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Monday 20 December 2004


Polly Toynbee

Public Orator, Professor Ruth Lister presented the Honorary Graduand at the Degree Ceremony held on Monday 20 December 2004 at 3.00pm.

Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor, Lord Lieutenant, High Sheriff, Honorary Graduands, Ladies and Gentlemen and Graduands

The late Edward Said wrote that ‘in education, politics, history and culture there is…a role to be played by secular intellectuals, call them a class of informed and effective wet blankets, who…compassionately press the interests of the unheard, the unrepresented, the comparatively powerless’. I’m not sure Polly Toynbee would want to be described as a ‘wet blanket’, even an informed and effective one - more a thorn in the side of politicians she considers wrong or unduly timid. But she certainly uses her position in public life to ‘press the interests of the unheard’, in particular those living in poverty.

Educated at Oxford, Polly Toynbee began her career as a reporter with The Observer. She moved to The Guardian in 1977 and after 11 years as a columnist became the BBC’s Social Affairs Editor until 1995. She then joined The Independent as columnist and associate editor before returning to The Guardian as columnist in 1997.

Over the years she has published a number of books, starting with what she describes as ‘a very bad novel! Best forgotten!’ If fiction was not her métier, social commentary most certainly is. She has written a study of adoption and an analysis, with David Walker, of the Labour Government’s first term (with a follow-up due in the New Year). She has published a number of books of ‘reportage’, the most recent being Hard Work – Life in Low Pay Britain.

This was an account of the time she spent trying to live on the minimum wage and on a deprived estate, only ten minutes ‘but a world away’ from her own comfortable home in South London. It is an honest, insightful and passionately committed account of what it means to live in poverty. A columnist on a rival paper chose it as his book of the year. He commended Polly’s ‘outstanding reporting skills’ and her contribution as one of ‘the most important social democratic thinkers of her generation’.

This contribution has been recognised in a number of awards: British Press Awards Columnist of the Year, George Orwell Prize, Magazine Writer of the Year, What the Papers Say Commentator of the Year, Political Journalist of the Year.

Polly Toynbee has also contributed to public life through her membership of a number of bodies including the NHS National Screening Committee and the Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty. She is currently president of the Social Policy Association, the first non-academic to hold this position. This is in recognition of the significant contribution she has made to social policy, in particular through her writings on poverty, inequality and childcare.

I would like to give the last word to one of Polly’s colleagues on The Guardian: ‘a great reporter’, ‘ a great writer’ and ‘a great person’.

Therefore, Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you, and to the whole University, Polly Toynbee for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.


Loughborough University - Degree Speeches 2004, December 2004
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