Tuesday 14 June 2016

EU and ME

Well I’ve posted off my vote and I want to remain in the EU. To be honest it was never a difficult decision to make for me. I’m not a huge fan of the EU, I don’t like the way Greece was bullied, I don’t like the austerity heaped on the poorer European countries, I think there is too much corruption and I think far too many of the policy decisions are driven by political vanity rather than common sense.

Fortunately, this referendum isn’t about how perfect the EU is, it’s about where we see ourselves in the future; a small island or part of something much bigger. This idea of us turning our backs on our neighbours and pretending that we’re somehow different from the rest of Europe is just an anathema to me. I feel European, I always have felt that way. I like being British, I like being English and I like being a Northerner but none of these diminish, for me at least, the sense of being European. I guess you don’t have to be in the EU to feel like that but I really can’t see any point in leaving.

From the outset I thought this entire referendum was just a huge waste of money. Hundreds of millions of pounds, that we’re always being told we don’t have, just being poured down the drain in order to pander to the political vanities of the Right Wing of the Tory party. I assumed it would be a parade of half-truths and bare faced lies from the start but I didn’t expect it to be quite this bad.

The standard of debate didn’t fall into the gutter, it started in the gutter and has just been an exercise in muck-raking and made-up-bollocks ever since. I feel sorry for those people who are truly undecided because getting to the truth has been almost impossible.

A classic example of this was the 350 million quid a week to the EU. We never send that amount to the EU and the people posting it as ’the truth’ knew that. This of course didn’t stop them continuing to post it. Why? Well, mainly it’s because they know that a lie repeated often enough becomes believable to an awful lot of people.

What really annoys me about this figure isn’t that it’s not true, it’s that it is thoroughly misleading. Government expenditure always involves enormous figures, so they always sound frightening, so politicians always use them to their own ends. Apparently, this enormous sum equates to 0.5% of our GDP. To bring this closer to home, if you earn £500 a week, you would be paying out the princely sum of £2.50 a week to be in the EU! In terms of our country's income it’s peanuts, but apparently we’re going to pay for everything from this money; the NHS will be saved, our schools will flourish and all our fishermen will get new boats. It’s nonsense and the people spouting it know it’s nonsense.

The other problem I have with this money is why people object so much to us paying it. Everyone in the EU pays into the EU coffers based on how wealthy they are. That only seems fair to me. Even countries that are not in the EU pay into it; Norway, Switzerland etc. all pay for the privilege of trading tariff-free within the EU. I can’t see a problem with this. I pay to run a monthly advert in one of our local newspapers. By coincidence the amount we pay is roughly 0.5% of our turn-over. I can’t be certain that we get value for money from this advert. Maybe we’re wasting our money. If we stopped the advert would we really notice any drop in trade? To be honest I really don’t know. Am I going to stop the advert? Of course not. It’s a trifling sum of money and if we get just one job from it it’s paid for itself for the entire year. That’s how I see this money we pay into the EU. Maybe we aren’t getting value for money but we do get access to the world’s biggest market. Surely that’s worth something all by itself? And as people keep pointing out, we’re the 5th richest country on this planet. So being in the EU and paying this money out is patently not doing us much harm!

The other side of this payment issue links to the migration problem, which seems to get a lot of people down. The idea of the EU expansion was to bring our poorer neighbours into the fold. Rather than have illegal immigrants pouring over the borders every five minutes and our neighbours turning back to Russia or just falling into turmoil, the EU decided to bring them into the fold, so to speak, and help them become wealthy like us. Yes, we’d have to spend a fair bit and yes we’d have legal immigration rather than illegal immigration but over the longer term it would all work out for the better and, once the new members were wealthy, the migration would slow right down to sensible levels. Sounds great, eh? Alas, it doesn’t seem to be working out so well.

The biggest problem with immigration is that it seems to be a call to arms for every right wing twat in the country. I have no problem with people disliking the idea of immigration. I have no problem with people disliking the way it changes their towns and cities. I have no problem with people fearing for their jobs. Where I have a problem is when people start calling all migrants, scum, rapists, murderers etc. I really did think that that kind of mindless racism and xenophobia was on the wane but, if Facebook is anything to go by, it’s getting worse and worse by the day. I called a bloke out recently for saying that all immigrants are rapists and before I knew it I was being accused by the Brexiteers of “using the racist card like all my kind do” WTF? I didn’t even know I had a ‘kind’. We seem to be turning into a frothing mass of xenophobes the longer this ‘debate’ goes on. Sadly, history would suggest that when that particular cat is let out of the bag it doesn’t go away quickly and it has been known to cause ‘a bit of friction’ in the past. I hope that’s not going to be the case but it’s not a side of the British personality I like to see.

Yes, immigration is a problem but I can’t see how walking away from the EU will solve it, after all it’s not our unique problem. The problems in Syria are the world’s problems and they won’t go away because we try to ignore them. The issue with EU migrants is a problem shared by the whole of the EU. The Spanish get pissed off by a million OAP Brits coming over and buying up their coast line, pushing up house prices and filling up their hospitals. The Germans have more problems with migrants than we have. The Polish government has the opposite problem. Every year their best and brightest up-sticks and head off to the big cities of western Europe seeking fame and fortune. The current system doesn’t work well for anyone and most of Europe is fed up with it but instead of trying to form a consensus and work it out with all the other countries in the EU - and most of them are just as keen as us to sort it out - we would rather have a temper tantrum, shoot ourselves in the foot, and then attempt to walk/hobble away.

I wouldn’t mind so much if there weren’t consequences from walking away but there are. The first is this particularly nasty rise in casual racism. Whilst it’s only the likes of the BNP screaming bollocks people steer clear but once it becomes more mainstream, everyone seems to think they can join in. It really is quite shameful.

The other consequence of walking away rather than dealing with the problem is that it’s likely to follow us anyway. The EU always insists on free-movement of people in return for tariff-free trade. Ask Switzerland, they turned down a deal with the EU in 1992 because they didn’t want the free movement of people.

The EU sold more to them than they sold to the EU, so they figured they could play the waiting game. In 2008, after a decade of recession, they finally gave up and accepted the free-movement of people. They then voted against it in 2014 because they thought they disliked foreigners more than they liked the trade – in fairness, they did get A LOT of foreigners moving over there. Again, they thought the EU would back down, again they haven’t and now they’re realising that they might actually like money more than they dislike foreigners after all and so will probably have another vote soon and the polls suggest they’ll accept the EU’s conditions, yet again.

Yes, yes, yes. We’re not Switzerland… except when we think it’s good for our argument to be like Switzerland, in which case we are like Switzerland.

I also can’t see how the Calais issue is going to improve if we leave. We currently have an agreement with the French that they will maintain control of the non-EU migrants on their side of the channel in return for us paying towards the cost of that work. If we leave the French might want to carry on with the arrangement but, bearing in mind that they get nothing out of it, I’d be surprised if they do. I doubt they’ll hand the refugees a map and a boat but I wouldn’t put it past them to encourage them along their way with tales of cheap Fish and Chips floating in a sea of mushy peas and glorious renditions of the “White Cliffs of Dover”.

I suspect that you really only have two choices with migrants; either you spend a lot of money to make their country so nice that they want to stay, or you spend that self same money on building higher and higher walls, both physical and metaphorical. As I said, the EU idea behind the Union’s expansion was that we would bring these poorer European countries into the fold; make them like us and everyone would be happier. Personally, I think, given time, this will work. I also think they didn’t really think through the issue with mass migration. I’m quite used to being surrounded by foreigners and yet I still found it a bit shocking when I went to Boston a few months ago only to find the town buzzing but buzzing with people speaking Polish and Lithuanian. I imagine it’s come as a real shock to the locals, who only ever had themselves and a field full of potatoes to talk to in the past.

My biggest issue with leaving is the economics. We got through the worst part of the recession by the skin of our teeth and I really don’t want to go through that again. I know, Farage and Boris keep saying it will all be fine but then they both have millions in the bank and can afford to spend the next 4 years lying on a Caribbean beach and knocking back Bacardi. I on the other hand have a mortgage and a business to run.

I just can’t see how leaving wouldn’t be a huge hit to our economy. Firstly, we have an enormous level of debt. We owe various nations and investors almost 1.5 trillion quid. That’s the most money we have ever owed anyone, ever! And, under the wise governance of Mr Osbourne, it’s just going up and up with each passing year.

So why aren’t we in the sort of shit that Spain, Italy and Portugal etc. are in? They are having to pay huge levels of interest on their debt, so why aren’t we? Well, as far as I can make out, it’s because the money has to be invested somewhere and, whilst we’re not the greatest economy, we’re a lot more stable than a lot of others…. Or at least we are at the moment! I really don’t care if being ‘free’ of the EU works for us in the longer term, I doubt it will but it might, I don’t know. But in the short term just the uncertainty by itself is going to cause utter fucking chaos. Boris and Farage and the likes will be reaping it in by playing the markets but the ordinary citizen is going to get absolutely hammered.

When it comes to money I also can’t understand this “We’re the 5th largest economy” argument. It’s a fact that gets trundled out on numerous occasions but I can’t see why we’d want to leave the EU just because we’re loaded? We’ve been in the bloody thing for over 40 years, if the EU is so terrible, how come we’re still the 5th largest economy in the world? Surely, what with all that red tape and bureaucracy that they complain about, we’d have tumbled down the charts years ago?
So how have we manged to survive the EU? Did we pull this off by some sleight of hand, some battle against all the odds? Well if that was the case surely the Germans wouldn’t be the 4th largest economy in the world - and yet they are. Well maybe they too managed to somehow circumvent the evil bureaucrats of Brussels. But hold on, the French are the world’s 6th largest economy… and the Italians are 8th, the Spanish 12th, the Netherlands 14th. How have all these nations managed to make themselves so rich when they are all shackled to this terrible, bureaucratic and horribly inefficient EU? This makes no sense! The terrible, unworkable, EU. The EU that’s going nowhere. The EU ridden by bureaucracy has all these huge, wealthy economies in it? And, they are all still growing!

I read a piece yesterday saying that we need to free ourselves of the EU because it is going down-hill. Instead we should be trading with the emerging nations (BRICS); Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Have any of these people actually looked at these economies recently? Yes, China is doing well, although not as well as many had hoped but as for the rest? Go and have a look, most of them are as stable as Farage after 7 pints of Hobgoblin!

Meanwhile, we have some of the richest nations in the world on our doorstep and we’re talking of walking away from them because… Well why? Because it costs too much? It doesn’t and it never has done. Because of migrants? That issue is a World and EU wide one and is best dealt with by the UN and the EU as a whole. Because it’s holding us back? It’s the richest trading bloc on the bloody planet for God’s sake! It’s filled with red tape! So that’s why Denmark is ranked as the 3rd easiest country in the world to do business in and we’re the 6th? The USA by the way is 7th and those lovely BRIC countries we want to trade with? Well they are 116th, 51st, 130th, 84th and 73rd respectively, so best of luck with that one.

Ar yes, but the EU is undemocratic! Oh right. Let’s have a look at that one.

A condition of joining the EU is that you can demonstrate that you are a democratic nation. Quite how the hell we managed to get in is beyond me because we, on the face of it at least, are the least democratic nation in Europe. Ok, a few other European countries have a hereditary Head of State, although most have no official power – ours, on paper at least, is very powerful but just opts not to use it – but no other European country has anything as remotely feudal as our own House of Lords.

I’d believe the people who go on and on about EU democracy if they’d ever shown any inclination whatsoever to sort out our own deficiencies in that area but they haven’t. When you do push them on it they point out that our system works, which in a way is right, and is also a good argument for the EU’s deficiencies, since they too work quite well.

The big problem with democracy is that it only works if people vote. In the last EU election 35% of people in the UK eligible to vote actually bothered to. The sheer audacity of people to complain about democracy when they can’t even be bothered to tick a box, fold a piece of paper and pop it into two envelopes! Ok, you also have to lick the envelopes and I guess for some folks spittle doesn't come cheap, but if you can’t be arsed to at least use the postal vote then you have no right to moan about a lack of democracy.

The big ‘democracy’ criticism is always about the EU Commissioners. They are not directly elected, rather, every 5 years, each nation within the EU gets to nominate a commissioner, with the Commission President being directly elected by the European parliament – the people we can’t be arsed to vote for. There is a call for the commissioners to be voted for directly by the electorate of each nation but the problem with this, aside from the fact that hardly anyone will bother to vote, is that commissioners get assigned a portfolio – Transport, environment, agriculture etc. So, if you want your nation to have a bit more power within the EU you put forward an expert in one of the more important areas. If he or she is deemed to be the best qualified for that role they get that important portfolio – I dare say a fair bit of horse-trading takes place here.

The problem with a democratic election is that we’d either end up sending Joey Essex to represent us in Brussels or each country would end up putting forward people who either have no expertise worthy of the name (Hi Joey) or we have a commission with 20 environmental experts but not a one who can even identify a tractor.

At the moment there is also a call to increase the power of the European Parliament, who currently vote laws in but do not have a role in actually creating legislation – that’s the role of the commissioners. This will probably happen but the downside of that is that it will probably take the EU even longer to pass laws.

All told, whilst far from perfect, it's not actually as undemocratic as people like to make out, certainly not as undemocratic as the UK.

The final argument from the Brexit brigade is that we have lost our sovereignty. Whenever I hear this argument “Rule Britannia” starts playing in my head, no idea why.

The problem with sovereignty – the ability of a people or a nation to rule themselves – is where does it end? We spent most of last year telling the Scots that Scotland being a sovereign state was a daft idea. Why? If it’s so good for the UK, why on earth isn’t it good for Scotland? Or Wales, or Northern Ireland, or the North of England? Where do you stop? Freedom for Tooting?

In reality, absolute sovereignty, in terms of complete control and independence, is a myth. We live in an interconnected world where decisions made in China (to dump cheap steel for example) have massive impacts on the other side of the world – although the UK vetoing EU tariffs on the practise didn’t help. You can beat your drum and wave your flags as much as you like but it doesn’t give you complete control over your country or region.

The closest you can get to real sovereignty is hegemony i.e. to be more powerful than everyone else. The USA tends to get its own way most of the time, China is learning this and starting to throw its own weight around and Russia is once again beating its chest. Fortunately, the EU is no push over itself. As a union of small but rich and relatively powerful states it can stand toe to toe with pretty much any one – although militarily it’s rather weak.

So to me that leaves an obvious choice. Since we can’t stand up against the big world players by ourselves – and stop kidding yourself, we can’t – who do we want to take our lead from? The US? They never seem to actually listen to us and I personally don’t have much faith in their beneficence. China? Er, thanks but no thanks. Russia? Well, maybe China isn’t that bad after all?

The EU, for all its faults, is filled with countries that share most of our core values and beliefs. Yes, we might not get our own way all the time but who does in a union, and why does it really matter? And why do we seem to think we are the only nation with a sense of identity that needs protecting? You seriously think the Germans would just give up their sense of being German? That the French don’t share our sense of individuality and the feeling that we’re better than everyone else? Of course they do, we’re all basically the same. And that’s the point, sovereignty is only a genuine issue if you have a fundamentally different belief system or fundamentally different desires from the rest of the people you share sovereignty with. Whilst the majority of our fellow Europeans want the same things from life as we do – and I believe they do – it’s better to work together and share sovereignty as a powerful EU. Globally, we’re far more likely to get a European vision of the world if the EU is a powerful voice within it and I believe that a European vision of the world is going to be a better place to live, for everyone, than an American, Chinese or Russian world.

That’s not to say that local control is a bad thing, it isn’t, it’s just getting the balance right between what happens in your town, your region, your country and your union. I really don’t buy into this argument that laws passed in Westminster are bound to be better than laws passed in Brussels.

I look at the house of commons and I don’t see ‘us’. I see a bunch of over privileged, public school wankers with whom I have absolutely nothing what so ever in common. I suspect Brussels is the same but with an accent, but this idea that, free from the shackles of Brussels, our MPs would suddenly become half decent and start making laws that actually benefited ordinary citizens is bollocks.

I really don’t care if a law comes from Brussels or Westminster. All I care about is if it’s a good law or a bad law.

Anyway, why am I posting this on a Fatherhood blog? Well because it’s my son who will be affected most by all of this. It’s not that I fear for his well being if we leave, nor that I think European war will break out or that he won’t be able to travel around Europe and make friends with other Europeans. It’s more that I worry about what the UK will become and, without us, what the EU will become. The tone of this entire debate has been largely loathsome and I really don’t like the idea of him growing up with a ‘little-island’ mentality, treating foreigners with disdain and looking at the world only as an opportunity for profit. I hope that won’t be how we become but I can’t help feeling that leaving the EU would be a terribly misguided step in the wrong direction and that my son and his generation will be the ones who end up paying the price.

Boris as PM? Brrrrr!

Thursday 10 March 2016

Should we smack our children?

So should you smack your children? It’s rare to get a reply to this question that isn’t passionate and it’s rarer still to find people who are happy to just sit on the fence.

It does seem to be an issue that polarises views. On the one hand you have those parents who see no harm in it, providing that it is just an occasional smack. They tend to justify their approach to discipline by explaining how they were smacked as children and yet here they are, perfectly normal and well-adjusted parents. If you still seem a bit sceptical they’ll then go on to explain how the woes of the world, and juvenile delinquency in particular, are caused by a lack of discipline and that if more children were smacked a bit more often the world would be a better place for it.

On the other side of the fence are the people who stand aghast at hearing this defence of assault and battery. They wouldn’t dream of hitting their children and are quick to point out that it can lead to terrible emotional consequences for the children involved and that it really ought to be made illegal.

To be honest I can see some value in both arguments. As a child of the 60’s I, and pretty much everyone I knew, were occasionally smacked. If it had an awful effect, then we must have all suffered it together. Yet the vast majority of us manage to muddle through life without feeling the need to dish out wanton violence. That said, whilst I struggle to see how an occasional smack does any genuine, measurable, harm to a child I also can’t see how it does any good either.

When I was a kid most schools used the cane and most parents smacked their children. Were we all little angels as a result? Of course we weren’t. We still broke the rules, we just accepted that there would be a physical consequence if we got caught. I can’t recall a single instance when we decided not to do something because we might get the cane, or a belt, if we were caught. In fact, being punished was often a badge of honour, showing everyone else in the school just how hard you were.

Then, as now, children broke rules because they either couldn’t see any value in the rule, or because they thought they wouldn’t get caught, or because it sounded like a lot of fun, or for every one of the above. The whole reason children need parents is because they are very poor at working out the consequences of their actions and I don’t believe that smacking them has ever improved this juvenile blind spot.

The only time I’ve slapped Marty was when he was about 2. We were walking along when he let go of my hand and made to run across the road just as a car hoved into view. Before I even knew what I was doing I’d screamed in terror, hauled him back onto the pavement and slapped his backside.

I remember this event clearly, not because I thought Marty was going to be killed, he wasn’t, but because I’d slapped him without even thinking. It wasn’t hard and I don’t think Marty even reacted to it but it worried me. I’d been brought up believing that it was wrong to hit anyone smaller and weaker than myself, and that if I did I was nothing more than a bully. Yet here I was slapping the smallest person I knew! Yes, I could justify it, but it still didn’t seem right and my excuses sounded hollow, even to myself.

So I had a long think about it and I realised that whenever I got really annoyed with Marty it had less to do with what he’d done and had far more to do with the kind of mood I was in. True, his behaviour was a tipping point but it was still mainly down to me; I was fed-up, or tired, or just plain-old-fashioned pissed-off, whilst Marty was just behaving the way most children do, a way that I might have found cute and amusing if I’d been in a better mood.

Which led to the question, “If I smacked Marty would I be handing out calm, considered, and well deserved punishment or would I be venting my own frustration on a small kid?” To be honest I suspected the former might be the case more often than not.

I started watching other parents. I never saw a parent calmly smacking a child, it was always done as an act of rage or at least one of severe annoyance. On the odd occasion that this wasn’t the case it was wrapped up in some perverse logic that made little or no sense – the classic was the mother smacking the 5-year old for hitting the 3-year old, with the scream “Don’t hit people smaller than yourself!” or “How many times have I told you… smack. You don’t… smack… Hit people.” If children are supposed to be learning from these punishments I have yet to figure out what the lesson is, other than that ‘Parents are funny creatures that make as much sense as UK Foreign Policy’.

The other thing I noticed was that parents that smacked their children tended to reward them afterwards, no doubt because they felt a bit guilty about smacking them in the first place. Once again, what the hell is the lesson that’s being taught here? And if you felt you were handing out well-deserved and appropriate punishment, why the guilt?

Another argument I’ve heard for smacking young children is that “They’re too young to listen to reason.” According to this thought process you only resort to physical violence when logic has failed. I have a few problems with this. Firstly, it doesn’t say much for your powers of persuasion if you can’t even coax a 2-year old around to your way of thinking. Secondly, it’s not the greatest lesson to impart; if you can’t argue your point, just lash out with your fists instead. Thirdly, if an unwillingness to listen to reason was your excuse for smacking your 5-year old, what on earth are you going to do when they are 17? They’re no more likely to be listening to reason at that age but are far more likely to hit you right back.

So do you stop hitting them when they’re older? Sorry, but this would just mean you are a coward, only hitting the small child because they can’t hit you back. Or do you carry on hitting them and just accept the inevitable consequence; they will hit you back sooner or later and you will have no moral defence when they do so?

I am very glad to say that, aside from that one incident, I’ve never felt the need to smack Marty, partly for all the reasons I’ve just gone through but mainly because I don’t think he’s ever done anything to warrant it.

So how come we’ve got a little angel? Well, firstly we haven't but, on the whole, he is just a nice, easy going, kid. That said, I think a lot of this is also down to the fact that we live a steady, consistent and disciplined life.

A classic example of what I mean is the kid in the supermarket badgering his or her parents for sweets. This is a common sight because supermarkets go out of their way to display sweets at child height throughout the store, especially at the check-outs, and they do this precisely because they know children will start badgering their parents.

The parent says no, but the child won’t drop it and eventually the parent cracks. At this point two things might happen, either the parent just throws a wobbly and starts screaming random threats and, occasionally, smacking their child, or they give in and buy them sweets. Often they scream the random threats, smack them, and then give in and buy them sweets. Either way, the kid already knows that if they keep up the pressure they will eventually get what they want, even if they do end up with a slightly warm backside as well.

We don’t really get this problem with Marty for no other reason that we never have the ‘at this point two things might happen’ stage. We never, ever, give in to him. Personally I find this approach to discipline really easy because I’m particulary obstinate, but this approach really does work.

Once we say no Marty knows that’s the end of the discussion and no matter how much he pushes things nothing will change. To start off with this approach can be very tiresome but it’s amazing how quickly children come around once they recognise that discipline is consistent and fair.

Of course this doesn’t stop him trying entirely but he tries less and less often and more and more half-heartedly. These days we can usually end a tantrum simply by counting slowly to 5 because he knows that when we reach 5 punishments will be handed out, either he gets no dessert, or no bath, or no stories etc. None of the punishments are draconian but they are all things he really values and the degree of punishment rises the more he pushes things – he starts off getting no dessert, then we go to bed early with no bath, then no stories etc. The result is that we very rarely get to count past 3; by applying consistent discipline we rarely have to punish him at all.

This isn't to say that I don't occasionally crack. Like all 5-years old's Marty is brilliant at knowing how to wind his parents up and my wife keeps telling me off for 'growling' at him when I'm particularly livid but that's as far as it ever needs to go.

This is the critical point that most of the people who advocate corporal punishment seem to miss. They struggle to see the difference between discipline and punishment, which is a real shame, because, as a general rule, the reason why they need to inflict punishment all the time is because they don’t apply consistent discipline.

If you give a child a short set of simple and clear rules and implement them fairly and consistently it is very unlikely that you will ever need to smack them.

So we don’t smack, because it’s pointless, doesn’t work, is asking for trouble in the longer term and is masking the fact that we’ve failed to apply discipline in the first place. However, there is one other reason that really swung it for me. In the UK it is actually illegal to hit anybody, with one solitary exception. Yes, the only people you are legally allowed to hit are those members of our society who are most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves; our own kids! When you look at it like that it’s shocking, no?

This is why many people are calling for the smacking of children to also be made illegal; it doesn’t work as a method of discipline and its inconsistent with the law of the land. Personally I’m not sure if making it illegal is such a good idea. We choose not to smack our son because we think it’s wrong. That doesn’t mean it is wrong, it just means that no one has ever been able to give me a good, solid reason for thinking its right. So I am loathe to inflict my opinions on others, other than in a blog that people are free to stop reading at any point and can just ignore anyway.

The other reason I’d back off from making it illegal is that, even if the parents smacking their children are wrong, it’s not because they are bad parents, or bad people or because they are being deliberately cruel. They are usually smacking their children out of misguided and ill-considered love; their hearts are largely in the right place, it’s just their brains that are lagging a fair way behind.

If we locked people up just because they failed to think through the consequences of their actions Westminster would be a very quiet place and PMQ’s would look like an episode of Porridge.

Monday 25 January 2016

Oh! Sugar!

The upside of your children going to school is that you finally get a little time for yourself. Ok, that time tends to be almost entirely occupied by work but at least work tends not to scream and stamp its feet quite as much as a four year old.

The downside of Marty going to school though is that we lose a little control. Ok, I’m no control freak so this isn’t a big deal but I do worry… about sugar.

Don’t get me wrong, sugar is wonderful stuff. It’s a terrific and completely natural source of energy. We are all hard wired to find sugar delicious. In fact, from a biological point of view, it pretty much defines the word ‘delicious’. You could scrape up something from the darkest recesses of your drains and by coating it in enough sugar make it taste appealing – a fact that has not been over looked by the food industry.

Given half a chance all of us would gladly gorge ourselves on sugary foods, we’re pre-programmed to do it and it would take an awful lot of effort to deny this entirely natural drive. Of course, for hundreds of thousands of years this was not a problem. Most sugar was only seasonally available and you had to either dig it up, wait for it to drop from a tree or be prepared to take on an awful lot of bees if you wanted to get at it.

Times changed but sugar stubbornly remained a luxury and a rare treat until the 1950’s when cheap corn syrup suddenly erupted onto the scene. All of a sudden we really could get as much as we wanted, which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that we wanted a lot…. an awful lot.

The food industry quickly realised that this cheap additive could make damp cardboard taste delicious, so why not make it taste super delicious? Before long pretty much every processed food product contained added sugar. Worse still, was the effect sugar had on drinks; why make a cola that tastes ok with 4 teaspoons of sugar, when you can make it taste great with 8 teaspoons full?

And then came the most audacious marketing campaign in recent history, the “High Energy Drink”. Here we have a population already saturated with cheap sugar, a population that needs extra ‘energy’ like a fish needs a bike. Yet they somehow managed to con the majority of the population into thinking that their sporting ability would be enhanced if only they consumed a bit more sugar – and a bit of salt and a few things with long Latin names just to make it all look scientific!

It’s truly amazing! To get any benefit from these drinks you’d have to be jogging to Aberdeen twice a week – the caveat being that you don’t already live in Aberdeen. Seriously, you really need to be pushing yourself to the physical edge to get any genuine benefit from these drinks yet I’ve seen small boys knocking back these drinks just because they’ve kicked a football around a field for a bit! No child should be subjecting their bodies to the sort of demands that a high energy drink is designed for, yet, because of this marketing, they feel under pressure to use them, with the result that the poor souls are leaving the football pitch a little fatter than when they jogged on to it.

As a parent a lot of things worry me, it’s part and parcel of the job. The fact that Marty’s generation is predicted to be the first western generation to have a lower standard of living than their parents is a worry – although we’ve set the bar pretty low so he should be able to just edge us. Another, far bigger worry, is that his generation will likely be the first to suffer a drop in life expectancy. 

There are a lot of factors at play here, not least of which is that governments around the world seem to have decided that they are not responsible for anything any more and that they should just leave the world to the capitalists. In some areas this might be sane but when it comes to science it’s idiocy; when profit is the driving force behind research a breakthrough in new antibiotics is going to come way behind a cure for baldness, 3D TV’s and perkier boobs. As our antibiotics become less and less effective life expectancy will plummet. As if this wasn’t bad enough we exacerbate the problem by deliberately making ourselves unhealthy.

I say deliberately because it is completely unnecessary; when a young child is thirsty their bodies are craving water. If you give them water, the thirst goes and the association between water and thirst is strengthened, so water actually starts to taste good. Alas, a huge amount of parents in the west feel that water is somehow inadequate so they add some fruit juice – which must be good for them because it’s got the word ‘fruit’ in it. As a result, the child grows up associating sugary drinks with thirst. Every time they feel thirsty they drink sugar, quite a bit of it because it’s not as good at quenching thirst. So every time they satisfy their thirst they take on board 100’s of calories that they have absolutely no need for. Keep this up for just a few years and you have a child who, through absolutely no fault of their own, is overweight. At which point society turns around and starts blaming and name calling with mindless enthusiasm.

Ok, sugar isn’t the only culprit in the rise of obesity but is it the main player primarily because the majority of people still view sugar through rose tinted glasses. We wouldn’t celebrate an event in our child’s life by handing out fags or dishing up great lumps of lard but we will immediately reach for the sugar.

‘Oh there’s no comparison between sugar and fat and fags!” I hear you say. Well you may be right but, in the early part of the 20th century, cigarettes were regarded as a cure-all for pretty much everything and foods with a high fat content were our everyday treats. Tobacco and fat haven’t changed since those days, just our attitude; we realised the dangers and moved away from them.
The same thing is starting to happen with sugar and I suspect that in 20 years’ time it will be quite rare to see a parent giving a child a can of coke or a bag of sweets. Alas, Marty is four so if we leave it to society alone it’s going to come too late for him.

So we’ve been fighting our own little fight, not to avoid sugar completely but to keep it to a bare minimum, and educate Marty about the downside to this glorious sweetness. Sadly, this fight gets that much harder once they start school. It’s not really a problem with the school itself, although many do seem to have a rather outdated attitude to sugar, rather it’s the other parents, many of whom don’t seem to share our concern.

Virtually every little event in a young person’s life seems to be celebrated by swamping them and their friends in sugary treats, so much so that it’s not really a treat anymore, it’s become commonplace. If we’d left Marty to his own devices his sugar intake would have quadrupled since he started school!

The huge problem with this is that, whilst it’s relatively easy to keep a small child away from sugar, it is very, very, hard to get them to cut back on sugar once they’ve got a taste for it. The other long term problem is that of ‘association’. A number of fast food companies have gone to great lengths to associate their products with the good times of childhood because they know that the food habits and associations formed in childhood tend to stay with us for the rest of our lives. If your child grows up eating healthily the odds are they will always eat healthily. If they grow up regarding sugar as a treat and a mark of the ‘good times’ it will be the first thing they reach for in adulthood when they are feeling fed up and depressed, that or the burger that reminds them of childhood parties.

Of course this is no reason to demonise sugar, or burgers for that matter, but if our children are going to grow up healthily they need to learn to avoid sugary foods in much the same way as we’ve already learnt to avoid fatty foods. We wouldn’t give a child a tub of lard for their birthday so think twice about giving them a bowl of sugar, even if that sugar is hidden in colourful jelly, and what ever you do, don't give them yet more sugar to quench their thirst afterwards.