John Rentoul: The right to speak truth unto prejudice

The words about breeding by a former Tory MP were correct. It was the ritual 'gaffe' fallout that was really unspeakable

Share
Related Topics

The Earth is flat and the Sun revolves around it: two theories that were assumed to be true long after the evidence to the contrary became overwhelming.
Richard Thaler, the author of Nudge, the popular work of social psychology, recently asked for other examples of "things we once thought were true and took forever to unlearn".

Sometimes it seems as though British politics exists simply to provide Thaler with case studies. Howard Flight, the MP who was forced out of the Commons by Michael Howard at the 2005 election for making a prediction deemed unhelpful to the Conservative cause, last week embarrassed the current Tory leader, who has just nominated him to return to Parliament as a member of the House of Lords.

The soon-to-be Lord Flight suggested that state benefits encourage claimants to have more children. "We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive, but for those on benefit there is every incentive," he told the Evening Standard. Both parts of that statement are demonstrably true, but the social psychology of groupthink requires everyone to perform their allotted roles in rituals as formalised as those of the Roman Catholic Church that condemned Galileo.

First, journalists report a "gaffe" – a word of almost theological definition, which is not used in normal English. Opposition politicians and commentators then condemn the maker of the gaffe, often for things that he or she has not said but for an implication or extrapolation. The third stage of the ritual involves disciplinary action and attempts to avoid it. In this case, Flight went through the full sequence of available responses, from "my words were taken out of context" (which they weren't) to an "unreserved apology" and a retraction. That proved enough to avoid stage four of the ritual, and to persuade David Cameron not to withdraw his nomination to the peerage.

Flight was held up to ridicule mainly because the word "breeding" recalled the speech by which Sir Keith Joseph destroyed his hope of leading the Conservative Party in 1974. That was when Sir Keith warned that "our human stock is threatened" by the "high and rising proportion of children" being born to adolescent mothers in "social classes four and five". What was offensive about that was the idea of eugenics – improving the race by selective breeding for strength, health or intelligence.

Flight said nothing of that kind. Yet the mere shadow of word-association diverts debate about tax and benefit policy into a gotcha ritual of heresy-hunting. He said that policy designed to alleviate child poverty has a perverse effect in encouraging people on benefits to have more children than they otherwise would.

This has been demonstrated by several academic surveys, not least a recent one by the unimpeachable Institute for Fiscal Studies. In December 2008 it published a paper entitled "Does welfare reform affect fertility?" It was barely reported in the press, for reasons in which social psychologists might be interested, because it found that, since Labour increased child-related benefits in 1999, "there was an increase in births (by around 15 per cent) among the group affected by the reforms". It is not eugenicist to point out that this can have undesirable consequences. Or, as Flight put it, rather mildly, "that's not very sensible".

A large part of the problem is that Tony Blair made a promise to "end child poverty" which was not deliverable but which could not be criticised because that would be to be "in favour of child poverty". It was, we can see now, a stupid pledge – one that Blair decided to put in his 1999 Beveridge lecture only 40 minutes before he delivered it, I am told. As a result, instead of focusing on the underlying causes of poverty, the government was driven to throw money at families with children in order to move them above an arbitrary definition of low income.

This is not the only example of the British media-politics nexus getting something very wrong for years, for high-minded motives. The crisis of the euro has proved what should have been obvious: that it was a bad idea to lock together currencies of very different economies. We were warned, by people often belittled as obsessive or xenophobic, that to bend the rules to let Italy join the euro was asking for trouble. That Greece's membership was a political gesture that would end in tears. That the peripheral countries would struggle to sustain their membership of the currency union if there were an economic crisis. And so it came to pass. Yet Blair wanted to stage a referendum on Britain's adoption of the euro as late as 2003 (not that he actually would have done, because there was no prospect of winning it). As far as I know, it is still formally Labour and Liberal Democrat policy that Britain should join.

Another issue is immigration, where any discussion of its possible adverse consequences is constrained by the prejudices of the liberal media. Yet when YouGov asked people to name Blair's greatest failure, rising immigration came top of the list, not the Iraq war.

It is, therefore, the richest of ironies that Howard Flight also said, in the interview in which he spoke the unspeakable truth: "We have reached the state of an elected tyranny of the professional politician. Partly because of the media scrutiny, MPs feel they cannot say anything except the blandest nonsense."

The question is: what other widely held assumptions will turn out to be wrong in decades to come? What evidence that contradicts the conventional view of the world is being ignored? What other political taboo subjects should be opened for debate? To get the thing started, I nominate "affordable housing". But there must be many more. Answers on a postcard, or its digital equivalent, to Richard Thaler at his Edge website.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: We are winning the fight against extreme poverty and hunger. It's time to up the ante

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron addresses No campagn supporters in Aberdeen  

Scottish independence: Cameron faces a choice between destroying his country or his party

Matthew Norman
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week