Did Michael Gove ever really leave the Oxford Union?

Only a former Oxford Union hack could in the same sentence describe a political opponent as both “charming, intelligent, eloquent” and “uncertain, irresolute, weak”.

The tactic, as George Eaton puts it, consists in flattering one’s opponents into submission before sticking the knife in.

It’s a classic ploy used by members of the Oxford Union, the prestigious Oxford University debating society of which Gove was once President, to ridicule an interlocutor whilst appearing sincere and dispassionate to the audience.

I’ve been an Oxford Union member for two years and have seen the trick pulled too many times to count. To seasoned observers it’s boring and patronising at best, and slimy and disingenuous at worst. But it works.

In weighing up Miliband’s credentials, Gove creates the impression of balance by listing the Labour leader’s positive as well as negative attributes. In fact he gives the impression of doing more than that: six positive adjectives – charming, intelligent, eloquent, thoughtful, generous and chivalrous – against just three negative ones.

Of course Gove isn’t being fair at all. The compliments all allude to Miliband’s ‘Buddha-like qualities’ which, in the public eye, aren’t really qualities at all. Not against Cameron’s supposed strengths of certainty, resoluteness and strength which, Gove would have us believe, Miliband doesn’t possess.

But it’s not easy to spot the guise. Instead Gove’s apparent equanimity succeeds in depoliticising and legitimising the crushing conclusion that follows: that when asked “who governs Labour, his answer would appear to be, increasingly: the unions.”

Incidentally, Boris Johnson, another former Union President, repeatedly pulls the same trick of patronising a rival – David Cameron – while outwardly appearing warm and friendly. Johnson is the only politician with the nerve, and status, to get away with calling the Prime Minister ‘Dave’, which Johnson – who never forfeiting the status afforded by being two years above Cameron at Eton and then Oxford – regularly does in public.

If Gove really is “the politest man in politics”, then he is also the least authentic. A little of veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner’s bad manners – accusing George Osborne of snorting cocaine (2005) and calling Jim Prior, then secretary of state for employment, the “minister of unemployment” (1980) – would help him recoup some much-needed authenticity.


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.

Fair Observer: The PCC Elections and the re-birth of localism

Fair Observer  in my understanding models itself on ‘The Economist’, certainly in terms of tone and content. It’s a pretty low profile web outfit, but I was attracted to writing for it for three reasons: (1) Atul, its Editor and a former Oxford PPE-ist, was kind enough to contact me during the PoshGirls scandal, not to goad, but to offer some words of support. I appreciated that. (2) the content was generally very high quality, the sort of stuff I’d aspire to write and (3) its claim to have global nous seems genuine; Fair Observer has contributors from 5 continents and in all walks of life. I was attracted by the project Atul is attempting to pioneer, even if I think he’ll have a tough time establishing a market niche.

Reproduced from Fair Observer

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With the creation of new Police and Crime Commissioners last year, along with recent inaugural elections, the British government’s attempt to politicise the post of the Chief of Police appears to have come at a wrong time.

The PCC Elections are emblematic of the Coalition’s attempt to push power and democracy downwards and outwards. But will democratising the police refresh the flabby institution, making it more accountable and responsive to the community it serves, or will it turn the police into a political football, having a corrosive effect on the quality of the service?

Defenders of PCCs say that policing is already a political issue. How could it not be? If politics is about how we best live together, the importance of both individual and collective security will form a central part of public discourse. Political parties have disagreed about policing ever since Robert Peel established the world’s first professionalised force in 1829. The function of the new PCCs, the government argues, is not to ‘politicise policing’ as their Labour critic claim, but to push the politics down from a national to municipal level.

And if this exercise in decentralising one function of Britain’s leviathanic state can be shown to work, it may prove to be simply a harbinger of further devolution from London to the localities.

Why Westminster Rules

Among the club of liberal democratic states Britain remains its most centralised member. The legacy bequeathed by earlier generations was born of noble intentions. During the Second World War the country unified – and centralised – to kill Germans. So why couldn’t it do the same to lift people out of poverty and squalor? These pressures, manifested in Labour’s landslide 1945 election victory, led to the creation of a comprehensive welfare state – its proudest achievement: the National Health Service. Aneurin Bevan, the Minister for Health who pioneered the NHS, famously ordered that should a bedpan pall in some provincial hospital ward, its echo would reverberate around Whitehall. The Atlee government believed first in social justice, but they were quintessential centralisers, asserting not just the primacy of public over private but of national over local. Both features would become central to British national life.

The Thatcher government challenged the first of these with its programme of liberalisation and denationalisation. It left the second untouched however, leaving swathes of the public sector unreformed, inefficient and out of date. The Labour government of Tony Blair began to force change through the public sector, introducing market incentives into healthcare and freeing schools from the deadpan hand of the education authorities. It bowed to nationalist sentiment and devolved power from Parliament to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and indeed, to Greater London, now the fiefdom of Boris Johnson. For the first time the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the haughty principle that what is decreed in Westminster shall be – was formally repudiated. But as the conflict in Iraq escalated, Blair’s authority evaporated and his reforming allies were marginalised. The ascendancy of Gordon Brown to the Premiership in 2007 ended further attempts at reform, a victory for the vested interests in the public sector that had supported Brown’s rise.

Giving people a say

Whilst David Cameron’s government has been less than successful in reviving Britain’s fledgling economy, it has breathed new life into the public sector. Of special noteworthiness, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, has made thousands of state schools ‘independent’ within the public sector, giving them powers to emulate their outstanding rivals in the private sector. More radically he has permitted local parent groups to set up hundreds of ‘free schools’, allowed to teach to their own curriculum. Projects like Toby Young’s ‘West London Free School’ in Ealing, which emphasises a ‘classical curriculum’, promise to shake-up the British class system in a way not attempted since the advent of comprehensive (non-selective) education five decades ago, ironically pioneered by Toby’s father, the late Lord Young.

‘Giving people a say’ is the mantra of this government. And in education at least they have been faithful in executing it. But what happens when the people don’t really fancy a ‘say’ in how their services are run?

The government intended the PCC elections to capture the interest of local people, and to attract candidates prominent in their local area. That plainly hasn’t happened. Few serious and successful local figures have been willing to take the plunge into what remains an ill-defined role, the powers of which are wholly ambiguous. Moreover the public has been largely unwilling to invest time into learning about the non-party candidates. The information conferred by a ‘Conservative’, ‘Labour’ or ‘Liberal Democrat’ candidate has therefore been all that the public are willing or able to take in, strongly prejudicing their choice against candidates they might otherwise warm to.

More politics = better politics?

The tension, ultimately, is between the general public’s two conflicting instincts: (1) for a greater say in how they are governed and (2) an unprecedented loathing of the political class. The second of these feelings is currently the strongest. In light of the scandal over British MP’s expenses claims, as well as crises in journalism and finance, the whole British Establishment has been thrown into disrepute.

This cynicism has already undermined for a generation attempts to empower urban towns and cities. In May eleven of England’s largest cities were granted referenda on whether they wanted directly-elected mayors. With the exception of Bristol and Salford, part of Greater Manchester, they refused. So it is unsurprising that turnout in the PCC elections was next to abysmal: 18% nationally with many of those spoiling their ballots. The message, it seems, is unambiguous: the public simply does not want more politicians.

That is why Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher who has spent the autumn in Britain, has provoked derision at his call for more politics, not less. Despite its scepticism the public should listen to his argument. Sandel describes healthy societies as those in which people of different incomes and cultures rub along together, in which they share a similar understanding of what their welfare consists in. In Britain communities are divided between regions as well as within them. It means that a banker living in Chelsea, West London, has more in common with, say, a landlord in Edinburgh – not to mention his kinship with another banker in Hong Kong – than he does with his near-neighbour. This is no way to cultivate a sense of place and local identity. Yet far from encouraging that, the British state as constituted governs its citizens in such a way that alienates groups from one another.

If the effect of Police and Crime Commissioners is merely to add a new layer to the political class then another nail in the coffin of localism will have been struck. If, on the other hand, people see policing as a means to put right what is wrong in the community, then the PCCs could, in time, become a vital catalyst in rebuilding what has been lost since 1945: an identification with, and pride in, local bodies. Ultimately, the dubious mandate of the newly-elected PCCs will be forgotten if they make a success of it. It only takes a small number of charismatic, reforming characters to imbue the role with the significance it surely merits. When a previous Labour government introduced a mayoralty to London in 2000, it took a couple of election cycles and two sparring candidates – Ken and Boris – to embed the mayoralty firmly in the public consciousness. The government could not have picked a worst time to expand the political class, but having done so the public will eventually come to thank them for it.