Anthony Seldon’s Diary: Farewell to Buckingham, Yeats for trolls, and serving our students

The futility of our obsession with exams as the only way of validating a student has been exposed.

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I spent all weekend clearing out the house in Buckingham with my three children. Joanna, my dearly loved wife, who died of cancer in 2016, never threw anything away. Knee-deep in piles of papers and boxes, letters, photos and mementos, we struggle to decide what to keep. The children are more ruthless than I am – I don’t tell them I still have my school reports and A-level notes. There are two full wardrobes of Joanna’s clothes in my bedroom, including her wedding dress. As I hear the melancholic roar of the removal van drawing ever closer, I am rent by indecision.

It’s farewell to the University of Buckingham this month too. I’ve found it a tough five years but I’ve seen this small and proud university and medical school build, grow in numbers, and reform fundamentally. Being a vice chancellor of any university in the past five years has been hard. I will miss the company of fellow VCs – for all my frustration at their slow response to the mounting public concerns about higher education, they are remarkable people: witness their leadership during Covid, which I can only envy. I will miss the great people at Buckingham, too, but I know in my heart that, despite everything I threw at it, I fell short of what I hoped to achieve.

Stuck in the middle

One of the joys of headphones is listening to the radio or being on the phone when out and about, putting in the steps. Last Sunday morning I found myself running along the River Thames listening to Zoe Strimpel on Radio 4’s A Point of View. She was talking about the difficulty of holding individual views that cross-cut tribes in our increasingly polarised society. I know how she feels. I’ve never fitted into any group, and have always recoiled at the idea of doing so: ever since university, I’ve been emotionally on the left, and intellectually on the right. My tribe is the human race, my lodestar kindness. The poor, demented harpies on social media could never understand that when periodically they aligned to swoop in attack, often wilfully misunderstanding what I was saying. I’ve just braved myself to throw out my A-level English notes on WB Yeats, who wrote in “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Stick that up your judgemental posteriors, social media trolls left and right.

In no man’s land

Early this year, I burnt out, with shingles and pneumonia and the relentless toll of university life, unable to stop till I announced I quit Buckingham. I have no idea where I will live in the future, nor what job I will do, but revel in uncertainty and freedom for the first time in my life.

First up, I’m off to a rented flat for three months overlooking the beach in Deal, to write a book for the 300th anniversary of the office of prime minister in April 2021 and present the accompanying Radio 4 series. Lots of interviews for it are with retired officials, horrified by cabinet being in the grip of a nihilistic cult. “We are being picked off one by one,” a serving senior official told me. “Well, why do you allow it?” I asked. “Because we’ve missed our moment to fight back,” they replied.

Future psychologists as much as historians will ask why, at the moment of our greatest combined economic, health and international peril in peacetime history, we tolerated the unpicking of the fabric of the British state, with nothing to put in its place?

Covid insights

I am drawing to the end of 70 consecutive evening podcasts with writers and thinkers in a “virtual fireside” series, the online version of the talks I ran in the drawing room at the vice-chancellor’s house (as before at Wellington and Brighton Colleges). Last week included George Alagiah, Anne Applebaum, AN Wilson and Marie-Elsa Bragg. The talks attract over 4,000 listeners. On Sunday night my National Archive Trust colleague, Olivette Otele, gave a searing talk about the slave trade and its ongoing impact. Hard to find a more balanced perspective.

Broken back education

Covid has laid bare much about our education system, including our ignoring of digital education, as I discuss in The Fourth Education Revolution, published next week. The futility of our obsession with tests and exams as the only way of validating a student has been revealed to many as never before. We have been wilfully ignoring student well-being and their character and holistic development. Ten years ago, Richard Layard, Geoff Mulgan and I formed Action for Happiness. With 180,000 members now, our time has come.

One of the consolations of growing older is that you see how former students progress. Tim Davie, now director-general at the BBC, was one of the sharpest, and also the kindest: I remember him from my production of Journey’s End in 1984, looking after cast and crew. I’ve just written a book with Nicky Morgan on character in education. It would be wonderful if she did become chair of the BBC, working alongside him: the most important director-general-chair combination since Alasdair Milne and Stuart Young in the mid-1980s.

Swire grapes

I’ve been captivated by the diaries of the shamelessly disloyal Sasha Swire. I will continue to admire the intelligence and courage of David Cameron, but I confess to being disappointed. He may or may not have boasted to her of Libya in 2011: “I’ve just won a war.” But the folly and terrible damage of that invasion is the real point. Cameron was the youngest PM for 198 years: too young, as seen in his leadership of the EU referendum. Great PMs, without exception, have a wisdom and a moral seriousness that he never fully acquired. l

Anthony Seldon’s books “May at 10: The Verdict” (Biteback Publishing) and “Public Schools and the Second World War” (Pen & Sword Military) are published this month

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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