The cast of Craig Cash and Caroline Aherne's hit sitcom The Royle Family.
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I don’t mind if politicians went to posh schools. I do mind if they don’t listen to anyone who didn’t

Ad hominem attacks make no sense. All young people should enjoy the opportunity to tell their stories.

Let me begin by paying you a compliment. I don’t care where you went to school. There – have I made your day? No? All right, I’ll go further: I also don’t care what your dad did for a living, or how your mum voted. Nor do I mind whether you ate your tea in front of the telly, dinner at the kitchen table or supper in the dining room. Maybe you didn’t have a telly. Or you called it a TV. Or you had one but it was hidden in a cabinet. And maybe you seldom ate an evening meal at home because you were in care, or at boarding school; and you can’t tell me what your dad did for a living because you never met him; and you don’t know how your mum votes because she never votes, because she’s the Queen.

I call it a compliment because, if you disagree with me about something, I’ll wonder what might be wrong with what I said, rather than what might be wrong with you. If I offer a conjecture, you might challenge that conjecture – but you could return the compliment by not challenging my life. It’s a pleasant fantasy, isn’t it? But, oh well, back to human beings.

To rail against ad hominem attacks is as pointless as to rail against Homo sapiens. We think: therefore, we often talk rubbish. The trouble with playing the person instead of the ball is that a) it makes you look like you’re not interested in the ball and b) you almost always get the wrong person. You’ll notice I slightly compromised the more familiar phrase “playing the man instead of the ball” in the interests of not excluding women (many of whom like or play football). You might say that this is overly fastidious. Or that I’m favouring political correctness over clarity. Fine. But I’d rather that you didn’t say I wrote that because I am a “typical left-wing luvvie”, for instance, because then I would know I was in the presence of a dick. And, flawed as I am, that would be the end of our potentially interesting chat. The “Well, you would say that . . .” school of thought is not so much a school as a hospice.

It’s always a one-way street: I seek out the logical fallacies in argument, you are a benefit scrounger. I detect solecisms and lazy thinking, you are a public-school buffoon. I coolly weigh the evidence, you are a woman. We all do it. Rationality, objectivity: these things are essential to argument. But we are in trouble when we don’t recognise that we are swimming against the tide. Very bad things follow when we kid ourselves that we’re naturally rational, rather than the more humbling truth: naturally emotional.

So, perhaps a little forgiveness here. Does it matter that David Cameron went to Eton? Yes, it does. But do I blame, even hate, him for it? No, of course not: he was a child. We don’t withhold empathy from people who are lucky (though there are all kinds of luck: I’m not sure that, say, being waved off to boarding school at the age of seven is a guarantee of cloudless mental heath).

Yet we are free to judge people by what they do with that luck, and indeed by whether they show any sign of noticing it. I don’t mind that George Osborne went to St Paul’s School. I mind very much if he shows no sign of reading about, meeting and listening to a lot, and I mean, A LOT of people who didn’t. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer is not an expert on what it’s like to work on a zero-hours contract then he isn’t fit for the job.

It’s a matter of intellectual diversity. Where you have 20 people who all share roughly the same educational and life experiences, they’re going to come up with the same solutions to the same problems. Not only is equality of opportunity a good idea in terms of social justice (as ideas go, I can scarcely think of a better one), but the creative friction that comes from clever people from different backgrounds arguing about a common aim benefits all of us: business, politics, the arts, everyone.

Speaking of the arts, the recent handbag tussle between Chris Bryant and James Blunt made me think of The Royle Family and how long it took me to warm to it. Among other comments, the Labour culture spokesman criticised broadcasters for not making enough drama or comedy about working-class culture. The thing that initially alarmed me about Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s wonderful sitcom was how accurate it was. I grew up in a bungalow in the beautiful nowhere of Lincolnshire, where, to answer the questions above, we had our “tea” at the kitchen table and the thing in the corner of the “living room” was a “telly”. But then I scraped in to the grammar school, and then Cambridge. And from that moment – this isn’t rational, it’s just how it feels right now – I disqualified myself from writing about the people I grew up with. If I tried to write The Royle Family now, the critics wouldn’t review the show, they’d review me: I would pass them the ball and they would ask where I got my “Oxbridge football boots”.

But I’m just one bloke. We need to give back to young people all the advantages I enjoyed. Until a government can restore arts funding, public libraries, the Education Maintenance Allowance, housing benefit for young people and maintenance grants for the poorest university students, we will never hear from those talented people with their own, vibrant stories to tell. The ones who are not yet, as I have become, afraid.

 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.