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9 June 2016

Student intolerance, the rise of the New Young Fogeys and John Major’s antique diction

NS Editor Jason Cowley on young fogeys and John Major’s antique diction.

By Jason Cowley

I was recently a guest at a dinner at ­Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. Two formidable women hosted it: Ngaire Woods, the founding dean of the school, and Louise Richardson, who is a ­political scientist and the 272nd vice-chancellor of Oxford University but the first woman to hold the position. I sat next to her and we spoke, among other things, about the new code of censorship operating among students. In her appearance on Desert Island Discs last week, Professor Richardson, who is Irish, expressed bewilderment at the attitude of many students.

“I’ve tried to understand it,” she said. “Students and young people today, because of social media, operate in an echo chamber of like-minded people and are less exposed to contrary views . . . But a university is exactly where you should hear these views, and part of education is about hearing them and countering them reasonably.”

Her comments made me think about ­Malia Bouattia, the new leader of the National Union of Students, who is an advocate of “no-platforming” and has stated that Muslim students are being spied on by the state. We have tried to speak to her about her positions and the new culture of campus intolerance that has led even to the likes of Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell being “no-platformed”. So far, she has remained bashfully elusive. But perhaps if Ms Bouattia or one of her colleagues is reading this, she will get in touch. The invitation for her to write our weekly Diary remains open.

Age becomes them

On Desert Island Discs, Louise Richardson also said that this generation of students “has been more cosseted by their parents than earlier generations”. This was certainly the view of Jean Twenge, the American ­author of the book Generation Me, when I interviewed her for a Radio 4 Analysis documentary I’ve made exploring the attitudes and behaviour of this millennial generation – at the NS, we’ve called them the “New Young Fogeys”. For the programme, my producer, Katie Inman, persuaded me not only to retrace my journey to school, which most mornings meant negotiating a way through an intimidating group of schoolboy smokers gathered at the bottom of a narrow alleyway between two gardens, but return to my old sixth-form college in Essex. In conversation with some of the students, I was struck by how much less free they seemed than I was at their age. Less free to make mistakes, to take risks, perhaps because they are so aware of the consequences of behaving badly. It wasn’t adventure or rebellion they sought – but order and security. If they were fogeyish in attitude, it was, one of them said, because “social and financial pressures” had made them so.

Beating retreat?

The feuding among Tories during this wretched referendum campaign has been something to behold. Whatever you think of David Cameron and George Osborne, you cannot accuse of them, in this instance, of not acting in what they consider to be the national interest; whether it was in the national interest to hold the referendum in the first place is another matter altogether. By contrast, the huckster-in-chief is ­Boris Johnson. He once professed to be a liberal cosmopolitan but – along with Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and the rest – is advocating Ukip positions on immigration, as if Britain really could be turned into a walled island, as if retreat into nationalism and isolationism were in any way an appropriate response to the challenges and threats of globalisation. In the May issue of the ­Atlantic, Robert Kaplan persuasively wrote that “The West, if it does have a meaning beyond geography, manifests a spirit of ever more inclusive liberalism. Just as in the 19th century there was no going back to feudalism, there is no going back now to nationalism, not without courting disaster.”

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It is the Brexiteers, not the Prime Minister, who are courting disaster.

Attlee’s ethos

I have an early proof copy of John Bew’s forthcoming biography of Clement Attlee. If Labour is to return to power, it is not to Tony Blair and Harold Wilson to whom it should turn for inspiration but to the ethos and example of Attlee. “Much of what Att­lee achieved was tied to a 20th-century project,” Bew writes in the prologue. “If something is salvageable from his government’s legislation, it is ethos rather than process. This unobtrusive progressive patriotism – built of a sense of rights and duties, a malleable civic code rather than a legal writ, with its emphasis on the ‘common wealth’ above individual self-fulfilment. . .” Citizen Clem promises to be one of the highlights of the autumn season.

Copper-bottomed turn

I always enjoy watching television interviews with John Major; I enjoy his antique diction and circumlocutions; his stiff, formal manner, like a senior clerk in a Dickens novel, and his elaborate courtesy, as if he is a long-time student of Nancy Mitford’s essay “The English Aristocracy”. He was in fine form on the Marr show last Sunday, as he raged about the machinations of the Brexiteers. “The belief that an unelected elite is running wild is yet another piece of copper-­bottomed Leave nonsense,” he said. (The italics are mine.) The proposition of the Outers was “nonsense on stilts” (a phrase popularised by Jeremy Bentham). The NHS was “about as safe” with Boris and co “as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python”. People were being “invited to vote for a pig in a poke”. It was a joy. Which other senior public figure today speaks as he does? 

Jason Cowley’s Analysis documentary, “The New Young Fogeys”, is on Radio 4 on 13 June at 8.30pm

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This article appears in the 07 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A special issue on Britain in Europe