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.

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“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.