Shortly after midnight on 1 January my phone began to vibrate repeatedly. Happy New Year messages from absent friends? No, I was trending on Twitter — the third-most popular topic on the network after #NYE. The cause was a story about me in the next day’s Guardian that had just gone live. The headline read: ‘Toby Young to help lead government’s new universities regulator.’
Now, that is wildly overstating it. I’ve been appointed to the board of the Office for Students (OfS), the new body created by merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access — one of 15 people! But the Guardian’s spin was enough to ruin many people’s New Year’s Eve, or so they claimed on Twitter. The thrust of about half the tweets — they were coming thick and fast — was the news that I’d been appointed to ‘lead’ a public body had destroyed what little hope they had that 2018 would be any better than 2017, what with Trump in the White House, Theresa May clinging on after the general election, Article 50 being triggered, etc.
Naturally, many expressed this in intemperate language. For instance, Natasha Devon, a former mental health champion at the Department for Education, tweeted: ‘One hour into 2018 and I’ve already shouted ‘Oh f*** right off’ at my phone.’ Below was a link to the offending Guardian article. Well, sorry to take the shine off your celebrations, Natasha, but just imagine what it’s like to be the target of several thousand ad hominem attacks on New Year’s Eve. That sobers you up.
The following day, the twitchfork mob started trawling my website and gleefully tweeting links to politically incorrect things I’d written in the past — in one case, a 1998 article for a New York lads’ mag entitled ‘I was a lesbian for a night’. This recounted my unsuccessful efforts to pick up a ‘lipstick lesbian’ by dressing as a woman and embarking on a whistlestop tour of Manhattan’s LGBT scene. Admittedly, not the most obvious qualities to look for in a university regulator, but it was 20 years ago.
This sudden interest caused a spike in traffic to my website, triggering some kind of safety switch that shut it down. That immediately led to accusations that I’d sabotaged it myself to avoid embarrassment, at which point the witchfinder generals began to tweet screenshots of the offending material they’d made earlier, accompanied by messages along the lines of: ‘Nice try, Toad.’ (My Twitter handle is @toadmeister.) When the website reappeared a few hours later, I imagine these dedicated truth–seekers started frantically photographing everything on it before I had a chance to try any more monkey business. At least I’m picking up new readers.
As the tweetstorm began to gather momentum, Corbyn’s shock troops piled in, such as ex-Channel 4 News journalist Paul Mason. ‘Toby @toadmeister Young despises working-class kids who try to make good through education,’ he wrote. ‘That’s why the Tories have put him on a body responsible for regulating higher education.’ I know one shouldn’t feed the trolls, but I couldn’t resist replying to that one: ‘I’ve helped set up four state schools that when full will educate nearly 2,000 children. At the secondary, >33 per cent are eligible for the pupil premium and we reserve 20 per cent of the places at the primaries for same. What have you done to help working-class kids Paul?’
The actual objections to my being on the board of the OfS are feeble. Furious academics, such as Danny Blanchflower, the left-wing economist who confidently predicted the coalition’s policies would lead to a massive rise in unemployment, have demanded to know what experience I have of working in higher education. But it’s par for the course for regulatory bodies to include some people from outside the sectors they’re supposed to regulate, otherwise it would be a case of professionals marking their own work. The OfS has been told to make it easier for new providers to enter the university sector, and my coal-face experience of setting up innovative new schools should be useful.
The reason for all this confected outrage, of course, is that I’m a Conservative and an outspoken supporter of Brexit. Because I’ve said and done some pretty sophomoric things in the past, the government’s opponents think they can use me to embarrass Theresa May. I’ve become a political football. Happy New Year.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.