Sir Anthony Seldon on managing tragedy, the resilience crisis and political failure
September 29, 2023. Series 7. Episode 73
In this episode I’m joined by the eminent and progressive educator, renowned author and political historian Sir Anthony Seldon. As a Headmaster, he has led some of Britain’s most prestigious schools, including Brighton College and Wellington and most recently Epsom College, a role he took on following the shocking murder of former Headmistress Emma Pattison and her daughter, Lettie.
Anthony talks about that challenge and other personal crises he has faced and managed. Along the way we discuss his passionate belief in the importance of developing resilience in our young people. As he puts its: “What really matters is helping young people learn how to live meaningful, contented, productive, enjoyable lives without dependencies and without the need to trash themselves.”
His work on this subject was well ahead of its time … and even prompted severe criticism from other teachers.
Anthony’s own school education was far from plain sailing – he flunked his A Levels and was later, as he eloquently puts it, ‘invited to leave the school’. After the intervention of an English teacher who recognised his talent, he got back on course and, after some more bumps in the road, began the career in which he has helped so many young people.
Anthony also speaks movingly about the death of his first wife Joanna and explains why he feels he did not handle his grief well.
I loved this conversation both for the range of subjects we covered and for the wisdom Anthony shared so brilliantly. I hope you enjoy it too.
Sir Anthony’s Crisis Comforts
- Writing whilst walking – Walking is sensational. I dictate what I’m seeing and noticing, and then at the end of a day’s walking I put it all together.
- Eating and drinking with friends – There is nothing more heavenly and grounding than being in France by a river having lunch with people who one loves.
- Teaching – It’s in teaching that we learn. It is an unbelievable privilege talking to young people and sharing ideas with them.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Your Daily Practice: Sleep by Myndstream: https://open.spotify.com/track/5OX9XgJufFz9g63o2Dv2i5?si=b2f9397c92084682
Book By Anthony Seldon: The Path to Peace: Walking the Western Front Way
Host: Andy Coulson
CWC production team: Louise Difford and Jane Sankey
With special thanks to Global.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:00:00] I think that I probably felt I could have handled the pain better, but I think the pain is also inevitable. I mean, we all know that pain is the price that we pay for love, and if we’re going to love anybody there will be deep pain. I mean, there’s no way around it.
Andy Coulson: [0:00:25] Welcome back to Crisis What Crisis, the podcast that aims to guide you towards a more resilient life and whatever it might throw at you. If this is your first time with us, then please hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you’re watching or listening, it really helps make sure that these, I hope useful, conversations are shared as widely as possible.
My guest today is someone who can give us perspectives on crises from a number of different, I think very valuable angles. First and foremost as one of Britain’s most eminent and progressive educators, Sir Anthony Seldon has pioneered approaches as a headmaster designed to arm our young people for life’s challenges. Long before resilience became fashionable as a topic in our schools Anthony was introducing radical programmes to help his pupils lead, as he puts it I think rather brilliantly, smarter and more sorted lives.
That work, for reasons that I’m interested to explore, has not always been welcomed by the educational establishment.
As a young man himself Anthony became derailed with flunked A-levels and personal problems including heavy drinking and anxiety. The answer to those challenges, at least in part, came from discovering a passion to teach driven by a work ethic that would put most of us to shame.
Aside from the day jobs he has held, including as Master at Wellington and Brighton Colleges and Vice Chancellor at Buckingham University, Sir Anthony is a renowned author and political historian. He has written over forty books on contemporary history, politics and education including political biographies of Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May and most recently Boris Johnson. That book in particular giving a deeply critical analysis of Boris’ time in government.
The co-founder of the charity Action for Happiness, Anthony was knighted in the 2014 Birthday Honours for his services to education and modern political history.
Aside from resilience and happiness, grief is also a subject that Anthony has strong views on. Views forged from personal experience. In 2016 he lost his wife of thirty-four years, Joanna, five years after she was diagnosed with a rare cancer. He said that those final years together were among the happiest he ever had, like falling in love all over again.
Anthony’s clear-sighted, ultimately positive approach to how we should prepare for life’s most difficult moments has never been more tested or been more critical than with the task he now has as Headmaster at Epsom College; a school and community still in trauma following the murder in February of Headmistress Emma Pattison and her seven-year-old daughter Lettie by her husband.
Sir Anthony Seldon, welcome to Crisis What Crisis. How are you?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:03:10] Well, nice to be here. Thank you, looking forward to it.
Andy Coulson: [0:03:15] Anthony. On Epsom, it’s important I think that we make clear that this podcast is absolutely not the forum for you to discuss in any detail what happened there. I know the inquest is upcoming and this is an especially sensitive time. In general terms though, you’ve made clear that your job is to secure Emma’s legacy, to make sure that her amazing work is remembered and continues.
Can I ask you, how do you approach that task with a school, a community that, as I say, must be in such trauma?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:03:49] Well, I think in the way that we all should approach crises and trauma, which is not to become engulfed in it. Becoming engulfed in loss doesn’t pay service to the person or people who have gone. Catastrophising it doesn’t help anybody. One has to be optimistic, one has to be forward-thinking and one has to pull together.
And crises, whether the eternal crises in Downing Street which have sunk many of the fifty-seven premierships to date and counting of the Prime Minister’s office, or in the life of a school or a corporate life, it is the crises that are the test of the fibre of those organisations. So by applying what I’ve learned in life personally, but also from positive psychology, the great work of Martin Seligman, the under-known, under-acknowledged person who could inform every singled government, I had to bring him into Downing Street, by the way, and company, and make them simply better. But also I think by my own religious faith. So those things, a mixture of those.
Andy Coulson: [0:05:20] You’ve written that you ask yourself often in this job, this difficult task, “What would Emma do?” as you deal with those challenges. So legacy is an important piece also.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:05:35] Yes. We have to build from where we were, and taking the premierships again, a reason why we have had eight premierships in a row that have underperformed is that each of those Prime Ministers come in and they think that they need to annul, negative, besmirch, destroy the reputation of their predecessors. No, every intelligent leader, even where that leader maybe wasn’t particularly successful, finds the strengths within it and builds on it.
There’s something unattractive and undignified about not building on the legacy of what’s gone before. You find the good in the past, like every good leader will find the good in the people in the present.
Andy Coulson: [0:06:26] Anthony, let’s talk about why it is that you’ve spent so much of your time, your career as an educator, focussed on mental health. Is it, can I ask, your own struggles that I touched on it that intro, that sparked that passion?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:06:41] At a very early age I was put on a forerunner of Valium, there was something called Librium, there was something called Surmontil or something, to help me sleep, because my sleeping was rubbish.
Andy Coulson: [0:06:56] What sort of age are you at this point in time?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:06:57] I was put on it at I think sixteen. And then I discovered that this was just gumming up my mind as I went through A-levels, so at uni, genius, I realised that two pints of bitter drunk at ten o’clock when I was at the age where alcohol doesn’t mean that you have to get up and pee in the middle of the night or indeed wake you up, was the most brilliant sedative.
Then after uni I just didn’t want to carry on in this way. One of my close friends now dead from alcoholism, he’d carried on drinking, and I then turned to meditation and yoga and found within those the ability to find an inner calm that wasn’t reliant upon either numbing, gumming the mind up with sedatives and tranquilisers or indeed with alcohol.
And so you know, that led me to think how do we- what can we do to teach agency, to help young people recognise that they do have choices, they don’t have to become overwhelmed any more than any organisation has to become overwhelmed. When you have a disaster, a crisis, this is a fabulous opportunity to test the resources, to do the three things I talked about at the beginning.
And I believe this. I believe that it’s about working at the top of the waterfall. And yet the government still today with a new crisis suicide strategy, it’s too much about helping people once the problems occur rather than building the capacity. The heart of every education at school should be the building of capacity so we help young people learn how to live.
Getting nice GCSEs and A-levels is great but it’s not the end of the story. And getting a good Ofsted report is nice but it’s not the end of the story. What really matters is, is the institution doing a good job and helping young people learn how to live meaningful, contended, productive, enjoyable lives without dependencies and without the need to [crash 0:09:30] themselves? Recognising some people will find that more difficult than others, but everyone can learn.
So, I think that’s it.
Andy Coulson: [0:09:36] Can you pinpoint the moment in your life when- was it a moment or was it a gradual- one imagines it must have been a sort of gradual process for you, the sort of re-opening of your mind after that period if you like, or that ability to see the world in a different way? Is there a moment? Is there an individual? Is there a conversation that you would point to?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:09:58] So, after university I went to the London School of Economics and wrote a doctorate. Now, postgrad work is very lonely, particularly postgrad research, and I did find it very difficult, and went off to America as part of my research. I was writing about government and I was researching in the archives of Presidents Eisenhower and Trueman, and I was miles from anywhere I knew. And I just suddenly crashed in and I just came the closest I’ve ever done to having a breakdown. And managed somehow to get back to the UK, and determined I was going to try and live a life that was-
Andy Coulson: [0:10:39] Give us a bit more colour if you don’t mind on what that-
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:10:43] Middle of the night, I was in a seedy motel in a place called Independence Missouri, on I70, Andy, if you want to get down to details, the name of the interstate highway. And I suddenly woke up to gunshots-
Andy Coulson: [0:11:04] You’re in your early twenties?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:11:05] Oh yes sorry, I was early twenties. There were gunshots in the middle of the night and I just thought, “Where am I?” And I thought nothing in my fantastic schooling and university had helped me prepare me to manage on my own in a totally alien environment. And it made me genuinely feel- for myself I had to get myself, my own house in order, but then want to try to help young people learn the skills of self-accomplishment, self-confidence, so that they can ground themselves on something other than just their exam results, which is to be honest all the government cares about from schools. And let everything else go hang.
And until they recognise and understand what the word education means, I mean, I’ve never met a government minister who knows what the word education means. It means drawing out, leading out of what’s inside you. Until they learn that it means leading out of your emotional intelligence, your creative intelligence, your interpersonal intelligence, your ability to understand yourself and to know what you want in life and what you’re good at, we won’t have a satisfactory education system and we’ll continue to fail a third of our young people as the current education system does.
So it was from very lonely, bitter experience, and I learned how to meditate. I’m still learning, by the way. And doing yoga, I still do yoga twice a day, forty-five years on. I stand on my head twice a day and do various exercises, and with that goes being thoughtful about hydration and what you eat, and exercise, in a way that’s not selfish. It’s not great to be dependent on others and to not look after your body. Looking after your body and looking after your mind, as any parent knows for their children, is a valuable part of life. I mean, life is about more than that, but that’s a valuable part of life.
So all these things go to what makes a teacher, and always the great kids were those who struggled and found difficulty, and you can make a transformative difference.
Andy Coulson: [0:13:48] Is there an individual that you look back on who helped? Who steered you towards meditation, out of interest? Was that self-discovery or did-?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:13:56] Well, the individual who most affected me was this English teacher at school who when I was invited to leave the school for organising a demonstration-
Andy Coulson: [0:14:08] You were invited to leave the school?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:14:10] I’m putting that optimistically. Optimism. It was suggested that maybe my future would be better, that both the school- certainly the school and me would be better in different geographic positions.
Andy Coulson: [0:14:29] They didn’t use the E word?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:14:32] No. No, it’s a terrible thing to expel somebody, I know that. I’ve done it and it always deeply troubles me. But I was allowed back and this person, English teacher, went on to write a novel about- my grandparents became very close to him, a huge influence, made me come into teaching. He’s called Jonathan Smith, a great writer.
And then another great figure I met very early on called Jonty Driver who was an antiapartheid campaigner, put in solitary confinement in South Africa, died just the other day, a writer and a poet, then became a head themselves.
You know, we all have these significant, important people in our lives, they were mine, and cling on to them because they are our loadstars. And for meditation I think it was just more an inner sense. I’ve always felt an attraction towards religion and the sense of a spiritual reality underpinning all of life, and that helped me. And bit by bit I changed.
I then met, or re-met actually, a remarkable woman called Joanna who I’d met at university, who thought I was a pretentious git who wore black all the time and even smoked black Sobranie cigarettes. I mean, it’s unimaginably pretentious, I’m ashamed even to say it.
Andy Coulson: [0:16:16] Tell me a beret wasn’t involved, please.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:16:18] There probably was a black beret involved. I directed plays, and I’d directed her and made absolutely no impression on her, but two or three years after leaving university we re-met and she took a more charitable view on things and she became another absolute rock. She was Jewish and I converted to Judaism to marry her. We were married by somebody who had been through Auschwitz, which is another- the whole Holocaust, like the First World War are very important episodes, two crises which I try and think through, work through in my life. So to be married by him was significant. He was Hugo Gryn, a great Rabbi.
And Joanna was my complete rock. So as you said Andy, at the beginning, losing her after thirty-four years of marriage and three wonderful children, pulled me apart. And in a way put me back in that same position that I’d been in before. And it was difficult.
Andy Coulson: [0:17:39] I want to talk more about Joanna a little later.
The sort of passion though for mental health in school, let’s just set a little bit of context because you were so ahead of the curve on this. It was seen frankly, over a decade ago, as a bit soft, this idea of talking about happiness in the context of school. I remember it from a political perspective and it certainly wasn’t welcomed by all of your colleagues across education by any means.
I mean, do you look back at that period as difficult? Do you remember those moments? There was a fair bit of personal criticism. How did you feel about that? How did you deal with that?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:18:30] Obviously it’s such a privilege to be criticised, particularly if you think that people are-
Andy Coulson: [0:18:37] I love that. It’s a privilege to be criticised.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:18:42] It’s fun, it’s exciting, particularly if you believe that you are on the side of what’s right. So, I did come across- all my life I’d been trying to think, “How can we affirm young people?” And whether in schools, whether in plays, on the sports field or in lessons or on trips, it’s always about building confidence. Helping young people to do things that they didn’t think that they could do. Doing all-night walks in the days when health and safety allowed you to do that kind of adventure with young people. But whatever it was, it was about building self-confidence.
But it wasn’t until I came across this extraordinary American psychologist Marty Seligman that I realised that you can build capacity. And so it’s not happiness that we were doing at Wellington, it was helping build the capacity so that young people could get through crises and adversities that are inevitable in any life, and come out and not be engulfed by them and destroyed. Because at the heart of that young person, or person of any age, is the ability to prevail, to stay centred, not to catastrophise, not to panic; to hold what is good, what is true, what is optimistic, what is healthy, rather than being engulfed by the catastrophic or the disastrous.
And Seligman, based on the work of people who had been through tragedies, crises, could be the Holocaust, could be people in convoys in the Second World War, trying to understand why when ships went down some people survived and others succumbed to the waves. And at the heart is this notion of resilience. And he had this great insight that you can teach resilience. That of course psychology needs to be about helping things when they have gone disastrously wrong, when they’ve hit the bottom of the waterfall, but it’s also about building capacity at the top of the waterfall so that not so many tip over and fall down and hit the bottom.
So what can you do to reduce the number of those falling off the waterfall and the severity of the crash if and when it happens? And it is about building resilience in young people, and that is what the happiness was all about.
In fact it was the very opposite of being soft. It was I think the height of emotional intelligence and compassion and enlightened education, and it helped young people get through results. As I’d point out gleefully to Michael Gove, David Cameron’s Education Secretary, Wellington’s results were going up massively quickly at the same time that we were doing this. So you know, it could have been irrelevant what we were doing, but it certainly wasn’t destroying what Michael Gove and the Department for Education thought was all important, which were exam results. Which are important but not all important.
And so that’s it, it is about the building of resilience. Seligman extracted the essence of human psychology and he became interested in what goes well, what are the ingredients of successful people, successful relationships in couples, successful companies, teams? And rather than obsessing about you know, when management consultants would come in and say, “What’s going wrong? Tell us about everything that’s going wrong,” or couples therapy, “What’s wrong with your relationship?” or an individual seeing somebody, “What’s gone wrong?” starting to ask the question, “What’s right?”
So, “What’s right in your relationship? What makes you laugh?” Or with a company. “When is this company or group of people working well?” Look at teams in sport. When are the players at their most free and able to be creative and spontaneous?
And you come down to discovering there are habits of resilience that can be learned and which are effective, and that was why on one level I introduced this person Martin Seligman to Steve Hilton, who was David Cameron’s Head of Policies before the 2010 general election, you’ll remember.
Andy Coulson: [0:23:43] I do, we shared a very small office together.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:23:46] And he padded around Number 10 without his socks, Steve Hilton. But he met and imbibed the whole notion, he was interested in it, and out of that several steps later came the adoption of wellbeing targets by the Office of National Statistics. And looking at not just quantities but figures that give a qualitative view about life, and that’s important. How good is the quality of this education? But also how good is the quality of our experience of living in cities and towns and what can we do to enhance that quality?
And it’s important because I’m educating young people at Epsom, they are unlikely to have the same standards of living as their parents, the first generation where we can say that is likely to be the case. Therefore we should be helping them to think about the quality of life rather than thinking that happiness will come from getting the latest Mercedes or having a six-bedroom house rather than a four-bedroom house. Because they might, you know, have to live in a two-bedroom house.
Andy Coulson: [0:24:58] Yes, exactly.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:24:59] But you can actually be just as happy, or indeed happier, in a two-bedroom house.
Andy Coulson: [0:25:04] It must be satisfying that the agenda has changed in line with those sort of pioneering moves that you made, but you must also be very concerned that the issue of mental health, anxiety in particular for our young people continues to increase. The statistics are not pretty.
At this moment in time, as we stop and pause for a second, how would you characterise it? Are we still in a mental health crisis? Is that crisis gathering pace? Or do you feel more positively about it?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:25:36] The figures as you say are not pretty. Now, mental health is different to physical health. We know if somebody has COVID or not, or if somebody has cancer or not. We can’t in the same way know if somebody is depressed or is suffering from acute anxiety. We can see outward manifestations; self-harm, OCD behaviours, withdrawal behaviours for example. And so it’s much harder to get an objective picture of where one is.
So the sad truth is we don’t entirely know where we are with the mental health of young people or indeed the nation overall. Neither do we know why the figures are as bad as they are, but clearly COVID for example didn’t help because of the disruption of patterns at critical times, junctures in people’s lives. And neither do we entirely know what to do about it.
But I do know that we can build capacity in young people and need to be doing so in the ways that I discussed about building resilience, and it’s easier in the same way it’s easier to teach young people Mandarin or French or maths while they are young. Look at how easy children find it if parents have two different languages to naturally acquire those languages. It’s easy to acquire these habits of resilience when we’re young.
So if we were doing more to build young people’s resilience I think we’d be doing a greater service to them, and by the way government rightly are concerned about figures and spending, we would be reducing the NHS budget. At the moment we have an NHS that is still absurdly concerned with dealing with problems after they’ve occurred, physical and mental problems, insufficiently looking at reducing it. In every way we are not thinking sufficiently.
Andy Coulson: [0:27:51] I total agree, that’s another podcast.
I was looking at some numbers the other day in relation to anxiety with young people. Numbers that sort of demonstrated a fairly dramatic uptick in anxiety from 2008. Around the time of course that the iPhone was introduced. Now we’re not going to pin it on one product of course, but what’s your view of the alignment of technology, or the acceleration of technology in our young people’s lives to those anxiety levels? Do you see them as closely related, partly related? Do you think that- obviously technology also brings benefits, makes us more connected, can in some ways be a huge positive.
But those things that we laughingly refer to as phones but which are those kind of mini computers, generators of resentment, of anxiety, of a life that perhaps is unattainable. What’s your view on the technology piece?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:28:49] Quite simply we can’t un-invent it any more than we can un-invent AI. What we can do is help young people use them as an asset and enrichment, and reduce the damage that it can do. Let’s take two examples.
They can significantly damage young people’s concentration and ability to enjoy the depths of life because of the constant changing and superficial way that they turn young people’s minds and reduce their attention span.
And they can also, and do, damage the quality of interaction. So family meals together, extraordinarily important. Foundational in the development of the young person’s sense of family and belonging, something as essential as the food that we eat. What does a baby do from the moment that it’s born? It craves the warmth and security of the milk from the mother. Eating is so important, and if all the family don’t eat because they are on their phones or away-
So I think that you know, we can mitigate that. In our schools we can have times where the mobile phones simply aren’t there to be used. We can help recover the contact with nature, with each other, with deep conversation in school, and we can ensure that it doesn’t compromise the quality of one to one human contact.
You know, we’ve all learned haven’t we from COVID that it is not as good being remote as it is face to face. There’s something about breathing the same air that is foundational in the development of relationships and young peoples’ sense of who they are and their security.
So, a massive problem and contributing one of several factors contributing to the deterioration in young people’s mental health, could have been addressed, could have been foreseen. Where was the clarity, where was government? Government has often been absent from giving clear advice. It’s been concerned with it’s own short-term targets, it hasn’t been- and it’s been overly ideological, it hasn’t been concerned enough about the deep fabric of the nation whether it’s the environment or the built environment or the fabric of the nation being the mental health of our young.
Andy Coulson: [0:32:00] But you know obviously that there are politicians, some of whom have been in power for quite some time, who hold to the view that it’s not government’s position to intervene in these things. It’s not for government to start telling parents to tell their kids to use their phone less frequently, to not interfere in families in that way.
How do we deal with that one?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:32:22] Well, somebody should be doing it, and the whole digital revolution changed what government can and should be doing. And I’m naturally in favour of smaller government and helping people to help themselves rather than having an intrusive government. The whole basis of positive psychology is about the building of individual capacity rather than having a big brother or a state telling one what to do and what to think.
But there was clear abrogation of responsibility about giving parents solid advice about how this technology can be deeply corrosive of the formation of individual character in young people as they go through critical ages from eleven up to fifteen, sixteen, when identity is being formed, where it needs long relationships, deep relationships.
Andy Coulson: [0:33:31] A complicated story that one of course, because in the end as ever politics comes down to people in the room. And perhaps some of those people in that room at that time had a different view of technology and could see advantages, let’s put it this way, in terms of closer relationships with technology.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:33:46] Okay, so the technology, and this is true of AI which I’m deeply involved with, it is potentially and has to be the biggest educational boon that we have had, for all kinds of reasons we can discuss. But it also could infantilise young people by stripping- let alone cheating and other concerns.
Andy Coulson: [0:34:09] The ability to learn.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:34:11] Yes, it can- as we’ve seen in London taxi drivers, AI has rendered all their knowledge useless, even worse than useless. So I think that somebody needed to step up, and I think that government was at the same time driving forward results, results, results in schools, and putting insufficient and indeed negativing efforts to try- those of us who were trying to say it’s also about the building of character, the building of judgement. The ability to say, “No, I’m not going to look at my iPhone. Yes, we are going to have sacred special time where we’re not going to be having the technology.”
These efforts were repeatedly belittled by government, successive governments, successive Education Secretaries. And I think enduring damage has been done to the mental health of the nation which will endure into the 22nd century because those who were obsessed by exam results at all costs were dominating at the time.
And as I always felt, it was those government ministers who had a child who developed anorexia or had a sibling’s child who developed depression who actually begun to think about these things in different ways, away from a mechanical sense about what education was, to realising it’s much more holistic.
And by the way, a child if you look after the development of their character and their wellbeing, they will perform better. So in other words it’s not either or, it’s win win.
Andy Coulson: [0:36:03] You’ve written very movingly about the loss of your wife Joanna, you touched on it earlier. A long, wonderful marriage. Three kids, as you say, who you describe as your greatest achievements. You wrote in fact during those years between Joanna’s diagnosis and her passing, you were incredibly wonderfully open about what was happening in your lives. You feel strongly that it’s something that we should do more to bring this subject of grief out into the open, to talk about it more.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:36:39] My own parents, who I loved very much and did their best, had a taboo. Both of them had a lot of death in their own lives, and death was completely taboo. I didn’t go to a funeral until I was in my early thirties, didn’t go to my grandparents’ funerals, and it was something that was simply not talked about. I think it’s helpful for young people to recognise more about the lifecycle.
One reason amongst many, having pets for those who can have pets, is a good thing, is that young people can learn that puppies grow and then they die, and learning about the inevitability of death. And I don’t think I was well prepared.
Clearly from the moment that you have a terminal diagnosis you know how the story is going to end, but somehow you know but you don’t know. And I think it affected me far more that it should have affected me. And it’s painful, but it’s going to happen to all of us.
Andy Coulson: [0:38:02] They way that Joanna herself handled her diagnosis in the years that followed was, from what I’ve read, really inspirational. She also clearly had strong views about how one should live in those circumstances, carry on living in those circumstances, and obviously strong views about grief. Inspirational is the right word I think, isn’t it?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:38:29] She was totally without self-pity. She did have her strong Jewish faith and she would always pray, give gratitude for every new day that she had. It was difficult. She was often in acute pain over those five years and there were some very difficult times, and missing key events in our children’s lives. But she always had a deep belief in life, and a stoicism, and a total absence of self-pity. She was very strong, she was never impressed by anyone, she never tried to impress anybody and she was never impressed by anybody. She just tried to make the most of every day. It was inspirational, certainly for me and for the children, for those who knew her.
It’s very tough, everyone will handle that announcement by the doctor that they have a life-limiting disease in different ways. And we all handled the grief differently. I don’t think I did it particularly well.
Andy Coulson: [0:39:51] Really? Why do you say that? Because when I read what you’ve written on the subject, when I hear you talking about it here, and about the broader issues of grief and how we handle life’s inevitable difficulties as well as the unexpected, you seem to have a total grasp. Why do you say you handled it badly?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:40:14] Maybe, and certainly I felt that the depth of our love was never deeper. I mean, there was just a state of total knowledge. I remember one morning driving- we’d try where we could to go away for weekends, I was running a school then running a university but we’d try and go away to the country. She couldn’t walk but she loved being outside. From a hotel in a Sussex Downs village called Alfriston, and just feeling this position of utter total knowledge and total unity with her.
But I think that I probably felt I could have handled the pain better, but I think the pain is also inevitable. We all know that pain is the price that we pay for love, and if we’re going to love anybody there will be deep pain. I mean, there’s no way around it; they are flip sides of a coin. So I probably tried to neuter it more by burying myself in work, by working harder and harder at school, it probably made me quite difficult, it certainly made me quite difficult.
And at university again I wasn’t anything like the best I could have been. I probably was too much in I think denial, was probably the way I could have handled it better, I should just have been more honest and said to people, “Look, I actually am finding this pretty difficult.” I did tell somebody at the very top of the university when I was finding it very difficult, and I was told that I’d just better get on with it.
Andy Coulson: [0:42:02] Really? A total misunderstanding of the situation for you.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:42:09] It was a bit harsh, I thought. But I thought, “Okay, so that’s what it’s like here. That’s what the culture is.” I wrote about that in a book called Path to Peace, just in passing. I should have handled it better, found a better way of communicating the fact that I was finding it difficult.
Andy Coulson: [0:42:32] You’re being very generous, by the sounds of it.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:42:35] I think we always- what’s the point in being anything else? Categorically while anger is understandable and inevitable it isn’t a formula for moving beyond. There has to be an acceptance and forgiveness and then one can move on. Some people go to their graves with the bitternesses simmering away.
Andy Coulson: [0:43:10] We should say of course that you have found happiness again, thankfully, with your second wife Sarah. Wonderful in and of itself but also to have a partner to come home to when you’re dealing with life’s challenges I’m sure-
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:43:21] Yes, I think it’s important. I think you have to go through that process and then be ready, a bit like when one was young and you know, one maybe went straight into a relationship on a rebound and it went wrong, I think it’s important to go through that process. And Sarah, who I married last year, is equally remarkable to Joanna, not the least in inexplicably wanting to marry me and stay with me, and its new joy and new beginnings. Fresh opportunities and start, and making the most of it. And I feel very blessed.
Andy Coulson: [0:44:10] Wonderful. Let’s talk about your political writing. Brilliant books that properly get under the skin of a government, of a Prime Minister, in a way that normally only happens many years after they have left, perhaps even many years after they have died. I mean, these books really do get into the detail of a period of leadership, never more so perhaps than your book on Boris. You say about him, “At his heart he is extraordinarily empty.” That’s one of the nicer things you have to say about him.
Does the fact that he was able to get into Number 10 and fail so spectacularly, does it speak to a wider crisis of leadership in this country?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:45:00] So- by the way I did not set out to be unfair to him and I would hope that in that book I was constantly fair to him and trying to find positive things that he did and positive things to say about him. It’s not interesting to read any book that sets out to be- I know this, I went into it in this spirit with co-author Raymond Newell to try and put a positive construction on it.
And I do think that there’s a crisis of leadership. So the last truly successful Prime Minister who change the dial, left Britain in a much stronger position internally and in the world, changed the agenda of policy and politics, was Margaret Thatcher. And she fell from power in November 1990. Now, in my writing I identify nine out of the fifty-seven Prime Ministers who are in that top tier of agenda-changing Prime Ministers, and we have not had one for thirty-three years.
And there is no immediate sign that Keir Starmer if indeed he wins will have the understanding to know, and maybe the opportunity to know, how to change it.
So I think there’s a crisis of leadership. It’s not that they have been bad people, but successive prime ministerships have underachieved what they themselves set out and said that they would do. Tony Blair promised an agenda-changing government that would build a new Britain. He transparently didn’t do that, and for all the several or many perhaps good things that he did do he also took Britain into a wholly unnecessary war in Iraq which has damaged Britain and its standing in the world, not to say all those lives lost.
So it’s hard to say that we don’t have a crisis of premiership at the moment, and that really interests me what you can do about it. And I partly know this because of all the under-resolved problems that a government would grip and would be sorting out. They include productivity, crumbling infrastructure, housing, inadequate housing stock, the NHS which is absolutely not fit for purpose. We don’t have- whatever we may think of Brexit there has not been a coherent plan to ensure that the country benefitted from Brexit. I think education, as described so we needn’t go back over that, needs to be significantly rebalanced in the direction that we’ve said.
So you can ask yourself what long-term issues has the government resolved? Now, if we look at governments say in Japan or other governments in the Far East, there is a greater concern for the long-term beyond the life of the government. The truth is that every Prime Minister when they come through the door of Downing Street they will say fine, emotional, tear-watering words on the front steps about- quoting from Saint Francis with Margaret Thatcher, their ambitions for the country. When they come into the front they have one objective in mind which is to win a general election.
Andy Coulson: [0:49:09] Is to stay there, yes.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:49:10] Short term. Stay there, short term. And what about the nation? What about the fact that in effect they’ve become Head of State, taking over from the monarch, but who is actually looking after the long term? Big problem, big crisis.
Andy Coulson: [0:49:25] Do you, when you’ve been in and around politics for a long time, do you think we’ve had any near misses on the leadership front? Is there anyone that you would say, “Oh I wish they’d been given a go, they might have done a better job”?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:49:36] Well, I don’t actually think- there have been some great books by Steve Richards and others on this topic. I don’t think any of them would have done better. I think the eight people who have stepped up to the mark, and some of them have done much better than others, had the qualities. I mean, there were three people perhaps who had the qualities better than others; John Major who I think was vastly underrated, Tony Blair, David Cameron, had the skills to be a great Prime Minister. But as Tony Blair says, if he knew what he knows now he would have been a much better Prime Minister. Well sorry chum, you had the opportunity. Knowing so little. What other organisation promotes people who know so little and who have so little interest in learning how to do the job? And who boot out from helping them those people who actually can help them, to replace them by know-nothings?
Andy Coulson: [0:50:40] Of the Prime Ministers you have studied and written about, who was the best equipped for crisis?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:50:47] I think that Cameron, because of his optimistic nature and his sense of balance and proportion. Now, to some people that was a sign of an almost flippant Harold Macmillan sense of underly dramatizing because he wouldn’t get extraordinarily wound up as some Prime Minsiters have done. But exactly the same skills we talked about at the beginning of the podcast about taking a deep breath, not losing your head, thinking things through deeply, keeping a sense of proportion, a sense of humour. All these things are important in a crisis. And-
Andy Coulson: [0:51:44] One would say though, we both know him and I agree with that summary, but one would also point out that the crisis radar perhaps wasn’t too finely tuned when one looks at what led to his departure. And that is a crisis skill, right? It is not just about management, it is about the early warning system.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:52:06] It was- I think he had to call- this is David Cameron, he had to call the referendum in June 2016. I think the pressure within the country and the expectation would have made it very difficult not to have called a referendum given the nation was so deeply divided and given that politicians for themselves hadn’t come up with an acceptable way that Britain could live at peace with the EU. But they way that he fought it-
Andy Coulson: [0:52:36] Do you think he had to resign?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:52:38] I think the way he fought it was simply naïve and wrong.
Andy Coulson: [0:52:43] Yes. And having lost, do you think he was right to resign? Because I hold the view, and whenever I offer it tumbleweed normally blows through the room, that I didn’t think he should have resigned.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:52:54] I used to organise talks in Number 10 history. None of the history is- we have Chief Economists, Chief Statisticians, Chief Medical Officers, Chief Scientists, where for goodness’ sake is the Chief Historian? So it was a privilege to, under the great Jeremy Hayward, to start bringing in a series of historians to talk. Mind you, the most important people in the room often didn’t come and attend the talks.
But one talk was given by Vernon Bogdanor who taught David Cameron at Oxford, taught him politics, and he talked about the 1975 referendum and how the Prime Minister there, Harold Wilson, stayed apart. I think had David Cameron fought it differently he probably, I don’t know, I haven’t asked him, he might think this himself, had he fought it differently he could have stayed above the ring more, he felt he had to be so partisan. I think having declared his allegiance so much I think it would have been difficult for him to have stayed on given the extraordinary and enduring bitterness that we saw froth up to the surface thereafter.
Andy Coulson: [0:54:02] Difficult for sure, but the question was not about David Cameron. The question was not about whether or not David Cameron should or shouldn’t be Prime Minister.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:54:10] There needed to have been more thought and more work, more awareness of the rest of the country, the alienation of the rest of the country from Westminster and Whitehall. It was a multiple failure of government, from a government based in the South East of this country with a prevailingly South East mentality, to recognise how the rest of the country felt.
Was it about rejecting the EIU? Was it about rejecting a government that was constantly supportive of the EU in favour of a new hope, a new hope, a new promise for a Britain alone that was not offered by successive governments with a plan to- it was a perfectly good case for Brexit but it wasn’t coherently produced by government.
So that is one of a series of difficulties Conservative governments have had since 2010. The enduring impact of the global financial crisis was another one, and obviously the impact of the greatest epidemic to hit the country since the Spanish Flu after the First World War is yet another. There are a series of exogenous shocks that have hit the government. The War in Ukraine and the subsequent price rises yet another, and the whole AI revolution and destabilisation of that.
But government should be better at horizon scanning. Number 10 is far too focussed- Cabinet Office, which has got bigger and bigger but less and less efficient, it’s a mess and it will not serve Keir Starmer unless at the centre of government, as we are working on at the Institute for Government, if they don’t follow the recommendations that we’re going to be making about how to run a rational centre of government based on what works best in the world in other centres of government.
Andy Coulson: [0:56:14] I know, as is coming across I think in this conversation, this is something you feel very passionately about and are focussing a lot of your time and effort on.
Just a final political question. We’re heading towards an election, we don’t know exactly when it will be, but next year obviously. The issue of fee paying schools looks like it’s going to be weaponised, it’s going to become a campaigning issue. Are you concerned about how that might play out?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:56:38] So, I think that it’s a very easy, convenient policy for Keir Starmer. It ticks lots of boxes, it appeals strongly to his left wing, it shows that Keir hasn’t gone Blairite and that he’s still one of us. But is it the right solution to the independent school issue in Britain? Where ever does a whole system benefit when you damage and destroy the most successful and creative parts of it?
Now of course a lot of state schools are better than independent schools without a shadow of doubt, the state sector has got better and better over the last twenty years without a shadow of doubt. But independent schools, that if you put too much of a squeeze on them the ones that will go down will be those in less affluent areas where the parents are less affluent, the strong will continue. I think there are more imaginative and better ways to get the best out of independent schools and to help them enrich the whole culture of the state education system than having policies which will damage them significantly.
So I think something needs to be done but I think it’s politically driven rather than educationally or thinking of the long term fabric of the country.
Andy Coulson: [0:58:22] Anthony, thank you so much for your time today. I’m going to ask you, as we do with all our guests, to give us your three crisis comforts. The three things, it can’t be another person I’m afraid, that you lean on during those more challenging moments. You’ve mentioned meditation already so I’m not I’m afraid going to let you have that one. But three other sort of practical crisis comforts that come to mind?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:58:51] Okay. Walking. Walking is sensational, I adore it. I’m walking now from Switzerland to- well, not literally now, to Auschwitz for a new book. Second, just-
Andy Coulson: [0:59:13] Do you write as you walk, can I ask, by the way?
Sir Anthony Seldon: [0:59:15] Yes I do, I do. So that book called the Path to Peace, walking 1,000km along the Western Front Way and helping create that million steps through soil where ten million had become casualties, I got my phone out- sorry And, I got my phone out there, but productively. And I’m just dictating into it things that I’m seeing and noticing. In another age I would have had a pencil and a pad in my pocket. And then when I get back in the evening at the end of a day’s walking I will put all of that together.
Secondly, there is nothing surely more heavenly and grounding than being in France by a river having lunch with people, no names, who one loves, and just feeling, having gone for a long walk, just feeling the glow and warmth of the food that’s grown in the soil and the wine that’s grown in the soil that one is in.
And finally of all, oh goodness, teaching, being back in the classroom with kids. Because, and this is the most peculiar thing of all, it’s in teaching that we learn. So I’m always saying to the young people, “Your best teachers are each other, and the more you can try and explain things to each other you’ll understand things much better.” So you know, GCSE or A-level, work in groups with each other, or indeed for finals. So I just adore having a group- it’s unbelievably a privilege talking to young people and sharing ideas with them. I mean, the happiness Geiger counter just is in crisis because it’s getting bent because it’s totally off the scale of happiness.
Andy Coulson: [1:01:26] Wonderful/ Sir Anthony Seldon, thank you for such a helpful, insightful, I think generous conversation. Very much appreciated, it’s been great to see you.
Sir Anthony Seldon: [1:01:40] Thank you Andy.
Andy Coulson: [1:01:42] If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please do give us a rating and a review, it really helps. And if you hit ‘subscribe’ wherever you download your podcasts from you will find loads more useful Crisis conversations. You can follow us on Instagram and TikTok, and you can watch the full episodes on YouTube. Just search for Crisis What Crisis podcast. You can also find full transcripts of this and every episode on our website, crisiswhatcrisis.com
Thanks again for joining us.