In this week’s New Statesman: Eton Mess

Cameron’s clique and the rebirth of the British ruling class. PLUS: Nigel Farage writes the diary.

Eton Eternal: Jason Cowley interviews the Eton headmaster

From the Archbishop of Canterbury and the head of No 10’s policy unit to top stage actors and the PM – Etonians have resurged into in public life. In our cover story this week, Jason Cowley meets Tony Little, the school’s headmaster. Is Eton guilty of creating “a peculiar form of conformity” in the upper corridors of power? Jason Cowley asks Tony Little. The headmaster replies:

“ ‘There or thereabouts’. I think this is one of those little moments in history that won’t be repeated. I’m pleased that it’s not just the Conservative Prime Minister, but the Archbishop of Canterbury and actors [Eddie Redmayne, Damian Lewis, Dominic West], who have a rather different take on the world. And that reflects the Eton I live in. The exciting thing about being in a place like this is having bright, young, aspirational people who see the world in very different ways. That is the optimistic view. Whether it holds up to scrutiny is rather more complicated.”

While debunking misconceptions about this centuries-old school for boys – such as the high percentage of “Russian plutocrats’ ” children in attendance and the notion that all Eton students “come from castles” – Little also addresses the British education system’s role in “flatlining” social mobility and assesses the reforms by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove:

“The good bit is rattling the cage and rattling it mightily. We now have these pinpricks of light, of some outstanding practice . . . the Teach First scheme . . . is the single best initiative that has happened in my professional lifetime.

“[However,] I see no joined-up plan. Nationally, I’m talking about . . . Huge amount of reform, maybe too much. I think most of the people I work with can’t see the big picture we are aiming for. People can see merit in the individual things that are going on, but we don’t yet see the whole picture . . .”

Plus, Danny Dorling, professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield, explains how social mobility got stuck.

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE:

 

Nigel Farage: The Diary

Storming South Shields, dodging photographers and a new Nigel on the Eurosceptic scene. The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, recalls a less-than-ordinary week, from the local elections and television appearances to gutting fish and Brussels

[On Thursday evening, I take] the train to London to film This Week with Andrew Neil, with a live studio audience and his dog, Mollie. The atmosphere among the programme’s acolytes is fantastic, almost cultish. I have since been told their audience figures stretched well beyond a million so I hope it is a format they use again. A few drinks after the show, and it is time to head to my hotel and await the results from South Shields. By around 1.30am the count has finished and Ukip is looking at a staggering 24.2 per cent. Not enough to steal the seat but a breathtaking vote share, in the light of such a short campaign where 60 per cent of votes cast happened via postal ballot. It’s a situation that needs to change, castrating the chance to campaign and communicate with the public and protecting the party in power. I am intending to sleep, but as the early results start coming in from Lincolnshire I know that something incredible is burgeoning. I finally turn my phone off at three.

The week ends with an unexpected political lift: “Bank holiday over and it’s back to Brussels. Tuesday continues the weekend theme of Nigels, as Mr Lawson speaks out against British membership of the EU. The world is slowly becoming a far less lonely place.”

Laurie Penny: Letter from Reykjavik

After the financial crash of 2008, Iceland refused to bail out its banks and overthrew its government. Five years on, has its flirtation with an alternative to austerity ended? Laurie Penny visits on election day. Laurie Penny writes:

Iceland is a little human crucible bubbling away in the middle of the north Atlantic, and an experiment in how to build and run a modern democracy. For most of the past 30 years, it embraced aggressive free-market capitalism. Then its banks failed, its population lost faith in conventional politics, and it began to be an experiment in something else entirely. Desperate people across the eurozone cling to the fairy tale of Iceland as a plucky country holding out against austerity – but Icelanders see things differently.

Rafael Behr: The Politics Column

Everyone’s talking about Nigel, but it’s Nick who has shaken up Westminster for good, says Rafael Behr in the Politics Column this week. He argues that there is a stark choice facing British politics, expressed in the form of a rivalry between two party leaders with distinct styles and incompatible creeds. Those leaders are, of course, Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg:

Labour and the Tories have fought each other to a standstill. We already know the contours of every stone they throw. David Cameron is the haughty toff who cuts public services for pleasure. Ed Miliband is the gormless wonk without the strength to grip the axe. Their repetitive skirmishes win no defectors from the opposite tribe.

Read the politics column online now.

 

IN THE CRITICS:

 

Jesse Norman on Edmund Burke

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, John Gray reviews Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet by Jesse Norman MP. Burke, John Gray argues, is “the thinker who more than any other exemplifies the contradictions of conservatism”. The principal contradiction in Burke’s conservatism is between his hostility to “political rationalism” – the notion that society can be remade in the image of abstract ideals – and his commitment to a species of providentialism, according to which the steady advance of liberty is evidence of a divine author at work. Margaret Thatcher, Gray goes on, saw the political settlement she achieved “as a chapter in a Burkean grand narrative of liberty. Unsurprisingly, this settlement has now collapsed.”

 

Brian Eno: The Critics Interview

The NS pop critic, Kate Mossman, talks to the musician, producer and all-round creative force Brian Eno. “The art world bothers Eno,” Mossman writes. Eno tells her: “The art world has got into the habit of believing that its prices reflect its importance.” Eno himself has sometimes been on the receiving end of the kind of snobbery that reigns in the art world, mostly for his production work with mega-selling bands such as Coldplay and U2. “People don’t think my production is cool,” he says. “[But] I like working with both those bands because they are at the centre of something I’m usually at the edges of . . . Snobbery is an English disease.”

 

Plus:

  • Sarah Churchwell is decidedly unimpressed by Z, Therese Anne Fowler’s novel based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald
  • The former Conservative chancellor of the exchequer Norman Lamont reviews A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran by Peter Oborne and David Morrison
  • Sophie Elmhirst reviews John Crace’s biography of Harry Redknapp, Harry’s Games
  • Nick Spencer, the research director at the think tank Theos, reviews The Serpent’s Promise: the Bible Retold as Science by Steve Jones
  • Daniel Swift reviews an edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s letters edited by Dan Wakefield
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Our Children, the new film by the director Joachim Lafosse
  • The architect Amanda Levete explains why “resistance is the fuel in the process of design” and why “cities are never perfect”.
  • And much more.

Read our full “In the Critics” blog post here.

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Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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

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