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15 October 2016

With private schooling, Shami Chakrabarti is buying further advantage for her child

The week in media, from the pound plummet to the Guardian’s mea culpa and my Trump nightmare.

By Peter Wilby

Is Shami Chakrabarti a hypocrite? Newly elevated to the Lords and appointed  shadow attorney general, she tells Robert Peston on ITV that sending her son to a selective, fee-charging private school (Dulwich College in south-east London) while representing a party that opposes plans to revive state grammar schools is no more hypocritical than living in a £2.5m Grade II-listed house and eating “nice food”.

Yet there is a difference between enjoying the fruits of your success, from which your child naturally benefits, and deliberately buying further advantage for the child. Selective and fee-charging schools deprive the mass of children of the company of talented and advantaged peers who would raise standards across the board without significant detriment to themselves. Too many schools, deprived of even a few such children, struggle with multiple disadvantages. The divisions are unnatural and unfair.

Chakrabarti pleads that any parent wants to do the best for her child. I could accept this defence if she had rejected a palpably inadequate local comprehensive that could damage her child’s prospects and chosen one that was merely adequate, even if it involved moving house. Given the many advantages bestowed by his background, the boy would be fine. Instead, she chose the elite Dulwich, which charges day fees of nearly £19,000 a year (£39,000 for full boarders) to provide a gilded route to top universities. That won’t do.


Dawn of the Donald

In the latest US presidential debate, Hillary Clinton, in her prissiest tones, observed: “It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.” To which Trump interjected: “Because you’d be in jail.” The perfect timing drew a ripple of audience applause, which, in turn, prompted a solemn reprimand from a moderator.

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I fear that the episode – in which many commentators detected the whiff of a potential dictator – reinforced the view of Trump’s supporters that he is battling, on behalf of common folk, against pompous political and media elites. Even his scarcely credible comments about women, revealed in an 11-year-old video, may only have strengthened his support among Americans fed up with “political correctness”. The prominent Republicans who defected from Trump’s cause were probably dismissed in much of middle America as further examples of the despised elites.

Happily, Trump now seems unlikely to get support from much more than one in three voters. However, I still worry that some damning revelation about Clinton or her husband will drive many liberals to abstain or vote for the Green or Libertarian candidates. The tolerance threshold of American liberals for bad behaviour is far lower than that of American conservatives. That could yet prove Clinton’s undoing, leaving the way open for the nightmare of
a Trump presidency.


Sterling work

There were sterling crises in 1947, 1966, 1967 and 1976. These, all under Labour governments, were reported by newspapers as serious threats to the economy. Now we have another sterling crisis, with the currency falling so sharply that, at some airport exchanges, a pound buys less than one euro. Newspapers report that this is a “boost” for the economy. Spot the difference.


Progressive Fifties

According to new research from the British Film Institute, nearly 60 per cent of British films made in the past decade featured no named black characters and only 13 per cent cast a black actor in a leading role. A few weeks ago, I would have shrugged my shoulders – what’s new about racism in mass entertainment? – but a recent visit to an exhibition about 1950s Britain makes me think that, by now, one might have expected more.

In 1951, when the UK’s black population was probably less than 20,000, a British film, Pool of London, cast a black actor, Earl Cameron (born in Bermuda), in a central role. Remarkably, he was allowed a relationship with a white woman, though nothing so challenging as a romantic clinch.

The exhibition was at Compton Verney, an 18th-century country mansion in Warwickshire that has been converted into an art gallery. The 1950s in Britain are usually portrayed as dull and stagnant. This show presented the decade as one of popular aspiration, vibrant design and growing economic confidence. In 1959, when the economy grew by 7.2 per cent, the top 12 films at the box office were all British. The UK had more art schools per head of population than any country in the world. We even exported more motor vehicles than anybody else.


Traingate terminates

The Guardian has delivered an 1,850-word verdict on “traingate”, its story about how Jeremy Corbyn sat on the floor for a three-hour Virgin train journey. Paul Chadwick, the paper’s “global readers’ editor”, reports that, since staff found a seat for Corbyn within 45 minutes, the story had “the effect” of misleading readers, and failure to correct it quickly was “a significant error”. The Guardian treated “a kind of gonzo news release by two Corbyn supporters” as though it were conventional freelance journalism. The two supporters, however, “did not deal deceitfully with the Guardian”.

One may mock the quasi-judicial pomposity, the self-importance and the tone of “all well-meaning chaps; nobody terribly guilty”. But would any other daily paper, including the Mail, which reported the “humiliating apology” with particular glee, ever devote so many words to its own errors?


Ban the B-word

This column does not mention the B-word or the UK’s relationship with the large land mass just off its shores. Nor did last week’s. I shall try to keep it up.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

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This article appears in the 12 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge