James Blunt on stage in 2013. Photo: Getty
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The thing about privilege, James Blunt, is that those who have it can’t see it

It’s not being a “classist gimp”, as the singer termed Labour MP Chris Bryant, to point out that inequality has played a part in how people end up in positions of power in this country.

“I am delighted that Eddie Redmayne won [a Golden Globe for best actor], but we can’t just have a culture dominated by Eddie Redmayne and James Blunt and their ilk,” Chris Bryant, Labour’s shadow culture minister, told the Guardian in a discussion about the lack of diversity in the UK in the arts. It turns out James Blunt did not like this, writing a response that included calling Bryant a “classist gimp”.

If you want to see the myths around how equal opportunity works in this country encapsulated in a few hundred words, read Blunt’s full response. It has all the classics. There’s “no one helped me at boarding school to get into the music business,” as if class advantage is always direct and visible. There’s the “every step of the way, my background has been AGAINST me succeeding in the music business. And when I have managed to break through, I was STILL scoffed at for being too posh for the industry,” or as its more commonly put, the “no one knows the pain of being white, rich and male in this society”. And not forgetting the claim that a concern for inequality is “the politics of jealousy”, as if objecting to a tiny, advantaged section of society having a hold on the country’s elite positions is petty envy rather than a reasonable concern for basic fairness. 

It’s difficult to believe anyone actually thinks the people currently representing this country – from politics to the media – are the most talented or the hardest workers. At best, this is somewhere between comforting ignorance and (for the few this set up is working for) convenient lies. Beyond the arts, every position of influence and power in this country would look very different without stark, multi-dimensional background inequality, where someone who was bought the best education and raised with nurturing parents was not competing with someone who had to go to a failing state school and grew up without a stable family or home (or where arts funding, scholarships, and paid internships were not widely available).

It is telling that Blunt says that when he tried for a job in the music industry, people around him thought it was a “mad idea”. That’s the beauty of qualifications and a comfortable upbringing. “Mad ideas” are actually possibilities. If it all goes wrong, there is always mum and dad’s spare room or another job to fall back. For people born outside of advantage, the consequence for failing to be a popstar is – rather than having to be a “lawyer” or “stockbroker” as Blunt puts it – being homeless or not being able to buy food. Risk and opportunity tend to look very different depending on what class position you’re viewing them from.  

I have some sympathy for Blunt. I imagine it doesn’t feel great to be used as an example of what is wrong with an industry (or society) or for it to feel that someone is saying you don’t deserve the success you have. But there has to come a point where, in looking at the inequality around them, a privately educated, wealthy white man realises that this isn’t about him. And that this is the case even if his name is right there in the middle of it. It’s about the other people, the singers and writers and actors who we have never heard of. The ones who never had the opportunity to be where Blunt ended up. They had the same potential (perhaps more), the same dreams, but – thanks to pervasive, widespread inequality – never really had a chance. That may be an uncomfortable truth for Blunt to swallow, but it should be no easier for the rest of us.

Now read Stephanie Boland on why speaking “proper” still counts as having an accent.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.