Interview: Andrew Adonis

I interviewed Andrew Adonis earlier this year, shortly before an Oxford Union debate. We were due to meet before the debate but sadly he had to cancel on that and so we spoke on the telephone instead.

He’s a lovely man, so nice in fact that I struggled to say anything rude about him in the interview write-up, which is unusual for me.

He’s in politics for the right reasons, which perhaps is why he never rose high enough in the Labour governments to really command education policy.

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The Politics of Privilege: an interview with Lord Strathclyde

The Politics of Privilege

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…

How To Lose Friends and Educate People

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.

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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.

Interview: Hazel Blears

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.

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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.

Interview: James Delingpole

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.

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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.

James’ ‘latest masterpiece’ on the environmental movement – Watermelons – can be found here

 

Cherwell Interview with Michael Crick

Oxford is full of over-achievers. Everyone knows one, the person who will not rest until they’ve ascended the top societies; the suit who walks around town with the air of the Cabinet Minister they will one day become.

Michael Crick, previously Political Editor of Newsnight, and now Channel 4’s Chief Political Correspondent, was of this sort. He was an absolutely massive hack, editing Cherwell, chairing the Democratic Labour Club and becoming President of the Oxford Union – to which he returned last Thursday to participate in the Media and Politics debate. He’s a little embarrassed about it now – “It was awful. It was office accumulation for the sake of it” – but not at all remorseful. And why should he be? For it helped launch a glittering career in political journalism.

After Oxford Crick joined ITN, helping to launch Channel 4’s news team in 1982, and then working as its Washington correspondent, winning an RTS award in 1988 for his coverage of the Bush-Dukasis Presidential Election. From there he swapped to the BBC, first with its flagship investigative programme Panorama and then with Newsnight, becoming its political editor in 2007. But last year he hopped back to 4; he is now the Chief Political Correspondent of the network he joined as a lowly trainee three decades ago. He is famous for the political ambush, the prickly question and the chase. His greatest hits are when he does all three. When Iain Duncan Smith faced a leadership crisis, he delivered a speech at Party Conference famous for the line “The quiet man is here to stay”. Ironically he refused to take questions after the speech. Crick followed him to the next event, from which, as Duncan Smith left, he yelled: “Aren’t you taking this quiet man thing a bit far?” It is in no small part thanks to Crick that we have political satire like The Thick of It.

The job of political correspondents is to follow the day-to-day dramas that typify public life, and to analyse the characters of their subjects. Extraordinarily however, given the enormous pressure they exercise on the political class, what is often overlooked is the character of the journalists themselves.

Crick exudes the same characteristics in person that he gives out on screen. He is sharp, boisterous and funny. Opening his speech at the Union, he pivoted around the despatch box to address the President, John Lee, to deliver a phoney tribute that concluded with a description of the relationship between the Union President and Standing Committee as akin to that between a “villain and his sheep”. He is totally absent of any deference to the Establishment, for the simple reason that he had already outgrown it by the age of 22. But he’s very different from Jeremy Paxman, to whom this description could also be attributed, because he doesn’t take himself all that seriously. He is entirely prepared to accost politicians in the street, or chase them down corridors at party conferences, to demand an answer to the question of when exactly they stopped beating their wives.

The reason Crick totally lacks humility with politicians is because he knows the game so intimately from his Union days. Alan Duncan, the International Development Minister, was a contemporary – beating him to the Union Presidency on Crick’s first attempt. He learnt from that, and won next time around. “The best elections” he tells me, “were when you frightened off the opposition so there wasn’t any, and there were a few of those.” This sound very much to be the school of Robert Mugabe electioneering, but then again it is the Union. During his campaign Cherwell “gave me a two page spread [fully one third of the entire paper in those days] – it was basically a manifesto for my candidacy.” Given the opprobrium regularly poured by the student press on the Union nowadays, I find this hilarious. But just as the country at large treated politicians with greater reverence in those days, so the Union was seen then as more of a serious focal point of student life.

And Crick has had no small role in smashing that wholly undeserved reverence. He clearly loves the job, applying the same skills he acquired as a student hack to making politicians squeal in front of camera. What makes a good hack, I ask? “It’s about getting people to do things when you don’t actually have much power, just the power of ambition” is the straightforward reply. The same applies to journalism. After the Leveson Inquiry the media industry is currently on its knees, but the importance of holding power to account has never been more important.

Predictably perhaps, Crick’s familiarity with politicians has made him totally immune to their charms and suspicious of ideology. He left university firmly in the Labour camp, though “to the right of 1980s Labour”, a natural stance for a grammar school and Oxbridge lad of that generation to take. This soon changed. “You have an opinion-ectomy when you go into broadcast journalism” he says very matter-of-factly, though print journalism is of course an entirely different kettle of fish. At Oxford he had “always intended journalism to be the means into politics”, but when the opportunity to stand in a by-election in a safe Labour seat presented itself, he turned it down and has “felt liberated” ever since.

More than that though: thirty years of close association with Westminster life has hollowed out the politics in him. As a leading political observer he is constantly asking ‘how’, ‘why’ and ‘when’, but in doing so he has unlearnt and rejected the ‘ought’. It’s dispiriting to hear him say, both because of what it tells you about the cynicism of Parliament by those closest to it and the implications of that: that we’re going to continue to see dull humanoids occupy Parliament. So apathetic is Crick that he “[doesn’t] vote at all, partly because of the job I do but partly I don’t know what I think any more. The only view I have now is that I’d bring back capital punishment, but only for people who drop chewing gum on pavements.”

What words of wisdom does he have for those who want to follow him into media career? “Build alliances” is his answer, “stay in touch with people you meet at Oxford.” The implication I take from this is that journalism is nepotistic – if you look at how many journalists had parents or close family in the profession then you’ll understand how true this remains. Crick however claims never to have obtained a job through contacts, but as the industry contracts and graduate schemes become scarce, they will be increasingly important. “Being a journalist employs a narrow range of skills” is his last piece of advice, so it’s vital “to master those skills” and develop a specialism in the area you want to cover.

That powerful people go to great lengths to avoid Crick is a testament not only to how well he does the job, but to how much a spirited and informed democracy relies on quality, investigative journalism. As Newsnight, Crick’s old haunt, has been thrown into crisis in recent weeks, that point should be made with all the more force. Whilst I can imagine despising the nakedly ambitious Crick as a student, the grown-up version is almost impossible not to warm to. In that sense the message for today’s generation of hacks is far from bleak.

George Galloway: “I haven’t made any political errors”

Reproduced from Cherwell

There’s a famous scene in Spitting Image, ITV’s now expired satirical puppet show, parodying Neil Kinnock’s 1987 election broadcast. “Nurses, nurses, teachers, nurses!” the puppet Kinnock blasts into the loudspeaker. “Old people, black people, yellow people, nurses!” The Labour leader was portrayed as an excitable iconoclast carried away by the chaotic passion of his own rhetoric.

Were Spitting Image still going, I daresay the show would have caricatured George Galloway – the Respect MP for Bradford – in much the same manner. His buzzwords are different of course: “murder”, “imperialism” and “Bush-Blair” were deployed indiscriminately throughout his speech last week at the Oxford Union.

His elected topic, ‘The World At War’, was a safe one. Though accusations of demagoguery and misogyny have ruptured his relationship with the Left, the undeniable doggedness which he brings to the anti-war movement still earns him their grudging respect.

By the time we sit down Galloway has been at it for over an hour, and an hour of bellowing acoustics, thrusting gesticulation and fierce mental awareness would incapacitate most politicians. He has visited the Union before, on one occasion, in 1988, as a guest of the then-President Michael Gove. “We became friends,” Galloway recounts with a surprising warmth. Though both hail from modest Scottish backgrounds, such a friendship still seems peculiar.

It should be remembered that Galloway has some experience of cosying up to people with whom – ostensibly at least – he does not agree. Infamously in 1994 he lauded Saddam Hussein for his “courage, strength and indefatigability”. Less than a decade later, as the courageous Iraqi dictator hid in a hole near Tikrit, Galloway led the anti-war movement back home, calling for British soldiers to “refuse to obey illegal orders”. Once this had prompted his expulsion from the Labour Party, he began clamouring for Tony Blair’s extradition to the Hague for “war crimes”. He repeats the demand in our interview, referring to the “indictment I carry in my briefcase” and promising to make a “citizen’s arrest” of the former PM if they ever find each other in the same room.

“I haven’t made any substantial political errors,” Galloway retorts, after I suggest that these sorts of serial mishaps undermine his credibility as a politician. He does, however, confess to errors “of phrasing and words”. The distinction is an odd one to make, given that his recent guide to the “sex game” provoked the resignation of Salma Yaqoob, Respect’s leader. Galloway seems sincere when he says “we’re very sorry that she’s left”, but sees the subsequent media storm as essentially poppycock: “When someone leaves us, they are invested with such an importance, an importance which they were never given when they were with us.”

But why does he never apologise for his bouts of verbal flatulence? “Not true, simply not true, you haven’t done your research as well as you thought you had,” he counters. When I asked for an example of a public apology he had made, he shrewdly declined: “It wouldn’t profit me to go through my list of regrets.” But it might profit me of course, so I went and did some homework.

And it turns out he has recently apologised to a tweeter whom – in the heat of an online ar- gument in August – Galloway branded a “window-licker”, a derogatory term for the mentally handicapped. His apology was limp and equivocating, but still it was remarkable that he made one at all. Perhaps the relaxations of a honeymoon in Indonesia with his fourth wife have evinced a softer side.

But will he apologise over his rape comments? “No.” He believes that “Julian Assange has been set up. The allegations against him… are entirely bogus.” The problem is that for Galloway to accept that the allegations constitute rape, he could no longer be so sure of the conspiracy he has built up around WikiLeaks. Without irony, he concluded an answer on the topic to a PhD student, Nicole, with this diatribe: “Trust me on this, sister, the day will come when you’ll be embarrassed to have asked me that question because you’ll know what you don’t know now. I’ll forgive you for not knowing it.” Needless to say Nicole was less than impressed by this generous gesture.

It is well known that Galloway holds himself in high regard. There’s a story in Chris Mullin’s new diary that is fast becoming legend in Westminster. During a parliamentary visit to Vietnam, Mullin recounts a special meal laid on for the delegation: “Almost everyone at the table had lost a member of his family. One had lost four brothers. This didn’t stop George regaling them with tales of ‘my first injury in the struggle’, which turned out to be a kick he received from a police horse during the 1968 anti-war demonstration outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square.” The following day, at another meeting, “George again regaled the assembly with tales of his long service to socialism. The district chairman, a canny old boy, listened politely when George again referred to his ‘first injury in the struggle’. Then, without batting an eyelid he inquired: ‘And what was your second?’”

Galloway’s antagonists will variably tell you that he isan egotist, a conspiracy theorist, a hypocrite, a dictator-loving sycophant, and a rather nasty bigot. These criticisms undoubtedly sully his reputation, but they also energise the vocal minority, who – as Galloway never tires of remind- ing me – have “elected me to the British Parliament six times”, most recently in the “Bradford Spring” that liberated the oppressed peoples of West Yorkshire earlier this year.

Another slightly peculiar boast is his presence on “alternative” media. Specifically he is tagged in “over 12,000 videos on YouTube”. That’s funny, because barely eight weeks previously, Galloway had spoken on his ‘Molucca Red’ channel of a mere “11,800 videos, the last time I checked.” He obviously keeps a close tab. It seems that Galloway’s globetrotting schedule, hopping from Venezuela to Kazakhstan in the week before we met, doesn’t stop him cultivating the cyber-vanity of a 14-year-old schoolgirl. One thinks it’s beneath him, until you remember that this is the same George Galloway who let Channel 4 film him licking milk out of the hands of one of his fellow Big Brother housemates.

At the St Stephen’s Gate Entrance to Parliament stands a statue of Charles James Fox, the Whig MP ejected twice for treacherously supporting the American minutemen and, later, the French revolutionaries. For a time Fox cast a lonely figure with a lot to say but few sympathetic enough to hear it. Vindication by history saved his reputation. Galloway – who has evoked Fox on multiple occasions – is acutely conscious of the opprobrium poured on him by the British media and political establishment: “I don’t ask anyone to love me. I am what I am.”

Graham Brady: Fighting for the Tory Right

My interview with Graham Brady from CherwellNot one of my best, having not got much original material out of him – a common difficulty when you find yourself in agreement with so much of it.

Standing from his corner office in Portcullis House, Graham Brady recalls watching the Diamond Jubilee procession from our viewpoint two weeks earlier. With a vista that takes in Westminster Palace, Parliament Square and the imperial marble of Whitehall, they’re certainly worse places to hold down a job. Not that it’s just any old job. As Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Brady is probably the most influential Tory outside the Cabinet, and in practice exercises far more power than a few of those in it. He has Cameron on speed-dial and the Tory leader would be unwise to screen his call.

If Number Ten is the brains of the Conservative Party, the ’22 is its heart and soul. It represents a spectrum of backbench opinion with an eighteen member executive changing periodically. Only government ministers are excluded.The most recent ballot saw the inclusion of prominent backbenchers into the executive including Priti Patel, the fiery right-winger. Brady himself understands it as ‘the plumbing that connects the leader of the party with the backbench membership’, and though his chairmanship is barely older than the Coalition itself, he sees his role as ‘more important when the party is in government, and more important than ever now that there is a Coalition’.

To those who know him, Brady is seen as friendly, principled and not obviously ambitious. It is certainly easy to warm to his avuncular manner. When I make a bad joke – a reoccurring issue in my interviews – he laughs generously. After the interview he takes 5 minutes to let me out of Parliament personally, whereas most MPs would delegate the job to an intern. Not that there was any special chemistry between us by the way, I’m sure it’s run of the mill stuff for him. But his easy-going charm is one of the explanations for Brady’s success from unremarkable beginnings.

Born in Trafford to an accountant father and a secretary mother, Brady is defined by his education. In August he told the New Statesman that ‘I owe my career to grammar school’. From our conversation it was evident that he is spending that career repaying the favour. An alumnus of the small Altrincham Grammar School in Greater Manchester, Brady talks of ‘a great loyalty to my old school’. His maiden speech in Parliament opposed the abolition of the Assisted Places scheme, one of New Labour’s first directives that crippled England’s grammar schools. In Westminster Brady’s name remains synonymous with the grammar schools debate. He was serving as shadow Europe Minister when David Cameron unequivocally came out against grammar schools in 2007. ‘There are times when something is sufficiently important that it is imperative to take a stand’ Brady muses; walking out of the shadow cabinet was his first break with a leadership not in tune with his distinct flavour of conservatism.

He is enthusiastic about Michael Gove’s Education Department however, which since 2010 has approved thousands of new ‘Academy’ schools – ones autonomous from Local Authority Control – and hundreds of radical ‘Free Schools’. Yet as a firm supporter of selective education he is clear that it isn’t enough. Toby Young, who Cherwell interviewed in May, told me his aim in setting up the West London Free School was to ‘create a grammar school ethos’. Brady describes Toby and the efforts of other educational reformers such as Katherine Birbalsingh as ‘fantastic’. However ‘what they won’t do is create a grammar school education’; that requires selection, pure and simple.

Whilst ostensibly remaining against new grammar schools, the Coalition- at the behest of local parents and government – has given the green light to new grammar schools via the back door. Kent County Council has approved a new ‘satellite school’ in Sevenoaks, Kent, officially tied to an existing school 10 miles away in Tonbridge but to all intents and purposes a new school – the first in 50 years. I ask Brady if this stealthy method is the way forward. Thus ensues the longest pause for thought of our interview (still only a paltry few seconds). Carefully he described the move as a ‘small but significant way forward’. The effect will be marginal, but the idea, articulated by Brady is that ‘demand [for new grammars] and pressure in other areas’ will increase. Though the government remains officially wedded to the comprehensive ideal – something the Lib Dems won’t let them stray far from – grammar school campaigners are increasingly pushing on an open door, presenting a ‘very important challenge’ to the pre-New Labour educational orthodoxy.

The other weeping wound of the Conservative Party lies in European policy; here Brady has also dipped his hands in blood – my phrase, not his, of course. When 79 Tory MPs defied a 3 line whip last autumn to vote in favour of an EU in-out referendum, Brady was one of them. Bizarrely he refuses to acknowledge a conflict at all – ‘what you call a rebellion, I call members of parliament acting independently’. ‘Same difference?’ I counter but he isn’t having any of it. An allusion to Churchill is illuminating however. Quoting the sainted Conservative he describes loyalty as owed ‘first to country, then constituency and then party’. It’s a neat way out of explaining lapses of party loyalty: appeal to patriotism, voters and Churchill. Except I can’t help thinking there’s something to it. He just doesn’t come across as at all tribal – the sort of guy who would otherwise support Manchester City providing they weren’t playing the more local Manchester United.

Explaining the relationship between the ’22 and the Executive Brady is clear: ‘we work best when we work privately’. All of his conversations with Cameron are confidential, ‘frank’ and ‘leak proof’. Poisoned by disloyalty his words have no power. so doing Brady avoids the headlines but retains the Prime Minister’s ear. As chair of the ’22 his job is nudge, wink and cajole Cameron on behalf of backbenchers. But he can’t practice this to destruction; after all, a Coalition full of ‘wets’ remains better than one rendered impotent by rebellion. So the relationship goes both ways; instead of whispering sweet nothings into the ear of the Tory Right he tells them when it’s to swallow the bitter pill of Coalition consensus. This is Brady’s essence. He understands his role as keeping the show on the road, rather than stealing it for himself or some swivel-eyed right-wing cause. As such he’s perhaps the Coalition’s greatest asset, though he’d be loath to admit it.