James O’Brien: I wouldn’t be where I am without private school

LBC host James O’Brien said he wouldn’t have the career he has today without private education – but he still thinks the system should be abolished.

“When my father made his way into journalism through the traditional route of local newspapers, and finally became the Midlands correspondent of the Daily Mail, he hit a barrier past which it became very difficult for him to pass, because he had a Yorkshire accent and he didn’t wear a waistcoat,” O’Brien said during a panel at Hay Festival.

“I only really understood this after he died in 2012, but he took the view that I had as much right to be in that gilded word as the people in it did. So he bought me what he described to my mum as a ‘golden ticket’. And it worked.”

O’Brien speaking at Hay (Hay Festival)
O’Brien speaking at Hay (Hay Festival)

O’Brien, known for his fiery call-in show and robust exchanges with politicians, was speaking as part of The News Review at Hay, an event in partnership with The Independent chaired by chief books critic Martin Chilton. He attended York-based independent school Ampleforth, whose previous students also include Rupert Everett, James Norton and Sir Antony Gormley. O’Brien joked that an old housemaster had told him that he would be “in prison” had he gone to state school.

He added that, for future generations of his family, “it won’t be a case of breaching the barricades of privilege, it will become a case of sustaining them. And that’s why I agree with the abolition of private schools, despite the fact that I’m damned if I’m going to let Jacob Rees Mogg’s children have advantages in life that I can afford to give my children.”

Speaking about Rishi Sunak’s newly announced policy to get 18-year-olds to do national service upon leaving school, O’Brien said, “It speaks to a dearth of original thinking, to a complete vacuum where, even for traditional Conservatives, ideology used to be.”

He also playfully suggested that the policy had been “completely foreseen almost word for word” by 1986 sitcom Yes, Prime Minister. “There is an episode where Jim Hacker announces his wizard wheeze to bring back national service, and everyone is trying to politely seek to dissuade him from it,” he said.

Martin Chilton, James O’Brien and Baroness Brenda Hale (Hay Festival)
Martin Chilton, James O’Brien and Baroness Brenda Hale (Hay Festival)

“The second bit of the story actually involves them claiming that it has enormous public support through a ridiculous process of manipulation of statistics and polling, which is what Downing Street is embarking on today. So, the truth is stranger than comedy sometimes.”

Hay Festival continues until 2 June; hayfestival.com