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Why are we asking which way Churchill would have voted in the EU referendum?

Summoning Tory ghosts, Toby Young’s school climbdown and Chatsworth’s shabby show.

By Peter Wilby

Unable to deal with abstractions such as sovereignty, internationalism and human rights, the British pursue their arguments by calling for support from ancestral ghosts. In the EU referendum campaign, therefore, David Cameron and Boris Johnson wrestle over which side Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher would have taken. Given that most politicians’ statements can, like the Bible, be quoted to support almost anything – even Donald Trump has sometimes expressed opinions that look quite left-wing – this is a peculiarly fruitless exercise.

In 1940 Churchill proposed full political union with France and, after the war, supported the move towards European unity. Though he, like the 1945-51 Labour government, kept us out of the first step, the European Coal and Steel Community – and seemed, like his protégé Anthony Eden, not to envisage Britain joining anything – there is no record of him opposing Harold Macmillan’s later attempts to join. As the British empire declined, many imperialists such as Leo Amery, another Tory ancestral ghost who opposed prewar appeasement of Hitler, and Duncan Sandys, Churchill’s son-in-law, became ardent Europeans. They took the pragmatic view that, once it lacked an empire, Britain, a small country, should be part of a larger grouping.

Those are the facts, but I don’t presume to draw conclusions about what the deceased would say if they were alive now. A few months ago, nobody knew what Johnson’s opinions on Europe were. So how can we know the views of the dead?

Is the lady for turning?

Has Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, really performed a U-turn on plans to turn all state schools into academies by 2022? It looks more like a minor diversion to me, taking A-roads to her destination rather than motorways. On her revised route, all a local authority’s schools will be forced into academy status if one of two conditions apply. The first is when the authority “consistently fails to meet a minimum performance threshold across its schools”. The second is when the authority “can no longer viably support” schools because so many in the area are already academies. Ministers will presumably define “consistently”, “minimum performance”, “across” and “viably support” in due course.

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According to an analysis by the CentreForum think tank, 122 out of 152 councils could fall foul of one of the two conditions. No doubt ministers will use them to strip all Labour councils of schools, which is the main point of academies, while leaving alone a few Tory councils supported by vociferous local Tory MPs.

Young and foolish

A true U-turn comes from the bumptious right-wing journalist Toby Young, founder of the first free school, West London. Young has slagged off state schools in newspaper columns for years. Now, after five years running a school and getting through a bewildering variety of senior staff, including three head teachers, Young is stepping down as the three-day-a-week chief executive of the trust that runs West London: “I hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better.” It was “arrogant”, he says, to think “high expectations” and “a knowledge-based curri­culum” (his school uses one crafted by an octogenarian American) would create successful schools just like that. Things turned out not to be as easy as he thought.

Letts bygones be bygones

In an unusual week for journalistic regrets, the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts apologises (sort of) for mocking Andrew Marr, stricken by a stroke in 2013, as “Captain-Hop-Along . . . throwing his arm about like a tipsy conductor”. The Stroke Association protested that “a stroke is not a joke” and Marr’s wife, Jackie Ashley, sarcastically tweeted “what a great signal to disabled people”. In an email to Roy Greenslade, the Guardian’s media commentator, Letts admitted that he had “perhaps” erred “on the wrong side of the taste line”, but I see no apology in the Mail or on its website.

Letts and the Mail have form. He once mocked a woman on the TUC platform for wearing a funny hat. She was undergoing chemotherapy. He described an MP as “stiff-necked”. The man has dystonia, a neurological disorder which causes, er, a stiff neck. Most notoriously, the late Lynda Lee-Potter, another Mail columnist, laid in to Labour’s Mo Mowlam for letting her looks deteriorate so that she resembled “an only slightly effeminate Geordie trucker”. Mowlam, it was later revealed, had a brain tumour, which eventually killed her.

Big house, little effort

To Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, attracted by an exhibition on the Grand Tour of Europe, the 18th-century equivalent of the gap year. We realised our visit was a bad idea when an attendant, asked where we might find the exhibition, said, “Oh, sort of everywhere. They’ve got a few old things out and put them round the house.” Though there were some fascinating items, including a letter from the mother of Lord James Cavendish, son of the 2nd Duke of Devonshire, lamenting reports of his bad behaviour, the exhibition offered no sense of narrative or coherence.

Chatsworth offers beauty, historical interest and a magnificent natural setting. But it brings out the class warrior in me. The large majority of its 126 rooms are occupied by the Cavendish family, still living comfortably thanks to complex trust arrangements. Surely they could spare a few rooms for a proper exhibition.

No one hates us . . .

I confess that even I, a native of Leicester who prefers rugby union, am enthralled by their Premier League triumph. But I don’t like the way everybody has now fallen in love with Leicester. The club will truly belong in the game’s elite only when it is hated as widely as Chelsea or Manchester City. That’s another 5,000/1 shot.

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This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump