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Polly Toynbee

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Polly Toynbee

Polly Toynbee
Toynbee in Westminster, December 2006
Born Mary Louisa Toynbee
(1946-12-27) 27 December 1946
Isle of Wight, England
Nationality British
Education St Anne's College, Oxford
Occupation Journalist and writer
Notable credit(s) Social Affairs editor: the BBC (1988–1995)
Columnist: The Guardian (since 1998).
Spouse(s) Peter Jenkins (1970–1992)
David Walker
Children 3
Relatives Arnold J. Toynbee (grandfather)
Philip Toynbee (father)

Mary Louisa Toynbee, known as Polly Toynbee (; born 27 December 1946),[1] is a British journalist and writer, and has been a columnist for The Guardian newspaper since 1998.

She is a social democrat and broadly supports the Labour Party, while urging it in many areas to be more left-wing. During the 2010 general election she called for tactical voting to keep out the Conservatives with the hope that this would lead to a Lab-Lib coalition supporting proportional representation.[2] However, she was a strong critic of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition and urged a vote for Labour in 2015. Toynbee previously worked as social affairs editor for the BBC and also for The Independent newspaper. She is Vice President of the British Humanist Association, having previously served as its President between 2007 and 2012.[3] She was also named 'Columnist of the Year' at the 2007 British Press Awards.


  • Background 1
    • Toynbee genealogy 1.1
  • Career 2
  • Political history and opinions 3
  • Views on religion 4
  • Honours 5
  • Personal life 6
  • Select bibliography 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Polly Toynbee was born at Yafford on the Isle of Wight,[4] the second daughter of the literary critic Philip Toynbee (by his first wife Anne), granddaughter of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, and great-great niece of philanthropist and economic historian Arnold Toynbee, after whom Toynbee Hall in the East End of London is named. Her parents divorced when Toynbee was aged four and she moved to London with her mother.[5] After attending Badminton School, a girls' independent school in Bristol, followed by the Holland Park School, a state comprehensive school in London (she had failed the eleven plus examination), she won a scholarship to read history at St Anne's College, Oxford, despite gaining only one A-level.[6] During her gap year, in 1966, she worked for Amnesty International in Rhodesia (which had just declared independence) until she was expelled by the government.[6] She published her first novel, Leftovers, in 1966.[6] Following her expulsion from Rhodesia, Toynbee revealed the existence of the "Harry" letters, which detailed the alleged funding of Amnesty International by the British government.[7]

After 18 months at Oxford, she dropped out, finding work in a factory and a burger bar and hoping to write in her spare time. She later said "I had a loopy idea that I could work with my hands during the day and in the evening come home and write novels and poetry, and be Tolstoy... But I very quickly discovered why people who work in factories don't usually have the energy to write when they get home."[6] She went into journalism, working on the diary at The Observer, and turned her eight months of experience in manual work (along with "undercover" stints as a nurse and an Army recruit) into the book A Working Life (1970).[6]

Toynbee genealogy

The Toynbees have been prominent in British intellectual society for several generations (note that this diagram is not a comprehensive Toynbee family tree):

Joseph Toynbee
Pioneering otolaryngologist
Harriet Holmes
Arnold Toynbee
Economic historian
Harry Valpy Toynbee
Gilbert Murray
Classicist and public intellectual
Lady Mary Howard
Arnold J. Toynbee
Universal historian
Rosalind Murray
Antony Harry Toynbee
Philip Toynbee
Writer and journalist
Anne Powell
Lawrence Toynbee
Josephine Toynbee
Polly Toynbee


Toynbee worked for many years at The Guardian before joining the BBC where she was social affairs editor (1988–1995). At The Independent, which she joined after leaving the BBC, she was a columnist and associate editor, working with then editor Andrew Marr. She later rejoined The Guardian. She has also written for The Observer and the Radio Times; at one time she edited the Washington Monthly USA.

Polly Toynbee speaks at the October 2005 Labour Party conference

Following in the footsteps of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed (2001), she published in 2003 Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain about an experimental period voluntarily living on the minimum wage, which was £4.10 per hour at the time. She worked as a hospital porter in a National Health Service hospital, a dinnerlady in a primary school, a nursery assistant, a call-centre employee, a cake factory worker and a care home assistant, during which time she contracted salmonella. The book is critical of conditions in low pay jobs in Britain. She also contributed an introduction to the UK edition of Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Currently Toynbee serves as President of the Social Policy Association.[8] She is chair of the Brighton Festival and deputy treasurer of the Fabian Society.

Political history and opinions

Toynbee and her first husband Peter Jenkins (from 1970)[9] were supporters of the Social Democratic Party breakaway from Labour in 1981, both signing the Limehouse Declaration. Toynbee stood for the party at the 1983 General Election in Lewisham East, garnering 9351 votes (22%), and finishing third.[10] She was one of the very few SDP members who believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament, founding an unsuccessful group "Unilateralists for Social Democracy".[11] She later refused to support the subsequent merger of the SDP with the Liberals (to form the Liberal Democrats), reacting instead by rejoining Labour when the rump SDP collapsed.[12]

In a 2002 debate hosted by the Royal Society of Arts and Prospect, Toynbee argued that the West should pursue liberal internationalism by intervening through the United Nations to promote democracy around the world: "Spreading people's right to self-determination, and their right to think and vote for themselves, is a moral obligation...We should be intervening now in the Congo and Sudan".[13]

Toynbee strongly supports state education, though she had two of her three children partly educated in the private sector, leading to accusations of hypocrisy.[14][15] Although consistently critical of many of Tony Blair's New Labour reforms, she wrote in 2005 that his government "remains the best government of my political lifetime".[16] During the 2005 General Election, with dissatisfaction high among traditional Labour voters, Toynbee wrote several times about the dangers of protest voting, "Giving Blair a bloody nose". She urged Guardian readers to vote with a clothes peg over their nose if they had to, to make sure Michael Howard would not win from a split vote. "Voters think they can take a free hit at Blair while assuming Labour will win anyway. But Labour won't win if people won't vote for it".[17]

Toynbee speaking to Policy Exchange in 2013

In December 2006, Greg Clark (a former SDP member, later to be a Conservative Minister) claimed Toynbee should be an influence on the modern Conservative Party, causing a press furore. Reacting to this, Conservative leader David Cameron said he was impressed by one metaphor in her writings – of society being a caravan crossing a desert, where the people at the back can fall so far behind they are no longer part of the tribe. He added, "I will not be introducing Polly Toynbee's policies". Toynbee expressed some discomfort with this embrace, adding, "I don't suppose the icebergs had much choice about being hugged by Cameron either."[18] In response to the episode, Boris Johnson, at the time a Conservative MP and journalist who had been severely criticised by Toynbee, rejected any association with Toynbee's views, writing that 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".[19]

Having advocated Brown to succeed Blair as Prime Minister, she continued to endorse him in the early part of his premiership.[20] By spring 2009 she had become sharply critical of Brown, arguing that he had failed to introduce the social-democratic policies he promised, and was very poor at presentation too.[21] She subsequently called for his departure, voluntary or otherwise.[22] In the European Elections of June 2009 she advocated a vote for the Liberal Democrats.[23] During the 2010 general election she advocated a tactical vote for whichever candidate was best able to keep the Conservatives out of power.[24]

In October 2010 Toynbee was criticised for an article in The Guardian[25] in which she said the government's benefits changes would drive many poor people out of London and could be seen as a "

  • columns by Polly ToynbeeGuardian
  • Polly Toynbee on Twitter
  • Polly Toynbee on Journalisted
  • Interview with Polly Toynbee at the Wayback Machine (archived September 25, 2006) focussing on religion with Third Way magazine, 22 June 1998
  • Political Journalist of the Year 2003 citation at the Wayback Machine (archived January 18, 2008)
  • Journalisted – Articles by Polly Toynbee
  • Unjust Rewards: Exposing the Greed and Inequality in Britain TodayRSA Vision webcast – Polly Toynbee elaborates on the findings of her new book 18 September 2008

External links

  1. ^ National Portrait Gallery, Polly Toynbee
  2. ^ Toynbee, Polly (1 May 2010). "The vote is precious, but we can't be. Keep the enemy out". The Guardian (London). 
  3. ^ a b "Polly Toynbee". British Humanist Association. Retrieved 11 March 2014. 
  4. ^ Toynbee, Polly. "Back on the Isle of Wight, Tory Britain rehearses its collapse". The Guardian. The Guardian. Retrieved 7 April 2015. 
  5. ^ Langley, William (26 November 2006). "Profile: Polly Toynbee". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  6. ^ a b c d e f McSmith, Andy (26 November 2006). "Polly Toynbee: Reborn, as a lady of the right". The Independent (London). 
  7. ^ Professor David P Forsythe (11 August 2009). Encyclopedia of Human Rights. Oxford University Press. pp. 164–.  
  8. ^ "SPA Executive Committee 2007–08". Social Policy Association. Retrieved 21 April 2008. 
  9. ^ Langley, William (26 November 2006). "Profile: Polly Toynbee". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  10. ^ Polly Toynbee and Andrew Pierce on air and rail strikes, The Daily Politics, BBC, 19 March 2010.
  11. ^ Roy Jenkins, A Life at the Centre (London: Macmillan, 1981), p. 588.
  12. ^ Toynbee, Polly (1 March 2011). "Some SDP thinking might strengthen Labour's nerve". The Guardian (London). 
  13. ^ Polly Toynbee, John Gray and Hazem Saghiyeh, '(Re-)ordering the world: dilemmas of liberal imperialism', RSA Journal Vol. 149, No. 5501 (2002), p. 52.
  14. ^ McSmith, Andy (26 November 2006). "Polly Toynbee: Reborn, as a lady of the right". The Independent (London). 
  15. ^ Jones, Lewis (August 2008). "Toynbee: the great comic figure of the age". The First Post. 
  16. ^ Toynbee, Polly (23 September 2005). "The fight for the centre ground is throttling British politics". The Guardian (London). 
  17. ^ Toynbee, Polly (13 April 2005). "Hold your nose and vote Labour".  
  18. ^  
  19. ^ Chaundy, Bob (24 November 2006). "Faces of the week". BBC News. Retrieved 21 April 2008. 
  20. ^ Toynbee, Polly (29 June 2007). "It's a truly decent, clever team, but that is not enough. Now they must excite". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 20 August 2009. 
  21. ^ Toynbee, Polly (2 May 2009). "Gordon Brown: no ideas and no regrets". The Guardian (London). 
  22. ^ Toynbee, Polly (12 May 2009). "Gordon Brown must go – by June 5". The Guardian (London). 
  23. ^ Toynbee, Polly (1 June 2009). "Throw out bad councils and vote Lib Dem for Europe". The Guardian (London). 
  24. ^ Polly Toynvee "Your heart might say Clegg. But vote with your head", The Guarian, 24 April 2010
  25. ^ Toynbee, Polly (25 October 2010). "Benefits cut, rents up: this is Britain's housing time bomb". The Guardian (London). 
  26. ^ "In the name of reason, cut the caterwauling". Daily Mail (London). 30 October 2010. 
  27. ^ "Hysterics over housing". The Daily Telegraph (London). 29 October 2010. 
  28. ^ Glover, Stephen (28 October 2010). "Labour's gleeful hopes for a double-dip recession are juvenile. Worse, they are out of touch with the public mood and unpatriotic". Daily Mail (London). 
  29. ^ Press Complaints Commission >> News >> Commission's decision in the case of various v The Guardian
  30. ^ "Are the Tories being bullied?".  
  31. ^ "Polly Toynbee Voted UK's 'Most Influential' Commentator" (Press release). Editorial Intelligence. 13 April 2008. 
  32. ^ Reeves, Richard (23 August 2008). "Review: Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  33. ^ Sutherland, Ruth (14 September 2008). "Asbos for the millionaires: A strong and hopeful analysis of the growing gap between Britain's rich and poor". The Observer (London). 
  34. ^ Behind the Burka. Womens History Review, Volume 10, Number 4, 2001.
  35. ^ The Independent (23 October 1997), quoted in Naser Meer, Citizenship, Identity and the Politics of Multiculturalism: The Rise of Muslim Consciousness (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 182.
  36. ^ The Guardian (10 June 2005), quoted in Meer, p. 182.
  37. ^ Polly Toynbee, 'False paeans to the Pope', The Guardian (17 October 2003).
  38. ^ – What is Apologetics? – Polly Toynbee steps in where Grayling & Dawkins fear to tread
  39. ^ (11 August 2011) Justin Brierley confirming the pull out on Twitter
  40. ^ Article about pullout
  41. ^ Polly Toynbee "David Cameron won't win votes by calling Britain a Christian country", The Guardian, 18 April 2014
  42. ^ "Honorary Degrees".  
  43. ^ The Orwell Prize, Polly Toynbee
  44. ^
  45. ^ "Media Diversity UK". Retrieved 2013-10-25. 


  • Leftovers, a novel (1966) ISBN 0-586-02643-6
  • A Working Life (1971) ISBN 0-340-14760-1
  • Hospital (1977) ISBN 0-09-131390-2
  • Way We Live Now (1981) ISBN 0-413-49090-4
  • Lost Children: Story of Adopted Children Searching for Their Mothers (1985) ISBN 0-09-160440-0
  • Hard Work: Life in Low-pay Britain (2003) ISBN 0-7475-6415-9
  • Better or Worse?: Has Labour Delivered? (2005) ISBN 0-7475-7982-2
  • Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today (with David Walker, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84708-093-6
  • Cameron's Coup (with David Walker, 2015)

Select bibliography

Toynbee is a member of the Arts Emergency Service.[45]

Toynbee married The Guardian's political columnist Peter Jenkins in 1970 having met him at trade union conference; they had three children. Jenkins died from a lung disease in 1992.

Personal life

She won the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1998 (for journalism published by The Independent),[43] and in 2007 was named 'Columnist of the Year' at the British Press Awards.[44]

Toynbee was awarded an Honorary Degree by the University of Essex in 1999 and by London South Bank University in 2002.[42] In 2005, she was made an Honorary Doctor of The Open University for "her notable contribution to the educational and cultural well-being of society". The University of Leeds awarded her third Honorary Doctorate in 2008.


Toynbee has mixed feelings about the Church of England; she opposed both religious and secular dogmatic beliefs. In April 2014 she wrote:

Toynbee had agreed to debate with philosopher William Lane Craig during his UK October visit,[38] but subsequently pulled out, saying "I hadn't realised the nature of Mr Lane Craig's debating style, and having now looked at his previous performances, this is not my kind of forum."[39][40]

In 2003 upon the 25th anniversary of Pope John Paul II's papacy, she wrote that he "is a hate-figure and with good reason...No one can compute how many people have died of Aids as a result of Wojtyla's power, how many woman have died in childbirth needlessly, how many children starved in families too large and poor to feed them. But it is reasonable to suppose these silent, unseen, uncounted deaths at his hand would match that of any self-respecting tyrant or dictator".[37]

An atheist, Toynbee is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and a supporter of the Humanist Society of Scotland, and was appointed President of the British Humanist Association in July 2007. Since 2012 she has been the BHA's Vice President.[3] She claimed that she is simply a consistent atheist, and is just as critical of Christianity, Islam and Judaism. She wrote: "The pens sharpen – Islamophobia! No such thing. Primitive Middle Eastern religions (and most others) are much the same – Islam, Christianity and Judaism all define themselves through disgust for women's bodies."[34] In 1997 she declared "I am an Islamophobe and proud of it".[35] In 2005 she opposed the Bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred: "Race is something people cannot choose and it defines nothing about them. But beliefs are what people choose to identify with...The two cannot be blurred into one – which is why the word Islamophobia is a nonsense".[36]

Views on religion

Toynbee has been described as "the queen of leftist journalists",[6] and in 2008 topped a poll of 100 "opinion makers", carried out by Editorial Intelligence. She was also named the most influential columnist in the UK.[31] With her current partner, former Social Affairs editor of The Guardian David Walker (Peter Jenkins died in 1992), Toynbee co-authored two books reviewing the successes and failures of New Labour in power. In Unjust Rewards (2008) they argued that "excess at the top hurts others".[32][33]

[30] She later apologised for using the term.[29]

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