Polly Toynbee: A Touch of Class

Journalist, author, and activist Polly Toynbee – who is appearing at the Clifton LitFest on 11 November – has a family tree that is made up almost entirely of radical, left-wing, but solidly middle-class thinkers and activists. Isabelle Blakeney chats to Toynbee about her new memoir, An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals, and discovers how the roots of class privilege run a lot deeper than it may seem…

Arthur Toynbee, Jessica Mitford, Bertrand Russell – these are just a few of the notable names mentioned in An Uneasy Inheritance, Polly Toynbee’s account of her colourful and impressive heritage. Spanning generations and continents, the Toynbee family network is full of influential figures. But they all seem to have two things in common – their commitment to radical, left-wing activism against injustice and inequality, and their very comfortable, uncontested place in the middle class. These conflicting traits have created a substantial sense of middle-class guilt that has been passed down through generations, and continues to be felt today.

Toynbee herself has been described as the ‘queen of leftist journalists’ by The Independent and deplored as the ‘high priestess of political correctness’ by Boris Johnson; certainly, her multi-award winning writing is no stranger to scrutiny. Her work as the BBC Social Affairs Editor and subsequently as a Guardian columnist led to her involvement in New Labour policy meetings, and at one point her work was even praised by former Prime Minister David Cameron.

But her latest book is much more personal than her previous work. An Uneasy Inheritance examines her heritage, but rather than revelling in her ancestors’ successes, Toynbee looks at how class and privilege have influenced their lives and work. Not just in the sense of financial advantages, but recognising how the impacts of class privilege are more intricate:

“Yes, they certainly are. Money, of course, helps a lot – but the confidence, the assurance, the assumption that you can do anything, meet anybody, confront anyone – that’s a self confidence that you often gain from growing up in a confident, middle-class family; particularly a highly educated one.”

The book marks a shift from her previous publications. From A Working Life (1971) to The Lost Decade (2020), her books have been an outward criticism of state failures. So what sparked this self-reflection?

“I’ve been thinking about it for years, and I’ve been working on it on and off for about ten years. And I’ve been thinking increasingly about how to deal with the guilt and embarrassment of being left-wing but middle-class, and how my family have all struggled with being on the left and yet also being privileged professionals. And how did they cope with it? Well, sometimes not very well, sometimes quite comically, sometimes disastrously, but it was always something that they were thinking about.”

That struggle is a theme that runs through the book. With each family tale that Toynbee grippingly re-animates, there’s an obvious pain at the inevitable hypocrisy of their work. Her own father, writer Philip Toynbee, at one point resorted to turning the family home into a self-sufficient commune – before moving to a nearby cottage when his leftist ideals failed to match up with his comfortable middle-class life.

“I also wanted to write about my own family and put their stories to paper. Like all families, the stories are funny, serious, moving, awful; but satisfying all the same. The writing took so long, in part, because I was working out how to blend the themes together. On the one hand, there were the sociological influences – the things I’ve done in my writing life, at The Guardian, at the BBC, and then there are the stories of my family. I wanted to see if there was a way of blending those themes together without the awkward corkscrew turns, and it certainly took a while – I kept re-writing, re-organising in order to try to make it work, and I think it has.”
So has Toynbee had to reconsider herself and her own history under the scrutiny of the privilege that she has inherited?

“Absolutely. I mean, it goes back so many generations, further than I can reach, really. And you know, I really did look hard to see if I had a branch or even a twig of a working class root, a thread anywhere, but there was not one. And I know why people look for it – because you want to prove that you’ve earned what you’ve got. I have no idea if I would have become any sort of writer if I hadn’t come from a middle-class background. Given that I’ve done exactly what my family has done, I think probably not, so I can’t claim merit. When you read about people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps there’s a different feeling – an admiration because they’ve done it themselves. There is a measure of luck where everybody lands. But some people, without a doubt, have far more determination than I’ve ever had to show.”

Was there a time when Toynbee started to consciously consider her class privilege?

“I think that a lot of middle-class kids have the awareness, but I was probably more conscious of it than most, having come from a left-wing, class-conscious household that was so riddled with guilt over it. And then, really, it was when I started out as a journalist and I was working on my first book, A Working Life, and I realised that I really didn’t know much about the country that I was reporting on. I mean, where had I been? Oxford, Suffolk; that was it. And so I felt that I needed to learn about real work, away from my middle-class life.”

And so she did: in the book she reflects on her initial naivety, dropping out of Oxford to work in a sugar-packing factory by day, writing Tolstoy-style at night, only to realise that most factory-workers have no energy left to write great novels at the end of a shift.
This somewhat-comedic lack of awareness is a theme that runs through her family tree. Her own self-awareness, however, is very apparent. And so when working on her first book, she spent months travelling the country and doing low-paid, manual work in order to understand, to an extent, the realities of work in Britain.

Thirty years later, she decided to repeat the research for her book Hard Work (2003) to see if anything had improved – but it showed that things had only got worse. When working in a hospital, she found that her wage had actually fallen from what it had been in the 1970s (when considering inflation and average pay). And that wasn’t an isolated finding – it appeared that the chasm between the rich and poor was wider than ever. So is there any way of creating positive change?

“Well, I’m fairly positive that Labour is going to win the next election. I think that it’s inconceivable that this government is going to be re-elected, no matter what desperate things they do. I think there’s beginning to be a cultural shift, and if Labour can win several elections they can push things in the right direction. If schools, universities, education can all be made much better, then hopefully things will begin to improve. And with any luck, that will push the Conservatives back towards the centre so if at some point they do win again, they’re happy to pick up where Labour left off.”

Toynbee believes that there is a way that individuals can do their bit:

“I think that the tax burden is an important idea to challenge. When people complain about the ‘tax burden’, I think, well, hang on – what do you think your tax buys? It buys you all of the things that you care about the most. It buys you safety and security, healthcare, education, clean air and clean water, nice parks and nice public spaces; it preserves ancient buildings, funds museums, galleries, sport facilities, leisure centres, everything that’s far more valuable to people than things that you can buy in a shop. So any time people go ‘oh God, the tax burden’, I would want people to turn around and say that that’s really not right. You actually get very good value for your taxes rather than the narrative that it’s always the wasteful government throwing your taxes away.”

An Uneasy Inheritance is a fascinating, funny, and moving family memoir that reflects both on the past and on how we can do better for the future. Hope for a classless society seems minimal, however:

“It is a fairly grim outlook from the class point of view. But I’m very confident that things are about to change, that things are about to get better. Maybe there won’t be solutions to all of the appalling problems, but there definitely will be a change of atmosphere that will be encouraging to anyone with remotely progressive tendencies.”

Toynbee is coming to the Clifton LitFest in Bristol in November. While her memories of her time at school here are not the fondest, she feels a real sense of connection with the city.

“Outings into Bristol I loved. I really like Bristol very much as a city, I think it’s terrific; I have very warm memories of it. I used to sneak out to the centre of the city and travel about and go and see all of its sights. I think it’s a completely fascinating place – but in a strange way, it’s slightly underplayed in the national story, and I can’t quite work out why that is.”

In true Toynbee-style, she concludes the conversation with new questions to consider. Perhaps a new book idea there? In the meantime, An Uneasy Inheritance will provide you with enough food-for-thought to keep you going for some considerable time.

Polly Toynbee is in conversation with Chris Mullin at the Clifton LitFest on 11 November at 12pm. Find out more at foccal.com.
An Uneasy Inheritance: My Family and Other Radicals by Polly Toynbee is published by Atlantic (£22)