Macho man v new man? Who cares? Give me a poet any day

In the latest volume of her autobiography, the writer Emma Tennant reminisces about her lusty affair with the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes. In 1976, after a drink at a bar in Notting Hill, Hughes invited Tennant back to his lair in Tufnell Park, north London. Here, amid "rumpled sheets" and "piles of typescripts", the two indulged their illicit passion.

In a comic if unwitting coincidence, Tennant's revelation of her panting and bone-crunching sessions with the married Poet Laureate was published on the same day that the Prime Minister launched his moral crusade for the nation. The bard of the bad and the bawdy provided a wonderful contrast to the pope of new Labour - and reminded us why in these pi and prosaic times, poets are seductive and poet laureates irresistible.

Blair beat his chest and the back-to-basics drum, delivering a sermon about ideal virtues in an ideal world; the dead poet, meanwhile, lured us with a come-hither wink to accept a reality where basic instincts may be curbed but can't be killed. While Tony soberly told us how to keep teenage sex at bay - curfews, sex education and the CSA chasing 16-year-old boys - Ted's ghost spoke seductively of yielding to temptations of the flesh. Probity v poetry: no prizes for who can guess the winner.

There is nothing new in the poet's allure. Since the days of Pindar, the bard has been the object of fascination and adoration for seeing the lyrical in the quotidian and giving rhythm to the prosaic. Cyrano used poems, not diamonds, to court Roxanne; Romeo pledged his troth to Juliet in rhyming couplets, not a short story.

Today, the verse-crafter's appeal is even stronger. For those who seek an exit visa from Blair's moral nation, he is both guide and example. He alone is given licence to extol - and experience - "irregular" relationships. Echoing Lord Byron and his incestuous love for his half-sister, Augusta, and Paul Verlaine and his homosexual passion for Rimbaud, the bards ignore virtuous living and thumb their nose at establishment values. Truth is beauty, not some ethical principle; decadence is inevitable, not some heinous sin.

In real life, as in iambic pentameter, the bard blurs boundaries between what is acceptable and what isn't: he won't offer a prescription for the way to live, only a lesson in how to make life more bearable.

Not all poets - and certainly not all poet laureates - prove the exception to the moral majority rule. Yet even without the excitement of adulterous trysts or gay romps, the poet of today finds us an eager audience. How welcome, his nuances and elliptical messages amid our nineties' exhibitionism. Confessional television and celebrities' posturings leave nothing to the imagination; daily, prurient papers drag us into the domestic lives of the Ian McEwans, Tara Palmer-Tomkinsons and Emma Tennants. This over-exposure bleaches our lives of mystery and romance - which become relegated instead to poetry, with its nameless love objects, echoes of the past and the subtlest of allusions to contemporary debate.

Here the literal must be interpreted, meaning can be multi-layered and the bald statement gives way to suggestion. There is no romance in the in-your-face; but there is, plenty, in verse, where subtlety and rhythm lend the most pedestrian content beauteous form.

Finally, the poet holds out the promise of the greatest adventure to his disciples: immortality. Whether as muse or subject, the love object will live beyond the grave - unlined by old age, unhindered by ill health, unrestrained by new Labour's moral corset. It is this vision that seals the poet's attractions. Machos are for hunting, gathering - and grunting. New men are for sharing, caring - and housekeeping. But poets are for ever.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics

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Why Theresa May is wrong about immigration

The inconvenient truth: migration helps Britain.

Immigration is a disaster. Well, Theresa May says so, anyway.

May’s speech to the Conservative conference is straight out of the Ukip playbook – which is rather curious, given that she has held the post of Home Secretary for five years, and is the longest-serving holder of the office for half a century. It is crass and expedient tub-thumping (as James Kirkup has brilliantly exposed). And what May is saying is not even true. These are saloon-bar claims, and it is striking that she should unleash them on the Conservative party conference.

“When immigration is too high, when the pace of change is too fast, it’s impossible to build a cohesive society,” May says. Yet, whatever she might say, racism is on the decline. The BNP’s vote in the general election collapsed from 563,000 in 2010 to just 1,667 in 2015. Research by Rob Ford has revealed that the nation is becoming far more tolerant to marriage between races: while almost half of those born before 1950 oppose marriage between black and white people, only 14 per cent of those born since 1980 do. And between 2011 and 2014 (when the figure was last measured), the British Social Attitudes Survey reported a decrease in self-reported racial prejudice, from 38 to 30 per cent.

May also said: “at best the net economic and fiscal effect of high immigration is close to zero.” This is another claim that does not stand up. An OECD study two years ago found that the net contribution of immigrants is worth over £7bn per year to UK PLC: money that would otherwise have to be found through higher taxes, lower spending or more borrowing.

May also asserted that “We know that for people in low-paid jobs, wages are forced down even further while some people are forced out of work altogether.” This ignores the evidence of her own department, who have found “relatively little evidence that migration has caused statistically significant displacement of UK natives from the labour market in periods when the economy is strong.” An LSE study, too, has found “no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services.”

The inconvenient truth is that rising net migration is both proof of, and a reason why, the UK economy is doing well. As immigration has increased, so has growth; employment has risen, including for Britons. This is no coincidence.

To win the “global race”, a country needs to attract skilled immigrants who work hard and put in more than they take out. That is exactly what the UK is doing: net migration has just risen to 330,000, a new record. As a whole these migrants “are better educated and younger than their UK-born counterparts”, as an LSE study has found. In the UK today there is a simple rule: where immigration is highest, growth is strongest. The East Coast and Cornwall suffer from a lack of migration, while almost 40 per cent of a immigrants live in the thriving capital.

Lower immigration would make the UK a less dynamic economy. Firms in London enjoy a “diversity bonus”: those with an ethnically diverse management are more likely to introduce new product innovations, and are better-able to reach international markets, a paper by Max Nathan and Neil Lee has found.

Puling up the drawbridge on immigration would have catastrophic consequences for UK PLC. The OBR have found that with zero net-migration, public sector net debt as a share of GDP could rise to 145 per cent by 2062/63; with high net-migration, it would fall to 73 per cent.

So May should be celebrating that the UK is such an attractive place to live, and how immigration has contributed to its success. By doing the opposite, she not only shows a lack of political leadership, but is also stoking up trouble for the Prime Minister – and her leadership rival George Osborne – during the EU referendum.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.