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Toby Young’s father complex: the adolescent rebellion that never ended

At 54-years-old, the journalist seemingly still argues with his late father, the composer of Labour’s 1945 election manifesto, in his head.

By Peter Wilby

The trouble with Toby Young – whose history of sexist and homophobic writing has forced his resignation from the Office for Students, the newly created university regulator – is that, aged 54, he still has arguments with his late father in his head. He is the son of Lord Young of Dartington (originally Michael Young) who composed the 1945 Labour election manifesto, set up the Consumers’ Association and Which? magazine, pioneered an Open University prototype, and wrote the dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young senior, quite unlike his son, was diffident, ascetic, thoughtful and averse to the media spotlight. The household was driven by such compassion and high moral purpose that several homeless people were usually invited to Christmas lunch.

The youthful Toby embarked on an adolescent rebellion that never ended. He became frivolous, amoral – at one stage, he was more or less addicted to both alcohol and pornography – obsessed with celebrity gossip and extremely right-wing. He joined the school of what he calls “journalistic provocateurs”, found mostly in newspapers and magazines such as the Daily Telegraph and Spectator. Claiming to speak for the toiling masses, these writers outrage respectable opinion by mocking and denigrating women, homosexuals, disabled people, ethnic minorities and anybody on benefits.

A few years ago, Young told me he had “retired that persona”. He was the first to get government funding to set up a free school, which has been modestly successful, and now heads the New Schools Network which helps parents, teachers and others set up more such schools. He thinks (perhaps rightly) that Michael Young would have backed free schools and, I’d guess, sees his involvement as reparation for disgracing his father’s memory. But he still writes highly provocative columns and blogs, probably because he needs the money. I’m astonished the government appointed him to the regulator’s board and even more astonished he accepted. I can’t believe that Young senior, always suspicious of the overbearing state, would think universities need a regulator at all. If the argument between the two is still going on, Young junior is losing it.

In memoriam: Peter Preston

Peter Preston, who has died at 79, presided over some of the best writing in English newspapers during nearly 20 years as Guardian editor. His own writing, however, was inelegant, elliptical and convoluted. It was a weekly chore to read the media column in the Observer that he wrote during the last years of his life. One struggled through it only because he was exceptionally well-informed and perceptive.

Yet Preston was undeniably a great editor who transformed the Guardian’s appearance and widened its appeal. The combination of brilliant editing and terrible writing is surprisingly common. Two Fleet Street editors have confided to me (separately) that “I can’t write for toffee”. Even the Daily Mail’s Paul Dacre, not usually prone to self-doubt, once described himself as “a good writer, but not a great writer”. Editors need many things – ideas, a sharp news sense, energy, curiosity, and an instinct for what their readers are thinking are probably essential. So, on tabloids and increasingly on broadsheets, are technical skills of presentation, layout and headline writing. Good prose style is an optional extra, perhaps even a handicap. Preston, as editor, wrote many of the Guardian’s leaders. Since their meaning was reliably opaque – to this day, nobody is sure whether he supported Labour or the breakaway SDP in the early 1980s – they offended nobody.

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Fire and fury, signifying nothing

Donald Trump’s White House lurches from crisis to crisis. The president behaves like an impulsive, egotistic child. His grip on reality is weak. He cannot grasp complex issues. These “revelations” are in a newly published book by the journalist Michael Wolff. But, leaving aside marital sleeping arrangements and similar tittle-tattle, does it contain anything we didn’t know? Even if Trump’s core supporters – mostly the poor, uneducated and excluded – read Wolff’s book, they wouldn’t repent. Why should they care that the federal government isn’t functioning properly? Nothing Washington has done in the past 30 years has been of any help to them. They wanted somebody to put gelignite under the governing elite and they judged Trump the most likely to do so. They will be no more fazed by disarray in the White House than the Paris mob that stormed the Bastille was troubled by disarray in Louis XVI’s Versailles court. Disarray was exactly what they hoped for.

Rising from the Ashes

England’s 4-0 defeat in the latest Ashes series in Australia, following a 5-0 whitewash when the teams last met there four years ago, leads to demands for drastic solutions. High on the list is removing Test cricket from Sky and BT and restoring it to a free-to-view terrestrial channel so that ragged-trousered lads from impoverished inner-city families can be inspired to play the game and revitalise the national team.

Sadly, this won’t work unless international cricket can somehow be moved into a parallel socialist universe. English cricket needs the revenue from pay-TV broadcasters. Otherwise, its top players would accept the riches on offer from Twenty20 leagues around the world. Even if every country’s cricket board abolished such leagues, private promoters would step in. The England team would then be a second XI at best and even less inspiring than it is now.

Old age creeps up

A few days ago, my wife’s much younger brother drove us to Hampton Court Palace. He struggled to find a parking space and approached a hi-viz yellow figure for help. The figure peered into the back of the car and stared at us. “Elderly? Take a disabled spot.” We are both 73 and (at the time of writing) physically fit. Warning to younger readers: old age creeps up even before you feel old. 

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief