Thursday, 26 September 2013

Why a decline in smoking led to the smoking ban

Here's an interesting graph published today by the Guardian, based on evidence provided by the Office of National statistics.


It shows the steady decline in smoking over the past forty years.  Though there have been occasional blips (the most noticeable, in 1998, is apparently due to a change in the way the statistics were calculated) the direction of travel should be no surprise: from 45% of the population in the early seventies to around 20% today.

Smokers are smoking much less, too. I was also interested to discover that the threshold definition for a "heavy smoker" is twenty a day, and that only 5% of men and 3% of women come into that category.  The figures for 1974 aren't offered, so I'm not sure if the official definition of "heavy smoker" has changed, but 20 a day was most people's idea of average back in the 70s.  It wasn't unusual to come across chain smokers getting through as many as a hundred a day.

This is, of course, excellent news, unless you're in the life insurance business or are at all worried about the implications for pensions and social care of so many more people not dying of lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases.

You'll notice that the big decline took place in the seventies and eighties, long before the ban on tobacco advertising which was introduced in 2002, let alone the ban on smoking in public places (2006) or the introduction of graphic "warning" images on all packs in 2008.  It would be hard indeed to spot any effect from any of these measures from the graph alone.  It also suggests that the pearl-clutching reaction from the health lobby when the government recently shelved plans to introduce "plain packaging" for cigarettes (ie to replace branded designs with horror-movie stills showing the effect of smoking) was overdone.  The likelihood is that smoking rates will continue to tail off - although, as the end of the graph shows (the part that coincides with all the recent anti-smoking measures) the decline won't be nearly as steep as it was in the 70s or 80s, or even the early years of this century.  That's because the practice is now largely confined to a hard core of addicts and contrarians.

The graph neatly illustrates my longstanding principle that in public health policy the sledgehammer is only brought out once the nut has already been largely cracked.  It's only when the number of smokers was reduced to a small, and increasingly unpopular, minority that it became politically advantageous to clobber them.  Prior to that, the law was based on gentle persuasion (such as small-scale warnings on packets that merely informed purchasers that "smoking can seriously damage your health") along with the general background noise of official disapproval, public education and well-publicised "quit smoking" campaigns.

All this worked - or at least it coincided with a long and sustained fall in smoking.  The above graph, on the other hand, shows a very slight tick upwards at the end (representing the last couple of years) among male smokers at least.  Could it be that the increased intolerance of the law and the ever shriller and more apocalyptic language employed by anti-smoking campaigners is actually counterproductive?  It's at least plausible that the type of person still determinedly smoking after all these years of health scares (as opposed to those who have simply failed to give up) reacts badly to the authoritarianism of bans.

The pattern revealed by the graph does, however, show something significant about anti-smoking laws.  They aren't really aimed at discouraging smoking, or protecting the health of non-smokers, or even at punishing smokers (as some pro-smoking dissidents like to think).  Rather, they are a form of bandwagon-jumping.  Measures such as "plain packaging" are seized upon by politicians seeking to prove themselves "relevant" and up-to-date, in much the same way that they pounce upon passing moral panics or promote ideas that seem popular with focus groups.  The long-term decline in smoking is a social trend for which politicians would like to claim credit.  Introducing "tough" measures that can scarcely fail - because their aim has already been achieved - and which can claim to be both morally virtuous and medically justified is almost too tempting.
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Friday, 20 September 2013

Springtime for Godfrey

In honour of Nigel Farage's reputed youthful enthusiasm for Nazi marching songs (which he of course denies) I've composed this little ditty about his outspoken colleague Godfrey Bloom, who got into trouble today for hitting the terrier-like journalist Michael Crick and naïvely using the word "slut" in its old-fashioned sense of "slovenly".  It should be sung to the tune of the Horst Wessel Lied.  I believe it's traditional to raise the right arm during the final verse.


I'm Godfrey Bloom, I fly the flag for UKIP,
I'm never short of a well-chosen phrase,
The po-faced critics scorn me but I love a good quip
To wind up women, foreigners and gays

As MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber
Against the bureaucrats I'll bravely take a stand
In Brussels you might find me drunk inside the Chamber
But never sending aid to Bongo Bongo Land

A woman's place is cleaning out the kitchen
Or failing that, a brothel in Hong Kong;
I'll have no truck with greens and their absurd religion
I'm Godfrey Bloom, so join in with my song

My forthright style and views on every issue
Embody all that's great about UKIP
I always speak my mind, and sometimes speak my fist too,
Or did till Nigel took away the whip Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

David Attenborough's Population Problem

National Treasure he may be - and pillar of the liberal establishment - but twinkly, avuncular old David Attenborough has long been a Malthusian population bore.  So it's not really surprising to find him sounding like a stuck record in the Telegraph this morning, warning that nature will take revenge on our pullulating species unless people stop having children.  Especially in the third world.  He was defending his comments from earlier this year about human beings being "a plague", saying that this was "blindingly obvious" and that the planet was "heading for disaster unless we do something." 

As for Nature's revenge - he managed to make it almost purposeful:

They've been having... what are all these famines in Ethiopia, what are they about? They're about too many people for too little piece of land. That's what it's about.  And we are blinding ourselves. We say, get the United Nations to send them bags of flour. That's barmy.

Actually, it's Attenborough who's barmy. Ethiopia is five times the size of Great Britain but has a roughly comparable population: there's plenty of room for more people. The famine of the 1980s, which indelibly fixed the world's perception of that country, was caused - and certainly prolonged - by a civil war as much as by rain failures.  The country's chronic poverty and underdevelopment didn't help much either.  Temporary famine relief is no substitute for economic development, of course, but it's more humane than sitting back and watching people die, and does at least preserve a country's human resources without which no development would be possible.  The productive parts of Ethiopia can be lush and bountiful: to suggest that it can't support a sizeable, and even growing, human population is to mistake circumstance for destiny. 

Which is what Malthusians tend to do.  Ever since Thomas Malthus proposed, in 1798, that famine and pestilence would intervene to check the increase in human population, doom merchants (and their modern descendents in the green movement) have been predicting demographic disaster.  Malthus was wrong, of course, and not for a forgiveable reason: he somehow failed to notice that he was living through the agricultural and industrial revolutions that were as he wrote transforming the world's (or in those early days, Britain's) ability to sustain a steadily growing population. 

A similar mistake was made a few decades ago by American professor Paul Ehrlich in his bestselling - but laughably wrong - The Population Bomb (1968).  Ehrlich forecast that the final decades of the 20th century would be characterised by devastating famines and the collapse of food production, to be followed by mass death.  "Hundreds of millions" would starve to death during the 1970s.  And the problems wouldn't be confined to the third world, either: by 2000, he predicted, the UK would be "a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people".  He thought that there was an evens chance that England would have ceased to exist by the turn of the century.

Trapped as he was in Malthusian circular reasoning Ehrlich didn't factor in the new agrarian revolution that was about to transform global agriculture.  One would imagine that having been so embarrassingly mistaken he would have recanted and retired into obscurity: but no, he's still actively promoting his misanthropic message even today.  The Guardian seems to give him a regular platform, often billing him as "the world's most renowned population analyst".  From last year, for example:

The optimum population of Earth – enough to guarantee the minimal physical ingredients of a decent life to everyone – was 1.5 to 2 billion people rather than the 7 billion who are alive today or the 9 billion expected in 2050, said Ehrlich in an interview with the Guardian.

"How many you support depends on lifestyles. We came up with 1.5 to 2 billion because you can have big active cities and wilderness. If you want a battery chicken world where everyone has minimum space and food and everyone is kept just about alive you might be able to support in the long term about 4 or 5 billion people. But you already have 7 billion. So we have to humanely and as rapidly as possible move to population shrinkage."

"The question is: can you go over the top without a disaster, like a worldwide plague or a nuclear war between India and Pakistan? If we go on at the pace we are there's going to be various forms of disaster. Some maybe slow motion disasters like people getting more and more hungry, or catastrophic disasters because the more people you have the greater the chance of some weird virus transferring from animal to human populations, there could be a vast die-off."

Quite mad. 

Like Attenborough, Ehrlich is one of the patrons of the pressure-group Population Matters, formerly the sinister-sounding Optimum Population Trust.  Since rebranding themselves, they've stopped publicising their preferred population levels, so it's not clear if they still advocate reducing the population of the UK to a "sustainable" twenty million.  Ehrlich's comments would however suggest that they do.  It would be unfair to describe the group or its supporters (who also include James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt) as eugenicists or misanthropes, but as Brendan O'Neill once wrote, after attending one of their conferences, "there is something unavoidably spooky about people who spend their waking hours fretting about overpopulation, and who hand out leaflets saying ‘How many is too many?’ illustrated with a picture of an innocent-looking schoolgirl (white, of course) doing population sums on a blackboard".

Contrary to Malthusian assumptions, the population does not expand inexorably until it reaches natural resource limits.  It is quite capable of regulating itself.  Human beings aren't breeding machines but intelligent and rational creatures.  The most recent UN population estimates foresee the total human population expanding from its current 7 billion to around 9 billion by the middle of this century and then, or a little later, to stabilise or even slightly decline.  It won't be pestilence and famine that halt the growth of population: the rate of growth has been slowing for decades and in most advanced industrial countries has already gone into reverse (the increase in population in the UK is largely a product of immigration). 

In country after country the pattern is the same.  As people live longer, as child mortality declines - factors that ought to spark a population boom - the birthrate goes down.  What intervenes to reduce the increase in population.  Three things, mainly: prosperity, the emancipation of women and birth control.  They tend to go together, and they happen without much prompting from Attenborough and his well-heeled friends at Population Matters.  Nor is there any need for an equivalent of China's draconian and cruel One Child policy.  The "something" that needs to be done to halt ever-rising population turns out to be a by-product of economic progress.

Nor is there any reason to suppose that scientific and technological progress will not come to the aid of a growing population, even one that as it becomes more prosperous demands a higher standard of living.  It always has in the past.  A gloomy Malthusian hunter-gatherer living at the end of the last ice age, when he wasn't warning about the looming threat of climate change (which was killing off all the mammoths and seemed likely to do the same for human beings too) would no doubt have been fretting about the capacity of the environment to support ever growing numbers of people and prophesying imminent disaster.  He wouldn't have foreseen the Neolithic revolution, still less the technological advances of the Bronze Age, to say nothing of the astounding industrial leaps of the past two centuries, all of which resulted in a more efficient use of available resources and thus enabled more people to be supported.  He would have made the mistake common to all Malthusians of imagining the natural environment as something to which human beings are subject rather than something that is made and remade by human beings.

Attenborough claimed in a lecture at the RSA in 2011 that "there is no major problem facing our planet that would not be easier to solve if there were fewer people, and no problem that does not become harder - and ultimately impossible to solve - with ever more."  But the truth is almost the opposite: the more people there are in the world, the more creativity and innovation tends to occur.  The industrial revolution was not wrought by hermits living in mud huts: it arose from the meeting of people and ideas in cities that were already expanding.  And the rate of progress has only speeded up since then. 

Attenborough's gloomy prognostications will be proved wrong - but unlike Ehrlich, he won't be around to see it.
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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Web filtering - making the best of a bad job

I've had an idea.  It probably isn't a very good one, but I offer it as a provisional solution to the looming problem of overblocking by internet filters that are supposed to protect children from porn but invariably end up by annoying everyone, children and adults alike.

It came to me while watching a debate on "protecting children from harm on the internet" at the Lib Dem conference on Sunday.  The motion being debated was proposed by the former Play School presenter Floella Benjamin, now apparently a baroness.  It was a strongly worded, Mumsnet-friendly motion, proclaiming inter alia that "the long term effects on young minds of early exposure to often violent and abusive sexual material is hightly damaging to impressionable young people and may significantly alter their attitudes to sex and violence."  It called, not merely for opt-in filters as the government wants and as the ISP industry has agreed to deliver, but for mandatory age-verification for sites offering explicit material. 

There was also an amendment tabled by Julia Cambridge, which offered slightly different proposals.  It demanded that filters should be offered to all new broadband customers and on an annual basis to existing customers.  But it also - and here's the interesting bit - demanded that:
"...when a customer who does not have a filter installed or who has a filter switched off starts loading a website which would have been filtered out that customer is made aware they have not got a filter installed/switched on and is provided with the the opportunity to install/swtich on a filter."

Neither the motion nor the amendment found much favour with the hall.  Most who took the floor spoke out against it, many making the point that filters are notoriously unreliable and catch material that is far from pornographic, including sites that are important educational resources for enquiring teenagers.  Cambridge councillor Sarah Brown complained that her own blog was banned from filtered public wifi.  Jess Palmer, a possible Lib Dem star of the future (assuming the party has a future, of course) spoke passionately and movingly about growing up as a lesbian and finding on the internet resources denied to her either at school or at home, as well as of the joys of fanfic that would undoubtedly be banned by the web filters that will some be the default setting for UK households.

Sarah Brown compared web filters to her inaccurate SatNav that apparently confused Plymouth with Warsaw.: "Automatic systems behave like this because they don’t know enough to realise when they’re doing something obviously ridiculous. They just do it anyway."

But such concerns, though true, don't seem to have deflected the government from its determination to be seen to be doing something to protect children from the big, bad internet, and now that the larger ISPs are on board it seems inevitable that the majority of the population - those who "simply click through", as David Cameron put it, or who are too embarrassed to demand adult content, or fearful of being put on some GCHQ list of porn-addicts - will soon be consigned to the "family-friendly" web.  Others, perhaps including major news sites and many independent writers and bloggers, will censor themselves rather than run the risk of being mislabelled as "adult" or "explicit".  Discussions will be circumscribed, language will be censored, creativity will be stifled.  Caution will run riot.  Most people's online experience will be of an internet designed for children and for corporate giants.

How to prevent that scenario, which even politicians acknowledge is undesirable but which seems inevitable given the fallible and play-safe set-up of algorithmic filters?

I suggest crowdsourcing.  The way to do it is hinted at in the aforementioned amendment. 

If you're a customer of TalkTalk, the one major ISP that currently offers default filtering at source, all your traffic is routed through servers run by the Chinese company Huawei.  Even customers who do not want filtering still have their traffic routed through the system, although matches to Huawei's database of blockable sites are in that case disregarded.  It seems likely that other filter systems will work the same way - opening up the possibility of customers who haven't opted for blocking nevertheless being informed that they are about to visit a contentious site. 

The conference amendment suggested that customers would then be offered the chance to change their minds about filtering, a proposal that seems frankly bizarre.  Perhaps, though, they could be given a different choice - a button to report the block as inappropriate.  Sites reported by users as having been improperly flagged could then be reviewed by human beings and, if found to be educational, or literary, or simply not pornographic, then placed on a safe list.  Thus customers who choose not to have their web experience mediated by cyber-nannies could help improve the service for those who do, mitigating the worst aspects of default filters.

I don't pretend that this is a perfect solution, or even a workable one.  But default ISP-level filtering is now an inevitability in the UK, whether we like it or not.  The question is how to make the best of a bad job.
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Monday, 16 September 2013

Yes but... the Niqab debate

Here we go again


The niqab is an anachronistic garment that oppresses women. It embodies the idea that women are the property of men, have a lesser status and are repositories of sexual temptation. It's also a security risk. It should be banned, at least in public spaces such as schools or courtrooms. We should lay down a clear principle that in our society men and women are equal.

Yes but, in our society, no-one is forced to wear it. Women who wear the niqab are exercising a free choice. It is illiberal to forbid them from manifesting their religious beliefs in the way that they choose. It also amounts to discrimination against women, because no-one is seeking to ban religious attire worn by men, such as Sikh turbans.

Yes but, what of other women and girls who might not be exercising a free choice, but whose "choice" is being foisted on them by husbands or fathers? Banning the face veil allows them to discard it without being seen as "bad" Muslims or "bad" women. Should not society be promoting these women's freedom?

Yes but, as far as we can tell, such women are in the minority. Most women who choose to wear the niqab do so entirely voluntarily, sometimes over the objection of their (male) family members. For some young women, it is almost an act of rebellion, like dressing as a goth or wearing a very short skirt might be.

Yes but, no young women are being pressured by relatives to become goths or to wear overtly sexualised clothing. And even if girls choosing the niqab are going against the wishes of their parents, they may well have fallen prey to extremists. Have you ever noticed how terrorist suspects in court are invariably accompanied by heavily-veiled wives? The spread of the niqab is a sign of growing separatism and extremism in parts of the Muslim community, and if we don't act to discourage it as a society, more young women will feel pressure to conform. We owe it to those potential victims to take a stand. Instead, naive and well-intentioned liberals fight for the rights of extremists.

Yes but, the niqab hurts no-one except (arguably) the wearer, and then only because other people discriminate against niqab-wearers. The proper course of action is to educate the rest of society to not be prejudiced against women who choose to manifest their religion in this way. There's no reason why niqab-wearers shouldn't play a full and active part in our modern, multi-faith and tolerant society.

Yes but, that's probably asking too much of other people. The human face is a highly-evolved mechanism for communication. Psychologists tell us that a high proportion of communication - perhaps as much as 90% in some estimates - is non-verbal. The ability to read in someone's face their emotions, their intentions, even their honesty is a fundamental human skill, without which social interaction would be far more difficult. It's natural to want to see someone's face; it's not some giant conspiracy against Islam. It's also natural to distrust people who decline to share their faces with other people, as if they have something to hide.

Yes but, that's still the problem of the person who objects to the niqab. It's not the niqab-wearer's problem. Not everyone relies on non-verbal communication, anyway. Some people are blind. Even sighted people in this socially networked age can have meaningful exchanges with people they have never met or even spoken to.

Yes but, why should anti-social behaviour be encouraged, or at any rate condoned, just because it is done in the name of religion? If someone wanted to go to school wearing a V for Vendetta mask, perhaps to make some political point, would that be allowed? Why give special privileges to religion? Niqab-wearers may say that they are acting out of severe religious commitment, but the niqab is not compulsory in Islam. It's the choice of an eccentric minority, which is what it should stay.

Yes but, it's not just a matter of religious choice, or personal conviction. Many niqab-wearers say they feel more comfortable wearing it. They are not sexually objectified, reduced to their outward appearance, or subjected to sexual harassment or the stares of men. The veil protects them against the misogyny of wider society. It is above all an expression of sexual modesty, an outward sign of the conviction that they do not exist purely to gratify men.

Yes but, there is no more objectifying garment. It strips away a person's individuality, reducing her to a formless, shapeless mass. Besides, it is quite false to suggest that a woman wearing a niqab is not judged on her appearance. Assumptions will readily be made about her, true or otherwise: that she is an oppressed woman, that she is a religious extremist, or that she does not want to interact socially with other people. This will necessarily reduce her engagement in society. It is also dangerous to argue that for a woman to cover her entire body, and even her face, is an expression of "modesty": it's essentially the same argument as that which tells sees short skirts as an invitation to rape. It is insulting to both men and women. It also ignores the truth that some men find veiled women sexually attractive. And have you ever read the Arabian Nights?

Yes but, the niqab still represents a powerful rejection of a sexually objectifying, superficial and decadent western culture that judges women on their personal grooming and encourages a shallow, hedonistic approach to life.

Yes but really? Among those who choose to wear it, the niqab is a demonstration of narcissistic self-absorption. It's a demand for attention, attracting the stares that it is allegedly designed to deflect. Nothing says "look at me!" quite as assertively as a niqab in a society in which it is abnormal. It's an act of cultural aggression, not of submission.

Yes but, that's not the intention. The niqab wearer doesn't want to blend in but she does want to blend out. The niqab is liberating because it allows its wearer to ignore all that and concentrate on what really matters, which might well include education itself. To restrict the niqab would therefore be to force women to conform to an oppressive social standard.

Yes but, historically the emancipation of women has always been as much sartorial as political. In Victorian times, women were dressed up like dolls and barred from most areas of public life. Demands for freedom from imprisonment in corsets and long skirts went along with campaigns for the right to vote, to attend university and to join the professions. In the 1970s, feminists burned their bras as symbols of patriarchal oppression. But the bra itself was invented to free women, who were moving into the workplace and for the first time in modern history taking their full place in society, from the restrictiveness of the corset. Feminists today decry the "objectification" of lads' mags and internet porn, but these developments take place in the context of a society that offers unprecedented and growing opportunities and freedoms for women.

Yes but, it's historically inaccurate to suggest that the niqab is associated with oppression. The only reference to veiling in the Quran involves the wives of the Prophet: their concealment was a demonstration not of their subjugation but of their high status. The burqa and similar garments were originally the preserve of the upper classes, whose women never worked and often lived in purdah, only occasionally venturing out or receiving unrelated male visitors. The veil was an expression of their superiority over women who toiled in the fields or laboured as servants. Prostitutes, too, might often be veiled, and for an ironically similar reason: as proof of their exclusivity, their unavailability even to be gazed upon by any except those who could afford to pay.

Yes but, that makes the point, surely. The concept of a woman being both veiled and playing a full part in society makes no sense. The niqab was always a symbol of separation and segregation, of demarcation: of women from men, of Muslims from non-Muslims, of the leisured classes from those who had to work for a living. Historically, veiled women may have been privileged, living in a gilded cage, but they were always essentially the property of the husbands or fathers who could afford to subsidise their enforced idleness.

Yes but, the niqab today facilitates social engagement, rather than preventing it, because it allows women who would otherwise be kept at home to go out, to study, even to work without her modesty being compromised. Surely it's better for her to be free to leave the house, even veiled, than to remain indoors? That's far more "oppressive".

Yes but, at least if the niqab-wearer remains at home she isn't contributing to the normalisation of an inherently sexist and oppressive custom. It's a counsel of despair to suggest that society's response to a manifestly regressive and discriminatory custom is to accept it because the alternative might be even worse. Banning the niqab, at least in public spaces, isn't about telling people how they should dress. Rather, it's about sending a message about what kind of society we want to see. One in which men and women are equal citizens.

Yes but, suppose it was men who were required to wear veils. People wouldn't complain then that it was a signifier of oppression. Instead, women would be demanding the right to wear veils too.

Yes but, men aren't required to wear veils, are they? That's the whole point!

And so on. For what it's worth, I instinctively dislike the niqab and find the arguments of its proponents entirely specious. I'm naturally opposed to banning things, and I don't think that French-style criminalisation of the niqab is a realistic proposition here in any case. But I do think that the French commitment to secularism embodies an important principle that is all too easily lost in the laissez-faire liberalism of the UK, which slides too easily and too often into indifference. The French authorities, it's worth noting, take a much firmer line against female genital mutilation than do their British counterparts, who have somehow managed to bring not a single prosecution.

I would also argue that the social trends associated with the niqab - political extremism, extreme social conservatism and gender apartheid - are both regrettable and potentially dangerous. I think we should take more seriously the arguments of Muslim liberals, such as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who see in the spread of the niqab the growing power of narrow and regressive forms of Islam such as that associated with Wahhabist Saudi Arabia. It's worth remembering (but usually forgotten) that the campaign in France to ban the burqa was vocally supported and to some extent led by Muslim feminists - the very people whose voices are squeezed out of the British debate.

This isn't a simplistic question of freedom of expression versus secularism or social conformism. Personal freedom is an important principle but isn't the only thing that matters, nor is it a trump card. Nor is religion.
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Friday, 6 September 2013

Coming out in Barnsley

Sixteen year olds registering at a sixth-form college in Barnsley, fabled home of Ian McMillan and Arthur Scargill, were told to fill out a form giving their details to the school authorities.  The first question, coming after the section requesting contact details, asked their gender, the second (which may have been incomprehensible to some) enquired whether their gender had changed since birth.  The third invited them to "please indicate your sexual orientation."  The options given were, in alphabetical order, Bisexual, Gay man, Gay woman/lesbian, Heterosexual, Transsexual or "Prefer not to say."

It is reported that some students were reduced to tears at being asked to disclose such personal information, not as part of an anonymous survey but on the front of a form that was designed to gather data about them as individuals.  I'm not surprised.  It could be argued that the question was optional, in that a "prefer not to say" box was provided.  But as one student was quoted as saying , she "did feel under pressure to tick a box and then if you ticked 'prefer not to say' it might make people question why you have done that."  Not all students would have felt such pressure, the breezily heterosexual ones least of all.  But it was wholly predictable that some would.

What does surprise me is that anyone imagined that putting such a form in front of sixth formers, some of whom might be vulnerable and confused about their sexuality, others of whom might be fearful of bullying and discrimination, was in any way appropriate, even in a town as blessedly free from homophobia as Barnsley.  Whoever devised and whoever approved the form should have no place in the education system, as they clearly have little understanding of sexual development or of the adolescent mind.

In what fantasy land is every 16 year-old secure and confident enough in their sexuality to be able to declare publicly - or at least to their teachers - which of those essentialist boxes they fit into?  Some will be.  But at that age, most are either at the beginning, or have not yet begun, their sexual lives.  They will have wildly differing levels of maturity.  Yet the bureaucratic mindset, which is interested merely in the assemblage of data, shows no understanding of the psychological impact that such intrusive questioning might have - if not on the majority, then on many of those whom equality laws are supposedly designed to protect.  For some of those youngsters confronted, quite unexpectedly, with a bluntly-worded request about their sexual orientation, it may have been the first time they had been expected to think in such terms.  It would have been a question better explored in a counselling session than on an official form.

When it comes to sexual orientation, the official dogma imagines a society that does not yet (and may well never) exist, one in which everyone is certain of their erotic identity and secure and confident enough openly to declare it.  Where there is no embarrassment surrounding sexuality, not even among 16 year olds, and where no-one minds intimate details about themselves being placed on a database accessible to school staff and, if the occasion arose, other professionals (and no guarantee that it would not be disclosed to their parents).  Where no prejudiced or ill-intentioned person would ever come across it, because prejudiced or ill-intentioned people are nowhere to be found in the ranks of public employees.

Barnsley College was, to begin with, predictably defensive, citing its duty under the 2010 Equality Act to collect statistical information about sexual orientation, as about gender, disability and ethnicity.  The initial statement noted merely that it was "a method of monitoring the success of protected characteristic groups."  Such weasel words, of course, reveal the true focus of their priorities: not the welfare of their students, but their data-gathering responsibilities under equality law.  But they were forced to change their tune after Wes Streeting of Stonewall, among others, criticised the form, saying that it was "not acceptable that students were asked to disclose their sexual orientation in a way that failed to respect their privacy" and that they "should have done their homework." Stonewall's own expert guide, aimed at companies employing adults, recommends that such questions be asked on detachable forms that can be separated and anonymised.  

The college has now apologised and promised a review, "taking into account feedback from our students."  Yet this apparent change of mind only underlines the manifest incompetence of the school authorities, seemingly reliant on "student feedback" to educate them that a teenager's sexuality ought not to be a matter of public record, and that they should not feel under any pressure, however slight, to disclose it. 

Even as a means of evidence-gathering, the form is basically useless.  It is likely to under-count gay and lesbian students, and those least likely to respond accurately are going to be those who might be in most need of protection.  Indeed, there is a huge incentive for those in the closet to lie because, in a society in which homophobia remains an issue, where there is even the slightest fear that the information might be misused, the only safe answer is "heterosexual": anything else, even "prefer not to say" is potentially compromising or may be felt to be so.  Is a teenager who has been bullied on account of (real or supposed) orientation then to be told that their bullying or underperformance is of no consequence because they don't form part of the school's official LGBT statistics?  Or if that isn't the intention (presumably it isn't) is that teenager, or even a teacher, nevertheless likely to think that their officially-designated status will make a difference?

Since the introduction of the public sector equality duty, there have been regular stories of bone-headed councils, quite unnecessarily, asking direct questions about the sexuality of tenants or of residents joining the local library, or even of companies asking job applicants to specify their orientation on recruitment forms.  It is unnecessary, even if the duty to collect data exists, because such information can be ascertained more accurately and with less possibility of causing offence through anonymous surveys.  I sometimes wonder if the aim isn't merely to collect information (with the laudable aim of targeting discrimination) but also to create a society in which no-one is allowed to be either private or in doubt about their sexual orientation and in which we all fit neatly into predefined boxes. 

It's certainly the case that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has regularly expressed the view that some people's reticence about sexual orientation is an obstacle in the pursuit of their utopia.  The quango has laid down making sexual orientation "a public matter" as central to its policy in the area.  It has also publicly lamented the exclusion of a sexual orientation question from the 2011 census.  ECHR advice and codes of conduct stress the importance of canvassing information from employees and service users, and it suggests re-framing monitoring as "personal information sharing" as a way of persuading the reluctant to talk. 

One EHCR report acknowledges that "data collection is not about intruding into the private lives of individuals," but then goes on to claim that the fact that some people continue to regard their sexual orientation as private holds back progress.  Openness is key.  "People should be able to have the right and choice to be open about their sexual orientation," it says - which is, of course, true.  But the EHCR seems unwilling to accept an equivalent right not to be open, partly because it seems to believe that such a desire for privacy would not exist in a truly tolerant society.  It's a form of victim-blaming that underestimates the courage that coming out still involves.

It is true that sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of and that many gay people, happily, are now proud and open about their orientation.  But you don't produce a tolerant society by causing vulnerable people shame and embarrassment or by imposing the cult of openness on people who consider their sexuality to be an essentially private matter.  That such a question should have been posed to teenagers, and with such disregard to its likely effect, is gobsmacking.  A moment's reflection should have been enough to decide that this was not appropriate.  It suggests school leaders whose brains have been reduced to mush by the bureaucratic tasks placed upon them in the sacred name of equality and diversity.
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Monday, 2 September 2013

Armchair generals underestimate Britain's influence

Here's the strangest revelation to follow from Thursday night's Commons vote, a decision that was both farcical (in the manner it came about) and magnificent (in the way it seems to have reinvigorated both the "Parliamentary" and "democracy" parts of what is mostly inaccurately called our Parliamentary democracy). It turns out that the believers in Britain's continuing role as a leading voice in world affairs, who often seem so delusional (never more so than when bemoaning the catastrophic consequences for our national credibility of not bombing Syria on this particular occasion) were right after all. The UK does still pack some sort of punch on the world stage. Just not in the way they assumed.

Large parts of the commentariat and the political leadership assumed that not joining in Obama's planned tweaking of Bashar Assad's moustache meant that the UK would never be taken seriously again. Many are still wedded to that dismal belief today. Take, for example, David Blair in the Telegraph, who seems to want to outdo his namesake in enthusiasm for war-related brown-nosing of Uncle Sam. In a hysterical piece, he writes that "by casting a grotesquely irresponsible vote, our MPs have downgraded our Prime Minister in the eyes of the world’s superpower." Hitherto, he thinks, the American president, whoever he happened to be, could rely on Britain providing "serious military capability" whenever there was somewhere that both countries agreed needed bombing. This gives the British "credibility" in Washington, he believes.

Such credibility is now at an end, thinks Blair, because of the "strange new doctrine that Parliament must approve any military action" (I think the word he's looking for is "democracy") and because of what he sees as the pacifist/isolationist tone of some of the speeches in the Commons, many of which stressed the importance of the UN. What he doesn't tell us is what such supposed "credibility" actually brings the UK, beyond patronising pats on the head at the White House (much talk of "our closest ally" and "special relationship", a phrase rational people cannot hear without wincing) and the ill-disguised contempt of the rest of the world.

A country is not strong and respected as an independent voice if its only international role is to fire missiles and drop bombs in pursuance of another country's foreign policy. Nothing proclaims weakness so much as pearl-clutching prophecies of doom from people who think that the nation is just one bombing raid away from global irrelevance. In their way, voices of the Blair (Tony as well as David) or Paddy Ashdown persuasion are just as pessimistic, just as defeatist, as those who urge Britain to give up its "post-imperial pretensions" and settle for for an international influence on a par with, say, Swaziland. They don't want this country to have actual influence either in Washington or the wider world - or, at any rate, they don't believe that such influence is possible. What they want is the appearance of influence, an illusion bought at great expense in wasted military hardware and often lives and which in any case fools no-one.

These people's greatest ambition is for the UK to be the monkey to America's organ-grinder. But who ever took the monkey seriously? The audience respects the organ-grinder while the monkey, if he's lucky, gets tossed a few peanuts. What kind of ambition is that?

Assuming you believe that Britain ought to have some sort of influence in the world, it can only exercise it by being true to its own principles or by acting in its own interests - as, for example, the French invariably do. Parliament rightly rejected the opportunity to join in with Obama's ill thought-through gesture bombing, recognising that there was nothing in it either for Britain or, more importantly, for the people of Syria. Syria isn't merely "not our war"; bombing military targets as punishment or as an expression of moral indignation isn't even our solution. ("Our solution", championed by William Hague, which strikes me as even more bonkers than the proposed bombing campaign, has long been to "arm the rebels.") It's not our responsibility as a nation, even a nation that has a few dozen Tomahawk Cruise missiles to its name, to dig President Obama out of the hole into which he dug himself by declaring his foolish "red line" last year. Even if you believe, as I do, that the Assad regime was guilty of using chemical weapons and deserves to be punished for it, there's simply no evidence that this proposed response will do anything to alleviate the suffering of the people of Syria, which is after all the only thing that really matters.

David Blair, incidentally, passes over Syria entirely, beyond the merest of nods: "let’s leave aside the case for and against the proposed strike on Syria and focus on the diplomatic consequences for Britain." A remarkable example of tunnel vision, if all-too-representative of the general tone of the commentary. This isn't about us, and it isn't about the frustrations and hurt feelings of armchair generals not being allowed to join in the fun.

But we now know the actual impact, at least in the short term, of last week's Parliamentary vote. It was to bounce a panicked (or perhaps secretly relieved) Obama into putting the matter before Congress, not in emergency session, but next week, by which time both the case for military strikes and the likely consequences will be clearer. The Francophile John Kerry might have taken the opportunity to snub Britain and wax lyrical about an "oldest ally" that was last of serious military assistance to the United States in 1782, but Obama (despite his oft-alleged Anglophobia) appears to have more sense. He realises, as many in the US do, that the UK is a serious ally and thus should be taken seriously. He appreciates, better than many on this side of the Atlantic, that when the House of Commons, despite a tradition of bi-partisanship on questions of national security and defence, declines to support a particular military course urged by the government, that this is unlikely to be a petulant whim.

Far from destroying British credibility - even in Washington - Parliament's decision to apply the brakes on the rush towards a futile bombing raid has done much to restore it. Last Thursday, largely as a result of actions by Ed Miliband that were either fiendishly Machiavellian or just plain indecisive, and a response by David Cameron that was almost an object lesson in how not to do politics, Parliament reflected the will of the nation. It taught the American president a lesson in the value of reflection and the importance of democratic debate that he has shown himself perhaps surprisingly willing to learn. It showed the world that, whatever the desire of political leaders, leader-writers and BBC war-junkies to get involved in something - anything - that the Americans want to do the UK isn't quite a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Pentagon. It began to undo some of the damage caused by Tony Blair. It reasserted the national interest.

And the world took note. It made a difference. Who would have predicted that?
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