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18 March 2017

Under Theresa May’s grammar schools plan, comprehensives will exist to lower children’s expectations

This week in the media, from what the Bank of England knew to the return of secondary moderns – and my fake gardening news.

By Peter Wilby

What is astonishing about the case of Charlotte Hogg, who has been forced to resign from the Bank of England, is not that she failed to declare her brother’s employment at Barclays when she joined the Bank in 2013 as chief operating officer – anybody can make errors when filling out forms – but that nobody else at the Bank apparently noticed or cared.

Quintin Hogg has worked for Barclays Investment Bank (formerly Barclays Capital) in senior positions since 2006. According to his LinkedIn entry, he has been responsible since 2010 for, among many other things, “responding to . . . PRA driven changes”. PRA stands for the Prudential Regulation Authority, which is part of the Bank of England and, on his sister’s promotion to deputy governor this month, she became a member of its main committee.

The City of London, though bigger and more diverse than it used to be, is still a world where everybody knows (or at least has heard of) everybody else. It’s the Bank of England’s job to know who does what in the City. It is inconceivable that some people in its senior echelons didn’t know about Hogg, Q. But nobody bothered to check that Hogg, C had made the proper declarations about potential conflicts of interest.

Hogg’s father was a Tory cabinet minister; her mother is a Tory life peer and former head of the Downing Street Policy Unit; her grandparents and great-grandparents on both sides were Tory ministers. You don’t question the credentials of somebody like that or their understanding of the rules. If she had been a provincial oik from a less illustrious family, the paperwork would have been checked exhaustively.


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Let them serve bread

Bringing back secondary moderns isn’t an ambition that a politician is likely to shout about, but I wonder if that is the real intention behind Theresa May’s determination to restore grammar schools. Even she must realise that if hundreds are created, most other schools, whatever they are called, will in effect be secondary moderns taking 11-year-old rejects and damping down their expectations. Isn’t that what the Tories want? Unlike their predecessors, these newly created secondary moderns will not train children to become hewers of wood, there being little demand for such labour despite the revival of wood-burning stoves. Rather, they will turn out servers of crayfish and rocket sandwiches with coffee and a smile for the Pret A Manger chain, which complains that only one in 50 of its job applicants is British.

The Brexit secretary, David Davis, recently said it would take “years and years” to get Britons to do the jobs in the “hospitality sector”, social care and agriculture that are now performed by EU migrants. Those years are needed to turn most comprehensives into secondary moderns and then to make the first cohorts fit for menial work and low wages. Perhaps they will be taught to whistle cheerily, as young workers did in the 1950s.


Gardening leave

I sympathise with Robert Kelly, the political scientist whose live BBC interview on South Korea, conducted through a computer screen at his home, was hijacked by the antics of his small children. The video clip became a social media hit, giving Kelly global fame but not, as he would no doubt wish, for his academic wisdom.

At least his home life was portrayed accurately. Not so when the Wilby domestic set-up appeared on TV in the late 1970s. I then worked for the Sunday Times, which (incredible as it seems now) gave its journalists a year’s leave on full pay while it settled disputes with print unions. A camera crew arrived, unshakeable in its conviction that a man on extended leave must spend his time gardening. I explained that, first, my garden was shamefully neglected and, second, I was writing a book. But they insisted I must be filmed pruning roses. Armed with borrowed secateurs, I set about the job as the cameras rolled. Friends and neighbours who saw this wholly fictional portrayal on that evening’s news said they would never believe anything they saw on TV again.


Endearingly kinky

The east Midlands, where both my wife and I were born, raised and schooled, has long been almost entirely absent from the national conversation. When the Adrian Mole diaries – written by Sue Townsend, who stayed in Leicester even after she became rich and famous – were adapted for TV, they were performed with Birmingham (west Midlands) accents. Perhaps that explains why I had no idea that Kinky Boots, initially a Broadway success and now in its second year in the West End, is set in Northampton. Unaware of the local interest, we went to see it a few days ago on a neighbour’s recommendation.

As often happens in theatre, the musical seems serendipitously topical. The plot revolves around a family-owned shoe factory losing its markets to globalisation and how it is inspired to manufacture a new niche product by a drag queen with gender issues. But what I found most endearing was its concise representation of metropolitan attitudes to the east Midlands. “You don’t want to go to Northampton, do you?” says the factory owner. “No,” says the London-based drag queen in withering tones.


Pedants’ corner

In a front-page story, the Times states that a letter to the editor, pleading with MPs to allow EU citizens to stay after Brexit lest Oxford University suffer “enormous damage” to its research, is signed by “all but three” of the 38 college heads. But the heads of All Souls, Corpus Christi, Christ Church, Lincoln, Nuffield and three other colleges are missing. How come? The 35 signatories include five heads of Oxford’s six “permanent private halls”, founded and still partly governed by Christian denominations. Though part of the university, they are not colleges. Times journalists would once have known that sort of thing.

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This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain