Childhood, BA strikes and biscuits

Nobody should blame Denise Fergus, mother of the late James Bulger, for making comments that seem foolish and ignorant. Even if she were not being goaded by a rabble-rousing press, her instinct for vengeance is perfectly natural. So is her loathing for those such as the Children's Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, who propose that the ten-year-old killers of her child shouldn't have been tried in an adult court. Fergus feels that if she fails to support the harshest punishments, she dishonours her son's memory. That is why we have a justice system that balances the retribution demanded by victims against mercy, the hope of redemption and a large dose of common sense.

And common sense surely dictates that Atkinson is right: the age of criminal responsibility should be at least 12. Most parents do not treat ten-year-olds as responsible adults. They do not allow them to walk around town unaccompanied, stay alone at home, hold unsupervised parties, play with matches or take sole charge of younger children. The statute book - on subjects from alcohol to paid employment - is full of laws that regard young people as impressionable, irresponsible and vulnerable until they are much older than 12.

Far from applying this common sense to criminal acts, we (or at least the popular newspapers) take the opposite view: that children who commit murder are in some unexplained sense more culpable, more evil, than adults guilty of the same crime. Despite Lord of the Flies, A High Wind in Jamaica and other literary warnings, we cling to the romantic illusion that the natural state of childhood is one of innocence. We wish to punish Jon Venables and Robert Thompson for shattering that illusion.

Crew cuts

British Airways cabin crew do not generally look like members of the oppressed, impoverished, alienated masses and I accept a case can be made that their strike is greedy, selfish, uncaring and blinkered, and "against the public interest" (whatever that means). But I see no moral distinction between their actions and those of bankers who pocket giant bonuses, high earners who move to foreign parts to escape 50p tax and "public servants" or "captains of industry" who award themselves pay rises well above anything the workers get.

We are told millions of other British workers have accepted pay freezes and even cuts. This is most likely because they are weak, unorganised or fearful for their jobs, not because they are mindful of the "public interest". Nobody, in any case, will show an ounce of gratitude for public-spirited behaviour. In the late 1970s, unions delivered to a Labour government such pay restraint that, in a period of high inflation, the average worker's purchasing power fell 7 per cent in two years. The workers' reward was public odium - followed by 18 years of relentless anti-union Tory legislation - for trying to return to normal pay bargaining.

Gordon Senate

We should, I suppose, wait to see the detail of Labour's proposals for House of Lords reform before denouncing them. But reports so far suggest the new "Senate" will be elected by proportional representation on the "party list" system. In other words, voters still won't be able to choose individual members; they will be presented with alternative "slates", selected by the party machines, as in elections for the European Parliament. No prizes for guessing the kind of names that will appear. The proposed Senate sounds suspiciously like the present House of Lords (minus the bishops and the rump of hereditary peers) but with spurious claims to democratic legitimacy.

HobNobs, not hobnobbing

Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, may have ignored my calls for a principled resignation, but it is reassuring to know that during a weekend meeting at his home to draft the Labour manifesto, as first reported by James Macintyre in these pages, ministers and advisers subsisted on HobNobs and mugs of tea. I am confident that, had bacon butties or toasted ciabatta been served, the spin doctors would have kept it quiet. Modern politicians must be seen to eat déclassé food that is neither too proletarian nor too fancily metropolitan. So, from Andrew Rawnsley's latest book, we discover that Tony Blair celebrated the 2005 general election victory with a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.

Now that it is impossible to distinguish between the parties' policies - or to make any sense of them at all in most cases - we need all the information we can get about their leaders' eating habits. Asked by a schoolchild to name his favourite food, Gordon Brown mentioned steak, spaghetti bolognese, carbonara "and all these things" and then concluded: "I like Chinese food, Indian food, I like English food, British food . . . I like . . . French food . . . I like almost everything." This strikes me as a near-perfect example of the New Labour approach. Equally, David Cameron's "favourite dish" - slow-roast shoulder of lamb from a recipe by Jamie Oliver - seems a touch too contrived.

Tory wives

Much worse, however, was Cameron's revelation during his interview with Trevor McDonald that he was introduced to his wife by his sister. His spin doctors don't understand that this betrays irredeemable poshness. For generations, English upper-class males habitually married either cousins or girls introduced by their sisters. Because they attended single-sex boarding schools, followed by largely single-sex universities and professions or single-sex armed services, they rarely met women outside the family and had no idea how to approach them unless "introduced". That Cameron conforms to this tradition is far more damning than his having gone to Eton.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

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.