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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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The Tories are out of step with modern life

Published by The Guardian (3rd January, 2018)

Toby Young has never been shy of self-promotion. He admits to possessing a ‘gargantuan’ ego, writes frequently about himself and was famously the author of a book called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. But even he must have been slightly surprised that the first big political story of the year should revolve around his suitability for a minor post on a previously little-known quango.

Young’s appointment to the board of the Office for Students, a new watchdog for universities, sparked a firestorm on social media and a furore in Westminster. His old comments in columns and on Twitter have been dug up, exposing an abrasive character who could pick a fight in solitary confinement. Labour has demanded the move be reversed because of his sexism, snobbery and homophobia, while academics scorn the idea of such a partisan figure overseeing their sector.

The Spectator columnist hit back in typically pugnacious style, claiming he was a target for the left because he was an ‘outspoken Tory’.  He apologised speedily for ‘sophomoric, politically incorrect remarks’ made in the past and accepted the government had exaggerated his qualifications over minor teaching tasks at Harvard and Cambridge. Boris Johnson joined battle in his usual bombastic style, tweeting about a ‘ridiculous’ outcry over his old Oxford chum. ‘He will bring independence, rigour and caustic wit. Ideal man for job.

There is a hefty degree of hypocrisy when Labour figures attack a Tory placeman given their own party’s record in government on packing public bodies with patsy sympathisers. And it is pathetic to see some pompous academics attack Young’s lack of experience, underlining only their own arrogant sense of superiority and why there is such urgent need for outsiders to play a role in their regulation. Universities have had a terrible year, symbolised by fat cat chiefs stuffing vast sums into their pockets. Besides, every organisation benefits from people prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and dissent from consensus.

I am no fan of many of Young’s views, with his slavish party loyalty, his dismissal of inclusion for disabled pupils, support for so-called ‘progressive eugenics’ and loud promotion of Brexit. But he has a perfect right to hit back hard when commentators such as Paul Mason sneer that he ‘despises working-class kids who try to make good through education’. Like him or loathe him, Young deserves immense credit for his drive and energy in setting up four free schools in west London that educate hundreds of children, many eligible for the pupil premium. If only more people backed up their talk and tweeting with such communal action and personal investment in a cause.

Yet what this appointment exposes again with painful clarity is a Tory party out of step with modern society. The appointment and defence of Young, despite his boorish sexism and his strange belief there is something ‘ghastly’ about schools having to include children in wheelchairs, shows they do not see how their values lose them friends and alienate many voters. It is simply unacceptable to tweet about a female MP’s cleavage, to talk about ‘hardcore dykes’ and compare children with learning disabilities to ‘functionally illiterate troglodytes’.

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