Between the social and the economic liberals are the piggies in the middle

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The Independent Online

What right has Lord Tebbit to enter the obesity debate, you may ask. Every right, I reply. After all, if the huddled masses had listened to Norman back in the 1980s, they all would have got on their bikes and burnt off every spare gram in their search for work. Instead, sadly, the men all stayed at home buggering each other. This, rather astonishingly, resulted in a lot of fat children.

What right has Lord Tebbit to enter the obesity debate, you may ask. Every right, I reply. After all, if the huddled masses had listened to Norman back in the 1980s, they all would have got on their bikes and burnt off every spare gram in their search for work. Instead, sadly, the men all stayed at home buggering each other. This, rather astonishingly, resulted in a lot of fat children.

It is easy to mock Lord Tebbit, who commented on the radio this week: "We not only have an epidemic of obesity, we have a huge problem of Aids and the Government's attitude is to do all it can to promote buggery. Maybe those two are somewhat intimately connected." But actually he's just playing out an extreme version of a popular political hobby.

Even in the obesity debate there is a toxic ideological clash. On one side are those who see the idea that the Government should intervene as yet more evidence of an interfering nanny state that really ought to leave business to do what it wants and six-stone three-year-olds to die in peace.

On the other are those who have lately woken up to the fact that it is the poor, on the whole, who are obese. Fat, it turns out, is not a feminist issue, but a class issue. People are fat not only because they can't afford to join a gym, or eat well, but also because they do not have a purpose in life, which leaves them with little or no self-respect. (As does this view of them.)

Lord Tebbit still clings to the idea that state intervention is a bad thing. So he's confabulated a little theory of his own, whereby social liberalism's rise can be blamed on the government of the past seven years. He won't accept that Thatcher's government, economically liberal, presided simultaneously over a great expansion of social liberalism as well. The two, despite the repressive social instincts of the government, went hand in hand, and had to.

Social liberals often don't accept it either. They like to cast themselves as mounting a great struggle against Thatcherism, while the other side does the reverse. Social liberals ultimately believe that obesity is all the fault of economic liberalism, which has created a divided society. A large middle class is more educated than any group in history on how to eat, exercise and stay healthy. They want choices and largely make the right ones. A large underclass has just as much access to this information - on television and in the papers all the time - but is not educated even to a level where any of it is being absorbed. They can't cope with choices, and often make the wrong ones.

What's astonishing is that we're all still arguing about the causes of the huge social problems we face. The hard fact is that economic liberalism and social liberalism are now - and perhaps have always been - indivisible. If we start facing this, then we might find it easier to find solutions.

* Much has been made of the idea that the sitcom Friends spoke to a generation about how "friends were the new family", more important in the modern world than boring old traditional groupings of blood relations.

If this is true, then it doesn't seem like much to boast about. It might explain, for example, how the elderly now languish in inadequate care homes, while the young are reported to arrive at school entirely unprepared for the most basic social interaction.

Oddly, the show ended before any of the friends actually faced any of these sorts of familial challenges to any extent at all. This is probably because their camaraderie might, under these circumstances, look even more like narcissistic self-absorption than it did already.

* I've seen Kenneth Branagh and Daniel Day Lewis tackling Hamlet, and both were a dreadful let-down. But it's hard to imagine a better interpretation of the student prince than that turned in by Ben Whishaw, the young actor playing him at the Old Vic, Yet, still the production is disappointing. I'm having to crawl towards the scary conclusion that despite everything - the amazing language, the mesmerising central character, the universality of the dilemma - Hamlet is a play that doesn't quite work. This may sound like sacrilege. But God, it's liberating.

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