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12 August 2016

Theresa May’s bad grammar and the problem with capitalist tea bags

This week's diary, from the hard job of chairing a child abuse enquiry to climate change denial.

By Peter Wilby

The terms of reference for the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse  were “to consider the extent to which state and non-state institutions have failed . . . to protect children”. Only someone with intimate knowledge of such institutions – how they are run, the kind of people who work for them, their history and “culture” – combined with some understanding of British law, politics and attitudes to children would be capable of getting on top of the brief. The job required a trustworthy member of “the establishment”. Yet so wide-ranging were the allegations of cover-ups that any establishment figure would be suspect, as Theresa May discovered when, as home secretary, she appointed two such people, both of whom had to stand down.

May therefore cast her net 11,000 miles away and found Dame Lowell Goddard, a New Zealand judge. I was surprised that she, too, didn’t attract objections, since she was briefly married, nearly 50 years ago, to a Briton who later succeeded to a baronetcy, became master of the North Pennine Hunt and presented a programme for the BBC. Now, she has unsurprisingly been found wanting because, it is said, she struggled to master the material and had a “blurry” knowledge of English law.

To satisfy the victims, Amber Rudd, now the Home Secretary, has to appoint someone who is not only independent of the establishment, but also willing and able to deliver quick results. Yet the gravity of the allegations – whether of active child abuse or of indifference to bringing abusers to justice – requires a scrupulous and unhurried approach, untainted by any rush to judgement. Rudd will do well to square these various circles.


Why May must try harder

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Theresa May, it is reported, wants to open new grammar schools to assist  her “social mobility agenda”. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that grammar schools con-tribute anything to either social mobility or social justice. This is not just the prejudiced view of lefty teachers’ unions and professors of education. It is so well corroborated by research that clinging to a belief in the benign effects of grammar schools is a bit like believing that the world was created in 4004 BC.

For example, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that, even if they do well at primary school, children on free meals remain disadvantaged: of 11-year-olds who get level five in both English and maths, 40 per cent of those on free meals enter grammar school against 66 per cent of other children. Even those who make it to grammar school don’t necessarily succeed. After studying children born in 1970, researchers concluded: “Grammar schools provided no special benefit for working-class pupils’ higher education chances.”

In short, most of what May thinks she knows about grammar schools is wrong.


Tory job training

It is usually a mistake to attribute far-sightedness to politicians, but I can’t help wondering if May has the future of middle-class jobs on her mind. Sages predict that much of the work now done by lawyers, accountants, doctors and journalists will in future be done by robots and algorithms. Graduate jobs will suffer the same fate as manual working-class jobs over the past 30 years. Most Tory policies on education – making GCSEs and A-levels harder, stopping grants for university students from poor homes, replacing comprehensives with grammars and secondary moderns – seem designed to lead, one way or another, to fewer graduates. If professional jobs in, say, 2030 have shrunk to about 20 per cent of the total against 45 per cent now, leaving most people to scrape a precarious living from serving coffee or burgers with a smile, the Tories will have prepared us for it.


The silence of the deniers

The Observer reports that, eight months after the Paris climate change conference set 1.5°C as the upper limit for increases in planetary temperatures over pre-industrial levels, the barrier is already close to being broken. I find this news alarming but I have no doubt that the global-warming deniers will still insist that it is all a hoax. If they are sincere in this belief, they will have invested in catastrophe bonds available from insurance companies. They allow you, in effect, to bet on the likelihood of natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes. You lose your money if there is a catastrophe within a certain time limit, and get it back with 8 per cent annual interest – a handsome return when most bank accounts offer less than 2 per cent – if there isn’t.

Some years ago, I challenged Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens, James Delingpole, Christopher Booker, Nigel and Dominic Lawson and other prominent deniers to inform me, in confidence, if they held such bonds. (No proof required; I trust them all as honourable men and women.) I heard nothing. I now issue that challenge again.


Loose talk at teatime

After visiting the Natural History Museum’s excellent exhibition on the evolution of colour and vision, my wife and I headed for the museum’s nearest café, run by a private company. “Loose-leaf tea”, it promised. We envisaged a silver pot of Earl Grey or similar, china cups and saucers, silver milk jug and silver tea strainer. Instead, we were presented with a cardboard cup containing hot water and what looked like a tea bag.

Further investigation revealed that the bag contained proper tea leaves, not the low-grade, dusty stuff usually found in tea bags. But I still think loose-leaf tea should be served as, er, loose leaves. I suppose that, like the tea bag itself, this latest example of how capitalists can’t resist misleading their customers started in America. But at least the first tea bags, which also contained loose leaves, were made of silk. 

This article appears in the 10 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq