Don't insult us with this nonsense

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David Willetts, the shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, is nicknamed two-brains. But after his performance last Thursday morning, one must assume that the pair of organs must simply cancel each other out.

You can forgive the poor fellow when he offers a rousing good evening to an auditorium full of delegates digesting their breakfasts. But when his speech amounts, utterly unbeknownst to him, to a self-flagellating mea culpa, you have to wonder what is going on.

Mr Willetts was addressing an audience invited to a symposium arranged by the Salvation Army to launch its latest report, The Responsibility Gap. Which is not as dull as it sounds. It's an unlikely fact that the Salvation Army is a charity very much at the cutting edge of thinking about the social development of Britain since the 1980s. Mr Willetts has enough brains to know that it is a good organisation to be associated with.

The Salvation Army is too truly Christian an organisation to play the blame game. But the reports it has recently commissioned from management school, the Henley Centre, has little positive to say about the sort of policies the Conservatives have been championing since Thatcher became leader. The eponymous Responsibility Gap, the report defines, as "the growing deficit of care for vulnerable groups in contemporary British society". Obvious examples include the crisis in care for the elderly, the critical shortage of childcare places, and the lack of support for informal carers.

The reason for the widening and deepening of this gap, says the report, is changing social and economic trends over the past 20 years, with the experience of community, the sense of individuality and the notion of responsibility to others having been fundamentally altered.

Among the contributing factors, the report pinpoints "hypermobility", which means that we travel very much further than previous generations in the course of our normal lives. It also emphasises the huge leap in time per head spent working, which has ballooned partly because of the mass entry of women into the workforce.

The response of Mr Willetts to this picture of a compartmentalised society, spending most of its time involved in earning money or spending it, with time for little else except projecting its own fears into its immediate family? "I'm a free-marketeer with children," he announces proudly, as if the having of kids offsets the failure of his economic beliefs to include a human dimension.

Instead, the truth is that it is only when our own kids are involved that we don't - or think we don't - let the market decide. Yet the market always decides the same way. Let's ask the market some questions.

"Should I go part-time, market, so that I can look after my elderly mother at home? Or should I continue to keep my own economic activity at a peak, while providing jobs and profit for others by putting my mother in a care home?"

"Should I give up work, market, and look after my baby myself till she goes to school, or should I carry on working to buy her the best damn childcare money can buy? And a cleaner so that all my time with her is quality time?"

"Should I vote for more taxes, market, so that informal carers can be expected to receive real support from the state instead of lip-service and exploitation, or should I keep my wages to spend on consumer goods?"

The market says: do the latter. So does Dr Willetts. And he thinks that he's the only person clever enough to understand that he's delivering nothing but insulting nonsense.

Time for British art to grow up

Robert Hughes, celebrated art critic, is poised to take on Britart. Best known for his seminal work about pop art, The Shock of the New, he has recorded a television show called The New Shock of the New.

It would be all too predictable for this grand old man to start banging on about how that avant garde was so much better in his young days. But, nevertheless, one is braced for the worst.

Inevitably, it is now fashionable to be sniffy about the YBAs, who are now in their 40s, and not so Y any more. Certainly it's true that their art so far has concentrated on sex and death, and that in general the themes have been treated with the brash fearlessness that only people feeling a confident sense of distance from their mortality could muster.

It's true as well that the artists have not been well served by the domination of the contemporary art scene that they have enjoyed for the past few years. Therefore it is good news that Nicholas Serota, éminence grise behind the Turner Prize, is widening Tate Britain's ambit again.

He snapped up Ian Breakwell's The Other Side, when it was showing last summer at the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea. YBA he is not. But Mr Breakwell, who is 60 if he's a day, has been a working British artist, writer and broadcaster since Christ left Jerusalem. And God, in the best way, it shows in his work.

His themes are not sex and death, but love and loss, and his video installation, which features tea dancers in the pavilion, is heartbreakingly beautiful. Mr Breakwell has never been nominated for the Turner Prize. Nor has he been collected by Mr Saatchi. He is not a "big name". But his place in British art history is nevertheless assured.

There are years to come of Breakwell's works, as there are of the recently youthful artists we have actually diminished by lumping them together so relentlessly.

My hope is that Mr Hughes will be critical, first and foremost, of the febrile atmosphere in which the works of the YBAs were consumed. What the YBAs need now is to be allowed to grow up. The media, at present, wants them to die young.

The perils of giving children too much freedom

Wife Swap is every bit as repellently exploitative as all the other reality shows. In fact, since it uses and prominently exposes children, then it is quite considerably more so. It's sadly irresistible though, because it does - damn it - contain genuine insights into British society today.

Lucy, last Tuesday, expressed her parenting philosophy in terms familiar to frequent viewers of the show because they seem widespread. Lucy's children are left to run wild, unencumbered by a single house rule. Lucy says that this is because she wants them to be able express themselves.

She sounds for all the world like A S Neill, the man who discovered the progressive Summerhill School in 1921, or any number of liberal childcare experts since. Her brood, though, just looks neglected.

Lucy says that because she is not an authority figure, they'll come to her when they run into trouble. Looking at the lice-ridden little tykes as they tell the world to "fuck off", one feels certain that the trouble will come sooner rather than later.

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