Toynbee: the great comic figure of our age
Journalist Polly Toynbee is in no position to criticise rich hypocrites, says Lewis Jones
None of us," boomed Polly Toynbee the other day, in her now famous attack on the super-rich, "like to feel guilty about our comfortable lives." Like much of what she writes, this is not altogether true. It probably is true of many of the super-rich, but as the Guardian's leading columnist - as the living embodiment, indeed, of the Guardianista spirit, of whom even that paper's editor is said to be terrified - Toynbee knows perfectly well that her painfully liberal readers like nothing better than to feel guilty about their comfortable lives.
One suspects that what she really means by "None of us" - which is properly a singular, by the way - is "I". Thanks to her guilt-inducing journalism and books, she is herself comparatively rich and comfortable, with a house in Clapham and a villa in Italy. And, as a daughter of Philip Toynbee and granddaughter of Arnold, she is also quite posh. But - unless one takes a psychoanalytic approach, and views her entire oeuvre as an act of expiation - she stoutly refuses to feel guilty about it.
There is in this a strong whiff of smugness and hypocrisy which, combined with an almost heroic lack of any sense of humour, has made her widely disliked.
Her enemies are actually legion. As a devout atheist, and President of the British Humanist Association, in 2004 she was voted Most Islamophobic Media Personality by the Islamic Human Rights Commission.
She is naturally loathed by such right-wingers as Boris Johnson, who wrote that she incarnated "all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair's Britain", and Paul Dacre, who objected to her second marriage (after the death of her first husband Peter Jenkins of the Guardian) to David Walker (also of the Guardian), who already had a wife and children. Dacre printed a piece by the spurned wife: "You had the power," she wrote, "the glamour, the big house, the nice car, the rich and powerful friends..." (the Blairs, for example).
Toynbee has returned this loathing in spades, as in her churlish gloating over the death of her old enemy Auberon Waugh, whom she characterised as "effete, drunken, snobbish, sneering, racist and sexist".
Shockingly, in the context of this mutual enmity, a couple of years ago Greg Clark, the Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells, suggested to David Cameron that their party might usefully replace the Churchillian notion of "absolute" poverty with the Toynbee-ish one of "relative" poverty (ie, an inability to afford consumer durables). In a rare display of graciousness, Toynbee took the suggestion as a compliment.
There were those on the Left who were infuriated by this, some of whom never liked her anyway. There are comrades who will not forgive her for deserting Labour in the 1980s - she stood as the SDP candidate for Lewisham East in 1983.
There are those who take this as just one example of her political opportunism and naked worship of power. They point to her slavish devotion first to Blair ("the best government of my lifetime"), then to Brown - and now, apparently, to Miliband.
Others object to the fact that, though she is a fervent champion of state education, two of her three children were partly educated at private schools. This, of course, is a charge that has justly been levelled at many figures on the Left, but none more deservingly than Toynbee. What this boils down to, surely, is that she is hateful because she is rich and posh - exactly the qualities she so hates in her own enemies.
To her credit, though, she is not only impervious to the criticisms of her many foes, but positively welcomes their dislike. Now 61, she has seen off enough of them in her time, and will no doubt see off many more. And besides being exemplarily redoubtable she is also, partly because of her own lack of humour, one of the great comic figures of our time.
Polly Toynbee on rich people ·