Polly Toynbee, British journalist and columnist for the Guardian (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

A class act?

Polly Toynbee’s memoirs test the reader’s patience

Artillery Row Books

Has there ever been a book so obsessed with class as this? For Toynbee, “class and money are at the heart of everything”. For someone who aspires to create a society that is less defined (and divided) by both, this is a peculiarly reductive and depressing statement. Every person she meets is immediately categorised, allocated to a “finely graded sub-division”, judged and put into her “tribe” — or condemned as being a detestable Tory.

An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals, Polly Toynbee, published (Atlantic Books, £20)

She is as preoccupied by social standing and how it shapes one’s life as Nancy Mitford, that “confection of snobbery” she so breezily dismisses. In many ways the Mitfords and the Toynbees are similar (and linked): two powerful, entitled families who influenced British culture at the margins for a significant part of the last century, but are now largely forgotten. Their books, their aphorisms, their causes and prejudices are confined to fading memories and undisturbed shelves. What really distinguishes those affluent left wing middle classes from those on the right is the sense of self-loathing: “being a posh left-winger,” Toynbee writes, “is a tricky business, walking across a minefield every step of the way.” Of course, being a Toynbee means that it doesn’t really matter if you set off an explosion because your path is already cleared — the destination decided by your genes and inherited connections.

Her career is the encapsulation of a very British form of privilege that she not only despises, but wants to see denied to others. The hypocrisy she exhibits in almost every one of the (seemingly) countless chapters is at times staggering. She is, for example, “frankly ashamed to confess” that she had an ex-Tory MP as a close relative. Put that alongside the egregious errors of judgement her grandfather Arnold Toynbee made about appeasing Hitler, not to mention his “problematic” views on Judaism, and you have to wonder about the author’s own moral compass. For her, those on the right live on “the moral low ground” which is “easy on the conscience”. Where is her own conscience when she makes decisions that offer her the opportunity to live by her principles? Take, for instance, independent schools: Toynbee dislikes them and makes several predictably snide comments about Eton, but none of this stopped her sending several of her children to fee-paying schools. Principles can be useful when writing another op-ed piece, but they can be awfully irritating when they intrude on one’s life.

It is as if being contorted by guilt is atonement enough for Toynbee and those on the liberal left. Actually doing something about it, going beyond the performative and taking a principled stand, is seemingly beyond her. She criticises the entrance exams that she sat to get into Oxford as being constructed to “reward people of exactly my background”. Does that stop her taking up her place? Of course not. In a nod towards our current preoccupation with race and ethnicity, she even admits that “this is a very white book about white people”, but did that persuade her to not write it? Obviously not.

The book’s title is perhaps unintentionally revealing

Happiness, in Toynbee’s world, does not write white. Indeed, happiness is rarely present in her book — despite the charmed life gifted to her by her ancestors’ almost-blue blood, and irrespective of the triumph of repetition that she has been drawing out at the Guardian since 1998 (how many more gifted, younger journalists has she blocked with such longevity?). She searches in vain for the credentials she so desperately desires to give her bourgeois, posh voice an element of grit, a cadence shaped by struggle, but to no avail: “I hunted hard for any redeeming twig of a working class branch of my family tree, without success. Not a shadow of a distant root emerges from good working class earth.” Note the use of “good” in this sentence, that idealisation by the British left of a class that has, traditionally, always disappointed them in their stubborn refusal to embrace socialism.

Some of this would be forgivable if the book were well written or, failing even that, showed some signs of being edited. Instead it is prolix and indulgent — its tone lapsing into the conversational, its tenses shifting bizarrely between present and past in the same sentence, its organisation often haphazard, its analogies frequently weak and lacking any real originality. Admittedly, there are passages where Toynbee vividly brings to life some of the damaged characters she has known, such as the spy Donald Maclean and her uncle, Antony (who took his own life when young), but these can also ramble on. Sometimes these characters only add to the impression that they, whilst rogues, are well-connected rogues who opened doors that her beloved working classes rarely had access to.

The book’s title is perhaps unintentionally revealing. Her inheritance is “uneasy” but not entirely undesirable to her. It is certainly not unpalatable enough to persuade her to reject it altogether and lead a life, like John Profumo did at Toynbee House (named after her great grand uncle), genuinely committed to helping those less privileged. No, that would have been too genuinely radical to contemplate. She admits that she is a beneficiary of the Thatcher years, but she continues to insist that the “Thatcher pound” has no intrinsic value. Only the rich can make such claims. The intellectual knots she forces herself into probably come to her with ease because, like her money and her cultural capital, she does come from a long line of political contortionists.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover