Polly Toynbee

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Polly Toynbee (2006)

Mary Louisa "Polly" Toynbee (born 27 December 1946) is a British journalist and writer. She has been a columnist for The Guardian newspaper since 1998.

Toynbee previously worked as social affairs editor for the BBC (1988–1995) and also for The Independent newspaper. Before joining the BBC, she had written for The Observer and The Guardian. She is vice-president of Humanists UK, having previously served as its president between 2007 and 2012. She was also named Columnist of the Year at the 2007 British Press Awards. She became a patron of right to die organization My Death, My Decision in 2021. She was a candidate for the Social Democratic Party in the 1983 general election. She now broadly supports the Labour Party.



  • He came from a public school, was the son of an old student of the dean ... [and] the only one with a distinctly sour school report.
    He was a big shambling clumsy looking young man. When asked, he said he had already been guaranteed an uncunditionalk place at his father's hospital "Well, they could hardly turn you down. Could they?" said the Dean drily. ... Picking up the report, which indicated laziness... [d]id he really want to be a doctor? "Yes, I'm dead serious." What sort of doctpr? "A country GP working on my own. I couldn't stick the routine of hospital life" ... [After the candidate left, the Dean and Consultant surgeon conducting the interviews discussed him] "What do you think?" the Dean asked the surgeon. "I knew his father, and he was just the same, but he's a very good doctor now." The surgeon laughed. "I would say that under no circumstances whatever would I admit him if it wasn't that you knew his father and you say he was the same." The Dean said, "Well, I'm happy to have him." I was surprised at the decision.
  • The last candidate of the day was also the son of of a doctor. The Dean knew his father too. "His father is a bright chap, but completely incomprehensible," he said. The boy was intense and serious but with a speech impediment. He spoke a great deal about the need for doctors to "Co-communicate" with their patients, which afterwards made the Dean smile.
    He spoke enthusiastically about the role of doctor as counselolr, pointing out that recent research indicated that GPs had to deal with people's psychological ailments as much as their physical wellbeing. ... Analysis of the school's drop-outs showed that the desire to do social work and a wish to bring about change in society to help the roots of patients problems was one of the main reasons for students failing to stay the course. This boy was turned down outright.
    • The Guardian (18 December 1978)
    • Observing interviews conducted for admission to a London teaching hospital.
  • If the Divis Complex in Belfast isn't the vilest housing estate in Britain, I am willing to accept nominations for the award.
    Catholic West Belfast is a wedge-shaped slice of the city, and the Divis Complex is perched on the tip of the triangle, its 13 battered blocks nudging up against the check points of the city centre. Built only ten years ago, the flats have degenerated into a festering heap, crushed by the weight of their human density ...
    The troubles have contributed to the plight of the estate, but wherever it had been thrown up, it would have sunk under its own architectural and design faults, the cheapness of the materials used, the lack of repairs and amenities. ...
    The patches of ground between the flats are muddy heaps, scattered withy rubbish, with the stumps of old playground furnishings, bare ends of wires protruding where lamp posts once stood, and large rat holes everywhere. Rats have taken a grip on the place according to a recent estimate, the rat population was about 17,000 and out of control. ... There are no lights in the complex. Vandals knocked some out, and soldiers smashed the rest with their rifle butts, needing the cover of darkness for their patrols. The army has an observation tower at the top of the tower block, and patrols, running and covering one another chase up and down the balconies. One lunchtime when I was there, the soldiers had been into the estate five times that day. They had been knocking on doors and questioning people. Sometimes at night they knock front doors down. The flats stand on the front line next to the Shankill Protestant area, and there have been countless murders. ...
    The stairways are pitch dark even in the daytime — so dark that everyone counts the stairs as they go, remembering which flights have seven and which have ten steps. Some stairs have large chunks of concrete missing, so a stranger might well break a leg. ...
    It all takes its toll. With so many children in such a place, I didn't see much kindness. Brutalisation is inevitable. A mother wanted to show me her crippled child couldn't walk. "Come on Patrick show the lady how you move about," she urged him, but he shook his head. "Come on," she shouted, cuffing him.
  • Yet again we are to be treated to the disgusting spectacle of the virtually all-male House of Commons pontificating sanctimoniously on when and how women must or must not give birth to children. The greatest number of abortions happen because men abandon women at pregnancy, so the sight of a large collection of men deciding when and how women should have babies is especially unedifying.
  • The greatest motor behind the anti-abortion campaign has always come from the Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant churches and within all churches there has always been the strongest streak of misogyny. Telling infertile women that they should not benefit from test tube bay techniques or telling pregnant women they must give birth springs from a fount of woman hating passion that begins with the first chapter of Genesis and Eve in the Garden of Eden.


  • Sometimes it seems as if a tidal wave of the worst Western culture is creeping across the globe like a giant strawberry milkshake. How it oozes over the planet, sweet, sickly, homogenous, full of 'E' numbers, stabilisers and monosodium glutamate, tasting the same from Samoa to Siberia to Somalia. A traveller across the desert wastes of the Sahara arrives at last at Timbuktu, where the first denizen he meets is wearing a Texaco baseball cap. Pilgrims to the Himalayas in search of the ultimate wilderness in the furthest kingdom find Everest strewn with rubbish, tins, plastic bags, Coca-Cola bottles and all the remnants of the modern global picnicker. Explorers of the Arctic complain that empty plastic bottles of washing-up liquid are embedded in the ice. Global culture and its detritus wash up everywhere, nothing sacred, nothing wild, nothing authentic, original or primitive any more. These modern travellers' tales tell of cultural vandalism, Western Goths contaminating ancient civilisations and traditions untouched for centuries. If the West were to set out on a mission of global imperialism deliberately planned we would surely choose better cultural ambassadors. It is not pages from Shakespeare or scores of Mozart that litter steppe and savannah but some marketing man's logo from last year's useless, meretricious product, or a snatch of that maddening theme tune from Titanic. Was ever an empire so monstrously self-assured and ambitious? Western cultural imperialism reaches right into the hearts and souls, the sexual behaviour, the spirit, religion, politics and the nationhood of the entire world. It happens haphazardly with no master plan or empire-building blueprint, but with a vague and casual insouciance that drives its detractors to despair. So when we consider the globalisation of culture most of us bring to the subject a jumble of deep-seated alarms - moral, intellectual, political, spiritual, artistic and nationalistic, melting into a great pot of 'globalisation panic'. It causes deep pessimism about the cultural future of a world turning homogeneously horrible.
  • We might let Auberon Waugh rest in peace were it not for the mighty damage his clan has done to British political life, journalism and discourse in the postwar years. They have perpetuated the myth of the superior cultured English gent as an archetype. Although Waugh's loathing of American culture made him uniquely amongst this bunch a pro-European, (he loved to be a "maverick"), this coterie has lead the spirit of anti-Europeanism that pervades Tory party and country. Christopher Booker, Richard Ingrams and the rest posit a brave little England of crusty country-living upper-class eccentrics versus the dread (another of their words) bureaucracy of Brussels. It's the old world charm of Whisky Galore mischief-making and John Buchan plucky patriots against the humourless foreign swine. They have contributed to a nation afraid of change or modernity, peddling false, sentimental tradition and an upper-class yesterday unavailable to virtually everyone else.
  • Yet, as ever, he will sound considerably tougher on crime than on its causes because that is where his true feelings lie. The toughness comes easy but the underlying social justice theme comes but once a year at party conference.
  • The underlying reason for remorseless social disadvantage remains a silent subject in Blair politics.
  • Research published this month into OECD countries shows the poor gamble away a larger proportion of their income than the better off. Inevitably the temptations are greater when a £4,000 jackpot feels life-changing to someone on the minimum wage. So countries with more poor people - like the UK - are likely to gamble more. Britain is already the fifth highest gambler among developed nations.
  • High rolling countries run other risks when the exchequer itself gets addicted to the revenues. The Australian government now draws over 10% of its income from gambling: however much destruction it causes to families, the government would fear action that cut gambling habits. The UK Treasury gets only £1.4bn from gambling: on household losses of £9.7bn, that sounds as if the industry is escaping its fair UK dues.
  • No-one is suggesting banning gambling or casinos, any more than I would ban pornography, or drugs or all manner of things that might do people harm. But there is an important social difference between freedom to do what adults please if they deliberately seek out those things from regulated places - and aggressively thrusting them at everyone in everyday life.
  • The Labour question is always the same – how far can you go and still bring enough voters with you? As Labour’s divide deepens, those of us not supporting Corbyn have been assailed as "neoliberal", "siding with the elite", "betraying the poor", "hypocrite" and worse. Like many Labour people, free to dream I’d go further than Corbyn: I’d go for a windfall wealth tax to pay off the deficit, make the Queen be Elizabeth the Last, abolish faith schools, private schools and inheritance, tax millionaires at 70%: add your wishlist here. I don’t know how far you can go – but you have to win power to get anywhere at all. Once in power, with the levers of persuasion, you can take people further than you dare tread in opposition.


  • [A reopening of a water fountain in London, Wimbledon] I was there because the fountain was erected in 1868 in memory of my great-great-grandfather, Joseph Toynbee, otologist and ear-syringer to Queen Victoria: he died young in his laboratory experimenting on himself with chloroform for tinnitus. He was a radical local campaigner who fought to save Wimbledon Common from the rapacious Earl Spencer's attempt to privatise and enclose it. He set up the Wimbledon Village Club, a working men's institute for edification, entertainment, refreshments and a library, in much community use now. Family history records that his rigorous selflessness included dragging his nine children across Wimbledon Common on Christmas Day to make them donate their Christmas dinner to a Travellers' encampment. The plaque on the fountain says that working men of Wimbledon and those "interested in the public good" paid for this memorial.
  • [Remembering life events in 1964 or 1965] But as he was about to go to Oxford, I was appalled to find I was pregnant and even more appalled at his anti-abortion mother pressing us to marry. She suggested we would live in an Oxford flat, where I would bring up the baby while he studied: the end of my own future worried her not at all. We paid a visit to his newly married sister, who was living in Oxford’s Summertown, up the road from my great-aunts. I was pleased to see her, this lively, funny and magnetic character. But she was living, as far as I could see, the life their mother expected me to live, married and cooped up in an Oxford flat with a baby. Though she was herself a student, wifedom and life with a baby looked to me like a brutal curtailment of studenthood, locked in at home. There was her baby, Alexander, a few months old, lying naked on a bath mat, kicking his feet in the air, round, pink and fat, with a remarkable shock of electrically bright blond hair. As I gazed at him, I didn't find that baby at all appealing, too pink and too noisy. I shuddered at the prospect of this motherly existence, threatening an end to my life before it had even begun.
    Afterwards, as we both contemplated this scene, looking at his sister and at the vision of our future stretching out ahead of us, he broke off with me. [Toynbee had a then illegal abortion.]
  • That baby on the bath mat, who so decisively put me off the idea of teen motherhood, grew up to be the most disgraced prime minister under his ludicrously changed name of Boris: he looks much the same.
  • As for Boris Johnson, I look back with a morbid incredulity at what that baby grew up to be. It’s a not particularly good joke to surprise people with the fact that I am one of the many women to have seen him naked.
  • This is where the housing pressure-cooker explodes. This is Manchester's civil court, like others all across England, where people are made homeless, hundreds every day. Those unable to pay rocketing mortgages have houses repossessed here. Tenants unable to cope with stagnant incomes lose their homes here when budgets no longer cover rising rents. From here, court bailiffs are sent to remove them.
    The great scandal is the spiralling number of tenants evicted on "no-fault" section 21 orders: these allow a landlord to turn someone out even if they have always paid their rent on time, however many years they have been there, however well-behaved they have been.
  • By instinct, I like the French revolutionary tradition commanding absolute secularism in schools and state institutions. But French secularism tends to cause less social harmony, not more, used as an easy pretext for far-right anti-Muslim attacks. Humanists defend people's right to private beliefs and religious practices, as long as they impose on no one else.

About Toynbee[edit]

In alphabetical order by author or publication.
  • Her class identity has clearly caused her much confusion and soul-searching. She is particularly acute on the uncomfortable space that the radical middle and upper-middle classes have always occupied in our culture. The charge of hypocrisy is so easily made against affluent campaigners and reformers who must suffer "the cognitive dissonance of failing to live up to the beliefs we profess." It’s a fate, Toynbee notes with irritation, that no smug wealthy Conservative ever has to endure.
  • In so far as New Labour has a fairy godmother, Polly is the girl. She incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair's Britain.
  • Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and 'elf 'n' safety fascism. In an ideal Polly Toynbee world, private sector broadcasting would be banned, Rupert Murdoch would be nationalised, and the BBC would hire thousands more taxpayer-funded social affairs correspondents to psalm the benefits of social democracy.
  • All I can say is that when I had come out of my faint, and read what Greg was saying, I saw, naturally, that he was absolutely right. In spite of all she gets wrong, there are things that Polly says that are serious and true, and that any Conservative government should be saying.
  • In Tuesday's Guardian, the doyenne of the liberal-Left establishment, Polly Toynbee, unburdened herself of the anger she feels when she is attacked for being middle class: "Right-wingers have long used class against any middle-class Leftist, a bullying that sidesteps the real political argument."
    It's no wonder she's so upset at being called middle class. It's quite wrong. Mary Louisa Toynbee (as she was born) is the great granddaughter of the Earl of Carlisle. Her uncle was the philanthropist Arnold Toynbee. She comes from a very grand family.

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