Sunday, March 04, 2007

Any sensitive soul can play the chief censor these days

The British House of Fraser chain has pulled a promotional poster from its 61 department stores across the UK and Ireland after one woman complained that it was `racist'. Promoting this season's fashionable colours, the poster declared: `Black is back, White is right.' The woman who complained said these words reminded her of a 1960s racist poem. The store's management pulled the ad, seeming to accept the woman's assertion that the marketing team must not be very `culturally aware'.

Society has always had its fair share of self-appointed moral guardians, usually groups of individuals with that unfortunate combination of over-sensitivity and over-zealousness. Such illiberal groups, made up of hundreds or just scores of people, have been able to convince individuals, businesses and councils to back down over the merest slight or `risque' advert or campaign - and thus to police public space and debate. Yet now we have moved from the tyranny of the minority to the tyranny of the individual, where one seemingly thin-skinned complainant can determine what is appropriate for the rest of us to see and hear. This is more pernicious than anything Mary Whitehouse's army did in the past.

Recently, tiny groups of people, or just one person, have been able to censure other people's speech and actions. In 2004, the UK Office of Communications (Ofcom) upheld the complaints of three people who had taken offence to Somerfield supermarket's advert for a meat dish which included the use of the word `faggot', on the grounds that the word is also derogatory slang for a homosexual. spiked recently reported on a similar row over a West Midlands pub selling something called `The Michael Barrymore Pie: Faggots Swimming in Gravy' - here, too, a very small number of complaints managed to turn this misplaced piece of pub humour into a national controversy (see Why we're standing by our un-PC pie, by Neil Davenport).

A series of incidents involving `anti-Welsh racism' has demonstrated that complaints from fewer than a dozen people can lead to censure. A publican in Somerset, England who pinned a Welsh flag on her wall so that patrons could take pot shots at it on St George's Day (it was the only dragon she could find) received a visit from the police after a single complaint was made. A single viewer of BBC 1's Question Time instigated an investigation by the police into a Daily Mail journalist for supposedly having made `offensive and belittling' comments about the Welsh during the programme. Yet when 81 people (also a very small number, of course) complained about the TV ads for Pot Noodle, which depict Welsh miners digging for noodles down a coalpit, their complaint was not upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority.

Clearly this is not a numbers game. The fact that there was 81 times more indignation over Pot Noodles than there was over a journalist's comments on Question Time is irrelevant, both to the official regulatory system, where, in Ofcom's case, only one complaint is required to initiate an investigation, and to the question of free speech more broadly. Why should it be any more acceptable for one person or 81 people or 81,000 people to determine what the other 60million of us can see, hear and watch?

Even when there are `high' numbers of complaints, which apparently justify taking censorious action, we are still actually talking about tiny minorities of outraged individuals. Barclay's Bank retracted an advert showing a man being stung by a bee following 290 complaints, mostly from allergy sufferers (standing up for their `cause', presumably). A Fanta ad was pulled after 272 people complained that it was `disgusting' - it showed individuals spitting out streams of Fanta from their mouths. What kind of people could seriously be offended by that? Following the complaints, the ad was restricted to post-watershed (that is, post-9pm) TV, in case children might be tempted to copy the people in the Fanta ad and spit their drinks everywhere.

In these instances, there is not even the pretence of being democratic. Democracy is about empowering the majority over the dictates of a minority. In the new forms of minority censorship, we have the empowering of the individual; the endowing of each citizen with the power and influence to be the gatekeeper of decency. This might sound well and good.empowering even. In reality it is censorious and belittling. One might even say it is offensive.

The upholding of complaints made by a tiny group of people or even a single individual turns every one of us into the potential eyes and ears of regulators, the footsoldiers of every jumped-up interest group in the country. Take the couple of police officers who complained about an advert for a Wearside law firm. The promotional poster advertised the fact that everyone who is taken to a police station is entitled to free legal advice. It was placed opposite the main police station in Sunderland and showed an attractive woman dressed as a sexy copper waving handcuffs under the words: `It's a fair cop! (but it might not be) let [our solicitors] advise, assist and defend you.' Following the police officers' complaints, the law firm removed the poster.

This was not a case of the long arm of the law intruding into citizens' lives. Rather the couple of cops who complained were speaking as ordinary citizens, defending not the image of the police against uppity lawyers but rather the integrity of female officers against an ad they found to be `sexist'. It seems that even when the police demand censure these days, it is as small groups of offended individuals rather than as a body of armed men.

Today, it isn't only those who have been personally offended who file complaints; now the morally righteous tend to complain on behalf of others. A Swansea receptionist made a complaint to the police after she witnessed a man shout `Sieg Heil!' at an Asian woman from his car as he drove past. The man was a BNP member, and he was fined; he argued that the case should never have come to court as the victim of his spiteful words never actually complained. He has a point.

The fact that an increasing number of statements, adverts and actions are withdrawn as a result of individual complaints is the inevitable outcome of trying to defend any group from ever being offended. Today's culture of inoffensiveness, the idea that `You can't say that!' if it hurts someone's feelings, has given rise to censure based on tiny numbers of people claiming to have felt offended. Once society accepts that it is legitimate to protect individuals or groups from the subjective category of `offensive' speech or expression, then that gives carte blanche to individuals everywhere to demand the removal of things they don't like. At least the old censors claimed to be democratic, to represent a `silent majority' or `public decency'; of course this was nonsense, because in fact they tended merely to dress up their own values as the nation's values.

Today, by contrast, groups like Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority openly respond to tiny handfuls of complaints, using the bogeyword of `offensive!' to remove certain words and images from the public realm. The consequence is an unmistakable narrowing of what is acceptable and unacceptable speech, and the spread of both formal and informal speech codes. Such minority censure can only encourage ignorance and heightened sensitivity amongst the public. We might update Burke's dictum: all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to complain



It won't have made up for seeing the Presidency of the United States snatched away in a late flurry of Floridian hanging chads, but at least Al Gore now has the satisfaction of seeing his climate change manifesto An Inconvenient Truth elected best documentary film by the American Academy of Motion Pictures in that peculiarly self-regarding ballot known as "the Oscars".

As Gore beatifically absorbed the standing ovation from all those who had cruised via private jet and stretch-limo to the ceremony in Los Angeles, he could also smile in the knowledge of another piece of good news: the British Government had agreed to send An Inconvenient Truth to every secondary school in the country. Announcing this unexpected bit of promotion, the Environment Secretary, David Miliband, declared: "I was struck by the visual evidence the film provides, making it clear that the changing climate is already having an impact on our world today, from Mt Kilimanjaro to the Himalayan mountains."

I shall be fascinated to learn what accolades Mr Miliband will bestow on another film about climate change, which is to be shown on Channel 4 next Thursday. This one is different, very different. The Great Global Warming Swindle claims to be nothing less than: "The morality tale of the decade." The film's director is Martin Durkin. That name might mean nothing to you, but among many British environmentalists it is more hated than that of any multinational oil company chairman.

In 1997, Channel 4 broadcast an earlier film of Durkin's - Against Nature. This was a three-hour long polemic which tore into organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth for the way in which they sought to deny the Third World the benefits of industrialisation which have given us lives of hygiene and plenty. Durkin examined the Green campaigns against hydroelectric dams which would have brought clean water to parts of the subcontinent ravaged by water-borne disease, but which were opposed as "damaging to local biodiversity" - the same sort of argument, in fact, which caused countless millions of African children to die of malaria unnecessarily because the Green lobby successfully blocked the use of DDT.

Immediately after it was broadcast there was a concerted howl of rage from the eco-warriors interviewed by Durkin. Channel 4 felt obliged to broadcast an apology, confessing that some interviewees had been misled as to the ultimate content of the programme. Still, as Simon Hoggart wrote at the time: "The Greens have pulled the same dishonest stunts many, many times. It will do them tremendous good to get a taste of their own medicine." The then environment editor of the Guardian immediately accused the programme makers of being in league with the far right, describing them, bafflingly, as "overtly racist".

If there had been any extreme political input, it was from quite another direction. Durkin and a number of others involved in the film had in fact been closely connected to the Revolutionary Communist Party. They felt passionately that the Green Movement was a deeply reactionary form of Western imperialism, which put improvement through science and industry of the welfare of people in Africa and the Asian subcontinent below its own decadent obsessions with biodiversity and so-called "sustainable development".

A similar theme pervades The Great Global Warming Swindle. We are taken to those vast tracts of Africa where there is no electricity, and see families huddled round a fire in their mud hut. Then we are told that "five million children under five die every year as a result of respiratory diseases from indoor smoke". Remember that, the next time you read about the ecological purity of heating derived from "biomass".

Next we are taken to some godforsaken health centre in the Kenyan hinterland, struggling to get by with electricity from a dilapidated but undeniably politically correct solar panel. It just about manages to keep alive the fridge with the medicine inside. Despite such scenes, Durkin's latest effort is not a manipulative tear-jerker - there's none of Gore's politically practised treaclyness ("Our children will say: what were our parents thinkin' about?"). Most of the advocacy is handed across to a series of eminent scientists, a number of whom have been involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They all believe that man's responsibility for the slight warming (of 0.6C) over the past century is much less than the "consensus" view - and ridicule the more alarmist predictions of future "man-made" climate change.

One, Professor Paul Reiter of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, fulminates that "consensus is the stuff of politics, not of science" and says that it wasn't until he threatened legal action that the IPCC reluctantly removed his name from an assessment with which he profoundly disagreed: "That's how they make it seem that all the top scientists are agreed. It's not true."

At this point you will probably want to know: if these people claim that man isn't responsible for such global warming as has undoubtedly occurred in the past 30 years, then who or what is? The brief answer is: the Sun. Durkin gives most airtime to the theory recently advanced by Doctors Friis-Christensen and Svensmark of the Danish Meteorological Institute. It goes (I think) like this: C02 is a very small element among greenhouse gases; far and away the most significant element is water vapour - which forms clouds. When the sun is very active it emits more intense bursts of cosmic rays which, inter alia, have the effect of dissipating clouds on Earth, and therefore increasing temperatures.

On its own, this is just a theory - and not an entirely new one, but Friis-Christensen and Svensmark have accompanied it with a very detailed multi-era superimposition of global temperatures against solar activity (measured by sunspots). The correlation turns out to be striking, to put it mildly. As I said, the idea itself is not breathtakingly new: a long-dead British astronomer, E W Maunder, noted that the coldest part of the "Little Ice Age" (1645 to 1715) coincided with a period of very few detectable solar eruptions - now gratifyingly referred to in the textbooks as "the Maunder Minimum".

Even if you don't buy that, you should definitely watch the programme, if only to see the head of the International Arctic Research Centre, Syun-Ichi Akasofu, describe how "the Arctic has always been expanding and contracting ... the press come here all the time and ask us: will you say something about the Greenhouse disaster? And I say: there is none." Then Dr Akasofu emits a tiny laugh - the laugh of a true scientist at the idiocy and hysteria of the world's media and politicians



Nowadays, shopping ethically is such a mindf*ck. Once upon a time, you knew to plump for the backstreet shop that stank of hemp and was stocked with African sackcloth, but now every boutique on the high street promises to sell you something that's super-moral for the new, ethical you. It's not a question of what's hot this season; it's a case of what's right this season.

On London's Brick Lane, French boutique, Miame, sells belts made out of old bicycle tyres, instantly branding your hips with proof of your commitment to the green routine of `reduce, reuse, recycle'. If you happen to have a toddler available you can mark out its green credentials with outfits made out of discarded cord and worn-out workshirts from (a snip at just 32.99 plus postage and packaging).

Oasis and Topshop are at the vanguard of the high street green crusaders. Topshop has teamed up with People Tree to produce a range of nine fair trade tops just in time for Fairtrade Fortnight. Marks and Spencer, meanwhile, is proud of the fact that it is `the first major high street retailer' to support fair trade clothing, and it also enacts a double whammy on your conscience by promising organic fair trade cotton, using adverts to promote the range in-house, like `Bless our organic cotton socks'. It's a great way to make things difficult for Marks and Spencer's `thousands of fair trade farmers in India and West Africa': cotton is the world's most sprayed crop, using a quarter of the world's insecticides each year - for a reason.

But then there are the air miles, that indelible carbon footprint. Restitch, the small, ethical company for toddlers, has got this covered. Justin Freeman, a spokesperson for the brand, highlights that their material is all `sourced in the UK and handmade by locally based seamstresses. Moving along the line of production from raw material to shop window involves each item travelling on average less than nine miles.'

He poured scorn on other companies who make ethical clothing abroad and ship it to the UK. The concept of a product being `carbon neutral', he argued, is not one that `has been properly worked out', and lack of debate on what can be done to cancel out a garment's carbon footprint might leave `the average punter disillusioned, despondent and resigned to the status quo - still buying [children's clothes] from a supermarket for an unbelievably low price.... Someone somewhere is paying for the fact that a school uniform can be bought for œ20. You're very unlikely to meet them and planting a tree in Ross-on-Wye isn't going to effectively compensate them.'

So when you're in the city centre this Saturday, jostled by bargain hunters, red-faced and huffing in the changing rooms or queuing at the slowest till, the message is to look down at your assorted purchases and think, is it fair trade, is it organic, is it reused, is it recycled, is it sourced from the UK or shipped from abroad, how many trees have been planted for it, was it made in an ethical workplace, what are its `toxins' and what, ultimately, will its impact be on the planet? Am I purchasing a handbag or pushing the climate into apocalypse?

The irony of ethical fashion is that it demonstrates not that fashion can become ethical, but that `being ethical' is a fashion statement. Being `seen to be green' - whether it's with your hybrid car, your roof turbine or your fair trade threads - is all the rage. And if buying a recycled workshirt does, in reality, bugger all for the planet, it certainly does wonders for the mental well-being of `me, me, me'.



'Enviro-crimes' such as fly tipping, letting your dog foul the footpath and dropping litter are being dealt with in new and quite authoritarian ways. For instance, council street wardens in Gloucester, England, have taken to walking around with video cameras strapped to their heads. Anyone caught dropping litter can be videoed and a still image put on the council's website, which looks like a poor man's version of the FBI's Most Wanted List

The photo accompanying this article shows Gloucester council's latest alleged offender. (spiked has blacked out the woman's identity, on the basis that we're not really interested in doing Gloucester council's dirty work for it.) This young woman was filmed on Valentine's Day, by street wardens who were clearly not interested in spreading love. She is `suspected' of `littering offences in the city'.

Now you may not like litterbugs. However, in this woman's defence, she has not even been proven guilty of littering offences. The council wardens taking photos of those they observe dropping litter - and thus whom they suspect of committing littering offences - are overturning a fundamental principle of justice: that individuals are innocent until proven guilty. It is unclear from the council website exactly what the woman is supposed to have done, and what evidence there is to prove that she did it. Besides, why should a case of littering give the council the right to display an individual's image, as if she's a known murderer or in some other way a danger to society?

The social repercussions of naming and shaming people who litter go way beyond a potential fine of 75 pounds. Publishing these sorts of images might lead to the individual under suspicion being ridiculed, by workmates, perhaps, or strangers in the street. It could even cause them to lose their job, if their boss decides that they are a liability, someone held up publicly as being irresponsible and uncaring. This is precisely the kind of negative publicity that companies are keen to avoid, especially today, when all companies are supposed to be super green and environmentally aware.

Anyone reading the Gloucester council website - and you are forced to wonder what kind of sad individual scrolls through a council site on the lookout for misbehaving citizens he or she might recognise - is invited to provide the authorities with the alleged offender's name and address. That is, to grass people up. You can do it by email or by phone. Encouraging people to dob others in is bad enough. Encouraging them to dob others in over something as trivial as, say, a discarded Wrigley's chewing gum wrapper is bizarre.

Surely it would make more sense for council workers to walk the streets with cleaning equipment rather than helmet-video-cameras, so that they can clear up the litter rather than film people allegedly dropping it. The council puts forward a financial argument for its actions, claiming that it costs the council œ1million a year to clean the streets. Yet raising 75 pounds in fine money every time someone is spotted and convicted of littering is not going to make up such a sum of money. Rather, targeting people through the filming, naming and shaming method is about more than raising money and keeping the streets clean - it shows the extent to which environmentalism is becoming a moral crusade aimed at correcting our individual behaviour. So instead of Gloucester council collectively resolving to keep the streets spotless, it actively goes looking for `enviro-criminals' whom it can make an example of. What next? Will they bring back the stocks and encourage residents to throw gone-off vegetables (recyclable, of course) at those who have sinned against the green ethos?

This petty approach to environmental issues is not confined to littering. I spoke to an environmental health worker last week who joked that, such is her power and authority over local bin use, she is known as `Dusty Bin.' Under the 2005 Clean Neighbourhoods and Environmental Act, councils have to fulfill targets on cleaning up the environment. This means their dustbin men can now look through your recycling bin. And if you've `contaminated' it with the wrong kind of rubbish, you could be fined up to 100 pounds - never mind the privacy implications of local authorities knowing your consumption habits. There are signs of a growing opposition to this bin snooping. Someone has launched an e-petition on the British government's No.10 website to oppose `smart bins', which record what kind of rubbish is being deposited in the bin and can identify which house the said bin belongs to.

Councils should stop their fanciful hunting of `enviro criminals', and provide us instead with more bins and street cleaners.



Comment from Britain

The BBC thinks climate change is the biggest threat to mankind. Not a week passes without scary new 'revelations' about the harm being done by carbon emissions, and the inevitable admonitions that we should turn off our lights, not leave our televisions on 'stand-by' and limit our use of cars and aeroplanes. Four weeks ago, the publication of a new report by the International Panel on Climate Change was greeted by the BBC with even more hysteria than usual. The report's terrifying warnings of the effects of global warming were accorded the status of holy writ. Unless mankind quickly changes its ways, we were informed, we are many of us doomed.

Alas, the BBC evinces very few signs of reforming itself. New figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that the Corporation spent a stupendous amount on air travel in the year to April 1, 2006. There were 41,355 journeys by air (equating to almost two flights per employee), collectively notching up 125 million miles, giving an average of 3,000 miles per journey.

Anyone who knows the ways of the BBC will hardly be surprised. The Corporation is in the habit of sending dozens of employees to cover international events while other media organisations make do with much smaller numbers. Despite its finger-wagging, the BBC is prodigal when it comes to dispatching its employees around the globe. Its own Jeremy Paxman has recently rightly taken a swipe at the BBC for adopting 'a high moral tone' over climate change while doing little to clean up its own act. In short, it is guilty of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, Paxo was recently spotted driving around London in a four-wheel drive 'all road' vehicle that belches humongous amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

He would appear to be guilty of the very charge he levels at the BBC. It is an extraordinary fact that those who moan loudest about global warming, and enjoin us to alter our lifestyles so as to minimise emissions, are very often themselves prodigious producers of carbon dioxide. This is not a case of sinners who have repented urging us in the ways of righteousness. These people are asking us to do what they refuse to do themselves.

Earlier this week, we learnt that in the past 12 months the use of cars by government ministers climbed by 20 per cent over the previous year. They bang on about global warming and threaten us with new green taxes while actually increasing their own carbon emissions.

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, is another case in point. A couple of days ago, he unveiled a plan to make the capital the greenest city in the world. He wants swingeing new taxes for air travel. And yet this same Mr Livingstone and his deputy and staff have made 231 foreign trips since January 2005. The Mayor himself is a serial flyer, accounting for 15 official flights abroad during this period, few of which can have been absolutely necessary to the proper discharging of his duties.

Even the saintly American politician Al Gore, whose powerful film warned of the terrible dangers of global warming, stands accused of consuming more electricity in his magnificent 20-room Tennessee home in a single month than an average U.S. household uses in a whole year. Despite his belief that civilisation is threatened by man-made global warming, Mr Gore has been unable to summon up the will to move into more modest premises, or to live by candlelight in his existing mansion. And so it goes on. Show me a global warming zealot and I will very often show you a hypocrite.

Not long ago, the Environment Secretary David Miliband upbraided Prince Charles for flying to America to collect an award, saying 'a lot of business can be done by telephone and video link these days'. Perfectly true. Yet shortly afterwards, Mr Miliband cast aside his own video link and flew to India with a retinue of four to attend a conference on 'sustainable development and climate change'.

And, oh dear, Prince Charles himself, who has often inveighed against the dangers of global warming and made one or two minor well-publicised sacrifices, recently flew to the Gulf with an entourage of 20 in a 140-seat aircraft adapted to accommodate 29 people in some luxury. The accompanying media pack were told there was no room for them aboard the Airbus 319, and that they would have to make their own travel arrangements.

My list could go on, but the point is made. There are many powerful individuals and institutions exhorting us to change our lifestyles while doing absolutely nothing to alter their own. The rest of us - who probably account for the production of much less carbon than those who lecture us so overbearingly - are entitled to ask why we should change our ways when the global warming extremists are so often disinclined to change theirs.

What is the explanation for the startling contradiction between theory and practice on the part of these people? We could settle for the charge of hypocrisy I have already mentioned. The zealots reason with one part of their brains, and act with an another. They may think that they are so important that they should be exempt from the restrictions which they thrust at the rest of us.

There is a further possible explanation - that these zealots do not believe in global warming as unreservedly as they appear to. Even accepting the natural human tendency towards hypocrisy, it is hard to believe that so many true believers in global warming could act in total opposition to their most deeply held convictions.

Entertaining doubts about man-made global warming is hardly a crime. Though far from being a 'global warming denier', I am sceptical about the newfound absoluteness of the doom-mongers and dismayed that so many journalists, whose job it is to be questioning, should have uncritically jumped aboard the global warming bandwagon.

What is interesting, is if my analysis is right, is that some of the ayatollahs of man-made global warming should themselves harbour secret doubts which the rest of us may feel about the phenomenon. This suggests they have other motives for instructing us how to live our lives while ignoring their own exhortations. Global warming has supplied politicians and law-makers with a new lever to control and fashion our behaviour, while also offering a justification for extracting extra tax revenue.

Man-made global warming surely exists in some measure. My point is that the terror and fear which the zealots attempt to instil in us partly derive from a desire for control - and may also reflect a new puritanism. They want us to feel guilty and yet, rather amazingly, their inability to live by their proclaimed values does not induce any guilt in them.

If the zealots followed their own advice, if they showed us how it is possible to lead a full life while creating fewer carbon emissions, we would still not have the ultimate proof that global warning is man-made. But we would at least have an example to follow. No one is going to take seriously a politician who tells us to do one thing and then does another.



During a visit to the United Arab Emirates yesterday, Charles reportedly said to a nutritionist at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi: `Have you got anywhere with McDonald's? Have you tried getting it banned? That's the key.' His comments have been splashed across the press, and he's been praised by health campaigners because apparently `it is important that high-profile figures make the connection between healthy eating and wellbeing'.... Charles' comments chime with the times. It is positively fashionable to be anti-McDonald's, and to blame the Golden Arches for everything from obesity to the warping of children's minds to the destruction of local communities.

Alongside Charles' concern about McDonald's, there is the radical campaign group McSpotlight, which agitates against the building of new McDonald's restaurants on the basis that they `result in noise and disturbances at all hours' and `the smell from the kitchens, from waste storage and from litter discarded by customers may become offensive and attract vermin'. Here McDonald's is depicted as dirty, a blight on towns and villages which apparently invites vermin (are they talking about rats or the people who eat at MaccyD's.?) There was Morgan Spurlock's big-bucks box office hit Super Size Me in 2004, in which Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's grub for an entire month and discovered - surprise, surprise - that it wasn't especially good for his health. Spurlock argued that McDonald's was `manipulating' children through advertising and claimed that junk food can make kids slothful and stunt their intellectual growth. There are books about the apparently nasty contents of McDonald's food, claims that McDonald's is turning out a new generation of fat, sick kids, and calls for its ads to be banned. In Britain, Ofcom has heeded these calls by enforcing a ban on all junk food advertising during children's TV programmes.

What's behind this posh/radical campaign against a fast-food chain - the meeting of a royal mind with leftish minds over the apparent `evil' of McDonald's? It's hardly as if one restaurant chain can be held responsible for ill-health. The terms in which McDonald's is discussed - `vermin', manipulative, destructive - suggests that this is about more than food and wellbeing. Indeed, as one newspaper points out, items in Charles' organic food line, Duchy Originals, contain more calories and fat than some McDonald's fare. Where an apparently wicked Big Mac has 229 calories, 11.12g of fat and 0.93g of salt, a Duchy Originals Cornish pasty has 264 calories, 13.6g of fat and 1.25g of salt. So if you're the kind of person who worries about things like fat and salt intake, you would be wiser to wolf down a Big Mac rather than one of Charles' expensive pies.

No, this is moralism - McMoralism, perhaps - dressed up as health concern. Behind today's McDonald's-bashing there lurks a prejudice against big corporations, against industrialisation itself, the `soulless' mass production of food; there is also more than a smattering of anti-Americanism. And there is a barely concealed disdain for the McMasses, the kind of people who eat in McDonald's. What is presented as pseudo-medical concern for people's health and wellbeing is often really a judgement on the lifestyle and behaviour of a certain class of people who are presumed to be lazy, feckless, easily swayed by garish adverts, unconcerned for the wellbeing of their children and not sufficiently clued-up about how to make fresh and healthy pasta dishes from scratch. Do Charles and his strange bedfellows hate junk food, or `junk people'?



Getting your kid into a High School where he/she will both be safe and get a good education is not easy in modern Britain

So we didn’t win the state lottery: the best school in our area, our No 1 choice, turned us down. But then the odds were pretty stacked. Hearing about the oversubscribed Brighton school with 420 children chasing 300 places, I could hear London parents crying “Lightweights!” Try 3,000 applicants for 150 places.

A bus journey across Brighton to your second choice of, what, two miles max? Try sticking your tender 11-year-old on an hour-long walk-train-bus-walk schlep. Only got your third choice at the slightly less laurelled comp? Imagine getting none of your six choices and your daughter being allocated a girls’ school closed one day recently for fear of a drive-by shooting.

Sorry. Forgive me. I have been half-crazy for the past five months. I’ve avoided friends, turned down invitations. Monomaniacs, I know, are miserable funsuckers. And my head has contained one subject, spun into a myriad of permutations: which secondary school will my son attend in September? By January I’d started, for the first time, to read my horoscope. Then my son’s horoscope. Then I regressed to teenage superstitions: if I reach the bus stop before that red car passes me, he’ll get in . . . “I told you it was bad,” said a friend, who went through this a year ago. But not this bad. Perhaps she’d played it down, she conceded, because she’d felt — as I do now — silly and ashamed to admit how much she’d cared, how such a mundane event had taken over her life, stopped her sleeping right for half a year. And she’s no neurotic London yummy-mummy cliche either. Neither is another otherwise level-headed friend who’s sure the onset of a serious medical condition was sparked by her own Year 6 hell.

Why does this process rattle us so? Why were Brighton parents baying at each other across the council chamber? Because the difference between a failing school and a successful one throws up, deep in the insomniac night, two future visions of your child: an unemployable bifta-smoking wretch and a ten A-starred, shiny superbeing. And the thought of this being decided randomly by municipal computer is too much to bear.

But the best schools will only ever have so many places (even with the Tories’ wheeze that they should simply expand: like where, I often think, looking at cramped city sites? Into the middle of the main road?). And how can one complain that a fellow taxpayer who lives across town — because she can’t afford the premium-price houses abutting that school — has no right to seek a place for her child? Except that her chance reduces your own sense of control.

Politicians talk about choice, but control is what we really mean. And control is the greatest privilege of wealth. The richer we become as a society, the more we demand it, until many of us expect absolute dominion over every aspect of our lives. We are, in marketing jargon, a generation of “maximisers” who, whether buying a holiday, a fridge or a facelift, vigorously research every decision. School league tables can be a fast-track to insanity.

Other countries may send kids unthinkingly to the nearest school, assuming it will be fine. And we beat ourselves up believing that every Dutch or Spanish school is superior to anything we can create, that foreign children are superior to our own blighted youth. If only you could shop around before birth . . . Or maybe we are more individualistic, selfish even, not satisfied with good, only the best. And yet education in our overcrowded island can only be a lottery. Brighton is simply mutating from a town to the city it campaigned so vigorously to be. “It is all but impossible for parents, particularly in urban areas,” said the Commons Education Select Committee, “to exercise their preference with any degree of certainty.”

Even if — as we did — you hedge your bets by also applying to private schools, this is just a second lottery, albeit a super high-stakes golden rollover. There can be no other financial transaction where you stand waving a cheque for what, over seven years, will be pushing 100,000 pounds, hoping, praying, begging for someone to be gracious enough to take it. Only a millionaire who’d spawned a genius could truly enjoy control.

And of the two lotteries, the private is the more nerve-shattering. At least with the state system any shortening of the odds — moving house, attending church — is done by the parents. Going private means it is down to the child, who must be crammed, nagged, beseeched into taking a four-hour test — when a state primary child may never knowingly have taken an exam in his life — then submitted to interviews to be probed and measured, sorted and rejected. The thing about selection, I thought, as my wheyfaced son set off with his pencil case to yet another school gym, is it’s so damn selective.

There is no doubt, particularly in London, that the school lottery can throw children into grim, hostile places no one would ever choose. But secondary transfer is stressful for all parents, because it marks an end to our power. Children are at last granted the freedom that earlier generations had aged 8 or 9. On your child’s 11th birthday, you reach the brow of a hill and look down over a vast, open landscape. Our ability to care and protect, tying that scarf snugly around his neck against the cold, is over. He will hurtle out of the house, scarfless, a head full of unknowable thoughts, and you have ceded control to him. And then the real lottery begins.


Disarmed UK sees bigger rise in violent crime: "Regarding Tom Teepen's rant last month against the National Rifle Association: ... Yes, as Teepen says, the NRA has lobbyists with a lot of political clout. And yes, it is concerned about the Democratic majority because Democrats have historically been anti-Second Amendment. But rather than describing the NRA reaction as 'hysteria,' why don't we show a little honesty and let statistics speak for themselves: ... between 1997-2001, violent crime in the United Kingdom increased by 26 percent (no doubt one of Teepen's 'putatively civilized' countries with 'common-sense gun control'), while the gun-mad U.S. saw a 12 percent increase. The increase for 2000-2001 was 11 percent in the U.K. and 1 percent here."

Guns in Britain: "Illegally held guns are flooding Britain’s inner cities and a spate of fatal shootings in London has highlighted gun culture’s allure to disaffected youth. This comes despite the best efforts of the law and its enforcers to restrict the supply of guns. Yet, any man, woman or street urchin could own a gun in Victorian Britain — at least until 1870 when a licence fee was charged if they wanted to carry the weapon outside their home. And, surprisingly, there was very little gun crime. The right to own firearms was enshrined in the 1689 Bill of Rights (the Americans had to get their ideas from somewhere) and as late as 1900 the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, was happy to declare how much he would “laud the day when there was a rifle in every cottage in England”. There were a quarter of a million registered firearms in private hands before the First World War and the true figure was almost certainly far higher. In those years the average number of crimes involving firearms in London was 45. In 2006 it was 3,350."

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