John Rentoul's Diary: Scottish lavatories, adverb evolution, and some topping gossip
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at King's College, London, and at Queen Mary University of London. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Sunday 22 September 2013
What percentage of Scottish secondary school children avoid using their school toilets? The best quiz of last week was set by Professor Philip Cowley for the annual conference of the Elections, Public Opinion and Parties group, known as Epop. The questions were all based on opinion polls, and this was one of them. My guess was out by a lot more than the permitted margin of error, plus or minus three points. The answer is at the end of this page.
The second most important political speech of last week was Nick Clegg's address to the Liberal Democrats in Glasgow. The one news story in it, that there is such a thing as a free lunch after all, had been released the day before, and so, apart from a photo in The Independent, the speech didn't make any of the front pages the next day. Meanwhile, the best analysis of the free-school-meals policy came from Mark Pack, the Lib Dem blogger: "The Lib Dems may not be promising motherhood, but they are promising apple pie."
Nothing to shout about
Clegg's speech included two lists, one of nasty things that the Lib Dems had stopped, and another of the nice things that the Lib Dems had secured in government. The nasty things included the "Go Home" vans addressed to illegal immigrants, which Clegg said the Lib Dems would have stopped if they had known about them. The list of nice things was not much more impressive. It included many things that were also Conservative policy, such as scrapping identity cards and raising the aid budget to 0.7 per cent of national income. One of the few things that the Lib Dems could definitely claim as their own was this: "We've ended child detention in the immigration system." Unfortunately it is not true.
The Independent on Sunday reported three weeks ago that 242 children had been detained last year. My colleague Jonathan Owen quoted a Home Office spokesperson who insisted the Government had met its commitment to end child detention by ensuring the "welfare of the child is at the heart of the decision and removals process". The problem, as Clegg ought to have discovered, is that you cannot run an immigration system without detaining people, and if they have families it is better that the children stay with them. It was a foolish promise, which should not have been given. The Home Office website says that in July, the latest month for which figures are available, 27 children were detained.
In other Lib Dem news, my spies report that Menzies Campbell, the former leader whose role in the unseating of his predecessor Charles Kennedy has never been fully told, picked the rocket leaves off his pizza. He doesn't like greenery, he said. Chlorophyll is for wimps, obviously.
Young Nigel's school daze
So to the main event of last week, as Nigel Farage's party is still ahead of the Lib Dems in most opinion polls: the Ukip conference in London. In a pre-speech interview, Nicky Campbell, the BBC's best interviewer, asked Farage about the story that he was a racist and a fascist at school. Farage said he didn't think he marched up and down singing Hitler Youth songs, but admitted that he enjoyed winding up "left-wing teachers". Campbell interrupted: "Left wing? At Dulwich College?" Oh, yes, said Farage. It was all the spirit of 1968 and teachers who thought they were Bob Dylan. Campbell asked how many seats Ukip would win at the next general election, but before Farage could reply said: "The answer is blowin' in the wind."
And in other pizza news
Sir Nicholas Monck, who died last month, was an old-school Treasury mandarin. One story that was not in his obituaries concerned the day in the 1980s when he had been working late on the Budget. He stopped for a bite to eat on the way home, and managed to leave a draft of the Budget in the Swiss Centre pizzeria in Leicester Square. The following morning he realised what he had done, reported it to the police and turned up at the Treasury with his resignation letter in his case. He was greeted by a colleague, who told him: "This has been handed in. It was found by a member of the public who thought it might be important."
Oliver Kamm, a leader-writer for The Times, is a fellow member of the guild of pedants. Last weekend he opened my eyes to the "flat adverb", of which I had never heard. Apparently these are adverbs that don't end in -ly. Oliver says that it is not wrong to say that someone wrote that sentence wrong. I quite like it. I shall start writing like that immediate.
Secrets of lies
The most original contribution to the niqab debate last week came from my friend Ian Leslie, author of Born Liars, about the human animal's complicated relationship with truth. He pointed out in the New Statesman that many studies have debunked the myth that you can tell someone is lying by their face. Good liars can look honest and poor truthtellers can look shifty. This was confirmed by a report in this newspaper last week of an experiment which found that poker players give themselves away by how they move their hands to place their bets rather than by their facial expressions. Thus justice would be best served if all witnesses and defendants appeared in court with their faces completely covered.
And the answer is...
More than half of Scottish secondary school children, 56 per cent, said they avoided using their school loos in an Ipsos/Mori poll published this month: 10 per cent "never" use them and 46 per cent only if they "really have to". Any political party that launched a Campaign for Decent School Loos would win the grateful votes of a generation in perpetuity.
Matthew Bell is away
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