A few years ago, I got an email from a TV producer asking me if I would meet him and Toby Young to discuss a project. We rendezvoused in a burger restaurant in town and had a chat and the Toby Young I met was an affable, articulate, slightly detached but undoubtedly friendly man whose views I didn’t necessarily agree with, but who made an interesting and engaged luncheon companion.
He certainly was not, in person, the cartoonish monster that has been portrayed in the last few days. That monster of course is largely of his making, but more of that later.
The basic pitch, which I went home and mapped out into episodes, was essentially a “British Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which Toby, playing Toby, would portray a version of himself, forever causing outrage and Twitter storms, while fighting an inner battle between his instinctive libertarianism and his innate liberalism. I was rather pleased with it and based several episodes on actual incidents in his life which he had told me about – but after a few weeks, I sent it to him and the three of us met again; it was clear he hated it. The reason, I surmised, was that he wanted to be taken more seriously now he was engaged in the Free Schools movement and felt that my made him look a bit of a buffoon.
We parted on fairly good terms and I was left with the impression of someone whose back was genuinely put up by the chattering hypocritical metropolitan classes – but who at the same time wasn’t exactly enamoured with the other side either. A man forever caught between two stools.
So at first, I followed the storm over his appointment with detached interest and even a little sympathy.
Young’s appointment to the board of the newly formed Office for Students might on the face of it seem a perfectly reasonable one. Here is a high-profile champion of the Government’s Free Schools programme, who believes in upward mobility and the provision of (slightly traditional) standards of excellence.
The new board exists to regulate and “uphold standards at universities” and to promote fair access to higher education, as well as safeguarding the right to free speech on campuses and preventing radicalisation. These are all things which seem to be close to Toby Young’s heart. Sure, there was a hint of cronyism in the selection – Jo Johnson, the universities minister, is the brother of Boris and he and Toby are old friends since their Oxford days – but cronyism itself is not confined to the Tory party.
As the days went by, it became clear that the problem for Toby was a broader one. His journalistic career is the forerunner of what might be termed the “Hopkins tendency” of professional provocateurs – a group of internet-age, usually right-wing, fomenters who delight in causing outrage and with it generating large audiences.
Unfortunately for them, the very monster that has been their making leaves an indelible trail of tweets, blogs, comments, video clips and Facebook posts that have a nasty habit of coming back to haunt them. While Katie Hopkins has felt obliged to keep turning up the outrage dial to the point where she has nowhere else to go, Toby Young has tried to turn it down and reinvent himself as an education expert and more serious commentator – but the trace remains. And boy, what a trace.
Among the many things unearthed about Toby Young since the appointment, the most disturbing, undoubtedly, were an article, written in an online publication called The Quadrant, calling for progressive eugenics, another for The Spectator that railed against wheelchair ramps and a Twitter comment in which he “joked” about masturbating over starving Africans. This last was undoubtedly what Boris Johnson was referring to when he described Toby as having a “caustic wit”, but it isn’t funny at all. It displays a complete lack of empathy and basic decency and, coupled with the “eugenics” essay, makes for very unpleasant reading altogether.
Young’s resignation today has sparked angry accusations that he has been forced from the role by the “twitchfork” mob of PC pundits and metropolitan types – but actually the appointment was doomed from the start for the very simple reason that Toby Young has spent the last 20 years building a huge pyre, which he has doused in petrol and climbed atop with a box of matches. In the pre-internet age, he might well have got away with it, but the rules have changed.
“Political correctness” is a useful club deployed by the right to beat out any dissent as they rampage about the place saying unacceptable things. Freedom of speech has legal limitations but also confines that are judged by the broader consensus of society.
Most decent people, whatever their standpoint politically, will have been shocked or unimpressed by Young’s comments on eugenics, starving children and women’s breasts and those alone, rightly, should preclude him from the board of the OfS.
As a provocateur, Toby Young is entitled to express his views on whatever he pleases, but in the 21st century if he – or indeed any of us – wish to step away from words and on to public platforms, we must be prepared to reap the social media trail that we have sown.
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