The dishonest denial of privilege
Whenever some lefty working-class oik has the temerity to suggest that the UK is less socially fluid than a just society should be, they will be attacked on two fronts: by privileged folk who fail to see how privileged they are, and by people who had a tougher start in life, but who accuse the lefty working-class oik of having a chip on his shoulder and claim there can’t possibly be any inequality because they’ve done alright, despite growing up in an old water tank on a rubbish tip.
In the first camp is crooner James Blunt, who attended Harrow and is the son of a colonel but became mightily upset when Chris Bryant MP called for more diversity in the arts and cited Blunt as an example of private school privilege.
Blunt called Bryant a “classist gimp” and a “prejudiced wazzock”, despite plenty of evidence which suggests you are much more likely to be a successful musician or actor if you attended private school, just as you are much more likely to be successful at anything you fancy - law, politics, business, cricket - if you attended private school.
In the second camp is the journalist Julia Hartley-Brewer, who responded to a recent complaint from lefty working-class oik Owen Jones that the media world was not representative of society at large with the tweet: “I didn’t go to Oxford because I was privileged, I went to Oxford because I was clever.”
Hartley-Brewer's thinking seems to be that she wasn’t privileged because she attended a comprehensive. It is difficult to know whether she is being wilfully ignorant, because it is typical of people who have graduated to the establishment to deny social inequality, on the grounds that if they can clamber up the greasy pole through sheer hard work and cleverness, then anyone can. As such, any suggestion of class inequality is written off as “the politics of envy”.
Just because you went to a comprehensive doesn’t mean you weren’t privileged, because privilege exists on a sliding scale. I would give almost anything to see Hartley-Brewer giving a talk at a failing state school in any number of deprived British towns, explaining to the kids that they, too, can make it to Oxford, if they are clever enough and work hard like she did.
There are kids in this country who have no real concept of what Oxford or Cambridge are, let alone how to get there. I don’t know a great deal about Hartley-Brewer’s background, but I do know her father is a former government adviser and 'trouble-shooter' who founded a consultancy firm in 1985, while her mother qualified as a GP when Hartley-Brewer was 18. That suggests Hartley-Brewer grew up in an aspirational family, in which further education was considered the norm.
I’m guessing that Hartley-Brewer’s mother read to her when she was little and that she had supportive teachers, which is why she achieved the grades she needed to get into Oxford and went on to become a successful journalist. That is privilege, and saying it isn’t suggests she has no idea about the lack of opportunities for so many kids in Britain, whose brilliant minds might never be unlocked.
Kids aren’t in charge of their own destinies, their progress depends on the support and sacrifices of the adults they are surrounded by. And less privileged kids – some of whose parents and teachers might want them to succeed, while not expecting them to – need so many more stars to align.
A poor kid who gets three Cs in their A-levels at a failing comprehensive might be infinitely cleverer than Hartley-Brewer but will never get the opportunities she did. That’s not the same as saying Hartley-Brewer didn’t work hard to get where she has, because I’m sure she did.
But the fact that Oxbridge’s offers to applicants in the top two social classes rose from 79% in 2010 to 82% at Oxford and 81% at Cambridge in 2015 suggests that they, like Hartley-Brewer, believe that the greatest potential – and true meritocracy – lies in private school kids with a stack of As, rather than kids lower down the social scale who did well, despite their obvious disadvantages.
It isn’t just the grades – social mobility is also a state of mind. There are many kids clever enough for Oxbridge who simply hate the idea of Oxbridge – the ‘posh’ buildings that look like Hogwarts, dining in formal wear, the fear of living next door to the heir to the throne of Liechtenstein.
There is also the fear of ‘selling out’ or ‘betraying’ working-class roots; the fear of not belonging, of speaking with the ‘wrong’ accent, of explaining that your dad drives a cab, of your mum turning up at college in her beige Ford Orion.
I recall that when I first arrived at Exeter, a classic ‘Oxbridge reject’ university, I struck up a chat with a couple of chaps from the exclusive Radley College, who promptly nicknamed me Ronnie Kray and started trying out their Cockney rhyming slang on me, because they thought I was an East London urchin. What amused me most was that my cousins always thought my brothers and I were posh.
I liked the Radley chaps, they were good blokes, but what struck me most about them and their kind was their colossal self-confidence. I vividly remember turning up to one of their 21st birthday parties at a gentlemen's club in Mayfair in black tie, only to discover that he and his private school mates were all wearing tatty sports jackets and jeans. To have got where she has, Hartley-Brewer must have been able to fit in with these posher elements of society, but not everyone has the necessary social tools. And for many, it’s not a case of being chippy, it’s about not wanting to compromise.
Unlike Hartley-Brewer, I am acutely aware of how privileged I am, and understand that my life could have been quite different, were it not for the sacrifices and support of my parents. Had they not made the exodus from the East End to Essex and sent me to a decent comprehensive, my brothers and I might have ended up in a failing school with apathetic teachers, surrounded by kids whose parents had no aspirations for their children, not necessarily because of a lack of ambition, but because of an ignorance of opportunities.
It’s not that we’re cleverer than those kids, and it’s not that there’s anything wrong with wanting to remain in the East End, but my parents made the decision that our opportunities would be greater if we moved elsewhere.
But Hartley-Brewer would have us believe that any kid can get where she has, if only they roll up their sleeves and stop whining. In denying her privilege, she does a disservice to the people who have helped her in life, and perpetuates the myth that if people don’t succeed, it’s their own bloody fault.