A little interference is a wonderful thing

The Government's sudden desire to make new rules and enforce old ones is overdue. Plus, ghastly kids, and the death of plain speaking

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It was an unexpectedly good week for the (prospective) state regulation of business. Internationally, the leaders of the G8 nations, assembling for their Ulster conclave, offered concrete proposals for an assault on tax avoidance. At home, representatives of the leading internet service providers were told to smarten up their act with regard to the availability of child abuse images. Meanwhile, in practically the same governmental breath, there came proposals for the prosecution of negligent bankers and a coherent system of food labelling.

The curious thing about these pieces of enlightened intervention is that they had to wait until June 2013. People have been complaining about the proliferation of illegal images on the internet ever since Sir Tim Berners-Lee emerged triumphant from his nest of circuit boards. It is the same with the proposals to encourage greater competition among the UK's chartered accountants which fiscal regulators still shepherd wistfully into view. Even in the 1990s, when I worked in the City, there was a suspicion that the good times might be coming to an end and that hay ought to be made while the sun shone, but here we are, two decades later, in a world where four oversized firms continue to exercise a stranglehold on the audit market.

Why have successive governments of the last 30 years adopted an attitude of such craven timidity towards big business and the professions? One answer is that the ideological battles of the 1960s and 1970s were won by the free market. Another is the memory of a time when chancellors and secretaries of state for Industry presided over what was sometimes known as the "mixed economy" and at other times as "state capitalism", neither of which entities allowed the entrepreneur or his professional advocate very much in the way of room for manoeuvre.

All this bred an understandable horror of "interference", whose consequences can be seen in every area of the current economic landscape from cheap alcohol to planning, and the nurturing of an environment in which certain corporations and certain individuals continue to get away with murder. To go back to the food-labelling code, it turns out that the thing is still voluntary – as if concerned citizens didn't have a right to know how much sugar and fat the average food manufacturer is poisoning them with. It is not only in the field of moral behaviour that liberalism has, or ought to have, its limits.

...

Quite the most fascinating programme on television at the moment is Channel 4's Child Genius, in which a collection of fanatically bright pre-teens solves mathematical puzzles and answers abstruse general knowledge questions in pursuit of a Mensa trophy. Inevitably, the fascination lies not just in the sight of some precocious nine-year-old remembering the order of a randomly selected pack of cards or memorising yards of Shakespeare, but in the attitudes of the parents.

There is, it turns out, no set pattern of behaviour. Some of them are quietly encouraging and meekly supportive. Others enforce draconian regimes of after-school study and all-too constructive leisure. Equally common, though, is a kind of awed and non-interventionist rapture, in which mum and dad sit somewhat exhaustedly on the sofa – gosh, but a prodigy is high-maintenance – murmuring "Isn't he extraordinary?" to each other – while Tiny patronises them, insults the camera operator and generally indulges in behaviour that would put a chimps' tea party to shame.

When did this kind of thing become acceptable? When did certain bright children become so obnoxious, and when did their proud parents turn so pushy? The key-note of pre-adolescent development in the 1970s was the carefully cultivated self-deprecation shown by the person receiving the marks and enforced by the person doling them out, where 100 per cent in a maths exam was likely to attract the single comment "good". Superiority, when detected, was supposed to be both effortless and faintly embarrassing, and to be seen to glory in your achievements was regarded as bad form. In these attitudes, I suspect, we discern the last vestiges of the amateur spirit. Thirty-five years later, the world of bright children has been remorselessly professionalised, just like everything else.

...

When linguistic historians come to reflect on the early 21st century, they will probably define it as the age of euphemism. Certainly this deep-rooted reluctance to call a spade anything other than a large blunt instrument used for shovelling dirt seems to infect every area of our national life, and Emily Forrest questioned in court about her school-teacher husband's relationship with a 15-year-old girl was reliably on hand to declare that she thought his constant texting "inappropriate", when the correct word was clearly "wrong".

I was a bit surprised, though, to discover that this tendency extends to the avian world. Great consternation was expressed last week in Norwich when it was revealed that one of the four peregrine falcon chicks that hatched in an eyrie somewhere near the summit of the cathedral had died. Only it hadn't died. According to the local newspaper, which also produced an editorial about the cruelty of nature, it had "passed away". One could only hope that someone from the RSPB had shinned up the spire to offer counselling to the bereaved parents.

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