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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Thursday 27th March 2014

Well-briefed Nick Clegg wins on points as Nigel Farage plays to the gallery

Well, that was a tad disappointing. There was no "gotcha" moment, no knockout blow. After weeks of build-up it felt a bit anti-climatic. Nigel Farage occasionally got hot under the collar – and he looked pretty sweaty after the first 15 minutes – and Clegg seemed a little flustered at times. But it never really sparked into a proper, full-blown row.

Farage started strong, getting his best shots in early, but faded as the hour wore on. Clegg, by contrast, got better in the second half. Clegg’s weakest moment was near the beginning when Nigel confronted him with the Lib Dem’s own leaflet calling for an EU referendum. Clegg's explanation for why he'd changed his mind – or hadn't changed his mind, if you follow his argument – involved a reference to the leaflet's "small print", hardly a good rebuttal. Isn’t Clegg aware that “the small print” is a synonym for weasel words? That will have confirmed many people's view of the Lib Dems and Clegg in particular as fundamentally untrustworthy. (To read more, click here.)


Wednesday 26th March 2014

The Conservatives should become the party of beer, bingo and Lamborghinis

In The Lion and the Unicorn, George Orwell wrote that the most salient fact about England’s liberal elite was “their severance from the common culture of the country”. By "the common culture" Orwell was thinking of things like beer and bingo, as well as smutty humour, the tabloid press and a distrust of the state and its officials. What connects these things, according to Orwell, is that they all have a whiff of rebelliousness about them, something that appeals to the Sancho Panza in all of us rather than the Don Quixote – “your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul”. These are the things ordinary people genuinely enjoy, as opposed to what they ought to enjoy. In indulging in these simple, unpretentious pleasures, they are making use of their freedom to spend their money on whatever they like, not what various authority figures think they should spend it on. "One thing one notices if one looks directly at the common people, especially in the big towns, is that they are not puritanical," wrote Orwell. "They are inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world." (To read more, click here.)


Thursday 20th March 2014

I was all for press freedom. Then I heard from Gary Lineker...

It looks as though Hacked Off has finally won its three-year battle for tighter regulation of the press. Why do I say this? Because on Tuesday it published a list of 200 people who agree with them. These weren’t just the usual suspects – Hugh Grant, Rowan Williams, Richard Curtis. No, these were, in Hacked Off’s words, “the leading figures in literature, arts, science, academia, human rights and the law”. Not [itals] some [itals] leading figures, mind you, but [itals] the [itals] leading figures.

So who are these luminaries? One of them is Zoe Margolis, described as an “author”. Presumably she’s one of [itals] the [itals] “leading figure in literature” so I looked her up on Amazon. Turns out her latest book is called [itals] Girl With a One Track Mind: Exposed: Further Revelations of a Sex Blogger [itals]. Doesn’t sound like a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature to me, but what do I know? If Hacked Off have got Zoe on their side, the defenders of press freedom might as well give up now. (To read more, click here.)


Sunday 16th March 2014

Could a four-year-old thriller unlock the mystery of flight MH370?

As the story of MH370 unfolds, becoming more mysterious by the day, I keep being reminded of a thriller I read four years ago. Bolt Action, a novel by Charlie Charters, is set on board exactly the same plane – not just a Boeing 777, but a 777-200ER. In addition, the plane belongs to the national carrier of a Muslim state, though in Bolt Action's case it's Pakistan not Malaysia.

The thriller poses the question: What if a plane is hijacked but no one can regain control because the cockpit door is locked? Since 9/11 all passenger jets have bolt armatures fitted to the cockpit door (the Bolt Action reference in the title). The door remains locked during flight and it's virtually impossible for anyone to get into the cockpit unless the pilot or co-pilot chooses to open it. The locked door is designed to withstand a hand grenade being detonated right outside, a 9mm clip being fired into it at point blank range – even an axe attack. In Bolt Action, the terrorist is a member of the cabin crew, which allows him to access the cockpit where he poisons the pilot and co-pilot, and then bolts the door. The flight in question is from Manchester to New York, but the hijacker has no intention of landing the plane. Rather, his aim is to force the US Air Force to shoot the plane down, martyring everyone on board and advancing the cause of global jihad. The main action of the novel concerns the efforts of Tristie Merritt, an ex-special forces soldier, to get into the cockpit. (To read more, click here.)


Friday 14th March 2014

Tony Benn was a great advertisement for classical liberal education

I was sad to hear about the death of Tony Benn. Not because I shared any of his political beliefs, obviously – he was wrong about everything, apart from the European Union – but because he was such a good advertisement for a classical liberal education. Not only was he a great public speaker, but he wrote well, too, and he always backed up his arguments with a wealth of historical and literary knowledge. His socialism was born of his immersion in the Western canon, particularly the work of British radicals like John Milton, William Blake and Thomas Paine.

To a great extent, then, Tony Benn's political views were formed by his education at Westminster and New College, Oxford. In the past 50 years or so, it's become fashionable to dismiss this type of education– "liberal" in the traditional sense of the word – as "elitist" or "old-fashioned". The great books of the Western canon, we're told, were all written by "dead white European males" and, as such, promote an "imperialist", "ethnocentric" view of the world. Much better to teach a broader range of books, with many more written by women and non-whites, or – better yet – dispense with the teaching of knowledge altogether and replace it with a curriculum based on "21st-century skills". (To read more, click here.)


Thursday 13th March 2014

Death brings out everyone's inner Mary Whitehouse

Shortly after Bob Crow’s death was announced on Tuesday, Nigel Farage sent the following tweet: “Sad at the death of Bob Crow. I liked him and he also realised working class people were having their chances damaged by the EU.”

Cue a predictable storm of Twitter outrage. Farage was attacked for trying to make political capital out of Crow’s death. The following tweet, from the FT’s Ben Fenton, was fairly typical: “Bit off-key for @Nigel_Farage to link a tribute to Bob Crow to his own anti-EU rhetoric, I think.”

Now, some of those criticising Farage clearly had a political axe to grind. They were claiming Farage had broken an unwritten rule that they clearly don’t believe in themselves. I wonder how many of those same people attacked Bob Crow for saying he hoped Margaret Thatcher would “rot in hell” just after she died? Not many I suspect. In other words, they were guilty of precisely the same lapse in taste – using someone’s death as an excuse to promote their own agenda – as they were accusing Farage of. (To read more, click here.)


Thursday 13th March 2014

We cannot let Michael Gove be beaten by the Blob

Is Michael Gove in trouble? That's the subject of the cover story in today's Spectator which includes an interview with the Education Secretary by children's author Anthony Horowitz. Horowitz is a fan but he's left feeling a bit underwhelmed. "His vision should be uplifting but I cannot say that I particularly enjoyed my encounter with Michael Gove," he concludes. If you add this to Libby Purves's piece attacking Mrs Gove in the Times on Monday (££), Benedict Brogan's column on Tuesday ("Why are the Tories starting to grumble about Mr Gove?") and the row about free school meals on Wednesday, it's starting to look like a bad week for the Education Secretary.

Before we go any further, let's remind ourselves what Gove has achieved (To read more, click here:)


Monday 10th March 2014

How did the 'Barraco Barner' beautician get 17 GCSEs? Ask Labour and the teaching unions

I'm speechless. Not that a 20-year-old beautician from Blackpool thinks "Barraco Barner" is "our" President, but that she has 17 GCSEs. Anyone reading this will think that's a misprint – or a factual error – but no. The last Labour government dumbed down GCSEs to such an extent that this is all too plausible. Under Labour you could get a BTEC in Hair and Beauty worth four GCSEs at grade C or above. This government has now done away with these "qualifications", but they mushroomed under Labour, all so the people in charge could point to the results each year and claim our education system was "improving". Some of them, such as the GCSE in ICT (now scrapped), were so easy it was virtually impossible to fail.

I'm not blaming Gemma Worrall. The fact that she took so many GCSEs indicates she had an appetite to learn and her tweet, for all its shortcomings, does suggest a willingness to engage with international politics. No, Gemma was failed by the last government, which did nothing to address the appalling inadequacies of our public education system. I still cannot believe that Tristram Hunt has the temerity to criticise Michael Gove for not doing enough to address the lack of literacy and numeracy skills in school-leavers when, in 2009, nearly a quarter of children leaving school were illiterate and innumerate. (See this article in the TES for chapter and verse on this.) (To read more, click here.)


Thursday 6th March 2014

In defence of faith schools

An email popped into my inbox on Tuesday morning urging me to join a “fair admissions campaign” that’s been launched by a couple of mums in Shepherd’s Bush. Their children are at a local primary school and they’re angry that they won’t be able to get them into any of the local faith schools. “Two of our children are in Year 5 and we feel offended by the fact that out of 11 secondary schools in the borough almost half will put them at the very bottom of the waiting list due to our ‘wrong’ beliefs,” they write.

Now, I’m probably among the dozen or so local residents least likely to join this campaign but, to be fair, I don’t think they singled me out. Rather, they sent the same email to hundreds of people, hoping to cash in on the fact that Tuesday was “National Offer Day”, the day when parents who’ve applied to state secondaries learn their children’s fate. (To read more, click here.)


Monday 3rd March 2014

Labour's 'new' education policies are already government policy

Tristram Hunt is unveiling a "new" Labour education policy today: he wants all children to study English and maths up to the age of 18.

Trouble is, this is already government policy. From the beginning of the present academic year, any child who fails to get a grade C or better in English and maths will have to continue studying both subjects post-16. So the only "new" bit of Hunt's policy is that children who are already good at English and maths will have to continue studying both subjects. That will mean schools having to employ additional staff whose soul purpose will be to teach children who are already doing well. Not a very sensible use of scarce resources.

Another "new" Labour education policy announced today is the creation of a 'Technical Baccalaureate' for 16-19-year-olds. Again, this is already government policy. Michael Gove unveiled a 'Technical Baccalaureate' in April 2013.

Oh dear, Tristram. Must try harder.


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