Nun too wise: Tristram missed a chance. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Colour-blind abuse, how to teach children about snow and what Tristram Hunt should have said

Snow blindness, the Guardian hustings - plus left- and back-footedness on Question Time.

Nearly two years ago, I received a curious letter from a senior newspaper executive. (As it was “strictly private and confidential”, I shall not identify him or his paper.) He recalled that in 2010 I had criticised the Daily Mail for a double-page spread about what it called “a sinister taboo”. Nine men in Derby, eight of Asian background, had been jailed for “grooming” schoolgirls for sex. BBC Radio Derby, the Mail lamented, “barely” mentioned their ethnic origins, while the local paper’s reports “failed to use the word Asian once”. Why, I asked, did the Mail think it so important “that we should have it lodged firmly in our minds that these criminals were (mostly) Asian and their victims (mostly) white”?

My correspondent pointed out that the Times’s Andrew Norfolk had just won the Orwell Prize for “highlighting the ethnic and cultural components” of sex-abuse cases in northern towns. Would I now accept that my comments were “misguided”? I would not.

Has the report on Rotherham council from Louise Casey, the government’s troubled families tsar, changed my mind? In only one respect: I accept that some councillors, officers and social workers ignored evidence of horrific sexual abuse partly because, as Casey reports, they feared creating racial tension. Their behaviour deserves to be publicised and denounced.

But I still do not see why the media should highlight ethnic origins of child abusers, particularly when the names of convicted men provide sufficient clues, as they did in Derby. The story in Rotherham and elsewhere is that organised street networks – based on the night-time economy of taxis and fast-food outlets, disproportionately staffed by young Asian men – preyed on vulnerable girls. The girls were stereotyped as worthless slags by those who should have protected them. That is the scandal.

Children were also abused in large numbers by boarding-school teachers, Roman Catholic priests, care workers in children’s homes and celebrities in the entertainment industry. Nearly all the abusers were white but the reporting defined them by occupation – which gave them opportunity and a sometimes justified belief that they were beyond the reach of the law – not by ethnicity. For similar reasons, the abusers in northern towns could be defined by their work as taxi drivers and burger fryers. The only reason for making their ethnicity a central issue is that it plays to white stereotypes about the uncontrollable sexual appetites of dark-skinned folk and therefore, no doubt, sells a few extra papers.

 

Bribe the aged

I wouldn’t normally find myself on the same side as a free-market think tank. But the Institute of Economic Affairs is right to criticise George Osborne for giving the more affluent over-65s a windfall in the form of pensioner bonds. These pay 4 per cent interest if held for five years or 2.8 per cent if held for two – a rate of return far beyond any offered by banks.

The Chancellor tells us the country must reduce the cost of borrowing. That is why the deficit must fall and why families with young children lose benefits and tax credits, and the NHS struggles. Yet here is Osborne borrowing an estimated £15bn from Britain’s pensioners at (once he’s taken back tax) 3.2 and 2.2 per cent, when he could
borrow on the gilt markets at 0.3 per cent. Even the Spanish, Portuguese and Italian governments aren’t paying as much as he is. It is just a bribe to persuade pensioners to vote Tory in May.

 

Snow blindness

Here is a Daily Mail story that sums up English education as remoulded by Michael Gove. When snow began to fall in the playground of a Norfolk primary school, a teacher of eight- and nine-year-olds lowered the classroom blinds so they couldn’t see it. The teacher acted to ensure “children focused on the tasks in hand”, the school explained.

In 1967, the Plowden report on primary education in England, regarded as the bible of progressives and trendies, considered the merits of “flexibility in the curriculum”: “When a class of seven-year-olds notice the birds that come to the bird table outside the classroom window, they may decide, after discussion with their teacher, to make their own aviary . . . paint the birds in flight, make models of them . . . write stories and poems about them.” Now, it is left to a Norfolk parent, “mother-of-six Shelly Betts, 43” (as the Mail calls her), to suggest that “they could have turned the snow into a science lesson”. Make that woman education secretary, I say.

 

Hacks’ hustings

Though the final decision will not be made by them, Guardian journalists ballot later this month on who should be their next editor. The candidates have not been named but are said to include one external applicant, probably Ian Katz, a former deputy editor who is now editing BBC2’s Newsnight without (if we believe the ratings) conspicuous success. The world, the hacks clearly believe, waits with bated breath: they spent much of their last meeting discussing whether the hustings should be streamed live over the internet.

 

Where do left-footers stand?

British Roman Catholics often seem reluc­tant to relinquish the victim status they held for several hundred years. During a debate about unqualified teachers on BBC1’s Question Time, Cristina Odone, the former NS deputy editor and professional left-footer, protested when Labour’s education spokesman, Tristram Hunt, mentioned nuns. Poor Hunt, accused of denigrating Catholics, was caught in a mini Twitter storm. But what Odone had just said was that unqualified teachers at Catholic schools she attended “taught values, not British values . . . real values”. Hunt, I think, was trying to say that these teachers were nuns who taught Catholic doctrine. A good point, but he would have done better to ask why Odone was denigrating British values. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

Getty.
Show Hide image

Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.