When a Labour prime minister talks about placing teenage mothers in supervised hostels, you can be sure an election is in sight. Gordon Brown's excursion into this tricky area earlier this week was couched in conspicuously careful language. He spoke of teenage "parents" not mothers (no sexism here), of not wanting to leave them isolated, and of "shared homes offering a new start in life". In other words, it was all for their benefit rather than ours.
But the crowd-pleasing button had been pressed. "It cannot be right," he said, "for a girl of 16 to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat [my italics] and be left on her own." So there we have it: an implicit acceptance at the highest level of the supposed myth that teenage mothers are fast-tracked into council flats – even if, though this remains disputed, they did not actually get pregnant for that purpose.
No sooner had Mr Brown uttered the words than the battle-lines were drawn. The moralistic right asked what took him so long, while the liberal left spluttered about barbarism, ghettos and low self-esteem. That Iain Duncan Smith, on the right, has made tackling Britain's (very high) rates of teenage pregnancy and single parenthood into something of a personal crusade may explain why Mr Brown has revived an idea his predecessor toyed with in the 1990s.
Teenage mothers – the single, taxpayer-subsidised kind – are a lightning rod for illiberal thoughts, and I have to say they are a lightning rod for mine.
On my way to the office I pass a block of flats with a wing of "affordable housing". The door has an entry code system that is often broken; if it isn't, I frequently see it being forced. In the unlikely event that it is working, several people, usually men, are pacing the pavement on their mobiles, asking to be let in. Those coming and going are mostly young women, some look like very young women, and all of them are pushing prams.
I won't pussyfoot around here. This annoys me. And not in a very altruistic way. I can dress it up as a liberal's concern for the children being brought up in such circumstances – without a live-in father and in an inner-city flat. But that's only a fraction of it. I'm annoyed because I know (or think I know) that my taxes are making life more agreeable for these girls than, deep down, I think it ought to be.
As young lone parents, they have new flats of their own that they could never otherwise afford, and no obligation to work or not have more children at my expense. What annoys me even more is the number of male visitors who park their shiny 4x4s outside.
You can tell me to think of the children, and that any sins of the parents should not be visited on them, and you would be right. You can tell me, too, that you have to be 18 to qualify for a council tenancy, and you may be right there, too – as you may be right to say that no girl actually gets pregnant to get a flat.
But I am entitled to respond with my view that the prospect of a self-contained flat, and attendant benefits, may tip the balance in a girl's decision to opt for early motherhood. It also enables young women to live lives of subsidised independence that are not available to their more provident peers.
No other young person, or couple, qualifies for state help to this degree. Indeed low-earning couples with children who live together can find themselves positively penalised by the tax and benefits system. To my mind, supervised accommodation for teenage mothers should have been made the norm when the Blair government first thought of it 10 years ago. That would have scotched the council flat myth once and for all.
Guido and Michael: an advertisement for today's Germany
Meet Germany's next Vice-Chancellor and, almost certainly, its next foreign minister. On election night in Berlin no party leader was more visibly delighted than Guido Westerwelle of the free-market FDP. He had led his party to a record share of the vote and set it on course to be the junior partner in Angela Merkel's new coalition. After 11 years in opposition, this was no mean achievement.
But Westerwelle is known not just as FDP leader and a persuasive campaigner, but as the country's most prominent gay politician. And he arrived at his election-night party side by side, if not quite arm in arm, with his long-time partner, Michael Mronz. I heard no one remark on this fact in anything other than accepting terms. There were no snide remarks, no suggestion that Michael might step into the shadows now that Guido was set for government. The populist Bild newspaper, Germany's Sun, splashed a big picture of them on the front page, calling them THE new political couple of Germany.
There was a time when Westerwelle and Mronz would have been labelled with pink triangles and dispatched to a death camp. Westerwelle's electoral success is something that not only he and Michael, but Germany, can be proud of.
What your coat length says about you
It's early days, I know, and in the south we've been enjoying something of an Indian summer. But I've been trying to find a winter coat – and failing. The problem is not that the winter stock hasn't come in; there are hundreds, in all sizes and colours. Global warming hasn't rendered the business of outer-wear redundant yet.
The problem is that you have to search long and hard for any coat that extends below the knee. The same applies to macs. Oh I know that skirt-wearers are few and far between, but why is it now assumed that you don't want most of your length covered when it is cold and wet?
What is more, when you eventually find a garment of a length that used to be standard for a winter coat, it invariably attracts a premium. The Burberrys and Aquascutums of this world are hanging on in there with a few "proper" coats, but almost everyone else seems to have given up. Look around any city street, and you will notice that the full-length coat has become a distinguishing feature of those who are foreign and/or better-off. The winter coat as a new weapon in the class struggle: discuss.Reuse content