Do you still love Tony Blair?
After six months of his successor, I suspect Blair is looking rather better in most people's eyes. While there are many things about the Labour Government over the last 10 years I don't like, there are certain aspects to the Blair agenda which I think are admirable. I specifically admire his steadfastness in the war on terror, the clarity with which he identified the threat from totalitarian Islamism, his commitment to ending prejudice and greater equality for people whatever their ethnic background, gender or sexual orientation, and his embrace, albeit belated, of the need for reform of the public services based on greater choice and control for service users.
How can someone who has had such a privileged private education have any right to cast judgement on state schools?
You're right, I do feel privileged to have been educated at good schools, both state and independent. I remember with great affection and respect my teachers at the state primaries Kittybrewster and Sunnybank in Aberdeen as well as those at the independent Robert Gordon's College. I feel a particular debt to my parents for making sacrifices to help me go to Gordon's. And I know that each of our individual backgrounds will inevitably influence how we see the world. But I don't hold with the view that an individual's background should determine, or limit, their views or role. That's a form of prejudice in itself. What matters is not someone's background but their ideas are they sensible and wise? As a parent of a child at a state school, the test I apply to policy is not who's proposing it, but what effect will it have?
In the current Conservative Party, is it a disadvantage to you not to have gone to Eton?
It's a daily struggle, but I think I can live with it ...
Do you want to be Prime Minister one day?
No. Definitely not. I simply do not have what it takes. David Cameron does. In spades.
Is it damaging that so many Conservative frontbenchers were privately educated?
What matters is what they say and do, not where their parents sent them to school.
What three issues do you feel most strongly about?
Making schools better, especially for those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Making Britain more tolerant and cohesive by fighting prejudice and extremism. Making the world safer by spreading democracy and freedom.
Which Labour politician do you most admire and why?
Gisela Stuart. She's been a consistent champion of public service reform, a principled sceptic on Europe and a defender of liberal interventionism abroad. I also admire Ruth Kelly's moral integrity, Hazel Blears for fighting far and away the best campaign for her party's deputy leadership, and Jim Fitzpatrick for sheer decency.
Which current journalists do you most admire?
Daniel Finkelstein, Matthew d'Ancona, David Aaronovitch, John Rentoul and Nick Cohen.
Your Conservative biography says you used your job as a journalist to fight for Conservative values. Isn't that a bit unprofessional?
As an editor, I always tried to be objective. Others will have to judge if I managed that. As an op-ed columnist, I was asked to make the case for ideas I believed in. And I don't think anyone reading my columns, any more than anyone reading those of my friends Simon Heffer or Bruce Anderson, would have thought the author was a revolutionary communist.
Why are the Tories so hated in Scotland?
Well I don't know if hated is quite the word I'd use, but I get the point. The problems the Tory party has in Scotland have complicated roots. But one of the biggest causes is what might be called the "Letter to America Factor", after the Proclaimers song, written in response to the economic changes of the Eighties. Traditional industries, on which Scotland relied so much, were particularly badly hit in that period. The effective disappearance of the coal, steel and shipbuilding industries, not to mention the damage done to fishing, caused huge dislocation in Scotland and adversely affected national prestige. My family were only peripherally affected but my dad's business was hit during this period. The association of this process with Tory rule became firmly embedded in the Scottish mind and we've suffered ever since. There are many other factors which affect how the Conservatives are seen but I'm heartened that under Annabel Goldie the party is in better heart than for many a year.
Are you ashamed of the way that your think-tank, Policy Exchange, tried to stir up Islamophobia with dodgy reports about mosques?
No. Questions have been raised about one aspect of the report and Policy Exchange is taking those questions seriously by conducting a proper inquiry. But it's important to remember that no one is denying extremist literature was found in a number of establishments, no one questions the quality of the translations, and none of us can afford to ignore the huge amount of evidence gathered by institutions from Channel 4 to The Times which underlines that we have a problem with extremism. And that's why I reject the insinuation behind your question. It's not Islamophobic to investigate extremism. As brave people like Ed Husain and Shiraz Maher have pointed out, there is a world of difference between mainstream, moderate Islam a faith which provides spiritual uplift for millions and Islamism, an ideology of intolerance. Policy Exchange has been consistent in supporting mainstream voices in Islam and trying to hold extremists up to scrutiny. That's an approach I totally endorse.
What do you feel about calls for an English parliament without Scottish, Welsh or Irish MPs?
I understand where people are coming from on this but I'm firmly against. I'm British, a supporter of the Union and think we've enough parliaments already.
If Scotland becomes independent, will you go back home?
My home country is the United Kingdom and I'll fight to keep it that way.
Have you made any new year's resolutions? What are they?
No. I've broken too many already over the years.
Do you ever leak stories to your wife?
She's beauty editor at The Times and in my job, I don't get many great mascara scoops.
There is no point keeping unacademic kids in school. Do you support a return to good old apprenticeships?
I certainly think improving apprenticeships is important but I also think we want to see more and more young people staying on at school and going on to university. Other countries, with whom we're competing economically, have more young people staying on and so should we.
Do you agree with raising school leaving age to 18?
I very much agree that more people should be in education for longer, beyond 18. The question for me is: how do we provide the right incentives to get people learning for longer?
I'm a teacher but can't teach because of all the testing. Will you finally listen to what teachers are saying?
My whole approach to policy is based on learning from teachers. I believe in creating a system in which we can identify the best classroom practice, pioneered by professional teachers, and spread it, giving all children the chance to enjoy excellence and all parents the chance to get their children into good schools. We've already proposed getting rid of some of the bureaucracy at Key Stage One and replacing it with a simple test to ensure children can read. Once they've learned to read, they can read to learn, and teachers will be free to inspire.
As an adopted child, have you ever sought out your biological parents?
What will you do in government to improve the lot of disabled children?
The first thing we'd do is have a moratorium on the ideologically-driven closure of special schools, so that parents of children with special needs can have a real choice. I know from family experience the hugely beneficial effect being taught in a school for deaf children had on one of my relatives. Then I'd like to reform the whole statementing process to make it easier for parents to get the care they need earlier. I also support the Government's extension of respite care for the parents of disabled children. It's something Ed Balls has made a personal priority and it does him great credit.
You have confessed to being a wargaming fan. Isn't this a bit sad for a grown-up?
As someone who still likes Simple Minds, I think that once having been a wargaming fan is very far from being the saddest thing about me. I haven't played a wargame since university but I was listening to New Gold Dream only last night.
What is on your iPod?
The Jam, Simple Minds, The Smiths and The Blue Nile, plus Bach's Cello Suites, a lot of Wagner, the soundtrack from Les Choristes, Kanye West and Destiny's Child.Reuse content