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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The Groucho Marx approach to levelling up

I am #StateSchoolProud. Hopefully, Groucho would approve, as would those who are genuinely committed to "levelling up"

Image: The New European

I have always agreed with the Groucho Marx approach to clubs. And even if his “I refuse to join any club that would have me for a member” was devised to amuse, as with all great comedy, there is a serious point in there somewhere.

Clubs tend to present themselves as “exclusive”, and the key to the thinking is in the word. It is about excluding the many to make the few feel good about themselves. Then, in the more established men’s clubs especially, it is about rituals and rules, habits and clothes – ties, especially ties – that bind the exclusive together, and signal to the rest: you do not belong.

So what a pleasure it was to have an email land in my inbox from something called “the 93% Club”, asking if I would like to join it. Too right I would. “We are the UK’s LEAST exclusive members’ club,” its website proudly announces.

“We are the 93% of people who went to state schools in the UK. Despite our number, we occupy a much smaller percentage of top roles: 34% of FTSE 350 CEOs, 35% of senior judges, 43% of the House of Lords, 56% of journalists, and so the list goes on…

“That’s why we’re building a members’ club to rival some of the most exclusive and expensive clubs in the UK. We’re taking a centuries-old system and repurposing it to change society and tackle social immobility head-on.” What is not to like about that?

I wish I had known about the 93% when I was writing my now-finished But What Can I Do?, because it would fit nicely in the chapter devoted to individuals who have made a difference, from people you’ve heard of, like Greta, and many more who are less well known than Sweden’s most celebrated environmental activist, but who have nonetheless made change happen simply by deciding to do so.

My new club was started by a young woman called Sophie Pender, raised in a council house in Borehamwood, with an abusive father addicted to alcohol and drugs, and a mother constantly encouraging her to see education as the way to improve her life.

Her dad died from his addictions when she was 12. She went on to become the first pupil from her school to get three A* grades at A-level, and secured a place to study law at Bristol University.

“I had the right grades,” Sophie told me, “so I was sure my background would be irrelevant. I couldn’t have been more wrong. At Bristol, more than a third of the students were privately educated. There were regular ‘chav parties’ where boys from public schools would basically take the mickey out of the working class. They loved mocking our accents.

“There was one especially obnoxious boy who told a friend of mine his tweed jacket was worth more than the house she grew up in, and his friends would laugh like this was the funniest thing they had ever heard. I started to feel ashamed of my background. I started to doubt my mum’s promise that education was the great leveller.”

The more she learned about the old boys’ networks, not to mention obscenities like the Bullingdon Club after two of its more famous members, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, became prime minister, the more she decided to play the posh boys at their own game. Not by going round smashing restaurants and celebrating class war, as the “Bullers” do, but by building a network, the growth of which you can check out online at

Now a solicitor, Sophie’s goal is that the question so beloved of the privately educated – “what school did you go to?” – is replaced in the national conversation by “are you a member of the 93% Club?” I am.

I am #StateSchoolProud… I hope Groucho would approve. And I am sure that anyone genuinely committed to “levelling up” would approve too.

Sticking with comedy, and the use of networks to help those educated in state schools, may I use my platform for the blatantly nepotistic act of promoting my daughter Grace’s nationwide tour, A SHOW ABOUT MEn, which kicked off in Oxford on Tuesday. And yes, that is a lower case n on the end of MEn, because in Grace’s life, the ME – ie her – is what really matters.

I know I am biased, but she is very funny, though for a dad, it is at times a tough watch when she so clearly enjoys taking the piss out of me, and even tougher when she goes on about her sex life the whole time.

She has a strong and loyal fan base, dominated by young women who also seem to like talking very openly about sex, and taking the rise out of men and relationships.

One was so loyal that after a warm-up show for the tour last week, when Grace said it upset her that online her “job” was described as “being Alastair Campbell’s daughter”, my Wikipedia entry was briefly changed: “Alastair John Campbell (born 25 May 1957) is a British journalist, author, strategist, broadcaster and activist known for being Grace Campbell’s father and his roles during Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party.”

Grace claims not to have been involved in this act of online vandalism, and insists that I must believe her.

It won’t surprise you to know that I desperately hope Rishi Sunak goes down to a crushing defeat at the next election, and that his longstanding support for Brexit, and the Sovereign Individual view of the world underpinning it, are among the reasons for his loss.

However, none of that negates my desire to see him succeed in fixing the problems created by the oven-ready deal that turned out to be half-baked and without wings, and especially with regard to the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the special status for the province that Boris Johnson insisted (lied) would never be required.

But he will not do so unless and until he takes Johnson on, and calls him out as the creator of the mess he is trying to fix. Shame used to be a potent political force. However, whether with Donald Trump or this seemingly habitual liar George Santos in the US, or Johnson in the UK, that force would appear to have been eroded.

Sunak needs to inject it back into the heart of political debate. I recommend a speech that begins “I note my predecessor has chosen to re-enter this argument…” and ends, Attlee-to-Laski-style, “… I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome.” It would do Sunak, and the country’s body politic, a world of good.

To Dublin on Wednesday to do an event with former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, and also to attend the launch of his podcast series on the Good Friday Agreement, and to interview him for my podcast. Seems like everyone has a podcast these days!

His will be required listening for anyone interested in the peace process, not least because he has pulled in interviews with just about everyone involved, among them Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and George Mitchell. Ahern was among my favourite “other leaders” when I was working for TB. His recent re-joining of Fianna Fáil has led to speculation he may fancy a run at the presidency in future.

Like all major political figures, Bertie has his fans and detractors. But Ireland could do a lot worse than have him as president.

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