"Ed used to hang with the geek crowd." Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

It’s GCSE results day, but what did our party leaders get in their school exams?

As hundreds of thousands of teenagers will receive their GCSE results today, we look back to see what our party leaders achieved at school.

The former Conservative Prime Minister John Major famously left his comprehensive school, Rutlish, in London with three O-Levels: history, English language and English literature.

In November last year, he lamented the “shocking” domination in Britain of those who were educated at public schools.

“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class.

“To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

Although Major did actually achieve three further O-Levels (in maths, economics, and, rather bafflingly, the British Constitution) after leaving school, it is still unusual for a political leader to have a poor academic record. Let’s look at how our current party leaders fared at school:

 

David Cameron

We don’t know exactly what marks the PM received in his O-Levels, but we do know the Eton-educated Cameron is a chillaxer by some accounts. Although he did sit 12 O-Levels – quite a high number even by today’s standards – he described his results as “not very good”. And although he passed them all, his pre-sixth form academic record has been described as “average”.

His biographers Francis Elliott and James Hanning quote a fellow Etonian, recalling: “We were convinced there would never be an Etonian prime minister again. I certainly didn’t think Dave would have a go at it. His only acting roles at school were as a serving-man and as a girl. He was never outrageously extrovert – just quietly popular.”

One of his teachers, John Clark, is also quoted: “He didn’t draw attention to himself. He wasn’t effusive or loud… [he was] very much a late developer academically”.

However, things looked up when he sat his A-Levels, achieving three As at A-level, in history, history of art and economics with politics. Shame the UK’s triple A credit rating slipped for the first time since the Seventies under his leadership…

 

Ed Miliband

According to a quick sweep through Google, the Labour leader’s O-Levels aren’t common knowledge, though he did pass them. However, he scooped four pretty good A-Levels – AABB in maths, English, further maths and physics. He beat his brother David, who got BBBD in his A-Levels.

Both Milibands attended Haverstock School in north London, a state school that has been labelled by the Mail as the “Eton for lefties”:

“… Mr Miliband is hardly a typical comprehensive pupil; and Haverstock, at the time, was not exactly a typical comprehensive school.

“He is a product of the Labour aristocracy. His old school has been mischievously dubbed ‘Labour’s Eton’ – a finishing school for future Labour politicians.

“Apart from Ed’s elder brother, David, alumni include the former New Labour MP Oona King, Tom Bentley (a special adviser to Australia’s Labour prime minister Julia Gillard) and the author Zoe Heller (who described her mother as a glamorous Labour activist with ‘Stalinist inclinations’.)

“Nor was Haverstock Hill in the middle of a sink estate. Its catchment area included the middle-class Hampstead intelligentsia.”

However, the Observer journalist Andrew Anthony, who attended the school, wrote of it in 2012:

“It amuses me now to see the place snipingly referred to as "Labour's Eton". For although it's true that in the 70s the school contained a significant minority of children from the Hampstead and Primrose Hill intelligentsia, violence was rife in and out of the classroom, police were regularly called to the school gates to quell mass fights, and the ethos was embarrassingly unacademic.”

In Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre’s biography of Ed, they quote the head of English at Haverstock, Nikki Haydon, who recalls a large and distinct “middle-class contingency” in the school. They also quote a contemporary of the Labour leader during his schooldays:

“Ed used to hang around with the geek crowd.”

 

Nick Clegg

The wisecrack goesNick Clegg failed his biology A-Level – he couldn’t find a backbone.

This cannot be confirmed.

The journalist Harry Mount, who was at school with the Lib Dem leader, wrote this about how he was as a student:

“Nick Clegg wasn’t one of the more intelligent boys when he was at Westminster School from 1980 to 1985.

“The clever pupils at Westminster — one of the best, and most expensive, schools in the country, costing £32,490 a year — were ‘accelerated’. That meant they did O-levels after two, as opposed to three, years.

“Clegg, one of the less bright sparks, was selected for the three-year option. Still, that didn’t stop him making it into Robinson College, Cambridge, in 1986”.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

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