The Big Questions: Should Latin be taught in state schools? Is flooding in the UK a fact of life? Should Tube workers have gone on strike?

This week's questions are answered by the historian Tom Holland


As the author of a book about the last days of the Roman empire, what do you think of Michael Gove’s wish to spread the teaching of Latin?

Unsurprisingly, I am all in favour of it. Traditionally, an education in ancient languages has served as a marker of privilege – which is why public schools have always been so keen on providing it. I don’t see, though, why children should be deprived of the riches of classical civilisation, just because they are in the state system. I salute Gove’s determination to foster the study of Latin in state schools – and Greek too, I hope. It is not an elitist policy but the precise opposite: impeccably progressive.

And what about the “Berlin Wall” between state and private education – can it ever be dismantled?

The wealth that the leading public schools can call upon has become obscene. How can state-funded schools possibly compete with sports fields and state-of-the-art facilities that have seen sport, acting and even popular music dominated by the privately educated? Which said, I am not convinced that the teaching in private schools is any better than in state schools. Our local primary school has teachers as good as any you could hope to meet, and when I compare the start that it has given my children to that given to the prep-school pupils I know, I do not remotely feel that my children have come off second-best. Just the opposite, in fact.

And the removal of the chair of Ofsted – was Michael Gove out of order?

The Pope is Catholic, bears do their business in woods, and government ministers stuff quangos with their political supporters. In fact, I’m impressed that Gove didn’t get rid of Sally Morgan before. Her time will doubtless come again, should Labour get back in.

As the father of two daughters, do you share Consumer Affairs minister Jenny Willott’s concern that dressing girls in pink holds back the economy?

I asked my elder daughter if she felt that an enthusiasm for pink might hold a girl back in life, and she answered with two words: Legally Blonde. Not only that, but the whole implication of the question is profoundly depressing: as though the only reason for bringing girls up to be self-confident and aspirational is to boost the needs of the economy. Talk about breaking butterflies on a wheel.

Should we just accept the flooding of vulnerable parts of the UK as a fact of life?

I think it’s too early to tell whether the increase in flooding over the past decade or so is because of global warming, and therefore a permanent fact of life, or a passing fad of our infernally complicated climate. Although I would love to see Peterborough Cathedral standing on an island again, and Glastonbury rising above the Athelney marshes, I think that we live on too crowded an island to surrender land reclaimed over many centuries without a fight. One thing we should certainly do is to cut back on the dredging, and see what happens when we allow rivers to follow their natural course. At the moment, I fear that the cure is helping to finish off the patient.

Whose side are you in the London Underground strike?

I sympathise with workers who face losing their jobs to technology – but I fear that standing up to robots has as much prospect of success as Canute did of stopping the waves. Millions of people in London face very similar threats to their livelihoods, and every time the Underground is brought to a halt, their prospect of keeping hold of their own jobs is diminished. I’ve always felt there was a bit too much of the Milwall fan about Bob Crow for comfort. I remember he called a strike on the day my daughter began secondary school, with the result that the buses were bursting with infuriated commuters. He must have known what he was doing, and I have never been able to forgive him.

Ukip is rapidly gaining ground and Britain’s membership of the EU more fiercely debated than ever. How do you view these developments?

I view it through the prism of the identity that is most precious to me: my Britishness. I would like to remain a citizen of the European Union, but I would like even more to continue in a country that includes Scotland. Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond seem to me very much two of a kind: both brilliant at casting themselves as outsiders, both committed to the fantasy that ripping up the rule book will somehow facilitate a brave new beginning. The problem is, from my admittedly very personal point of view, that the likelier it seems the United Kingdom will leave the EU, the likelier Scotland is to leave the United Kingdom. I don’t want to be a Little Englander. I want to stay European, and I want to stay British.

You’re prominent in the Authors cricket team and once received coaching from Alastair Cook. Would you have sacked Kevin Pietersen?

No. I think it’s a disastrous decision, and inexplicable. Pietersen is the greatest entertainer that English cricket has had since Ian Botham, and it makes no sense, at a time when sports have to compete for attention or die, to cut off such a brilliant player in his prime. I feel miserable at the thought of all the brilliant Test innings I will now never get to see him play. No cricketer has given me greater pleasure, and to be honest it has quite ruined my 2014.

Tom Holland is a historian whose latest book, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’, is published by Little, Brown

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