The good cardinal, psychic computers and forbidden fruit

The Pope has picked the wrong cardinal to beatify. Also, ruminations on the incapacity benefit, Gmai

I don't understand the process by which the Pope selects people for beatification (or even what beatification is exactly) but I'm certain that, in honouring John Henry Newman, he has got the wrong Victorian cardinal. Newman may have been a fine writer and a brilliant intellectual but he had almost nothing to say about the great social issues of the 19th century and his chief legacy was an elitist boys' boarding school in Oxfordshire.

Henry Edward Manning, by contrast, was a people's cardinal. For his funeral in 1892, hundreds of thousands lined the streets of London - more than when the Duke of Wellington was buried, 40 years earlier - and the cortège was followed by trade union banners. An opponent of laissez-faire and a supporter of fair wages and shorter working hours, he sided with the London dockers during their strike in 1889 and helped settle the dispute, winning the men's demands for sixpence an hour and union recognition. They collected £160 in appreciation and wove his face into a union banner.

If it helps Pope Benedict, Manning - like Newman - was a convert from Anglicanism and, if anything, more reactionary on narrow doctrinal matters.

Right-wing target

One question I have not heard posed during the furore over welfare cuts is whether we need incapacity benefit (as we aren't now supposed to call it) at all. Shouldn't we just abolish it, simplifying the benefits system, saving doctors time and depriving right-wing newspapers of one of their favourite targets?

No, this is not satire, nor (I hope) another appearance of the fascist beast that lurks within me. It's just that I don't see why, if you can't find a job, your medical condition should make any difference. It may limit your employment opportunities but so do a host of other things: lack of skills, low levels of education, ethnicity, age, an unappealing appearance or a charmless manner. Your employability is also influenced by where you live. The "disabled" may find it easier to get work in the south than able-bodied people do in the north.

If you are out of work, you need help. That is all there is to it. The Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), as incapacity benefit is now called, seems to me to create a spurious distinction between the deserving and the undeserving. Few people are incapable of any kind of work. If they are, they are almost certainly entitled to disability allowances to meet higher living costs. These, subject to means tests, should be enhanced and eligibility criteria possibly widened. Out-of-work benefits should be higher (as should wages), though lower than the present ESA level.

The government may say that this isn't going to save money. But, sorry, that's their problem, not mine. The entire cost of ESA is roughly equivalent to what the 1,000 wealthiest people in Britain avoid, perfectly legally, in taxes.

Not the perfect match

American scientists, it is reported, have decoded words from brain signals. Some commentators fear that computers will soon be able to read our minds. But are we sure they can't do so already? Every time I google or use Gmail, the information is transmitted to some electronic entity in California. Usually, within seconds, it tries to sell me something. Often it gets the wrong end of the stick, offering me a book about insects when I've been searching for information on cricket - which shows that, though they can do wondrous things, computers are still quite stupid.

There are other examples. After I exchanged views on Gmail about the failings of the Labour Party, an invitation to join the Conservatives popped on to my screen. I recently tried Vote Match - a website that, after you've put in your views, recommends the candidate you should support for Labour leader - and learned that my first preference should go to Diane Abbott, my second to the sainted Ed Miliband. I was then invited to become a social worker in Australia.

A lesson in capitalism

My former boss David Montgomery is "retiring" from Mecom, the media company he founded in 2000. His career is a lesson in how modern capitalism works. He was a specialist in "downsizing"; his expertise was slashing costs, particularly staff. Shareholders and investors adored him, both at the Mirror Group, where he was chief executive between 1992 and 1999, and at Mecom, which he persuaded the City to back heavily. But his vision of how papers should develop - except that they should employ as few journalists as possible - was less evident. Montgomery stepped down from both Mirror Group and Mecom after investors realised even he couldn't keep cutting for ever.

As editor of the Independent on Sunday (which the Mirror Group then owned), I once ran a front-page story headed "Guru of downsizing repents". It was about a Wall Street sage who had suddenly decided that the cost-cutting and staff firings that he had advocated for years had gone too far. Though the story was widely followed in other newspapers, Montgomery was unimpressed - and some said it was a factor in his sacking me some months later. Perhaps he should have read the story more carefully.

Ripe and juicy

I live close to Epping Forest, which, at this time of year, groans with ripe, plump, juicy blackberries. Most weekends, I go to pick them. This is free food, for which the only costs are a few scratches and purple stains. Yet I have never seen anyone else picking them. On the contrary, people frequently stop to warn that the berries may have been sprayed with dog, cat, horse or even human urine. I explain that I shall be sure to wash them.

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.

This article first appeared in the 20 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Catholicism in crisis