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

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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We argue over Charlie Gard, but forget those spending whole lives caring for a disabled child

The everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over life and death.

“Sometimes,” says the mother, “I wish we’d let him go. Or that he’d just been allowed to slip away.” The father agrees, sometimes. So too does the child, who is not a child any more.

On good days, nobody thinks this way, but not all days are good. There have been bright spots during the course of the past four decades, occasional moments of real hope, but now everyone is tired, everyone is old and the mundane work of loving takes a ferocious toll.

When we talk about caring for sick children, we usually mean minors. It’s easiest that way. That for some parents, the exhaustion and intensity of those first days with a newborn never, ever ends – that you can be in your fifties, sixties, seventies, caring for a child in their twenties, thirties, forties – is not something the rest of us want to think about.

It’s hard to romanticise devotion strung out over that many hopeless, sleepless nights. Better to imagine the tragic mother holding on to the infant who still fits in her loving arms, not the son who’s now twice her size, himself edging towards middle-age and the cliff edge that comes when mummy’s no longer around.

Writing on the tragic case of Charlie Gard, the Guardian’s Giles Fraser claims that he would “rain fire on the whole world to hold my child for a day longer”. The Gard case, he argues, has “set the cool rational compassion of judicial judgement and clinical expertise against the passion of parental love”: “Which is why those who have never smelled the specific perfume of Charlie’s neck, those who have never held him tight or wept and prayed over his welfare, are deemed better placed to determine how he is to live and die.”

This may be true. It may also be true that right now, countless parents who have smelled their own child’s specific perfume, held them tightly, wept for them, loved them beyond all measure, are wishing only for that child’s suffering to end. What of their love? What of their reluctance to set the world aflame for one day more? And what of their need for a life of their own, away from the fantasies of those who’ll passionately defend a parent’s right to keep their child alive but won’t be there at 5am, night after night, cleaning out feeding tubes and mopping up shit?

Parental – in particular, maternal – devotion is seen as an endlessly renewable resource. A real parent never gets tired of loving. A real parent never wonders whether actually, all things considered, it might have caused less suffering for a child never to have been born at all. Such thoughts are impermissible, not least because they’re dangerous. Everyone’s life matters. Nonetheless, there are parents who have these thoughts, not because they don’t love their children, but because they do.

Reporting on the Gard case reminds me of the sanitised image we have of what constitutes the life of a parent of a sick child. It’s impossible not to feel enormous compassion for Charlie’s parents. As the mother of a toddler, I know that in a similar situation I’d have been torn apart. It’s not difficult to look at photos of Charlie and imagine one’s own child in his place. All babies are small and helpless; all babies cry out to be held.

But attitudes change as children get older. In the case of my own family, I noticed a real dropping away of support for my parents and disabled brother as the latter moved into adulthood. There were people who briefly picked him up as a kind of project and then, upon realising that there would be no schmaltzy ending to the story, dropped him again. Love and compassion don’t conquer all, patience runs out and dignity is clearly best respected from a distance.

All too often, the everyday misery of care work is hidden behind abstract arguments over who gets the right to decide whether an individual lives or dies. I don’t know any parents who truly want that right. Not only would it be morally untenable, it’s also a misrepresentation of what their struggles really are and mean.

What many parents who remain lifelong carers need is adequate respite support, a space in which to talk honestly, and the recognition that actually, sometimes loving is a grim and hopeless pursuit. Those who romanticise parental love – who, like Fraser, wallow in heroic portrayals of “battling, devoted parents” – do nothing to alleviate the suffering of those whose love mingles with resentment, exhaustion and sheer loneliness.

There are parents out there who, just occasionally, would be willing to set the world on fire to have a day’s respite from loving. But regardless of whether your child lives or dies, love never ends. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.