A terrible lack of judgement
Published by The i paper (8th January, 2018)
As I write, Hollywood is preparing for its first major awards ceremony since revelations of a sexual predator in heart of their industry sparked a firestorm. The furore over Harvey Weinstein spread rapidly from movies to other parts of the arts industry, the media and politics. Many female stars are expected to wear black at the Golden Globes to show support for the #MeToo movement, which provoked a much-needed focus on behaviour of men in positions of power and prominence.
Actors, broadcasters, conductors, directors, executives and politicians have all been toppled for sleazy behaviour since the Weinstein allegations erupted last October and an important debate about male hegemony was fired up. So you might have hoped Britain’s second female prime minister, someone without a whiff of personal wrongdoing to her name and a fine record of fighting for women in politics, would lead the debate in this country. Instead, there seems only insouciance.
Perhaps I am being kind to Theresa May. It is worse than casual indifference. The prime minister turns out to be not only pointless and powerless after her election debacle, but a polisher rather than someone of principle on this core issue of our age, one that helped make her own name as party chairman at start of this century. She talks about equality, demands respect in public life, suggests she is going to paint her party image in more modern hues – then does nothing beyond mouthing platitudes when confronted with gross behaviour on her own side.
This is why Toby Young’s appointment to the Office for Students board is important. On surface level, this is a Twitterstorm in a teacup over an attention-seeking hack appointed to a post of minimal power, albeit on an important new regulatory body. It highlights the usual hypocrisy seen in our tribal politics, and barely any voters will recall the bullet-headed journalist when casting their ballot. Yet the furore over his crass sexism, confessions of pornography addiction and contempt for people with disabilities is key, because it forces the Tory party to chose sides in the crucial battle over identity politics.
May has shown she backs the declining values of the old order, one that sees little wrong in offensive tweets about women’s bodies. Ignoring a growing clamour of concern from Tory MPs, the prime minister said she was not ‘impressed’ by Young’s behaviour but he could remain in public office if it was not repeated. Never mind that no teacher would be employed with such a record. As far as she is concerned, it is fine for someone setting standards for universities to scorn access for people in wheelchairs, make crude comments about women’s breasts and say he masturbates over starving children in Africa.
Yet again May shows terrible judgement. She sends a message to voters that her party tolerates sexism, homophobia and hostility to people with disabilities. Robert Halfon, Tory chair of the education select committee, asked how this appears to the mother of a child with autism, struggling to survive and fighting state bureaucracy, to see the Tory party back ‘someone who takes the mick out of ‘inclusivity’, out of everything you are fighting for’ by giving him a public post. I can answer as a father in similar circumstances with a profoundly disabled daughter: it looks repellent.
This is a shame, since I admire Young’s efforts to set up free schools. But his defence that his misdemeanours were in the past, before he became a serious education reformer, fail to carry weight when you consider he was in his late forties, not an immature teenager, when firing off offensive tweets and attacking inclusivity. And the disclosure that his own brother has learning disabilities and he is patron of his residential home only makes his words on disability even more disturbing.
The timing could not be worse for this disaster-prone prime minister. Having lost her deputy amid a pornography row and her defence secretary for sexual misconduct, she is putting final touches to a government makeover designed to show a ‘woman-friendly’ political force. The aim is to promote female and ethnic minority MPs in a bid to challenge the Tory party’s ‘pale, male and stale’ image. Now her efforts are overshadowed by effective endorsement of Young’s boorish behaviour.
This spat is about political values. As former Tory pollster Lord Cooper says, it is baffling many Tories still fail to understand their perceived brand values – not their policies – are the problem for many voters. Young’s behaviour and its backing by senior party figures is simply unacceptable to many Britons, especially younger generations raised in a more diverse and inclusive world. These are the people who flocked to Jeremy Corbyn at last year’s election. As Tory membership plummets, one MP even admits they look like a ‘fringe group’ to the under forties. A few new houses and a U-turn on fox-hunting will not overcome hostility to the nasty party.
Ultimately this massive row over a minor appointment underlines the great divide that scars our nation. It is a wound exposed and inflamed by the wretched Brexit referendum. It is seen most starkly in this division between young and old, between those who embrace diversity, feminism and globalisation and those who favour past certainties. Note how Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Priti Patel rushed to back their fellow Brexiteer over his vile tweets, brushing them aside as ‘caustic wit’. Once again May has taken their side. And once again, we see this current Conservative party put itself on the wrong side of history, modernity and demographic reality.