I was taken aback recently to learn of a serious proposal to set up a school for Gays. While a firm supporter of not stigmatising minorities – as a child of an unmarried mother at a time such things were scandalous, I know just what that means – I felt that this was simply a bridge too far. In fact I believe it could be counter-productive, harming the very people it was designed to protect; a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. Humans across the world belong to a single family. If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream and create an environment in which they circulate for substantial and formative periods only among people of their own preferences you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream. We know the aims of Gays in making this proposal are laudable; they wish to experience and benefit from an education free from the slings and arrows of a taunting minority. But the answer, I fear, is not to remove them from the orbit of the bullies but to bear down and educate bullies into accepting that it is they – the bully – not their victim, who is the problem. It was never more clear to me than during my army service in Northern Ireland that if people are ghettoed from their fellows they will not relate to them and, as a consequence, would be capable of doing terrible things. And there, job discrimination was total – in schools, churches, policing, pubs, town halls, housing and just about anything else you could think of. The first question that any employer asked of you was, “are you Catholic or Protestant?” We saw in blood where that led.
Social attitudes can be turned full circle. We know this from things we have already achieved. Do you remember that ‘Carry On’ film in which a partying group of young medics came out and piled into an open-topped sports car and roared off? The noisy, raucous group were all the worse for drink. We thought, at the time, it very funny and so did the producer. Neither he nor we would think that now. In fact we are appalled that we ever thought it so. In similar vein was the ubiquitous glamorising of smoking on the silver screen. Also, look at our previous indifference to the disabled; we never bothered to put wheelchair access into anything. Then, just let a landlord – as happened when I first lived and worked in London – try putting in his window a sign reading ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’. All hell would break loose. Women’s prospects have improved immeasurably from what they were and so have peoples’ of other races. I could go on. Indeed, some might argue that in today’s Britain your life chances might be improved if you were not of Caucasian stock. Racial, religious, gender and disabled abuse have all joined the bonfire of the unacceptable, as has hate language. Also that pernicious culture of being able to touch women up and, worse, and get away with it is thankfully at an end, though I do wonder if we are right in pursuing old men to the grave. But I acknowledge that justice must trump everything and you could argue that they were lucky to have got away with it for as long as they did before justice finally caught up with them. Finally, while we’re at it, let’s remember that poor unmarried mother whose family once turfed her out. That was not a million miles removed from stoning her.
My point in highlighting all this is to show that Europe in times past – often with us as flag-bearer – has had very backward attitudes. In addition to this we have been exceptionally cruel, physically as well as emotionally. It therefore ill behoves us, as we make progress, to lambast the Muslim world for its tardiness. The whole world hardly needs to take lessons from us in this area. There was a time, which lasted for seven hundred years, when Muslim Spain led the world in virtually all the sciences. While it was rescuing and translating almost all the Greek classics, we were transporting ourselves across the Mediterranean Sea and despoiling their prosperous, peaceable lands in Palestine. Our ‘great’ King Richard (The Lionheart) – who spoke no English and spent only a few months out of his eleven-year reign in England, bankrupting it in the process – wrought such cruelty on Crusade that even today Muslim mothers will quieten their little ones by saying “shhh… King Richard is coming”. He once decapitated 5,000 prisoners on the beach at Acre. Strange it is then that of all our many illustrious monarchs he is the only one honoured with a statue outside Parliament. An unfathomable people we are for making such a judgement. And in terms of cruelty, no Muslim country that I am aware of ever matched our grisly hanging, drawing and quartering routine, nor Bloody Mary’s 300+ burnings at the stake in a five year period, nor Vlad the Impailer’s bestial cruelties, nor the horrors of the 30 Years’ War.
It is very true that we have today a terrible problem – to put it mildly – with certain crazy Muslim men, but we have had our share of crazy men, even if they have not specialised in running wild on the streets with butchers’ knives and Kalashnikovs. The sheer magnitude and level of depraved brutality which our own continent has exhibited throughout the recent century should humble us considerably in our dealings with the rest of humanity. It certainly does not qualify us to hand out advice as though it is coming from on high, and as though we approach the world’s problems with clean hands. However, it is my belief that it is this very barbarism which has made Europe determined to do things differently in the future.
It may not seem so but we are moving into a kinder, more caring world. Not only have we such institutions now as the International Criminal Court, whereby previously unchecked rulers can be held to account, but we show concern and provide help when manmade or natural catastrophe overwhelms one of our brother countries. This is new. Every country now acknowledges that it has a duty to work towards some sort of a welfare state for its people. This, too, is new. Making war without United Nations authorisation is an option becoming increasingly difficult for sovereign states.
Social networking, Skype, emails and the instant availability of facts and information – as well as the next day delivery of goods on eBay and Amazon – makes ours a more joined-up world than it has ever been. And we are only at the beginning. Within three generations, virtually the entire human race will be able to communicate with each other in a universal language. What incredible good fortune that it happens to be our own which will be that medium – and what business opportunities that should present us with if we have the wit to seize them!
Meantime we must hold our nerve as we navigate through what undoubtedly will be treacherous waters, finding ways of containing and then rolling back the bone-headed fanatics who seek excitement on foreign battlefields as well as at home in the misplaced belief that their warped vision is the future. Yet we must do so without compromising our essential liberties and bring our Muslim brothers and sisters on board. Their thinking, young people, in particular, want all the same things we have, including democracy. We must find ways of getting them to prevail over their rogue elements and bring them on board too.
Two things caught my attention this week and led me to think that I must write about them. First, we have recently noticed that more females are being aborted in this country than males and, second, that homosexuals want their own Olympics. They are widely disparate subjects, but they have one thing in common: both groups, down the ages, have been victims of discrimination.
If you were going to be born human it has historically always been better for you to be born male. Even in the more enlightened, liberal societies of the West this is still the case – though clearly less so than in times past. We are working hard on the few remaining unaddressed areas of inequality. They tend to be now of the less obvious kind, being more of a subtle nature. But they are there.
That greatest pinnacle of inequality, the aristocracy, is on the threshold of yielding primogeniture – led by the monarch, who has let it be known that she has no objection to a female inheriting the throne, even where there are younger brothers. Why, indeed, should she when she herself is the lucky beneficiary of discrimination on account of the accident of her father having no sons? You might say she became monarch by default. However, history has amply demonstrated that female monarchs can do every bit as good a job as can males; witness Victoria, Elizabeth I and, indeed, the present incumbent.
So if we have learned to value females as much as males, how come we have more females currently being aborted than males? The answer, clearly, must lie with our immigrant population, large swathes of which have brought the malign baggage of boy favouritism with them. (Scans, of course, allow for early identification of gender.)
It seems to me there is only one way to address this issue. We must discourage the ghetto mentality in our immigrant communities and insist on adopting mainstream values, as the Americans do. The burqa and niqab, for example, strike me as no more than prisons of dark drapes – and like a prison there is no escape. Their sentence is one of life. They must learn to live with it. There is no place in 21st century Britain for medieval mindsets which demean and devalue women, even to the extent of dictating what clothes they wear.
It is economics which dictate why many Muslim men think as they do; they believe that male children have greater earning power and are better able to look after them in their old age. When we have educated and seduced them into wishing for the delights of Western consumerism, which after all produces jobs, they will realise that the only way they will acquire the goodies is by putting their women out to work. And since we are well on the way to equal pay for both sexes, we must hope that economics and self-interest will play a large part in overcoming their medieval mindsets.
It is my belief that, notwithstanding these aberrations brought in from abroad, we live in a kindlier, fairer and more forgiving world in the West than we have ever done. Discrimination, bigotry, prejudice and violence in all their ugly forms are on the run – and rightly so. When I was a boy in the fifties, no one thought it odd, much less outrageous, for a landlord to put up a sign in his window saying ‘No Dogs, Irish or Blacks’. If a wife got beaten at home by her husband, the police would rarely intervene. It was, in the common parlance of the time, ‘a domestic’. Now all of these are criminal matters and rightly so. Who would argue otherwise?
As for landlords not welcoming homosexuals, no notice in the window would be thought necessary. The then generally accepted, ‘disgusting’ nature of the relationship was considered to make their exclusion obvious. And besides, such debauched subjects were best not touched on and certainly not spoken of in print by putting a notice in the window; rather children seeing it would be their worried concern.
Then there was the huge discrimination against disabled people. That too is being addressed. The recent Paralympics has taught us much in this regard, and was a giant step towards goodness and equality. As a nation we can rightly take pride in what was achieved. It can fairly be said that we have set a benchmark for others to follow – a Gold Standard, if you like.
Yet one of the last great prejudices that we have to overcome is our attitude to mental illness. We still do not give it anything like the sympathy and attention it deserves, and millions – yes, millions – suffer as a result, usually in silence and quiet desperation.
However, in our laudable efforts to come to grips with all of these things and undo the wrongs of the past, we are in danger of creating absurdities. This call of Boris Johnson’s – backed by David Cameron, no less – for London to host the 2018 Gay Olympics seems to me a game too far. All it does is suggest that homosexuals are, indeed, different – which surely is not what they intend.
Positive discrimination in jobs and other areas is also something we need to watch carefully. If not, we may be in danger of creating a backlash from the mainstream population. I sometimes think that we have travelled so far in that direction that – with the right qualifications – your life chances in Britain today may be better if you are not Caucasian.
In formulating my thoughts for this article, it came to me that long ago I was myself a victim of a quite pernicious form of discrimination. I grew up in a school which was purpose built for illegitimate children: there were six hundred of us. Society had once been prepared to let such children die on its streets before one day it would come to their rescue. On his visits from the docks to Central London, a merchant sea captain called Thomas Coram would be distressed by the sight of abandoned and dead babies. He decided to make it his life’s crowning achievement to do something about it, and seventeen years of incessant lobbying finally brought him in 1739 a Royal Charter to set up Britain’s first Children’s home for the ‘Abandoned & Destitute’ which he called the Foundling Hospital. It was Britain’s first charity.
But while we children had to be eternally grateful to men like him – and a hundred and thirty-five years later, to Dr. Bernardo – we in the Foundling Hospital had a particular cross to bear. We were the children born in sin – the ‘Untouchables’ of our particular culture. And so it remained until as late as the nineteen fifties, when a foundling girl was dismissed from her job because her boss found out about her origins and would not allow her staff to work with her. One of the consequences of this sad and cruel outlook was that all of us felt the need to hide the circumstances of our birth and upbringing and keep it as our own dark secret; it fostered a sense of inferiority and shame. In one sense we were on a par with the dogs and Irish in those ‘No Dogs or Irish’ signs. We were considered not welcome, even dirty.
Of course, as ever, hypocrisy reigned – in this case literally. The one who should have set an example – the king – could have as many bastard sons as he wished and all doors would be open to them. They would even be ennobled and likely as not receive a Dukedom. The Duke of Monmouth even made a bid for the crown itself before he was defeated in 1685 and executed by his uncle, James II. So I suppose in my own way, deep down, I must have been affected, perhaps even scarred by it all. Of course, unlike those with physical handicaps it was not there for all the world to see, but the emotional and mental damage must have been considerable – especially since we were allowed no contact with our mothers (we had been given different names as babies so that we could never search them out). Equally, the mother could never steal back and reclaim her child.
I have often wondered what a shrink would make of me, though I have endeavoured, despite my many failings, to be a good father and husband. The fact is that we are all born in the same messy way, and king or not, we will all shed this mortal coil in the fullness of time. There is a great justice and equality here. What matters is the period between the two events. All efforts should be directed towards achieving equality here also; a level playing field for all.
Today, when almost half the children being born are illegitimate, looking down on them as second-class citizens is both impractical as well as nonsensical. Personally, I regret the numbers being born out of wedlock since evidence shows that children thrive best in a committed family environment. Just the same, we will not force the non-married mothers into an economic cul-de-sac, as once we did, where they cannot afford to provide for their children. Neither will we saddle those children with a cruel burden of undeserved shame. Mothers and fathers will even escape prison if it felt that their absence would seriously impact on their children.
We are a better society than once we were, of that I am convinced. We may not be frequent Christian church-goers anymore, but we have an infinitely stronger Christian conscience. And we do not hang people. We have ‘listened’, at last, to what that great American president, Abraham Lincoln, once said when he appealed to the “better angels of our nature”.