was forced to admit, crime has continued its recent downward path despite the economic woes of the last few years and despite the fact that inequality continues to increase.  Easton however has found another convenient Lefty comfort-blanket:

Could it be that global communication, particularly the internet, is having a civilising and calming effect on people's behaviour? We live in an age when, for the first time in history, people from all backgrounds can get an understanding of how the rest of the world lives without needing to leave the comfort of their living room.

This mass socialising may be changing attitudes. In the UK there is good evidence that people are becoming more tolerant of difference and less tolerant of violence.

What this might have to do with the crime-rate is unclear, though it makes a nice change from the usual tendency to see modern communications as a horrid threat.  The internet has also spread a lot of porn, after all, which isn't usually credited with having a "civilising and calming effect" on people.  But perhaps it does.  As I noted, somewhat facetiously, this morning, most violent crime is committed by young males, who are also the biggest consumers of online pornography.  Are they masturbating themselves into a torpor, and so can't find the energy to go out and bash things about?  It's a definite possibility, I'd say.  At the very least, the figures don't lend any support to fears that a generation reared on violent and misogynistic online porn is a danger to society.

The huge fall in drinking among young people over the past decade, another thing the doom-mongers don't like to talk about, may also be connected with reducing crime-rate; but is it cause or effect, or are they both merely manifestations of an increasingly controlled and conformist society?

More excitingly, perhaps, there's the lead pollution theory put forward by George Monbiot in January.  This is the idea, for which there is surprisingly good evience, that the generation that has grown up since petrol was deleaded is less predisposed to violence than those whose infant brains were subjected to high levels of lead in the environment. 

Lead poisoning in infancy, even at very low levels, impairs the development of those parts of the brain (the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex) that regulate behaviour and mood. The effect is stronger in boys than in girls. Lead poisoning is associated with attention deficit disorder, impulsiveness, aggression and, according to one paper, psychopathy. Lead is so toxic that it is unsafe at any level.

Who knows, such a theory might help explain the hyper-violence of the Roman Empire, whose population drank water conveyed in leaden pipes.

There's an important caveat, though, which has scarcely been noticed in the coverage of the Peace Index.  A trend is not the same as absolute numbers, as this graph (provided by the researchers) shows quite dramatically:

While the graph does show big falls in recent years both in recorded crime as a whole and, most dramatically, in violent crime, these falls come at the end of a decades-long increase in both.  The trend since 1950 (admittedly, a historically low base) was consistently upwards in overall crime and, even more, in violent crime until the end of the last century.  It rose in good times and bad; during the buttoned-up, militarised Fifties and the Flower Power Sixties, under Labour governments and Conservative ones.  The overall crime rate took off in the Seventies and then accelerated further in the Eighties, reaching a peak ten times the 1950 figure about twenty years ago.  It fell off a bit under John Major and before rising under Tony Blair to its previous peak; but then it began falling again, and has fallen consistently for a whole decade. It's now down to levels last seen in the early Eighties, but is still much higher than it once was.

Violent crime shows a different profile, rising even faster with a sharp spike and peaking in 2005 at a level 28 times the 1950 level.  It has fallen sharply since, but is still above 2000 levels.  It's still around three times as high as in 1980 and sixteen times that in 1950.

Crime, then, is still high, and violent crime is still extremely high.  Despite today's superficially good news, modern Britain is still a crime-ridden, ultra-violent hellhole compared with the paradise that is was the 1950s, when Peter Hitchens was growing up and everything was safe and secure.  Nil desperandum.
Read the rest of this article

Monday, 22 April 2013

Dawkins and the Flying Horse

When religious people complain about Richard Dawkins, they generally have in mind a crude caricature of a sneering, simplistic, arrogant, complacent, rich, intolerant, unimaginative mocker of other people's beliefs. And caricature it is, to anyone who has read the man's finer books or listened to him engage in polite and respectful debate with, for example, Rowan Williams or Jonathan Sacks. (A few weeks ago I was at an event which featured the latter two and remember thinking at one point, What a shame Dawkins isn't here.)

But then Dawkins' Twitter persona is scarcely less of a caricature.

Recently, for example, he complained about his tube train being delayed because, according to an announcement, a passenger had been "taken ill". Why should a sick passenger cause a delay? he wondered. It took others to point out to him that the phrase was code for a very serious medical emergency.

Yesterday, he wondered whether it was appropriate for the New Statesman to print "as a serious journalist" articles by its former political editor Mehdi Hasan, a man who "admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse." Rejecting the inevitable accusations of Islamophobia (as well as the comment by Tom Watson MP that he was "a gratuitously unpleasant man") Dawkins went on to claim that he was merely drawing attention to double standards where religious beliefs are concerned. ("Oh for goodness' sake, I didn't say Muslims can't be journalists. I questioned the credibility of a man who believes in winged horses.")

Al Buraq, the "winged horse" that carried Mohammed to heaven

According to Andrew Brown, "the real comedy comes when he lifts his face from the pie, dripping scorn and custard, to glare at the audience who can't see how very rational he is. Because there are some people who don't understand that everything Dawkins says illuminates the beauty of reason." Sunny Hundal has also leapt on board, accusing Dawkins of indulging in "a bizarre rant" and of turning into "a pathetically confused bigot".

But neither of these pieces is much more helpful than Dawkins' own Tweets in getting to the bottom of this little spat.

For clarity, and at the risk of making it all seem rather more considered than it appeared at the time, here is a tidied-up version of Dawkins' argument regarding Hasan and the winged horse. The words are his but I've changed the order somewhat and removed the names of other Twitter users who engaged him in debate.

Mehdi Hasan admits to believing Muhamed flew to heaven on a winged horse. It's true. He admitted it to me in person and now he has repeated it in print. And the New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist. Would you take seriously a man who believed in fairies at the bottom of his garden? You'd ridicule palpably absurd beliefs of any other kind. Why make an exception for religion? Why?

Conan Doyle did indeed believe in fairies. And has been rightly ridiculed for it ever since. Isaac Newton believed in various occult things. But he did not believe in a winged horse. Yes, a talking snake is as ridiculous as a winged horse. But respectable religious journalists don't believe in a talking snake.

Some people might see no problem with going to a dentist who believes in the tooth fairy. They are welcome. I would change my dentist.

Mehdi Hasan talks a remarkable amount of good sense on most issues. But he believes in a winged horse. A winged horse! The amazing paradox is that the same individual can be very sensible on most things yet believe in a winged horse.

What intrigues me is the double standard whereby we all happily ridicule daft beliefs EXCEPT when protected by the label "religion". A believes in fairies. B believes in winged horses. Criticise A and you're rational. Criticise B and you're a bigoted racist islamophobe. The people disagreeing with me think winged horse is just as absurd as I do. Someone suggests he doesn't truly believe in the winged horse but has to pretend. I'd like to believe that because he's a nice guy and good writer.

Last word: Mehdi's absurd belief in winged horse deserves ridicule. But his being a Muslim of course does not mean NS shouldn't hire him.

That "last word" reads like some kind of climbdown, given the initial complaint that "the New Statesman sees fit to print him as a serious journalist." But I don't want to waste time making the obvious point that someone can be competent in one field while holding eccentric or irrational views about something else, especially since Dawkins himself appears to have conceded it. (I'd just say that even a dentist who believed in the tooth fairy could still be a perfectly competent dentist.)

You may, though, be wondering just where this winged horse business comes from.

It's not clear to me why Dawkins' Twitter rant happened yesterday, given that the encounter which provoked it took place last year. Hasan wrote about it in the Huffington Post in December in an article the main purpose of which was to argue that religion was rational, or at least not irrational. Here's how it began:

You believe that Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse?" That was the question posed to me by none other than Richard Dawkins a few weeks ago, in front of a 400-strong audience at the Oxford Union. I was supposed to be interviewing him for al-Jazeera but the world's best-known atheist decided to turn the tables on me.

So what did I do? I confessed. Yes, I believe in prophets and miracles. Oh, and I believe in God, too. Shame on me, eh? Faith, in the disdainful eyes of the atheist, is irredeemably irrational; to have faith, as Dawkins put it to me, is to have "belief in something without evidence". This, however, is sheer nonsense. Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?

Slight ambiguity here. Does Mehdi Hasan believed in winged horses or not? You can watch the encounter on YouTube.

"Do you believe that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse?  I'll do you the compliment of assuming that you don't."
"No I do. I believe in miracles."
"You believe that Mohammed went to heaven on a winged horse?"
"I believe in God. I believe in miracles. I believe in revelation."

Again, Hasan certainly implied that he believed in the winged horse story, but he didn't explicitly affirm it, either.  In a Tweet yesterday he finally declared that he was "not sure if I even do believe in winged horses but I do - Hot Chocolate! - believe in miracles."

To be fair to Dawkins, Hasan gave the distinct impression that he believed something that's patently ridiculous; and his attempt to make it seem all part of some wider, less obviously daft, belief in God and miracles was a bit clumsy.

It's worth asking at this point what belief in Mohammed's winged horse would actually entail. We're not talking about the general existence of Pegasus-like creatures. The existence of such a mythical beast isn't merely unsupported by scientific evidence, it would break all the laws of aerodynamics. Rather, the reference is to the significant event in Mohammed's life known as the Night Journey. In Islamic tradition, at one point in his ministry Mohammed was spirited at night to Jerusalem and thence taken on the tour of the heavens in the company of the Archangel Gabriel. In the course of the journey, which has structural similarities to that described in Dante's Paradiso, the prophet has meetings with Biblical characters including Moses and John the Baptist. The most significant part of the story, from the theological point of view, comes when Allah makes a demand that human beings pray fifty times a day. Mohammed, with a bit of help from Moses, argues that this would be a bit much, and succeeds in haggling his way down to what became the canonical Islamic practice of five prayers a day.

The story is alluded to in the Koran, but the fullest accounts are two passages in the Hadiths (the collected sayings of the Prophet, which have the status of secondary scriptures in Islam). They are fascinating in themselves. The story has features that many people would instantly recognise as shamanistic. As in a shamanic initiatory ordeal, for example, Mohammed's body is broken down and reassembled: "A golden tray full of wisdom and belief was brought to me and my body was cut open from the throat to the lower part of the abdomen and then my abdomen was washed with Zam-zam water and (my heart was) filled with wisdom and belief."

We are clearly in the realm of visionary experience. The journey takes place, by Mohammed's own account (as recorded in the Hadith) "while I was at the House in a state midway between sleep and wakefulness." The Night Journey might be described in modern terms as a lucid dream; certainly the prophet seems to have been in a state of consciousness associated with strange experiences, a state in which modern people sometimes report alien visitations or out-of-body experiences and earlier generations had encounters with hobgoblins and vampires. The commonest form of the experience is known as sleep paralysis: if it's happened to you, you know exactly what it involves. If you haven't, imagine being fully conscious while under general anaesthetic and struggling, but failing, to move.

The prophet's mode of transport, we are informed, was Al Buraq, described as a white animal, "smaller than a mule and bigger than a donkey." The texts don't explicitly say it was a horse (in fact, it seems to be smaller than a horse); they merely offer equine comparators as to the scale. However, in art Al Buraq is invariably depicted as something like a flying horse (usually with a human face, indeed, which would make Dawkins even more apoplectic, I suspect). Again, Al Buraq seems to have shamanic antecedents. Comparison might also be made with Sleipnir, the eight-hoofed horse of Odin in the Norse myths.

As should be obvious from all this, to believe in the Night Journey is not at all the same as believing in a flying horse in a literal, physical sense. Rather it is to believe that Mohammed was vouchsafed a vision of heaven, a vision that was more real than an ordinary dream, a vision that came from God and that may therefore be described as being "real". To suggest that, in his physical body, Mohammed climbed astride a physical winged horse and was carried to first from Mecca to Jerusalem and thence through the seven heavens, where he had physical encounters with physical dead prophets and was then ushured in the presence of an equally corporeal Allah, with whom he proceeded to haggle like an Arabian carpet salesman, would be absurd indeed. I don't think Mehdi Hasan actually believes that (though he's free to correct me) and I don't think any other Muslim believes that either.

To believe in the Night Journey in this literal sense would entail more than the existence of a magical horse. It would entail belief in a cosmological set-up that was disproved when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin flew to the Moon, or indeed when Galileo looked through his telescope. And if the story were literally true God himself would cease to be God and would be just another thing in the universe, sitting up there on his cloud, someone you can go and visit if he lends you his flying horse.

Dawkins is right that a belief in flying horses would not be rendered respectable or beyond by the mere fact that it features in the scriptures of a major world religion, or that it was many people's "sincerely held" belief. And there's plenty one can validly (and far more relevantly) object to in Islam, as there is in other religions. But his singling out of the flying horse story, without apparently bothering to find out what the story relates to or what believing it it actually means, is depressingly typical of his recent descent into attention-seeking superficiality.
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Why Thatcher deserves a proper funeral

Two reasoned objections to the forthcoming quasi-imperial pageantry of the Thatcher funeral in today's press, coming from different places politically but reaching very similar conclusions.

In the Guardian, Martin Kettle calls the funeral's planners "foolish" and "naive" in not seeing that the Thatcher funeral "plainly risks being an avoidable public wound that disrespects the dead and that this country, in the wider sense, does not need."  She deserves a publicly funded funeral but he worries about "the symbolism of an imperial, military funeral for a civilian politician in a 21st century democracy."  He thinks it a good principle that "public funerals for politicians should be civic, restrained and unifying, rather than military, bombastic and controversial."  He suggests a precedent in the 1898 funeral of Gladstone, who lay in state but whose obsequies were a purely civilian affair: his simple coffin "was carried across the road to Westminster Abbey on a plain funeral car, with civilian bearers for a service."

Kettle blames the present Conservative-dominated government for putting on next week's potentially divisive show, but it was actually under Gordon Brown that the arrangements for Thatcher's send-off were drawn up.  She was, according to Charles Powell, offered both a lying-in-state and an RAF fly-past, but objected to the former (which might well have degenerated into a fiasco as protesters attempted to smuggle eggs and tomatoes into Westminster Hall) and thought the latter an unnecessary expense.  That's a shame.  A salute from a Vulcan bomber and a Harrier, assuming there are any still flying, would have been entirely fitting with her triumph in the Falklands.

Indeed, Kettle is surely wrong to see her, like Gladstone, as a purely civilian figure.  The Falklands war lasted only a few weeks in 1982, but it remains the defining image of her premiership.  She may not have the direct military experience of Churchill, the last prime minister buried with comparable honours in 1965, or indeed of Mountbatten, who was given a full ceremonial military funeral in 1979 after he was blown up by the IRA.  But she was in every other sense a war leader, revelling in her relationship with the military and in her own image as an Iron Lady.  And she was greatly beloved by the armed forces.

Churchill's funeral involved far more troops than will be at Thatcher's

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne objected to the plan to give Maggie a state funeral (and technical quibbles aside, this will be a state funeral) back in 2011, "even though I accept that she was a very great woman, one of the six or seven most important and admirable prime ministers to occupy Downing Street in the almost 300 years since the office was invented."  Greatness is not enough, he maintained: "State ceremonies can be very damaging unless (as with the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton) the whole nation can come together."  It would be an insult to former miners and others who failed to share in the benefits of Thatcherism to parade her body through the streets to St Paul's.

Strong arguments, repeated today.  The official nature of the funeral, and the Queen's personal attendance, "will create very serious problems," he writes.  It "marks a betrayal of one of the most essential principles of the British state: the division between the executive and ceremonial functions."  It even calls into question the Queen's political impartiality, he thinks, and there's a risk that it will "turn into a triumphalist Tory occasion that inflicts permanent damage on the monarchy and also our system of government."

What will happen next Wednesday is, undoubtedly, very unusual.  This country, historically, does not go in for grand public funerals for politicians. Gladstone got a pared-down state funeral, as did William Pitt the Younger and the ludicrous Lord Palmerston, but there were no state honours of any kind for Disraeli, Lloyd George or Clement Attlee, all Thatcher's peers in the pantheon of historically great prime ministers.  Aside from royalty, only Nelson, Wellington, Churchill and Mountbatten (who was a sort-of royal) have had the full treatment, a select group that will now include Margaret Thatcher.  She will probably be the last, though that was also said about Churchill.

Looked at in purely domestic terms, then, Thatcher's funeral looks anomalous, provocative and divisive, as well as a security nightmare.  Unlike in 1965 or 1997, the country will not come to a standstill and crowds are unlikely to line the route of the funeral procession ten deep.  There will be protesters.  I particularly dread the prospect of pre-emptive arrests, as happened before 2011's Royal Wedding when people were rounded up by police for dressing as zombies.  Nevertheless, Wednesday's pageantry will be no more than her due, and it will be an occasion rich in history.  As most people acknowledge (including Ed Miliband, in his remarkably touching and well-delivered speech in the Commons yesterday), Margaret Thatcher was for many years a dominating presence not just in British politics but on the international stage.  This is simple fact.  Her achievements, both personal and political, were astonishing; not to mark the passing of such an extraordinary figure with extraordinary ceremonies would be unimaginative, myopic and cheap.

It would also lead to head-scratching abroad.  World leaders and former world leaders will naturally wish to pay their respects one of the outstanding political figures of the second half of the twentieth century.  Reagan, Mitterand and Pope John Paul II - her deceased contemporaries  -  all had lavish funerals as befitted their international status.  Does she not deserve to rank alongside them?  To deny her a grand funeral for reasons of precedent or etiquette would be undemocratic as well as mean-spirited.  It's a shame that neither Attlee nor Lloyd George got a state funeral (most likely because they opted for a private burial instead), but these omissions are not Margaret Thatcher's fault, and they cannot be retrospectively corrected. 

When Princess Diana was killed in 1997, it was initially suggested that she be given a modest private funeral.  As the divorced wife of the Prince of Wales, she was no longer even Her Royal Highness: to grant her a state or royal funeral would be as anomalous, pedants pointed out, as to fly a union jack at half mast from the Buckingham Palace flagpole (a gesture that public opinion demanded and eventually got).  Such unimaginative arguments were soon swept aside not just by the vast upswell of public mourning but also because courtiers and ministers came to grasp the global significance of the event.  The world expected Diana to receive a proper send off and it would have undermined Britain's reputation had she not been given one.  Unlike in 1997, the country is not united in grief; nevertheless, the death of Margaret Thatcher is an event of historic moment that must be publicly marked.

That Thatcher will be the first non-royal woman to be given such honours ought to be a source of feminist pride: not only did she smash the glass ceiling in British politics and in the Conservative party, she will also now smash the glass coffin.  About time too.  One of Oborne's complaints is that honouring Thatcher is a "betrayal of one of the most essential principles of the British state: the division between the executive and ceremonial functions".   But what this really means is that only monarchs and other royal personages are worthy of being celebrated with state pomp: that no mere commoner, however distinguished or outstanding, can hope to aspire to a state funeral.  Is that a good message to send out in what Kettle calls a 21st century democracy?  It seems rather feudal to me. 

Perhaps the answer to the inevitable divisiveness of Margaret Thatcher's state funeral is to have more of them.  It's admittedly hard to see who else currently alive would qualify on the grounds of historic and international status.  Greatness seems to be in fairly short supply at the present time.  Tony Blair, an almost equally dominant and divisive figure when he was in power, sadly pales by comparison, but who knows where his reputation will stand in thirty years' time?  But then the Republic of Ireland gives state funerals to the likes of Charles Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald. 

There are good grounds, too, for recognising contributions from outside politics.  India gave a state funeral to Mother Teresa while last year Mexico held such an event for the novelist Carlos Fuentes.  Brazil honoured Ayrton Senna in this way and will probably do the same for Pele.  I think it would be entirely appropriate for Britain to hold a state funeral for Bobby Charlton or Paul McCartney.

We live in a country that prides itself, rightly or wrongly, on the quality of our public pageantry, and on an ability (shown at last year's Olympics) to put on a good show for the world.  As the funerals of Churchill, Diana and the Queen Mother all showed, the UK knows how to orchestrate the pageantry of death before a global audience.  The funeral of Margaret Thatcher will also be a grand spectacle, watched by the entire world.  And that is something that she would surely have relished - not for any reasons of personal egotism, but for its expression of national pride and dignity.
Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Thatcherism in theory and practice

As a postscript to yesterday's offering, here's a telling extract from the article that George Osborne wrote for today's Times:

The word "Thatcherite" has become so overused and misapplied that it bears only a partial resemblance to the programme of government she undertook.  Indeed, the other day before my recent budget I was told by someone that I needed to deliver a real Thatcherite budget, "like 1981" they said, and slash taxes.  I politely pointed out that the famous 1981 budget had actually increased taxes substantially, in a determined attempt to bring the deficit down and lower interest rates -- and that I was trying to do something similar by cutting spending.

Was she ever a Thatcherite at all?  I think there's a useful distinction to be drawn between "Thatcherism", the pragmatic and cautious response to economic and diplomatic affairs that characterised Mrs T's government during at least the majority of her rule, and "neo-Thatcherism", a set of ideological beliefs and somewhat simplistic policy prescriptions based on a somewhat idealised or (as in Osborne's case) barely remembered notion of what she was like.  Read the rest of this article

Monday, 8 April 2013

Maggie the moderate

So Maggie is dead. The lady's not for returning. She has gone to the great grocer's shop in the sky, where the books always balance and the supply of jam never runs out. And we who are left on this sublunary orb cannot but be aware of the diminishment. Twitter today has not seen quite the orgy of grave-dancing that many had predicted, but even her harshest critics have had nothing else to talk about since lunchtime, and that is a mark of her historic stature. A giant has departed, the principal figure of a lost heroic epoch: as Boris Johnson put it earlier today, "her memory will live long after the world has forgotten the grey suits of today's politicians." Indeed, it will surely endure even after the world has forgotten Boris.

It's important not to exaggerate. She didn't single-handedly save Britain (had she done so, let's be honest, we wouldn't be in quite the mess we are today); nor did she single-handedly destroy the postwar settlement, a task that has been largely left to her successors, New Labour and Coalition alike. Her premiership answered some questions, but raised others that remain unresolved. She made massive political blunders (such as the poll tax) and her persona was sometimes ridiculous (but then, as Roy Jenkins wrote in his biography of Churchill, great men often have about them "strong elements of comicality"). But her achievements were real and lasting, in the eclipse of undemocratic union power and, abroad, in the defeat of communism. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment, though an accidental one, was that victory in the Falklands destroyed the credibility of military dictatorship not just in Argentina but throughout Latin America. She helped to bring democracy to two continents.

In Britain she failed, in large part because the people were not worthy of her. She wanted to create a property-owning democracy, populated by small business owners and respectable workers with their own homes and share portfolios, in which "society" was not a synonym for the state but rather a network of self-reliant and charitable families supporting themselves and looking out for their neighbours. That's what she meant when she said that there was "no such thing as society". Unfortunately, the people she emancipated sold their shares at the first opportunity and invested the proceeds in drink and cheap holidays; while those who made fortunes under her government too often failed to see any obligation to their fellows. The freedom she offered required a discipline and moral conscientiousness that she herself possessed but that too many, not being of her own wartime generation, lacked. Today's selfish and deracinated society is her legacy but was never her intention.

The Britain which Margaret Thatcher came to lead in 1979 was a vastly different place. In retrospect, the politics of her time seems strident, violent even. The language was polarised and impassioned, the issues at stake starker and more real. This is to some extent an illusion. Politics was not nearly so professionalised then. Her rhetorical style was abrasive even at the time, but less outrageously than it would be today. Politics had not yet become wholly dominated by inoffensive platitudes. Quite the reverse, in fact: Mrs Thatcher often preferred the language of confrontation to its reality, and her policies tended to be less radical than her rhetoric. If a time machine could bring the Thatcher of the mid 80s into the present day, many her policies would be revealed as well to the left, not just of the current coalition government, not just of Tony Blair, but even of Ed Miliband.

Today we appear to be in the midst of an impassioned debate about welfare, but the one thing that all parties agree upon is that benefits are too generous and their claimants largely undeserving. Yet under Thatcherism, sickness benefits were generous and nodded through by family doctors, single parents were allowed to stay at home on Income Support until their children reached 16 (Harriet Harman ended that one), while unemployment benefit was worth 50% more in real terms than it is today. There were often three million unemployed, but this woeful figure didn't lead to their demonisation nor to a Dutch auction among politicians over who would be most punitive. (Norman Tebbit suggested that the unemployed should get on their bikes to look for work, but he neither cut their benefits nor forced them to work for nothing.)

The Thatcher government increased spending on the NHS in real terms every year that she was in power. She herself talked tough on law and order, yet under her the Home Office was a bastion of liberal reform. The prison population was half what it now is (even though crime was higher) and it was her government that introduced the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, which for the first time laid down in a detailed statute the limits of police power. She faced IRA terrorism with fortitude but not with repression. Even after the Brighton bomb almost killed her and her entire Cabinet, the country didn't see the draconian laws that the Blair government introduced after 9/11. The most controversial measure was silly but harmless: a notorious stipulation that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness could not be heard on the airwaves but their words must be spoken by actors. Under Blair, they would probably have been in Belmarsh. On social issues she was not instinctively liberal, and many will never forgive her government for Section 28; yet she was one of a minority of Conservatives to vote for the decriminalisation of male homosexuality, and was personally sympathetic and supportive to many gay (but closeted) Tory MPs.

The first major politician to talk up the threat of global warming, Mrs T also did more than any previous British leader (apart from Ted Heath) to promote European integration, passing the Single European Act which opponents at the time feared would mean the end of British independence. Until Nigel Lawson's 1988 budget, the top rate of Income Tax was 60%, which today would seem impossibly high, and it was paid by all higher-rate payers, not just by millionaires. Lawson's tax-cut, moreover, came at a time when public finances were (astonishingly, it now seems) in credit. And even despite it, the total tax take was 2% higher as a percentage of GDP than it had been when she came to power. This was no profligate or ideological small-stater. Her government freed public utilities from sub-Soviet nationalisation and inefficiency, but privatisation was pursued with caution. She once said that some things could in principle never be privatised, and the example she chose was the Royal Mail.

Today President Obama paid tribute to a "true friend" of the United States, which is no more than just. But she was no-one's poodle. She opposed President Reagan's invasion of Grenada, even though he was her greatest foreign friend (would Blair have been so forthright?) and the Iron Lady was the first Western leader to cultivate the friendship of Mikhail Gorbachev; without her influence, Reagan might never have moderated his own implacable opposition to the Evil Empire.

Seventeen years after she left office, people who had looked at her as the embodiment of the Antichrist finally had a taste of power; and, their backs ensconced comfortably on ministerial chairs, began to implement policies of which she would never have dreamt. They ignored Parliamentary conventions and ride roughshod over ancient civil liberties in a manner which would have horrified the Iron Lady. But they faced not even a fraction of the screaming, hysterical opposition Margaret Thatcher had to endure.

That's partly because, being (theoretically) of the Left, they benefited from a halo effect (because they weren't evil Tories). But it's also because, unlike Thatcher, they used emollient language. Speaking in reasonable and moderate tones, they got away with far more than she ever could have done. Cameron learnt the lesson well, so that today, pursuing social policies far more right wing that she ever attempted, he yet retains the image of a moderate Conservative. And in terms of the centre of political gravity, that is indeed what he is. Margaret Thatcher set the country on a rightward course, but it was Tony Blair who made it impossible ever (or at least for the foreseeable future) to change tack.
Read the rest of this article

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Class consciousness

Britain's famed obsession with social class is alive and well. That at least seemed apparent from the response yesterday when the BBC unveiled its swanky new class calculator. The scheme, designed by a couple of academics on the back of an online survey of around 160,000, divides the country into seven groups defined by a combination of money, social behaviour and cultural interests. There's a financial and cultural elite at the top, and an economically and socially disadvantaged "precariat" at the bottom. In the middle there are five supposedly distinct forms of middle class.

To judge by the reaction on my Twitter timeline at least, the result was widespread head-scratching and dissatisfaction. And to judge by my own experimentation, the scheme is fairly arbitrary. Many people are fairly borderline. Tweak a couple of results - express an interest in jazz, say, or discover an acquaintance with the BHA's Andrew Copson - and you might move from the "emergent service workers" category into the "established middle class", or even the elite. Lose interest in the theatre and you might be consigned to the outer darkness that is the "technical middle class", where dwell computer geeks, friendless civil servants and, apparently, the Spectator's Nick Cohen. A mortgage can make all the difference between the "precariat" and the "elite". Which I suppose kind of makes sense.

The devisers of the new class system, Mike Savage from the LSE and Fiona Devine from Manchester University, claim that the scheme "doesn't define class just by the job that you do, but by the different kinds of economic, cultural and social resources or 'capitals' that people possess." But it doesn't really define "class" at all; rather it seeks to redefine it as lifestyle.

The traditional tripartite division into aristocracy, middle class and proletariat may be anachronistic, but it does at least describe something real. Historically, the upper classes enjoyed not just power but cultural prestige, while the middle classes may have envied the lifestyle and taste of the aristos but at the same time cultivated their own distinct moral values, as did members of the working class who, if (as the immortal sketch had it) "knew their place", also knew that place to be one of strong and authentic community life. Even in a society in which "everyone is middle class" (or at least in which most people are supposed to be middle class) the psychological pull of the old system remains, so that Labour peers and millionaire Guardian columnists preen themselves on their working class credentials, while old ladies living in penury and afraid to turn the heating on consider themselves solid members of the traditional middle class, though they may be thinking of breaking the habit of a lifetime by voting for UKIP.

Meanwhile, the utilitarian ABC1-C2-DE demographics used by advertisers, pollsters and social scientists, with its occupational division of society, may miss the subtlety of separating out the "technical" from the "established" middle class, but again captures the brutal reality that whatever one's cultural affectations in the final analysis it all comes down to cash. Money is the one class indicator that can't be faked - unless you're a banker, of course, in which case faking money is more or less what you do for a living. Congratulations.

For once I'm tempted to agree with Liberal Conspiracy, which concludes that the BBC class calculator "shows a poor understanding of how class actually operates" in this country (or, for that matter, in any other). For LibCon, the problem is that the widget "takes a snapshot of people at a particular time." Thus an indebted think-tank intern with a privileged background and a first in PPE from Oxford isn't likely to come out of the calculation well, even though in twenty years' time they may well be in the cabinet, while a train driver with his own home and a decent household income ranks highly (as "technical middle class", probably, unless he has an unstereotypical interest in opera and hangs out at the weekends with Andrew Copson).

At the very least the scheme looks designed to give maximum comfort to members of our preening liberal elite that their tastes and social milieu renders them superior to the benighted technocrats who have "high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged". It also seems calibrated to reassure the generation of young urban strivers that their "high levels of emerging cultural capital and high social capital" (ie, the fact that they have friends and go to gigs) compensates for their hand-to-mouth existence, minimal savings and daily-shrinking chance of getting onto the housing ladder.

The full paper on which the calculation is based is available here. It's a much more sophisticated piece of work than the "class calculator" which derives from it might suggest, and there's a good introductory section that looks at the changing understanding of class within sociology. That reveals that the authors took their inspiration from Pierre Bourdieu, who devised the categories of economic, cultural and social capital in a 1984 paper. In other words, the new model is almost thirty years old. Even if Bourdieu was on to something, the world was a very different place then.

On the plus side, the scheme does enumerate the characteristics of the elite quite accurately (not hard!) and concludes that the country is now dominated by a socially rather narrow group. Members of the elite went to Oxbridge or one of the top London colleges, are predominantly white and live in the South East. They are "a relatively exclusive grouping, with limited social mobility into its ranks"; more than half of its members were born into it. This is obviously true, and truer with every passing year.

But ironically, what this survey defines as "elite" is what most people in this country, and certainly most members of the elite, would call "middle class".

This song sums up quite neatly the characteristics of the new elite.  Note the title:

Read the rest of this article