Cherwell report from January 2013. What makes Eva Clarke so impressive is that she must have told her family’s harrowing tale in one form or another 1000 times. But she told it with all the passion and composure the topic demanded. It was a very thoughtful and moving talk.
I’ve just finished Live From Downing Street, a political history-cum-biography, with a fat dollop of polemical musing, from BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson.
What to make of it?
In short: a Very Good Book, but mis-sold. This is emphatically not the ‘inside story’ that we are promised on the front cover; it is an astute, well-informed and colourful history of the British media-political nexus. The black and white years certainly merit all the pages Robinson devotes to them. How fascinating indeed, to discover the contempt with which Churchill held Reith, the founding Director General of the BBC, and vice versa.And who’d have known that today’s Beeb was, until staggering recently, a mere plaything of the Establishment and the incumbent government? Until the late 50s laws preventing debate of anything occurring in Parliament that week or the next remained on the statue. Having made his career in a media world unencumbered by any such restriction, Robinson is best-placed to describe the tedium, dullness and impotence of the broadcasters, which he does succinctly. It took the charisma and insolence of one man, Robin Day, a former barrister on the newly launched Independent Television News, to change that. And change it he did: the abrasive character of television and radio journalists today such as Paxman, Crick and Humphrys is born out of his legacy.
Robinson’s account is generously embellished by anecdotes. The personal ones are cute and original. Recounting his first interview with Blair, Robinson was mischievously introduced by Alastair Campbell – spin doctor extraordinaire – as “the chairman of the Young Conservatives”. ‘Having anticipated such a welcome’ he recalls, ‘I had a response ready. “Prime Minister,” I said, “at the time of my life when I was involved in politics you had long hair and were playing the guitar with the Ugly Rumours.” Blair reacted instantly. “Yes, Nick, but I wish I still was.”
However some of the anecdotes that pre-date his career will, to those familiar with the political history of the period, come across as tired. Describing Atlee’s quiet and unassuming demeanor he refers to a famous Churchill quip – “one day an empty taxi drew up and Mr Attlee got out” – which is fine, perfectly adequate, but political junkies sort of expect more from the ‘inside account’ which they shelled £20 out for.
The problem is that Robinson’s job makes him the ‘most important person in British political journalism.’ I know this because he says so. Ok, no, he doesn’t really- he quotes one of the US President’s advisors. Which President? Which advisor? I don’t know, I’ve just spent the last ten minutes thumbing through 413 pages trying to find that one excerpt. Needle in a haystack indeed.
Anyway the point is that Robinson’s ginormous influence, that is, his network of contacts, will evaporate away – hell, no, spontaneously combust (!) – if he tittle tattles on them all. The time for that will come, post-retirement, but it’s not yet.
Consequently Robinson pulls surprisingly few punches, surprisingly few for a character self-described as “northern, arsey and confrontational”. [For the record Robinson grew up down the round from me in a leafy Cheshire suburb] There is an unsubtle dig at Sky News: ‘other [channels] repeat it without needing to bother to establish the facts for themselves (which is what happens when the giveaway words ‘media sources’ appear at the foot of the screen on Sky News a minute after the story breaks on the BBC).’ More forcefully, in his narrative of the BBC-government war following the alleged ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraq/WMDs, Robinson singles out Andrew Gilligan, then reporting for Radio 4’s Today, as a bandit.
What we are left with ultimately is a political history told by someone exceedingly well qualified to tell it, albeit more because of the author’s insightfulness and command of the facts, rather than his willingness to disclose much that couldn’t be deduced – or guessed at – anyway. If Robinson had written this book on the eve of retirement, rather than the peak of his career, he might have been more forthcoming: a second edition of Live From Downing Street circa-2020 would therefore be welcome.
Check me asking Julian Assange a question via video link.
The question I asked was deliberately a bit snarky. The Oxford Union was hosting an award ceremony by Sam Adams Associates, a group of whistleblowers and non-conformists that includes Annie Machon (who Chloe Cornish, lately of Brasenose, interviewed), the former MI5 officer.
The problem was that the award’s recipient, Tom Fingar, is no fan of Assange, who he has accused of “violat[ing] the law, personal obligations, and professional ethics.” The question I asked was whether he had any warm words for Assange. He didn’t, only coldly wishing the Australian dissident “good luck”.
That makes Assange’s invite to address the ceremony a rather curious decision. Including the Q&A, Assange had the floor for some 40 minutes, totally overshadowing the award and its significance.
These are two links to Cherwell news articles (both with excellent video reports by Xin Fan) about Julian Assange’s talk at the Oxford Union, and the opposition expressed by some in the Oxford community. See the front page story in print here.
This is an interview with Lord Strathclyde, the former Leader of the House of Lords, whom I interviewed a month before he resigned from Cabinet. It was published in Cherwell a few days after he did.
Call me boastful, but I am especially proud of my conclusion in the final paragraph in which I suggested he was ready to leave politics.
For that brief period when Lords reform was still hot earlier last year, it must have looked like his retirement (redundancy?) from politics was imminent. I don’t get the impression he’d have minded much.
I wrote that before news emerged that he had resigned, but also before it was published. So, alas, my magical prophetic skills will have passed unnoticed…
‘Additional Reporting’ credit for this Sunday Times piece (£) from January 2013.
‘I’m running a marathon’
In the spirit of Socratic dialogue, contained within Plato’s ‘Republic’, which I should be studying right now.
This is an interview with Toby Young, reproduced from Cherwell. Toby had a series of (pretty impressive) jobs in media as a young man, though he claims they often ended in him getting fired. This culminated in a stint at Vanity Fair in New York. He later wrote up his experiences in the bestselling How To Lose Friends And Alienate People. Today he is a political columnist and education campaigner, setting up West London Free School in September 2011. I cannot profess any pride in the puntastic title, it was dreamed up by the Editorial team.
Sat outside the Turl Street Kitchen I look up to see a mediocre William Hague lookalike approaching. It’s Toby, of course, and I find him transformed from the social liability ofHow to Lose Friends & Alienate People to the affable and focused founder of the West London Free School. The story is hilariously well told, documenting his attempt to break into the close-knit celebrity circles of the States, from his pilgrimage there in 1995 to his escape home five years later, tail flailing between his legs. On the face of it Toby has every reason to be fed up with life. A low point perhaps was when Simon Pegg, having just come from Run, Fatboy, Run, was told to ‘fatten up’ in order to play him in the film adaptation of How to Lose Friends.
Yet Toby Young is now far from the hapless caricature he presents. The son of Michael Young, a Labour peer, his upbringing was political and firmly anti-establishment. Lord Young drafted Labour’s radical ’45 manifesto and was a leading protagonist on social reform, championing comprehensive education, a struggling system Michael Gove’s free school project threatens to dismantle. He ‘wasn’t very keen on meritocracy’ despite famously authoring the phrase that Tony Blair would come to espouse as New Labour’s public philosophy. In the past Toby has called his father a ‘blinkered ideologically hidebound socialist’ and he is largely critical of what his father stood for, if affectionate towards the man himself.
The inter-generational irony personifies the turbulent history of British state education. Despite persistently failing at state schools, Toby wasn’t entered into any of the local private schools which were surely within his parents’ means. Though never bitter, he clearly abhors the worst of the state system. ‘Having seen how bad state schools can be I was nervous about sending my own children to the local state school’. Isn’t this just a naked appeal to self-interest? It’s perhaps a less noble motivation than those which fired his father’s ‘utopian socialism’ a generation before. Would he be turning in his grave? ‘I think he would have applauded groups of parents, groups of amateurs, coming together to try and take control of a public service. He believed that small was beautiful.’
And that’s the point of free schools; that in devolving power locally to extraordinary individuals you can harness their energy and innovation. The parents of West London certainly think so: in its inaugural year WLFS attracted almost ten applicants to every place, making it the most competitive state school in the country. However, last year only 24 free school ap- plications were approved; the vast majority failed to make a viable business case. I put it to him that private capital may be the answer. After a lengthy pause for consideration, Toby endorsed the idea: ‘Provided the market is properly regulated, there is no reason why for-profit educations managements organisations (EMOs) shouldn’t be allowed to set up and operate free schools’ with ‘an array of minimum standards to which all schools need to comply’.
As for the concerns that free schools will suck the best teachers and pupils from neighbouring schools, he argues ‘a bit of competition is no bad thing. People are a bit wary of hitting that note too hard because it seems a bit cut-throat…but I’d argue it has a positive impact [on surrounding schools]’. This is the revolutionary principle that may strike the heart of the British educational establishment; that you should be able to shop for education like you do for groceries or foreign holidays. If rich parents can pay for choice, why can’t everyone else?
I was yet to fully comprehend what drives Toby; I hadn’t quite gleaned that anecdotal nugget which, once revealed, allows all the other facets of an interviewee’s character to fall into place. Then he helped me out: Toby is a Brasenose alumnus, but really he shouldn’t be. Having successfully applied, he needed to meet the unusually generous offer of three ‘B’s and an O-level ‘pass’ in a foreign language. Failing to exhibit the immodesty that would later make him famous in America, Toby told me that ‘my father and I concluded that getting three A-level B’s was simply beyond me’. And right they were; he received a ‘C’.
Remarkably though ‘I got this letter, and it wasn’t addressed to me personally, but it was evidently sent to successful candidates’ referring to the impersonal circular we all received having got our places. Alas it was a mistake. A week later he received the personal letter confirming he had failed to get the requisite grades and ‘wishing [him] success in his university career’. Despite an embarrassed Toby imploring him not to, his father rang up the college to explain the predicament. What ensured between the PPE tutors was an extraordinary philosophical exchange about whether a clerical error was grounds for admission. Apparently it was.
The lesson: that what constitutes success is marginal; that failure can be so easily grasped from its jaws. And whilst he had plenty of the latter, he excelled in student journalism. It was, he confesses, ‘my only real success’. He started a new magazine, based on the genius insight that – with a nod to Cherwell and Isis – ‘if I named it after a bigger river it would be a bigger magazine. I came up with the brilliant wheeze of calling it after a different river for each issue, the first being the Danube’. It only lasted two issues, though he subseuqently became the editor of Tributary, Oxford’s now defunct equivalent of Private Eye, whose previous editors included Andrew Sullivan and Niall Ferguson.
Toby was by all accounts, an awful Union hack. ‘I was extremely unsuccessful; no one voted for me. I failed to get elected to Treasurer’s Committee [now Secretary’s Committee]. I got nowhere.’ He had competition though; Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were both contemporaries. No doubt the London mayor’s famous bombast in the Chamber trumped Toby’s somewhat pernickety campaign. The two have been friends since their days on the Spectator. He reflected, ‘I spent Saturday night at Boris’s victory party, which I probably wouldn’t have done when he won the Presidency of the Union’.
Showing how far he has strayed from his Labour roots, in 2002 Toby famously made a £15,000 bet with Nigella Lawson that Boris would be Tory leader within 15 years. Last Saturday the odds became a lot shorter. What about his own political ambitions though? No doubt he would relish the opportunity to rile up lefties – ‘I’ve always enjoyed baiting liberals’. Toby has the CV, the connections and a unique brand of ‘anti-charisma’ that could carry him into Parliament. He’s ambivalent – ‘Being an MP would remind me of those Oxford days shinning up the greasy pole’. Though he didn’t say as much, he considers what he does to be political.
His radical impulses are satisfied by free schools, which he wants to do more with. A book, about ‘class, education and British society’ is also in the pipeline. Though thoroughly hostile to Lords reform, he is enticed by the opportunity it presents. ‘I might stand for election in the House of Lords if indeed the changes that the Coalition are thinking of introducing [85% elected second chamber] go through’. Toby Young is a colourful character. His haphazard career. his cheerful approach to failure – ‘failing upwards’ as he puts it – and his DIY approach to solving social problems are all endearingly British. Not in the foppish style that has served Hugh Grant so well in Hollywood, but rather actually endearing to the British. He’s like a train without tracks; forceful, unpredictable and bewildering. And remarkably successful, if he won’t mind me saying.
This is an interview I did with Hazel Blears, New Labour-ite and former Cabinet Minister, some months ago for Cherwell. I talked to her about the murky world of internships.
The first thing that strikes you about Hazel is her height – 4ft.10, the ‘motorized munchkin’ of British politics. The second thing I learnt precluded me from mentioning the first; she’s fiery – sugary sweet but not to be crossed. Suggesting a resemblance with Dolores Umbridge of the Harry Potter series would be cruel, but since the thought provokes a chuckle then superficially at least the comparison contains truth.
The daughter of a maintenance fitter, Hazel came into a firmly working-class tradition. She went to grammar school followed by Trent Polytechnic. Practicing law was her unambiguous aspiration; she describes herself then as ‘an angry young woman’ who saw law as a way to ‘stand up for people’. Was it simply a stepping stone into politics? Apparently not, though through emotively recounting the story of a job interview after graduating, it seems to have been on the agenda from the early days. After sending out ‘300 letters without reply’ she’d only been given one interview, and only since her father was doing nuts-and-bolts stuff on the company’s shop floor. ‘Half way through the interview’ however ‘the partner asked what my Dad did for the company. When I told him he was a fitter on the shop floor he closed his folder and said ‘Good Morning, I think I’ve heard enough’ and showed me the door’. This New Labour politician was inducted into the Old Labour world view of class politics at a fragile young age.
‘I realised then that it wasn’t lawyers who changed the world…the people who really change the balance of power between rich and poor are politicians. That really gave me the impetus to go for Parliament’. That wasn’t easy either. Before 1997, she had fought two seats – one ‘unwinnable’ (Tatton, then Neil Hamilton’s fiefdom) and the other (Bury South, where she lost by only 700 votes) distinctly ‘winnable’. Her disappointment over losing in Bury was an experience she coyly describes as ‘character building’. She recounts having to abandon her job and livelihood to stand, and for a while it seemed she would win. In the final week of the campaign however, following Kinnock’s notoriously hubristic Sheffield Rally and a concerted attack by the Murdoch Press, her hard work was undone. You can’t help but feel sympathy for those swing-seat constituency candidates. They must sacrifice almost everything to acheive victory, even though the end result is ultimately the consequence of national mood-swings which, on a local level, appear whimsical and callous.
A tough ride into Parliament meant that once inside she wasn’t afraid of rubbing people up the wrong way. Frank Dobson once expressed his enthusiasm for global warming through a deep aversion to Blears since ‘the rising sea levels would get her first’. Her most theatrical moment came in 2009 when she unsubtly sought to ‘rock the boat’ by resigning from Cabinet. The Labour Party prizes collegial loyalty above all else; such a blatant act of treachery combined with an unreconstructed Blairism and dodgy expenses claims has seen her stock fall among Labour insiders, rendering a return to the front-bench inconceivable.
Yet at 56, in one of the safest seats in the country (Salford, a city ‘deep in my blood’), Hazel’s career is far from over. Like a large number of former New Labour ministers who face backbench renunciation in a Miliband government, Hazel has become a vigorous parliamentarian, campaigning most recently for universally paid internships.
The current arrangement, whereby new graduates in competitive industries must submit to years of slave labour before maybe getting a paid contract, is tough to argue for. Having Hazel as the opponent makes it all the more difficult. I had thought I was fairly clued up on the issue, insecure in the knowledge that I’ll shortly be entering the rat race. Yet my ignorance of the law, and Blears’ expertise in it opened up a fruitful discussion. ‘Unpaid internships are illegal. Under National Minimum Wage legislation, if a person has set hours and set tasks, then they are legally an employee, entitled to the [NMW]’. Indeed the concept of an ‘intern’ has no definition in British law; as Hazel describes it’s a wholly ‘American import’. If you are not an employee, you are a volunteer. Interns – with their concrete working shifts and very real workloads – very much fall into the former. Try taking a day off work as an intern and see what happens.
The point is that no new legislation is needed; the government simply ‘needs to enforce what’s already on the Statute’. However a quick scan of the popular w4mp website, where most parliamentary internships are advertised, shows how Parliament flouts the law it approved itself fourteen years ago. Martin Vickers, a Tory MP, has recently advertised a 6 month unpaid internship. When I contacted his office, his parliamentary aide was quick to reply pointing out that, having himself worked as an unpaid intern, ‘[he] benefited immeasurably from the experience and was [subsequently] successful in securing paid employment in a career I love’. In the past some interns had been paid, ‘depending on their individual circumstances and the availability of funds’ in the office.
I put it to Blears that the good intentions of the campaign betray its naivety. If the problem is a deficit of working-class people in politics, then isn’t the requirement for MPs’ offices to pay them a salary – making it more costly to offer internships – counter-productive? In the murky world of upper-middle class patronage, the few remaining ones will be doled out by MPs to personal contacts and family friends. She’s not persuaded, recounting Tory scaremongering over the NMW, which despite concerns about youth unemployment substantially raising living standards in the bottom decile with no extra unemployment. I suspect the two cases are less than analogous. Indeed it simply is not credible that salaried internships will lead to anything other than their intense scarcity, especially given how sensitive politicians like Vickers are to be seen to provide taxpayer value. But this misses the point, which is that the number of internships available does nothing for social mobility if they are all occupied by rich kids. In other words, fewer overall internships are a fair price to pay for a more equitable distribution of the opportunities entailed by them.
As she rightly notes, it’s not just young people who have a stake in this; ‘the country as whole loses out [in terms of] talent and creativity’. Indeed by allowing internships to be captured by the wealthy we are hugely restricting the talent pool from which to dram tomorrow’s leaders. If Roy Hodgson, the England Manager, decided to only pick players with rich parents, there would be uproar. Not just because of the unfairness – debasing an honour (playing for ones country) by discriminating on income as opposed to merit – but because the team would be pants. The decision would rightly be seen as a massive, self-inflicted own-goal (to exhaust the metaphor).
Leaving Portcullis House I speak with Kay, Hazel’s intern, about her experience. She’d previously nurtured vague political aspirations but hadn’t realised, until now, how getting ahead in the Westminster village ‘is all about the connections’ which she’s tentatively started making. Gazing around the central atrium Kay is a refreshing contrast to the other floppy-haired, self-assured SPADs I observe busying about. If more parliamentarians adopted intern-pay, if we had more Kays, I daresay the next generation’s political leaders would seem considerably less odious.
This is an interview I did with James Delingpole, the fiery right-wing commentator, some months before I started this blog. Reproduced, as so often, from Cherwell.
James Delingpole would make a poor politician. Nor would he mind me saying so. His colourful social commentary reminds me of George Galloway (he might mind me saying that). How about this on New Labour: ‘they raped our country…and we just had to spread our buttocks and take it’. Needless to say, Delingpole’s politics bear no resemblance to the Respect Party MP – in fact they are light years away from any mainstream figure. In our hour-long interview the right-wing journalist and author was characteristically impassioned, though I discovered a reflectiveness to Delingpole that did not leave me short-changed.
When discussing politics Delingpole is belligerent, ‘detest[ing] nuance’. For the author of How to be Right, subtlety and understatement – whilst noble Conservative virtues – are in fact rather ignoble in the face of the Bolshevistic threat the country faces. To avoid total capitulation to the ‘lefty, socialist consensus’, which the Cameron Coalition represents, James demands fellow conservatives employ ‘the tactics of the Left’, though beyond a shouty obstinacy it’s not clear what this entails.
On the one-hand I understand Delingpole as ‘terribly English’. Our tea is made splendidly (I wonder whether he has gleaned the insights of another, albeit more famous, novelist-cum-polemicist on this) and as we bask in the evening sunlight of his south-London semi, it is evident that the garden is immaculately well-tended to. He was famously portrayed in the Channel 4 docu-drama When Boris met Dave as a wet, naive schoolboy with aristocratic pretensions. The comparison with Charles Ryder of Brideshead Revisited is inescapable. We can only suppose therefore that the producers were confused when they modelled Delingpole on Evelyn Waugh’s other creation, Sebastian Flyte (on-screen James is shown – wholly inaccurately – to gander merrily about Christ Church with his teddy-bear). Alternatively, his frankness – what Delingpole would coyly describe as ‘fucking off lefties’ – is attributed to his West Midlands roots, the culture whereof is very ‘call a spade a spade’.
On the other-hand he is not at all self-conscious, being entirely immune to embarrassment. At times this has translated into an admirable audaciousness, such as when he broke what he later popularised the ‘Climategate’ story in 2009. A number of prominent climate scientists from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit were exposed conspiring in data fraud, employing ‘Mike’s nature trick’ to hide an ‘inconvenient’ set of results. Irrespective of your conclusions about the veracity of anthropogenic global warming, Delingpole undoubtedly performed a great service to the public in exposing the fraud. Most journalists, including global-warming sceptics, would not have touched the story but in his insolence, Delingpole did – it propelled him from blogospheric obscurity to become the media’s most infamous climate-sceptic and right-wing bogeyman. ‘Most people in the media I despise’ notes Delingpole; indeed the feeling, especially since ‘Climategate, is mutual.
Matt Ridley of the Spectator probably pinned it down most accurately when he characterised Delingpole as a ‘radical 18th-century pamphleteer lambasting the Whig establishment’. At least Delingpole thinks so. He has ‘always detested arbitrary authority’ though in his view, the last decade has seen the Conservative party he instinctively belonged to become the embodiment of that philosophy, rendering him a ‘Radical’. Funny, because Delingpole is a staunch conservative in almost every sense, save for a distinctly liberal use of expletives. Nor, it quickly emerges, is he fired up by the sort of social issues that many of his right-wing contemporaries proselytise about mercilessly. His defining life experience? ‘Taking my first E’ – imagine a Mail commentator confessing to that.
And what of the evidence that Delingpole’s brand of ‘libertarian conservatism’ is catching on? He certainly doesn’t do himself any favours. When Rowan Williams recently waded into a Westminster catfight about the Welfare Bill, James wondered aloud on his Telegraph blog whether the outgoing Archbishop was in fact the Antichrist. Understatement of the century? ‘I’ve never been known for my diplomacy’. Quite.
That aside, I put it to him that – all too often – he preaches to the converted; the only people likely to be persuaded are those who already subscribe to his rather niche brand. Is he the Polly Toynbee of the Right? ‘I totally accept that criticism…I’m not a politician; I’m not there to bring people over’. In fact he’s quite firm on that point, that ‘I’m best at being James Delingpole, so why should I try to be someone else?’ which bemuses me. Surely if you ardently believe in a cause, you want it actualised, and in a democracy that means bringing people over. Delingpole has no time for that, slamming the Cameroons for adhering to the cosy centre ground rather than ‘actually doing what is necessary’ to save the country.
I wasn’t convinced by this apparently disdainful attitude to public opinion, so I challenge him. In Delingpole’s bastardised Platonic ideal, I counter, only conservative solutions can rescue the nation, and if the public doesn’t want them, stuff ‘em! Unsurprisingly he’s not persuaded, referencing Thatcher as a politician who moved the centre ground rather than chasing it. His theory is that the next Labour government, led by a ‘monkey in a red rosette’ will test the consensus to destruction by ‘borrowing even more money and spunking it against the wall’ – leading to a seismic public mood shift. Interesting theory, perhaps Cherwell could get back to Delingpole about that one in a decade’s time.
From the transcript of our interview, Delingpole does not come across well. In-between insurrectionist ramblings are narcissistic ones – ‘it’s boring being right’ is a common afterthought – and the claim that the ‘Climategate’ revelations have ‘saved Western civilisation’ is, to put it kindly, dubious; less kindly, it was ‘weapons-grade bollocks’, to coin one of James’ phrases.
He does not share the avuncular manner of my other interviewees, quite the contrary. Yet I’m glad for it. Delingpole’s talent – and a rare one at that – lies in telling you how utterly wrong you are without being patronising. It’s hard to tell whether Delingpole’s style or substance will infect a broader demographic. Having recently escaped to the countryside, will James’ inner street-fighter mellow with age? The answer is that, by cultivating the habits of an English gentleman in his private life, he doesn’t have to. ‘Lefties’ should anticipate irritation for some time yet.