John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for November, 2013


The search for 2013’s top celebrity memoir

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

With Christmas approaching, it’s time to sort out the winners and losers in the battle for the year’s best celeb autobiography. Will it be David Jason or Amanda Holden? Or could Mo Farah clinch the top slot?

Like “modernised” Conservatism, digital cameras and rock music made by people under 50, the Christmas celebrity memoir may be breathing its last. In 2012, a year that brought us books by such titans as Cheryl Cole, David Walliams and Tulisa Contostavlos, sales were 45% down on their 2008 peak. You might, then, have expected publishers to drop the ghost-writers and stop making huge payments to sportspeople, comedians and Britain’s Got Talent judges, and stick with cookbooks. But no: 2013 has brought a mind-boggling crop of memoirs – all of which are being offered to the public as if they represent the acme of Christmas wonderment.

My job is to spend 10 days immersed in the “best of the batch”, carefully taking notes, and chewing my knuckles, while an array of famous authors are brutally played off against one another to find a winner. Needless to say, this remains a vital public service, because the celeb book’s decline is obviously relative and plenty of people are still buying them. In large quantities, too: at the time of writing, David Jason’s My Life had already sold 134,895 copies. A lot of people, then, will be getting it for Christmas.

Read on. This may prove to be useful …

Mary Berry, Recipe For Life v Mo Farah, Twin Ambitions

The opening clash is between an iconic cake-maker raised in the upscale environs of Bath Spa, and the distance runner and creator of the enduring(ish) Mobot, who spent a lot of time as a child in the tiny African state of Djibouti.

What is the latter like? You can only wonder. “Life wasn’t easy in Djibouti,” says Mo, “but it wasn’t desperately hard, either.” Brings the images flooding into your head, doesn’t it? Or what about this: “Everyone rolled up their sleeves and got on with it … we learned that you didn’t get anywhere without putting in the work.”

Ground down by a life that was not easy but not too hard either and always having to roll their sleeves up, the family eventually left for Europe, leaving behind Mo’s twin brother Hassan (from whom his book takes its title, though Mo’s bro barely figures in it), a rum turn that is never satisfactorily explained. Anyway, Mo’s first glimpse of London is described in truly poetic terms: “The buildings were bigger. The cars were bigger.” And after he makes big strides as an athlete, he arrives in the US. “Cars, buildings, food, portions: they were all double the size in America,” he observes.

Top guy and all that, and hats off for simply ignoring the “Plastic Brit” rubbish, but compared to the thrill of watching him take those medals, reading his book is like falling asleep in a cold bath.

Mary Berry’s has similar moments of complete tedium, but in some ways, Recipe For Life is the story of one woman valiantly putting up with patriarchy and making the most of things via mixing bowls and whisks. Her dad, a one-time mayor of Bath, is male chauvinism incarnate, as proved by his response to her future husband’s request that he grant them permission to marry. “She’s very difficult,” said Pa Berry. “You do realise what you’re taking on? And she may never have children.” They got hitched, anyway, though even now, it doesn’t seem like anyone in her house has read any Germaine Greer. “Cashmere polo necks are one of my wardrobe staples,” she says on page 313, “not only because I get so chilly, but because my husband Paul says I’ve got scraggy around the neck, which is quite right.”

Berry’s ghostwriter, one Catherine Woods, does a creditable job of evoking the tweedy stoicism of a woman who is undeniably all right. There are also a number of recipes, including one for something called iced lemon flummery, which involves cream caster sugar, milk and more cream, and is surely just the kind of thing we should all be eating these days. This alone is enough to send her flying past Mo Farah.
Winner: Mary Berry

David Jason, My Life v Jennifer Saunders, Bonkers

The autobiography of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky is called My Life, but that’s where the similarities between him and David Jason unfortunately end. The latter’s 392-page memoir is built on the flimsiest of foundations. Worse, Only Fools And Horses only enters the story three-quarters of the way through, and can’t redeem an exhausting book that gets waylaid in the showbiz undergrowth.

“At the age of eight or nine,” he says at one point, “I did become the owner of a pair of perfectly fitting wellington boots.” Actors, eh? Give them a ghostwriter (Giles Smith, who memorably worked on Keith Richards’ Life, is credited in Jason’s acknowledgements – business is obviously slow), and they’ll not only fixate on surreal minutiae, but also do that thing thesps always do, when they endlessly mention long-forgotten theatre productions. This happens a lot: if you have any appetite for limp anecdotes about plays called things such as Trousers Overboard! at Bromley Rep, you’ll love it.

Pre-Del Boy, Jason says he became known for “introducing additional physicality into farces”. It got him a long way, but also into the odd scrape. Witness what transpires on page 119, when one Paul Bacon, Jason’s co-star in a theatrical production of The Rivals, invited him round for “supper”, and then “put his arms around me and started to kiss me”. The man who would go on to be the voice of Danger Mouse obviously didn’t want any additional physicality introduced into his own farce – though his friendship with Bacon endured, and the would-be seducer eventually went on to play a renowned dog. “He found household-name fame at a remove,” Jason reveals, “as the voice of Hector in the hugely popular children’s glove-puppet show Hector’s House.” Woof woof!

Though the title of her own memoir seems celestially crap (”Bonkers” – I mean, really), Jennifer Saunders fares a bit better. Some of the stuff about her and Dawn French does not exactly suggest deep insight (”The crucial element in our double act … has been our friendship”). She also digresses a bit too much. But the chapter about her breast cancer is done with affecting candour, the stuff concerning Ab Fab is borderline unputdownable, and by page 50, I realise I am actually quite enjoying myself.

One big coup de grace arrives on page 143, when she is out with Roseanne Barr in LA, and meets Dolly Parton. “She opened her jacket. And there they were – not just her tits but her glorious tattoos,” Saunders recalls. “They were angels and flowers, shaded in pink and blue pastels. I was gobsmacked. Her words, ‘This will go no further, right?’ were fully adhered to. Until I got back to the hotel. I had to tell someone, so I just about told everyone. I didn’t want to wake up the next morning and doubt my own story. I had seen Dolly Parton’s tits.”

This is actually only a footnote. But in sporting terms, it suggests an inspired goal scored from the halfway line, if not two.
Winner: Jennifer Saunders

Alex Ferguson, My Autobiography v Amanda Holden, No Holding Back

By the time I get to these two, one thing has started to bother me. What has happened to the ditzy, rushed, slightly confused authorial voice that usually defines celeb autobiographies? Witness 2011’s classic by James Corden, and a choice sentence indeed: “The publisher has just told me that I’m already 5,000 words over the required amount, which I can’t quite believe.”

Amanda Holden’s effort – rubbish title, lousy typeface – superficially suggests that she might be making a last stand for that way of doing it, but no: even she seems to be aware that deconstructing your own book as you write it isn’t the greatest of ideas. The chapter about the still-birth of her son is inevitably moving and occasionally all but unbearable. Her memories of glimpsing the heights of showbiz via her first husband, Les Dennis, have a certain something (”During one show, Les farted next to Roy Walker”). But God, when their marriage comes to grief, it all pours forth, to no one’s great benefit.

Is there anyone out there who wants to know what it’s like arguing all the time with the former host of Family Fortunes and one-time comedy partner of the much-missed Dustin Gee? If so, sneak into WH Smiths and immerse yourself in pages 90-140 (approximately). In 2002, she was filming Cutting It in Manchester; he was back at home in Norfolk. “Our enforced separation wasn’t helping Les and I get our marriage back on track,” she writes, “and when he was invited to take part in Celebrity Big Brother I have to admit that I didn’t discourage him.” So, off he went – into that killer series that also starred Goldie and Anne Diamond, and featured Dennis talking to chickens. “I think he originally did it to be funny,” says Holden, “but it apparently just came across as mental.”

Seeing Alex Ferguson among 2013’s celeb biographies is a strange thing. The no-nonsense, anti-showbiz Alex, whose elegantly damning chapter about David Beckham (”I was starting to despair of him … I could see him being swallowed up by the media or publicity agents”) confirms how much he loathes the modern celeb whirl and its inevitable intersection with his sport.

Most of the time, he wants to be seen as a modern Yoda, some of whose Jedi-esque wisdom is positively gnostic. “The balls are always in the air,” he muses. “You have a range of targets and compensate from the list when one gets away.” At one point, he claims that “momentum has its own logic”. There’s more: some people, he says right at the end, are “happy to stay at home or watch the birds and the ducks float by in the park. And some want to go to the moon.”

From time to time, he seems to have got there himself, metaphorically speaking, as proved on page 125, where he recalls an altercation with the decidedly non-cosmic Roy Keane.

“You’ve changed,” says Keane.

“Roy,” says Ferguson, “I will have changed, because today is not yesterday.”

That’s right! Change I will have, because yesterday today not is! The force is strong in this one, and he glides through to the semis.
Winner: Alex Ferguson

Ann Widdecombe, Strictly Ann v John Bishop, How Did All This Happen?

All political careers end in failure, blah blah. But perhaps not failure as soul-chewingly awful as this. In late 2012, Ann Widdecombe was in panto in High Wycombe alongside Craig Revel Horwood from Strictly (in drag, natch) and a star turn winningly described by her towards the end of her memoir: “Muddles was the ventriloquist Steve Hewlett, whose dummy is Pongo the Skunk. Why they are not on television I don’t know.” How you get from the front rank of politics to that point is an interesting question.

Ooh, she is awful, and I don’t like her. Her story careens from her nomadic childhood – her dad was in the navy – through Birmingham and Oxford Universities (pater paid for the latter), and on to life at the fag-end of 18 years of Tory government, when the woman later cast as “Widdy in Waiting” launched a crusade to take Britain back to 1962, or thereabouts. As with most things, she is quite upfront about this. Not only does she think men are “sharper, wittier and more entertaining” than women, but she says she prefers “what we had fifty years ago”. This is because she lives in her own private dystopia, which bears no resemblance to, you know, real life. “Take out a library book,” she says at one point, “and you will be given a form asking for your sexual preferences and racial origins.” No you won’t, you silly old moo.

Arena-filling Merseyside/Cheshire borders comedian John Bishop, by comparison, seems to be a nice enough human being. Three years ago, my annual celeb-books experience was less than enlivened by the beatifically bad memoir written by Michael McIntyre. I try to know as little as I can about modern standup, but it seems to me that Bishop essentially deals in the same kind of low-grade, culture-for-the-cultureless observational comedy, while avoiding MM’s crucifying bumptiousness. This is to his eternal credit, but it also means his memoir has almost nothing on which to actually comment.

“For me, a new school was always an opportunity to make friends and have fun,” he writes. Really? No! “When I was 10, we left Winsford and moved back to a council estate in Runcorn.” Did you? Steady on.

It is nice that he got back with his estranged wife when she saw one of his early gigs and glimpsed the man he had once been (or something). It is creditable that he rode a bike from Australia to Liverpool to raise money for the NSPCC. I don’t know: I feel a bit evil taking such a self-evidently nice fella to task, but his book is just too dull. Mind you, this opinion may not be as controversial as I think, as evidenced by an episode replayed on page 300. Towards Christmas, he is idly standing by a display of his own DVDs in HMV, when is compelled to reach for one, and topped by a concerned bystander. “I wouldn’t buy that,” says the man. “He’s shite.”
Winner: John Bishop, simply for not being Ann Widdecombe

Mary Berry v Jennifer Saunders

So it is that the draw falls along gender lines. And, come to think of it, class lines, too – because both Berry and Saunders’ “mems” (a Saunders term) are smattered with stuff that evokes the pine-scented milieu of the English middle classes. Before anyone starts: yes, I’m middle-class too. But this has to be settled somehow. So it occurs to me that such a nail-biting clash is best decided by establishing who is guilty of the most uber-bourgeois paragraph, a crime punishable with defeat.

Saunders has a stab on p214 of Bonkers when she explains why she, Ade “Viv from the Young Ones” Edmonson and their daughters relocated to the West Country. “We moved there permanently because we felt that the girls – Ella, in particular – needed the freedom that Devon would provide,” she says. “She had expressed the desire to run on the moor and ride ponies. We didn’t realise quite how keen the others would be. We were anxious, particularly about Beattie, who was very happy in Richmond.”

On the “What’s the bedroom tax?” scale, this scores a seven. But then Mary Berry steps in. “By this time,” runs page 216 of her book, “all of our children had gone away to school. Thomas was a real daredevil, far happier climbing trees than he was sitting in a classroom, so when he was 13, we sent him to Gordonstoun in Scotland … The school, which counts Prince Charles amongst its distinguished alumni has its own fire brigade …”

Snip! That’s a 10, and she’s OUT.
Winner: Jennifer Saunders

Alex Ferguson v John Bishop

Bishop has essentially scraped through thanks to the luck of the draw, and will inevitably be crushed. There are similar reference points in his and Ferguson’s books – Bishop, after all, once played non-league football – but this face-off is a bit like Wilmslow Albion being forced to play Juventus. Ferguson’s book is the tale of his climactic run with Manchester United, whereas Bishop’s boils down to ramblesome evocation of a mid-life crisis and his successful exit from it. Besides, he also cannot compete with the parts of Ferguson’s meisterwerk that suggest a self-help book: as with his sage advice for anyone – me, for example – who sometimes wakes up at 5am and tries hard to get back to sleep. “You’ve had your sleep. That’s why you wake up,” says Fergie-Yoda. Brilliant! He wins, easy.
Winner: Alex Ferguson

Jennifer Saunders v Alex Ferguson

What an odd pairing. In fairness, comparing these two is like trying to establish the relative merits of, say, paint and porridge, but it has to be done. Two trips to the cafe and some iced lemon flummery later, and it all becomes clear. Yes, Ferguson’s stuff about Beckham, Rooney, Van Nistelrooy et al is insightful and often blunt. It helps that there are walk-on parts for Tony Blair, and even a mention of P Diddy. But nothing really compares to the two soaraway highlights of Bonkers.

They are too lengthy to reproduce here, but Saunders’ conversations – particularly via fax – with her Ab Fab co-star Joanna Lumley are a hoot. She knows this, too: “Some of my happiest times have been sitting in the back of a car with Joanna,” she says, “having conversations in character that just make us wee.” And me, nearly.

In any case, her supremacy is clinched by the tale of her and Ruby Wax being dragged around India by Goldie Hawn circa 1997 as they are pressured to come up with a script for a film Hawn envisages as being about a fiftysomething woman who – and these are Saunders’ words, not Hawn’s – “goes to India, looks gorgeous and finds herself”.

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If I had the vote I’d grab the chance of Scottish independence | John Harris

Monday, November 25th, 2013

The debate so far shows there’s potential for at least one part of these islands to reject the consensus and seek something better

To borrow a phrase from a politician he loathes, Alex Salmond feels the hand of history on his shoulder. On Tuesday, his SNP government will launch its white paper on Scottish independence – to hear some people talk, the most significant political document in his country’s history since 1320’s Declaration of Arbroath. A day in 2016 has been set for formal secession from the UK: 24 March, the anniversary of both 1603’s Union of the Crowns and the Act of Union of 1707. In its own way, news from the “no” campaign only underlines the sense of momentous times: on Saturday, like Banquo’s ghost come to alert Salmond to his hubris, Gordon Brown materialised in the Daily Record, warning that an independent Scotland would be “worse placed, more vulnerable and less, not more, in control of key economic decisions”.

In England, the intensifying debate north of the border is still met with a great sigh of indifference. Perhaps our news discourse has become so trite that it can’t cope with something of such importance. Or maybe this is more proof that London so dominates the supposed national agenda that anything that happens this far away will be overlooked – and that in any case, 14 years of devolution has left English and Scottish politics hopelessly estranged. In addition, large parts of the establishment seem to think that with polls showing less than a third of Scots supporting independence, the referendum can be thought of as a momentary tantrum on the Celtic fringe, and ignored. As evidenced by recent warnings from the new Scottish secretary, Alistair Carmichael (who last week tried to “put the fear of god” into the cabinet), such thinking is misplaced, but more of that in a moment.

What’s particularly striking is that averting one’s eyes from Scotland seems to be particularly prevalent on the English left. Independence, we know, is synonymous with a deep fear of eternal Tory government, so grave that there seems to have been a collective resolution to not even think about it. As proved by an ongoing reluctance to think about their own country, too many left voices in England still get queasy about matters of nationhood. The fact that the Labour party is inevitably the prime mover in the “no” campaign only furthers the sense of shutdown: with Ed Miliband having somewhat raised the hopes of the left and a general election looming (which, let’s not forget, would be thrown into chaos by a yes vote), too many people are once again assuming that the first progressive duty is to mostly do whatever Labour tells them.

In reality, though, something very exciting is afoot. In England, the spectacle of mainstream politics frequently suggests a world gone mad: heated debate about whether schools should employ unqualified teachers, varying degrees of nastiness towards immigrants and people on benefits, white men with expensive educations endlessly frothing about “social mobility”. In Scotland, by contrast, within a political culture firmly fixed on the centre-left, the possibility of independence has sparked a snowballing conversation focused on just about every issue that gets picked apart on this site, and a common understanding that politics as practised in SW1 no longer works.

The best highlighting of this was recently put on the Open Democracy website by Robin McAlpine, a yes campaigner, and the director of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, an organisation now focused on nudging Scottish politics towards the idea of the Common Weal (or, as its blurb puts it, “mutuality and equity rather than conflict and inequality”). On the subject of independence, he addressed his English readers thus: “The big irony … is that you think this is something to do with identity. But Scotland crossed that bridge ages ago … We’re talking about raising tax and nationalising energy generation. If you fall into the trap of writing us off as ethnicity-based gripers, you will not only miss the best political debate Britain has had in decades, you will play a part in quashing it. Come up, offer your expertise, help us build. If we succeed, finally you’ll have the proof that Thatcher wasn’t right with that ‘there is no alternative’ stuff.” The Reid Foundation calls what Scotland must escape the “London orthodoxy approach”.

Of course, it is easy to get carried away. On the face of it, the SNP wants to frame the independence debate in terms of a social-democratic renaissance, but it remains a rather Janus-faced set-up, with some of its high-ups also clinging to the distinctly London orthodoxy-ish politics of low taxes and light-touch regulation. We shall see what ensues on Tuesday, but the yes campaign is far from cutting through the no camp’s clear messages on everything from an independent Scotland’s currency to its defence arrangements. Moreover, for millions, a grim economic context will take a lot of getting over. As one Scottish friend of mine put it: “It’s easy to scare people who are already afraid.”

On that subject, over the weekend I spoke to a yes campaign insider who said that internal polling suggested an electorate divided into thirds. Hardened no voters, he reckoned, tend to be concentrated in higher socioeconomic groups. Those who will definitely vote yes are a more mixed bunch. The third group are undecided and, he says, are disproportionately found at the lower end of the class hierarchy. They are prepared to at least consider independence because the status quo isn’t helping them, and they have relatively little to lose. If these people are to vote yes, he told me, they will need a degree of reassurance so far absent, though he seemed confident it would arrive.

But here’s the crucial point. They and millions of others in Scotland know that 30 years of what some call neoliberalism has done them few favours, and that the current Westminster government – indeed, Westminster politics across the board – is making things worse. For all the complexities of independence, given the chance to forever leave behind the Conservative party and a rotten London establishment by voting for secession, you’d surely forgive them for grabbing it while they can.

All of which is a circuitous way of saying that if I had a vote in Scotland I would, with a mixture of trepidation and enthusiasm, vote in favour of independence. Hope rather than fear, and all that. But also something much more fundamental: a chance for at least one part of these islands to exit a decayed consensus, and beat a path towards something better.

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John Major is right to be shocked about the public-school elite’s grip on Britain

Tuesday, November 12th, 2013

The former Tory prime minister has a point: privately educated men dominate the Conservative party in a way unseen since the 1950s

Every era produces politicians who seem to sum up the spirit of their age – and in our own case, the most perfect example might be the Tory cabinet minister Jeremy Hunt.

Having been the accident-prone culture secretary, he is now in charge of the NHS, and facing the first stirrings of an A&E crisis. But there is good news for him, too. Last week, with Hunt’s personal worth already estimated to be around £5m, it was revealed that a company he founded 17 years ago – which now trades as Hotcourses, and works as a kind of online education search engine – is on the verge of being sold to a private equity firm. It will net him somewhere in the region of £17m. His life, then, is almost surreally comfortable – as befits a stereotypical member of the modern elite who was the head boy at Charterhouse (current annual boarding fees: £32,925) and went on to be a contemporary at Oxford of David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

Hunt’s social tribe, needless to say, dominates the cabinet. Recent figures based on current and previous salaries, shares and property suggest that two thirds of senior ministers are millionaires, with Cameron and his wife Samantha – the daughter of a baronet – thought to be in line for an eventual inheritance windfall of £25m. And though some who sit around the cabinet table came from state schools (the foreign secretary William Hague is a good example), there is still something remarkable about how many of the top political jobs are currently held by people who went to some of Britain’s major fee-paying institutions: among them, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the chancellor, and the mayor of London.

Then, of course, there is the Eton factor, which encompasses not just Cameron and Johnson, but plenty of their Tory colleagues, aides and advisers. Cameron’s chief of staff is an Old Etonian, as is George Osborne’s chief economics adviser. The Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin is too, along with the Tory chief whip, George Young, and the chief of the Downing Street policy unit – Jo Johnson, younger brother of Boris.

Despite the fact that around only 7% of British children are privately educated, 34% of MPs went to fee-paying schools, and the figure for Tory members of parliament is 54% (the Labour figure, to put that in perspective, is a mere 12%). People who have had expensive educations dominate journalism, law, finance – and, of late, even the supposedly meritocratic powerhouse that is British pop music (witness Mumford and Sons, Florence Welch, Lily Allen, Laura Marling et al). “It is remarkable how many positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated,” said the education secretary, Michael Gove, in May last year.

Now, another voice has joined the debate. Last Friday evening, John Major – the former Tory PM, who famously left his south-London state school at 16, with only three O-levels – spoke at a dinner organised by the South Norfolk Conservative Association. Having already unsettled the government with his call for a windfall tax on energy firms and worries about “lace curtain poverty”, this time Major focused on the upmarket backgrounds now shared by the people at the top. He tried to blame the last Labour government for a “collapse in social mobility”, which does really not chime with the facts, but his basic point was simple enough: “In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class,” he said. “To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

Major’s revival as a Conservative elder statesman is fascinating to behold. His torrid experience of power and the shambles into which his government fell seem to be fading memories: far more important, it seems, is the huge contrast between his background and bond with Tory voters, and the current Conservative leadership. Somewhere in the party’s collective soul, perhaps, is a yearning for the days when they could put their leader’s face on an election poster, and accompany it with a winning pitch to voters: “What does the Conservative party offer a working class kid from Brixton? They made him Prime Minister.”

As the kerfuffle about Major’s comments proves, there are two connected elements in this story. One is bound up with almost the entirety of public life and culture more generally, and the renewed dominance of people from a very small range of backgrounds, from Coldplay’s Chris Martin to the Eton-educated archbishop of Canterbury.

The other is specifically about the Conservative party, and the way that a political force that had long found its leaders among the self-made and state-educated has reverted to type, and what that means for the Tories’ prospects. Of course, compared with the days when 172 of 415 Tory MPs came from the aristocracy (as was the case in 1935) and the share of privately educated Conservative MPs exceeded 70%, the party can now claim to have embraced openness and meritocracy. But at the top, things seem to have gone backwards, reflecting that wider sense of the brazenly privileged and wealthy returning to the national foreground in a way that might once have seemed unthinkable.

Cameron, let us not forget, is the first privately educated Tory PM since 1964 – and to give the story even more piquancy, he won the leadership battle after facing off against David Davis, who was raised on a council estate, educated at a state school, and spent 17 years rising through the corporate hierarchy of the sugar firm Tate & Lyle. Had Davis become Conservative leader back in 2005, things might have been slightly different; certainly, his take on the current state of Tory play was crisply summed up in advice he threw Cameron’s way earlier this year: “No more Etonian advisers“.

So, what happened? How did the party once led by the state-educated Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Major revert, so spectacularly, to type? And what does the private-school domination that Major has decided to decry say about the kind of country Britain has become?

The renowned historian David Kynaston is the author of three near-definitive histories of the postwar UK, Austerity Britain, Family Britain and Modernity Britain and, as it happens, an alumnus of the fee-paying Wellington College, with a penetrating take on what Major has been talking about. Both Britain and the Conservative party began to turn away from the public-school elite in the early 1960s, when two things were happening: the demise of deference and the blurring of old cultural divides; and an increasing sense that the UK’s decline was being worsened by the rule of gentleman amateurs – and, perhaps, what George Orwell called “the decay of ability in the ruling-class”.

The Tories, he says, took a while to wake up. “There’s the astonishing thing that when Harold Macmillan went in ’63, they appointed another Old Etonian to be prime minister, in Alec Douglas-Home. In all logic, he should have been trounced at the next election by the meritocratic Harold Wilson, but he actually gave him quite a close race, which perhaps shows you how small-c conservative Britain still was. But, nevertheless, once he goes in ’65, it moves to Heath. And Heath actually came from a pretty poor background – which, at the time, seemed really important and symbolic.

“I grew up through all this,” Kynaston goes on. “And, for years and years, it seemed inconceivable that the Tory party would ever go back to having an Old Etonian as leader.” Society, he points out, was becoming more equal up until the late 1970s, and Britain was also seeing “the semi-collapse of the old cultural hierarchies”. How much social mobility was happening became perhaps over-rated, he reckons, but there was a clear sense of positions of power and influence opening up as never before.

After Heath came the legendary grocer’s daughter Margaret Thatcher. Public-school Conservatism obviously endured (there were six Old Etonians in Thatcher’s first cabinet), but it was offset by the kind of self-made Tory politicians who could speak to working-class voters as a matter of instinct – not least the “Chingford Skinhead” Norman Tebbit, a state-educated former airline pilot. Meanwhile, things at the top of the educational hierarchy were quietly changing, in keeping with the retrospective sense of a small elite becoming detached from society as the free market was allowed to let rip.

“The private schools got their act together,” says Kynaston. “They became these incredibly sophisticated kinds of marketing organisations. And they became so highly resourced. Now, fees have increased well beyond inflation. The facilities are fantastically impressive. You now get articles in the Spectator, grumbling about the money required.” He also agrees also that privately educated people found a new, demotic voice – think about that alumnus of Fettes College, Tony Blair, with his glottal stops lately imitated by George Osborne – that served to smooth over their origins, and create the impression that the old grouse-moor stereotypes were a thing of the past.

As it has turned out, though, there is a public sensitivity about senior Tories’ backgrounds that will not go away, no matter how many slightly anxious Cameron soundbites (eg “What counts is not where you come from but where you are going”, the line chucked at journalists by the PM’s spokesman yesterday) are dreamed up to deal with it. It was surely a factor in his failure to win an election even against the clapped-out Gordon Brown; and three years on, it may partly explain the fact that the Tories cannot seem to correct their ongoing lag in the polls.

One outer-London Labour MP recently told me that erstwhile working-class Tory voters in his seat “seem to look at Osborne and Cameron and think, ‘Who are these people?’” To quote from a recent story in the Daily Telegraph, “only 29% of voters now think Cameron ‘understands people like me’, as opposed to 65% who disagree, with the prime minister’s Eton background continuing to create a perceived gulf with ordinary people”.

To some Tories, this is a matter of mild irritation. Others, though, have sounded positively furious – as evidenced by the now-legendary words of the Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries, a native of inner-city Liverpool, whose father was a bus driver. In July 2012, let us not forget, she said: “There is a very tight, narrow clique of a certain group of people and what they do is act as a barrier and prevent Cameron and Osborne and others from really understanding or knowing what is happening in the rest of the country. I think that not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they’re two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime.”

So, will the Tories eventually realise their error, and resume their tradition of picking leaders with more ordinary backgrounds? “My gut feeling would be yes, they will,” says Kynaston, who doesn’t fancy the chances of their assumed leader-in-waiting. “It would seem pretty unlikely that they would actually go for Boris Johnson as the next leader. I think it’ll go back to the old pattern: Heath, Thatcher, Major, Hague. Unless Cameron wins at the next election, all this will be seen as a big reason why he failed to connect. It’ll be interesting on the Labour side, as well – whether they ever again have a privately educated leader. I think it’s most unlikely.”

Within Conservative politics, there seems to be a mounting understanding of all this. Among the ever-increasing number of internal Tory groupings, there is now a pressure group called Blue Collar Conservatism, pledged to “widen the Conservative base and transform the lives of ordinary voters”. This year has also seen the arrival of Renewal, an impressive set-up which talks about reinventing the Tories as a “workers’ party”. Their founding document bemoans the fact that the parliamentary Conservative party “still comes from a relatively narrow social base”, and at their launch party in Westminster in July, among the posters on the wall was the aforementioned John Major effort from 1992: “proof that the Conservatives have both attracted working-class voters,” said the official blurb, “and have promoted working-class leaders in the past”.

Renewal’s founder is an influential Tory thinker, David Skelton, the former deputy director of the Conservative thinktank Policy Exchange. He is the son of a teacher father and a mother who worked in a shop, and he went to a comprehensive school in County Durham.

“The point John Major is making is that we’ve got a long-term problem,” he says. “Lots of institutions are dominated by people from a very narrow background: the judiciary, business, the media, politics.” The Tories, he adds, have to be “pro-active about getting people from low-income, working-class backgrounds into politics”. As he sees it, they need to sell their education policies as a matter of widening opportunities, and “ensure there are people from those backgrounds on its benches”.

I have spoken to Skelton before: when reminded of the fact that there has been such a counter-revolution at the very top of the party, he becomes evasive. And so it proves today: “I obviously think that more needs to be done, to appeal to all kinds of voters – working-class people, people in the north, people in cities – who still aren’t voting Conservative in nearly large enough numbers,” he says. The party, he reckons, is making “big steps in the right direction”, and he mentions not just what is happening in schools, but the recent reshuffle, and the promotion of such ascendant talent as the Keighley MP Kris Hopkins, and the new welfare minister Esther McVey, a state-educated Liverpudlian. “The more working-class voices there are, the better,” he says.

A direct question, then. Will the Heath-Thatcher-Major line of state-educated Tory leaders eventually be resumed?

“I would say that it doesn’t really matter what school people went to providing they have the right policies,” he says. “But, yeah … of course, there will be state-educated Tory leaders in the future.”

A pause, for emphasis. “Of course there will.”

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Grammar schools do not aid social mobility. Stop this deluded thinking | John Harris

Monday, November 11th, 2013

The figures show clearly that selective schools entrench inequality rather than help the poor. They should all be scrapped

What can we do about the seizing-up of social mobility, the yawning attainment gap between rich and poor, and all the other aspects of inequality about which politicians and commentators affect to fret? If you have never adequately understood the effects of post-Thatcher capitalism on inequality and always mistrusted the idea of comprehensive education, the answer is simple enough: rewind the clock to the 1940s, bring back selection at 11, and usher in a new age of exacting meritocracy.

Indeed, in certain parts of the country where children sit a version of the 11-plus and grammar schools have never gone away, little islands of wonder are allegedly thriving. Just listen to the former Independent columnist Mary Ann Sieghart, writing last year: “If you are bright but poor and you live in Kent, Essex, Buckinghamshire or Northern Ireland, your parentage doesn’t have to dictate your progress. You have nearly the same chance of becoming a cabinet minister, a judge, a newspaper editor or a top rower as your privately educated neighbour. Why is that? Because these areas still have grammar schools, those turbo-chargers of social mobility.”

Unfortunately, this is rot. Last week the Sutton Trust educational charity released a report about who exactly goes to England’s 164 remaining grammar schools. Though the news was not exactly revelatory, the figures were still striking: 2.7% of their pupils are entitled to free school meals (FSMs) as against 17.5% in other state schools; 13% of entrants to English state–funded grammars come from fee-paying schools, more than double the proportion of 10-year-olds in private education; in areas that have stuck with selection, 66% of high-achievers at 11 who are not on FSMs get places at grammars; among those who are entitled to them, the figure is 40%.

It’s clear what is going on. Affluent parents pay for coaching; many go as far as putting their kids in prep schools, in the expectation they will fly through entrance exams for state grammars, and the money will have been well spent. The Sieghart utopia is a fantasy: in Kent, Buckinghamshire, Trafford, Lincolnshire and the rest, a bright child on FSMs is much less likely to make it to a grammar school (and, if the theory holds true, from there to the cabinet room, the inns of court or the Oxford University Boat Club) than more affluent classmates with the same levels of ability. Even in Northern Ireland, where a superficially creditable 7.4% of grammar school kids are on FSMs, that is still far lower than the 19% of all post-primary children entitled to them, and the 28% who take them in non-grammar schools.

Somewhat disappointingly, the Sutton Trust goes along with the idea that grammars are “here to stay”, and suggests improving outreach programmes, funding some pre-test coaching from the public purse, and suchlike. Inevitably its proposals have the look of lipstick on the proverbial pig – because in the context of such jaw-dropping statistics, the point seems incontestable: quite apart from the brutal stupidity of deciding someone’s life chances as they finish primary school, as proved by concerns that go all the way back to the 1950s, selection has always dovetailed with social segregation.

None of this, of course, will change the minds of the stubborn hardcore who claim that the return of the 11-plus would solve many of Britain’s problems at a stroke. Such great minds as Michael Portillo, the irksome Conservative MP Graham Brady and even some voices on the left bang on about grammar schools holding the key to some great revival of social mobility – but they’re guilty of a misreading of history that would be found out in any undergraduate sociology tutorial.

Post-1944, we are told, the grammar schools churned out thousands of elevated proletarians, and the economy just happened to have salaried jobs for them. In fact, that great spurt of embourgeoisement happened because of the expansion of white-collar employment and the public sector: the fact that some of the new middle class had waved goodbye to most of their classmates at 11 and gone to get O-level Latin was beside the point.

The intersection of selection and class goes to the heart of the malign elements of modern education policy more generally (which, in the case of grammars, has lately taken a turn for the worse: thanks to Michael Gove, though no new grammars can open, existing ones are now free to expand). Here the basic point is simple: in a society as unequal as ours, if you carve up schools into one group held up to be excellent, and another acknowledged to be not nearly as good, the wealthy will tend to stampede towards the former, while the less well-off get the scraps – and inequality will either be perpetuated, or made worse.

The intake of the Labour government’s academies contained fewer disadvantaged children than the schools they replaced. Now, the “converter” schools that have separated themselves from local authorities and become academies have been found to have far fewer pupils on FSMs than the national average. Last year it was revealed that three-quarters of free schools admitted a lower proportion of pupils on FSMs than registered in their surrounding areas: one, Canary Wharf College in east London, recorded 2% on FSMs as against a local figure of 48%.

Where such educational novelty has been held at bay, the picture is rather different. In fact, the author of a recent report submitted to the British Educational Research Association stated: “Segregation by poverty is highest in areas with fewest ‘bog standard’ schools and lowest in areas with few independent, selective, faith-based, foundation, city technology colleges or academy schools.”

In other words, if we really want to narrow the class-based attainment gaps that seem to keep politicians awake at night, we’ll have to reverse the entire policy direction of all three main parties. We should stick with orthodox comprehensives, phase out grammars, do the same to faith schools, and promote the good local school over supposed “choice”. And we should do everything in our power to pull parents away from fee-paying places, starting with an end to their charitable status, and an insistence that the intakes of all Russell Group universities should reflect the proportions of school students in state and private education – and, come to think of it, those who’ve been to comprehensives and grammars. Imagine that.

I’m not holding my breath, obviously. But, eventually, a principle so self-evident will have to be acknowledged, one way or another. If you overlay increasing differentiation on deep inequality, you end up with privilege: something I rather thought we’d grasped about two-thirds of the way into the last century.

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