It was a particularly bad week for the principle of laissez-faire. Leveson finally pronounced judgement on the Fourth Estate, and the Government submitted its hotly contested proposals for minimum alcohol pricing, while the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence weighed in with a series of schemes to promote better health and reduce disease in later life. These included a suggestion that drivers should be charged more for parking as a way of forcing them out of their cars, that journeys by foot or bicycle must become the norm, and that people should be encouraged to forswear the habit of using their vehicles for trips of under a mile.
It was all too much for the Daily Mail, which not only ran an inflammatory headline about "nanny watchdogs" interfering in our lives, but produced a character named Matthew Sinclair, chief executive of something called the TaxPayers' Alliance, to fulminate about "bone-headed meddling". According to Mr Sinclair's harangue, "things are tough enough for the taxpayer already without interfering health bureaucrats trying to make parking more expensive". Parking charges damaged the high street, he went on, placed an unnecessary burden on struggling businesses and made life "even harder for households just trying to make ends meet".
There is nothing in England quite so amusing as the spectacle of an affronted bourgeois complaining that his rights – in this case the right to clog up both the street and his own arteries – are being trampled on by wicked bureaucrats. But surely if Mr Sinclair were really concerned about the burdens heaped on the suffering taxpayer he would be applauding initiatives of this kind? After all, the Mail story went on to report that only 29 per cent of women are achieving even the minimum levels of exercise thought necessary for good health, all of which will mean billions of pounds added to NHS bills a decade or so down the line.
Exactly the same note was struck in the volley of complaints about governmental "penalising" of the responsible drinker – the thought of minor personal inconvenience being more important than communal duty. Naturally, "freedom" means different things to different people but, to a right-wing newspaper, it nearly always seems to mean the freedom to exploit other people and allow the vulnerable to become even more ground-down.
Christopher Ray, chief executive of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, could recently be found protesting that his own privately educated students were being obstructed in their path through higher education by positive discrimination favouring those from the state sector. Such bias is needed, its supporters maintain, because state-school pupils lack the contacts that will procure them internships, work placements and the incidental know-how that enables middle-class candidates to manipulate the system to their own advantage.
All this realised some guilt-ridden reflections from The Tablet's Peter Stanford, who owned up to having used parental influence to secure his son a "day-in-the-life" visit to a hospital ward, via the agency of a friendly consultant. He contrasted this string-pulling with the fate of another pupil at his son's school, equally set on becoming a doctor, but with no "privileged access", who, unable to produce evidence of volunteering experience at his university interviews, collected a pile of rejection letters so high that he gave up altogether and opted for a different course.
Stanford quoted Lord Longford, a minister in the egalitarian Attlee government, who sent his own offspring to private schools. "You can't visit your principles on your children," Longford advised. But the point about parental influence, surely, is that it gets exercised on every rung of the social ladder. It is a fact, for example, that staffing levels in the post-war docks and print industries were kept up by nepotistic fathers acquiring union cards for their sons. This differs in degree from the layabouts of my Oxford generation who strolled into stockbroking courtesy of papa, but not in kind.
And what kind of parent declines to use such influence as lies to hand in their children's service? I once sat at dinner next to an eminent novelist who seemed to take a positive pride in the fact that her daughter had been to such a bad school that she reached her mid-teens in a state of near-illiteracy. Clearly some fine moral point was being canvassed here, but I couldn't see what it was.
The treatment dished out to Nadine Dorries, now returned from her jungle sojourn, continues to mystify. When last heard of, Ms Dorries was being told by her whips that she was "on probation" and that there was a need for "bridge-building" with the colleagues and constituents she so capriciously deserted. And yet Ms Dorries is guilty of only mild irresponsibility, a failing which, when set against the genuine incompetence displayed by some of her parliamentary companions, can seem pretty small beer.
Take, for example, the exploits of Ed Vaizey, the libraries minister. The British library system, in case you hadn't noticed, is currently being dismembered. Only last week, Newcastle City Council declared that half of its 18 branches may have to close. From Mr Vaizey, despite the statutory powers at his disposal, comes not the merest cheep of disquiet. You might think that he needs to start building a few bridges as well.
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