‘Exclusive invitation: I want to hear from you, Charles’, it said in my inbox. Theresa May wanted me to take part in her ‘telephone town hall’, she told me, offering ‘an opportunity to voice your opinions and ask questions directly to me in a simple and open way’. Unfortunately, the line was open only between 7 and 8 on Tuesday night, and I was engaged elsewhere. One thing I might have asked was ‘Who do you listen to before you say something in public?’ Although Mrs May has a reputation for caution, she is capable of throwing out ideas which sound as if they have not been tested on the people they might affect. What employers — in particular, what small employers — were asked what they think of granting all employees a ‘statutory right to leave’ to give family members full-time care for up to 52 weeks? The Conservatives wish to be the party of the workers. For this to be achieved, however, they need to be the party of jobs. For jobs to exist, it must be affordable for businesses to provide them. Mrs May’s rush to impose ever more employees’ rights, regardless of cost, is happening at a time of virtually full employment. In harder times, this will falter. Then the Tories will deservedly become the party of unemployment once again.
Mrs May also promises to amend the Equalities Act to prevent employers from ‘unfairly’ dismissing those with mental disorders. It is a laudable aim, but imagine what would happen if businesses had to keep on a disturbed worker. Imagine what it would be like, not only for the employer, but for the other employees. In her speech on ‘the shared society’ in January, Mrs May pitched into the ‘burning injustice of mental health and inadequate treatment’. In doing so, she praised the ‘tremendous campaigning work by Black Mental Health UK’. Again, this was rash. Mental health is an over-politicised subject, and organisations like Black Mental Health UK help make it so. The last Labour government engaged in a programme, alleged to have cost £650 million, called ‘Delivering Race Equality’ in mental health. It was based on the contentious idea that psychiatry is institutionally racist. This was (and is) bravely challenged by Swaran Singh, Professor of Mental Health at Warwick University. He takes apart the alleged discrimination figures and points out that if you convince black people that the system is against them, you will effectively encourage them to refuse treatment. Such refusal has led psychotic black patients to kill, he says. He attacks the idea that conditions like schizophrenia are a ‘Eurocentric’ construct, and suggests that the higher proportion of mental illness in the black population can largely be explained by social factors. Migrants of all races, for example, have higher risk of psychosis than the indigenous population. A contributing factor for higher detention in some groups is differences in family support. Family breakdown is more common in Afro-Caribbean families than in many Asian ones and is also related to psychotic illness. Professor Singh went to see the Labour minister of the day and protested at the idea of race quotas for psychiatric patients: ‘Will I have to turn away a young black man who is sick because “too many” blacks are already in the system?’ The minister listened to him and changed the programme. It is worrying that Mrs May seems to be falling for the same bogus, money-wasting, empire-building reasoning that for a time fooled her predecessors.
Lord Ashcroft’s reports from his election focus groups give a flavour of attitudes. All group members were asked to name a fictional character whom each party leader most resembles. One suggested Worzel Gummidge, the scarecrow, for Jeremy Corbyn. That was what everyone called Michael Foot in 1983. I wonder if the group member was old enough to remember this, or whether the comparison just swam naturally into her mind.
Verdun Hayes, from this week the world’s oldest skydiver, can be dated almost exactly by his name. Since he was born in April 1916, it is quite surprising that he was named after the great first world war battle between France and Germany. The battle began on 21 February and did not end until 18 December 1916, so the Hayes parents seem almost prescient. It would be interesting to know exactly when he was christened. I read that his father wrote home and suggested ‘Verdun’ while serving on the Somme, so it might be that the naming of his son was a tribute to the French renewed attack there in July, which helped divert German energy from the British. When I did ‘social service’ in Slough in the 1970s, I used to visit an old blind woman who had a sister called Verdun. My in-laws’ local butcher in Kent was called Mons. It seems strange to link your baby to a battle. I can think of no other wars where this happened.
At the weekend, we went to the village of Sledmere in Yorkshire to celebrate the 60th birthday of our dear friend, Henrietta Cayzer, who is a Sykes of Sledmere. Her grandfather, Sir Mark Sykes, is famous for the Sykes–Picot agreement, which carved up the Middle East in 1916. In the village stands a striking memorial to something else Sykes did. Having served against the Boers, he realised that if there were a European war, Britain would need men to drive the horses’ wagons. At his own expense, he raised a thousand men from the Yorkshire Wolds in 1912. In the first world war, they were the Waggoners Reserve, the ‘Wolds Waggoners’. Their monument is astonishing. It is a small, rustic Trajan’s Column of their achievements. It has affecting scenes of families parting, of enlisting, of crossing the sea, and of fighting. The Germans are shown committing appalling acts with appalling expressions. One grins as he sets fire to a church. Another, sword drawn, drags a woman off by her hair. At the base, a dialect poem celebrates the waggoners (‘These steans a noble tale do tell’). The whole is oddly powerful — something unselfconsciously medieval from the century of total war.