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A lifelong obsession with class

Polly Toynbee loafing around in 1966. Getty

For someone who aspires to do away with societal divisions, says David James in The Critic, Polly Toynbee is “obsessed with class”. Her new memoir, An Uneasy Inheritance, begins with the “reductive and depressing statement” that “class and money are at the heart of everything”. She is so preoccupied with social status that every character introduced is immediately allocated to a “finely graded sub-division”. Throughout, there’s an inescapable sense of “self-loathing”. Toynbee describes her life as a “posh left-winger” – her ancestors, most notably the historian Arnold Toynbee, “influenced British culture” throughout the last century – as being like “walking across a minefield”. She repeatedly writes that she’s “ashamed to confess” one of her close relations was a Tory MP.

But what’s most staggering is Toynbee’s rank hypocrisy. Take, for example, independent schools: she claims to hate them and makes several “predictably snide” comments about Eton, failing to mention that most of her children were privately educated. “Principles can be useful when writing another op-ed piece, but they can be awfully irritating when they intrude on one’s life.” Toynbee criticises the entrance exams she sat for Oxford as being constructed to “reward people of exactly my background”. Does that stop her accepting a place? “Of course not.” The book’s title is “perhaps unintentionally” revealing: her inheritance might be “uneasy”, but not entirely undesirable. The idea that she could reject it altogether and lead a life “genuinely committed to helping those less privileged” – like the politician John Profumo did at Toynbee House (named after her great grand uncle) – is clearly “too genuinely radical to contemplate”.

An Uneasy Inheritance by Polly Toynbee is available to buy here.