Richard Ingrams' Week: Where is Dickens when you need him?


Christmas inevitably reminds people of Charles Dickens who is seen, rightly or wrongly, as the inventor of Yuletide cheer and jollity and its reverse side represented by the mean old miser Ebenezer Scrooge.

If Dickens was alive today he would find no shortage of stories to illustrate the harshness of authority, the continuing menace of professional do-gooders.

Stories like that of the Essex couple whose two children have been taken away from them by the social services because they are thought to be incapable of looking after them properly.

As usual the familiar mantra has been repeated about the welfare of the children having to come first - though what gives the authorities the right to decide what is best for children has never been properly explained.

Dickens made a point throughout his life of pillorying the humbug of lawyers. In this particular story, he might have seized on the remarks made about the parents in the court of appeal by Mrs Justice Pauffley, who ruled: "They are decent people but they are not capable of managing the intricate anticipatory process of parenting." These decent people might also have had trouble in understanding what on earth the woman was talking about. In this, they would not be alone.

As it happened the story coincided with yet another one where the social services failed to act to prevent terrible abuse to a family of five children in Sheffield. Left to live in conditions of appalling squalor they were lucky to escape with their lives.

This story, which again has a Dickensian ring, follows a familiar pattern. After several months a report was published last week. Several new procedures and guidelines were proposed. But none of those responsible was held to account or even named.

And no High Court judge is ever going to accuse them of failing to manage "the intricate anticipatory process" of being a social worker.

We can still learn so much from studying Hitler

Inspectors have decreed that there is too much emphasis on Hitler in the teaching of history in schools.

They have a point, of course. There is a ghoulish fascination with the Führer which can become an unhealthy obsession. It does not do to dwell too much on all the horrors and atrocities for which the Nazis were responsible.

All the same I would argue that studying the rise and fall of Hitler can be beneficial if it is viewed as a kind of grotesque parody of the story of all political power maniacs.

Having recently watched on DVD the brilliant German film Downfall (starring Bruno Ganz and Juliane Köhler, right), a highly realistic picture of Hitler's last days in his Berlin bunker, I was again reminded how much we can learn from the events of 1945.

It is not just a vivid confirmation of Lord Acton's famous dictum that power corrupts. Almost to the end Hitler believes that help is at hand and that some dramatic upturn will save the day for him. He remains blissfully unaware of the fact that the longer he clings to power the worse it is going to be for him and everybody else.

Meanwhile his subordinates mutter behind his back but they are so mesmerised by his fading charisma that no one dares to do anything about it. Instead they soldier on, each man giving his leader insincere pledges of loyalty while plotting to be his eventual successor. Blinded by power themselves, they are quite incapable of seeing that there might be no future for any of them by the time the Führer bows out.

Of course it all happened a long time ago, but the story can still provide an instructive lesson for schoolchildren, helping them to understand the political events of their own time.

* In my very first column for The Independent I asked what David Cameron thought about Iraq - that great issue of our time which still refuses to go away. As far as I can tell he has so far refrained from speaking on the subject. Certainly he has refrained from attacking Messrs Blair and Straw over their disastrous mistake in lining up with George Bush. But something may be gleaned when we learn that Cameron is being advised on foreign policy matters by Mr Michael Gove, the owlish-looking Times columnist - now a Conservative MP.

Gove is a keen supporter of George Bush, not to mention Ariel Sharon, so it is fair to assume that when compassion is on the Cameronian menu the Iraqis and the Palestinians will not be getting much of a share.

To discover Gove's view you will have to look through back issues of The Times as he is unlikely to air them these days if it means exciting controversy. But, perhaps unwisely in view of the new restrictions on him, Gove has continued to write a column in The Times.

Instead of eulogies of Bush and Rumsfeld readers may now learn about more homely matters, the state of Gove's teeth, for example. For the benefit of those who may have missed the news Gove has recently discovered the joys not only of the electric toothbrush but of dental floss - not to mention a set of "interdental brushes". Readers were also told that Mr Cameron's foreign affairs adviser has been equipped with something called a tongue scraper.

All things considered I think most readers, like me, would prefer even the eulogies of Bush to these details of Gove's oral hygiene procedures.

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