Now, I’m sitting on the roof of the Royal Opera House, at the poshest event I’ve ever attended. It’s a wine-tasting, filled to the gunnels with Hooray Henrys and the idle rich; the aristocrats who get employed in these things are genuinely born into it – without tasting Chateau Y’quem and a fine Margaux every day for ten years, you’re simply not going to have the experience to taste properly. It’s held by L’Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, in a giant glass palace in the Royal Opera House, overlooking Covent Garden. As far as I remember, the Royal Opera House receives regular government and lottery grants to support its function and pay for its more expensive productions; but with the clientele here, paying what they must for this tasting, I can’t believe that it needs that money.
Then I went off to Portcullis House in Parliament, to watch a panel of ex-Magdalen College luminaries, including Baron Kenneth Baker, Siôn Simon, John Redwood, Dominic Grieve, Matthew D’Ancona, Julia Hartley-Brewer, John Hemming and Stewart Wood answer questions from other Magdalen graduates from outside of politics. (Also a precocious and friendly 21-year old called Jamie Susskind who’d really done his research and sparred nicely with Redwood but unnecessarily dodged a question on the level of his student debt. I’m saying Labour Cabinet Minister for him, eventually.)
- The panel was oddly unfriendly to all-women shortlists for political elections, even down to one expressing his support in principle, though distaste in practice. One female attendee was extremely critical of the quality of female politicians selected through shortlists, relative to women elected purely on their own merits; there’s a touch of chicken and egg there, though, and surely something that’s reflective of problems with Britain’s ongoing gender imbalances.
- The majority of the panel agreed that faith schools must be retained because of their results, though the left of the panel said they led to segregation and intolerance. The balance between good results and community integration was a hard one to strike, and all of the panel deplored the failure of Lord Baker’s attempt to make new faith schools take a minimum proportion of non-faith students. More importantly, I think, is to focus on diversity of background in all schools – certain comprehensives and private schools act as faith schools due to their selection criteria and catchment area; likewise, other comprehensives act as grammar schools if established in upper-middle class areas.
Also, as a lone panellist pointed out, everyone was talking about this as if everyone had faith – and there was no provision for atheists in the faith school system, nor any restriction on market-saturation in given areas. This panellist was unable to find a non-faith primary school in the relevant catchment area, all of which required membership of certain local religious institutions, so the child was not allowed to attend any local school. In my opinion, close all the faith schools and those teachers would surely teach elsewhere; in that sense the faith element of a faith school is a red herring; if people want a religious education for their children, Sunday schools are available.
- They think MPs are underpaid on £60,000 + expenses a year, which I think is madness.
- They seemed to agree that an intervention in Iran over its nuclear programme is unfeasible, for Britain at least, but that Something Must Be Done, else Israel will get involved, violently. (I actually spoke to someone high-up in Non-Profileration for the Foreign Office earlier in the evening; his views coincided with the panel’s to some degree, though he seemed less certain of Iran’s ability to enrich enough Uranium to generate a bomb quickly; he was oddly quiet during the whole discussion).
- The best thinker, speaker and rationalist of the lot of them was, surprisingly, Kenneth Baker, followed by the ever-impressive and curiously funny John Redwood. Siôn Simon gave the impression of being a bruiser and party animal, and his language occasionally stumbled, but he made some good, original points.
And that was my birthday. Strange, bloody, boozy and pensive in turns.