Polly Toynbee

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Polly Toynbee
National Poverty Hearing Polly Toynbee.jpg
Toynbee in Westminster, December 2006
Mary Louisa Toynbee

(1946-12-27) 27 December 1946 (age 74)
Yafford, Isle of Wight, England, UK
EducationSt Anne's College, Oxford
  • Journalist
  • columnist
  • writer
Years active1966–present
Notable credit(s)
BBC Social Affairs editor (1988–1995)
The Guardian columnist (since 1998)
Political partyLabour (pre 1981; 1987–present)
Social Democratic (1981–1987)
(m. 1970; died 1992)

David Walker
RelativesArnold J. Toynbee (grandfather)
Philip Toynbee (father)

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

She is a social democrat and was a candidate for the Social Democratic Party in the 1983 general election. She now broadly supports the Labour Party, although she was critical of its left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn.[2]

Toynbee previously worked as social affairs editor for the BBC and also for The Independent newspaper. She is vice-president of Humanists UK, 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. She became a patron of right to die organization My Death My Decision in 2021.[4]


Toynbee was born at Yafford on the Isle of Wight,[5] the second daughter of the literary critic Philip Toynbee by his first wife Anne Barbara Denise (1920-2004), daughter of Lieutenant George Powell, of the Grenadier Guards.[6][7]

Her grandfather was the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, and her great-great-uncle the 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, who remarried to the philosopher Richard Wollheim.[6][8][9]

Toynbee attended Badminton School, a girls' independent school in Bristol, followed by Holland Park School, a state comprehensive school in London, as she had failed the 11-plus examination. She passed one A-level,[10] obtained a scholarship to read history at St Anne's College, Oxford[citation needed], but dropped out of university after eighteen months. During her gap year, in 1966, she worked for Amnesty International in Rhodesia (which had just unilaterally declared independence) until she was expelled by the government.[10] She published her first novel, Leftovers, in 1966.[10] Following her expulsion from Rhodesia, Toynbee revealed the existence of the "Harry" letters, which detailed the alleged funding of Amnesty International in Rhodesia by the British government.[11]

After Oxford, she found work in a factory and a burger bar, 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."[10] 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).[10]


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 was an editor for the Washington Monthly.

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 writes for The Guardian,[12] and serves as President of the Social Policy Association.[13] She is chair of the Brighton Festival and deputy treasurer of the Fabian Society.

Political history and opinions[edit]

Toynbee is a member of the Labour Party. She and her first husband, Peter Jenkins (from 1970),[14] were supporters of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) breakaway from Labour in 1981, both signing the Limehouse Declaration. Toynbee stood for the party at the 1983 general election for Lewisham East, garnering 9351 votes (22%) and finishing third.[15] She was one of the few SDP members who believed in unilateral nuclear disarmament, founding an unsuccessful group "Unilateralists for Social Democracy".[16] 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.[17]

In 1995, Toynbee criticised Metropolitan Police Commissioner Paul Condon's comments that 80% of mugging cases were committed by black people, stating that it was "an over-simplification that is seriously misleading".[18] She approvingly quoted academic researcher Michael Keith, who said: "If you were to standardise for everything else – education, unemployment, housing estates, life chances – race on its own would have virtually no significance."[18]

In a 2002 debate hosted by the Royal Society of Arts and Prospect magazine, 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."[19]

Toynbee strongly supports state education, though she had two of her three children partly educated in the private sector, leading to accusations of hypocrisy.[20][21] 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".[22] 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's Conservatives would not win thanks to vote splitting. "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."[23]

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."[24] 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".[25]

Having advocated for Gordon Brown to succeed Blair as prime minister, Toynbee continued to endorse him in the early part of his premiership.[26] 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.[27] She subsequently called for his departure, voluntary or otherwise.[28] In the European Elections of June 2009 she advocated a vote for the Liberal Democrats.[29] During the 2010 general election she advocated a tactical vote for whichever candidate was best able to keep the Conservatives out of power.[30]

In October 2010, Toynbee was criticised for an article in The Guardian[31] in which she said the government's benefits changes would drive many poor people out of London and could be seen as a "final solution" for their situation. Some people interpreted this as a reference to the Nazis, which Toynbee said was not her intention.[32] A Press Complaints Commission report in the matter ruled the comments were "insensitive", but did not breach any rules as the organisation's remit does not cover matters of taste and offence.[33] She later apologised for using the term.[34]

Toynbee has been described as "the queen of leftist journalists",[10] 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.[35] Andrew Marr has said that "[w]hat makes her stand out as a journalist is not only her strong views but also her ferocious appetite for research. In a media world in which too many media columnists simply voice their top-of-the-head opinions, Polly always arrives heavily armed with hard facts".[36]

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".[37][38]

Toynbee hoped that Theresa May would work to reduce poverty in the United Kingdom when she became prime minister, and that a Working Tax Credit will be increased to reduce child poverty.[39]

Toynbee does not believe the public sector needs steadily less money every year. She argues that the government has plenty of money to finance tax cuts for better off people. She wrote in March 2017 that "They plan to cut the size of the state permanently to 36% of GDP, from 45% in 2010. New faces in No 10 and 11 Downing Street are only casting changes for the same old script, ideologically identical."[40] In late June 2017, after the 2017 general election Toynbee wrote, "There are a million fewer public servants than in 2010, a loss keenly felt in every field. ... From depleted Whitehall's frantic scramble to hire thousands more experts to cope with Brexit, to the critical shortage of nurses and carers, cuts in environmental health officers and 90% fewer health and safety at work inspections, voters now see a threadbare public sector."[41]

A week after the 2017 general election, Toynbee responded to the Grenfell Tower fire and wrote that "Political blame spreads right through the Conservative party, with no escape on offer. This goes far beyond the precise shockers – the Tory MPs who mockingly rejected housing regulation; the cuts to funding to councils responsible for retro-fitting fire suppressants; the disregard of coroner's instructions after the 2009 Lakanal House tragedy; and even the plan to opt out of EU safety regulations. Conservative Kensington and Chelsea council allegedly blocking its ears to tenants' well-founded anxiety is just the immediate scandal. But this event reaches far deeper, to the very sinews of its party's policy."[42]

Toynbee believes the National Health Service is badly underfunded. In January 2017 she wrote that "When the Royal College of Surgeons protests at cancer operations cancelled, is that a tipping point? When nearly half of all hospitals declare major alerts for lack of beds, that's an emergency. Theres no winter flu, no Arctic weather, just pressure from underfunding, like an aneurysm about to burst. But the prime minister is not for turning, not yet." Toynbee also wrote, "But May can't defy the NHS laws of gravity that force every prime minister to U-turn on underfunding. Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair all buckled. This crisis looks set to outdo all those, says Chris Ham, NHS historian and head of the King's Fund. History shows – and this was proved in the Blair years – that when the NHS reaches roughly EU funding levels, its results soar. When funding falls too far, trolleys pile up in corridors."[43]

She is a strong opponent of Brexit.[44]

Views on religion[edit]

An atheist, Toynbee is an Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society,[45] a distinguished supporter of the Humanist Society 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 has said 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."[46][47][48] In 1997 she declared "I am an Islamophobe and proud of it".[49] 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".[50]

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".[51]

Toynbee had agreed to debate with the philosopher William Lane Craig during his UK October visit,[52] 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."[53][54]

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

The C of E is a confusing creature. Even while it tussles internally between conservative and liberal wings on gay marriage or female bishops, polls of its members show it's no longer the Conservative party at prayer: more vote Lib Dem and Labour. Look at the 40 bishops' raspberry of an Easter message to Cameron, with their strong rebuke against the "national crisis" of hunger so much worsened by his welfare policies. They know because their churches house the food banks used by almost a million people. (...) Like all humanity, the religious are both good and bad. The C of E is good on food banks, bad on sex and death. Faith makes people no more virtuous, but nor do rationalists claim any moral superiority. Pogroms, inquisitions, jihadist terror and religious massacres can be matched death for death with the secular horrors of Pol Pot, Hitler or Stalin. The danger is where absolute belief in universal truths, religious or secular, permits no doubt.[55]


Toynbee was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Essex in 1999 and by London South Bank University in 2002.[56] 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 Kent awarded Toynbee the honorary title of Doctor of Civil Law in November 2007[57] in recognition of her concern with poverty and welfare. This was followed in 2008 when University of Leeds awarded her fourth honorary doctorate.[58]

She won the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1998 (for journalism published by The Independent),[59] and in 2007 was named 'Columnist of the Year' at the British Press Awards.[60]

Toynbee declined to be made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2000.[61]

Personal life[edit]

Toynbee lives in Lewes, East Sussex.[62] She also owns a villa in Tuscany.[63][64] She is a member of the Arts Emergency Service.[65]

Select bibliography[edit]

  • 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)


  1. ^ National Portrait Gallery, Polly Toynbee
  2. ^ Toynbee, Polly (27 September 2016). "Why can't I get behind Corbyn, when we want the same things? Here's why | Polly Toynbee". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 January 2018.
  3. ^ a b "Polly Toynbee". British Humanist Association. Retrieved 11 March 2014.
  4. ^ "About Us". mydeath-decision.org. Retrieved 25 March 2021.
  5. ^ Toynbee, Polly (7 April 2015). "Back on the Isle of Wight, Tory Britain rehearses its collapse". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
  6. ^ a b "Obituary: Anne Wollheim". 27 November 2004.
  7. ^ An Historian's Conscience: The Correspondence of Arnold J. Toynbee and Columba Cary-Elwes, ed. Christian B. Peper, 1986, Beacon Press, p. 266
  8. ^ Langley, William (26 November 2006). "Profile: Polly Toynbee". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  9. ^ Enlightening: Letters 1946-1960, Isaiah Berlin, ed. Henry Hardy, Random House, 2012, end note no. 361
  10. ^ a b c d e f McSmith, Andy (26 November 2006). "Polly Toynbee: Reborn, as a lady of the right". The Independent. London.
  11. ^ Professor David P Forsythe (11 August 2009). Encyclopedia of Human Rights. Oxford University Press. pp. 164–. ISBN 978-0-19-533402-9. Retrieved 12 November 2012.
  12. ^ Toynbee, Polly. "Polly Toynbee". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 March 2020.
  13. ^ "SPA Executive Committee 2007–08". Social Policy Association. Archived from the original on 8 September 2006. Retrieved 21 April 2008.
  14. ^ Langley, William (26 November 2006). "Profile: Polly Toynbee". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  15. ^ Polly Toynbee and Andrew Pierce on air and rail strikes, The Daily Politics, BBC, 19 March 2010.
  16. ^ Roy Jenkins, A Life at the Centre (London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 588.
  17. ^ Toynbee, Polly (1 March 2011). "Some SDP thinking might strengthen Labour's nerve". The Guardian. London.
  18. ^ a b Toynbee, Polly (7 July 1995). "Mugging: is it a black and white issue?". The Independent. Retrieved 15 January 2016.
  19. ^ Polly Toynbee, John Gray and Hazem Saghiyeh, "(Re-)ordering the world: dilemmas of liberal imperialism", RSA Journal Vol. 149, No. 5501 (2002), p. 52.
  20. ^ McSmith, Andy (26 November 2006). "Polly Toynbee: Reborn, as a lady of the right". The Independent. London.
  21. ^ Jones, Lewis (August 2008). "Toynbee: the great comic figure of the age". The First Post.
  22. ^ Toynbee, Polly (23 September 2005). "The fight for the centre ground is throttling British politics". The Guardian. London.
  23. ^ Toynbee, Polly (13 April 2005). "Hold your nose and vote Labour". Guardian Unlimited Election blog. London. Retrieved 21 April 2008.
  24. ^ Johnson, Boris (23 November 2006). "Polly Toynbee the Tory guru: that's barking. Or maybe not". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 21 April 2008.
  25. ^ Chaundy, Bob (24 November 2006). "Faces of the week". BBC News. Retrieved 21 April 2008.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Toynbee, Polly (2 May 2009). "Gordon Brown: no ideas and no regrets". The Guardian. London.
  28. ^ Toynbee, Polly (12 May 2009). "Gordon Brown must go – by June 5". The Guardian. London.
  29. ^ Toynbee, Polly (1 June 2009). "Throw out bad councils and vote Lib Dem for Europe". The Guardian. London.
  30. ^ Polly Toynvee "Your heart might say Clegg. But vote with your head", The Guardian, 24 April 2010
  31. ^ Toynbee, Polly (25 October 2010). "Benefits cut, rents up: this is Britain's housing time bomb". The Guardian. London.
  32. ^ "Hysterics over housing". The Daily Telegraph. London. 29 October 2010. Archived from the original on 31 October 2010.
  33. ^ "News >> Commission's decision in the case of various v The Guardian". Press Complaints Commission. Archived from the original on 1 December 2010.
  34. ^ "Are the Tories being bullied?". Today. London. 29 October 2010. BBC. Radio 4.
  35. ^ "Polly Toynbee Voted UK's 'Most Influential' Commentator" (Press release). Editorial Intelligence. 13 April 2008. Archived from the original on 31 May 2009.
  36. ^ BBC News, 'Faces of the week' (24 November 2006), retrieved 9 January 2020.
  37. ^ Reeves, Richard (23 August 2008). "Review: Unjust Rewards by Polly Toynbee and David Walker". The Daily Telegraph. London.
  38. ^ 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.
  39. ^ "If Theresa May really cares about the poor, she must change course – now", The Guardian
  40. ^ "Don't fall for Philip Hammond's budget trickery. There is an alternative", The Guardian
  41. ^ Applauding a public sector pay cap? Tories are cheering their own demise The Guardian
  42. ^ "Theresa May was too scared to meet the Grenfell survivors. She's finished", The Guardian
  43. ^ "NHS crisis: the one act of self-sacrifice that could rescue our health service", The Guardian
  44. ^ Polly Toynbee, "At last, Jeremy. Now Labour's mission must be to prevent any Brexit"
  45. ^ "National Secular Society Honorary Associates". National Secular Society. Retrieved 27 July 2019
  46. ^ Behind the Burka. Women's History Review, Volume 10, Number 4, 2001.
  47. ^ Toynbee, Polly (28 September 2001). "Behind the burka". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 September 2020.
  48. ^ Private Eye 18 December 2020 p. 9
  49. ^ 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.
  50. ^ The Guardian (10 June 2005), quoted in Meer, p. 182.
  51. ^ Polly Toynbee, 'False paeans to the Pope', The Guardian (17 October 2003).
  52. ^ "What is Apologetics? – Polly Toynbee steps in where Grayling & Dawkins fear to tread". Bethinking.org. Archived from the original on 29 September 2011.
  53. ^ Brierley, Justin. "Sad to announce that @pollytoynbee has pulled out of debating William Lane Craig. Very disappointing. Will post the full story soon".[non-primary source needed]
  54. ^ "Bethinking.org". Archived from the original on 29 September 2011.
  55. ^ Polly Toynbee "David Cameron won't win votes by calling Britain a Christian country", The Guardian, 18 April 2014
  56. ^ "Honorary Degrees". London South Bank University. Retrieved 21 April 2008.
  57. ^ "Polly Toynbee – Congregations – University of Kent". kent.ac.uk.
  58. ^ "Seven honoured by the University of Leeds". leeds.ac.uk. 9 July 2008. Retrieved 17 October 2019.
  59. ^ The Orwell Prize, Polly Toynbee
  60. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/media/2007/jul/09/mediatop1002007.mondaymediasection76 The Guardian
  61. ^ "Some who turned the offer down". The Guardian. 22 December 2003. Retrieved 5 June 2020.
  62. ^ Baker, Norman (23 September 2015). Against the Grain. Biteback Publishing. ISBN 9781849549936 – via Google Books.
  63. ^ Zoe Williams (29 November 2006). "A primitive reaction". The Guardian.
  64. ^ Steerpike (10 April 2016). "Polly Toynbee forgets to check her privilege on Marr". spectator.co.uk (wp:newsblog).
  65. ^ "Media Diversity UK". E-activist.com. Retrieved 25 October 2013.

External links[edit]