David Toube (Class of 1986)

David Toube (Class of 1986)

David left City of London School in 1986 and went on to Southampton University and Brasenose College, Oxford. After 25 years in law, he joined Quilliam, the anti-extremism think tank, as Director of Policy in 2018.


How would you describe your current job?

I’m director of policy at Quilliam, the world’s first counter-extremism organisation. We look at issues of extremism in different faith communities but also the growth of conspiracy theories, political polarisation and other forms of extremism.

We have a lot of research projects bubbling along at any one time. One of my colleagues, Usama Hasan, another CLS alumnus, is looking at Islamic law of the 13th Century, researching how scholars have been misinterpreted by Isis and other Jihadis.

A lot of what I do on a daily basis is governed by what’s happening in the news. Every night, I read the news and try to predict what will catch the eye of the news media the next day – things we might be asked to talk about. If you have something to say, you need to say it within the first two or three hours of a story coming out – then you help frame the debate.

So, for example, when the [so-called “ISIS bride”] Shamima Begum affair hit the headlines, we discussed it internally within Quilliam and found we all had a similar perspective: basically, we can’t export Britain’s problems to Syria. We got that message out and I spent the next couple of days in TV and radio studios.

How long have you been involved with Quilliam?

I’ve been working here full time for a year but I have been involved since the launch.

My interest in this area actually started at City. I had a couple of friends who had a detailed knowledge of fringe politics on the far right and I was interested in fringe politics of the far left. I don’t mean as a sympathiser – I mean in an almost trainspottery way: why do people get involved? Why do they come to these sorts of disturbing conclusions about the way the world works, or should work?

When we were 16 or 17, my friend Philip and I would go to fringe anarchist bookshops and buy publications that you could only get there. Philip was especially interested in Irish loyalist politics. One day he bunked off school and went to Belfast and hung around the Shankhill Road and went to the UDF offices. He ended up chatting to the leaders! City was a place full of people like that and, as far as I can tell, it still is!

The thing that directly brought me into Quilliam was 9/11. I found I had personal connections to both sides: a friend from Minneapolis was the first person listed, alphabetically, as a victim. Then, a few days later, I saw this guy on TV praising Osama Bin Laden, and I realised he’d been a drinking buddy of mine at Southampton University. It was Anjem Choudhry, who went on to become a nexus of the majority of terrorist attacks that have occurred in Britain.

I wondered when someone was going to do something about all this… and then, at a certain point, you realise no-one is doing anything and then you think: ’It should probably be me…’

What are your early memories of life at CLS?

I came to City on a scholarship. I was put up a year and I was completely at sea, socially, academically, everything. Then I was lucky enough to have Jonathan Keates as my English teacher in the Second Form; Jonathan both invented me and saved me! I still speak to him on Facebook pretty much every day.

Every teacher had a subject with which you could distract them but with Jonathan you didn’t need to do that. He would digress at the drop of a hat. We did not do the syllabus for the whole of the fourth year but every single student got an A at O-Level. We just had a broad education in the wonders of English poetry and drama, instead of the sort of limited exposure to literature that the O-Level (and now the GCSE) syllabus provided.

The friendships I made at City defined me. I was incredibly lucky to be in a year of people who were basically geniuses: so many of my contemporaries are now professors at universities around the world. I was taught by some very great teachers, but it was my peers who challenged me and made me justify what I thought and exposed me to things I had no idea about. I would not be the person I am now were it not for that.

How did you come to go to the school?

I sat scholarship exams for a range of schools. I remember my interview at City with the legendary head teacher Jim Boyes. He was a tiny man, followed through the corridors by the smell of whiskey and pipe tobacco. He had served on the North Atlantic convoys in WW2 and his mere presence inspired respect and obedience. When he interviewed me, he asked me what I’d like to be when I grew up and I said ‘’An 18th Century gentleman”.

I suppose that he was very taken by that and they gave me a scholarship!

Can you remember your last day?

I was in the last year to go completely through school in the old building. On the last day, everything was in packing cases. I remember walking around this very empty building. It was like the Morrissey song – perhaps his best one – Late Night Maudlin Street.

Which extra-curricular activities did you enjoy?

I liked music, though I am indifferent musician. I would lose my clarinet and fail to turn up to rehearsals and belatedly realise there was a concert that my parents were coming to and I’d desperately try to get back into the choir or orchestra at the last minute, basically sight-reading stuff at the concert. Or miming.

I did quite a lot of drama, though I wasn’t a great actor. I was always cast in cameo roles. Probably the great production that everyone remembers, was The Captain of Kopenick by [German playwright] Zuckamayer. There was a dance number - Monsieur Chocolat and his Girls - inserted into it by Jonthan Keates, or more probably, Nick Byrne with a boy called Mark Cadogan and girls from City Girls.

They did a routine which was – pre-internet, you must remember – the most erotically-charged thing we’d ever seen! Every time it was rehearsed the entire cast would rush out to watch, from the back of the auditorium. For about five years after that, the girls school headteacher wouldn’t let her girls take part in joint productions!

What were you like when you were at CLS?

I was a very eccentric kid. My thing at that time was inspects and reptiles and amphibians. I’d bring them into school on random days and get into trouble. I had a snake that I put in the swimming pool during a water polo match. I’d never seen a water polo team move so fast. I meant to put it in one corner but it headed quickly towards the swimmers. I wasn’t expelled.

Which A Levels did you do?

English, history and biology. I did the things I was interested in and knew that I would be motivated to work in. And I got three As.

I went to Southampton, and then did postgraduate at Brasenose, Oxford. I taught law at universities for a while and then practised law for 25 years.

Which personal qualities did working in law bring out in you?

My focus was on bank regulation. As a person naturally interested in the trainspottery side of things – how do organisations work? What are the rules and informal practices that govern them? That was an interesting thing to do.

How many times have you been on broadcast media in the last month?

It’s been a bit quiet. But the month before that was maybe 30. It depends what’s going on. I had a lot to say during the Christchurch massacre, because it played to my knowledge of the far right. I also chimed in on the issue of returnees and the Syrian conflict but for the last month there’s not been anything so demanding. So it can be very seasonal.

Is the challenge of fighting extremism getting harder?

We are living in fantastically polarised times, where the centre has collapsed and institutions that were bulwarks against extremism have disappeared or shown themselves incapable of providing political or moral leadership. The key example is the Labour Party – although we are seeing a similar process on the right. On both sides, you see similar motivations: a belief that elites and cosmopolitans are in control and that ‘we’ have been marginalised.

One of the most precious things that we have  lost is the ability to stay friends with people with whom you disagree.

That’s taken place in tandem with the decomposition of journalism. To actually go to a place and work out what’s going on is very expensive. So now many newspapers, instead of having foreign correspondents, use writers with an opinion who then shoehorn the facts into their thesis, to make them fit.

There’s been this assumption that a liberal social democracy is like water or air – it will always be there, and it doesn’t need to be protected or defended. The

important thing is that we take these challenges to it seriously. To rebuild a movement that values a liberal social democracy – but we need to acknowledge that we are starting from a near-standstill.

Which personal qualities would a CLS pupil need to follow in your footsteps?

The ability to get an overview of an issue and quickly cut through to a solution. This applies to both law and campaigning.

The most important thing is being able to write clearly.

At some point, I’ve given every person I’ve worked with, senior or junior, a copy of George Orwell’s Politics and The English Language. It’s an interesting thesis in itself but also a valuable guide to how to write well, and persuasively. If you can communicate difficult ideas to people who know nothing about them then you are an absolute asset to any organisation.

Director of Policy, Quiliam