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Letting go of our Misconceptions on China

“The birdcage has become an aviary,” begins Rob Gifford, China Editor of The Economist, over a mid-morning coffee. As a veteran broadcaster and journalist, Gifford has spent his career dissecting the inner workings of the People’s Republic. His first book, China Road, charts a 3,000 mile journey from Shanghai to the Kazakh border. China, through Gifford’s eyes, bears little resemblance to the homogeneous, Orwellian state of Western folklore. Our rhetoric, he argues, is at best naïve in its belief that democracy is a panacea to China’s problems, at worst dangerously simplistic. Gifford sees a people in flux, undergoing technological and industrial revolutions in tandem, destined for either greatness or implosion. “China matters,” he says, “more than it has ever mattered in modern times.” Perhaps it’s time to do away with our dated stereotypes.

Indeed, Gifford’s China sounds rather more like a Huxleyan society, amusing itself with bread and circuses, than a joyless dystopia. “This is the deal the Government struck with the people after Tiananmen,” he says. “Stay out of politics, and you can do anything you want.” And the people want fluff. Social networking sites such as Weibo and Weixin have made Chinese youths “every bit as shallow” as their Western counterparts- the danger being, of course, that this state sanctioned narcissism distracts from the underlying issues of inequality and political freedom. “It makes people less concerned about the bigger questions,” explains Gifford. “Nobody’s interested in politics. They’re annoyed by corruption, they’re annoyed by one party rule, but they have space to make money and to live.” They have, to an extent, been bought off, giving rise to a comfortable yet politically indifferent middle class.

Why, then, should we begrudge them this affluence? Of course, the Communist Party’s growth and manufacturing policies are far from ideal, as is its suppression of individual rights. But arguably, China owes much of its current stability to state capitalism. “It messes with our liberal minds,” says Gifford, “because there is some validity to the stability argument. We can’t deny that.” Nor can we deny that China has prospered where other single party states have failed. “Do you want to be Egyptian right now, or do you want to be Chinese?” he asks. “There are two reasons the Arab Spring didn’t catch on in China. One is the ability of the Chinese Communist Party to be brutal when it needs to be; let’s not mince our words. But the other reason is that there is hope in China. People have hope that tomorrow will be better than today.” And after all, he notes, political freedom won’t feed their families.

But there is still a very real need for democracy. The Chinese have little legal recourse, no independent judiciary and are vulnerable to exploitation by government officials; Gifford sums up the plight of the average citizen succinctly. “I’m being done over by this official. He’s a millionaire, I’m not. I can’t do anything. He’s using his power to make sure I go to prison for expressing my opinion, which is not his.”  For all the prosperity brought by the state, there is still a desire “for basic human justice, to not have the government interfering in your life.”

That said, Gifford believes a sudden transition to democracy would be disastrous for the nation. “If the Communist Party were overthrown tomorrow, and some multi-party state were enforced, China would fall apart. Let’s be clear about that; you don’t build democracy overnight.” Indeed, the global community might also suffer under a democratic China. “China is at a very nationalistic stage. If we had democracy now, the kind of leader who might be voted in might not be the kind of leader that we think we want. He might be a very anti-Japanese, populist leader; it’s entirely possible.” Ideally, then, China would emulate South Korea. “How? By keeping a one-party state until you have a middle class, and political change becomes natural.”

And so, China’s rise must be managed carefully. On the one hand, we cannot ignore or condone the government’s shortcomings on humanitarian issues. On the other, our rather McCarthyist stance on communism and one party rule is unhelpful and must be re-assessed; China is not the bogeyman, and our cries of “democracy NOW!” may be harmful to its people and the global community at large. Or, as Rob Gifford says, “careful what you wish for.”

Sophie Baggott

Oxford professor rejects imprisonment for theft and fraud

Jail is not the place for thieves and fraudsters, says a professor from All Souls College.

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Instead Prof Andrew Ashworth has proposed fines and community service as alternative sentencing for ‘pure property offences’ in a pamphlet published by the Howard League for Penal Reform. A jail sentence should be imposed only for violent, threatening, or sexual crimes, he suggested.

Released on 14 August 2013, this pamphlet is part of a ‘What if?’ series that aims to challenge conventional attitudes towards penal and criminal justice. Prof Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, argued that imprisonment is disproportionate censure for ‘pure property offences’. He questioned: “Should someone be sent to prison and deprived of their liberty for an offence that involves no violence, no threats and no sexual assault?”

The professor told The Oxford Student that he had considered the victim in his reasoning and added that he had first-hand experience of street robbery. He recommended prioritising compensation for victims, which would be less likely from someone behind bars with little income if any. “Community sentences are both restrictive of liberty and constructive, and this needs to be more widely known” he said, but recognised the rarity of compensation being fully paid.

The Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Cook, commented: “At a time when all areas of public finance are stretched, threatening schools, hospitals and the police, it’s time for our politicians to make some tough decisions on exactly who should be sent to prison.” BBC legal affairs correspondent Clive Colman estimated that this alternative sentencing would mean almost 6000 fewer prisoners, which in turn would lead to annual savings of £230m.

Prof Ashworth said: “saving public money might be a bi-product of the proposals, but it is not the purpose.” In his paper, he points to the abolition of imprisonment for begging and soliciting for prostitution in 1982 as Parliament accepted that the severity of the offences did not warrant a deprivation of liberty. Prof Ashworth admitted exceptions to his stance, saying that if a victim was targeted due to vulnerability, a prison sentence may be worth consideration.

Stephanie Cherrill, a third-year lawyer in Corpus Christi College, commented: “I think the best thing about what Ashworth has said is that it feels like at the moment there’s no consensus about why we send people to prison and (as only he can) he has provided a neat categorisation that could fuel further discussion.” Nevertheless, Justice Minister Damian Green has denied that the government has any intention of changing the law.


George Monbiot: National Columnist’s Man Wilder

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Sean Scoltock interviews Guardian columnist, writer and producer George Monbiot.

“We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again”, George Monbiot.

If not literally feral, George Monbiot, the figuratively rabid Guardian columnist, by trade menacingly encircles cosseted elites. A self-described “unreconstructed idealist” with the self-assigned task to “comfort the afflicted, [and] afflict the comfortable”, Monbiot is renowned for holding those in power to account, from his early path-breaking travel journalism, up to his recent accusation that the Government Chief Scientific Advisor has “disgraced himself and disgraced his office”. Few good causes have not benefited from his involvement; many disreputable ones have suffered on the same account.

Being only figuratively rabid, though, George is bored. He sometimes feels as if he’s “scratching at the walls of this life”, one in which “loading the dishwasher present[s] an interesting challenge”. He goes on to say, in his new book Feral, that “I am sure I am not alone in possessing an unmet need for a wilder life”. It might be thought this need will be more keenly felt by those who spent their youth variously exploring exotic idylls, conning corrupt bureaucrats and being shot at, but the point is well-taken nonetheless. Modernity is dull.

Dullness isn’t to be abated in Oxford’s second largest Costa Coffee – the scene, nevertheless, of our meeting on a sunny May afternoon. Carrying what looks like camping equipment, Monbiot greets me affably, setting up only a pair of sparkling waters between us. Perched on imported wood, sipping from a Polyethylene container, and speaking into a Sony voice recorder – against a background of till-ring and coffee bean Muzak – Monbiot laments that “we are in a situation of what could be described as extreme civilisation.” Among other things, “we have insulated ourselves so effectively from the vicissitudes of life, from risk, from contingency, that we have made it too easy for ourselves. We’ve gained a great deal in providing ourselves with a life that lacks much of the uncertainty that any previous generation faced, but we’ve lost something as well: that something is the excitement of a contingent life”.

What is one to do in this predicament? This is Monbiot’s current obsession: “from my point of view, what I would like to see most is a much more self-willed natural world, full of the large creatures that we’ve extirpated, and I think through that we can discover something that’s missing in our own lives.”

It is also the central message of Feral. By re-introducing past native species – as well as no longer suppressing those artificially curtailed – and then stepping back, our ecosystems will be thereby set on a path of greater diversity along which the ‘ecologically bored’ can find excitement, surprise and delight. The term is ‘rewilding’: both of ecosystems, by “resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way”, and of, well, us – the enabling of “a life richer in adventure and surprise”.

Any self-respecting columnist knows how to write for effect; Monbiot the author intersperses deliberately edificatory passages – one, of a kayak trip into Cardigan Bay, where he “feel[s] a kind of peace he never feel[s] on land” – with arguments for the reintroduction to Britain of elk, grey whales, bison…and elephants. “It was such a shock for me to discover that we had a megafauna [large animals] so recently, and I wanted to convey that surprise and amazement and delight in that finding, and especially that our ecosystem still shows strong signs of adaptation to the presence of those large beasts”.

Still, though, elephants? Isn’t he just trying to stir up publicity? “It does wake people up, to start talking about elephants, rather than our more familiar wildlife”, he concedes. “I want people to start thinking big – you don’t get much bigger than an elephant”.

And it isn’t enough, for Monbiot, that there are twice-daily flights from Heathrow to Tanzania: “why should we have to travel halfway round the world to see the kind of wildlife that we used to have? To be able to experience astonishing wonders of the natural world on your doorstep is something which should almost be a basic human right. It’s part of our history, our evolutionary experience, and it should be, if we choose, a part of our lives today”.

The colour of his outlook is patent in the enthusiasm with which Monbiot discusses “trophic encounters”, “self-willed ecosystems”, and “the return of wolves, lynx, moose, wolverines, wild boar, and beavers of course”, as well as in his reasons specifically for letting nature go its own way. He explains: “For me, what I find most thrilling about nature is its capacity to surprise. If we manage it, it can’t surprise us anymore. We prevent those dynamic processes from happening which are constantly throwing surprises as to what successional states they might create, which species become dominant, what can suddenly arise in an ecosystem which wasn’t very visible before: all of those things which I find utterly delightful and fascinating.”

Effect is indeed what Monbiot after. Invariably expressing himself in grammatically well-formed sentences, which express points rarely unaccompanied by illustrative hand gestures, his has been a consistent and loud voice on the scientifically respectable side of the climate change debate. A few years ago, the incessantly repugnant ex-US diplomat, John Bolton, was less-than-affably greeted by Monbiot at a literary festival with an attempt at a citizen’s arrest, on account of Bolton’s role in the Iraq war. From the manufacturing history of smartphones to the ethics of nuclear power, his column issues weekly challenges to its readers, complacently sheltered by their surroundings and in their beliefs.

But strident iconoclasm only sometimes comes off. Does he feel he has changed things for the better? “On a very small scale, I think I made a contribution to reversing the government’s plan to start killing buzzards” – his remarks are best read in light of his modest disposition – “and I’ve had some impact on certain aspects of climate change policy. It’s more about generating debate in places where there wasn’t debate before, and then you don’t really know what your impact is going to be. So, on the bigger issues, I suppose what I’m trying to do is to keep open one bit of political space which would otherwise close up, and to just hold open a few little cracks of light. It’s a minor role, it only makes any sense when lots of other people are acting on the same issues and making use of those cracks that I’m trying to keep open. I suppose what I’m trying to do is to show: here is a potential way forward, don’t give up, don’t despair, because there are possibilities here”.

It’s not, however, only modesty; few of his campaigns have in fact achieved their stated ambitions. I ask him how he maintains optimism in the face of such recalcitrance. “I suppose I keep going because I’ve never quite been able to give up my innate optimism. And I know that madness is defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, but I guess what I’ve tried to do is to do a slightly different thing every time, approach an issue from a different angle, bring in new information, challenge different interests, and hope that one of those will allow me to find a way in to it which will be effective. And, very occasionally, not very often, I can see some impact that my writing has had”. His optimism speaks: “It’s very hard to measure, but I do believe it has some impact, and that’s worth fighting for. And I don’t want to give up.”

His is the sort of optimism necessary to keep dreams alive, and it is a rare sort. If one were, for instance, told it was a “waste not to follow one’s dreams”, it would typically sound either disingenuous or naïve, depending on the age of the speaker. But Monbiot defies this tendency. With him, there is no discrepancy between authorial spirit and embodied demeanour.

Nor between words and deeds. Upon leaving Oxford with a degree in Zoology, Monbiot briefly worked in the BBC’s natural history unit – welcomed with: “you’re so fucking persistent, you can have the job” – and the World Service, before embarking on an enviably self-willed journey. With only a small advance from his publisher, he travelled to Indonesia, having spent much of his time at the BBC “cruising, while I learnt Indonesian and researched the book I was intending to write”. There, he reported on the intra-migration of urban Javanese to the comparatively undeveloped West Papua. Having gathered information first-hand from starving migrants, disaffected missionaries, and soon to be displaced tribespeople, he exposed the crimes of the Indonesian government in his first book Poisoned Arrows.

Monbiot had at that point a quite definite purpose. “I used the fact that I was free and uncluttered, without family, without a mortgage, without any necessity to pursue a particular career, to go to places where other people weren’t going, and do things that I believed were important even if no-one else in the world believed they were”. In contrast with the majority of journalism, including – he implies – his own, “I had as much time as I wanted. If I wanted to spend two years in a place until I got to grips with what was really happening there, then that’s what I did”.

From Indonesia to the Amazon, spying a similar unreported crime: this time corrupt Brazilian officials and the irrationality of their policies, which were – and are – exacerbating the already too rapid deforestation there. Not dissuaded from such endeavours by being shot at by Brazilian gangsters and beaten up by policemen, it was to Kenya next, and the delicate fate of the tribes of the Maasai and the Kikuyu (where he succumbed to an almost fatal case of cerebral malaria). The respective published accounts are at once celebrated travelogues and impassioned pleas for change.

“I’m very glad I had those experiences”, he says, as we both, in different ways, vicariously enjoy his earlier adventures. “And I’m very glad I didn’t have anything stopping me. I didn’t have any constraints on my freedom then, and that was a wonderful thing. I could be as irresponsible as I wanted to be, and that was brilliant”. It’s just as great a waste to not follow one’s dreams as it is “when young people who have got endless capacity for irresponsibility become terribly responsible. And I would always choose to make use of that level of freedom again”.

I wonder where he might go now, if he had such a choice: “Ecuador, given the conflicts over the oil industry there[…]similarly in the Arctic[…]I’m intrigued by some of the things going on in West Africa at the moment – Mali would be a place I’d be drawn to[…]I would still go back to Indonesia[…]Oh, and Malaysia”. Not that he’s thought about it much.

It’s not just with (lots of) people in (lots of) other fields with which Monbiot (intends to) find himself at odds. His website includes a full account of his personal finances – down to the nearest complimentary cup of coffee – but only a handful of other journalists have followed his example. I ask why this might be. “Some people are embarrassed about having so much, and other people are embarrassed by having so little.” I was expecting more trenchant criticism. “But that’s allied with the fact that journalism is a profoundly corrupt and corrupting industry; and that most people’s financial affairs in journalism would not withstand proper scrutiny, because people are paid by the interests they are supposed to be reporting on. Not necessarily bribed in an obvious way, but people take all sorts of perks from corporations”.

If Monbiot stands in the thematic tradition of Thoreau and Ruskin, then, in his palpable energy and determination, he might also be grouped together with Isaiah Berlin and Christopher Hitchens: both never lost the verve of youth nor the felt need to appeal to youthful hopes. And for those who don’t want to hand over their idealism with their gown and mortarboard, Monbiot illuminates one onwards route: “If [journalism] is going to be a fulfilling and satisfying and honest profession, then you have to be quite predatory in finding and grasping any opportunities to create a bit of space. Because, really, it’s about creating some independent space where you can speak for yourself rather than having to speak for other people, where you can establish yourself sufficiently not to be bullied, not to be told what to do.”

“For me”, he continues, “the sole purpose of having power within the industry is not to have to do what I’m told by anyone, and that’s a wonderful place to be. If you can get yourself into that place, journalism is wonderful. If you can’t, it’s total shit”. Not fancying the latter, I’m told a more hygienic career path requires “a great deal of persistence and bloody-mindedness”. It takes “knocking on doors and being rebuffed, and coming back again for more”, he adds, in the tenor of the sore-knuckled.

Monbiot assures me that he’s “been very lucky, very lucky indeed”, and I believe him – but I get the sense that Feral has been in gestation for some time. As a young man he envied the feckless Brazilian gold-miner and the carefree Kenyan tribesman; he stood awestruck at the forests of West Papua. This is his solution to the Problem of Dull Modernity.

Rewild nature, and we rewild ourselves, he tells me, shortly before decamping onto Queen’s Street. With that, I finish my now flat sparkling water, check the dimmed screen of my voice recorder, and set out onto the pavement divided up by early-evening shadows.


Chen Guangchen: Fighting for democracy

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Perhaps the greatest moment in China’s struggle for democracy so far this century happened was when Chen Guangcheng managed to escape from imprisonment in his farm house to the US embassy in Beijing hundreds of miles away. The world’s two biggest powers were forced to negotiate over one man’s fate. Chen spoke in the Union chamber two weeks ago, and I had the privilege of interviewing him on his way back to London.

On the train, I asked him how he became a human rights lawyer: “The most important reason is that there are so many unjust events in China, and the powerless and voiceless Chinese people need a lot of help in this respect. I don’t even have a law degree, and I never got to study law properly. Whenever I witnessed people in unfortunate circumstances, I taught myself relevant laws to help them out.”

The new Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about the “Chinese dream”, evoking its American equivalent. Ironically, Mr Chen is a good candidate for someone who fulfilled the dream. Blind from an early age and poorly educated until adulthood, he taught himself law and became a barefoot lawyer who advocates for women’s rights, land right, and the welfare of the poor. The local government actually praised him for years for defending the rights of disabled people. However, the state’s praise ended when Chen organised a famous class-action lawsuit against the local party over excessive enforcement of the one-child policy. After four years in jail, Chen was under house arrest for 19 months.

I asked him why he decided to escape from house arrest: “I didn’t think there was any point in passively sitting around and waiting. I had to think creatively about how to escape.” The blind human rights lawyer managed to escape through the prison-like security surrounding his home, but why did he choose the US embassy? He said “There wasn’t much time to think deeply about the issue; I didn’t even know whether the US would help me.”

Some might say going to the Americans was a bad choice for someone who needs to garner support among ordinary Chinese citizens. The moment he escaped to the US embassy, many Chinese people might have regarded him as a part of the grand US plan to destablise the Communist party. All his activism outside China could’ve been simply reduced to serving the US interest. He responded, “No one will be fooled by such propaganda by the Communist party. The Chinese people are smart enough to discern whether I am being used by America or not.”

Chen is a great idealist, which is perhaps both his greatest weakness and his greatest strength. His thoughts seemed naive at times, and yet perhaps became more powerful for that. I asked his whether he thought that a Western concept of democracy is not appropriate for East Asian Countries like China: “The Chinese Communist Party always says we cannot copy Western democracy. In some sense, they are correct. We can’t simply copy. But why can’t China pull off a similar democracy to Japan or South Korea?”

Some people argue that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people don’t want democracy yet and support the Communist party because it delivered the fastest growth in the standards of living over the last 30 years. I asked Chen whether the Chinese people actually feel this way: “It feels as if I am listening to the Communist party propaganda. People don’t resist the government because they are scared. It’s not because they are satisfied with the status quo. The Communist party obviously wants you to believe they are, but in fact they are choosing not to express their discontent.”

How should the Chinese people defeat this fear? “It all starts from realising how unjust the Chinese society is, and I am confident that they will overcome this fear once they stand up against the party a few times… If you walk in the dark for the first time, it’s scary, but if you do it again, you don’t fear the darkness any more. The Chinese Communist party won’t stop their oppression if you just watch them and do nothing. It will only getter if you start demanding your rights.”

“I didn’t believe in democracy from the beginning. I arrived at this belief through long process. As I took on cases, I realised that there is something fundamentally wrong about the system. Democracy has its weaknesses, but it is certainly the best political system out of all.”

Many commentators have pointed to the strongly collectivist Confucian culture in China and argued that Western-style democracy is not applicable to East Asia. Chen Guancheng disagress. He believes it’s necessary.


An interview with Owen Bennett-Jones

Owen Bennet-Jones, formerly of the BBC and now working as a freelance journalist, has been working as an international reporter for over 20 years. I had the chance to interview him about his work last week, and came out a little surprised by his confidence in the old-school set-up, as well as his optimistic views regarding the future of professional journalism as a whole.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Jones wouldn’t utter a bad word about the BBC – he’s worked for the corporation for 20 years. “Things are changing”, he said, when I asked whether the BBC was still respected in Central Asia; “when I was first in Pakistan the BBC was the only reliable source of news… But they’ve got their own broadcasters now… However, when something contestable happens, they’ll still turn to the BBC for what they think will be an authoritative account, so that basic credibility is still there… In other places like Afghanistan and Somalia, you don’t have any other reliable sources of news so they are almost entirely dependent on the BBC.”
I wondered out loud that the BBC might be seen as a colonial force, or at least as a remnant of a by-gone era. “I don’t think so… I think the BBC has managed to avoid that.” And so a BBC working as a BBC journalist gets you a lot of respect? “Absolutely… it opens a lot of doors.” Perhaps there’s no greater sign of the esteem it’s held in than that.
How about the internet? Twitter, especially, surely takes the onus off the professional reporter and gives it to anyone with a smart phone in their hand? “Not exactly”, say Jones. He tells me about when he first became a reporter, in Romania. “At that time there were six foreign phone lines… for 20 million people. It was impossible to find… I would literally spend 18 hours trying to get a phone line… now it’s a lot easier.”
And Twitter? Hasn’t it completely revolutionised the way reporters do things? “Not really… radio audiences are up as people demand more content. It doesn’t really undermine us, but’s it an excellent way of gathering news. Every morning I can check all the people follow in Pakistan and within half-an-hour I know everything important that’s going on. It’s a brilliant news agency almost… and I can put my work out there and it helps get it out.”
So the internet has no downsides for the foreign correspondent according to Jones? Not exactly; “You are now expected to file all day, every day, it’s constant demand, and instead of doing just the radio, which I really like doing, I have to TV and Online stuff as well.”
A reporter turning their nose up at the future and embracing the past then? “I like the radio because you can say more. TV is so complicated… and it’s so tight for time, that it’s very difficult to say anything of any significance at all. On radio you can get more in, and it’s a very intimate medium… I can do these long sequences, where I get 15 or 20 minutes together where I do try to explain what’s happening in Pakistan, for example. How it’s working. What’s going on. You could never do that on telly.”
He’s absolutely right, of course. With the acceleration of news media, on all various forms of screen, we’ve lost something. The long story, the journey; the news very rarely involves the reporter’s story. We’re never given the investigation, only its results. Some will say this is healthy. Others might not. Jones clearly doesn’t like it, but he might be just one of a dying breed.
I myself am a newspaper man; where does Jones see the future of printed journalism? “Newspapers now are a lot more analytical. Look at the front page of the New York Time’s, there will be analysis pieces, instead of simply showing the news because everyone has already got the news. Some of those newspapers would hang on to the idea that there still not giving opinions, but the distinction between analysis and opinion is so thin, that distinction is increasingly difficult for them to make. But there is a trend towards journalists becoming more analytical; many people would see that as more opinionated. Of course though, this doesn’t apply to Jones’ own haunt; “Within the BBC context, it’s very difficult to provide any comment at all.”
After I’d said ‘goodbye’, it struck me that maybe Jones would prefer the world of opinion and analysis. At the very start of the interview, he told me that loves journalism because “I like journalists. I like meeting up with my mates around the world and drink and talk politics, which is satisfactory from my point of view.”
It’s satisfactory from my perspective too. I just hope there’s still a place for the old-school journo by the time I get out of here.



Interview: Lord Adonis

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Andrew Adonis is out to fix Britain’s failing comprehensives. The former Minister for Education is Labour to the core, a champion of Teach First, and the driving force behind academy schools. He is, in short, the living embodiment of Tony Blair’s old mantra, “education, education, education.” Hardly surprising, given his own decidedly unconventional background. Adonis’ life story reads like a Dickens novel: aged eleven, Andrew was awarded a scholarship to attend boarding school in Oxfordshire. He hopped neatly from school to Keble, from Keble to Christ Church, and from Christ Church to-where else?- the corridors of power. His rise has been nothing short of meteoric.

And yet, sitting on a bench in Balliol’s Garden Quad, Andrew Adonis seems reluctant to discuss his own experiences of the state education system. To what extent did his schooling inform his policies? He sidesteps the question with such ease, it’s all I can do not to burst into spontaneous applause. “Fifteen years ago,” he explains, “one-third of comprehensive schools were pretty much no-go areas for the middle classes.” I wait for the party line, and he doesn’t disappoint. He credits Labour’s academy programme for “eradicating this long trail of seriously underperforming comprehensives, by improving their governence, leadership, teaching, and facilities.” And now, he tells me, “most schools in those in deprived areas are getting good results, and establishing strong traditions of sending students to university.”

He’s absolutely right. Ish. Whilst inner city schools like Hackney’s Mossbourne academy flourished under his watch, and GCSE results soared, Adonis’ stance on education marks him out as the exception rather than the norm within his party. In fact, for all his Labour sensibilities, the man wields some serious cross-Parliamentary clout. A decade ago, Adonis’ shiny new fleet of commercially sponsored, quasi-independent academy schools won him more than a few true blue Tory fans, with Michael Gove once declaring him to be “on the same page” as the Conservatives.

How disappointing, then, that a gutsy maverick like Adonis should fall into the same trap as every other politician under the sun: Oxbridge-bashing. The elite universities, he tells me, “need to engage in the state school system, particularly with comprehensive schools- much better than they have in the past.” Not this old chestnut again. In his recent book, ‘Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools’, Adonis continues to rip chunks out of his alma mater’s supposed lack of social engagement. He pins the blame for the chasm “between Oxford, Cambridge…and the majority of comprehensive schools,” squarely on the shoulders of the vice-chancellors, who “do a plausible job of claiming to be tackling it, while year after year little changes.” This is more than a tad unfair, given that Oxford alone holds around 1,500 outreach events each year, reaching 78% of all state schools and shelling out more than £8m on access initiatives, bursaries, and student support.

In his defence, Adonis does acknowledge that state school teachers must up their game. “You need both a stronger push factor and a stronger pull factor,” he says, urging  “the leading universities to encourage their best students to become teachers through the Teach First programme- because that will transform both results and aspirations in schools.” Indeed, he identifies Teach First as “the single most effective policy for attracting more able students from the state system. Because as we all know, it’s about who teaches you and the aspirations they give you.” Well said. Teach First has undeniably been a runaway success, attracting top graduates to inner city schools, and fast-tracking them to leadership roles. Adonis, as a trustee, has played an integral part in the scheme’s development. This much is clear: Andrew Adonis cares desperately about the state of comprehensive schools, and he is willing to transcend party politics to ensure your grandchildren will grow up in a meritocratic Britain. Long may he continue to be an honourary Tory!

The Oxford Student

One Step Ahead Since 1991