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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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.