"Ed used to hang with the geek crowd." Photo: Getty
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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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.