What do we think of children? Boarding schools are out of fashion because they represent ‘delegated parenthood’ and we are taught to believe that we should be very ‘hands on’ with our children, and that everyone else’s hands are suspect. We are horribly mistrustful of Michael Jackson where our grandparents loved the equally strange J.M. Barrie. But probably never before in history have so many children seen so little of their parents. This is partly because so many (mainly fathers) are absent through divorce or separation, and partly because parents are now encouraged by public policy, social pressure, house prices and the tax system to work so hard. The phrase ‘hard-working families’, so loved by the main political parties, contains a little-considered challenge: how hard can you work and still be a family? Now we have ‘Kelly’s hours’, by which schools are to be open from eight until six all the year round, so that children can have breakfast there and enjoy clubs and child care as well as education. There is obviously some sense in this — the greater incorporation of community in school, the fuller use of existing buildings, the introduction (sotto voce) of charging for non-scholastic services which are provided in schools — but is it right that the government gives so much money and attention to means of keeping children away from home? Anyone with an unhappy private education will have seen ‘young creatures on whom the sins of their frail parents had descended, weeping even for the mercenary nurses they had known, and lonesome even in their loneliness’ (Nicholas Nickleby). How long before Ruth Kelly goes one further and creates residential Dotheboys and Dothegirls Halls all over the country, which children need never leave? We were brought up to think of the Victorians as hypocrites. What will be said of our age, in which ‘the kids’ were on the lips of every politician, but so rarely by the hearth with their mothers and fathers?
The idea of a flat tax is beginning to find favour among economists and politicians. It is attractive, but if it is to succeed in Britain, it will need to change its name. If not, voters will assume it is a tax on housing, and therefore reject it with fury.
Tony Blair’s face is a study: it seems to vary so much, depending on his mood, his fortunes, his tan. Recently, it has started to look different again. Ever since he last visited Italy, health-and-beauty experts point out to me, there has been a Bride-of-Wildenstein tightness round the eyes.
Yes, it’s true that Margaret Thatcher won a great victory over Britain’s contribution to the EU budget at Fontainebleau in 1984, and yes, Mr Blair is consciously wearing her mantle (as he so often does) in his combat with France and Germany over that rebate today. But if he follows the history further, disaster will ensue. The Fontainebleau triumph persuaded Mrs Thatcher that she could shape Europe in the way she wanted, which led her to push for the Single European Act. This led, in turn, to a huge expansion of Community power, to the Delors plan (which later led to Maastricht, the single currency, the constitution), to her disillusionment with ‘Europe’ and to the fracture of the Tory top brass on the subject, which cost her her job. It looks to me as if Peter Mandelson is trying to lure Mr Blair into the same sort of ‘constructive engagement’, and hence the same self-destruction.
It was the late Denis Thatcher who most trenchantly observed the way the world was going. A friend of mine attended an official Downing Street dinner for the president of Finland in the mid-Eighties and observed proceedings. Denis was next to the president’s wife. Having talked to the guest on his other side, he turned suddenly to her and asked, through an interpreter standing behind them, ‘What do the Finns think of the Chinese?’ The president’s wife replied that they thought more about their immediate neighbours, the Russians; they did not think much about the Chinese. ‘Well,’ said Denis, ‘it’s about time they did, because there are more than a billion of the buggers.’ He was right, and he’s getting righter with every passing week. I think I agree with the Mark Steyn assessment that China’s economic prowess will not last because its political defects are too great, but the consequences of its failure may be only slightly more cheering than those of its success.
Talking to teenagers, I am surprised to find that there is one villain who dominates their life in the classroom. He is Harold Pinter. His plays, chiefly The Birthday Party and The Caretaker, are the most commonly set 20th-century books for their exams, and they find them ‘pointless’. No amount of telling them that they are ‘supposed to be’ pointless impresses them. Teachers like the plays, perhaps because they enable them to make various lit-crit arguments about ‘subverting genres’, the ‘weasel under the cocktail cabinet’, etc., but to the young they are as dusty as Kennedy’s Shorter Latin Primer was to me.
When Harold Pinter took up with Antonia Fraser all those years ago, her father Lord Longford was not, at first, pleased. (Antonia is a Catholic, and was still married, in the eyes of the Church, to Hugh.) I have heard that Frank Longford looked up Harold Pinter in a literary encyclopaedia. For some reason, he was much taken with the last line of the Pinter entry which said, ‘Above all, he is the master of silence.’ This helped to reconcile him to his future son-in-law, and he would go round saying, ‘Did you know, he’s the Master of Silence?’ rather as if it were a romantic Scottish title, like the Master of Ballantrae. For today’s teenagers, though, the Master is not silent enough.
Since I am always criticising the BBC, and especially the Today programme, time for praise where it is due. On Tuesday, this paper’s own dear Peter Oborne argued with Charlie Methven on the merits of York as the temporary home of the Royal meeting at Ascot. The two fell to disputing the distance of York, with Oborne praising it as ‘only two hours away’. Most metro-centred journalists would have let this pass, but John Humphrys was quick to point out that York is not two hours away from, for example, York.