Cruel Britannia: Toby Young's world.

AuthorAndrews, Phoenix C.S.

Toby Young is the ur-example of two much-discussed cultural and political tropes: the mediocre white man who fails regularly and yet is rewarded with more success; and the self-styled 'outsider' at the heart of the Establishment. (1) The story of how this particular individual ended up with undue influence on UK policy and culture is indicative of wider structural patterns, which are common to his milieu, and date back decades. When Johnsonism, to which he is intimately connected, falls then he will still be at the heart of the Establishment. Even if the Conservatives lose power, Young and the institutions he is linked to will still influence positioning and policy because the media and political classes are so tightly knit in the UK - their bonds solidified through networks forged at Oxbridge.

'I think I've been wishing for celebrity for so long that I've got used to being someone who's petitioning the establishment for acceptance', said Young. 'And now that that petition has finally been accepted I feel slightly wrong-footed, as if my whole schtick, my whole identity, is so wrapped up in being a petitioner that I don't really know how to react now that petition has been granted.' (2) His conflation of celebrity with acceptance by the establishment already hints that something culturally interesting is going on here (in ways that are explored further by Jo Littler in this issue). As does the direction Young took next - choosing to use his position to further a particular set of causes: free speech, the EU referendum, Covid policy, education policy and more.

Why is Toby Young a Thing? He didn't go to public school, by dint of his parents' political views and not finances. But he did get a First in PPE at Oxford, like many of his contemporaries in the media and political classes. (3) According to Young himself, a phone call from his dad secured his university place, despite his having failed most of his O-levels and missed the required A-level grades. He appeared on Celebrity Come Dine With Me in 2006 to serve a laughable meal of overdone beef, mash, peas and tinned sweetcorn. The show is scripted - like much of his life - so Young won his episode, despite being unable either to cook or to charm the other guests. (4) He has been a magazine editor, author, broadcaster and scriptwriter, but has shown no great talent or popularity in any of these professions. And yet, his place on the nation's airwaves and in most of its newspapers and political magazines has been a fixture for thirty years. The connections Young secured through university, his journalism career in the US and UK, his experiments in education, and his dabbling in the world of arts and entertainment have made him extraordinarily well-placed to 'lose friends and alienate people', as his memoir had it, or in reality to maintain a prominent and influential platform at the heart of public life.

Perhaps it is inevitable that Young the Younger would have such an impact on British society, as his father was the respected sociologist and Labour life peer Michael Young - dubbed a 'towering figure in postwar social policymaking' in his Guardian obituary. (5) Michael was director of research for the Labour Party, had ideas that led to the Open University, Consumers' Association and Economic and Social Research Council, and (satirically) invented the concept of 'meritocracy'. But while Young Senior was an egalitarian committed to opening up access to public life, his son has used his privilege in ways that restrict it.

While my focus on Toby Young as an individual may seem amusing, the perception that he represents a phenomenon that consists of no more than social media chatter, or is simply a fringe concern, is wrong. In recent years, reactionary influencers and commentators have moved the boundaries of what is acceptable for politicians and the media, and halted progress on equalities, diversity and inclusion. This has real impacts on people's lives. In this article, I chart the impact of Toby Young on UK politics, culture, and society since 1990, and explore the consequences of accepting this as part of the status quo. I offer an explanation of how and why characters like Young and other columnists and controversialists have gained unprecedented political and social power. And I argue that understanding this may enable us to take a different path, one that renders his continued success at securing his demands less of an inevitability.


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