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Sajid Javid and the left, the “extermination” of grammar schools and Pamuk in Oxford

The response of some Labour MPs to Javid’s promotion was idiotic.

Sajid Javid arriving at No 10 after being appointed as Culture Secretary. Photo: Getty
Sajid Javid arriving at No 10 after being appointed as Culture Secretary. Photo: Getty

Sajid Javid, the first British Asian man to become a cabinet minister, is a politician the Conservatives have been waiting for. He’s not the son of high privilege, a member of the trust-fund class. As has been widely reported, his father was an immigrant from Pakistan who, after arriving in England with £1 in his pocket, found work as a bus driver. The family home was a two-bedroomed flat above a shop in Bristol; Javid attended a comprehensive school and then Exeter University. There he met Tim Montgomerie, who went on to create the ConservativeHome website, and Robert Halfon and David Burrowes, both now Tory MPs.

These Exeter Tories have influence. Halfon, who holds the marginal seat of Harlow, my old home town in Essex, is one of the most thoughtful MPs in Westminster. He advocates a kind of ethical, blue-collar conservatism that resonates in Harlow, where there is energy and aspiration but also entrenched intergenerational deprivation and underachievement.

John Major once asked: what did the Conservative Party have to offer a working-class boy like me? His answer was that it made him prime minister, as it did the grocer’s daughter before him. If the Tories are ever to win a majority again, they must become more than a coalition of middle- and upper-middle-class interests, as they are perceived to be under the plummy Cameron but never were under Thatcher.

The response of some Labour MPs to Javid’s promotion was idiotic: they denounced him for being rich, as if this were some kind of stain on his character. Javid is indeed extremely wealthy, having worked for two decades as a City financier. He is also a dry-as-dust Thatcherite and appears to have little hinterland.

Yet, like Jay Gatsby, he is self-made and has dared to dream. From a flat above a shop in one of Bristol’s toughest neigbourhoods to a seat at the cabinet table: anyone who cares about social mobility and wants Britain to become a more open and diverse society ought to be cheered by his ascent, even if you find his politics narrowly ideological and his professed cultural tastes – U2, Star Trek – uninspiring.

High lights at the Sheldonian

On the eve of municipal elections in Turkey, I chaired the Chancellor’s Lecture at the Oxford Literary Festival. The “lecture” turned out to be a conversation between Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s pre-eminent writer, and me. Pamuk was in Oxford at the invitation of Chris Patten, chancellor of the university. The previous day, Pamuk, who has been persecuted by the Erdogan government, had signed an open letter protesting against Turkey’s censorship of Twitter. Before our conversation – we discussed Islamism, the unique space between east and west occupied by Turkey, the global novel and the melancholy of Istanbul – we were introduced by Lord Patten who, with late-evening sunshine streaming through the high windows of Wren’s magnificent Sheldonian Theatre, delighted me by remarking on the revitalisation of the New Statesman, which he told the audience was “ascendant”.

Literally east

I asked Pamuk whether, in the digital age, the novel had much of a future. As I discovered when I was editor of Granta, overmany people want to write stories and novels – if everyone who wanted to write for Granta actually subscribed to it, the old magazine would be a bestseller – but there is a corresponding shortage of willing readers of literary fiction, especially men. I reminded Pamuk of something Philip Roth had said: “To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading . . . I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is [now] hard to come by . . .”

He wasn’t convinced. The novel, Pamuk said, was a bourgeois art form and would find a new and eager audience in countries with rapidly growing middle classes: India, China and Indonesia. So the future of the novel, as with so much else, resides in the east.

The old grammar of merit

The NS was the media partner of this year’s Cambridge Literary Festival, where I was present for a stimulating conversation between John Carey and my colleague Michael Prodger. The setting was the Cambridge Union, where Carey was talking about his memoir, The Unexpected Professor. He is a curious fellow: erudite but anti-elitist, thin-skinned and sharp-tongued. He writes clean and very simple sentences, perhaps too simple – Orwell is his model – but he reads with complexity and sophistication. He’s a grammar school boy and was evidently wounded by the slights he endured long ago as an undergraduate and junior don at Oxford. In conversation, he bemoaned what he called the “vindictive extermination” of the grammar schools. “Oxford and Cambridge still take vastly disproportionate numbers of public-school students,” he said.

True enough. But what we call the “7 per cent problem” – the dominance of the privately educated in public life – is the result not of the destruction of the grammar schools, as Carey believes, or of bias in the Oxbridge admissions system, but of deep structural problems to do with class, land ownership and inherited privilege in English society (Alex Salmond is attempting to address these issues in Scotland by breaking up the British state).

As Michael Gove says, “More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.” Which is why the rise of Sajid Javid is so interesting and why it poses such an awkward problem for Labour (which has never had a woman as leader or an Asian cabinet minister, and whose most successful prime ministers were privately educated) as well as for Ed Miliband’s lofty seminar-room socialism.