James Blunt is a beneficiary of immense privilege

This article was originally published in the Student 24/01/15. The online version can be accessed here.

“Classist gimp”, and “prejudiced wazzock”. Such are the insults levelled by James Blunt at MP Chris Bryant, for daring to suggest that the entertainment industry is disproportionately dominated by people from wealthier backgrounds. In his letter, Blunt frantically denies that he has been the beneficiary of social privilege; instead, he insists, his background worked against his success. To clarify, James Blunt attended Harrow. How we all pity him.

In Britain seven per cent of children are privately educated, with around one per cent attending boarding school. And yet with Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Harry Lloyd, Damian Lewis and Frank Turner all Eton alumni, and hundreds of celebrities from Lily Allen to Leona Lewis likewise attendees of prestigious private schools, you’d be forgiven for assuming that education in the UK resembles a bizarre amalgamation of Harry Potter, Downton Abbey and Glee.

So why is it that so many of the successful come from so narrow a sector of society? The bitter reality is that our elitist entertainment industry simply reflects a wider problem: modern Britain is far from meritocratic. Blunt’s wail of “classist” is therefore a particularly poignant moment of irony. While correct to point out the existence of reverse snobbery, Blunt’s claim that being mocked as “too posh” is somehow comparable to the fierce struggle faced by those without the building blocks of wealth and opportunity, which he takes for granted, is wildly out of touch. If Blunt of all people cannot recognise that he, having attended a £30,000 per year boarding school, is privileged, then there is no hope for any of us.

Blunt’s illogical stance is indicative of a pervasive, wilful refusal to admit the existence of any form of privilege due to the mistaken assumption that this would entail the denial of individual effort and achievement. Far from it. Blunt, and his fellows mentioned above, are fantastically talented and highly deserving of success. However, it is foolish to pretend that socio-economic background doesn’t have vast influence on who will succeed, when, in an entertainment industry glutted with talent from all walks of life, it is individuals from wealthy families who achieve such statistically disproportionate fame.

“Privilege” is simply a label for the fact that some begin life further forward on the starting block than others, and that this head start helps sustain them throughout their careers.

In fact, according to the Equality Trust, lack of social mobility is the only indicator of social inequality among Western nations in which Britain out-performs (or rather under-performs) even the United States. Particularly in the competitive creative industries the benefits of having attended wealthy institutions, which facilitate both academic excellence and social connections, become of increasing importance.

No-one should be made to feel ashamed of their wealthy background, but neither is it acceptable for the wealthy to blindly assume their success is down to natural talent alone. It is vital that we all take a moment to step back and gain perspective on our lives, and acknowledge that we may well be benefiting from some form of privilege, whether in terms of wealth, race, sexuality or gender. There are many out there, like Blunt, who are living in an illusionary bubble of meritocracy. It’s about time they snapped out of it.


Replacing the archaic House of Lords with an elected senate is necessary

This article was published in the Student online 18/12/14. The original can be accessed here.

The violent revolutions and military upheavals which have forged the modern constitutions of many of our European neighbours are things which Britain as a nation is extremely fortunate not to have experienced. But our gradual acquisition of democracy has also allowed us to maintain vestiges of an old parliamentary system which ought to have been abolished years ago; therefore, Ed Miliband’s election promise to replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber is both welcome and long overdue.

Miliband is right to point out how parliament reinforces London’s black-hole pull on the country’s economy; 13 per cent of Britain’s population reside in the capitol, and yet government spending on infrastructure in London is equal to that for the rest of England combined. By replacing the Lords with elected senators, regional figures both accountable to the public and able to stand up for the interests of their local communities would be placed at the heart of government.

Unfortunately, the broad experience so crucial to approving effective policy is frequently lacking in the Lords, where old career politicians never saw much of ‘the rest’ of Britain outside of their one track journey from PPE at Christchurch to their first appointment at Westminster. In contrast, by electing doctors, eminent scientists, local business people and representatives from the arts to the Lords, a range of specialist expertise could be drawn upon to ensure policy is both current and practical. The House of Lords is not only ripe for reform, but would be a far more constructive area for reform to take place than other current proposals to diffuse London’s dominance – HS2, anyone?

However, the second chamber suffers from a much broader diversity crisis than just the London Question, and to suggest that it is in any way representative or accountable in its current format is entirely laughable. We should be shocked that 92 hereditary peers (of whom 90 are male) continue to owe their seats not to ability, but to aristocratic ancestry. Conservative peers in Lords significantly outnumber those of all other parties combined, and similarly, the 26 Church of England bishops in Lords disproportionately represent a dwindling minority in an increasingly agnostic, and multi-religious population. As for the overall male to female ratio? It is a measly 6 to 1.

This is entirely unacceptable. That the majority of the Lords are extremely well educated and intelligent is not in doubt, but how can we call ourselves a democracy when our highest political offices remain dominated by an oligarchy of white, wealthy, conservative males? The House of ‘Lords’ may no longer be that of Victorian Empire, but it most certainly does not represent modern Britain. An elected senate would allow a much broader swathe of the British population to have their interests represented in the heart of legislature, and the suggestion that this is somehow too radical seems ignorant and faint-hearted in the face of the many nations with a successful elected senate.

However, after Labour’s opposition the 2010 Lib Dem attempts to reform Lords, scepticism of Miliband’s election promise comes naturally. The tuition fee fiasco in particular is still fresh in the minds of most young voters. And yet despite this, history shows that major policy reorientations are neither rare nor necessarily fraudulent. Certainly, since the Scottish referendum, nationwide calls for devolution and increased local representation have been gaining traction in parliament.

However, if in 2015 this promise does prove to be just hot air, Miliband can rest assured that today’s youngest generation of voters will feel ever more justified in their general dislike of the two major parties, and broader political apathy.

The Tower of London poppies are a meaningful and appropriate memorial

Originally published in ‘The Student’ 11/11/14. An online version can be accessed here.

888,246 is the number ceramic poppies filling the moat of the Tower of London in a new Remembrance Day art exhibition; Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red contains a flower for every British soldier who lost their life in WW1. And yet this striking tribute to the fallen has been lambasted by Jonathan Jones of the Guardian as ‘meaningless,’, ‘fake,’ and ‘UKIP style’ memorial.

It seems the meaning of the memorial has sailed merrily over Mr Jones’ head. A century may seem like an awfully long time to us, but is only just beyond living memory, and among the 20 000 British who died on the first day of the Somme were the grandfathers and even fathers of people who are still alive today. However, Jones assumes that the memorial stands only for the dead of WW1, failing to surmise that the display memorialises all our nation’s military dead since that date; a particularly impressive oversight since this is the stated purpose of the Poppy Appeal itself. Jones also suggests that the memorial is ‘inward looking’ for only memorialising the death of British citizens, likewise failing to notice that the poppy is an international symbol and thus also represents the fallen remembered by nations across the globe every Remembrance or Poppy Day.

Jones also complains of the memorial’s ‘fake nobility’, as though allowing fallen soldiers some dignity is tantamount to glorifying acts of war. Every year, soldiers give their lives to protect us. We may actively disagree with the motives behind wars such as Iraq or Afghanistan, but this belies the fact that the motives behind all wars, including WW1, are always dubious. Whether or not a war is justified does not negate the insurmountable sacrifice made by those who are prepared to lay down their lives regardless, and it is thus ignorant and insensitive to dismiss this sacrifice, even if one believes strongly in pacifism.

The vastly popular London display has caused a huge influx of visitors to the Tower itself, and is even the source of major Tube delays in the area. Yet heaven forbid that the UK should be allowed to show any semblance of national pride: Mr Jones randomly equates national unity through mourning as an example of ‘UKIP style’ sentiments. His reference to the controversial right-wing party is a ridiculous and offensive non-sequitur; while Jones no doubt means to suggest that any appearance of national consciousness will somehow send Britain spiralling down a dark path towards fascism, this conclusion is entirely impossible to sustain.

Jones is furthermore remarkably unobservant to suggest that the memorial does not represent the horrors of war. Firstly, the poppy symbolises death itself, with the entire display highly reminiscent of a river of blood, as its title unsubtly indicates. Overall, the vulnerability of the poppies reflects the vulnerability of soldiers, with their almost identical multitude showing the thoughtless brutality with which lives are swept away in war.

While using a flower as a symbol for remembering the war dead may be euphemistic, this is necessary in order to memorialise the fallen in a way which remains solemn yet is not so grotesque as to be inaccessible. The poppy thus continues to be a poignant and vital symbol of respect, which pays tribute to those who have died without glorifying their actions or war itself; the memorial perfectly captures both the importance and tragedy of this sacrifice. The fact that war is always difficult to justify only makes it all the more vital that we continue to remember those who lose their lives in the name of defending our country.