All posts by melissabenn

Contentious claims in Tory manifesto promise

There was something almost sci-fi about the Conservative manifesto launch. A sea of cabinet ministers, packed into what looked like a cross between a cattle shed and a car park, dressed in various shades of blue, listening to the navy-clad prime minister intone on her favourite themes of this election. Strong and stable with everything, basically.

There was very little about education, from the podium at least, bar some references to a “Great Meritocracy” and the wholly uncontentious promise of a ‘good school place for every child’ (what politician could promise anything else?) More frustratingly, the manifesto itself yields not much more detail on the possible shape of our school system over the next five years.

On the two issues that have come to dominate education over the past year – funding and the threatened return of selection – we were offered intriguing concessions and a stubborn lack of clarity respectively. Funding first: clearly the government has been worried by the rising chorus of public concern concerning cuts to school budgets and the potentially devastating implications of the Fair Funding formula, particularly in areas like London where relatively generous levels of funding have achieved such good results over the past decade.

The Conservatives get round this by pledging to axe free school meals for primary school children (offering them Brexit – sorry, I mean breakfast – instead) and redistributing the rest to make up funding shortfalls.

On the face of it, it’s quite a canny move, suggesting both responsiveness to public concern and, perhaps, a recognition of disquiet on even the centre-left about the original Lib Dem policy of free school meals for some primary school children, and Labour’s plans to expand it by putting VAT on private school fees.

Even so, the funding pledge is not generous as it looks, given that the cut in free school meals accounts for only £650 million, and £3 billion is money already allocated for growth in pupil numbers.

On selection, we get remarkably little bar the return to some contentious guff about ordinary working families. “We will lift the ban on the establishment of selective schools, subject to conditions, such as allowing pupils to join at other ages as well as 11.”

That simple statement alone is, of course, important. If May wins on this manifesto, any possible rebellion by Tory MPs, and peers of all political stripes uneasy at the plans for more grammars, will be robbed of legitimacy. May can (finally) claim that all-important public mandate to reverse decades of cross-party policy.

Extraordinary, though, that we learn so little about the various “conditions” that will apply to these new schools, bar an uncontroversial promise to allow more children in a little later in adolescence. It is tempting to think that there is still a lot of behind-the-scenes wrangling going on as to whether the government should adopt the “old-school” model of grammars, favoured by Tory MP Graham Brady and co, or introduce some kind of quota system to ensure greater numbers of poor children can access selective schooling.

My guess is that the Brady faction has won out, judging by the manifesto claim that “official research shows that slightly more children from ordinary working-class families attend selective schools as a percentage of the school intake compared to non-selective schools.” In effect, this is the government claiming the existing 11-plus works well enough – even though, officially, the definition of an ordinary working family is still out for consultation.

Despite this inconvenient fact, the government happily deploys it here, and has said in the past that an ordinary working family is any family that brings in up to a “median income adjusted for housing costs and family size”. Such a vague claim needs urgent statistical unpacking. It should also not obscure the now well-proven facts about grammars and social class, most recently teased out by research showing grammars are great for the ‘properly rich’ and terrible for the ‘properly poor’.

Apart from that, there is a push ahead with the – again, highly contentious – Green Paper proposals to make independent schools and universities take on the running of some state schools.

Finally, a promised review of school admissions (oh, if only Labour could have pledged the same!)It’s not clear what the Tories have in mind here. Lotteries are sternly ruled out, despite being the only more-or-less-workable mechanism yet devised to deal with the more glaring imbalances of the postcode issue. As to what else May and co have in mind, we can only wait, warily, and see. But it’s bound to be strong and stable.

A version of this piece appeared in the TES on-line on May 18th 2017.

How to make the world a better place

The announcement of the general election coincides with the 50th anniversary of the May Day Manifesto. Here left thinkers and writers have their say on what a 2017 version of the famous manifesto might look like.

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Terry Eagleton:

‘As a 24-year-old Cambridge academic, I was lucky enough to be involved in the writing of the May Day Manifesto of 1967. It was a genuinely collaborative project among a range of leftwing intellectuals of the day, a bunch of whom descended on Raymond Williams’s cottage outside Cambridge to cobble together a powerful indictment of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. EP Thompson scribbled away in one corner of the living room, Stuart Hall discussed neocolonialism in another, while Ralph Miliband phoned in from the LSE. The general air was one of tweeds and pipe smoke. There were no women, a fact that even the most dedicated militant of the day would not have found in the least strange.

It would be hard to muster such an impressive bunch of socialist minds today. The intellectual left is thinner on the ground than it was. We have lost almost all the leading figures of that historical moment – though lost them to death rather than to apathy or apostasy. The political climate of the time offered more opportunities for the left as well. One year after the manifesto was published, student revolt swept across Europe, while the United States was plunged into the twin crises of civil rights and the Vietnam war. Today across the Atlantic, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

The manifesto never had any strong roots in the working-class movement. Yet it intervened eloquently on its behalf, calling for a Labour government that would work for real socialism. It has taken half a century for that demand to be realised, however partially and precariously. Only a decade or so on from the manifesto, the labour movement was on the back foot, savagely assaulted by Thatcherism and by an ugly new form of corporate capitalism. These were onslaughts from which it has never really recovered. A May Day Manifesto for today, then, would need to put the rights of working people at its centre. It would also need to insist that the UK is never in a position to take any action that might result in the incineration of millions of innocent people.’

Ken Loach

We will reverse the privatisation of our public services and major industries. There will be no private contractors or outsourcing in the NHS. Railways and road transport will again be owned by us all and an integrated transport system will be established. The Royal Mail and the utilities – water, gas and electricity – will be re-nationalised. Compensation will be set against the profits taken from these industries and services. Democratic control and new forms of common ownership, such as co-operatives, will be encouraged. The market has failed. We intend to sustain the key elements of the economy and the public services through collective ownership in our common interest.

Jeanette Winterson

I’m an advocate of the basic income for all. Scrap the personal allowance and give everyone a graduated income. How about £6,000 a year at 18, offsetting either higher education bills, or giving kids the chance to leave home, rising to £10,000 a year at 21. High earners still get it, but it attracts tax relief if gift aided in full. Fund it through an income tax levy and higher corporation tax. Make it a point of national pride, like the NHS. Anyone not in paid work, but receiving the basic income, will have to do Community Exchange – a number of hours a week contributing to their community. The point is to make us all feel part of society, giving and receiving. We have to break the binary of the haves and have nots. A basic income, with obligations, can do that.


Reni Eddo-Lodge

The left needs a new vision on race and tackling racism. Step one: take our lead from the people most affected by it. Step two: a total moratorium on giving in to white resentment. No more conceding to the right’s agenda. No more “controls on immigration” mugs. Be honest with the electorate about the real threat to all of our jobs – it’s not grabby immigrants but automation. Our vision for the future can counter the right’s narratives of hopelessness, because the point of progress is to leave the past behind.

Howard Jacobson

If we are to fix the politics, we have first to fix the culture. When people get their “facts” from Facebook, their idea of debate from Twitter, their understanding of human nature from fantasies and their ability to parse a promise from nowhere, you can’t expect them to act in their own best interests, let alone their country’s. A little of the good old unashamedly moralistic well-read secular socialist religion of the 1950s is what’s needed – Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart. Remember when we were naive enough to lambast advertising, lament the loss of a literate working class, and even – whisper it who dare – look back longingly to the “organic society”? Well, we can’t manufacture a togetherness no one any longer feels. But we can try to stimulate the national debate in language drawn from deeper wells than whodunnits and WhatsApp. So free copies of Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, Orwell’s Essays, and the complete works of DH Lawrence will be distributed to every household in the land.

Melissa Benn

One of the biggest questions for the left today has to be the fast vanishing state, how we defend it and rebuild it in modern form. This means moving beyond desperate defence of each punitive cut and closure to making a sane and passionate case for high-quality public services paid for out of the common purse, allied to an intelligent blueprint as to how this might be done now – not how well Attlee managed it in 1945. For many on the modern left, raised to take key aspects of public provision for granted but steeped in the go-for-it individualism of the last three decades, arguing for a collective anything risks sounding old-fashioned, even sloppily sentimental, in this mean-minded age. But we have to do it, as well as put in the really hard, unglamorous slog required to rethink public services and institutions and their relationship to income, inequality and tax.

There is another interesting angle to this, not touched on by the original May Day Manifesto: the revolution that has taken place in women’s lives over the past 50 years allied to the stripping away of public services, especially over the past decade. This is fast opening up a yawning gulf of care at every stage of life. Raising children is now extremely expensive and stressful. In a development that no one could have foreseen, many older women are drowning under the weight of care for elderly parents, partners, spouses and grandchildren. It is also downright immoral how little we pay carers. Watch out, then, for a new revolution led by an army of deeply exhausted, highly articulate women.


Tariq Ali

The graph of history is never linear, but often twisted and broken. There is no automatic road to progress. We are going through a period of disillusionment, despair and cynicism during the course of which a huge vacuum has opened up. The capacity of humans to inflict damage and suffering on each other and the environment shows little sign of abating. As reason deserts us and the defenders of the status quo turn their eyes away from the writing on the wall, an old-new right emerges in different continents: Trump in the US and Modi in India.
The mantra of privatisation as the only possible solution to the crisis is still invoked regularly by elite opinion makers almost everywhere. That this dogmatic obsession is wrecking living conditions seems to have little impact on our rulers. Health services are under siege by private companies with politicians on their payrolls. A rational solution exists but is blocked by the dictatorship of capital. To take one example: the NHS in Britain. It’s short-sighted to think that this can only be funded by more taxes. The postwar politicians who created the NHS missed out on an important corollary: a state-owned pharmaceutical industry that would stop the grotesque profits of big pharma from crippling a nationalised health service. It has worked well in some parts of the south. Why doesn’t the north follow suit? It would help to drastically reduce the costs of public medicine. For this to happen the cancer of privatisation needs to be rooted out.


Shami Chakrabarti

Purple is the new red. The moment is right for the left to champion its feminist credentials and future. There can be no significant improvement in the lives of women across the world unless there is greater economic equality. Feminism can no longer be adopted like an accessory or as some kind of niche or not-quite-political, non left-right issue. Women are at the bottom of the pile in too many aspects of life in the first and developing worlds and the rate of progress is far too slow. Austerity is a war on women, whereas fairer corporate taxation can allow for the kind of targeted investment that can free them from poverty, inequality and insecurity.

Jacqueline Rose

Open the borders – to mean, not just policy, but principle or ethic (as in the old, and long discarded, idea of an “ethical foreign policy”). So, for example, no quota on unaccompanied minors and children, no discrimination on migration between Europe and its others – a distinction we are hardly in a position to make given the UK is about to leave Europe. Such a policy would also have to include other political constituencies such as transgender which cross sexual borders. Above all, therefore, it must state its commitment to opening the borders of the mind, and to the values of critical thought currently being stifled by the costly, inefficient and soul-destroying bureaucratisation of learning across the entire educational sector.

George Monbiot

If no one’s vote is to count for more than any other, no one’s money should, either. Here is what a fair political funding system might look like.

Every party would be allowed to charge the same membership fee – perhaps £20. The state would match it with a fixed multiple, and that’s it. Any other funding would be illegal. If a party wanted more money, it would need to attract more members. Period. Funding referendums is even simpler: the state would provide an equal amount for the campaigns on either side.

A general election would cost us around £50m: scarcely a rounding error in national accounts. The cost of the current system runs into trillions: endless crises caused by the power of those who have money to spend. Let’s dethrone the billionaires, the corporations and the union funders, and ensure that politics belongs to us.

Stefan Collini

We shall legislate to make it illegal to use the terms “wealth creators”, “business-friendly” and “flexible labour market”, except in the form of jokes. We shall lead an international campaign to outlaw bullet points. We shall compel all those who propose “economic growth” as the overriding goal to add a statement explaining that this actually means an increase in exploitation, a reduction in social justice, probable harm to the planet, and the neglect or suppression of important human purposes. Anyone caught referring to citizens, passengers, students and others as “customers” will be subject to an on-the-spot fine. We shall abolish the word “incentivise”.

Katrina Forrester

For the authors of the May Day Manifesto, the Labour government’s doctrine of “modernisation” obscured the true dynamics of what they called the “new capitalism”. Today, the modernising centre helped cause our crisis, too, and everywhere we face a bleak choice between more of that cause or its rightwing symptoms. To build something better for the long term, the left should go back to basics, and invest in renewing an old politics based on the thing we all still do: work.

On this May Day – International Workers’ Day – work is different. More of us work in social care or in service than we used to. As economies de-industrialise and populations age, hospitals replace factories. Work doesn’t reward us like it once did, and in Britain we work longer, less productively and for less money than many in other countries do. Technology threatens to eliminate certain jobs, and makes others insecure. Instead of dreaming of a future beyond work, we need now to try to change how we value the employment there is. Feminists fought to make visible and valuable the work that women do in the home that keeps society running. One of our aims must be to make the work of the future – from the care work we’ll need to the green jobs we’ll want – valuable, too.


Owen Hatherley

For the writers of the May Day Manifesto, as for the wider New Left, there was an assumption that certain gains made in 1945 were here for good. One of those gains was that a significant amount of housing had been taken, seemingly permanently, out of the hands of landlords and speculators, via municipal housing. The problem they faced in the 1960s was how bureaucratically controlled this non-market accommodation was, with only the most minimal democratic control from residents, and draconian rules about what colour you could and couldn’t paint a door. In the 2010s, our problem is completely different, because that advance turned out to be wholly temporary. Unlike “affordable”, “social” or “key worker” schemes, municipal housing was intended to be universal, and for 35 years has been under continual attack. Private renting, in hugely insecure circumstances is increasingly dominant in the big cities. So any manifesto today would need to make two commitments. The first is to return to unambiguous, publicly owned council housing, available to everyone who wants and needs it, rather than those with the time for housing co-ops or the wherewithal for community land trusts. The second is to build the sort of democratic structures of collective ownership that the New Left rightly found lacking in the 1960s. Architects, planners and activists will need to think about how to build places that can feel genuinely public, and that can be changed and transformed by the people who live in them.


Lynsey Hanley

Comfortable, affordable housing with security of tenure is both a need and a right, yet that need and right have been taken hostage by successive governments who have treated our housing stock as a tool to keep the economy from crashing. The creation of a National Housing Service to meet housing needs – to oversee new housebuilding, planning, repairs and to guarantee genuinely affordable rents – would be as significant to public health as the NHS is to individual health, in terms of reducing stress, improving living conditions and preventing exploitation. It would also, over time, serve to reduce the iniquitous gap in resources between those who have bought and profited from their houses and those who have no wish or ability to do so.

Richard Eyre

A desire to share a common purpose is not a sentimental virtue. Our institutions are all imperfect but they are the only instruments of society that represent the belief – the hope if you like – that we’re capable of working together. The most important of our institutions is the NHS. We should stop privatising it and introduce a progressive hypothecated health tax. That’s the only way everyone would understand that the amount of tax they pay relates directly to the amount they earn and to the service they receive. We should scrap Trident, mothball the Vanguard-class submarines, decommission the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, cancel the US F-35 fighters, ensure that defence procurement remains on budget and increase support for weapons of happiness: arts, sports and education. A tectonic shift in education could erode our political immaturity, our insular attitude towards Europe and our paranoia about our national identity. It could change attitudes to class, to the state, to each other and to ourselves.

‘Articulating the need for resistance’

Michael Rustin

The May Day Manifesto was independently published in 1967 from my flat in Primrose Hill, under the editorship of Stuart Hall, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, leading figures of the first New Left. The initiative had been proposed to them by a group of younger activists who had been greatly influenced by them. Its 70 signatories included Terry Eagleton, Ralph Miliband, RD Laing and Iris Murdoch. Its initial impact led to its republication in extended form by Penguin in 1968.

The manifesto was in the first instance a response to widespread disappointment at the failed promise of Harold Wilson’s Labour government of 1964. What had seemed at first to be a spirited challenge to the decayed structures of Conservative rule from 1951 to 1964 had turned after only two years into a political retreat and into a version of “austerity”, with the government abandoning most of its radical goals.

This was a manifesto conceived more in the tradition of The Communist Manifesto than along the narrower lines of election manifestos of the mainstream political parties. It offered an analysis of the condition of an entire social system and of its potential for development, where party manifestos had become little more than shopping lists of “policies” to be enacted through legislation.

The manifesto, as May Day publication signified, was explicitly socialist in its perspective. It sought to rescue and renew the idea that the purpose of the politics of the left – Labour and beyond – should be to further the long-term transformation of capitalist society in a democratic and egalitarian direction. Its argument was that this purpose was being eroded and forgotten within the Labour party. Instead, the Labour government had become the advocate of accommodating what the manifesto saw as a “new capitalism”, in which the powers of government and the state were to be used not to transform the capitalist system, but to make it function more efficiently. The idea of “modernisation” would acquire a renewed ideological potency in the programme of New Labour 30 years later, from which the idea of socialism had disappeared.

The object of the manifesto’s critique turned out to be more fragile and vulnerable to crisis than its authors had believed. During the 1970s, there was widespread industrial conflict, hyperinflation and a state of affairs that some characterised as “ungovernability”. The war in Vietnam, which the manifesto had characterised as a project of imperialism, ended after all in the Americans’ defeat. The manifesto was thus prescient in identifying the tensions within the “new capitalism”, and in articulating the need for resistance to this system, even though the enormous upsurge of resistance, which begin in 1968, took its authors, and many others, by surprise.

What the May Day Manifesto was unable to do was create a political agency that could be effective in this situation. As a means to greater democracy, it proposed electoral reform, which has still not happened. The political lessons of the 1970s crisis, and the new mobilisations needed to find an escape from its impasse, were learned more effectively by the “new right” – the Thatcherites – than they were by the left. From the 1980s, the dominant regime of capitalism has been not one of technocratic, corporatist compromise, but of unrestrained neoliberalism, in which a financialised, globalised capitalism has met little opposition to its power. But what politically can be done about this system, and where agencies for its transform ation are to be found or built, is no less challenging a problem than it was for the authors of the May Day Manifesto of 1967.

This piece was first published in the Guardian on Saturday April 29th 2017

Women and power: what now?

In a recent lecture the Cambridge classicist Mary Beard cogently argued that public ­attitudes to women in power have altered frighteningly little over the centuries. Even though there has been a shift as a minority of women have climbed to positions of greater public and corporate influence over the past few decades, the hostile treatment meted out to figures as diverse as Hillary Clinton and Caroline Criado-Perez would be familiar to the creators of Medea, Clytemnestra and Antigone. But this dep­ressing lack of change now needs to be set against the astonishing rise of new forms of female protest, with millions of women galvanised globally to rise up against the new misogyny and the old injustices.

The obvious challenge is how to channel this explosion of popular feminist energy in order to defeat the burgeoning forces of populism decisively. The worry is that feminist protest will be self-limiting, drawing its life force from women’s deep, almost instinctive familiarity with outsiderness: the same “exteriority” to power (stemming from both outer hostility and inner reluctance) that Beard sees running throughout history. It could be, she suggested, that women today are already exercising a novel, network-based, collaborative form of power, one that relies less on individual notoriety and risk.

Such themes lie at the heart of these four books, all very different from each other, published to coincide with International Women’s Day – proof at least of the presumed commercial buoyancy of the new feminism. Each tackles the question of power: how and why women lack it, how they might take it, how to personalise it and even, in one case, how to refuse it. What fresh insights and resources of hope do they offer? Quite a lot, I think, and often within a tough, but refreshingly realist frame.

Everywoman announces itself, like its author, the Labour MP Jess Phillips, in a blast of “no-nonsense” noisiness on the cover. There’s loud black and red lettering, and a picture of Phillips in an arms-crossed, lips-pursed pose of bemused self-defence. The book, we are assured, is all about trusting her to tell us the “truth”. This, after all, is the woman bold enough to tell Diane Abbott to “f**k off” and Jeremy Corbyn that if he failed to keep his promises she would stab him in the front, not the back: a warning somewhat mitigated by attacks on Corbyn now being something of a national sport.

Wisely, Phillips – an MP only since 2015 – puts Labour divisions largely to one side. In fast, furious and often funny prose (Every­woman really does read as Phillips speaks), she recalls her own unusual journey from wayward Birmingham teenager to domestic violence campaigner to parliamentary champion, particularly of women’s interests. She paints a vivid picture of the price of public life for women, from “paternalistic shushing” and constant anxiety/abuse about our appearance (“I urge you to think about the men and boys you know. Are they knockouts?”) to multiple online threats of rape and mutilation and, in Phillips’s case, an understandable nervousness about conducting constituency surgeries after the murder of her friend and fellow MP Jo Cox.

For all that, Phillips is determined to encourage women to stand up and stand for office – and even to “relish your unpopularity”. If we really want politicians that look like “us”, she writes, then the public has to accept that it won’t be getting perfect people. She writes honestly about her brother Luke’s drug problems and her own screw-ups, in and out of politics, and in one lovely passage she anatomises human imperfection in general: “Everyone I know has something dark in their lives or in their family history . . . Our lives are full to the brim of stuff we wish we hadn’t done and people we really wish we could forget. It shouldn’t control our futures; it should only enhance them.” Amen to that, especially if it encourages even one reluctant woman to try her hand at public life.

Catherine Mayer has gone a step further than most women fed up with the “skewed” status quo. She started her own political party as a kind of dare after a debate held during the 2015 election campaign. The Women’s Equality Party (WEP) draws its populist power in part from its media connections (Sandi Toskvig, its highest-profile supporter, occupies a position close to that of national treasure), the continuing frustration of millions of women at the failure of mainstream politics to address their concerns – and now Trump terror.

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Women is a companion piece to the WEP agenda: its aim is to sketch out Equalia, as Mayer calls her promised utopia. An engaging and sharp journalist, she updates the case for equality with fresh research and insights into the sexual politics of everything from domestic life and new technology to cinema and the boardroom. She also gives us a candid insight into the WEP’s attempts to make itself a truly intersectional party, as well as its internal debates on transgender questions, pornography and prostitution.

But who exactly, I wonder, is this weighty book aimed at? Won’t those who are drawn to Mayer and the WEP already have a good grasp of the issues and be perhaps more interested in activism than in a broad roll-call of gender injustice? Mayer has an answer to this, too, which she elaborates in one of her later chapters, on Iceland. This small nation is, in its own way, a pioneer of gender equality, a movement kick-started by the extraordinary “women’s day off” in October 1975, when Iceland’s women downed domestic tools and showed, in 24 hours, how much the country depended on the hitherto invisible labour of women. The WEP is planning a similar Women’s Day Off strike for the UK in 2018, a brilliant idea for an action that someone should have organised years ago.

I suspect that Jessa Crispin would give short shrift to Phillips or Mayer, with their belief in working inside the system and making men partners in change. But then Why I Am Not a Feminist is a provocation, a hand grenade of a publication, as its opening epigraph makes clear: “A book should open old wounds, even inflict new ones. A book should be a danger.”

Crispin takes as her role models second-wave feminist outliers such as Shulamith Firestone and Andrea Dworkin (the often reviled and long-neglected Dworkin has become a heroine for a new generation) and targets what she calls “universal feminism”, from consumerist to corporate variants. But the book was presumably written before the definitive rise of Trump, and so Crispin’s hostility to shiny, successful, insider feminism already feels like a tussle with a disappearing past. Naming no names, she reviles women who “line up behind female politicians, their support thrown behind them almost solely because they share a gender”:

Despite a long history of supporting military intervention, I watch women talk about these politicians’ natural diplomacy and how they’ll keep us out of war . . . Despite a long history of money grabbing and corruption, I watch women talk about these politicians’ sense of fairness and economic justice.

In Crispin’s world-view, women who take political power are bound to corrupt their own ideals, taint their own principles. Perhaps this is part of the answer to the eternal puzzle of why conservatives are more successful in promoting female leaders. Women on the right, with their belief in the power of capital, monarchy, nation and authority, have fewer internal ethical barriers to breach in order to exercise power, at least as it exists today.

Crispin has acute insight into the narcissism of so much “self-empowerment” guff and the blind alleys of “outrage feminism”, on and offline. But there remain odd notes in her provocation, such as her refusal to name names or make specific references, leaving her lurching from one generalised complaint to the next, like a tipsy bar bore. Very occasionally, she touches on a real-world example, as when she rightly criticises the summary hounding out of Professor Tim Hunt from University College London after he made a series of ordinarily silly remarks about women in science.

There is also something unsettling about Crispin’s tone in the chapter “Men Are Not Our Problem”, where she tells her potential male readership: “I don’t give a f**k about your response to this book. Do not email me, do not get in touch. Deal with your own shit for once.” Yet later, in that same chapter, she avers that “softness, vulnerability, nuance, compassion and care . . . are absolutely vital qualities that [women] should not be ashamed of”.

What does Crispin ultimately demand? Inasmuch as she spells out what she stands for, as opposed to what she abhors, it is a form of communitarian solidarity, a concern for peace and justice and fairness for all, a refusal to worship at the shrine of money. I may be wrong but I think we used to call this “socialist feminism”.

If we are to believe a recent Vogue profile of the novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie might be just the kind of feminist of whom Crispin disapproves. Her high-fashion collaboration with Dior on the creation of a “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt was much paraded during Paris Fashion Week 2016. Did this project represent selling out or reaching out? Unsurprisingly, Adichie ­robustly claims the latter.

And now here comes another ­attractive, marketable commodity from Adichie – the slight but beautifully produced Dear Ijeawele, a succinct and lyrical manifesto for the next generation embodied in 15 (very pragmatic) “suggestions”, addressed at different points to Chizalum Adaora, the baby daughter of her close friend Ijeawele, or to those who are raising her.

In some ways, Adichie, a Nigerian writer who divides her time between the United States and West Africa, embodies the intersectionality and inclusiveness of modern feminism. Her critique of Igbo traditions and other Nigerian customs has not a whiff of apology about it, at the same time hinting at some startling differences in class relations, as when she urges her friend to teach her daughter that “the household help is human just like her” and that she should “always greet the driver”.

Dear Ijeawele reminds us that, in the history of feminist writing, it is often the personal and epistolary voice that carries the political story most powerfully – think of Sheila Rowbotham’s groundbreaking Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World of 1973, or Oriana Fallaci’s Letter to a Child Never Born (1975). It also reminds us that not much is new. Adichie touches on many of the enduring maxims of women’s liberation, mingling this with a more contemporary, tough-it-out realism. Marriage, she urges, should never be presented as an achievement for a girl (but “romance will happen, so be on board”); gender roles should always be questioned; language matters; ­difference should be respected; sex should be discussed, often. And, in a direct echo of Phillips, she warns that women must firmly reject the snares of likeability.

For me, the most powerful sentence in the book is its simplest, and comes in only the third paragraph. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie urges Ijeawele to remember to transmit to her daughter “the solid unbending belief that you start off with . . . Your feminist premise should be: I matter. I matter equally. Not ‘if only’. Not ‘as long as’. I matter equally. Full stop.”

Such an assertion does not directly answer the problem Mary Beard posits about women and power. Yet there is no doubt that if we raised all of our daughters to believe completely that they “matter equally”, to trust what they feel and think and to worry less about how they look and come across, we would soon find new ways to challenge the multiple injustices and indignities that still limit, and even wreck, so many women’s lives.

Everywoman: One Woman’s Truth About Speaking the Truth by Jess Phillips is published by Hutchinson (242pp, £14.99)

Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin is published by Melville House (153pp, £12.99)

Attack of the Fifty-Foot Women: How Gender Equality Can Save the World! by Catherine Mayer is published by HQ (352pp, £20)

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is published by Fourth Estate (66pp, £10)

FROM THE ARCHIVE: ‘YOU’RE WICKED, YOU’RE INSANE’

Sitting in his warmly furnished living room in Regent’s Park, in central London, Nicholas Mosley evokes an air of elegant bohemianism. A celebrated Booker-nominated novelist, winner of the 1990 Whitbread prize for his richly experimental Hopeful Monsters, he is also a skilled memoirist and has worked as a scriptwriter for the film directors Joseph Losey and John Frankenheimer. Now 86, he has just published a new novel and another memoir.

Educated at Eton and Oxford University, sustained by a private income, a baronetcy inherited in middle age, Nicholas has an air of quiet authority and detachment typical of the well-cushioned upper class but an effervescence all of his own. Almost as soon as I sit down, he says, “It’s very fashionable now to say one has had a terrible life. But I have had a rather good one.”

This lightness of spirit is all the more remarkable when you consider his background. For Nicholas, the eldest son of Sir Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists and half brother of formula one boss Max Mosley, is not just a member of one of Britain’s most renowned and controversial public families, he is that most dangerous of creatures – a writer in, and about, the family.

The Mosleys have been back in the headlines of late. Images of Oswald, strutting down London streets in his black shirt, have resurfaced following the election of two BNP MEPs in June. Max Mosley shot to unwelcome prominence last year after being caught engaging in S&M sex games, and subsequently taking on the News of World over intrusion into his privacy. Last week, he agreed not to stand for re-election as president of motor racing’s governing body. This all followed the tragic death of his eldest son, Alexander, 39, in May from an accidental drug overdose.

Of all Oswald Mosley’s children, Nicholas most clearly rejected his father’s rightwing politics while at the same time acknowledging mixed feelings about those close to him. Yet, in the end, Oswald Mosley chose Nicholas to be his official biographer. The resulting two volumes, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale, both published in the 80s, offer a candid account of Mosley’s private and public life, which went down well with reviewers.

But the wider Mosley family, including Max, were incandescent. After initially praising the book, privately, Oswald’s second wife, and Nicholas’s stepmother, Diana, told the press it was “the degraded work of a very little man … It’s all very well having an oedipal complex at 19, a second-rate son hating a brilliant father, but it’s rather odd at 60. Nicholas wants to get his own back on his father for having had more fun than he’s had.”

Max, meanwhile, circulated a dossier of the most damaging reviews, suggesting, says Nicholas now, that “I had deliberately set out to destroy our father. He also said, in effect, that I would die dishonoured, (that) no one would be interested in my dismal love affairs or unread novels.” He has wondered since if all this passionate resentment was “a mark of the family’s own reluctance to look at any truth about my father?”

The half brothers did not speak for decades, and it is only in recent months that there has been a rapprochement. Nicholas says, “When all that sex business happened, I felt so sympathetic to him, I thought he behaved so bravely [in respect of the court case]. I wanted to write to him and say, ‘I haven’t heard from you for 30 years but good luck’.” He did not, he says, because he was worried that someone might intercept and misinterpret the letter.

“But I did write to Max and Jean when Alexander died. To say how terribly sorry I was. Verity [Nicholas’s wife] and I went to Alexander’s funeral.

“Then Max pretty well flew straight off to Paris for hours of tough formula one negotiations,” he adds, with a noticeable trace of brotherly pride,

Nicholas treats other family ruptures with the same thoughtful levity. He also fell out with his brother Michael for 20 years, over something neither brother can now recall. They are back in touch and have met up. “It seemed crazy not to,” he says, adding, with laughter, “of course we got on terribly well”.

Nicholas’s childhood was, from the beginning, marked by distance from family. The main figure in Nicholas’s young life was his “darling nanny”. His mother died when he was nine. His father was a rather jokey figure, always hamming it up, fond of teasing wordplay. “But he did not want to involve us in his politics, even when he was in the Labour party [during the 20s]. And we never saw him in a black shirt, ever.”

His father became embroiled in fascism when Nicholas was still in his teens. How did he deal with Oswald’s infamy? He answers without hesitation: “I was saved from being a fascist by going to Eton. And I was saved from being an old Etonian by having a fascist father. “Eton was full of people from the wrong side, as it were. It didn’t worry them. When my father was imprisoned for his far-right political activities, people might pass me and say, ‘Hard luck about your father’ and that would be it.”

He says the same about the army, in which he saw distinguished war service: “It didn’t matter a damn if he was in prison, defying the logic of the war. I was in the army. And I was an officer.”

Nicholas has fond memories of “freewheeling conversations about politics, philosophy and the meaning of life” with his father, particularly during the war period, when Oswald was interned at Holloway prison.

But father and son clashed when Oswald returned to active politics after the war, standing for election, on an anti-immigrant ticket in Notting Hill, west London in the late 50s when he started “acting like an insecure racist with a virulent chip on his shoulder”.

Nicholas, then “at the height of his Christian enthusiasm”, went to his father’s offices to tackle him, on both his politics and a family matter. “I was full of passion but I didn’t know if I was trying to save his soul or my own. When eventually I was let into his office I said to him, ‘You are being wicked. You’re being insane. Just as you were in the 1930s.'”

Nicholas also told Oswald that he was a lousy and vindictive father. “I had expected a thunderbolt to descend, but my father just said quietly, ‘I will never speak to you again.'” They did, but not for many years.

Oswald was serially unfaithful to Nicholas’s mother. “He had no guilt or perhaps he simply couldn’t feel it. His two passions were politics and the pursuit of women.” And Nicholas did get “a little talk” from his father when he was a young man, implying that “infidelity was OK as long as it was only with married women. It was all very Jane Austen.” Nicholas laughs now, “because really it was all about money. You couldn’t ruin an unmarried girl’s chances by sleeping with her.”

But he adds, more thoughtfully, “while my father treated [his affairs] like a game, I took it all terribly seriously.” This seriousness is evident in his own recent memoir, an exploration of his creative, religious and emotional life after leaving the army. He begins to see that he is repeating a pattern in his father’s life, making both his first and second wife unhappy with his twin obsessions: work and other women.

It is only in his second marriage, to Verity, a woman 20 years younger, that Nicholas finds some kind of durable contentment, although even here he is abrasively honest about the marriage’s conflicts, including one isolated incidence of violence on his part.

Verity is equally straightforward. When I arrive to do the interview, she says briskly: “Well I will leave you two alone. I am likely to quarrel with everything Nick has to say to you.” Yet Nicholas looks up at her with something approaching adoration.

Nicholas has five children, but, understandably perhaps, writes less of his own life as a father. It is one thing to be scrupulously truthful about an already infamous public parent, quite another to drag one’s children into the story.

At the close of our interview, he tells me how moved he is by how apparently “faithful and good” the marriages of his own children are, and how he admires them enormously.”I don’t think I was a good father. I did have all these infidelities. But I like to think I was always honest and open. Children become aware of family troubles anyway. But they can learn: either these can become crippling, or not all that important in time, if confronted.”

This piece was first published in the Guardian in 2009.

Why don’t more schools focus on public speaking? Discuss

It’s Monday morning and the start of a year 7 English class at Highbury Grove school, a large comprehensive in north London. The students have been played the soundtrack to a film and hands are creeping up as they are questioned about the role background music plays in setting the mood.

Answers are tentative, but as the pace picks up, their vocabulary strengthens with discussion of “foreshadowing” and “transition” and “perspective”. Encouraged by their young hipsterish teacher, Lewis Green, who tells them that “just because I challenge you it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, it just means I want you to explain more”, their answers become longer and more eloquent. By the end of the class, well over half the pupils have their hands up, bursting to speak.

An ordinary, lively English lesson? Not quite. Hardly a word has been put to paper. The emphasis of this lesson, in a school in which 70% of students are in receipt of pupil premium, is on speaking skills. The approach is based on the work of consultant Martin Robinson, author of two books that attempt to bring classical principles to modern comprehensive education, surprise hits in recent years.

Robinson, who advises Highbury Grove, says: “It is important that young people develop educated opinions, that is, opinions that emerge after exploring and weighing up different sides of an argument.” Robinson believes an educated 18-year-old “should be able to respond to gentle interrogation and not worry when they get to the point of not knowing, relish it even because they can explore and find out more”.

This week sees the launch of a campaign, the Oracy Network, to raise the profile of public speaking in the national curriculum, backed by the English Speaking Union (ESU) and involving, among others, Peter Hyman, founder of School 21 in east London and an enthusiast for the cause. Too many schools still don’t seem to know about the benefits of encouraging pupils to be confident speakers, or haven’t integrated oracy into other parts of the curriculum. A new studypublished today by LKMCO thinktank, reports that provision is patchy. “Few schools evaluate the quality of pupils’ verbal contributions in lessons, or communicate with parents about the quality of these contributions.”

The report says 57% of teachers say they have not received training in oracy in the past three years, and 53% would not know where to look for more information if they needed it.

For Duncan Partridge, of the ESU, the government’s much-criticised 2013 decision to remove speaking and listening assessments from GCSE English grades has proved both “a threat and an opportunity”. “It’s a threat because schools in the current climate don’t tend to concentrate on what isn’t being assessed. But it’s an opportunity because students taking GCSE English will still get a separate speaking and listening certificate, which gives schools a chance to develop their oracy work.”

Boy in class with hand raised

Nick Gibb may quibble – the schools minister was reported to have described attempts to develop classroom speaking as “encouraging idle chatter [pdf]” – but evidence of the link between oracy and higher attainment is firmly established. Neil Mercer, of Cambridge University, who has researched the subject, says: “Children who were taught the art of reasoned discussion significantly improved their scores in maths and science. They also increased their scores on Raven’s progressive matrices test, a standardised psychology test of non‑verbal reasoning.”

According to a paper by the influential Education Endowment Foundation, pupils who participate in spoken language interventions make approximately five months’ additional progress over a year, and such interventions are listed among the top 10 most effective methods of improving teaching.

But what of that daunting distance between research and practice? How do you persuade sassy adolescents wedded to their smartphones to become persuasive public speakers?

Tom Sherrington, headteacher of Highbury Grove, and the school’s director of oracy, Andrew Fitch, approach this with gusto. Commonsense rules for speaking are pinned up around the school, urging pupils to mind their slang and reject double negatives. A soapbox project runs through years 7 to 9 for which every student has to deliver a three-part persuasive speech to an audience that includes parents. “Of last year’s year 8, 192 out of 198 did their public piece and there were some fantastic contributions,” says Sherrington. Sixth formers must give an oral presentation as part of their extended project qualification.

Students reluctant to give a formal talk are encouraged to build up their arguments through one-to-one discussion “doing it again and again until it’s better”, says Fitch, who is also co-coach to England’s winning World Schools Debating team, sponsored by the ESU.

But it’s not only students who need encouragement says Sherrington: “Teachers often think, they don’t have time. There’s so much content to get through. We tell them it’s not an add-on, it’s part of the pedagogy.”

Fitch adds: “There’s a lot of learning where students don’t actually have to verbalise concepts but it’s useful.” He describes teaching An Inspector Calls, when a student couldn’t say the word “vigorously”. “He knew the word perfectly well, he just couldn’t get it off the page.” Fitch made him repeat it until he could.

Sherrington has a similar story about a year 7 maths class where pupils were finding it hard to say “denominator”. “They were using substitute, vague terms like the ‘numbers at the bottom’.” He adds: “Every year group has its particular challenges. With some older pupils, it’s not the speaking out that’s the problem. They can be confident, cocky and loud, feel obliged to act up a bit. So I say to them: ‘Your challenge, guys, is actually to play it straight.’”

At Highbury Grove the experiment is in its early stages. But watching that year 7 group, hands stretched high by the end of the lesson, it’s also not difficult to believe, as Fitch says, that “students adapt quickly if they know speaking is something expected of them right from the start.”

This piece first appeared in the Guardian on November 8 2016

Sex, cycling and socialism: the revolutionary women that history forgot

Sheila Rowbotham’s latest book plunges us straight into the ferment of the 1880s in Bristol, one of the many cities in Britain set alight in the late-Victorian era by a mixture of radical liberalism, socialism and the rapid growth of trade unionism. Part political chronicle, part emotional narrative, it opens with the story of the blossoming friendship of two fiercely determined women, Miriam Daniell and Helena Born, both from bourgeois backgrounds and drawn towards “unconventional ideas and dangerous causes”. By the late 1880s, not only are both women imbibing the works of Ruskin, Ibsen, Whitman and Blake, they are also deeply involved, under the aegis of the Bristol Socialist Society, with strikes at Fry’s chocolate factory as well as attempts to unionise cotton workers and isolated homeworkers.

But, in keeping with the temper of the times – and the preoccupations that will shape the left and feminism for the ensuing century – these women’s rebellion goes far deeper than political activism. After Daniell leaves her respectable husband for the young Robert Nicol, an enigmatic medical student from Edinburgh, the couple and Born bravely establish a ménage à trois in a poor district of Bristol.

Here they experiment with colour and uncarpeted floors, “while from the most commonplace materials they improve many articles of furniture and decoration, combining both beauty and utility”. By 1890 – with their lives in turmoil because of their unconventional lifestyle and politics, and drawn to “the wider sphere of usefulness” that they glimpse in America – the trio migrate to the United States.

Minutely researching and retelling the political and personal struggles of her characters – six in all – Rowbotham gives us a unique flavour of the era and insight into the bravery, boldness, imagination and occasional wackiness of a period in left-wing British and American history. She eschews the stories of far better-known figures of the era (such as the Pankhursts or Keir Hardie), and even the dominant narratives of suffrage and labour, to bring alive lesser-known causes and ideas, from anarchism to radical individualism. In their attempts to shape a new way of living, these rebels prefigured everything from free love to modern feminism to eco-politics; and, in those Bristol living arrangements, possibly a dash of Habitat-style consumerism as well.

Once in the United States, the narrative becomes somewhat diluted by the vastness of that nation, with the chief figures in the story scattered from California to Boston. New characters join Rowbotham’s crowded and complex tableau, among them another emigrant – the fierce autodidact William Bailie, a Glaswegian basket-maker enmeshed in a loveless marriage and with six children – and Helen Tufts, the only American-born person in the tale.

But the politics, too, seems more abstract: less connected to grass-roots struggle, more prone to high-flown theorising, with several gathering round the flame of Liberty,
the journal of Benjamin Tucker’s philosophical and individualist anarchism. Helena Born becomes an enthusiastic cyclist and wearer of the modern, freer fashions; in later life Tufts, her young American protégée, moves towards more conventional single-issue agitation, while Bailie becomes a gradualist socialist, immersed in schemes for water purification and social housing. Always an honest chronicler, Rowbotham does not shy away from the racism, anti-Semitism and nascent authoritarianism, for instance, that sit uneasily alongside Born’s high-flown Whitmanesque reflections and outspoken feminism.

As the author notes, “attempting to explore the motivations of the famous who declare themselves is difficult enough; pursuing the relatively unknown is far more testing. For even when their deeds are on record, their subjectivity is not.” Newspaper and census records supply the often intriguingly bare facts, but the writer is helped by a stream of stories, novels, poems, articles and essays written by the chief protagonists, including a slim book of essays published by Born herself, which Rowbotham first came across in the British Library in the 1970s and which triggered her interest in these interconnected stories.

Inevitably, some characters are more opaque than others. Why did the highly talented feminist and novelist Gertrude Dix abandon the busy, bohemian milieu of Bristol and London to travel thousands of miles to raise a family on an isolated Californian ranch with Robert Nicol, a man whom (it seems) she hardly knew? Rowbotham can only speculate that it was lust that took her across the globe and sheer grit that kept her there, yet there is a melancholy to Dix’s fate that one cannot quite shake off.

Rebel Crossings is a first-rate piece of social history, a well-paced and extraordinarily well-organised narrative. In many ways, it develops the themes of Rowbotham’s more recent work, from her acclaimed 2008 biography of Edward Carpenter (a man who clearly had a huge influence on most of these rebel lives) to her exploration of the “utopianism of our adventurous foremothers” in her last book, Dreamers of a New Day. Certainly, she handles the multiple ideological threads of the period with an admirably light touch.

But the book’s appeal lies, ultimately, in its illumination of character. At times, it reads like a great mid-19th-century novel, an intricate and absorbing tale of a group of intense individuals who pursue their “inner promptings”, often to the bitter, impoverished end. It is impossible, finishing this book, not to feel a debt of gratitude to so many of them for the boldness of their thinking, their activism and their defiance of hostile convention; and to Rowbotham, too, for bringing their hidden stories into such detailed, sympathetic view.

Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in Britain and the United States by Sheila Rowbotham is published by Verso (512pp, £25).

This review was first published in the New Statesman on January 12th 2017

Grammar schools don’t help social mobility – we need to start earlier

So now we know for sure, thanks to the permanent secretary at the Department for Education, who really ought to order in some document folders pronto. Jonathan Slater slipped up outside No 10, accidentally revealing a briefing note, and thereby confirming that Theresa May’s government does indeed intend to open new selective schools – although this is only to be pursued “once we have worked with existing grammars to show how they can be expanded and reformed”.

At one level, this is building on David Cameron’s ambiguous stance on selection. Last October the then education secretary Nicky Morgan gave the go-ahead for a new grammar “annexe” in Kent a full 10 miles from the main school. May’s strategy, with its further pledge to open new grammars, and possibly seeking to overturn the 1998 law banning them in order to do so, is even more radical, and will face correspondingly greater resistance. “I simply can’t see any way of persuading the Lords to vote for selection on any other basis,” the note concludes.

Condemnation came swiftly from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the National Union of Teachers; but opposition to an expansion of grammar schools has united leading figures in education and on the political left and right, including the influential thinktanks Policy Exchange and Bright Blue, and the outgoing Ofsted chief, Michael Wilshaw.

Yet a vital dimension is missing from the debate already raging within and beyond Westminster. The government is proposing a fresh crop of grammar schools as a way of boosting so-called social mobility, but May and her advisers seem to have forgotten that the government already has a social mobility strategy, produced in 2011, and it doesn’t make a single mention of grammar schools. In fact, though it identifies four “critical points for social mobility”, age 11 is not one of them.

The evidence on grammars is by now crystal clear. The educational advantage received by those selected for these schools is more than outweighed by the drag effect of the remaining secondary modern pupils, who perform disproportionately badly. Only 3% of grammar school pupils receive free school meals, and even these will gain only a marginal uplift in GCSE grades. As the Daily Telegraph’s Jeremy Warner says, grammars offer “segregated education for the middle class”. They are elitist institutions that entrench, rather than disrupt or disperse, privilege.

But the evidence is equally clear on what does improve educational outcomes: high-quality support in the early years. According to Michael Pavey, director of Labour Friends of Sure Start, “Neuroscience shows that a child’s brain is approximately 25% formed at birth, and that by the age of three it is 80% formed. It is during this crucial time that gaps open up between children from different backgrounds.”

The government should understand this very well. Independent reports commissioned by the coalition government from Frank Field (2010), Dame Clare Tickell (2011) and Graham Allen (2011) all emphasised the overwhelming importance of the early years. And as the government’s own social mobility strategy declared: “Children’s life chances are most heavily influenced by their development in the first five years of life. By the time children start school there are already wide variations in ability between children from different backgrounds.” So how does testing 10- and 11-year-olds help?

There’s been talk of introducing a small number of targeted grammar schools. But if the government is looking to test interventions, it should concentrate on the early years, targeting maternal health, school readiness, home environment and parenting skills.

Maybe this sounds familiar: yes, Sure Start children’s centres, those much-valued community-based institutions whose budgets have been halved during Theresa May’s time in government, forcing over 800 of them to close.

An independent evaluation of Sure Start in 2012 noted that “children’s centres have been found to be immensely popular with parents, and have been successful in reaching the parents who are likely to be the most disadvantaged. Beneficial effects for parents persist at least two years after their last contact with Sure Start.”

Three years later, the independent charity 4Children found that 90% of parents reported that their children’s centre had a positive impact on their child and 83% believed it had a positive impact on themselves; 80% said life would be harder for their family without their children’s centre.

The government will never improve the educational of lower-income families through the societal guillotine of the 11-plus. Grammar schools belong to the postwar world, when most young people tended to leave school at 15 and only 4% attended university. Not only do most people in education know that, so now does a substantial chunk of the Tory party.

Equally, although Labour’s pledges – to support and bolster a comprehensive system and restore the education maintenance allowance and student grants – are welcome, they still address only the symptom rather than the cause. To truly start to shift profound inequalities, we need to revolutionise support for the early years. In one respect, at least, secondary education is, well … secondary.


This piece was initially co-written with Michael Pavey, steering group member on Comprehensive Future, and first appeared in the Guardian in early September.

Twice Bottled Grief: the defiant life of Tony Garnett

Unlike Ken Loach, his friend and frequent collaborator, Tony Garnett remains a shadowy figure in the story of British radical film-making – yet has been just as vital, responsible for a string of pioneer productions from Cathy Come Home and Kes to Law and Order and This Life. Reflecting on some of the emotional reasons for his relatively low public profile, he comes to the conclusion that it is because “I didn’t want to lie”.

At one level, this makes complete sense: for much of Garnett’s life, his tragic family story was deeply buried. What this impressive and moving memoir shows is that his approach to almost every aspect of his political and professional life has been marked by a refusal of even the most ordinary, socially acceptable levels of mendacity.

A ferocious sense of purpose – born of the alchemy of emotional pain, high intelligence and creative ambition – powers the many overlapping narratives at work here. At its simplest, Garnett’s memoir gives us a spare and cogent account of his life as a cineaste, fighting for the right to make original work from within the establishment, largely the BBC but also Hollywood.

Born in Birmingham into a large, self-confident and loving working-class family (a lost world he evokes beautifully), he had his life chances transformed by the achievements of the postwar welfare state. Garnett then arrived at the BBC at the beginning of the Sixties – what today looks like the creative heyday of the corporation: a time when a fresh young generation of risk-takers was given its head.

Figures such as Loach and Garnett – who began life as an actor – were determined to bust through the stuffy conventions of ossified, upper-class, mostly period TV drama to capture working-class lives out in the world. Often they did this literally: trailing actors, most of them not professionally trained, in as unobtrusive a fashion as possible, capturing naturalistic speech and action on location, using only a “16mm handheld, blimped camera”.

They faced formidable obstacles. Films that showed the reality of backstreet abortion or homelessness were attacked publicly by such figures as Mary Whitehouse, whom Garnett rather admired as “a fine debater that no one could safely underestimate”.Possibly more frustrating was the resistance he encountered inside the BBC. There are wonderful portraits here of a parade of senior managers, from the director general Alasdair Milne, who parried Garnett with subtle charm and a fine single malt, to the choleric, red-haired controller of BBC1 Bryan “Ginger” Cowgill, who, objecting to a single use of “f***” in the 1975 serial Days of Hope, produced by Garnett and directed by Loach, exploded, declaring without the slightest self-consciousness or irony: “If you think you can f***ing well say ‘f***’ on my channel, you’ve got another f***ing think [sic] coming.”

This book could do with an index, such are the numbers of well-known figures from politics and the film industry that pass under Garnett’s perceptive, steely gaze. Loach takes modest centre stage: talented, loyal, unbelievably tenacious and elusively self-contained, even to his closest friends. In harsh contrast, Garnett finds the playwright Dennis Potter a “controlling, manipulative, egotistical self-publicist”, though the two men get to share a tender last drink at a pub on the Portobello Road as Potter tells Garnett that both he and his wife have only weeks to live.

Outside work, Garnett befriended the charismatic Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing, who could drink even hardened alcoholics under the table, and the clever, convincing, but somewhat threatening figure of Gerry Healy, the leader of the Workers Revolutionary Party who managed to win over many of the leading actors of the day to his left-wing sect. In Hollywood in the late Eighties, Garnett produced a film with Paul Newman, who did not disappoint as a star, but had “thin legs that he was rather self-conscious about”. Back in London, he had occasional encounters with a washed-up but ever-buoyant and eternally cigar-chewing Lew Grade, who loved to dispense paternal advice.

During the making of This Life, an iconic BBC series about a group of young lawyers sharing a house in London in the Nineties, Garnett hired the then unknown partner of his bright young producer, Jane Fallon, to choose the opening music and create a tailor-made soundtrack for each character. With his “encyclopaedic knowledge” of music, Ricky Gervais did a fine job.

The book opens and closes with the double tragedy that defines, and has powerfully shaped, Garnett’s entire life. When he was five, his gentle mother, Ida, died of a botched backstreet abortion; 19 days later, his father, Tom, committed suicide, out of grief and guilt, and possibly for fear of being prosecuted. Sent to live with an aunt and uncle he barely knew, a move that at first feels brutally Dickensian, the little boy never shed a tear; nor was anything explained to him about his parents’ deaths until years later, though Uncle Harold and Aunty Pom come more than good by the story’s end.

Tragedy stuck again when a passionate affair with Topsy Jane, a beautiful actress, ended in her terrifyingly swift descent into a schizophrenically induced torpor, from which she never emerged.

Twice-bottled grief and anger drove the intense years of Garnett’s adult life, the decades of non-stop working, drinking and ­socialising. It was only when he returned from a frustrating spell in Hollywood, “frail, dangerously thin, exhausted and a washed-up failure at 52”, that he determinedly decided to enter psychoanalysis – the second attempt on his part. This time, he was lucky enough to be treated by the eminent and ­independently minded Charles Rycroft, who helped free him to far greater enjoyment of life and to write this book.

The Day the Music Died is a fine portrait of a fine individual, tested cruelly early in life, who has pulled through somehow as an artist and as a human being. Garnett is even able to give us that most untypical thing, certainly in the social-realist tradition of which he is such a proud exponent: a genuinely happy ending.

This article was published in the New Statesman on August 15 2016

Why do we love the NHS but not state education?

If you really want to understand the subtly shifting place of education in the nation’s psyche, you could start by watching Channel 4’s 24 Hours in A&E. Dedicated professionals deploying skill, tenacity and tenderness towards citizens of every age, faith, shape and class – it’s a story we seem never to tire of. It’s proof that the NHS, despite all its problems, is still the nearest thing this country has to a religion.

And yet, this passion for our often struggling health system poses a conundrum that has long fascinated me. Both the NHS and free secondary education arose from the collective optimism of the years after the second world war, pillars of the newly founded welfare state. Yet while the NHS, set up in 1948, generated instant and enduring affection, the 1944 Education Act, which established the right to free secondary education for all children up to 15 (now 18), is far less lauded, and our school system has more often spawned a nagging sense of dissatisfaction and division.

In one sense, the reason is glaringly obvious. Although there had been discussion before the war about setting up a “multilateral” (that is, comprehensive) system of secondary education, parliament opted for a three-tiered arrangement, which became two as technical schools never took off. So was the grammar-secondary modern divide born, channelling most poor children into poorly funded, less well-regarded schools.

Imagine if NHS hospitals and surgeries had been set up with two entrances: one for the affluent, one for the poor. Or if politicians had spent the succeeding half a century dismissing big general hospitals as blinkered examples of an outdated “one injury fits all” ideology.

Of course, we need and expect different things from our health and education systems. While our encounters with the NHS are largely episodic, times of emergency and vulnerability, the school we attend is often taken as the crucible of our identity. The wealthy still use A&E, but many wouldn’t dream of going anywhere near a local school, a reminder that perhaps the biggest mistake of that heroic postwar period was the failure to integrate the public schools into the new universal state system, so missing a unique opportunity to bridge what remains one of the most damaging divides in society.

For all that, there have been periods when one could glimpse a shift in public attitudes towards state education, an idealism to match the NHS. One significant moment came in the 60s with the move towards comprehensive education, but although the 11-plus was phased out in most parts of the country, more subtle forms of selection have continued to stoke division.

Gove-ism represented another key shift, as an influential section of the Conservative party finally ditched its party’s traditional support for grammars and embraced an almost militant evangelism about high-quality non-selective education, even if some academies and free schools are driven to use their so-called freedoms to keep out lower-performing children.

Television programmes such as Educating Essex and Educating Yorkshire have generated public affection and respect for the ordinary heroism of staff and pupils in our state schools, while lazy anti-comprehensive prejudice has been undercut by a new generation in public life educated in non-selective schools, including the education secretary, Justine Greening.

We should be deeply worried, then, by reports that Theresa May intends to lift the 18-year ban on creating new grammar schools. The rhetoric is predictably obfuscating, with a lot of guff about making secondary moderns better or letting selective schools operate as “specialists” in a more diverse, choice-driven schools market.

The grammar lobby is clearly displaying post-Brexit braggadocio in trying to drag us back to a discredited past. Such a move would not only be educationally, socially and morally wrong headed, it would be a near criminal waste of a powerful and unprecedented moment in the story of our state education system: the existence of a strong evidence-based consensus across a wide spectrum of political opinion that we could, and should, create a quality system along genuinely multilateral lines.

Build on, and invest in, that vision and it’s possible public loyalty to state education will continue to grow. Return to crass historical divisions, and the dissatisfaction and disunion will surely last for another half century – or longer.

This article was published in the Guardian on August 9th 2016

Well, that didn’t take long did it? Responding to Theresa May on grammar schools

Melissa Benn, Chair of Comprehensive Future, annotates Theresa May’s supposedly ‘One Nation’ speech on the steps of Downing Street on July 13th in the light of announcements that she looks likely to lift the ban on the creation of new grammar schools.

I have just been to Buckingham Palace, where Her Majesty The Queen has asked me to form a new government, and I accepted.

In David Cameron, I follow in the footsteps of a great, modern Prime Minister. Under David’s leadership, the government stabilised the economy, reduced the budget deficit, and helped more people into work than ever before.

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Perhaps the most significant aspect of Cameron’s ‘modernity’ as PM was his recognition that the traditional Tory support for grammars had to be ditched. Over the past decade, an influential section of the party studied the evidence on grammars and social mobility and came to the considered conclusion that selective education hindered the life chances of poorer children. In the words of David Willetts, then Tory front-bench spokesman on education and employment, in his seminal speech on the issue, in 2007,‘ we must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids..’ and that ‘ there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it.’

But David’s true legacy is not about the economy but about social justice. From the introduction of same-sex marriage, to taking people on low wages out of income tax altogether; David Cameron has led a one-nation government, and it is in that spirit that I also plan to lead.


Cameron’s government recognised that it could never appear serious about ‘social justice’ as long as it continued to back selective education, which so clearly hinders the educational and later life chances of the majority of the working class and less well off. International data is clear: the earlier selection occurs, the greater the effect of socio-economic background on results.

Because not everybody knows this, but the full title of my party is the Conservative and Unionist Party, and that word ‘unionist’ is very important to me.

It means we believe in the Union: the precious, precious bond between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it means something else that is just as important; it means we believe in a union not just between the nations of the United Kingdom but between all of our citizens, every one of us, whoever we are and wherever we’re from.

That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others.

If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.

If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university.


A grammar school system is supposedly designed to identify the academically talented from all social and ethnic backgrounds. The evidence is stark: it does not. Recent data from Buckinghamshire’s Local, Equal and Excellent group shows that high ability children from poor backgrounds, and some ethnic groups, do disproportionately badly under the 11+, suggesting that the exam is as much a reflection of family advantage and cultural capital, as raw academic talent.

Meanwhile, in selective systems, such as those which operate in Buckinghamshire, Kent and parts of Lincolnshire, the vast majority of children from lower income homes are turned away from grammar schools and forced to attend a secondary modern (although generally the school is re-badged under another, less damaging, title) where their prospects of achieving good GCSEs have been shown to be worse than if they had attended a comprehensive school.

If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately.

If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man.

If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand.

If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home.

All of those social and other difficulties will be hugely compounded if you attend a secondary modern.

But the mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone means more than fighting these injustices. If you’re from an ordinary working class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don’t always have job security. You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school.


The ability to buy in ‘intensive coaching’ has been shown to be one of the biggest determinants of success in passing the 11 + exam. Children living in the wealthier areas of Buckinghamshire are twice as likely to pass the 11+ as children living in poorer areas. Children at private schools are nearly three times more likely to pass than children from state schools. In these tough economic times, lower income families who are, in May’s words, ‘just managing’, are highly unlikely to be able to afford the thousands of pounds involved in procuring such extra tuition or paying for a primary education, even if they should want to.

If you’re one of those families, if you’re just managing, I want to address you directly.

I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best, and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The government I lead will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.


Nationally, grammar schools take a tiny percentage of children on free school meals. Most children at these schools are from more affluent homes. They receive a selective and socially segregated education paid for by the taxes of the less well-off.

We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you.

 

If the decision to build more grammar schools go ahead, thousands more children will face the ‘biggest call’ of their lives at the young age of ten or eleven. They will either fail to take, or take and fail, the 11+. Under such a high stakes system, the children of the powerful are clearly the most likely to succeed and the children of the powerless the most likely to fail. This will have not just educational, but human consequences.

As Joanne Bartley, a parent who opposes the 11+ in Kent, has said so eloquently, ‘ I think of the 11-plus division of people like this: for every one proud person believing they are cleverer than the rest, there are three people who are quiet, embarrassed, feeling stupid. Every time I hear someone say how fine grammar schools are, I think of the quiet people. Maybe you will consider them sometimes, too.’

When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.


Segregating children from different social backgrounds and ethnicities into different and unequally regarded schools restricts the opportunities and diminishes the confidence, often for life, of poorer children.

It priorities the wealthy – not you. It’s as simple as that.

We are living through an important moment in our country’s history. Following the referendum, we face a time of great national change.

And I know because we’re Great Britain, that we will rise to the challenge. As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.


Grammar schools were phased out from the 1960s onwards because thousands of parents, among them many Conservative voters, found it wholly unacceptable that their children should be judged failures before reaching puberty and sent to schools that were clearly considered second-class.

That will be the mission of the government I lead, and together we will build a better Britain.

If Theresa May follows through on this policy and re-instates a previously failed, deeply divisive education system her highly praised ‘one nation’ rhetoric on the steps of Downing Street will be revealed as a hollow sham.