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.

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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.

The UK should worry about obesity, not Ebola

The original article was published in The Student Online on the 28/10/2014 and can be accessed here.

It’s deadly, it’s on the rise, and we’re all at risk. I’m talking about a health crisis that’s posing a much greater threat to the UK than Ebola: obesity. That the government is scurrying with studied haste to address the former while continuing to sideline the latter is laughable now, but will have dire consequences for Britain’s long term future.

Over a quarter of the adult UK population are classed as obese, which as well as having a significant impact on personal health, places vast financial strain on the NHS and the economy as a whole. But it’s not a question of smugly telling people to eat less. Biological factors can influence obesity, but another far more important factor places the fight against obesity squarely in government’s ball court: socio-economic inequality.

Widely published studies display the direct link between people’s incomes and their waistlines. Furthermore, those who shrug off the suggestion that healthy food is more affordable now have an international Harvard led study to contend with, which shows that families seeking to shop more healthily pay around £360 more per person per year. Supermarkets know that customers from higher-income backgrounds are prepared to pay more for healthy food, and adjust their prices accordingly, which reinforces the vicious cycle of unhealthy diets among those who cannot afford raised prices.

Despite much political blustering, obesity has only been addressed by the government in piecemeal fashion, which is simply unacceptable. If it is society’s collective responsibility to account for inequality, then the government has a key role to play. Firstly, education about obesity’s effects ought to be part of the school curriculum, along with a greater impetus towards enjoyable physical exercise. Secondly, universal access to affordable healthy food ought to be made a government prerogative. But how to effect this? Legislation forcing suppliers to fully display the dietary contents of products and the subsidisation of healthy food production are unlikely to have much impact. Likewise, restricting the dietary options of different demographic groups in accordance with obesity risk can be immediately dismissed as both unworkable and unpleasantly authoritarian.

Unfortunately, lowering food prices is likewise not a viable solution. Within the European Union prices are already unrealistically low; supermarket competition pushes down prices while continuing to demand such a high percentage of profit that for smaller scale farmers it is often a struggle to sell for more than the cost of production. And thus the solution to these structural issues comes back to the crux of a familiar, yet unaddressed problem: making the minimum wage a living wage.

Emphasising the structural factors is not to deny the onus of individual responsibility in maintaining a healthy weight; while biological factors should not be disregarded, by blaming all our problems on genetics we risk disempowering those whose real inability to stop overeating stems from lack of psychological support. For many obese people, addiction, depression, and other psychological issues are the fundamental causes of overeating, and thus increased government funding for counselling and support groups would also have a positive impact.

Nobody is attempting to undermine the severity of Ebola. But government assistance should be going to the people who actually need it, and whereas obesity is now a factor in over ten per cent of deaths in the UK, the likelihood of an Ebola outbreak on British shores is negligible. Thus if the actions our government are taking are in order protect the health of people in Britain, then David Cameron is barking up entirely the wrong tree.

Racism and public protest at The Barbican

This article was originally published in ‘The Student’ on 07/10/2014.
It can also be viewed here.

Exhibit B: a satirical human zoo featuring caged, chained and mutilated actors in scenes of silent and unmoving degradation. Intended to draw attention to black oppression, this art installation of Brett Bailey was closed last week by its hosting gallery, the Barbican, in response to a picket line of two hundred protestors and a one-thousand strong petition arguing that it furthered rather than challenged racist attitudes. Both news sources and the Barbican itself are complaining that the protestors missed the point. However, while the issue of Exhibit B’s racism itself is not clear cut, the positive example of successful peaceful public intervention is.

Featuring scenes of torture, imprisonment and sexual slavery, Exhibit B is both harrowing and horrifying. This is of course Bailey’s intention, yet prominent protestor Simon Woolley points out that while Exhibit B ‘induces white guilt, it does nothing to promote black empowerment.’ As a white Afrikaner who grew up comfortably in the Apartheid regime Brady arguably has a unique perspective on racism; however, his past also lends connotations of imperialism to the Exhibit. As the satire of the exhibit was entirely implied there was nothing to prevent a particularly twisted audience from actually enjoying the fetishisation of slavery.

If Bailey’s motives are pure then he could have challenged racism more progressively, for example by lending the actors he employed active rather than entirely passive roles. Approaching the topic of race from a more sensitive angle would certainly have been the more artistically difficult, and arguably braver option. As it stood, the gratuitous depravity of Exhibit B suggests that neither Bailey nor the Barbican had given much consideration to black audiences of the installation. It is convenient to claim a veneer of progressivity while simultaneously staging an exhibition with such blatant shock and media value; while art should be challenging, both gallery and artist ought to have noticed how Exhibit B rather oversteps this mark.

Despite complaints to the contrary, artistic freedom of expression does equate to a license to be wantonly insensitive. Galleries have the right to stage any exhibition they choose, but it is unnecessary and distasteful to promote artwork which does more to harm than promote equality. When the thorny issue of which category Exhibit B falls into began to cause protest, the choice whether or not to respond fell upon the Barbican. Perhaps the most progressive aspect of the entire situation is that they did.

Unfortunately, the Barbican has since made it clear that they did so not out of honest respect but because they felt the situation had become too unpredictable. This is offensive to the protesters themselves, who were both peaceful and entirely legal in their actions. In fact it was not even their intent to silence Bailey’s artistic creation, simply to make public their disapproval. It is the Barbican itself which chose, unnecessarily, to close Exhibit B entirely. This was neither some act of censorship by the establishment, nor a case of an angry mob oppressing a voice of dissension. This was simply a peaceful protest by local activists against something which overstepped the values of their community; a peaceful protest which met, however bizarrely, with an unexpected success.

There is therefore one undeniably positive outcome of this awkward situation. Art is intended first and foremost to be interpreted by its audience, and in this case when the audience spoke they actually had their views acknowledged. Therefore whatever our personal interpretations of Exhibit B, we should be gratified that it has demonstrated the power of peaceful, democratic action to affect societal issues.

Student Activism is a Catalyst for Change

This article was originally published in Edinburgh University’s ‘The Student’ on the 30/09/2014. It can also be accessed online here.

Climate change. We all know the risks of doing nothing, and yet we are all guilty of doing too little. After all, having heard the global warming story a thousand times before, you wouldn’t be alone in assuming the public had lost interest. And then, from this atmosphere of apparent apathy, this weekend witnessed the largest climate change protest march in history.

In Edinburgh, thousands of local activists flooded the city centre for the People’s Climate March, in order to put pressure on delegates attending the UN Climate summit in New York this week. Parallel marches in over 150 countries worldwide saw countless protestors getting involved; well over 300,000 people took to the streets of Manhattan alone, figures which put the Occupy movement into the shade. Proving once and for all that the global public are no longer prepared to let politicians sidestep environmental issues, this is clearly a climatic moment for grassroots action on climate change.

Reflecting this, the pledges made at the New York summit do give grounds for cautious hope. Suffering acutely from pollution, China has for the first time pledged to take action on global warming, although Obama still struggles with an unwilling Congress. Yet as shown by the spectacular failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, protest marches in isolation have little impact on political wrangling. Vocal organisations such as Greenpeace and innumerable studies have made it clear for years that the public support for climate action is already there. Rather, it is the recent increase in extreme weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, with their devastating economic and humanitarian consequences, which finally has leaders waking up to the reality of failing to act.

Yet we simply cannot afford to wait for the rising sea levels and drought to have arrived on our doorsteps before our leaders are galvanised into action. Therefore, in order to enact reform, the public will to have to start pushing for it harder and faster than ever before. When world leaders renege on their promises, we need to keep mass campaigns like the People’s Climate March going to show them that the public will not stop demanding change.

Fortunately, the People’s Climate March is by no means the only environmental action currently making headlines. Across the world, the campaign for fossil fuels divestment – the withdrawal of funds from fossil fuels investments – is picking up speed. In a striking and symbolic move, the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune divested from fossil fuels this week. In Britain, Oxfordshire County Council and the British Medical Association are leading the way. The University of Glasgow may soon follow suit; however, despite pressure from student action groups, the University of Edinburgh is hesitating on the brink of action. Stalling such as this from institutions everywhere is why we cannot let the momentum of the moment slide.

Protest marches do a crucial job in raising awareness, and proving to politicians that climate change is still very much on the minds of voters is arguably half the battle. However, the unfortunate truth is that governments remain too self-interested to take action on climate change until the consequences become too real, and too painful, to ignore. Politicians may finally be waking up to reality, but we need grassroots action to keep them on their toes until actual change, and not just the will to change, is visible through genuine action throughout the establishment.

It was correct of Cameron to laud the achievements of Paisley’s career

Published in The Student Online 20/09/2014.  It can also be read here. 

Since the death of Ian Paisley last Friday, the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, he has had his political record lauded across the establishment, including by David Cameron. Yet this has perhaps painted the monolith of Unionist politics in a more magnanimous light than he deserves. After all, the tangled history of Northern Ireland is undeniably one of atrocities committed on both sides, and we should not forget how Paisley helped prolong the conflict, despite his eventual move to heal those wounds. As founder and leader of the dominant Democratic Unionist Party, Paisley was an instrumental figure during the Troubles, with his hard-line stance standing in the way of democratic progress. His campaign against the peaceful partnership proposed by the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 arguably provoked one of the bloodiest attacks of the conflict, and this is merely a single case where his pigheadedness reinforced the brutal deadlock suffered by Northern Ireland for decades. As a strong advocate of both religious intolerance and the criminalisation of homosexuality, Paisley also held many personal opinions entirely anathema to the values of the United Kingdom today. Yet on the wake of his death both his bigotry and his political failings are being brushed under the carpet, in what initially appears an unreasonably rose-tinted move.

However, Paisley’s shortcomings are overshadowed by a startling turnaround towards the end of his career, that constituted a significant contribution to securing a peaceful future for Northern Ireland. In 2005 Paisley’s DUP entered a coalition with Sinn Féin, allowing the second largest party into government for the first time. This was both a difficult and morally ambiguous decision due to Sinn Féin’s close links with the IRA, the republican terrorist organisation responsible for much bloodshed. But by co-operating with Sinn Féin Paisley was instrumental in creating what a century of conflict had failed to achieve – a Northern Ireland where both unionist and republican views are respected in politics. Paisley’s Sinn Féin coalition proved that the obstinate and prejudiced establishment had finally conceded that however morally indefensible the actions of the opposition, it would be foolish, dangerous and undemocratic to continue to ignore the voice of republicanism.

We should be grateful that even a man as militant and unreasonable as Paisley had the moral courage, at the crucial moment, to put his beliefs behind him in order to secure peace and stability for his country. After so many decades of violence, his decision was undoubtedly for the greater good. Paisley may have been small-minded, but whereas his bigoted beliefs belong to a different era, it is his legacy to Northern Ireland which matters today. Neither side involved in the Troubles is guiltless, but it took one man to concede to compromise in order to put those troubles behind. It was thus correct of Cameron to laud the achievements of Paisley’s career without dragging up his earlier failings. A generation on from the Troubles, we can only regret that both sides did not lay down their weapons sooner. Northern Ireland today is by no means a politically united country, but it is a stable and relatively peaceful one. And for that, we have Paisley’s legacy to be thankful for.

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