Ed (left) and David Miliband
Labour’s new leader looks like being under the thumb of the unions — harking back to the bad old days of the 1970s, says Boris Johnson.
It is an unsettling fact that I went to the same school as the party leader. Indeed, there are some people who have taken to complaining about this coincidence. They say it is unacceptable in the 21st century that so much political power should be concentrated in the old boys of one educational establishment. It is a sign, they say, that the country has failed to move on.
Both of us went to the same institution of ancient rituals and gorgeous brickwork, ideally situated by one of the nation’s most famous waterways and blessed with lush green spaces nearby. It is a forcing-house of talent, where the offspring of privilege acquire that patina of good manners, the ever so slightly infuriating habit of putting people at their ease, together with that sense of entitlement that propels them to the top and marks them out ever after as Old Primroseans.
Yes, amigos, it cannot be denied. I attended the same Camden primary school as the new Labour leader Ed Miliband (and his brother David) — and what a fantastic place I remember it to be. There may be some more recent alumni who will accuse me of sentimentality. They may point out that things have got even better for the pupils of [Primrose Hill] Primary School, Camden.
I am going to see for myself fairly soon, but a glance at the website certainly reveals a happy and successful school. You will read of outstanding commendations from ofsted, 99 per-cent. attendance rates, abundant music lessons, exciting expeditions and a lunch menu of rich complexity by comparison with the stuff we were given in the 1970s.
You will be pleased to know that fish and chips have been replaced by breaded hoki and chipped potatoes with tartar sauce or ketchup, all of it approved by the Maritime Stewardship Council.
Today’s Primrose Hill Primary School seems to be of a piece with today’s London — a place vastly more prosperous and more at ease with itself than in that grim decade. Which may seem paradoxical to some us who wore flares and grew up to the sound of Slade, because in so many ways you could argue that we had things better 37 years ago.
We didn’t worry so much about kids carrying knives, because a knife was generally thought to be a sneaky and cowardly way to fight. In so far as we fought, we used our fists.
Indeed, one of my most mind-searing memories is of standing in the playground and challenging all-comers to a fight and then watching in horror as an enormously tall girl — she must have been at least two years older than me, I swear — detached herself from her friends and strolled in my direction. After that things are a bit of a blur, except for a dim impression of the speed and solidity of her knuckles and a ring of laughing faces against the sky. Made me what I am, I expect.
We didn’t worry about obesity. We hadn’t even heard of the word. I can’t think of a single one of us who was remotely portly — even me. We guzzled Tizer and Spangles and Sherbet Fountains and didn’t seem to lose our whippet-like proportions.
Why was that, then? Was it because we were mandatorily filled up, each and every one of us, by an identical school dinner of a kind that would make Jamie Oliver pass out?
Do you remember the liver that was positively green, and so knobbly and scarred that the only possible conclusion was that the cow in question had just lost a lifelong struggle with the bottle? You had to eat it, or else you went hungry — because no one had a packed lunch.
Or was it because the grown-ups let us walk to school or muck about on bikes, even into the gloaming, without believing that every bush concealed a paedophile?
On which subject, I seem to remember that we had no particular shortage of male teachers, and our own class was led by a genial young man, laconic but inspiring, who used to put his feet up on the desk and open his copy — I kid you not — of The Daily Telegraph.
We were generally less obsessed with elf and safety, and though our knees were scabbed and our milk teeth were rotted by the Spangles, we developed exhilarating games that taught us about risk. There were Evel Knievel experiments with ramps and bicycles, and in the school grounds there were two buildings so close together that you could wedge yourself between them and then lever yourself up, using only your feet and your back, until you were 20 feet off the ground.
First some daredevils did it; then we all followed the craze — though not many imitated the kid whose trick was to drink the water of the Grand Union Canal.
Yes, it was idyllic in the pre-paranoid 1970s, and you may by this stage be wondering what I mean when I say that things are so much better today. Well, there was one thing that we did worry about — and that was the economy.
This was the era of the three-day week, and the lights going out, and capricious and arbitrary union power being used to bring the country to its knees. It was a decade that culminated in our pathetic national capitulation to the imf.
I note that Ed Miliband has emerged blatantly from the bowels of the trade unions, and that it was thanks to union chiefs that he edged a millimetre ahead of the elder Miliband. I note that he and other senior Labour figures are now pledging to support strike action — no matter how unreasonable, no matter how much damage it may do to the interests of the general public or the British economy — in the hope of scoring political points against the Coalition Government.
I note, in other words, that under Ed Miliband the trade unions seem set to dominate the Labour Party in exactly the way that Blair and Brown managed successfully to avoid.
There are many lessons from an inner London primary school in the 1970s — and it would be tragic if Ed were to take the wrong one.