Tom Sutcliffe: Who are these 'Edwardian' fathers?

Social Studies

In one respect Nick Clegg went too far back when groping for a way to describe our current paternity leave arrangements. "Edwardian" was the word he used about the system – and while one roughly understood what he was getting at (whiskery and old-fashioned, I guess) his choice of epithet was still a little baffling.

Perhaps he meant Prince Edward – born in 1964 and thus very roughly contemporaneous with the 1974 legislation which first gave women (and women only) limited maternity rights. But if he meant Edward VII, Mr Clegg was surely hopelessly awry. An Edwardian factory owner would have had an apoplexy at the thought that he was legally required to support a new mother and keep a place open for her eventual return to work, let alone that such naked Bolshevism would one day be extended to his male workforce.

In another respect, though, Mr Clegg didn't go nearly far back enough, at least if he wanted to explain the persistent discrepancy in men and women's experience of child care and work. These "Stone Age" arrangements, he might more accurately have said, or this "primordial" system. Because it is, surely, an illusion to think that late 20th-century employment legislation and the millennial evolution of human behaviour are temporally locked into each other like two cogs in a clock mechanism. They turn separately, at different rates, and the purpose of the legislation is often to ensure that there's no artificial, man-made blockage to impede rotation.

Man-made is relevant, of course, since the social regulations and expectations that meant Edwardian parenting was almost exclusively the preserve of mothers (or hired mothers-by-proxy) were mostly set in place by male legislators. And it's taken women to press for changes which questioned the assumption that the world they'd inherited was how the world should naturally continue to be – mummies at home and daddies back at work, handing out cigars to their exclusively male colleagues. But that truth shouldn't fool us into thinking that behaviour in this respect is exclusively a matter of local social convention. We are, even in 2011, still trying to civilise the Australopithecine.

Socially conservative types tend to believe that this is a lost cause – that there are maternal instincts of nurture and paternal instincts to hunt and gather, and bureaucracy shouldn't be in the business of thwarting them. I don't. Once you teach a caveman or cavewoman to read they prove remarkably plastic in their mental attitudes. We aren't the prisoners of our biological prehistory and we should always suspect those moments when it's called in evidence to defend manifestly inequitable arrangements, whether they're to do with race or gender or age. But we aren't entirely free of that prehistory either. It's a good thing that the law is being improved. It will allow more parents to experiment with new ways of looking after their children, and make it more likely that those experiments succeed and are imitated. But I hope nobody's foolish enough to think that anything's going to happen fast, just because Mr Clegg has redrafted the legislation. In forty years' time one of his successors will probably be changing the legislation again – and complaining, I guess, that it's time this Elizabethan system was brought up to date.

Words with the power to ignite

On Saturday morning I listened to a gripping account of the New Cross Fire on Radio 4 from a survivor, Wayne Haynes, who'd been playing music at the party and who escaped (only just) with serious burns and a broken pelvis. Asked about the controversy over the origin of the fire, Haynes was quite clear. He believed it had started inside the house, and no petrol bomb had been thrown. Forensic evidence and eye-witness testimony indicated that the downstairs window had broken outward, not inward.

Yesterday I read an article by Darcus Howe in The Guardian, insisting that it had been a racist firebombing, and implying that hard evidence for an attack had been deliberately suppressed. Howe defiantly suggested that protest meetings at the time had exposed the flimsy cover-up: "The police and their hand-maidens in the press could not undermine the authenticity of the people," he wrote.

Which left me wondering why Wayne Haynes – and the many other interested parties who suspect an inside source of the disaster – don't count as "the people" too. Haynes certainly sounded authentic to me. And while it was hard to think of any motive he could have for contributing to a cover-up to a crime that left him permanently scarred, it was easier to see that Howe might have ideological reasons for bolstering a discredited conspiracy theory. Not all firestarters use petrol. Words can work quite well too.

Papal powers

I see that Pope John Paul II has had his first miracle rubber-stamped by the Vatican's miracle inspectors, paving the way for his beatification later this year. A French nun is said to have been cured of Parkinson's disease after praying to the former pope. Everything has been subject to "scrupulous" investigation and it's full steam ahead to veneration. But do no Catholics feel even mildly embarrassed about the implicit libel against God? After all, on this account, He's easily capable of remitting Parkinson's disease, but in virtually every case must deliberately decide not to. Of course it wouldn't be a miracle at all if He did it too often – but insider favouritism seems a contemptible basis for deciding who gets the very rare crumb of divine mercy.