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Toby Young
Thursday 15th February 2018

Peter Rabbit ‘allergy bullying’? I’m allergic to all this constant outrage


I’m often surprised by what people are offended by. Like the makers of Peter Rabbit, the new animated feature from Sony Pictures, I could not have predicted that a scene in which Peter and his friends pelt another character with blackberries in the hope of triggering an allergic reaction would provoke a storm of protest. Yet that is what has happened. A petition demanding an apology has attracted thousands of signatures, a charity called Kids with Food Allergies has condemned the film as ‘harmful to our community’ and #boycottpeterrabbit started trending on Twitter shortly after the film was released in America.

I wonder how many people objecting to this scene have actually seen the film? Do they realise that the character being subjected to the blackberry barrage is Tom McGregor, nephew of Mr McGregor? As anyone familiar with Beatrix Potter will know, Peter and his friends were terrorised by Mr McGregor, who tried to catch them so he could bake them in a pie, the fate that befell Peter’s father. Surely, if you’re trapped in a walled garden with the nephew of a notorious serial killer – a young man who is trying to kill you and, for all you know, eat you – it’s morally acceptable to exploit his weakness in order to escape? I would have thought that inducing anaphylaxis is well within the rules of engagement in such a situation. After all, it won’t actually kill you provided you have an EpiPen to hand, which, as it happens, Tom McGregor does in this version of the story. (To read more, click here.)

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Thursday 8th February 2018

In today’s brave new world, fat is a high-tech issue


I have a confession to make: I’m a yo-yo dieter. For the past ten years, I’ve lost a bit of weight in January and then spent the rest of the year putting it back on. Problem is, I’ve been adding more than I’ve been taking away, with the result that at the end of last year I was 12st 13lb. That might not sound like much to the average Spectator reader, but I’m a bit of a short-arse — 5ft 8½in if you must know (and, yes, I’m aware that adding that ½ is a bit tragic). That meant my body mass index was 27, which, according to the World Health Organisation, is officially overweight.

In one of Clive James’s books of memoirs — volume two, I think — he wrote that you don’t gradually become fat. Rather, you just wake up one day and discover you’re a fat person. That’s how I felt on 1 January. It didn’t help that I had stupidly bought my only good suit in the sales more than a year ago when I was a svelte 12st. Fastening the top button of my trousers involved sucking in my stomach and then hoping nothing went pop when I breathed out. I felt like a sack of potatoes with a rubber band round the middle. (To read more, click here.)

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Friday 2nd February 2018

Why television means so much more to Boomers than Millennials


When I tell my children about my own childhood, they often express disbelief about how wretched it was. No Xbox? No YouTube? No Snapchat? What on earth did I do with myself? But the thing they cannot get their heads around is that I had only three television channels to choose from. They live in a world in which practically every TV series ever made is available at the click of a mouse —and because they’ve always lived in that world they have no trouble navigating the dizzying array. They binge on certain shows — Merlin, Modern Family, The IT Crowd — and dip in and out of others, but it never feels as if they care that much. It’s more as if they’re selecting background music while they do something else — and they often are doing something else, such as communicating with their friends on their phones.

By contrast, I attach a huge amount of significance to what I watch and I think that’s because of the meagre television diet I had to subsist on as a child. On Fridays after school in 1973, your choice was limited to Record Breakers on BBC One or Lost in Space on ITV and because those were the only two options — BBC Two was given over to the Open University — you could classify people according to which one they preferred. I was a Lost in Space person, obviously, and friendship groups were, in part, based on what your favourite programmes were. I don’t think I had a single friend who watched Blue Peter. If someone admitted to liking Blue Peter it was a sign that they were a goody two-shoes, a country mouse.

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Thursday 25th January 2018

I've been unmanned by a tennis brute in bright pink


As regular readers will know, Caroline has developed a fanatical interest in tennis and is currently captain of the ladies second team at the local sports club. I have written before about how her new-found passion has turned me into a tennis widower — she is out two or three nights a week during the high season — but I thought that was the extent of its impact on our marriage. Turns out I was wrong. The nights she spends at home with me watching television are even more emasculating than the nights she spends out.

Why do I say this? Because the only thing she wants to watch is tennis. There was a time when I used to have to defend our monthly subscription to Sky Sports, with Caroline dismissing it as a needless extravagance. Not any more. She likes watching matches from start to finish, too, which means no time for Premier League games. Even during those rare moments when a tennis match isn’t being played somewhere in the world, she still won’t surrender the remote. She has a vast backlog of games she has recorded and will happily sit there watching them, even if they were played months ago. (To read more, click here.)

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Saturday 20th January 2018

Why my pet dog Leo had to go


Readers may recall that the Young family welcomed a new addition to the household about two years ago: a Hungarian Vizsla named Leo. He turned out to be incredibly high-maintenance. He demanded to be walked twice a day and invariably did something unspeakable, such as rolling around in fox excrement — or, worse, start eating it. Even after running the length and breadth of Richmond Park he would still have enough energy to tear around the house like a Tasmanian Devil, leaving havoc in his wake. I was delighted, obviously. I hoped he’d be an inexhaustible source of material for this column.

Then Leo did something really bad and the first thing Caroline said before she told me about it was: ‘You can’t write about this in The Spectator.’ After a moment’s pause, she added: ‘In fact, don’t write about him ever again.’ So I have been unable to tell the story of what happened to Leo — until now. A year later Caroline has finally relented. (To read more, click here.)

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Saturday 20th January 2018

Kids addicted to their screens? Don’t worry, there’s an app for that


Over Christmas, Caroline and I finally snapped about the amount of time our children were spending on their screens. If they weren’t watching Logan Paul vlogs on YouTube, they were on Snapchat or playing video games. I couldn’t get them to read anything — not even one of the wonderful How to Train Your Dragon books — and attempts to persuade them to go on walks were met with fierce resistance. Towards the end of the holidays they began to look and act like drug addicts — pallid complexions, easily distracted, short-tempered. Perhaps they really were addicts.

Any parent who has tried to limit their child’s screen time will be familiar with the standard objection: ‘But Dad, you’re always on your screen.’ That’s true, but the difference is that I’m on a Kindle reading a book. In the past, I scoffed at bibliophiles who claimed that something was lost when we switched to reading on screens, but I now realise they were right. We’ve lost the ability to set a good example to our children. Kids brought up in houses surrounded by books are supposed to have an advantage over those who aren’t, but it’s hard to see how children benefit if those books are never opened. As far as mine are concerned, Mummy and Daddy are just on screens too. (To read more, click here.)

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Saturday 20th January 2018

The real reason I’m a target for the twitchfork mob


Shortly after midnight on 1 January my phone began to vibrate repeatedly. Happy New Year messages from absent friends? No, I was trending on Twitter — the third-most popular topic on the network after #NYE. The cause was a story about me in the next day’s Guardian that had just gone live. The headline read: ‘Toby Young to help lead government’s new universities regulator.’

Now, that is wildly overstating it. I’ve been appointed to the board of the Office for Students (OfS), the new body created by merging the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the Office for Fair Access — one of 15 people! But the Guardian’s spin was enough to ruin many people’s New Year’s Eve, or so they claimed on Twitter. The thrust of about half the tweets — they were coming thick and fast — was the news that I’d been appointed to ‘lead’ a public body had destroyed what little hope they had that 2018 would be any better than 2017, what with Trump in the White House, Theresa May clinging on after the general election, Article 50 being triggered, etc. (To read more, click here.)

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Friday 12th January 2018

Once more unto the breach


I naively thought that if I resigned from the Office for Students, stepped down from the Fulbright Commission and apologised for the offensive things I’d said on Twitter the witch-hunt would end. In fact, it has reached a new, frenzied pitch. The mob’s blood lust is up and it won’t rest until it has completely destroyed me.

Things took an ugly turn yesterday when Private Eye published a story saying I had attended ‘a secretive conference’ at University College London last year organised by Dr James Thompson, an Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at UCL. This is an annual affair known as the London Conference on Intelligence. It then went on to summarise some of the more outlandish papers presented at this event in previous years – not in the year I attended, mind ¬– such as a paper arguing that racial differences in penis length predict different levels of parental care. It pointed out that in 2015 and 2016 this conference had been attended by someone described by the Southern Poverty Law Centre as a ‘white nationalist and extremist’. It even dug up a blog post by one of the attendees in which he tried to justify child rape. It described all these people as my ‘friends’.

Needless to say, this article has led to a deluge of grotesque smears, on everything from the Canary to Russia Today. (The Russia Today article is headlined: ‘Shamed Toby Young ‘attended secret eugenics conference with neo-Nazis and paedophiles’.) More alarmingly, seemingly respectable, mainstream newspapers have followed up these stories – slightly toned down, of course, but with the same implication: that I am a neo-Nazi, an apologist for paedophilia and God knows what else.

So here are the facts. Yes, I went to the 2017 London Conference on Intelligence – I popped in for a few hours on a Saturday and sat at the back. I did not present a paper or give a lecture or appear on a platform or anything remotely like that. I had not met any of the other people in the lecture room before, save for Dr Thompson, and was unfamiliar with their work. I was completely ignorant of what had been discussed at the same event in previous years. All I knew was that some of them occupied the weird and whacky outer fringe of the world of genetics.

My reason for attending was because I had been asked – as a journalist – to give a lecture by the International Society of Intelligence Researchers at the University of Montreal later in the year and I was planning to talk about the history of controversies provoked by intelligence researchers. I thought the UCL conference would provide me with some anecdotal material for the lecture – and it did. To repeat, I was there as a journalist researching a talk I had to give a few months later and which was subsequently published.

Yes, I heard some people express some pretty odd views. But I don’t accept that listening to someone putting forward an idea constitutes tacit acceptance or approval of that idea, however unpalatable. That’s the kind of reasoning that leads to people being no-platformed on university campuses.

In an article for the Guardian, the University of Montreal conference, where I did actually speak, is described as ‘similar’ to the UCL conference. Complete nonsense. It was a super-respectable, three-day affair held at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Numerous world-renowned academics spoke at it, including Steven Pinker, the famous Harvard professor, and James Flynn, the political scientist who has given his name to the ‘Flynn effect’. In 2015, the same lecture I gave – the Constance Holden Memorial Address — was given by Dr Alice Dreger, a well-regarded author and academic.

You can see the website for the Montreal conference, and the roster of speakers, here. Virtually every one is a tenured professor. To reiterate, that’s the conference I spoke at, not the one in London.

Polly Toynbee joined the lynch mob earlier today – or, rather, re-appeared in the lynch mob – in a column headlined: ‘With his views on eugenics, why does Toby Young still have a job in education?’ In the column, she repeats the smear in the headline, calling me a ‘eugenicist’ – again, the implication being that I’m some kind of neo-Nazi. In case you miss the point, she says I’m on the ‘far right’ and I think ‘the poor are inferior’. (Bit rich, considering Polly sent her children to expensive private schools and mine are all at state schools, but still.)

Polly’s ‘eugenicist’ slur – which has been thrown at me by virtually the entire Parliamentary Labour Party – is based on a deliberate misunderstanding of an article I wrote for an Australian periodical in 2015 called Quadrant and is then ‘backed up’ by Polly by selectively quoting from it. She also throws in the fact that I attended a ‘secretive eugenics conference’, etc., etc.

In that article for Quadrant – which you can read here – I discuss an idea first presented by Julian Savulescu, a professor of philosophy at Oxford, which he summarises as follows:

Imagine you are having in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and you produce four embryos. One is to be implanted. You are told that there is a genetic test for predisposition to scoring well on IQ tests (let’s call this intelligence). If an embryo has gene subtypes (alleles) A, B there is a greater than 50% chance it will score more than 140 if given an ordinary education and upbringing. If it has subtypes C, D there is a much lower chance it will score over 140. Would you test the four embryos for these gene subtypes and use this information in selecting which embryo to implant?

Now, we haven’t yet developed the ‘genetic test’ referred to by Savulescu, and it’s possible that we may never do so because: (a) intelligence may not be genetically-based; and (b) even if it is, we may never discover all the subs-sets and combinations of genes associated with it. But what if it is and we do? Science fiction today becomes science fact tomorrow. In my Quadrant article, I discuss an obvious risk associated with the technology described by Savulescu, namely, that if it is ever invented, the first people to take advantage of it will be the rich so they can give their children an even greater advantage than they currently enjoy. In short, it will make inequality even worse.

My solution to this problem, set out in the article, is that this technology, if it comes on stream, should be banned for everyone except the very poor. I wasn’t proposing sterilisation of the poor or some fiendish form of genetic engineering so they could have babies with ‘high IQ genes’ or anything like that. Just a form of IVF that would be available on the National Health to the least well off, should they wish to take advantage of it. Not mandatory, just an option, a way of giving their children a head start. I was thinking about how to reduce the risk that this new technology will exacerbate existing levels of inequality – how to use it to reduce inequality. I described my proposal as ‘a form of egalitarianism’.

It is for this that Polly Toynbee – who obviously hasn’t read the article – has labelled me a ‘eugenicist’.

You think I’m mischaracterising my article? Dressing it up to make it sound less like an extract from Mein Kampf? Don’t take my word for it. Read this summary of my argument by Iain Brassington, who writes a bio-ethics blog for the Journal of Medical Ethics. After marvelling at all the people who’ve called me a ‘eugenicist’ (including Vince Cable, no less), he points out that what I’m suggesting ‘is in many ways, fairly unremarkable’.

What’s notable from a bio-ethicist’s perspective is just how familiar the arguments being presented here are. It’s hard to read Young’s article without thinking of a good chunk of the work on genetic screening, and on enhancement, that’s been done over the past few years... it’s pretty standard stuff in seminar discussions about screening; and nor is there anything that is obviously morally beyond the pale.

Hear that Polly? Nothing that is obviously morally beyond the pale. He thinks I’m wrong about lots of stuff, by the way – just not a Nazi. Read his piece. It’s very good.

So that’s the long and the short of it. Because, as a journalist, I went and had a look at a strange conference being held at UCL – and because I discussed a familiar bio-ethics problem in an obscure Australian periodical – I’m some kind of ‘far right’ nut job who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near kids, let alone schools.

It has been suggested – in the Guardian and elsewhere – that the reason I stepped down from the Office for Students is because I knew the Private Eye article was coming out and my number was up. That’s balls. I said some stupid, puerile things on Twitter late at night of which I’m thoroughly ashamed and for which I’ve unreservedly apologised. It became clear that having said those things, I couldn’t serve on the Office for Students without causing an almighty stink that would render it unable to do its job. But I’m not remotely ashamed of having attended the London Conference on Intelligence.

I believe in free speech. That includes defending the right of researchers and academics, however beyond the pale, to present their findings to other researchers in their field at academic conferences so they can be scrutinised and debated. If you believe someone is putting forward a theory that is wrong, unsupported by the evidence, you should want their theories to be exposed to scrutiny, not swept under the carpet. No-platforming people whose ideas you disapprove of is self-defeating.

That’s been my lifelong credo – and I had hoped to bring it to bear in the Office for Students, which has been tasked with protecting academic freedom. That is not to be and I have accepted that. But enough already. Just because I sat at the back in a lecture room at UCL one afternoon, scribbling away in my reporter’s notepad, while some right-wing fruitcakes held forth about ‘dysgenics’ does not make me a Nazi. If it did, then the fact that Jeremy Corbyn regularly attended a conference run by Holocaust-denier Paul Eisen would make him an anti-Semite.

None of the views expressed in this article necessarily reflect the views of the organisations Toby is linked with – except the Spectator

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Wednesday 3rd January 2018

The Office for Students


I thought I’d post something here about the controversy surrounding my appointment to the Office for Students.

It began when the Guardian published a story at 0.01 on 1st January 2018 headlined: ‘Toby Young to help lead government’s new universities regulator’.

That was slightly misleading in that I’ll only be helping to lead the OfS in the sense that I’ll be one of 15 members of the board. Not the Chair, not the CEO. But lots of sleuths on Twitter thought they detected at attempt by the Government to ‘bury bad news’ by releasing the story of the final six appointments to the OfS board a minute after midnight on New Year’s Eve.

In fact, the announcement was embargoed until then because the OfS didn’t come into legal force until midnight on New Year’s Eve. The headline on the release was: ‘Office for Students comes into force’.

But once people on Twitter got it into their heads that the Government was trying to slip the news past them that I was going to be 'helping to lead' the new universities regulator, they decided they jolly well weren’t going to take that lying down. Five minutes after midnight, I was trending.

Most of the initial objections to my appointment focused on my lack of experience in the university sector, to which I plead guilty. I haven’t worked at a uni since I abandoned my PhD at Cambridge in 1990. I’d done a small amount of undergrad supervision for the previous two years to make ends meet.

But that doesn’t disqualify me from serving on the OfS’s board. It’s customary for regulators to include some people with direct experience of working in the sectors they regulate and some people with other kinds of experience and the OfS is no different. If it just consisted of university professors the sector could be accused of marking its own homework.

I think I qualify for the role in three respects.

First, the OfS has taken on the responsibilities of the Office for Fair Access and I’ve been a passionate advocate of widening participation since the mid-80s when, as a state school boy at Oxford, I first started visiting sixth forms in deprived parts of the country to try to persuade students to apply to high-tariff universities.

Since then I’ve co-founded four free schools – more than 33% of the pupils at the secondary are on the pupil premium and we reserve 20% of the places at the primaries for the same – and I now run a charity, New Schools Network, which works with high-quality providers hoping to set up good new schools in areas of educational under-performance.

I’ve also served as a Fulbright Commissioner since 2013 and support the work the Commission does with the Sutton Trust helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds secure scholarships to study at American universities.

Some people have dredged up a news report from 2015 about an essay I wrote in 1987 in which I talked about ‘Stains’ at Oxford, with the reporter wrongly claiming ‘Stains’ is a euphemism for grammar school boys. It isn’t. Indeed, it would have been odd for me to write something disparaging grammar school boys at Oxford since that’s what I was myself.

Second, the OfS has been tasked with making it easier for new providers to enter the higher education sector and secure university accreditation. As someone who has been at the coal-face of setting up innovative new schools, I hope my experience of that bit of the public education sector will be relevant.

Third, the OfS will have some responsibility for making sure universities uphold free speech on their campuses. That means defending the right of students, academic staff and visitors with unorthodox views to speak freely without being howled down by mobs of political extremists.

I’ve been a defender of free speech since reading JS Mill’s On Liberty aged 16. As Mill says, ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’

Given that defending free speech will be one of the OfS’s priorities, there’s a certain irony in people saying I’m ‘unfit’ to serve on its board because of politically incorrect things I’ve said in the past.

Some of those things have been sophomoric and silly – and I regret those – but some have been deliberately misinterpreted to try and paint me as a caricature of a heartless Tory toff. For the record, I’m a supporter of women’s rights and LGBT rights. Indeed, I was a supporter of gay marriage, defended the policy in the Sun on Sunday and debated Nigel Farage on the topic in the Daily Telegraph.

I’m also a defender of teaching children with disabilities in mainstream schools. I have an older brother with learning disabilities and I’m a patron of the residential care home he’s lived in for 20 years.

But I am a Tory, obviously, and for some people that alone is enough to disqualify me from serving on the OfS’s board. That’s plainly nonsense. If the OfS is to do its job properly it should include people from both sides of the political divide, left and right.

More generally, I think it would be a shame if people who have said controversial things in the past, or who hold heterodox opinions, are prohibited from serving on public bodies. I’m a middle-aged white male so don’t tick any of the standard diversity boxes. But if public bodies are to make good decisions, they need to be intellectually diverse, as well as diverse in other respects.

For that reason, I very much hope the reception my appointment has received doesn’t put off other right-of-centre mavericks from applying for similar positions.

Finally, a heartfelt thanks to all those people who’ve come to my defence in the last couple of days. I’ve always tried to stick up for people when they’re experiencing two minutes of hate, partly because I think, ‘There, but for the grace of God…’

So thank you Boris Johnson, Kemi Badenoch, Michael Gove, Priti Patel, Sir Anthony Seldon, Jenni Russell, Fraser Nelson, Merryn Somerset Web, Nick Boles, Laura McInerney, Phillip Blond, Maria Caulfield, Jesse Norman, James Kirkup, Sarah Vine, Guido Fawkes, Mary Curnock Cook, Iain Martin, Claire Lehman, Piers Morgan, Stephen Daisley, Mark Lehain, James Croft, Rob Colville, Simon Dudley, Jonathan Simons, Adrian Hilton, Kirstie Allsopp, Adam Perkins, Dennis Sewell, Charlotte Gill, James Delingpole, Adrian Wooldridge, Ryan Bourne, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Jamie Martin, Nick Timothy and all the rest. It means more to me than I can say.

Let me assure the people that work in England’s universities that I have enormous respect for everything you do. It’s because of your hard-work and professionalism that our universities are among the best in the world. I hope to do whatever I can, in however small a way, to help you maintain that status.

Happy New Year.

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Tuesday 26th December 2017

The ethics of cognitive enhancement


I first met Richard Haier, whom Claire Lehman interviewed recently in Quillette, at the annual conference of the International Society of Intelligence Researchers (ISIR) in Montreal last July. I told him I was hoping to write a book about the public policy implications of the growing weight of evidence that intelligence is genetically based and he said he had already written a book in which he touched on that subject. He then gave me a copy of The Neuroscience of Intelligence.

Not only is Haier’s book an excellent summary of the progress we have made to date in understanding the science of intelligence, it also looks ahead to a future in which various technologies arising out of our improved understanding may be developed to enhance IQ and considers some of the ethical questions that gives rise to.

Haier makes no bones about his own enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement. “Higher intelligence is better than lower intelligence; no one seriously disagrees,” he writes in Chapter Five. “All intelligence research speaks to the goal of enhancement, either directly or indirectly. This is a worthy goal; just ask the parents of a child with low IQ or a cognitive disability. It is also a primary goal of all parents for their children whether articulated so bluntly or not. There may be some people who do not care to be smarter, but I do not know any of them.” (To read more, click here.)

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