There will always be people power as long as politicians fail to deliver

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The Independent Online

The McCartney sisters, fighting a just cause, armed only with their courage and their dignity, have this week continued to be an inspiration. Their demand is that the IRA killers of their brother Robert should be brought before the criminal justice system to answer for their actions. The simple rectitude of their request, contrasting monumentally with the complex corruption of the realpolitik that continues to deny them it, has captured the public imagination.

The McCartney sisters, fighting a just cause, armed only with their courage and their dignity, have this week continued to be an inspiration. Their demand is that the IRA killers of their brother Robert should be brought before the criminal justice system to answer for their actions. The simple rectitude of their request, contrasting monumentally with the complex corruption of the realpolitik that continues to deny them it, has captured the public imagination.

The backdrop may be less bloody, the cause less dramatic, but the same can be said for Jamie Oliver. His can-do attitude to challenging poor eating habits among schoolchildren has been an inspiration as well. In common with the McCartney sisters, he is convinced that his cause is right, that it is achievable, and that he can call on his own resources to make a difference. In return, the public recognises in the sisters, and the chef, a kind of heroic quality.

First and foremost, the achievements of these people show up the shortcomings of politicians. The involvement of the IRA and of other paramilitary groups in criminal activity, in vigilante justice (which in their arrogance they have offered even in this situation), and in sheer degenerate criminal violence and thuggery has been all over the papers and the public consciousness for decades. Can a sentient soul in Britain not have been aware that since the ceasefire this activity has accelerated rather than abated? Yet the McCartney sisters have done what our elected representatives would not. They have cut through a stodgy, ancient millefeuille of varied self-interest to reveal the crude and ugly platter of truth beneath.

Oliver has done the same sort of thing. The school meals debate has been going on for ever, and when they got into power Labour declared that they were going to shake things up. In 1998, education minister Charles Clarke and the brand new minister for public health, Tessa Jowell, announced a crusade against unhealthy school meals, declaring themselves to be the first government in history to make healthy food in schools the law. I think it's safe to say, eight years on, that their big push wasn't a success.

It might seem that the message of these two cases, in which idealistic individuals have injected new vigour and hope into situations allowed to drift by less committed powers-that-be, is that individualism is a good thing. But these people are, instead, the exceptions that prove the rule.

In this era of supposed individualism, in which no charity can hope to raise money without "celebrity" endorsement, and the political landscape is supposedly being transformed by single-issue campaigns, society's belief in the individual's power to achieve anything has been severely curtailed. Instead, we are encouraged to place our trust in systems - bureaucratic systems that cripple the individuals expected to make them work with paperwork, procedure, targets, meetings and memos.

The systems are there not because individuals are useless, but because individuals aren't trusted. So, mostly, the people who have ideas and want to deliver change end up retiring disheartened from the fray when they hit one barrier too many.

The inability of politicians to deliver what they say they will, of the media to puncture the public consciousness (thousands upon thousands of articles detailing IRA executions, kangaroo courts and criminal activity have been published to no avail), and of charities to intervene when state services fail - all this is testament to the crushing suffocation of bureaucratic systems, creaking with inertia and silted up with individuals convinced that their own puny efforts cannot contribute to change.

The McCartney sisters and Jamie Oliver cut through all that. It is right to laud them; it's also right to dismantle a great deal of the procedures and diplomatic posturing that defeat so many others.

Weighty issues

I greatly appreciate the sisterly intentions of Nigella Lawson, who is concerned about the damaging effects of the female obsession with body weight. Often when she is interviewed, she discusses her own fleshly attractions in a sincere attempt to champion the cause of voluptuousness.

Sometimes, this goes awry. She recently claimed that her husband had said her hips were wider than Marilyn Monroe's, and therefore more beautiful. This, of course, was retold as: "Egomaniac Nigella claims to be more attractive than the 20th century's number one sex symbol."

Now, she's at it again. "I don't pretend to know why I am popular as a TV cook, but I do have a theory about why women like to see me, and that's because I'm not thin," she has commented. "And men - I don't believe that men like to watch thin girls."

Heavens. And I thought people liked watching Nigella because she's talented, intelligent, knowledgeable, skilful, has an arch way with the camera and is pretty easy on the eye.

Is Nigella saying that all this counts for nothing compared to her incomparable ability to carry a few extra pounds with aplomb? I'm sure she doesn't mean to, but she's beginning to sound like someone in the thrall of the female obsession with body weight, and therefore part of the problem.

When it comes to the homeless, out of sight is out of mind

¿ During last year's Budget, Gordon Brown announced that his department would be involved in developing the Government's housing strategy, endorsing the Barker report which called for massive investment in home building.

For those concerned about the lack of progress by the Labour government on this issue, it seemed a glimmer of hope. Surely the Chancellor would see that his house-price bubble was driving a wedge between the haves and the have-nots in a manner unacceptable to a man who believes in social justice?

A year on, Brown's Budget is striving only to keep the bubble afloat, with measures to bring in some new first-time buyers and keep everyone moving up the ladder that prints money.

Meanwhile, in a grim report, the charity Shelter reveals that the number of homeless families living in B&B and temporary accommodation has doubled since Labour came to power. Among them are 116,000 children. Conditions for some are so cramped that children's skulls are becoming deformed by sleeping in pushchairs instead of on mattresses.

What I find most sinister is that the casual observer would assume that Labour had turned the homelessness problem round. The streets of our cities are no longer filled with rough sleepers in the way that they used to be. But many of these people are now simply stored out of sight in hostels.

This looks nicer for the rest of us. But it's of limited help to the people who actually have the problems.

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