As with so many of the debates that pollute the news media these days, the recent public spat between the Labour MP Chris Bryant and the musician and singer James Blunt may be best viewed through the prism of what it isn’t. So, let’s run through a couple of disclaimers before I settle into the meat of this little tete a tete. Neither Bryant nor Blunt impact upon my life in any significant way. I probably disagree with a substantial amount of Chris Bryant’s political opinions. After all, he’s a Labour man and, so far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the Labour party gave up the ghost on much that might amount to so much as a semblance of social democracy many years ago. Should I vote for them at this year’s general election, it will be with a clothes peg on my nose. And Bryant’s involvement in the MP’s expenses scandal was hardly something that covered him in glory.
Similarly, my historical involvement with James Blunt has been at its high point transitory and for most part non-existent. I quite enjoyed the version of You’re Beautiful that he performed on Sesame Street with Grover called My Triangle, and I have a sneaking regard for the way in which he deals with the abuse on Twitter that he receives, but I don’t own any of his music and have no desire to either. I’m not certain that, come my glorious revolution, he will end up in front of a musical war crimes tribunal (for which the punishment for those found guilty will be imprisonment until such a time that those sentenced come up with one song of his that I would ever actually want to store on my mobile phone, in case you were wondering), but I’m not guaranteeing his freedom, either.
That I deem it necessary to preamble all of this with a two paragraph long disclaimer is a sign of the times. There seems to be no public conversation that can’t be derailed by whataboutery, ad honinom attacks and straw man grasping, but that, in this case at the very least, is perhaps the point, for it has become increasingly popular in recent times, when discussing the tiresomely perpetual nature of class in Britain – and, most specifically, any conversation relating to the gap between the rich and the rest of us – for some people to try and close down the debate by howling about something called “the politics of envy.” But there’s a problem with talking about the politics of envy. It’s largely a myth.
The argument is, of course, a fairly simple one, that those in the world whom we might describe as the “have nots” only attack those in the world who “have” because they are jealous of their statuses. The reasoning behind this seems clear. If one is successful in life, it’s unlikely that one will wish to ascribe too much of the credit for this to the chance of a world that they were born into. For those who have, it’s far more satisfying to ascribe a comfortable lifestyle to their own hard work and intelligence (or whichever noble character traits you’d wish to include) instead. Self-flattery may not be the most lovable of traits in anybody, but perhaps it’s understandable.
All of this, however, ignores the realities of how success of many different types comes about. The name of a certain school or university counts for a lot when applying for jobs, and in a world in which who you know counts for so much, a comfortable or wealthy upbringing grants access to the sort of contacts that make the transition from a comfortable childhood to a comfortable adulthood all the smoother. In his open letter, Blunt complained at having to fund himself to be able to travel to America in order to establish himself in his chosen profession. The thought that millions of others, at least some of whom are likely to have at least the same level of talent as him, would not be in a position to be able to incur such a significant financial outlay does not even seem to have crossed his mind.
None of this, of course, is to say that people from comfortable backgrounds should necessarily be excluded from any spheres of culture. There is a long history of artists, musicians and writers who come from what some may call “the upper classes”, after all. What do seem perverse, however, are the cries that we must live in a perfect meritocracy from those at the top of tree when the truth of the matter is that there has never been such a thing as perfect meritocracy in Britain, and that the overwhelming majority of recent studies into the subject have shown that the gap between the richest and the rest is growing and growing. Tuition fees for higher education, for example, might well put those of more modest means off going to university. Such a hurdle is unlikely to trouble those with parents wealthy enough to fund their children through it all. For those who do get through university, desirable jobs seem increasingly dependent upon a prospective employee’s ability to serve their time in an unpaid intern capacity,which again feels like the exact opposite of what anything like a true meritocracy should be about.
If the only argument that those who seek to shut down debate on this subject is that they did okay and that anybody criticising the system that brought them success is envious, then they’ve lost it before it even gets going. It seems like a pipe dream to ever believe that true meritocracy could really ever come about in this country, but what has been most troubling about the last thirty years or so has been that both political and social will seem to have given up on trying to create a more egalitarian society. Perhaps the best that we might hope for should be that those who have been fortunate enough to take advantage of the roll of the dice that they’ve received could offer a little humility once they have more money than they could ever know how to spend. We’ll never know whether thoughts of such humility crossed James Blunt’s mind before he committed fingers to keyboard. What we do know, however, is that when he did, he came across as little more than a petulant man-child. May his reputation suffer accordingly.
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