5 things about this week (31 July 2018)

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2018

I’ve been reading Toby Young’s The Public Humiliation Diet, an autobiographical account of his very public defenestration as first, a non-executive director of the new universities regulator, the Office for Students, and then his day-job as chief executive of the New Schools Network, the government-funded charity which promotes free schools.

He was forced to quit at the start of this year amid mounting outrage at some of his journalism — “I’ve written some pretty sophomoric pieces, many of them for ‘lad mags’” — as well as some of his public utterances, including what he refers to in veiled terms as “a tasteless, off-color remark I made while tweeting about a BBC telethon to raise money for starving Africans in 2009”. Let your mind fill in the blanks (or, rather, don’t).

As the number of emetic ‘one-offs’ he recounts mount up, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Toby Young isn’t a person you’d happily entrust with high-profile, taxpayer-funded positions. And yet in spite of all that, I think the piece is worth reading and reflecting on for a couple of reasons.

First, the allegation which was probably the trigger for getting Toby Young fired was deeply unfair: that he is supposedly a eugenicist who, in the words of a Labour MP on national TV, supports “weeding out disabled people”. That slur was based on a deliberate misreading of this article; more likely, it was based on not reading it at all. I don’t agree with everything Toby Young has to say about the influence of genetics on educational achievement, but on the fundamental facts he’s basically right: ‘individual differences in cognitive ability are genetically influenced, and that cognitive ability is the strongest predictor we have of GCSE achievement,’ wrote the University of York’s Dr Katherine Asbury, defending Young after a different furore (this time, not one of his own making).

The second reason for thinking hard about this piece is simply this: was what he experienced proportional? Toby Young’s public persona is that of a bit of a tit, something he’s consciously paraded in his work (see, for instance, ‘How to lose friends and irritate people’). But there is undoubtedly a serious side to him. The passion he channelled into founding the West London Free School was genuinely impressive. He writes that ‘getting involved in education and trying to give others the opportunities I’ve had is easily the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done’ and I believe him.

To be clear, that doesn’t absolve him of responsibility for his own actions; and his article doesn’t really convince me he’s quite faced up to that yet. But I didn’t much care for the glee with which his enemies leapt upon his downfall; and certainly not how they twisted the truth to secure it.

The easy thing for a liberal like me who’s usually on the other side of the arguments to Toby Young is to say “tough luck, he should’ve been more careful” and yes, he should. A real test of empathy isn’t how we treat our friends, though, but how we treat our opponents.

So, having defended Toby Young, let me up the ante…

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I’ve written a fair bit here about the transgender debate in recent weeks. Summary for those who’ve missed it: I support equal rights for all, but don’t accept the position that “trans women are women”, and am deeply concerned that the online fury is silencing a much-needed public discussion of the tensions between the sex-based rights of women and those who identify as transgender.

I’ve thought long and hard about writing about the issue at all, not least because a number of my friends (in and beyond the Lib Dems) hold very different views on it to me. Fortunately, being a bloke what I say here and on Twitter attracts very little flak compared to women who advocate that being born and brought up female results in everyday discrimination no-one else can fully understand.

It’s an issue I care about. I also know a lot of people (especially women) who (understandably) prefer to keep their heads down care about it, too. Here’s a recent email I received, from someone I don’t know at all, with the subject line ‘Random acts of solidarity’:

You don’t know me but, as a LibDem male spouse of a mumsnet reading feminist, one of the last things that keeps me sane is your twitter posts on the right hand side of Lib Dem Voice.

I respect that the party has a policy on self-ID [of gender identity]. I respect that I am not an expert on the issue, and do not necessarily have a God-given male right to tell others what they should think.

However, I am becoming depressed at daily being told (by implication) that I am bigoted for imagining that it is entirely hypothetically possible to be a liberal party that doesn’t have the same policy, and that we should all accept that changes to both the [Gender Recognition Act] and the Equalities Act are inevitable, and that we should act as if those changes have already happened.

I hope that helps explain why I think it’s important those of us who self-identify both as liberals and also ‘gender critical’ feminists don’t shy away from this debate just because it’s tricky, but try and address it in a respectful and reasoned way.

**

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s Dispatches: Breastfeeding Uncovered, with new mum Kate Quilton “setting out to find out why Britain has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world and whether more support is needed”. Three things struck me about it:

First, the predictable online furore it triggered in the never-ending breast v bottle debate. Our first son wouldn’t breast-feed so (absent any proper healthcare support — see below) we quickly moved him onto being bottle-fed. Our second son was quickly identified as having a tongue-tie and shallow latch and, a quick snip later, was exclusively breast-fed for the first six months. Ie, we’ve seen both sides and that both can work. But it is also quite clear that all other things being equal breast is best: nutritionally, priming the immune system, and of course cheaper.

Secondly, the attitudes among some of the vox pops (“it’s not a spectator sport”) were, if unsurprising, still depressing. The societal pressure on mothers to conform is damaging… and confusing — some are ‘shamed’ for breastfeeding in public, while others are ‘shamed’ for not breastfeeding at all. Let’s be clear, ‘shaming’ is never an appropriate response!

Thirdly, the support new mothers receive is too often inadequate, meaning that many of the 80% of mothers who want to breastfeed stop doing so not necessarily through choice but because they feel they have no alternative — the major point Dispatches was trying to make. When our first son didn’t take to breast-feeding, we didn’t feel we had a lot of time to decide what to do because (I’ll let you into a secret) babies aren’t the most patient creatures. So we hit the bottle. It wasn’t what we wanted, but what we ended up feeling we had to do.

Anyway, I recommend the programme which deals with an emotive issue in a straightforward, non-judgey way: you can catch up here.

**

I’ve also been watching Clive James, Postcard from London, from the BBC4 archive on iPlayer. I’ll tell you what brought me up sharp — my first thought was this can’t be that old (I remember it being broadcast), only to realise it was made in 1991, over a quarter of a century ago.

And as if to re-inforce my depressed realisation, three of the celebrity interviewees were Victoria Wood, Peter Cook and Alan Coren… all now RIP.

Some things don’t change: the lament about the cost of housing in the capital. Other things do: “How do the kids do it?” asked Clive, showing a ‘to let’ sign with double rooms in Earls’ Court for £70 a week.

**

I’ve been listening to Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman’s debut novel. “Lovely” can seem such a weak word, but this really is a lovely book. On one level it’s about the tragedy of childhood abuse and damaged loneliness. Really, though, it’s about the power of kindness to transform for the better. And it’s also very funny.

Plus the author has her own inspirational back story, having decided to write her novel when she hit 40 (while working full-time), before it became the focus of an 8-way auction at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s since sold over 450,000 copies in 30 countries.

Meanwhile, when I hit 40 I realised I wasn’t even half-way through my list of 40 books I’d intended just to read by that milestone. Which taught me a valuable lesson. Don’t make lists (in public).

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