As an iconoclastic journalist, I’m used to being attacked.
As an iconoclastic journalist, I’m used to being attacked. It comes with the territory and after 25 years I’ve developed quite a thick skin. But ever since I started leading the efforts of a group of parents and teachers to set up a free school in west London, the level of vitriol directed against me has increased a thousandfold. In a bizarre twist of fate, I’ve only become a truly reviled figure since I decided to do something good.
Scarcely a day passes without someone on the left launching a vicious personal attack. I naively thought that my opponents might respect the Sabbath, but last Sunday I had to contend with the latest broadside from Fiona Millar, a former aide to Cherie Blair.
She spent the best part of Sunday morning composing a jeremiad on the Local Schools Network — a website that exists for the sole purpose of campaigning against education reform — that accused the West London Free School of trying to get a group of special needs children evicted from their purpose-built school in Hammersmith so we could move in. A tissue of lies, obviously, but nothing less than I’ve come to expect from the long-term partner of Alastair Campbell.
I cling on to that old mafia cliché, ‘It’s not personal, it’s just business.’ This is the price of being so closely identified with one of the coalition’s flagship policies. American liberals frequently complain that the right has poisoned public discourse, making it impossible to conduct a rational discussion about an important political issue, but in Britain it is the left that is guilty of this. As we saw from the Damian McBride scandal, no blow is considered too low when it comes to discrediting their political opponents. Politics is war and if the price of victory includes a few civilian casualties, so be it.
It would be a mistake to regard people like Damian McBride and Fiona Millar as lacking a sense of right and wrong. On the contrary, it is precisely because they believe they’re acting in the interests of the least well off that they have no qualms about crossing the line. It’s this — their conviction that they’re occupying the moral high ground — that makes them so maddening. They honestly think that what they’re doing will advance the cause of social justice.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve pointed out that it is precisely the least well off who are failed most profoundly by our current education system. Thanks to the fact that children from low-income families don’t have access to good schools — with a few noble exceptions — Britain is now at the bottom of the international league table that measures inter-generational social mobility in developed countries. To cite just one statistic, Oxford and Cambridge admitted more applicants last year from a single school — Westminster — than from the entire population of children eligible for free school meals. Yet defenders of the status quo insist they’re acting in the best interests of the most disadvantaged. For them, this is an article of religious faith and no amount of evidence can shake it.
The psychological effect of being constantly assailed by opponents of free schools — the NUT, the GMB, the RMT, the SWP — is that you end up becoming just as belligerent and unreasonable as them. Everyone is either an enemy or an ally. You lose sight of the fact that most people either don’t have an opinion or haven’t yet made up their minds. You cease to be a persuasive advocate for the policy and become a red-faced fanatic, jabbing people in the chest. And, of course, that’s the intention of your opponents.
I would like to say I’m now going to take a deep breath and count to ten. But it won’t happen. As the cuts begin to bite, opposition to the coalition will only intensify and the attacks on free schools will ratchet up. Taxpayer-funded education has become a key battleground, much like the coal mines were during the mid-1980s. It’s the miners’ strike all over again and I’ve been cast as an Ian MacGregor figure. Public education has been controlled by leftist idealogues since the 1944 Education Act and they’re not about to give it up without a fight.
For that reason, do not be surprised to read next week that I’ve become a climate change denier who wants to set fire to Sherwood Forest so I can build a school on the smouldering stumps.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.