Here’s a conundrum as we leave the Blair years behind us. Never has so much faith been placed in the idea of a society open to social mobility; never have so many politicians’ speeches been delivered in praise of a more classless society and the need to promote ability, regardless of background. Yet their rhetoric isn’t matched by the facts. Britain is becoming far less socially mobile. On the present indicators, we can only argue about whether it has stalled or is going backwards.
John Grieve, the long-time head of the Metropolitan Police’s Anti-Terrorist Squad, observed shortly after the conviction of the IRA men who bombed South Quay in 1996: ‘It’s great — but every time we have one of these long trials, we give the men of violence a free masterclass on how we go about protecting the public and how they can try to get around us next time.’On the day after the triumphant conclusion to the ‘Crevice’ trial, I asked Peter Clarke — Grieve’s lineal successor — about this in his 15th-floor office at New Scotland Yard.
It was pretty barmy ten years ago but now it’s downright insane. When I last dabbled in the London property market, prices were rocketing and there were half a dozen buyers for every property. These days it’s a whole lot worse but I’ve got no choice. My wife and I have a toddler nearing his first birthday and it’s becoming impossible to lug everything up the 58 steps to our top-floor flat: baby, toys, pushchair, Cow & Gate formula, books, food, wine, beer.
Nothing much is certain in British politics these days, but assuming that the next general election will pit Gordon Brown against David Cameron, we can be sure of one thing: its result will be a referendum on rebranding. Can the slick young pretender convince the cynics out there that the Conservatives are no longer a party of posh toffs with nasty views on immigration and labour markets? Can the dour old Scot loosen up a bit and stop making the electorate feel so very uncomfortable? Even with a couple of years to go (Brown being increasingly less likely to call a snap election with Labour as much in the doldrums as it is), they’re already at it furiously: Gordon with his intimate interviews and glitterati dinner parties; Dave (whose efforts to rebrand are necessarily more about his party as a whole) with his solar panels and natty webcam, his hoodie love and public support of the NHS.
Paris, 1 MayBetween two rounds of a presidential election, the city seems untypically calm. But from my observatory, two floors above the campaign headquarters of Ségolène Royal, there is a clear view of the frantic efforts underway. I have been staying in this building, with my host, a celebrated surrealist sculptor, on occasional visits for over five years. Until now its chief claim to fame has been that it was here that French Military Intelligence brought the lovely Mata Hari to be questioned in 1917 before she was taken out to be shot on trumped-up charges of espionage.
I wish to write about a place of which I know everything yet nothing, where everything is familiar yet strange, a place where I feel I go too often, but never quite enough. This place is the same for everyone, only different. It is called, of course, Home — not the Home where you now live, but the Home where you were born and in which all things must start. I used to live in Kuala Lumpur. That is, until I was 15 and my mother rode the Ekspres Rakyat with me to Singapore, where I was to continue my studies.