Tom Sutcliffe: Don't believe what you read in headlines ...

Social Studies: Do we even have a political culture that allows for intelligent discussion anymore?
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The Independent Online

Look up about an inch and a half. I don't know what the headline on this column will read (I rarely do until I see the paper next day). But I do know that the handful of words up there will exercise a disproportionate sway over the 900 or so down here. This is a fact of journalistic life. Anyone who writes regularly in a newspaper simply gets used to receiving emails which react – in hostile or friendly fashion – to the headline above their copy, rather than the copy itself.

I've been excoriated for failing to even mention arguments which in fact I've discussed at length. I've also been warmly congratulated for supporting a position I had mocked – because the headline highlighted the issue but didn't have enough space to explain more. And that experience made me feel a certain sympathy for David Willetts the other day, after some remarks he made about social mobility were widely interpreted as an attack on feminism.

It's hard to think how he could have worked harder to make it clear that it wasn't. "It is not that I am against feminism," he said first. He talked of "the admirable transformation of opportunities for women" and, just in case anyone was still in doubt, he said it again using different words: "It is not a bad thing that women had these opportunities". But then he made the argument that female emancipation might have had an unintended effect on general social mobility, in part because successful women are inclined to marry successful men, thus consolidating class advantages.

It was a point also made, in a slightly different form, by Professor Gregory Clark's research into life chances of those with "rich" surnames – though because he was blaming the toffs (and isn't a Conservative minister) hedidn't end up being called names.

I'm not really concerned here with whether David Willetts was right or not. One of his phrases – "Feminism trumped egalitarianism" – certainly seems debatable to me, since feminism is egalitarianism. (It's a bit like saying "Motherhood trumped parenting"). But what is troubling is the reflexive aggression of the responses – which seemed to be aimed more at a headline version of his argument ("David Willetts blames feminism over lack of jobs for working men") than the thing itself.

Yvette Cooper called for him to "withdraw this rubbish". The TUC's head of equality described it as "a Neanderthal take on our current unemployment crisis". And one columnist called for a recount with respect to Mr Willetts' nickname "Two Brains". Twitter – which obliges people to think and communicate in headlines only – upped the temperature even more.

It was, I think, a stupid reaction from people who aren't stupid. And it calls into question whether we have a political culture that even allows for intelligent discussion anymore.

"I am sure David was just talking in an academic way," a Lib Dem colleague was tellingly quoted as saying, "but what he has got to understand is that this sort of stuff is politically toxic." What's really toxic though? David Willetts's belief that some level of intellectual complexity might be accommodated in public debate? Or the headline-only tribalism that ensures that it never will?

Let's break out of cut-glass accents

How should Terence Rattigan characters talk to a modern audience? In some regards there isn't much choice, of course. If the script has "spiffing" in it you'd better stick with it, even if it makes people giggle. It would look odd, after all, to have a chap in tweeds rush on and describe his day out in London as "da bomb".

When it comes to pronunciation, though, there is a decision to be made. Two options are available in Thea Sharrock's new production of Cause Célèbre at the Old Vic. Anne-Marie Duff goes for a kind of insouciant, contemporary well-to-do. Niamh Cusack, on the other hand, opts for scholarly accuracy – giving us the kind of cut-glass tones last heard in the wild some time around 1939.

That's roughly when the play is set, of course, and you could argue that if you're doing period drama the vocal cords should adopt appropriate costume too. But the problem is that this accent still lives on in captivity – and it does so almost exclusively in comedy sketches and pastiche.

So in attempting to breathe life into her character, Cusack is playing uphill from the beginning – every utterance implicitly suggesting that she's a caricature. Rattigan didn't write this character as a strangulated joke, though. He wanted us to listen to what she said, not how she said it. Rattigan characters should talk, in short, as if they're talking to us now.

Can't the AV debate do better than this?

I haven't finally decided how I will vote on AV – but the No campaign has been doing a first-rate job of persuading me to vote Yes. First there was the transparent dishonesty of their line that some people will get more votes than others under AV. Then there was the insulting suggestion that we'll be too thick to do anything more demanding than scrawl a cross on the ballot paper. Now someone appears to be suggesting that AV will be a stepping-stone to apartheid.

"The Yes campaign's leaflet offers a chilling preview of politics under the alternative vote," said a spokesman for the No campaign, after a claim that Benjamin Zephaniah had been dropped from some Yes campaign leaflets. If these are their best arguments, what on earth have they ruled out as beneath them? Voting Yes gives you cancer?