A few years ago, we had a bit of a problem with Toby Young’s column – one that never quite went away. He started writing for us regularly shortly after he’d written a book called How to Lose Friends and Alienate People about his complete failure to make it big in New York. His column was called Status Anxiety and the idea was to showcase his self-deprecating humour, while exposing the pieties of those who take themselves and high society too seriously. From the offset, readers loved it.
But in the last few years, Toby’s life has taken a different turn. He dedicated himself to setting up new schools for disadvantaged children, schools that he’d be happy sending his own kids to. He set up the West London Free School and co-founded three others, schools big enough to help 2,000 pupils. And this was no bourgeois bubble: a fifth of the pupils would qualify for free school meals.
Toby had found a new direction for his energies. His column all of a sudden started being about the nature of poverty and the shape of opportunity, educational theories and the challenges that confront those who want to change the system. There came a point, about five years ago, when each of his columns was about education in Kenya, where he had gone on some schools enterprise. I sent him a polite email asking if he’d lay off education a bit and lighten up in general.
It wasn’t that Toby’s column went off the boil – it was always fascinating, original, refreshing and funny. But it wasn’t quite consistent with the original “Status Anxiety” billing. In fact, those words seemed to be written for another character. Toby had once been a boulevardier, and his book about failed social climbing was such a success that it was made into a Hollywood film featuring Gillian Anderson, Megan Fox and Jeff Bridges. Anyone else might have dined out on that for ages – perhaps for evermore – but in all the years I’ve known Toby, he has never mentioned the book or the film to me. Education? He never shuts up about it. He’s the same guy: he’s not pious nor aggrandising, he likes a laugh, he still sends himself up. But the Toby Young that I’ve known is motivated by a desire to change the system, which you can do with enough grit and bloody-mindedness. He doesn’t mind a fight (indeed, he’s sometimes a bit too keen on them), he doesn’t mind being mocked, nor hated. He doesn’t mind being a bete noir for the left, especially when he knows his critics will rise to the bait. Every time.
Most people try to show the best parts of their character and conceal the rougher edges. With Toby, oddly, it’s the other way around. He does’t mind being seen as a rogue, and doesn’t talk much about (for example) how he has been patron of the residential care home that his brother (who has learning disabilities) has lived in for 20 years. I’m afraid he’s one of these people with enough energy, talent and flair to make a success of whatever he turns his mind to. And he has dedicated himself to creating opportunities for kids who badly need them.
When I reviewed the papers on the Andrew Marr show this morning, Polly Toynbee claimed that he just set up the school so his own kids could go there. If he had done, I thought, wouldn’t that have been amazing? What if every wealthy parent unable to find a decent state school in their neighbourhood had done the same? What if Diane Abbott had done so in Hackney, instead of sending her son private? What if David Cameron had used his connections to do so, instead of sending his son to St Paul’s when he was out of No10? But to set up a school, to create choice in education, is simply a massive undertaking – meaning a year (or five) of battles and a high risk of failure. It takes a certain type of person to have the stamina for that fight.
That’s why Toby Young is such a good choice to be one of the 15 non-executive members on the board on the Office for Students: if the government is interested in change, in new providers entering the system, they’ll face all kinds of opposition from vested interests resistant to change. And if you want to know how to overcome this, in the interests of the students, then Toby Young is your man.
When I picked up the newspapers today, and yesterday, I just did not recognise the Toby Young they were hyperventilating about. Someone who (according to one profile) only cares about himself. If so, why would he go to so much trouble for hundreds of children from families that he doesn’t know? Why would he be running the New Schools Network, a charity, and give up better-paid, easier work to make time for it?.
Don’t get me wrong: those tweets of Toby’s were pretty awful. Here is a guy who has made enough mistakes (and off-colour jokes) to fill a book, and inspire a film – so he always going to have a hideous hostages to fortune in a cache of 40,000 tweets dating back several years. In the digital era, throwaway remarks last forever if they’re posted on social media.
The efforts to blacken Toby’s name have been quite remarkable, enabled by our new digital age. This Twitterstorm has sucked Fleet St into the maelstrom. One newspaper “revealed” a Spectator article of Toby’s published in 2001; someone else dredged up a 1987 essay. At one stage, the top ten articles in our online archive (going back to 1828) were all Toby Young’s, as his army of detractors were hard at work. He’ll have written millions of words, often playing the provocateur. Put together the most damning 250 and you’l have some pretty potent ammo. But that’s no way to get the measure of anyone.
People should be judged by what they do with their lives, not by the worst of their bad jokes. And it might drive Toby’s critics mad, but he has done more for others in the last few years than most of his critics will do in a lifetime.
The words “Status Anxiety” have, to be honest, not quite fitted Toby’s column for some time now: he’s not anxious about his status. If he was so worried about what people thought about him, he’d have pursued a different path. Another phrase – No Sacred Cows – better sums up his approach to social reform, and life in general. His column will be renamed as of next week.