WE WERE taught not to think about the what-ifs? of history; but it is great fun to do so. Certainly Reflections, with Peter Hennessy (Radio 4, Monday of last week), is a show enlivened by forays down roads untaken; and, somehow, the career of Lord Owen lends itself better than most to speculation about what might have been.
Or perhaps it is that Hennessy’s style of interview encourages his guests to think back on their lives as a cinematic narrative; thus, a high point of dramatic poignancy in last week’s encounter came when Lord Owen — then in charge of the mid-’90s SDP, and being courted by Tony Blair to return to the Labour fold — received anonymously a leaflet from his 1964 electoral campaign in Torrington.
You can almost hear the plangent swooping of violins, and the close-up of Lord Owen’s face as tears form at the memory of simpler, more innocent days.
Cinematic, too, is his fondness for resignations. “Perhaps a little too often,” was his verdict here on this predilection. But there is also a retrospective sense of a fated path. “Not to be too pompous about it,” he says, in advance of a most gloriously pompous statement regarding his involvement with negotiations over Rhodesia: “These are moments when one grows in stature and worth.”
Nowadays, he says, he is more or less back in Labour, but will not take the whip. Coming from parents who were both independent councillors, perhaps non-alignment was always his ultimate fate, and the roads untrodden merely a fantasy.
A more uncomfortable commentary on fate and circumstance was provided on Monday of last week by Radio 4’s The Nature of Paedophilia — itself a provocative title, insinuating as it does an argument about nature-nurture that some might regard as unacceptable when it comes to this most stigmatised of crimes. But James, one of Matthew Hill’s interviewees, was adamant. He is a paedophile by nature and by orientation; and knew it from the age of 11.
Neuro-psychological studies now suggest a correlation between paedophilic tendencies and certain patterns of development in the brain, and the difficult work of engaging with non-offending paedophiles has now become a significant field of research both in the UK and in Europe.
As ever, evidence from MRI scans is useful only as part of a dense weave of observation and research, drawing on many areas of social and physical science. What do we do with a set of results that tells us that not only do the brains of paedophiles have large deposits of white neural matter, but that those of left-handers do also; and that paedophiles are slightly shorter than average?
The more difficult approach —for investigators and for non-offenders — is to take the holistic approach, and interrogate a culture whose attitude to childhood sexuality is ambiguous. Nor does it help that researchers themselves adopt the language of tabloid opinionistas. Too often on this programme we heard experts open sentences with “If we want to keep our children safe, then we have to . . .”. It is the kind of hectoring tone that leads to bad research and even worse legislation.