James Blunt on stage in 2013. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's speech on terrorism will do him more good than harm

The Labour leader's criticism of police cuts and western foreign policy will resonate with voters.

The election campaign, if there was any doubt, has resumed. In his speech responding to the Manchester attack, Jeremy Corbyn did not limit himself to expressions of sympathy and solidarity. He squarely targeted Theresa May on her home turf: policing and security.

The Conservatives' repeated warning is that Corbyn is a "threat" to his country. But the Labour leader countered that only he could keep it "safe". Austerity, he declared, "has to stop at the A&E ward and at the police station door. We cannot be protected and cared for on the cheap." May, having been warned by the Police Federation while home secretary of the danger of cuts, is undoubtedly vulnerable on this front. Under Labour, Corbyn vowed, "there will be more police on the streets" (despite Diane Abbott's erroneous arithmetic), while the security services would receive whatever resources they need.

Corbyn swiftly progressed to foreign policy, the great passion of his political life. Though it is facile to reduce terrorism to a "blowback" against western interventionism (as if jihadists were Pavlovian dogs, rather than moral agents), it is blinkered to dismiss any connection. As Corbyn noted: "Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home" (the Tory-led Foreign Affairs Select Committee is among those who agree).That the former Stop the War chair has long taken this view absolves him of the charge of crude political opportunism.

Corbyn was also more careful than his pre-briefed remarks suggested to caveat his criticisms. He emphasised: "Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform.

"And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre."

But he maintained his central charge: western intervention has made the world more dangerous, not less. "We must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working," he said. "We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism."

Though Corbyn's arguments have appalled Conservatives (and some in Labour), they are ones that will likely find favour among the public. Polls have consistently shown that most voters oppose western adventurism and believe it has endangered the UK. Corbyn's words will resonate among both the anti-interventionist left and the isolationist right (this is, after all, a country which has just voted to retreat from even its closest neighbours).

The speech, given at 1 Great George Street (in the room where Ed Miliband gave his resignation address), was marred by Corbyn's refusal to take questions. But it was unarguably well-delivered. "Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror," he warned in a pre-emptive strike against the Conservatives.

Corbyn's decision to give an overtly political speech four days after the Manchester attack is being widely described as a "gamble" or even a profound error. But the election will now rightly focus more closely on the issue of security - nothing should be beyond democratic debate.

Many of Corbyn's life-long stances, such as unilateral disarmament, do not find favour with the electorate. But there was little in his speech today that the average voter would contest. The Conservatives will hope to turn the heightened security debate to their advantage, ruthlessly quoting Corbyn against himself. But on this front, as on others, the Labour leader is proving a tougher opponent than they anticipated.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496