The Queen and a reign of abject failure

Institutions have changed to reflect the modern world, but not the monarchy. And she is to blame

The Guardian, Wednesday 20 April 2016

The Queen is scheduled to take a short walk from Windsor Castle tomorrow, meeting the public and unveiling a plaque as she celebrates her 90th birthday. Such events are carefully orchestrated, evoking the history of the institution she represents, so it is unfortunate that her stroll will begin at the Henry VIII gate, named after a notorious uxoricide and probable psychopath.

Elizabeth II is not a direct descendant of her monstrous predecessor and the modern monarchy is very different from its Tudor counterpart. After more than six decades on the throne, the Queen has come to occupy a special role in the national psyche, if such a thing exists. She has come to represent continuity at a moment when the world seems more dangerous than ever.

These days she is a grandmotherly figure, and it is regarded as churlish to ask questions about how she has conducted herself as head of state. I am a republican, and I don’t believe in the monarchy but if you strip away the stardust, as royalists like to call it, it is hard to see her reign as a resounding success even on its own terms. Her personal popularity has fluctuated wildly: in the autumn of 1997, after the death of Princess Diana, the Daily Mail published a memorable front page, demanding: Time for the Queen to go? At that low point, an opinion poll suggested that “seven in 10 Britons” wanted her to consider abdicating.

The monarchy’s foundations are less secure than is often assumed, which is why royalists should be worried that the Queen will leave behind an institution as unreformed as it is undemocratic. There is a chasm between the UK’s constitutional arrangements and its commitment to equality: viewed from abroad, the royals are a strange bunch of people with little connection to the diverse country the family is supposed to represent on the world stage. Its inextricable connection to the archaic principle of primogeniture means that the next three heads of state will be stolidly monocultural: white, male and Anglican.

More to the point, the royal family has entrenched its position in a way that flies in the face of the dramatic changes other elements of the establishment have had to cope with in recent years. As elected politicians learn to exist in a much more open and critical society – the prime minister, chancellor and leader of the opposition have just published details of their tax affairs – the Queen and her immediate relatives are less open than ever to democratic scrutiny.

Senior royals now enjoy total exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Press releases crowing about how little the monarchy costs leave out the huge cost of security, even though taxpayers fund it. The office of an elected head of state would be cheaper to run – it is preposterous that there are something like 18 “working” royals on the public payroll. But that isn’t even the most significant objection to the monarchy’s opaque finances. The royals’ habitual secrecy makes a mockery of the accountability we expect of people who receive public money.

Their exemption from freedom of information requests came about because they had a moment of staring into the abyss, caused by the Guardian’s attempt to see some of the “black spider” memos from the Prince of Wales to politicians. The fact that he privately bombarded ministers with wheedling letters, contrary to his constitutional position, was an open secret but the government fought to keep the details under wraps. Understandably, because the man they eventually revealed is a nightmare: credulous, reactionary and gripped by the illusion that he is a radical thinker. In 2004 he wrote to the then education secretary, fishing for public funds for one of his pet projects that would challenge “fashionable” ideas about education. “Perhaps I am now too dangerous to associate with!” he boasted.

Dangerous, yes, but not in the way he intended. From a variety of sources, we know that Prince Charles has character flaws that imperil the future of the entire operation. For the second time in less than a century, the throne is about to pass to someone entirely unsuited to it. If you are a monarchist, this is surely one of the Queen’s greatest failures: she was in charge of the prince’s education and upbringing, yet she has been singularly ineffectual as a brake on his excesses.

What makes this so astonishing is that the Queen has more reason than anyone to be aware of the historical precedent. She was nine in 1936 when her uncle David, another manifestly unsuitable Prince of Wales, succeeded his father George V and lasted less than a year as Edward VIII. That near-disaster for the monarchy has always cheered republicans, and the parallels between then and now are striking.

Edward was in his early 40s when he inherited the throne but Charles is approaching 70 and likely to be a king in a hurry. He has let it be known that he does not intend to stop making what he calls “heartfelt interventions” – otherwise known as unconstitutional political interference – in national life.

For republicans, the prospect of this foolish, not-very-bright man ascending the throne is a dream come true. The present Queen’s legacy may look very different once the future of the monarchy is in the inept hands of her eldest son.

We are blind to an epidemic of domestic abuse

The Archers storyline is melodrama. The reality of an issue inflamed by political neglect is far worse

The Guardian, Friday 8 April 2016

When Helen Titchener stabbed her domineering husband in an episode of The Archers last weekend, it seemed as though everyone wanted to talk about domestic abuse. People who had never heard of “coercive control”, the kind of behaviour Helen has been subjected to in the long-running Radio 4 series, suddenly wanted to know what it was. Some listeners may even have realised, with a mixed sense of horror and relief, that it was an apt description of their own relationships.

The BBC has done a public service in kicking off this conversation even though the scenario it highlighted – a woman snapping and trying to kill her abuser – has more in common with melodrama than real life. Domestic abuse causes fear, anxiety, depression, injury and death in the most extreme cases, but the victim is more likely to die than her abuser. What is extraordinary is not that we are talking about it, but that it hasn’t happened long before now.

According to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data, an estimated 1.4 million women in Britain suffered domestic abuse in the year 2013-14. (Men are targeted as well, but female victims outnumber them by two-to-one in ONS estimates and three-to-one in cases recorded by big police forces.) The figures are shocking, but they do not surprise me at all.

Ever since I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young journalist, I have been horrified not just by the kinds of extreme violence perpetrated against women but less widely reported forms of abuse. Serial killings, such as the murders of prostituted women in Ipswich 10 years ago, deservedly get the  public’s attention. So, latterly, does the kind of sexual exploitation carried out by Jimmy Savile and other well-known men in the entertainment industry. But “everyday” abuse, which stops short of the kind of extreme violence catalogued in a BBC documentary last month, is a different matter.

Three years ago, when I became co-chair of the mayor of London’s violence against women and girls panel, I began to get hair-raising insights into the extent of the problem. The London figures tend to be worse – though not that much worse – than the rest of the country. One is that a third of violent crime resulting in injury in the capital is domestic in nature. Another is that the police attend more than twice as many emergency calls for domestic violence in London each month than they do for residential burglary.

Starting to get the picture now? I have plenty more figures where those came from. The police recorded almost 147,000 incidents of domestic abuse in London last year, each of them involving a victim, a perpetrator and in many cases children. Factor in the victims’ parents, siblings and friends, and you begin to get an idea of the sheer number of people affected by the problem. If half a million people are struggling to deal with the effects of domestic abuse in London, what is the figure for the whole country? More to the point, where is the outrage and the political will to do something about it.

The last Labour government, to its credit, took the issue of violence against women more seriously than any previous administration. A group of ministers, including Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith and Vera Baird, made significant changes in the law to tackle sex trafficking and the exploitation of women in the commercial sex industry. In opposition, the then Labour leader Ed Miliband made a groundbreaking appointment, naming Seema Malhotra shadow minister for preventing violence against women and girls. The case for having such a post in government, going beyond the brief of an equalities minister, seems to me urgent and unarguable.

Instead, we seem to be going in the opposite direction. With the election for a new mayor of London less than a month away, domestic abuse has barely featured in the campaign to date. The winner will be in charge of a city where the police recorded a staggering 72,443 notifiable domestic offences – ones that are so serious that they have to be reported to the Home Office – last year. That total included 28 domestic murders. So why aren’t the candidates talking about domestic abuse as often as affordable rents or a third runway at Heathrow?

Both local and national politicians need to realise that we are at a turning point, which brings as many risks as it does opportunities. The exposure of Savile has encouraged many more women to come forward and report both rape and domestic abuse, defying national trends which suggest that crime overall is falling. But victims are putting their trust in a struggling criminal justice system: police and local authority budgets have been slashed, there is a chronic shortage of refuge places, and specialist services for black and ethnic minority women have been disproportionately hit by cuts in public spending.

Women fleeing abusive relationships are often forced to stay with relatives or move into refuges a long way from home, if they are lucky enough to find a place. Research carried out by Women’s Aid last year suggested that almost two-thirds of the women referred to a refuge in the capital didn’t manage to get a place; outside London, the situation is reported to be even worse. A report published last month by another women’s organisation, Solace Women’s Aid, exposed the extent of this hidden housing crisis: more than 60% of women who have a secure tenancy lose it when they enter a refuge, while almost 90% find themselves in another type of temporary accommodation when they leave. Housing officers frequently treat victims of domestic abuse as voluntarily homeless, sending them to the back of the queue for social housing. “Why did she go back to him?” people sometimes ask. The answer may be that she had nowhere else to live, especially if she is poor.

According to the ONS, women who live in the poorest households are three times more likely to become victims of domestic abuse. There is a debate about whether levels of violence really are higher in poorer areas – affluent women may have more choices – but the disparity in reported crime figures is striking. In London, you are much more likely to become a victim in Croydon or Tower Hamlets than in more prosperous Merton or Richmond-upon-Thames.

Discussion prompted by the Helen Titchener storyline is already moving from the wider subject of domestic abuse to the charges and sentence she might face. That is not the question facing most real-life victims, who have to deal with a toxic combination of housing problems, long-term psychological damage and inadequate provision by the state and local authorities. Prosecutions are failing, leaving perpetrators free to target other women, because of a lack of support for victims.

I don’t know whether the concern generated by a soap opera is enough to move this subject to the top of the political agenda. But the result, if women who report domestic abuse are failed by the public services they depend on, will be bitter and justified disillusionment.

Joan Smith is Co-Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board

The chillingly dark underside of celebrity

Sunday Times, 3 April 2016

It is rare for ordinary people to be invited into the hothouse world of celebrity. Oliver Harris’s detective Nick Belsey gets there by accident in The House of Fame (Jonathan Cape £12.99), when a pop star’s entourage mistake him for a new security guard and invite him into her palatial home. Belsey is suspended from Hampstead CID and facing disciplinary charges, so he decides he has nothing to lose by playing along.

Harris enjoys himself writing about this surreal world, creating vignettes of the stylists, publicists and hangers-on who surround Amber Knight. But the book is heading somewhere darker, sending Belsey to a Mayfair club where he is one of the last people to speak to a waif-like young woman who is murdered shortly afterwards. Harris has a terrific sense of place, hurtling between the wealthiest and most-run-down areas of London. But the cleverest thing about his third Belsey novel is the way the plot unfolds in a chilling and totally unexpected direction.

Isabelle Grey has already distinguished herself with a series of police procedurals that combine attention to detail with a compassionate intelligence. Shot Through The Heart (Quercus £19.99) opens with the kind of mass shooting that’s more often reported in the US than rural Essex. Six people are dead and the first victim was a serving police officer, who had recently begun a relationship with the killer’s ex-wife.

DI Grace Fisher has little sympathy for the murderer but she wonders why what began as a domestic homicide escalated into mass murder. When she asks questions about where he got his arsenal of weapons, her colleagues close ranks and she begins to suspect a cover-up. Female detectives often feel isolated in crime fiction but Grey’s latest novel looks beyond sexism to a toxic male culture that’s existed for decades.

Kate Medina’s Fire Damage (Harper Collins £12.99) is set in the UK but the aftermath of war looms large over the characters. An army psychologist, Jessie Flynn, is back home after serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan. She is treating a four-year-old boy who is deeply traumatised following an incident which has left his father, an officer in the Intelligence Corps, with severe and disfiguring injuries.

Flynn is still trying to win the boy’s confidence when a previous patient, a captain in the military police, asks for her help with an investigation into the suspicious death of a sergeant based at Kandahar airfield. Flynn’s approach is very different from that of a conventional detective and it is fascinating to watch her use her skills in these two cases, which have unexpected connections. Medina is a former Territorial Army officer and she writes about the horrifying consequences of war from the standpoint of a clear-eyed but sympathetic insider.

The Crow Girl (Harvill Secker £16.99) by Erik Axl Sund, translated by Neil Smith, is the latest international best-seller to come out of Sweden. Sund is the pseudonym of two writers, Jerker Eriksson and Haken Axlander Sundquist, who have both worked in the Swedish music industry. The novel is a one-off, taking readers on a break-neck journey through a plot of labyrinthine complexity.

The main characters are two very different women, a detective and a psychotherapist. They are thrown together when the corpses of severely abused boys begin to appear in Stockholm, but it isn’t clear whether their complex relationship is going to help or hinder the investigation. Sund boldly places dissociative identity disorder – a psychological state in which different personalities emerge in the same individual – at the heart of this very disturbing novel.

The Archers stabbing: making Helen the perpetrator is cheap and wrong

Daily Telegraph, 4 April 2016

Fiction always involves a negotiation between keeping the audience interested and what would happen in real life. If the balance goes wrong, the result is not just melodrama but an angry response from readers – or listeners, in the case of last night’s episode of The Archers on Radio 4. It was the culmination of a storyline about domestic abuse which has been running for months, ending with a cliff-hanger about whether Helen Titchener has really killed her horrible husband, Rob.

We will find out this evening whether he is dead or seriously injured. Either way, it is Helen who is now in serious trouble, with almost unthinkable consequences for her young son Henry and her unborn child. An arrest seems inevitable, and listeners know that Rob has already planted the idea that Helen is frighteningly unstable in the minds of her friends and relatives.

That aspect of the storyline has been both chilling and convincing, drawn out in a way that reflects the carefully-planned isolation of a victim by a manipulative man. But last night’s episode detached itself from real life, where Helen would have been at much greater risk of being seriously injured or killed than her abusive husband. The Office for National Statistics says that women are far more likely to be killed by current or former partners than men, and the figures support that conclusion. Almost half of female homicide victims fall into this category, compared with only seven per cent of male victims.

What is so disappointing about this decision is that the storyline had until then realistically demonstrated the mechanics of ‘coercive control’, a form of domestic abuse which became a criminal offence last year. To the outside world, Rob seemed like a caring if over-protective husband, but at home he changed moods so rapidly that Helen lived in fear of his outbursts. One of the few people to see through him was her best friend, Kirsty, who managed to persuade Helen to speak to a domestic abuse helpline and, crucially, Rob’s first wife, Jess.

That conversation provided Helen with confirmation that Rob had subjected another woman to an identical form of control. But it also did something else, forcing her to recognise that she was a victim of marital rape, a criminal assault women often find hard to name, even to themselves. Helen’s discovery that Rob had done the same thing to Jess was a turning-point, finally making her acknowledge the physical and mental danger she was in.

Having got to that point, it defies belief that Helen would voluntarily spend a final evening with her abuser, even making him a meal as a prelude to announcing her decision to leave. It’s plausible that a victim might not be aware of statistics showing she is at greatest risk of death or injury when she tries to escape, but the storyline had just revealed to Helen that she was dealing with a serial abuser and rapist.

Everything about the episode seemed wrong. Why didn’t Helen just pack her and Henry’s bags and leave with Kirsty, who had come to check on her in Rob’s absence? Leaving the bags half-packed upstairs, where he was likely to find them, felt like a device to ratchet up tension. Rob’s rant about never letting Helen go was pitch-perfect but what really jarred was the moment when he offered her a knife and told her to kill herself. Children are incredibly important to manipulative men and it’s highly unlikely that Rob would put his unborn baby – or himself – at risk of physical harm. The whole thing felt artificial, a clunky device to put a weapon in the hand of someone who would never have thought of picking it up on her own.

A much more realistic scenario would have been Helen leaving while Rob was at work and struggling to explain why she’d left an apparently loving husband. That would have been pretty difficult, given the amount of time he has spent grooming her friends and family, and it would have reflected one of the most distressing experiences victims go through. Not being believed is a nightmare, especially when someone has already suffered months of self-doubt, and that storyline would have helped real-life victims.

Instead, Helen has been transformed from a victim into a perpetrator. There have been a small number of cases where a woman has killed a violent partner, after years of abuse, but they are exceptional enough to become something of a cause celebre. We will find out tonight whether Helen is going to face a murder charge, something which would be unprecedented in the history of Ambridge. But it already feels like a missed opportunity, a swerve into melodrama when the series could have shown us the slow, delicate process of a woman freeing herself and trying to repair a badly damaged psyche.