The cast of Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne's hit sitcom The Royle Family.
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I don’t mind if politicians went to posh schools. I do mind if they don’t listen to anyone who didn’t

Ad hominem attacks make no sense. All young people should enjoy the opportunity to tell their stories.

Let me begin by paying you a compliment. I don’t care where you went to school. There – have I made your day? No? All right, I’ll go further: I also don’t care what your dad did for a living, or how your mum voted. Nor do I mind whether you ate your tea in front of the telly, dinner at the kitchen table or supper in the dining room. Maybe you didn’t have a telly. Or you called it a TV. Or you had one but it was hidden in a cabinet. And maybe you seldom ate an evening meal at home because you were in care, or at boarding school; and you can’t tell me what your dad did for a living because you never met him; and you don’t know how your mum votes because she never votes, because she’s the Queen.

I call it a compliment because, if you disagree with me about something, I’ll wonder what might be wrong with what I said, rather than what might be wrong with you. If I offer a conjecture, you might challenge that conjecture – but you could return the compliment by not challenging my life. It’s a pleasant fantasy, isn’t it? But, oh well, back to human beings.

To rail against ad hominem attacks is as pointless as to rail against Homo sapiens. We think: therefore, we often talk rubbish. The trouble with playing the person instead of the ball is that a) it makes you look like you’re not interested in the ball and b) you almost always get the wrong person. You’ll notice I slightly compromised the more familiar phrase “playing the man instead of the ball” in the interests of not excluding women (many of whom like or play football). You might say that this is overly fastidious. Or that I’m favouring political correctness over clarity. Fine. But I’d rather that you didn’t say I wrote that because I am a “typical left-wing luvvie”, for instance, because then I would know I was in the presence of a dick. And, flawed as I am, that would be the end of our potentially interesting chat. The “Well, you would say that . . .” school of thought is not so much a school as a hospice.

It’s always a one-way street: I seek out the logical fallacies in argument, you are a benefit scrounger. I detect solecisms and lazy thinking, you are a public-school buffoon. I coolly weigh the evidence, you are a woman. We all do it. Rationality, objectivity: these things are essential to argument. But we are in trouble when we don’t recognise that we are swimming against the tide. Very bad things follow when we kid ourselves that we’re naturally rational, rather than the more humbling truth: naturally emotional.

So, perhaps a little forgiveness here. Does it matter that David Cameron went to Eton? Yes, it does. But do I blame, even hate, him for it? No, of course not: he was a child. We don’t withhold empathy from people who are lucky (though there are all kinds of luck: I’m not sure that, say, being waved off to boarding school at the age of seven is a guarantee of cloudless mental heath).

Yet we are free to judge people by what they do with that luck, and indeed by whether they show any sign of noticing it. I don’t mind that George Osborne went to St Paul’s School. I mind very much if he shows no sign of reading about, meeting and listening to a lot, and I mean, A LOT of people who didn’t. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not an expert on what it’s like to work on a zero-hours contract then he isn’t fit for the job.

It’s a matter of intellectual diversity. Where you have 20 people who all share roughly the same educational and life experiences, they’re going to come up with the same solutions to the same problems. Not only is equality of opportunity a good idea in terms of social justice (as ideas go, I can scarcely think of a better one), but the creative friction that comes from clever people from different backgrounds arguing about a common aim benefits all of us: business, politics, the arts, everyone.

Speaking of the arts, the recent handbag tussle between Chris Bryant and James Blunt made me think of The Royle Family and how long it took me to warm to it. Among other comments, the Labour culture spokesman criticised broadcasters for not making enough drama or comedy about working-class culture. The thing that initially alarmed me about Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s wonderful sitcom was how accurate it was. I grew up in a bungalow in the beautiful nowhere of Lincolnshire, where, to answer the questions above, we had our “tea” at the kitchen table and the thing in the corner of the “living room” was a “telly”. But then I scraped in to the grammar school, and then Cambridge. And from that moment – this isn’t rational, it’s just how it feels right now – I disqualified myself from writing about the people I grew up with. If I tried to write The Royle Family now, the critics wouldn’t review the show, they’d review me: I would pass them the ball and they would ask where I got my “Oxbridge football boots”.

But I’m just one bloke. We need to give back to young people all the advantages I enjoyed. Until a government can restore arts funding, public libraries, the Education Maintenance Allowance, housing benefit for young people and maintenance grants for the poorest university students, we will never hear from those talented people with their own, vibrant stories to tell. The ones who are not yet, as I have become, afraid.

 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.