Polly Toynbee is hated by the British right. Why? Well, she is a woman, which is pretty suspect. Even worse than that, she is a left-wing woman, which is very suspect. Even more worse than that, she is a tribally left-wing woman who writes (for the Guardian) and speaks (across broadcast media) with seriousness, clarity and force. As one Tory journalist put it in 2006, Toynbee “incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain… Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and ‘elf ‘n’ safety fascism.”
The author of that diatribe? Boris Johnson. He appears, as a naked baby, on page 66 of Toynbee’s memoir An Uneasy Inheritance. It was 1966. Toynbee was a teenager, heading up to Oxford on a scholarship to read history at St Anne’s college, when she discovered that she was pregnant. The boy she loved was a lapsed Catholic, but his mother was not. She wanted Toynbee to keep the baby: “She suggested we would live in an Oxford flat, where I would bring up the baby while he studied.” The boy’s sister was newly married, locked in her own version of Toynbee’s possible future; living in Summertown with a new baby. Her husband (unfortunately) was Stanley Johnson. And there was tiny Alexander de Pfeffel Johnson, “kicking his feet in the air, round, pink and fat with a remarkable shock of electrically bright blond hair”. Toynbee may well have been the first woman – though certainly not the last – to be disgusted by Johnson. “That baby on the bath mat… decisively put me off the idea of teen motherhood.” She took (then illegal) abortion-inducing pills. Her life changed direction.
Abortions, lovers, Catholics, naked Johnsons, brutal self-deprecation, An Uneasy Inheritance is not the memoir you might expect from Toynbee’s public image, or the image of her purveyed by the Daily Mail. Behind the mask of this careful, prim, grave social democrat is an anarchic, quasi-aristocratic family background, and a life lived well. In other words, a life marbled with mistakes, false starts and tragedies.
Not that she would use the word tragedy. For centuries, the Toynbee family occupied the borderlands between the upper middle classes and the Whiggish, liberal side of the British aristocracy. They were doers, professors, reformers, improvers and, occasionally, countesses. Toynbee men tend to be beetle-like drunkards, half-maddened by millenarian visions.
Toynbee’s grandfather Arnold wrote an epic 12-volume explanation of why civilisations rise and fall, that made him famous in the 1940s and 1950s; Philip, her anguished father, was so fearful of nuclear war that he turned the car around en route to a holiday because he had “forgotten the large jar of death pills he had accumulated to mercy-kill everyone” should the Cold War turn hot. Toynbee women are terrifying. Grandmother Rosalind was “poisonous”; great-grandmother Mary was “domineering and chilly”; great-great-grandmother Rosalind, the Countess of Carlisle, was an awesomely wealthy termagant, no less than a “tyrant”.
As well as privilege, what threads these generations together is class guilt. Unlike their counterparts in the Tory-shaded aristocracy, who like shooting things and drinking port, Whig aristos such as the Toynbees deny themselves the pleasure of shooting things and drinking port, and have troubled consciences. An Uneasy Inheritance is, then, an irresistible, self-aware British class comedy. It reads rather like an Evelyn Waugh novel. Until her early twenties, Polly Toynbee explains, she yearned to be George Eliot – a novelist, not a journalist.
There are few false notes. Toynbee is brutally knowing about herself, about the left in Britain, and the air of absurdity that descends on wealthy people who try to improve the lives of the poor. There are several majestic moments of bitter realism in these pages, where she sounds as astrally pessimistic as the most melancholic conservative philosopher: “Human life changes so much less than each generation imagines… How little changes, how little society progresses.” The only time I felt she was lying – or being slightly blithe – came near the end of the book: “I have never had a day in my life when I haven’t felt cocooned in safety.” After reading about the other Toynbees, a cast of drunks, crackpots, philanderers and sad cases, I was amazed that Polly Toynbee was so sane.
An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals
Atlantic, 448pp, £22
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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia