I'M FED UP BEING A POLITICAL FOOTBALL; How, in One Week, Laura Spence Has Become the Innocent Victim of Gordon Brown's Class War

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 28, 2000 | Go to article overview

I'M FED UP BEING A POLITICAL FOOTBALL; How, in One Week, Laura Spence Has Become the Innocent Victim of Gordon Brown's Class War


Byline: SIMON WALTERS

LAURA SPENCE did not really want to talk, but she did tear herself away from her A-level studies to insist: 'I don't want to become a political football, that's the last thing I want.' It's not the sort of remark you normally hear from an 17-year-old schoolgirl, however articulate, but Laura is no longer just another teenager worried about her exams.

She has become caught up in an education class war, held up by Gordon Brown as an example of how ordinary, working-class children are barred from 'elitist' universities such as Oxford.

There is nothing working-class about Laura's family home on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne. It is a typical middle-class semi in the village of Monkseaton.

A week ago Laura Spence could not have imagined that she was about to become a cause celebre in the highest quarters of both the political and educational establishment.

Her secondary school headmaster complained that she had been unfairly rejected by Magdalen College, Oxford, where she wanted to study medicine.

Her acceptance by America's premier university, Harvard, and their award of a [pounds sterling]65,000 scholarship, attracted publicity and comment.

But it was not until the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the full force of the Treasury weighed in with inflammatory accusations about 'elitism, privilege and the old school tie' network of Oxford which had allegedly discriminated against her, that Laura's name was assured a place in political history.

Laura was not the only one to be surprised. It came as something of a shock to most of the Cabinet who were not consulted about the move launched by Mr Brown at a TUC lunch on Thursday.

When the Cabinet met on Thursday morning, chaired by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, standing in for Tony Blair, Brown said little.

After their usual 40-minute Cabinet discussion, the officials were sent out while Ministers had a 15-minute political session, when they normally speak more candidly. Still Mr Brown said nothing about Laura, Oxbridge elites, tearing down the walls of privilege, nor old school ties.

But just over an hour after the Cabinet meeting, Mr Brown addressed a TUC lunch and quite deliberately lit the fuse to the most explosive political row in Britain for months. His claim that Laura's treatment was 'scandalous' provoked uproar, with Tony Blair's friend and mentor, former SDP leader Roy Jenkins, Chancellor of Oxford University, leading the fightback against the 'ignorant and prejudiced' outburst.

Gordon Brown is a complex and highly sophisticated politician, not given to off-the-cuff outbursts. He has undoubtedly had a longstanding interest in providing opportunities for the disadvantaged. He is also an Old Labour traditionalist who knows that his ambitions to lead the party depend on the support of grassroots activists who see him as the natural successor to Blair.

He suffers a dilemma: a pragmatic Treasury Minister and friend of the City but at the same time the conscience of the party.

This dichotomy then surfaced. The old socialist Brown, dormant for three years, appeared in his true colours.

Yesterday, Downing Street insisted that Brown had discussed his move in advance with Blair though a spokesman refused to say exactly when, adding: 'I will decide how much to tell you.' But other Government sources challenged the official account. They claimed the official version was 'inaccurate and incomplete'. One said: 'I do not believe that Gordon told Tony precisely what he was intending to do. My understanding is that Gordon sought out David Blunkett after the Cabinet meeting and told him he planned to raise the general issue of opening up admissions to Oxford and Cambridge, using a speech David had made a few weeks ago.

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