Like most parents, Liz Truss appears to be making it up as she goes along

Isn’t it only a few weeks since the PM’s advisor on childhood Claire Perry was claiming that children’s lives were over-regimented and that the little blighters needed to be bored?

 

This morning I woke up to two things: the claim that Tory minister Elizabeth Truss thinks today’s toddlers are “running around with no sense of purpose”, and my own three-year old, hellbent on making me read Baker’s Cat for the millionth time running and refusing to take a mumbled “can’t you look at the nice pictures?” for an answer.

Much as I would have liked to ponder the former, the latter meant I didn’t have time. I had a book to read, several times over, with actions and exaggerated sing-song voices, otherwise - “Mummy, you’ve not done it properly!” Toddlers don’t need teaching anything about purpose. On the contrary, they could show the rest of us a thing or two about identifying a goal and sticking to it, crushing the will of all who stand in their way.

To be fair, it now turns out that Truss didn’t actually say that it’s toddlers who are “running around with no sense of purpose”.  The Mail just made it sound like she did. In her interview with the newspaper Truss was actually describing her encounters with free-flow play in nurseries:

I have seen too many chaotic settings, where children are running around. There’s no sense of purpose.

So it’s not the children but the overall setting. Even so, I’m confused. Isn’t it only a few weeks since the PM’s advisor on childhood Claire Perry was claiming that children’s lives were over-regimented and that the little blighters needed to be bored? But now it turns out that a lack of structure is the problem. And besides, if it’s nurseries in particular we’re talking about, should children be in them at all? It’s not long since Swedish childcare expert Jonas Himmelstrand was briefing MPs on the evils of “separating children from their mothers”, much to the approval of yet another Tory, David Davies. Only it turns out Himmelstrand’s not that much of an expert after all.

Ho hum. I guess if there’s one thing we can learn from this, it’s that Tories don’t agree on childcare. Or perhaps they do but they’re just making it up as they go along, with frequent about-turns, in much the same way as most parents make things up, although minus the usual guilt and self-doubt.

In a nice, Gove-esque touch, Truss refers to one specific detail within the vast cultural context of another country in order to back up her current argument. In this case the country is France. This is because, as we all know, French children don’t throw food. They don’t talk back, either. I mean, they might grow up to be more prone than most to take to the streets in mass industrial protests (look, I know these are crass national stereotypes, but hey, I didn’t start it). According to Truss, French nurseries are where it’s at:

What you notice in French nurseries is just how calm they are. All of their classes are structured and led by teachers. It’s a requirement. They learn to socialise with each other, pay attention to the teacher and develop good manners, which is not the case in too many nurseries in Britain.’

Oh, and another thing I’ve just remembered: the French mums of all these well-behaved children don’t get fat, which is an added bonus. So yeah, French nurseries! Vive la difference! Or rather not la difference, the opposite (is there a French translation for “out of context  detail that we should all copy”?).

I don’t doubt that French childrearing methods – looked at in their entirety – differ somewhat from English ones. I’m less sure how much it matters. In  the interests of fairness, I’ve even conducted my own experiment. When some French friends of mine decided to have a baby, I decided to have one, too (I was quite keen on the idea anyhow, but the main reason was so that I could write this one paragraph right now).

Three years on, both of our children are at nursery, or rather French Child is à l‘école, where he learns to sit still and recite, while English Child is at Monkey Puzzle, where he runs around with Early Learning Centre pans on his head. And when they meet up the two of them appear remarkably similar and get along just fine (apart from that one time English Child sent French Child to A&E with an “overenthusiastic” hug, but we don’t like to talk about that now). What’s more, I don’t think you gain much by tinkering with early years education to ensure youngsters are “disciplined” if there aren’t opportunities to offer them later. Might as well let them be creative. That way they can at least pretend to have jobs once they’re older and/or paint more imaginative placards once they take to the streets.

That said, I suppose in the meantime there is a degree to which we’re not harnessing the sheer bloody-mindedness of toddlers while we can. If we put our minds to it, we could probably out-do the French on that score. I think back to when my eldest was two and totally obsessed with taking everything out of the kitchen cupboards and loading it into the washing machine. If you asked him why he’d just look at you and say, like some wild-eyed prophet, “--’chine! ‘chine! ‘CHINE!” The almost mythical determination to complete such a futile, repetitive task carries within it a message for us all.

I’m just not sure I, nor any “expert” MP, is capable of knowing what to do with it yet.

A group of toddlers with a strong sense of purpose. Photo: Getty

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle