Self-flagellation leaves Abbott out in the cold

7th November 2003 at 00:00
The dilemma of a liberal middle-class Hackney mum sending her 12-year-old son to a private school is a common London tale. But when the parent is Labour MP Diane Abbott, stalwart of the left-wing Socialist Campaign group, it becomes a talking point.

After all, Campaign attacks not only private education, but also selection.

Hardly compatible with the pound;10,000-a-year selective and private City of London school for boys where Miss Abbott's son, James, is going.

In 1996, Miss Abbott criticised MP Harriet Harman for sending her son to a state grammar school. Although Miss Abbott claimed no longer to remember saying, "She made the Labour party look as if we do one thing and say another", the Telegraph sourced the quote to Breakfast with Frost.

Yet Miss Abbott indulged in a remarkable bout of what the Observer called "public self-flagellation" - which must at least have helped pay the school fees. Signed articles appeared in the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday and she opened her heart to the Sunday Mirror.

On the BBC programme This Week, she said: "Private schools prop up the class system in society", adding that "I had to choose between my reputation as a politician and my son."

James gallantly defended his mum against charges of hypocrisy on a local BBC radio phone-in.

But all this activity hardly helped her cause. "I'm a hypocrite and I don't care" headlined one explanation that she felt she had little choice given how poorly black boys do in state schools. "Race card is Abbott's cheap trick," declared an unconvinced Mirror leader.

Other Labour politicians, including Lord Falconer and Paul Boateng, have chosen private schools for their children with less fuss - Lord Falconer defended Miss Abbott on Radio 4's Any Questions. But unlike her, they have not attacked others for their choices. And by choosing to defend herself so loudly, she gave succour to those who believe that inner-city schools have not improved. That explains why so many Labour MPs were so unsympathetic to her plight.

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