The Great Equalizer

‘Come in, sit down’ Polly Toynbee whispers, her hand pressed against the telephone speaker. ‘I’m just about to go on the Jeremy Vine show. So sorry about this.’
So I sit silently in the front room of the columnist’s Clapham house, pretending to read a copy of the Financial Times.
She listens to hold music, waiting to be put on air to discuss the government’s new Equalities Bill, the subject of her column that day. A brief chat with a researcher, and then she’s live on Radio Two, with all the lines you’d expect from one of the country’s best-known left-wing commentators: ‘…Need to think carefully about how they might address that balance and even things out…need to question themselves about whether the way they spend is fair…’
A Guardian columnist since 1998, Toynbee has been writing on social affairs for the best part of forty years. In person she is exactly how she appears in her by-line; the same friendly-but-firm gapped smile, and as far as I can tell she’s wearing the same necklace today as she does in her twice-weekly Guardian headshot. Loved and loathed in equal measure, she has been banging the social equality-drum for her professional life, and is the author of A Working Life, Hard Work and, most recently, Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today.
As she speaks on the radio, I look around the room. It’s hard to imagine this ever being the shabby, run-down area Toynbee claims it was when she bought the place thirty-seven years ago. The road outside is silent, green, and the whole interior smells upper-middle class. (I mean that literally. There’s a certain smell unique to these sort of houses; probably a combination of well-treated wood and organic food.)
She hangs up and we begin our interview, which starts on the subject of Oxford. Toynbee came to the University in the sixties, but dropped out after a year and a half reading history at St Anne’s. Having read her articles and books on social equality, mobility and class, I had imagined her decision to leave Oxford would have been a political statement against perceived elitism in the institution.
The truth turns out to be slightly different. ‘The Cherwell was beastly to me,’ she says. ‘I don’t know if it’s still poisonous, but it was poisonous in those days. I was being got at, a great deal at the time…by this nasty gossip column.’ Ooh-er. ‘And there is so little genuine, interesting gossip or politics around in Oxford that once you’re in their sights, you’re sort of roasted.’
‘I didn’t leave in a great, sanctimonious, ‘I am very shocked by the elitism of this place’ way. It was just very nasty in my day’.
After dropping out of Oxford, Toynbee worked in a number of low paid jobs. ‘[I had] the insane idea that if you worked with your hands in the day and in the evening it leaves you free for greater artistic endeavour, like writing novels and poetry,’ she says, half-smiling. ‘I very quickly discovered why not many people who work in these places actually have the energy to do much creative writing in the evening.’ However, she returned to work in factories and other minimum-wage jobs as research for her later books exploring life on the poverty line. At this time she was also writing pieces as a freelancer, eventually leading to a job on the Observer.
In her most recent book, Unjust Rewards, Toynbee accompanies a group of children from an inner-London school on an AimHigher trip to Oxford. (‘The yellow limestone building of St John’s left the Brent students almost breathless with amazement,’ she writes in one chapter. ‘They could see that gaining a place at Oxford would be like climbing Everest without oxygen or crampons.’) I ask her how she feels about the University’s selection process. Although she has ideas on how admissions could be changed, she tells me that who Oxford lets in or how they select students is not really the most pressing issue.
‘How would it be if Oxford and Cambridge took the top two students of every sixth-form in the country? It means that even the less good schools get to send good people and you’ve got to be the best of your class,’ she suggests.
‘But actually I think it’s terribly unimportant.’ So why the almost constant media interest in Oxbridge applications and other stories from the universities? ‘It absolutely obsesses newspaper editors who are trying to get their own children into Oxford and Cambridge. I think it’s terribly unimportant who goes there’.
Instead she argues that most money and attention should be put into schemes for the youngest, rather than obsessing over who is admitted to ‘elite’ universities. ‘Most resources should go into children’s centres and all of that for the very youngest. By the time you get to passing A-Levels…there’s not a whole lot universities can do about it’.
She tells me that if she were education minister, she would significantly increase investment in children’s centres and the youngest. ‘At the moment we spend least on nursery, next least on primary, then on secondary, and most per capita on university. And really, by the time you’ve passed your A-levels, you’re going to be fine. You’re assured a decent life ahead. Whereas, what happens before you’re five pretty much sets your future.’
A columnist rather than a politician, she speaks in monologues rather than sound-bites, making her almost impossible to interrupt. But she explains things so simply that you rarely want to. To support her view on nursery schools, she cites research which follows the progress of students from different backgrounds. ‘A bright child from a poor background and a dim child from a rich background are tested when they are toddlers.
‘By the time they’re six, the lines cross and they go in the other direction. The poor child, however talented, falls down, and the rich child goes up, because the rich child has such advantage in terms of teaching stimulation…family pressure to try hard, do their homework and so on.’
To combat the unfair advantages given to children of wealthy families, she argues that we need better trained nursery staff to ensure all are given an equal start. ‘Being a nursery school teacher is not being a nursery assistant; sixteen or seventeen year old girls who themselves failed at schools so they think they’ll be nursery nurses.’
She praises Labour’s new under-five’s programme, which is set to open 3,500 new sure-start children’s centres across the UK, calling it ‘the biggest addition to the welfare state since 1945. The only question is whether they will have the funds.’ And despite her certainty that the party will lose the next election – ‘I can’t quite think what it would take for it not to happen now,’ she says, and refers to the decisions facing a Conservative government in the future rather than conditional tense – she is supportive of many of the current government’s actions.
‘I have felt very encouraged by a lot of things Labour has done. We’ve given them a lot of praise for the things they’ve done well. Education has improved no end.’ So why do things seem to have gone so wrong now? ‘Inevitably, after ten years of finding that [social change] is much harder then they thought, that it is very slow…they got weary, I think’.
Unjust Rewards condemns the culture of city bonuses, and the vast and growing gap between the rich and the poor, at a time when the seriousness of the economic situation had not yet been fully realised. I ask whether she thinks she might had played a part in predicting the credit crunch. ‘We were out ahead saying how dysfunctional the whole bonus system was,’ she replies.
‘But I can’t say we predicted quite what would happen or how bad it would be…If, when we’d written that book, we’d said ‘And therefore we expect to see the imminent demise of capitalism,’ I can’t think we’d be have taken very seriously,’ she says, and she laughs out loud.
As she makes me a cup of tea at the end of the interview, I see that for all her polemical opinion pieces, radio appearances and books, in person Toynbee is softly spoken, friendly and patient to explain her point of view, however unpalatable it may be for some. An icon for middle class liberals everywhere, she insists she plans to keep going for ‘as long as my editor will let me.’ Can you forgive the Cherwell for all the beastly gossip it wrote about you now, Polly?