by Boris Johnson in The Daily Telegraph
In so far as New Labour has a fairy godmother, Polly is the girl
It is easy to make fun of Polly Toynbee. It is easy to convict her of hypocrisy; but she genuinely knows and cares about the bottom 20 per cent …(she) has made herself an authority on the evils of Gordon Brown’s high taxes on low earners
Polly Toynbee the Tory guru: that’s barking. Or maybe not
Nah, I said to myself. You have got to be kidding me. I squinted again at the Guardian headline on the mat, and felt all funny. Someone, I whispered, is pulling my leg. You all know of course that I am a voortrekker of the Cameron movement. You realise, I hope, that I positively breathe the spirit of the solar-powered, bike-riding, glacier-friendly modernising tendency of which I am proud to be a part.
But when I saw yesterday’s Guardian, I almost swooned. A new ideological guru had been found for the Tory party, smirked the paper in triumph – and it was Polly Toynbee! The author of the new position paper was none other than my brilliant friend Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells, with whom I found myself recently in total agreement at the Tory conference.
Greg! I gasped: what are you saying? Not Polly! For Telegraph readers unfamiliar with her work, Polly used to be the BBC’s health and social affairs correspondent, and now writes a weekly column in the Guardian.
In so far as New Labour has a fairy godmother, Polly is the girl. She incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain. She is the defender and friend of everyone whose non-job has ever been advertised in the Guardian appointments page, every gay and lesbian outreach worker, every clipboard-toter and pen-pusher and form-filler whose function has been generated by mindless regulation. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and ‘elf ‘n’ safety fascism. In an ideal Polly Toynbee world, private sector broadcasting would be banned, Rupert Murdoch would be nationalised, and the BBC would hire thousands more taxpayer-funded social affairs correspondents to psalm the benefits of social democracy.
In Polly Toynbee heaven the NHS would drive out all private competition, and taxes would go up to fund it. How the hell, you may ask, can a proper Tory find anything to admire in Polly’s world view? All I can say is that when I had come out of my faint, and read what Greg was saying, I saw, naturally, that he was absolutely right. In spite of all she gets wrong, there are things that Polly says that are serious and true, and that any Conservative government should be saying. I don’t just mean her stance on fox-hunting, admirable though it is. I recall some powerful pieces in favour of the immemorial rights of the British to slaughter foxes – as you might expect from a gel who is a descendant not just of various ineffably grand Toynbees but also of Gilbert Murray and the Earls of Carlisle. More important still, she is also deeply conservative and Conservative in some of the things she does, as opposed to the things she says.
She joins the usual Labour snarling against fee-paying education, and selective education of all kinds. In reality, of course, she is the beneficiary of a highly selective education and also sent her own offspring to one of the most expensive and competitive public schools in the country, an establishment way beyond the means of most people.
Of course there will be those who accuse her of monstrous hypocrisy, and wonder how she can write her hate-filled philippics about selection in education, and how on earth she can insist on imposing a one-size-fits-all comprehensive system on the rest of the country, and close down the opportunities of so many poor but bright kids, when she has so ruthlessly maximised the opportunities of her own children.
To which I reply: oh well, of course she is a hypocrite; but by their deeds shall ye know them! Never mind the rhetoric of her Guardian column. In her actions, Polly emerges as someone who cares about securing the best possible chances for her own children, and in that way she is bowing before the strongest and deepest conservative force of all, a great and immutable fact of human nature, a truth of biology and motherhood compared with which a thousand hypocritical Guardian columns are nothing but chaff.
Then there will be those who complain that it is hypocritical of Polly to have her lovely second home in Italy, to which she doubtless repairs on so many cheapo flights that she has personally quilted the earth in a tea-cosy of CO2; to which I say, yes, it probably is wrong of Polly to keep calling for higher taxes when that would put such opportunities – for air travel to second homes – beyond the reach of millions slightly less fortunate than her. But never mind the hypocrisy: look at the fundamental Tory behaviour. At least she’s renting the villa out at pretty keen rates. Good on you, Polly! You can’t buck the market, as Mrs Thatcher used to say.
And the private-school-using, villa-owning Polly Toynbee is also right in this paramount sense: that if natural Tories like Polly are to have a hope of governing this country again, then they must show that they know and care about what life is like for those who do not have it as easy as they do.
It is easy to make fun of Polly Toynbee. It is easy to convict her of hypocrisy; but she genuinely knows and cares about the bottom 20 per cent. She is right that there are too many people in poverty under this Government, and right that they are overworked and overtaxed. It is a deep conservative insight that life is competitive, and that there will always be people who can get into the good schools, because they have Toynbee genes or money, and there will be people who are less lucky.
And if you believe that there must always be winners and losers – as I do – then you must understand that a healthy society will do its best to look after the losers. She may be a hypocrite, she may be a solid Thatcherite in her approach to property rentals and private education, but Polly Toynbee has made herself an authority on the evils of Gordon Brown’s high taxes on low earners, and for that alone she deserves respect. Greg Clark is right. Welcome to the Tory party, Polly. Let’s all have tea!