Getty/Twitter screengrabs
Show Hide image

Toby Young's “caustic wit” isn’t funny and it sends a terrible message on sexual harassment

Young once wrote about having his “dick” up a colleague’s arse.

On New Year’s Day, Theresa May made a speech vowing to use the centenary of some women getting the vote as a chance to “eliminate all prejudice and discrimination”.

Hours earlier, it had emerged that the government had appointed Spectator columnist and free school founder Toby Young to its new university regulator, the Office for Students. His appointment has caused controversy — with questions about his suitability for the job ranging from his lack of experience in higher education, to his unpleasant comments about working-class students being “stains” at elite universities, and his seeming mocking of efforts to make schools more inclusive with wheelchair ramps.

However, his appointment has been defended by Boris Johnson — a former editor at The Spectator. Boris is also the brother of Jo Johnson, the minister responsible for giving Young this latest job. He declared that Young’s involvement would bring “caustic wit” to the role — because isn’t the ability to tell a good one-liner exactly what we want from our university regulatory boards?

So what does this caustic wit look like? Is it when Young’s writing about having his “dick” up a colleague’s arse, or is the term wit better used to describe discussing the size of her breasts?

Is it when his tweets congratulate an Oscar-winning director for having a wife with “big knockers”? Perhaps that joke became less funny when another Twitter user pointed out the woman in question was the director’s underage daughter.

Is it wit when Young tweets about the women on Comic Relief, and criticising those women he no longer deems attractive?

How about the LOLs we all had when he wrote a feature about the night he pretended to be a lesbian to try and trick women into snogging him. Maybe Young would accuse me of being a humourless feminist, but sexual contact by deception has never seemed very funny to me.

Toby Young has defended his tweets via a Facebook post, apologising for their ‘sophomoric’ content and claiming he is a supporter of women’s and LGBT rights (although not, it would seem, of teaching LGBT history in school to tackle homophobic bullying). He claims they have been misinterpreted to “paint him as heartless” (which I would disagree with — I’d argue his tweets make him sound sexist not heartless). Further, many of these tweets were recent — they are not from his “sophomoric years” and dug up from a hidden past. They are public statements made over the last few years.

Of course, in normal circumstances perhaps we could brush off these remarks as the ramblings of a boorish columnist who gets paid to be controversial. Young would not be the only journalist who has a different persona online. 

But these aren’t normal circumstances. This is the parachuting of a man who uses his columns and Twitter feed to make nasty and childish comments about women and girls into a role where he’s responsible for student welfare. It’s not defence from his fans that “wit” is a qualifier — this is a deeply serious role. Even if he does not really believe them, his public statements matter. And it’s all happening at a time when Westminster has been rocked by accusations of sexual harassment, and when universities are facing criticism for their failure to handle sexual violence on campus.

Let’s take the first scandal. Over the last few months, Theresa May has repeatedly made commitments to tackle sexual harassment in parliament in response to the multiple accusations against male MPs last autumn. Following the high profile resignations of Michael Fallon and Damian Green, May needs to rebuild women’s trust that she is serious about challenging inappropriate behaviour in Westminster. Young’s appointment does little to reassure that her government cares about women’s equality.

If May is truly serious about ending prejudice in 2018, her government should think twice about offering a job to a man who apparently revels in using his public platform to make discriminatory remarks. 

Then there’s the issue of sexual harassment in universities — which exists between students, and between students and staff. Last year, the Guardian reported that 300 claims against university staff had been made in six years, with that figure believed to be the tip of the iceberg. Sexual harassment and gender based violence is at epidemic levels in UK universities. In 2010, an NUS survey found that seven in 10 students were victims of serious sexual assault or serious physical assault. Meanwhile, a 2016 report by Universities UK found that sexual violence was rife.

Can a man who calls the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations a “moral panic” be trusted to care about the welfare of women students? A man who compares women concerned about harassment to “snowflakes” who “take offence at anything” isn’t going to show much empathy for the serious pressures female students are under not to report sexual harassment and violence within a university setting.

Young’s tweets about women sit alongside his comments about BAME university access and his mocking of efforts to improve inclusivity. If May and her government are truly committed to eliminating prejudice and discrimination, perhaps they could start by swapping this sneering sexist with a feminist who understands both higher education and equality. Women students — women everywhere — deserve nothing less.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.

Show Hide image

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”