Toby Young’s appointment reinforces our worst fears about establishment hypocrisy

Toby Young’s appointment reinforces our worst fears about establishment hypocrisy

So the truth about Toby Young’s short-lived appointment to a student quango has finally been dragged out, and it doesn’t look pretty.

I know, I know – knock me down with a feather. But some things, while utterly unsurprising, are still both revealing and rather shocking, and this is one of them.

It’s not just that, having evidently struggled initially to dig the paperwork out of the Department for Education, the commissioner for public appointmentsestablished that Young was indeed treated differently to other applicants for plum posts on the new Office for Students. It’s what that says about the establishment’s extraordinary reluctance to practice what it preaches, opening itself up not only to outsiders from all backgrounds but also to new and challenging ideas.

Unlike the poor saps responding cold to a job advert, Young was privately invited to apply by the universities minister, Jo Johnson, brother of his good friend Boris. When he did so, nobody seems to have delved deeply enough into his background to reveal the tweets that would later get everyone into so much trouble, although the social media accounts of student activists applying for the student representative position were naturally raked over with a fine-tooth comb by so-called No 10 Googlers.

There’s nothing sinister, by the way, about special advisers doing this kind of background check. It’s part of their job to make sure government isn’t avoidably embarrassed by oh, let’s say a history of tweets about random women’s breastsand a dubious, long-forgotten article about the ethics of selecting embryos for intelligence.

What stinks is the failure to apply that rule to everyone, including those who might already be regulars on the Tory dinner-party circuit. This isn’t just cronyism, a tactic used by governments since time immemorial to ensure their ideological writ runs widely – Labour was as bad when in power, and given it’s currently busy packing its own in-house institutions with Corbyn loyalists, it will struggle to occupy the moral high ground here – but a kind of intellectual laziness.

For all it does is reinforce everyone’s worst fears about an overly cosy establishment that talks a good game about helping people get on regardless of their background yet in private still falls back on the sort of people they were at university with; that lectures others about boardroom diversity and the need to avoid groupthink while quietly excluding anyone who genuinely challenges the prevailing consensus from their own gilded enclaves.

It speaks volumes that, on a body supposed to improve student experiences and amplify student voices, the student candidate the panel liked was rejected by No 10 on issues including their opposition to the Prevent counter-terrorism programme in universities and their views on no-platforming – on which, of course, Young reliably conforms to the Downing Street view.

Ironically, the self-professed champions of millennial snowflakes being forcibly exposed to ideas they dislike apparently weren’t prepared to be exposed to dislikable ideas themselves, or to entertain a genuinely robust debate even within their own private meetings about how to promote, ahem, robust debate. Do as we say, kids, not as we do.

It’s undoubtedly easier to hire someone you know, someone whose strengths and weaknesses are already familiar (although in Young’s case, evidently not quite familiar enough) and with whom you feel instinctively comfortable than to ask yourself who else might be out there.

In the same way that bosses often hire someone who subconsciously reminds them of their younger selves, headhunters always run through the same wearily familiar list of three names when asked to find a woman for a corporate board, and broadcasters fall back on the same narrow range of on-screen pundits – it saves time. But that’s exactly how groupthink sets in, establishments ossify and talent is overlooked; it’s how, in the end, nothing much really changes.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist