Philip Hensher: Blaming it on sexist prejudice won't wash

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Mrs Beckett, setting off for her caravanning holiday just at the point when, obviously, nothing in foreign affairs could possibly detain her attention, had a sulky word or two for those cynical persons who do not regard her as an indubitably worthy inhabitant of the office which was once Palmerston's.

The possibility that her critics are particularly harsh on her because she is a woman was raised. Mrs Beckett had no doubt. "That suspicion does arise, because you do get a 'good God, what's the world coming to' tone."

Who these people are who wonder what the world is coming to at the appointment of a female foreign secretary nearly 30 years after the appointment of a female prime minister, I do not know. But there is a certain record in this Government of claiming that critics were inspired not by a minister's incompetence, improper conduct or idleness, but by bigotry. In other words, by a personal factor which the minister can do nothing about, and which he is rather inclined to celebrate than apologise for.

If you believed Mr Blunkett at certain times, all his problems were caused by a chic metropolitan élite chattering about him. Mr Prescott made no secret of his belief that he had no problem, and only over-educated snobs would fail to see beyond his troubles with words and sentences to perceive an honest, kindly and probably non-adulterous minister - a subject on which he seems to have gone a little quiet recently.

In an era of social transition, we do seem to occupy a curious position. No one can possibly think that prejudice, spoken or unspoken, has gone away. Anti-semitism, racism more generally, and homophobia accounts for the full range of neglect, dislike, professional problems and social tensions. A gay man will be overlooked for promotion; a Jew or an Asian colleague will be subtly left out of social groupings, and then complaint will be made that, after all, "they stick together".

The one thing you won't find is individuals from these minorities complaining about specific instances of bigotry. There is a strong feeling that it would be letting the side down to complain noisily; there is also a sense that while many cases of non-promotion or mild social neglect may indeed be rooted in the most poisonous bigotry, the evidence is too trivial and the outcome not sufficiently hurtful to warrant making much of a fuss about.

The people, apparently, who are prepared to make a fuss are people already in powerful positions who have evidently overcome any prejudice, if such still exists. Mr Prescott preferred to think that people thought he was vulgar, since the alternative was to confront the position that he was a bully and an adulterous disgrace to his office. Mrs Beckett thinks that people are snobbish about her, too, and don't like the idea of a woman as foreign secretary. It doesn't occur to her that it might be quite reasonable to ask what on earth she thinks she's doing, inviting her elderly husband with no experience in foreign affairs to hang around her office, and turning down every opportunity to make a difference to the current international situation in favour of going caravanning in France.

No-one can doubt that prejudice still exists. Indeed, its continuing existence, one has to suggest, has led to the situation where the powerful can use it as an aid to go on indulging in their habitual conduct. Meanwhile, the real victims go on putting up with it in silence.

Half the beauty is the rarity

For some reason, I was astonished by the discovery of an eighth, previously unknown, photograph of Florence Nightingale. It has the haunting, unquizzable quality of almost all Victorian photographs. That, however, doesn't cause the astonishment.

What is really surprising is that in a long life of high celebrity - she died in 1910 a household name - Nightingale was photographed, as far as known, only eight times.

One has to compare that with our lives now. Our whole lives are documented by the tyranny of the image. But there was a quality of innocence and freedom about previous generations, where years or even decades could pass between encounters with the camera's horrible inspection.

* Mr Noel Edmonds has bounced back to that unlovely prominence which he had formerly occupied, thanks to something called Cosmic Ordering. You write what you want, put it in an envelope, and The Universe Delivers. Now a lady called Rachel Elnaugh relates how, through positive thinking and requests of Cosmic Energy, she got a parking space, a taxi, and "last night I thought really hard about wanting to see Evita in the theatre and I managed to get a ticket and it was wonderful".

Risible as such enterprises appear, one does wonder about a form of spirituality which consists of asking whinily for stuff, like a small girl in a Barbie factory outlet. Whatever happened to doing things unselfishly for other people? You can see the appeal of a creed which pretends that you can ask the Universe for whatever you want and it will appear. Let's not call it Cosmic Ordering, but rather its proper name: Father Christmas.