Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Niall Fergusson, Keynes, homosexuals, parents, children and our attitudes to the future

Professor Ferguson – who I worked with a few times on BBC political talk shows – is my kind of chap: a fearsomely bright, hard-working, flinty little right-wing Protestant Glaswegian economic historian with a great sense of humour and an atavistic predilection for fish and chip suppers.

Last week he suggested that John Maynard Keynes hadn’t cared about future generations because he was a homosexual.  All hell broke loose. Finding himself without a leg to stand on (especially as Keynes and his wife were apparently desperate to have children) Ferguson apologised unreservedly for being “stupid and tactless”.

This all set me thinking: Ferguson often does. His books Empire and Civilisation – the first a rousing defence of the British Empire, the second an explanation for why Northern European Protestants have pretty much ruled the world for the past half millennium - were two of the most stimulating non-fiction reads of the Noughties, while his lsuding of communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who died last year, left me frothing at the mouth (you can read my spittle-flecked outburst here). This time, Ferguson has set me thinking about my relationship with a world I won’t live to see.

I began wondering if there’s any substantive difference between the childless – both those who remain so because of their sexual proclivities or for physical or psychological reasons (or just plain happenstance) – and the procreative. I’d assumed there would be. After all, if you’re normal, the birth of a child doesn't half affect the way you look at things. I was forty when my son was born. Within a year of losing our comfortable “dink” status (dual income, no kids), we’d reduced outgoings by at least a third and sorted out our financial future so we’d have a fighting chance of paying private school fees: in short, there was absolutely no spare cash whatsoever - which definitely brings one’s values into sharp focus and, specifically, changes one’s attitude to how governments squander the money they’ve casually filched from your wallet.

Apart from instantly turning me from a casual smallish-state conservative into a rabid minimal-state right-winger, my son’s birth made me more ambitious at work. Partly this was because we needed more money (no amount of careful financial planning will magic up the £150,000 it now costs to pay for a decent private school education), and partly because I wanted to be able to point to some sort of achievement – no matter how modest -  when it came to lecturing my boy about the importance of making the most of one’s opportunities.

The third major area was religion (or spirituality – a term that makes me shudder). “Daddy,” I could imagine my nipper asking me one day, “what’s the meaning of life?” (Obviously, no child has ever asked this question in the history of the universe, but I didn’t know that then.) I didn’t want to find myself replying, “Well, Junior – buggered if I know”. So I did what I always do when I’m perplexed – I read, and read, and read, thought about what I’d read, and came up with some answers. That process – which represents the most intellectually stimulating period of my life – eventually led to some consoling conclusions (as you can tell, there was no Damascene conversion).

So, the birth of my son significantly affected my political and religious views, made me work harder, and made me a whole lot more careful with money.

Apart from all that, whenever I watch the news or read newspapers or current affairs blogs and websites – in fact, whenever I think about practically anything that’s happening in the world right now - my main interest is what these events might mean for my son’s future. I want the economy sorted out because I want him to be able to find satisfying work that pays decently. I don’t want the social levellers to get their way, because my son’s had a vaguely privileged background and talks proper - and I don't want that being held against him. I want the best of England and Englishness and the best of Norway and Norwegianess to be preserved and nurtured because I want my boy to have a country (countries) to be proud of and to identify with. He’s been raised as an Anglican, and whether he sticks with the faith or not, I want the solace and comfort of the church to be available to him rather than see it destroyed by trendy dirigiste pseudo-social workers in fancy dress. And I want him to have the opportunity of enjoying the glorious beauty of this lovely country before avaricious pigs and eco-loons irreversibly deface it. I want him to be safe to walk any street he chooses to go down, protected by a police force that’s on his side. And I want his country bristling with armed forces and weaponry that will keep him safe from attack by fascistic foreigners.

Most of all, though, I want him to be able to think and say whatever the hell he wants  - after all, he is an Englishman.

As I say, the Ferguson brouhaha set me thinking.

So, you’d expect me to agree with the Professor about the childless having no stake in a future beyond their span on earth. Well, I don’t agree. I know lots of childless heterosexuals – friends and relatives -  and although they may not have undergone the sort of seismic personal changes that result from having kids, I have no doubt whatsoever that most of them care at least as much as I do about what will happen to this country beyind their lifetime. Besides, just because you don't have a son or daughter to make you focus on a future from which you'll be absent, I know several childless people who take a keen interest in the future of nieces or nephews - even the children of friends: it's a fundamental facet of human nature.

I know there are homosexuals obsessed with gratifying their every whim and who, as a result,  lead wanton, selfish, feckless lives – but so do quite a few parents (although I admit, I don't know any middle-class parents like that). The homosexual couples who live in our road and those who worship at our local church appear to be just as buttoned-up, cautious and conformist as the rest of us.

I suspect that having children confirms, exaggerates and colours one’s attitudes to the future - in my case it certainly accelerated the development of the views I now hold. But I don’t believe it basically changes the nature of one’s outlook – that’s largely a matter of temperament.


  1. Got to have a think about this one. Rich post.

  2. Actually, your post got me thinking about the issue rather more than the Fergusson comment. I tend to dismiss his theory, or more likely throw-away comment, that the childless, gay or otherwise, don't have the same stake in the future as parents. After all, as you point out, we all have brothers sisters, nieces, nephews and other people who may outlive us. At the same time, my plunge into parenthood unleashed exactly the same experience as yours and it marked the point at which I started to take life and all it entailed seriously. So, rather like SDG, I need time to think this one through.

    But that is the mark of a good post.