One wet evening last week I returned to Southampton University, where I was an undergraduate from 1986-89, to give a lecture, “The Condition of England: the Press, Power and Politics”. I’d not returned to the city for more than a decade and one inevitably becomes nostalgic on such a journey. On the train out from Waterloo Station I reflected on how fortunate it was to have been a student at the end of the Eighties, when loans had not yet been introduced. There were no tuition fees. You could claim housing benefit and sign on in the long Easter and summer vacations, which I did with alacrity. Full grants were available for those from low-income families. Compare this to today’s students with their £9,000-a-year fees and deepening awareness that the old social welfare model is becoming less and less affordable.
In the years ahead, fiscal conservatism is likely to be the orthodoxy as successive governments grapple with the consequences of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession through which we are still passing. Our long decades of stable prosperity are at an end.
Many of the young people I spoke to after the lecture understood this and were resigned to being poorer than their parents and even their grandparents, those who would have enjoyed free education and profited from house-price inflation, generous pension settlements and universal benefits. And yet, remarkably, they showed no bitterness, only a determination to progress in their own way and as circumstances would allow.
Class war on the right
One of the most notable books of the spring is Ferdinand Mount’s The New Few, a cogent and enraged disquisition on inequality and the rise of a rapacious oligarchy that is of British society but operates in blithe disregard of it. Mount – “Ferdy”, to those who know him – is an essayist, novelist and social historian. He is related to David Cameron and was one of Margaret Thatcher’s early intellectual outriders (as was our own John Gray), working in the Downing Street policy unit. But he is no complacent Tory or establishment apologist: he keeps reading and he keeps thinking. He accepts that something has gone badly wrong in British society and that the “blunt fact is that wealth is not trickling down to anywhere near the bottom”.
Is something interesting stirring on the right among the more cerebral Tories? Just recently, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, complained about “the breadth and the depth of private school dominance”. “More than almost any developed nation,” he said, “ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress . . . For those of us who believe in social justice, this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.”
Why do we tolerate a form of educational apartheid in which the richest 7 per cent or so buys itself special privileges while too many state schools fail their pupils? Our education system institutionalises class prejudice and disadvantage and creates a society in which people are tiresomely defined by where they went to school, as if they had any choice in the matter. This works both ways, with right and left eager to use schooling to caricature and abuse.
For some, “Old Etonian” is a term of praise, for others it’s one of resolute abuse. Indeed, in a recent Guardian column about “toffs” and the “lower orders”, my old friend Peter Wilby described Andy Coulson as being a “showbiz reporter schooled at an Essex comprehensive”, as if in some way that told us everything we needed to know about Coulson and what has gone wrong for him. It may not have been Peter’s intention, but he was indulging in a form of inverted snobbery, so prevalent on the Guardian-metropolitan (or in Peter’s case the Loughton) left.
Hot under the mortar board
What is happening to the weather? As I write, hailstones are hitting my window and the River Thames, which I can see from my office, is violently churning. This strange, unsettled (and unsettling) spring makes me yearn for the warm south. Or at least for something approaching the serene late spring days of 1989 when I took my final papers dressed sometimes only in shorts and a casual shirt, to the irritation of one of my philosophy professors, who pointedly told me that he’d sat his finals formally attired – like Gatsby he was an Oxford man – and “on days much warmer than these”.
This, too, shall pass
The title of my lecture was taken from Charles Masterman’s 1909 book, The Condition of England, which is part extended critical essay, part polemical tract and part prophesy – and is in the great Victorian tradition of works that examined the English social question. As a Liberal MP and friend of Winston Churchill, Masterman wrote from a position of power but recognised that the old order was breaking apart and that he was “living amid that long-drawn decline . . . wandering between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. It is an age in passing.” Many of us today feel much as he did then: that this, too, is an age in passing and yet we have little or no idea what is going to replace it. That’s a curious and thrilling position to be in, but it is also one that can be fearful, anxiety-making – especially if you are just starting out on your career like those students I spoke to in Southampton.
The New Statesman has a new deputy editor, Helen Lewis, at present one of our assistant editors. She succeeds Jon Bernstein, who has been promoted to the new role of digital director after overseeing a huge expansion of Newstatesman.com – our web traffic has grown by more than 23o per cent over the past two years and we now have as many as 800,000 unique visitors to our site each month. Not bad for the Staggers as it approaches its centenary in 2013.