The steady downward path of the New York Times op-ed page

In yesterday’s New York Times, second-rate biographer AN Wilson pontificated on the premiership of Tony Blair. I know there is always a mystery about the Times’s choices for its once-prestigious op-ed pages, but I would have thought that someone with a bit of a record on political observation would be the natural choice. Instead, Wilson was able to vent without any apparent need to check facts on the Blair legacy.

Here is a paragraph that particularly got my goat:

Then there was Blair the Efficient, who told us he would improve the educational system, transportation, hospitals: in all these areas, Britain is in a parlous state, with railway accident rates reminding us of the 19th century and true literacy levels much lower than those of the Victorians. As many as one-quarter of British parents now pay for ruinously expensive private education for the children. That is the measure of Mr. Blair’s success with the schools.

Maybe I’m missing an attempt at satire, but there is hardly a true word in the paragraph. Wilson states that one-quarter of parents go private. Where does that figure come from? The true figure is 6.3% of students in England and Wales attend private schools. According to the CIA World Factbook, 99% of the population of the UK is literate. I’m not sure what Wilson means by “true literacy”, but I’m sure it was lower by any measure in Victorian times. I haven’t sourced statistics on railway accidents per mile, but most people reckon the problems with trains in Britain can be traced to the misguided privatization scheme of the former Conservative government. Health? There are certainly tons of problems in the National Health Service, but the health outcomes for the population are better on average than in the US, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

If you want to read thoughtful, well-argued, well-supported analyses of the Blair decade, turn to Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, David Marquand in The Guardian or even the epistolary responses of David Aaronovitch and Matthew Parris in The Times (of London).

My take? I think Stephens gets it pretty much right. Blair led a much-needed transformation domestically and achieved more than he is given credit for and less than many hoped. His social democratic stance has become the political norm in the country, which is wholly to the good. Outside Britain, he did a lot for Africa, the Balkans and the drive to combat climate change. But he will forever be correctly tarred for his terrible misjudgment on Iraq.

8 thoughts on “The steady downward path of the New York Times op-ed page

  1. Felix

    Ah yes, but I’m sure those 6.3% of students come from 25% of the parents. The fecundity of the lower classes, you know 🙂

  2. Lance Knobel

    I’m still incensed by that one-quarter tripe. In London, where use of private education is relatively high, I think the figure is more like 12%. What that shows is that it’s almost negligible everywhere else. Except in AN Wilson-land.

    Even in our old stamping ground of Dulwich, Felix, the vast majority of kids go to the local state schools. All those Dulwich College and Alleyns kids seem to come from the wilds of Clapham.

  3. David Derrick

    Entirely agree with your assessment of the consistently third-rate AN Wilson. But I think most people would agree that the levels of literacy are low and falling in the UK – and by true literacy we assume that he means the next level up from being able to read and sign your name. It doesn’t mean conformity to a narrow definition of English.

  4. Felix

    David, I don’t think that “most people would agree” with that — certainly not the kind of people who like to have their opinions backed up by empirical data, rather than anecdotes from the Daily Telegraph letters page.

    As for Dulwich, I don’t know the numbers. Dulwich has what you might call a barbell demographic, of course, with the Kingswood Estate, so overall statistics can be a bit meaningless. On the other hand, the local primary schools have always been pretty good, I think, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that most middle-class kids (which means upper-middle-class kids, given Dulwich property values) go to state schools. As for secondary schools, there’s no doubt that in my day those middle-class parents would do almost anything to avoid their kids ending up at Kingsdale. But I just downloaded the prospectus for (ahem) the Kingsdale Foundation School, The Multimedia School of Academic, Creative and Vocational Studies, and I have to say I’m very, very impressed. And probably would have happily gone there myself had it existed then.

  5. David Derrick

    Alright, there has been a lot of reporting suggesting that large parts of the UK population have trouble with basic literacy and numeracy. But you are right. That is anecdotal and not the same as a fall in literacy etc.

    The point about ANW is that negative opinion, unless you are extremely talented, is unattractive. A rant between friends is OK. Going into permanent print lamenting decline is nearly always the sign of a small person. Which is odd, since there is so much to criticise. The only way round this problem is to be an excoriating satirist.

  6. David Derrick

    … and satirists, when you think about them, don’t lament “decline”, whether of literacy or anything else. That’s for Daily Mail readers and AN Wilson. They only look at the present.

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