Conrad Landin

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“State-school” Clegg, and when did selfishness become the norm?

Moral agony for NickFirst published on Left Futures, 21st March 2013

“Nick Clegg to send son to state school”, muttered the headline in the “most viewed” column on the BBC News website. This was a not-unpleasant surprise for me – for when a public figure says they are “considering” going private, it usually means the decision has already been made.

It is of course a relief that at least one politician will not go for full-fronted individualism and shamelessly buy into the notion that privilege in our society is bought. Not that privilege needs to be bought for the son of the deputy prime minister, who was himself educated at top private school Westminster. Not that the London Oratory is not a school filled with people whose parents have bought them privilege in another way.

But despite it being treated as the norm for public figures, I’ve found myself asking over and over again: what sort of society do we live in where selfishness can be considered honourable behaviour?

When Clegg was first asked about his school preferences on London radio station LBC, he argued that he did not want to turn his son into a “political football”. The implication was that sending his son to the local state school would be doing exactly this – making a political sacrifice for the sake of his politics.

Fair enough, you might say. But then again, is it really that much to expect people to do the morally right thing when they can? Or at least, isn’t it pretty shameful when they don’t, and wouldn’t they want to keep it quiet? If politicians can’t always do the morally right thing at Westminster, we could at least expect them to do the right thing at home.

Not so in the case of education, so it seems. Clegg and most of our political and media establishment always forget that for more than eighty per cent of the population, private school isn’t an option – this very “political” choice simply isn’t theirs to make. But when one has the luxury of the option to act selfishly, it is played up by the media as a big sob story of honour and courage.

It has become increasingly acceptable for our politicians to live in a world that most would not recognise. Why are they not challenged? Quite simply, because this world is the norm for so many in the media too. Indeed, when a public figure breaks with this and challenges inequality and elitism, they are struck down by “impartial” presenters, who become defensive.

Just take Billy Bragg’s recent criticism of the modern music scene for being dominated by the privately educated. The supposedly impartial presenter Sian Williams, hit back, arguing that we shouldn’t discriminate against the privately educated, which totally missed Bragg’s point as well as representing the increasing tendency for the moral pitfalls of private education.

I was equally astonished by the vitriol of one Alka Sehgal-Cuthbert, with whom I debated the Clegg debacle on Voice of Russia, when I dared to mention that parents might think about society as well as their own children when it came to school-choice. Greed is the order of the day – and not just in the City of London.

Back to Clegg and the Oratory, that bastion of fairness for which our hearts should bleed because they can no longer check out the credentials of their prospective students and parents. It is a selective school, hands down. Clegg has made it blatantly clear that he is playing the system, yet he will no doubt be applauded for acting in slightly less self-interest than “normal”. Others will bemoan that he made a political sacrifice he should not have been obliged to make.

What happened to society, and dare I say it, our public scrutiny?



  1. S williams says:

    Sian is a state school supporter, sent both her sons to comprehensives, her younger son and daughter are at state schools too and she was providing balance. Yes, that is called impartiality, Conrad. Providing the other side, whatever your views.

    • Apologies Sian (if that’s you – a bit confused by your use of the third person), this is heartening to read, and I should have used another example. But I simply don’t agree that it’s necessary to make such arguments when someone like Billy Bragg makes a point that is already so against the grain of public discourse. He was providing the balance, if you like. It also seemed like you were suggesting that Billy advocated discriminating against people from private schools, which he clearly wasn’t.

      I now appreciate that you support state education, and I’m sorry I thought otherwise. I think the conversational nature of the Saturday Live programme made you sound a little defensive, and reminded me of a previous incident which I didn’t recall when writing this article, but I do now. A caller attacked private schools on Radio 5 Live and the presenter cut the caller off, said he sent his own children private and launched into a defence of private schools.

      Regardless of where presenters send their own children, I do think that the selfishness of this act is questionably acceptable among the middle class and the media establishment. I’m sorry if it isn’t to you – for making this conclusion.

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