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Wine not alcopops, anti-Tory views: my children are turning out well

Brrng! Brrng! Another call from BBC Radio Wales. As is their occasional custom, they wish me to help the good people of the Valleys who have a phone and time on their hands at lunchtime make their minds up about the burning issues of the day. In the past, I have dispensed Solomon-like wisdom on the propriety of women over 40 baring their midriff on the beach and whether it is socially acceptable to ask for doggy bags from restaurants.

As regular readers of this column might suspect, I tend to take an indulgently libertarian line on nearly all social issues. “As long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses,” is my general stand on everything (apart, of course, from voting Tory, which should be gently but firmly discouraged at all times, on the grounds that not only is it awfully bad for society as a whole, as bitter experience has taught us, but it reflects very poorly on the personality of the person so voting – as readers of this magazine hardly need reminding).

Radio baa-baa

Anyway, Radio Wales. (Incidentally, if you remember my rant against telly people a week or two ago, I forgot to point out that radio people in comparison are absolute angel baa-lambs and models of professional integrity.) Sadly, I cannot go and sit in a studio at the time appointed,
as I have a gig elsewhere. But what, I ask, would you have wanted me to talk about? “Children drinking,” says the producer at the other end. “Should you give your children booze?” “Of course,” I say, before exchanging courtesies and hanging up. And then I think: don’t the Welsh have a strong Puritan tradition? My robust defence of allowing my children a drink from time to time might have provoked a strong and negative reaction. I may have dodged a bullet.

Well, the point is all about growing up, isn’t it? I remember almost five years ago, in the first, agonising and agonised months (Greek: agon,
a struggle) after ejection from the family home, being graciously allowed to take the middle child, also eldest son, on a long weekend trip to Paris to compensate for his having missed out on a school skiing trip. (I believe the appropriate hashtag for this on Twitter is #firstworldproblems but let the record state that this represented the last time I was able to travel abroad financially unaided for . . . well, almost five years.)

He was then ten but had already shown signs that he knew how to comport himself in a public place with decorum and grace. (To my immense pleasure and pride, he still can and does.) I tenderly recall our first evening meal there together, at an outside table at a mid-range bistro – the kind the French do so well – him sitting across me, tucking in to his snails and with impeccable manners accepting and sipping from the diluted glass of wine I had poured him to accompany his meal. The waiter had observed me doing this: his look was avuncular, approving. They do this kind of thing so much better in France, like regicide and other civilised customs.

It is my habit, on first setting foot on French soil, to buy a pack of filterless Gauloises. The boy expressed some dismay about this at first and asked me what Mum would say – which I think he realised, as soon as the words were out of his mouth, was almost exactly the wrong approach – but when I pointed out to him that the only adults not smoking in Paris are tourists, he accepted that autre pays, autres moeurs.

Beer goggles

Since then, I have kept a keen eye on the children’s drinking habits. I do not want them to get up to the same kind of horrendous behaviour as I did when I was their age (the vomits, the room-spins at bedtime, the Dutch courage that enabled me to pull the prettiest and richest girl at the party), but then neither do I want to be a hypocrite.

The girl, now 17 – so, in effect, almost legal – likes gin and tonic, which looks to the casual or legally interested observer like lemonade. The boy, though, has always liked proper English bitter (pace the Beloved, who thinks that no one likes beer, they just pretend to) but it is difficult to sit even a half-pint of the stuff in front of a boy without raising the eyebrows of the censorious and others of whose business it is none.

Frankly, I think that to raise a young boy or girl who forswears alcopops and cocktails composed entirely of Red Bull and vodka (itself a highly immoral drink, unless taken neat, straight from the freezer, in a single gulp, with someone of Slavic or Finno-Ugric ancestry) shows I have been doing something right. The cherry on the cake is that they now also express viscerally anti-Tory opinions. At least the Welsh would approve of that.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, European crisis

Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
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Conservative disunity is not all good news for Labour

The Tory leadership election could squeeze Labour out of the conversation, just like Blair and Brown did to the Tories.

The first test of opposition politics is relevance. Other key yardsticks - political plausibility, economic credibility, setting the agenda and developing a governing vision - all matter greatly. But making yourself a central part of the relentless cycle of daily politics, the terms of which are generally set by the governing party, is the first hurdle. It matters not whether you sign up to new politics or old: be relevant or wither. 

The issue of relevance is becoming a pressing issue for Labour. Take George Osborne’s favoured issue of the so-called national living wage.  Leave to one side the rights, wrongs and nuances of the policy and just consider the basic political dynamic it creates.  Osborne has, quite deliberately, set up a rolling five year argument over a steadily rising wage floor. On one side, is the Chancellor arguing that his policy is the right thing for Britain’s ranks of low paid workers. Pitted against him are ranks of chief executives of low-paying big business. With each impending hike they will holler at Osborne to go no further and the media will happily amplify the row. In response the Chancellor will quietly smile.

Sure, on occasions this will be uncomfortable stance for Mr Osborne (and if the economy takes a downward turn then his pledge will become incredible; there are always big risks with bold strokes).  Yet the dominant argument between the Conservatives and big business leaves Labour largely voiceless on an issue which for generations it has viewed as its own.

We may well see a similar dynamic in relation to the new national infrastructure commission – another idea that Osborne has plundered form Labour’s 2015 manifesto. It’s far too early to say what will come of its work looking at proposals for major new transport and energy projects (though those asserting it will just be a talking shop would do well not to under-estimate Andrew Adonis, its first Chair). But there is one thing we can already be confident about: the waves of argument it will generate between Osborne’s activist commissioners and various voices of conservatism. Every big infrastructure proposal will have noisy opponents, many residing on the right of British politics. On the issue of the future of the nation’s infrastructure – another touchstone theme for Labour – the opposition may struggle to get heard amid the din.

Or take the different and, for the government, highly exposing issue of cuts to tax credits. Here the emerging shape of the debate is between Osborne on one side and the Sun, Boris Johnson, various independent minded Conservative voices and economic think-tanks on the other. Labour will, of course, repeatedly and passionately condemn these cuts. But so have plenty of others and, for now at least, they are more colourful or credible (or both).  

The risk for the opposition is that a new rhythm of politics is established. Where the ideological undercurrent of the government steers it too far right, other voices not least those within the Conservative family - moderates and free-spirits emboldened by Labour’s current weakness; those with an eye on the forthcoming Tory leadership contest – get reported.  Where Osborne consciously decides to tack to the centre, the resulting rows will be between him and the generally Conservative supporting interests he upsets. Meanwhile, Labour is left struggling for air.

None of which is to say there are no paths back to relevance. There are all sorts of charges against the current government that, on the right issues, could be deployed - incompetence, complacency, inequity – by an effective opposition.  Nor is the elixir of relevance for a new opposition hard to divine: a distinct but plausible critique, forensic and timely research, and a credible and clear voice to deliver the message. But as yet we haven’t heard much of it.

Even in the best of times being in opposition is an enervating existence. Those out of power rarely get to set the terms of trade, even if they often like to tell themselves they can. Under Ed Miliband Labour had to strain – sometimes taking big risks - to establish its relevance in a novel era defined by the shifting dynamics of coalition politics. This time around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour is up against a Chancellor willing to take risks and pick big fights: often with traditional Tory foes such as welfare claimants; but sometimes with people on his own side.  It’s also a new and challenging context. And one which Labour urgently needs to come to terms with.   

Gavin Kelly is chief executive of the Resolution Foundation