Polly always sees red: Toynbee's rewriting of history

Polly Toynbee's historical revisionism is a spectacle at the best of times. Her views on Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony are something else

The CND logo displayed during the opening ceremony
Andrew Gibson
On 2 August 2012 09:36

If Simon Heffer asserted that the Tories established the NHS, or Trevor Kavanagh congratulated the Conservative Party for having legislated into effect the statutory minimum wage, you would certainly read some consequent sneering commentary in the diaries of the Guardian or the Independent.

So how should readers of The Commentator – who are naturally polite people – react to Polly Toynbee’s recent historical revisionism in The Guardian?

On the occasion of the Olympics opening ceremony Toynbee types:

“Thanks, Danny Boyle, …thanks for the story of the struggle of the powerless against the forces of conservatism. Suffragettes, Jarrow marchers, CND, punk or hip hop, all these were fiercely resisted by the right, so often proved pleasingly wrong in the end. All our happy endings tell of forces of repression falling under the wheels of people pushing for democracy and a fair share of power and wealth.

Boyle gave us a tear-jerkingly optimistic sense of the inevitability of progress. Here was social history as taught to my generation and Danny Boyle's, where we learned how – from Factory Act to Tolpuddle martyrs, from Chartists and Reform Act to the Butler Education Act – power was gradually wrenched from a small elite.”

If this really is what Polly was “taught” then the Toynbee family should ask for their money back.

In Toynbee’s Manichean universe, the Whig view of history updated, good guys wearing red rosettes battle the “forces of repression” in a series of battles in which the left always wins and is ultimately proven correct.

It is fantasy.

Look at the examples given by Toynbee.

Reforming the Victorian workplace was a process rather than a single act. It was not a simple left versus right struggle. But the person most associated with that tale of improvement is surely Lord Shaftsbury: a Compassionate Conservative, a Christian rightist – all that is anathema to Toynbee.

Next, the Chartists. They won four of their six demands. One demand, annual parliaments, will not and should not be granted. That leaves one more demand – constituencies of equal sizes. Can Toynbee bring herself to name the party that currently proposes such a reform?

Then there is the Reform Act. Toynbee is probably referring to the Great Reform Act of 1832. That act established some good principles but was limited in scope. The road to equal, universal adult suffrage stretched essentially to 1928 and was littered with partisan calculation, but the instigators of reform were as likely to be Tories as not.

Wellington eased restrictions on Roman Catholic participation; Disraeli extended the franchise massively in 1867; women achieved equality with men thanks to the Baldwin Government in 1928. Meanwhile, the Conservative Primrose League popularised political participation in the high noon of Victorian Britain, including among women.

My favourite among Toynbee’s list of notable “left-wing” successes is the “Butler Education Act”. Even Toynbee, the Mother Superior of Confirmation Bias, must know that Butler was a Conservative.

My least favourite of Toynbee’s (and Boyle’s) leftist motifs is the CND badge: that symbol – the dunce’s cap of the late twentieth century – was worn by those whose triumph would, had it occurred, have been disastrous for free societies.

But the Conservative Party’s great service on behalf of the British, especially our poor, is not simply the reverse of everything Toynbee says. It is much more. Christian Conservative Wilberforce helped outlaw the slave trade. Compassionate Tory Sir Robert Peel abolished the Corn Laws and thereby ushered in affordable food for the poor and hungry. All that while fiercely resisting hip-hop.

The Conservatives gave us the first PM from commerce (Peel), the first cultural Jew as Premier (Disraeli) and the first woman PM (Thatcher). They expanded home ownership opportunities and they tamed trade union bullying.

Take union reform. Toynbee says, “Strong unionism had its dysfunctions, but unions prevented the explosion in unfair pay that followed their abrupt decline.”

If that is Toynbee remembering the 1970s I can only presume she wasn’t there.

Pre-Thatcher, unions preserved the privileges of select industries at the expense of the many. They maintained their position – which in printing and the docks included jobs that were essentially hereditary – through coerced membership and violent pickets. Strikes were called on a show of hands: so much for the Chartists’ demand for secret ballots.

And that brings us to the second respect in which Toynbee and the Left live in error. Not only is the British right on the side of the masses’ interests, freedom and progress, but social democracy is inimical to all those desirable ends.

If you believe in a large state and the politicisation of choice, you inevitably replace the commercial market place with a political market place. To borrow from Milton Friedman, social democracy involves person A and person B agreeing that person C should subsidise person D.

Car companies would no longer sink or swim by making cars that people either do or do not want, they survive by tapping up Patricia Hewitt for a subsidy just before the general election. And you can be sure it wasn’t Pat’s own money she was spending.

In the Britain of Wilson and Callaghan, boilermakers and miners were privileged at the expense of checkout assistants and pensioners on fixed incomes. Even Leftist “moderates” scorned having resources allocated by mutually agreed deals among free people under the rule of law.

Blair and Mandelson took the social democratic model to its apotheosis, granting access to the likes of Mittal, Hinduja, and Murdoch because what matters to the Left is that “correct thinkers” stay in power to dispense privilege, and that requires favours for and from the influential.

Toynbee and Boyle laud our current healthcare arrangements as a Labour achievement, but it was Labour who skewed its health policy on cigarette advertising coincidentally with a large donation from tobacco interests. The ensuing row was hardly a surprise: if you believe you are always right and your opposite numbers are malign, then inevitably you will see cutting corners for the “good guys” as a virtue in some contrived way.

And so the left of British politics – the political tradition that gave us British rail sandwiches and mob rule pickets and IMF bailouts and (if they could) ID cards – sees a ceremony featuring Mary Poppins and assumes it must be about themselves.


Toynbee is famously an atheist. It is tempting to believe that her objection to religion is not that paradise cannot be achieved: but rather, paradise can be achieved, but in this life and only if the right people have the power to coerce individuals and order society.

The “right people” like, oh I don’t know, like, say, Polly Toynbee.               

Andrew Gibson is a political activist in Lambeth

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