2018 was barely minutes old when it received its first new hate figure.
And the man in the firing line is Toby Young, who caused an outcry since an announcement was sneaked out at midnight on New Year’s Eve that he was to be appointed to the board of the newly-created Office for Students (OfS), a higher education watchdog, designed to operate like Ofwat or Ofcom in the field of education, to ensure students receive value for money for their degrees, while also opening up the sector to increased competition.
He has now resigned from the position, after posting a statement on the Spectator website on Tuesday morning, which read:
“My appointment has become a distraction from its vital work of broadening access to higher education and defending academic freedom.”
He continued: “the caricature drawn of me in the last seven days, particularly on social media, has been unrecognisable to anyone who knows me… Some of the things I said before I got involved in education, when I was a journalistic provocateur, were either ill-judged or just plain wrong – and I unreservedly apologise.”
The development comes just days after Young received the backing of Theresa May during an interview with Andrew Marr on the BBC, as she said he had conducted “exceedingly good work in relation to free schools” but warned that any future offensive language would result in him being “no longer … in public office”.
In his statement, Young thanked May “for standing by me, and drawing a distinction between my earlier life and my subsequent record in education”.
So why was his appointment controversial in the first place?
Who is he?
Young has been in the public eye for a long while - and there’s every chance you’ve encountered him before, but not put the dots together.
Ever heard of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People? Of course you have, it was adapted for a film starring Simon Pegg, Kirsten Dunst and Megan Fox in 2008. Well, that was based on a memoir written by Toby Young in 2001, which he wrote about his failed five-year attempt to make it as a journalist in New York, as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine, a job from which he was sacked in 1998.
He then became a restaurant critic, writing a column for the Evening Standard from 2002 to 2007, and later for The Independent on Sunday. He served a judge on the Bravo TV show Top Chef for two seasons, between 2008 and 2009, competed on Channel 4’s Come Dine With Me in 2006 (you can watch his evening’s hosting of Linda Robson, Anneka Rice, Roland Rivron and Aggie MacKenzie here), appeared as a critic on the 2008 BBC Two series Eating with the Enemy, and also served as a judge on Hell’s Kitchen.
As Rivron puts it on Come Dine With Me: “Toby is a bit of a quiet one. He sort of sits and smoulders and studies, he just sort of takes it all in and then he’ll just chip in with something, usually offensive.”
And that inimitable style has carried over to his most recent journalistic work at The Spectator, where he is associate editor and writes a weekly column, which usually tries its hardest to annoy someone. To take but one example, here is his September 2017 column: “My 12-year-old is hooked on shooting and I want all four kids to learn.”
Of course, probably his most famous column was the absolutely unmissable June 2016 effort, entitled “The day I stopped believing in the friendship myth” which had the simply unimprovable subheading: “Only four out of ten pals turned up for my stag do, not including the ‘best friend’ who organised it.”
He then proceeds to explain to us, over the course of 800 words freely published to the public, how it turned out that none of his friends actually liked him, not once stopping to wonder why this was the case. Truly, this is a remarkable man we’re dealing with here.
Oh, and that’s not all - he was banned from the set of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People because he was “constantly annoying the cast and crew” - yes, that’s right, he got banned from the set of the film of his own book - while his Wikipedia page reveals that “He has personally edited his own Wikipedia page over 200 times.”
How did he end up with this job and why are people angry about him getting it?
In recent years, Young has moved into the field of education and, in 2011 was a co-founder of the West London Free School, the first free school to sign a funding agreement with the Education Secretary. He stood down as CEO of the school in May 2016 after admitting that he didn’t realise how difficult it was going to be to run.
He is now a trustee of the charitable trust which manages it and three other primary schools in Hammersmith, Earls Court and Kensington which have since opened.
There are two main criticisms of his appointment: firstly, that he is unqualified for the job, and secondly, that he is unsuitable for it.
On the first note, the DfE had claimed that Young held teaching posts at Harvard and Cambridge universities, but he himself has acknowledged that he has never had a job in academia. It’s also claimed that better-qualified people have been passed over for it in favour of Young, including the former chief prosecutor for north-west England, Nazir Afzal, who listed his many qualifications for the role in a Twitter post.
Meanwhile, the respected philosopher Prof Tim Crane said Young had “no significant experience in universities since those few years in the 1980s, and the DfE should not pretend that he has”.
On the suitability front, as well as his general lovable character seen above, Young is responsible for a host of offensive tweets, from his @toadmeister account, while in 2012 he wrote an article criticising the emphasis on ‘inclusion’ in state schools. He wrote: “Inclusive. It’s one of those ghastly, politically correct words that have survived the demise of New Labour. Schools have got to be ‘inclusive’ these days. That means wheelchair ramps, the complete works of Alice Walker in the school library (though no Mark Twain) and a Special Educational Needs Department that can cope with everything from Dyslexia to Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy.”
Some, not unreasonably, interpreted this as an attack on including disabled children in mainstream education.
In a 2015 essay for the Australian publication The Quadrant, entitled ‘The fall of the meritocracy’, under a section headed ‘Progressive eugenics’, Young suggested that, once genetically engineered intelligence became available, poor people should be offered it free of charge, suggesting that, “it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite. It might make all the difference when it comes to the long-term sustainability of advanced meritocratic societies.”
Meanwhile, he endeared himself to the entire teaching community with this interview, where he suggested that being a teacher was not that tough.
Oh, and those tweets he deleted?
Since landing his new job, he has gone through and deleted 50,000 old tweets.
Meanwhile, an online petition for him to be sacked garnered over 210,000 signatures.
What did he have to say about it all?
In an interview with the Spectator’s Coffee House podcast, he said: “One of the reasons that my appointment has caused such a fuss is because I am an outspoken Tory and a defender of the government’s education reforms. This is a sector, and I think there is no secret, which is completely dominated by the left.”
He also posted a full response on Facebook, which you can read below, of which the main argument reads:
“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.”
Does anyone like him?
Boris Johnson does, and apparently ‘caustic wit’ is an important factor when deciding who should sit on regulatory bodies.
And Michael Gove agrees.
And to answer your question Michael:
(Images: Rex/Channel 4)