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The Political Animal

British politics has been very interesting this week. Even with a Cold War possibly starting thanks to the antics of Russia and Georgia, there's plenty happening at home to get the political pulse racing, or at least beating.

You may be wondering why I am steadfastly not writing about the Russia/Georgia situation, and the simple reason is that I don't know enough about the situation to comment without revealing my ignorance (please, no "that's never stopped you before" comments). Even after analysing the situation my conclusions are along the lines of "Naughty Ruskis" and "Silly Georgians", and that's the kind of political comment that helps nobody (Simon Heffer, take note).

But what I do have on offer for you is a hat-trick of opinions on British political stories this week, with some American election-spotting on the side for good measure.

Never say I don't spoil you.

Tories vs. Fatties
Let's talk about sex, baby
History lessons go back to black
The female of the species
Every little helps

Tories vs. Fatties

Put down the pie, fatty, and listen up. If you are overweight or obese, you have nobody to blame but yourself. Not Bernard Matthews, not Colonel Sanders – it's YOUR fault you break the scales. Yours. Now get out of my sight and make a salad, chubbles.

This, as every reporter will tell you, is the gist of the Conservative Party's caring new approach to public health, outlined by the shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley last Wednesday. His speech to the think tank Reform, entitled No Excuses, No Nannying, attacked people’s failure to take responsibility for their self-inflicted health problems, claiming, "Tell people that biology and the environment cause obesity and they are offered the one thing we have to avoid: an excuse." Basically, the Tories are telling the overweight they have only themselves to blame.

What Lansley said is actually a little more complex than that. He unveiled proposals to fight obesity that include role models promoting healthy lifestyles, a clampdown on food advertising and asking the food industry to reduce portion sizes. Blimey, hold on to your seat – them's some radical ideas.

Not so much an unveiling as a shy reminder, then. The Tories haven't suggested anything new here, and it's not hard to see why the Government's health secretary Alan Johnson condemned them, saying, "Andrew Lansley is proposing to do nothing that isn't being done already and saying nothing that hasn't been said before." Still, the LibDems probably got carried away in saying the Tories just want to blame people for their obesity because they haven't got any ideas on how to tackle it. That's silly talk. Besides, the Tories are right: people should take responsibility for their weight and stop blaming external influences.

It is true that we live in an irresponsible compensation culture where nothing is anybody's fault (except paedophiles, who don't get to defend themselves). "Don't blame me – I'm only a monster because society made me that way." "It's not my fault I had a bad upbringing." "Jesus told me to rob that bank." We are constantly led to believe that we are all guided by social or even astrological forces beyond our control, that if you were born on the wrong side of the tracks then dealing crack to abusive teenage mothers is understandable and therefore permissible, and that anyone who actually blames someone for doing something wrong is a fascist – or in this scenario, a fattist.

Fat people cannot help being fat, we are told. But here’s the thing: most of them can. If there is a genuine medical reason for an individual’s obesity (e.g. glandular problems, physical disability etc.) and they literally have no option but to pile

on the pounds, then it's entirely reasonable to say, "They can't help it." But that's not the general argument; instead, we are made to believe that obesity isn't a lifestyle choice but an unfortunate affliction targeting the weak. There's just so much advertising for junk food, you see. And it tastes so nice. Oh, these poor, poor sufferers of the overeating disease. Does lack of willpower count as a vitamin deficiency?

Forgive me for being aggressive, but obesity is not caused by availability. Just because you can buy a tasty but sickeningly unhealthy burger for a couple of quid doesn’t mean you are contractually obliged to, in the same way that you can buy gallons of cider with loose change but you don’t have to drink it all in one go and become an alcoholic. It is a question of having some self-control. You can be flabby and still have a backbone.

The Tories' plans don't recommend anything new or useful, and should be disregarded for being largely pointless. But at least they don't protect gutless gluttons, who need to take the blame for their mistakes. It may not be easy for chronic overeaters, but at the end of the day, humble pie is still pie.

Let's talk about sex, baby

MPs are appealing to the Government to provide sex education as early as the beginning of primary school, meaning pupils would learn about the birds and the bees from the age of four.

It's easy to strip a complex suggestion down into headline-hitting hysteria – look, I did it just there and I'm not even a national broadsheet newspaper – but this plan is still concerning. The sexualisation of young children is becoming ever-worrying, and teaching them about relationships before they can even spell 'relationships' is a dodgy prospect. How sexual will this sex education be at that age? We don't know. It may just be a case of "Have you noticed how you like Mary in a different way to how you like John?" (or not, as the case may be), but until that is made clear, we have reason to be suspicious. Call me old-fashioned, but a) kids should arguably learn about relationships and sex from their parents or guardians rather than their teachers and b) they should definitely be able to tie their own shoelaces by that time.

Let it be stricken from the record that at the age of 21 I am really bad at tying my shoelaces.

There is also, I feel, insufficient evidence to suggest sex education at such an early will cut down on the unwanted teenage pregnancies that are plaguing Britain and precipitating such reactionary legislation. Hitting the problem early is always a good thing, but I can't see explanations of relationships to an infant preventing him from making a mistake many years later. One fear is that girls are beginning to have periods without knowing properly what to expect, but again, it's very unusual for that bodily change to occur before the age of 9 or 10, say, which would be a reasonable time for sex education to begin.

I just don't think this legislation would solve any problems, and I do believe it might taint the innocence of millions of young children. Colour me sceptical.

History lessons go back to black

But for every absurd educational reform there's a decent one (that's probably not an official statistic), and it's definitely good news that the slave trade and the British empire are to become compulsory subjects in History lessons.

Pupils between the ages of 11 and 14 – meaning pre-GCSE students, forced in nearly all schools to take History for three years – will be taught about the likes of William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano and their roles in the abolition of the British slave trade (and to think, they could just watch Amazing Grace or read this blog and follow the Wikipedia links). The fall of the empire will also be dissected and the progression of civil rights for African-Americans most likely thrown into the mix as well.

It's an encouraging development for three reasons. Most obviously and most importantly, it will teach children about a massive part of Britain's history hitherto ignored by school syllabus-makers. Secondly, it shows a willingness to admit and discuss the embarrassing faults of our ancestors, rather than pretending they didn't happen and focusing instead on national triumphs such as Waterloo, the Battle of Britain and the removal of Margaret Thatcher from power. Finally and most thrillingly of all, it will end the domination of Germany, the world wars and the Holocaust over History lesson timetables.

My only concern is the idea that schoolchildren will learn about the slave trade "to help them understand modern-day issues such as immigration." Given the disgusting popularity of people having right-wing leanings these days, I wouldn't be too surprised if 'helping children to understand immigration' means 'helping children to understand that immigrants are all mass-murdering rapists'.

Still, that's just my cynicism kicking into overdrive. It's about time British kids knew the truth about slavery, before they start thinking that Sepp Blatter and Cristiano Ronaldo know what they're talking about.

The female of the species

John McCain may be an idiot, but he knows American politics. He's covered up his own inadequacies by focusing on Obama's supposed inexperience, he's guaranteed himself favourable press coverage by allowing plenty of exposure for most of his career and he

purposefully upset the Democratic hoedown by infiltrating their Denver conference with high-profile Republican speakers. And now, amid claims he's too old and doesn't appeal to the more simple-minded female voters as much as Barack 'Nice Smile' Obama, he has chosen a woman, Sarah Palin, Governor of Alaska, for his running mate and potential Vice-President. Shrewd.

It is, of course, reductive and even insulting to suggest McCain will receive more of the female vote than he would otherwise just by having a female running mate. But that's how it works. A level of 'one of us' affects every voter to an extent – black or white, rich or poor, male or female. Having a Hispanic running mate would secure McCain the Hispanic vote. Having a ginger running mate would secure the ginger vote. And having a female running mate is likely to secure him more of the female vote. Sorry.

Palin may also win McCain the Youth vote (she's 44), the Proud Mothers Unite vote (5 children, one with Down's Syndrome) and the Anti-Abortion vote (5 children, one with Down's Syndrome), although admittedly McCain already had that one sewn up. We also shouldn't underestimate the popular vote from Stupid Men Who Don't Care About Politics But Know A Pretty Face When They See One ('masturbatory voters', as they are known): Palin looks incredible for a woman who's given birth to five children and certainly generates more interest in the pants department than Hillary Clinton.

Palin was not as much of a no-brainer choice as she may seem though. McCain's most stringent and resounding criticism of Barack Obama is that he is inexperienced and not ready to govern America. Unsurprisingly given that he's 72 himself, McCain is playing the experience card very highly. Then he goes and chooses a running mate who has been in office for less than two years. Clearly the idea is to inject some youth and excitement into, well, the Republican party, and diversity and shoring up your own weaknesses is a major part of picking a running mate – hence why Obama chose Joe Biden, a famously experienced politician into his sixth term in the Senate. Picking Sarah Palin is at best a risky move and at worse blatant hypocrisy, but it is, of course, difficult for Obama to pick up on because any attack on her pedigree indirectly leads to doubts over his own.

It is always controversial to 'take the man, not the ball' and focus on a person rather than their politics. It is doubly controversial when that person is a woman, because you are accused of rampant sexism. But in American politics is hard to consider it any other way, because even when you are picking a future Vice-President you are picking personality rather than policy. The running mate is a means to an end; someone to help you to get into the hot seat, not share it with you when you're there. John McCain himself has repeatedly said the vice-presidency amounts to little more than "attending funerals and checking on the health of the President", so we probably shouldn't believe him too readily when he says he wants to work closely with her in the White House. She's his ticket there; not his bedfellow.

And it might just work. Palin will attract some of the disenchanted Hillary supporters from the Democratic camp, who don't need much persuading – many are of the 'Hillary 12' crowd, keen for Obama to lose the election so Mrs Clinton can take over after winning the next one. The idea of wanting your party to lose is, I think, inexplicable, but there you go. Palin's appointment is also helping the Republican party to provide a more united front than the Democrats are doing at the moment, thanks to Clinton & Co (though they have triggered one of the best acronyms in recent political history: Party Unity My Ass).

The sad truth is that John McCain is probably going to win this election. Seeing how he and Sarah Palin cope will be interesting. Personally, I'd have preferred Michael Palin. Now THAT would be a story.

Every little helps

Victory for pedants everywhere.

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The Political Animal + TIME