Polly Toynbee at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival
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My opponent of many years, Polly Toynbee, has written a beautiful, funny and moving book. 

It made me shout many times with laughter, and often brought me to tears as well. I read it in two long sittings, unwilling to be disturbed.

It is partly about herself and partly about the infuriating self-righteous class of world reformers to which she belongs. 

It is foolishly toffee-nosed about an imaginary world of callous Right-wingers who supposedly despise the poor.

It assumes that the State has far more power to do good than it does. It neglects the Government’s many-times-proven ability to do harm while meaning well.

Polly Toynbee at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival

Polly Toynbee at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival 

It is ridiculously over-sensitive about the way conservatives refer to people such as her as being part of a ‘metropolitan elite’ or a ‘liberal establishment’ — especially given that this is exactly what they are. 

It naughtily assumes that such detractors tend to be Old Etonians — something I am definitely not. 

It contains sickly praise for Sir Anthony Blair which is unworthy of such a sharp and detached writer. It is enraged by ‘the incomprehensible inertia of the masses’.

By this it means the annoying refusal of the millions to rise up and follow Polly — a veteran Guardian columnist — and her fellow Leftists into the New Jerusalem which they still, after all these years, think they can build. 

It is so mistaken about education — and especially about grammar schools — that it is not even wrong.

She asks why the thrilling social mobility of the post-war years could not last for ever. 

Yet she ludicrously calls the system of academically selective state education, the 11-plus and grammar schools a ‘social guillotine’.

If it was such, how come privately schooled, Kensington-dwelling Polly failed the exam and didn’t go to a grammar school? 

And how come two thirds of grammar-school pupils came from working-class homes in the days before the Left smashed up almost all such schools in an egalitarian frenzy?

Nor was attending a secondary modern school a ‘blow’ for the millions who did very well in those maligned establishments. I am ready to provide her with a tutorial on this at any time.

I think the book assumes that its readers will feel the same contempt and unease towards religion that Polly was brought up to feel.

I think religious ideals are crucial to the strength and nobility of much of her thinking. But her lack of belief is equally vital to her deep wrongness about the limits of state power. 

British journalist Polly Toynbee sitting on a brick wall, 9th August 1965

British journalist Polly Toynbee sitting on a brick wall, 9th August 1965 

And the memoir is also curiously silent about the importance of the married family for the social welfare of the nation.

And no wonder, for Polly (in her own words) is a child of divorce, and also of a family life so distressing and chaotic that it is astonishing how clear-eyed and kind she is about it. 

Her father, Philip Toynbee, was a distinguished journalist, a Communist and also a terrible drunk, who urinated in the lift at his office and treated his wife appallingly until they broke up.

He nearly killed Polly and her sister at least once, driving them wildly down the narrow roads of East Anglia on a winter’s night when he was hopelessly inebriated. 

They were only saved from this insane peril when the car ran out of petrol. This sort of thing cannot have left her unmarked.

Yet Polly blames not her home life but her private preparatory school (which doesn’t even seem to have taught her to spell properly) for the fact that she failed to get into a state grammar school. 

In fact, she blames it so much that she denounces it in strikingly similar terms on page 51 and page 407.

The reader might suspect that something else is going on, just as it was when, having been rescued by a brilliant teacher at Holland Park comprehensive, she then threw up the generous, liberating Oxford scholarship she had won. 

Is it possible she wanted to get her parents’ attention, as many such children do?

The entire book is preoccupied by class. This is not in the Marxist sense of struggle between workers and bosses, but the old English curse of snobbery and inverted snobbery which keeps so many of us strangers to each other. 

For Polly is a remote sprig of the landed Whig aristocracy.

She is linked by blood with the Howards of Castle Howard, famously used for the filming of Brideshead Revisited.

If her prissy, liberal great-grandfather had not frowned on inherited wealth and refused to accept it when he was left it, Castle Howard might eventually have passed down to Polly herself.

Polly's parents Philip and Anne and on their wedding day

Polly’s parents Philip and Anne and on their wedding day

Imagine the stern egalitarian salons that might have gathered beneath its glorious dome.

These days, by her own admission, Polly is a property millionaire with a holiday home in Sussex. 

She excuses these embarrassing (for her) circumstances by saying: ‘At least we of the Left argue honestly for wealth taxes to redress this unjust shift, against the Right who somehow persuade themselves this windfall is justified.’

How annoying it must be for Polly that the Right have so far prevented such wealth taxes from coming to pass. 

Though it is always worth pointing out that His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is more than happy to accept voluntary contributions from those keen to make them.

There are other ironies in being Polly. She refers fondly to ‘two beloved Irish women, who, one after the other, looked after my children while I work’.

And then, in a passage which more or less invites irreverent sniggers from people such as me, she says: ‘I haven’t written enough here about the importance of having other women, yes, lower paid than me, to look after my children to give me the freedom to write about low pay.’

If there is a better summary of the paradox of the new feminist revolution, I have not seen it. The new world is equal only for those who can afford paid help.

Despite her belief that comprehensive state schools achieved a ‘great leap forward’, she once sent two of her children to the expensively ‘progressive’ Bedales school (current fees are in the region of £31,000 a year). 

She also bravely declared in 2009 that her Guardian salary was £106,000 a year, in the hope that everyone else would do the same. They didn’t. I won’t ask what she is paid now as, unlike her, I think such things are private.

But let’s get back to the Toynbee ancestry and its grandeur: though Polly is understandably sniffy about the suggestion, there is a possibility that she might have more exalted origins yet.

One of her grandfathers — an untypically penniless Guards officer of mysterious parentage — could have been an illegitimate by-blow of one of King Edward VII’s many naughty dalliances.

She spent many childhood Christmases in a Scottish castle, distressed by the deference of the village children beyond the gates.

Her appalling paternal grandmother, Rosalind, was a beautiful, wicked, cruel snob, and the granddaughter of the Earl of Carlisle.

Young Polly Toynbee in a photo from An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals

Young Polly Toynbee in a photo from An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals 

Polly’s mother Anne came out as a debutante in 1939 and had her own lady’s maid, but hated snobbery furiously and somehow managed to marry a boozy Communist intellectual.

The rest of the Toynbee family tree is crammed with mighty professors and five-star intellectuals of both sexes, including a great-aunt who was a professor of archaeology and could purr exactly like a real cat.

Polly is also distantly related to the Glenconner family, whose matriarch Lady Anne is famous for her brilliant memoirs of life with Princess Margaret.

It was a world of high minds, deeply serious and rather admirable charity and social concern, and eye-watering personal austerity, in which almost everyone was anti-religious and ‘scathingly, vituperatively anti-Tory’.

The great P. G. Wodehouse was frowned upon in those sober circles because the characters in his books drank alcohol (imagine, if you can, a teetotal Bertie Wooster).

Small boys were denied toy soldiers lest they came to glorify war, which in those days was something only Tories liked. The new world, in which wars were started by liberals such as Blair, had yet to take shape.

Alas, despite or perhaps because of this puritan atmosphere, several of these forebears drank disastrously including, as we have seen, Polly’s father Philip.

Though Polly rightly says that ‘the liberal and Left-wing middle classes writhe in the particular contortions of their own moral inadequacy’, this is no suburban person.

And, as she says, ‘being a posh Left-winger is a tricky business, walking across a minefield every step of the way’. 

She adds darkly: ‘It often means revulsion for those who may look and sound like your own kind, but who are most definitely of the opposite political tribe’. And at one point she sighs: ‘How we Left-wing middle classes hate the sound of our own voice’.

There is a searing clue to why this may matter so much to her. A budding friendship between the seven-year-old Polly and a village child in Suffolk was brutally ended by class mistrust, with her friend’s mother snarling at her quite unjustly ‘Who do you think you are, your ladyship?’ 

She had found her daughter pulling Polly along in a little cart, as Polly waved a stick as if it were a whip.

A minute before, the two girls had changed places, and it had been Polly pulling the cart, but it was no use explaining. 

Some ancient resentful fury had been summoned out of the ground and could not be dispelled.

It was a horrible thing to happen to a child and it was not the only time. Another cross-class friendship ended equally bitterly in mockery and sneers of ‘Miss La-di-da’.

Polly Toynbee at The Evening Standard debate 'Is New Labour Doomed'

Polly Toynbee at The Evening Standard debate ‘Is New Labour Doomed’ 

Well, Polly has made up for all of that now. Maybe because she has been driven by regret at the lasting chasm between the classes, or maybe just out of laudable professional curiosity, she has done something very few on the Right or the Left do.

She has visited her own country to find out what is going on there. She has repeatedly set out to report on the working lives of those less fortunate than her.

Interviewed on TV by Michael Parkinson after her first great exploration, she felt she was being treated like ‘an intrepid Victorian lady returning from the jungles of the Dark Continent’. 

But she had done no such thing: ‘I had been nowhere except right here, in our own country, right next door, down every ordinary street’.

She has toiled in cake factories and soap factories, as a school dinner lady, as a care home assistant (of which she says, heartbreakingly: ‘There is not a moment when you aren’t stricken by failure to do more, to be better and kinder’).

She drudged as a hospital cleaner at dead of night. She has done a stint in a call centre. She has lived in a run-down council flat in a grim estate while working for the minimum wage and trying to make ends meet. She couldn’t even afford her usual headache pills.

During a stint in a Whitehall nursery she was seen by the New Labour mandarin Peter Mandelson, well known to her. But he either did not recognise her in her servant’s uniform, or he thought it polite to pretend not to.

As a result she now, very creditably, says ‘Hullo’ to street cleaners and other menial workers we normally ignore, and is polite (if brisk) when call centres ring her.

One of the things she found, in two different and widely spaced explorations, was that poor people are significantly worse off now than they were 50 years ago, in real terms. I agree with her.

The country is going backwards, and more of us ought to grasp that, for our decline will not spare the chattering classes to which Polly and I both belong, or anybody else.

There is a lot that needs fixing out there, and I agree with her about that, too. I think that her side, the radical side, has done a lot of good in our country and has rightly drawn attention to many ills and injustices. 

But they have also done some harm, especially in their vast failed project to replace the family with the State.

This argument will never stop because neither side is totally right nor totally wrong. I am very glad to have such an opponent — fierce, brave, adventurous and angry — in the unending debate a free country must have about how it treats the weak, the sick and the poor.

An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family And Other Radicals by Polly Toynbee is published by Atlantic Books at £22.

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