They’ve only gone and bloody done it again! The Spectator, the magazine whose Down-Under editors dropped a cool half-million in libel damages — plus God knows what costs — over wild allegations arising from the Queensland floods, the British wing of the magazine (i.e. the bit worth reading) has come a cropper, with the rapid rise and fall of Toby Young, ageing post-punk London kid turned conservative turned — just a week ago — the government’s appointed representative of students, in higher ed management, a position he has already resigned from. Thereby hangs a tale …

Young was famous for founding The Modern Review decades back, a magazine that revolutionised the way the press covered pop culture, with essays on the oeuvres of John Candy and Camille Paglia, per example, cheek by jowl. The Guardian‘s G2, and everything like it, sprang from there.

So did Toby. Fast. After a few years in the US, and a couple of readable books, he returned to Blighty and the predictable rightward slide. As usual, it was a self-cancelling act. Having battered down the British high-culture/mass-culture barrier, he sought to raise it again in the Cameron era, by becoming a leader of the “free” schools movement — whereby you set up a selective school, the government funds it, and the increased inequality is paid for by the taxpayers’ penny.

Young, in The Spectator, would say otherwise: that non-selective education has failed, that his free schools have subsidised places, etc. Unfortunately, he also said a lot of other things in that magazine: that working-class students at Oxbridge are “stains”, that wheelchair ramps were offensive, that he had a porn addiction and that a lot of women in public life had great “knockers”. Oh, and some musings about whether eugenics should be given another go.

[Defamation payout might sideline The Spectator for good]

All of it was part of rebuilding a wrecked journalistic career at the Speccie, as a sort of Tory lads’ mag. Viable in the Cameron era; absolutely not now. Young was appointed to the Office of Students by Jo Johnson, brother of Boris. That set off a week in which the beleaguered May government had to spend valuable political capital defending a self-confessed porn addict as a representative of modern conservatism, trying to defend Young’s “caustic wit”. 

Doesn’t work, but they’ll keep doing it, and Young’s case provides an answer why, for he is the son of Michael Young, a towering figure of post-war life, who basically kickstarted modern community-centred development in post-war UK (and elsewhere), founded the all-access Open University – and also opposed Labour’s bureaucraticisation of social democracy at the same time. Young fils, in his very readable How To Lose Friends And Alienate People — yes, the Tories really elevated someone who wrote a memoir called that — made it pretty clear that he suffered under his father’s shadow. Like most of the right, he deals with self-hatred by turning it on others.

The Tories wanted him on board because of his passionate advocacy for selection-based, state-funded schools — and the advocacy is passionate, because “selection” is the exact thing that Michael Young believed stood in the way of true equality. Say what you like about parricide, it releases a lot of energy, and it is this sort of crazed, unthinking burn that conservatism runs on now.

That and a sheer and simple hatred of the new world coming. The week they spent defending Toby Young, also heralded a cabinet reshuffle, which demoted education secretary Justine Greening — a northern, LGBT woman, educated at a comprehensive school. She promptly quit the government. Since the whole point of the reshuffle had been to make the Tories look like modern Britain, it was a great message to send to the suburbs of provincial towns, as a total collapse of government looms.

And though all this is mostly made up of government unforced errors, it was the Speccie wot won it. What was in the 1980s one of the best-edited magazines in the world is now a spite-slum for the witlessly abusive. Even for the English, it’s a staggering amount of own goals.

Peter Fray

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