Hugo Rifkind

Let posh people run the arts – if it means they stop running the country

22 January 2015

3:00 PM

22 January 2015

3:00 PM

What should we do with James Blunt? This is what I have been asking myself. And I am not looking for comedy answers here, such as ‘Lock him in a shipping container and force him to listen to songs by James Blunt’ or ‘Allow him to become a properly recognised bit of Cockney rhyming slang’. No. It’s a genuine question.

I refer, of course, to the enjoyable spat conducted this week via open letters to the Guardian, between the singer (private school and Bristol University), and the shadow culture secretary, Chris Bryant (private school and Oxford), over whether people in the arts are too posh. I don’t know why, even now, it is only people who went to private school and fancy universities who get to write open letters to the Guardian. I suppose we should all strive for the day when such forums are at least also open to people who went perhaps to a grammar school, and then maybe to a decent former polytechnic. Although clearly the good people of Kings Place would not want to descend any lower down the social strata, because then they’d have to go back through the copy, adding the aitches.

Bryant kicked it off, for fairly cynical ‘Let’s not talk about Labour’s plans to keep Tory cuts on arts funding’ sorts of reasons, in the wake of Eddie Redmayne (Eton and Cambridge) winning a Golden Globe for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Certainly, only a certain sort of person could sigh, of the arts, ‘Is everyone just going to be an arts graduate from Cambridge?’ while not feeling it remotely relevant that they themselves, the shadow minister in charge of the arts, are an arts graduate from Oxford, and it’s one of the lasting joys of Bryant that he’s so reliably one of them. Still, in case you should think that I am just a Cambridge arts graduate feeling snippy, I should point out that Bryant wasn’t wrong. There are indeed a lot of posh kids in the arts. Thousands of them. Ever more, and ever more.

Blunt gets targeted with this sort of criticism a lot (partly because he talks like Austin Powers playing Henry VIII) and seems to have swiftly lost his rag. Hence the first open letter, in which he declared the Labour MP a ‘classist, prejudiced wazzock’. For Blunt, the clear implication of Bryant’s remarks was that his success was undeserved; solely the consequence of leg-ups and favours not open to others. You can see why he was peeved: his first album was bought by 11 million people, and his dad can’t possibly have been mates with all of them. More to the point — and I find myself in fairly familiar territory here — he also clearly felt that such accusations were flatly untrue. Perhaps no calls were made on his behalf, no favours were done, nobody said, ‘Oh, you’re the colonel’s boy! Why didn’t you say? Why, you can certainly have a record contract in that case! Got any songs?’ And thus he perhaps feels himself in the clear.

His mistake, though, was to buy into the pernicious and simplistic fiction that this is how privilege must manifest itself. Pernicious, because few career paths are truly devoid of meritocracy, and it’s a sin to tell talented kids that they have no hope without that useful godfather. Generally life’s advantages are more nebulous, or at least more piecemeal. Opportunity comes into it, but so does the confidence of being told, by people who would know, that opportunity is often just a phone call away. Most of all, though, it is a privilege to be able to follow the thing you want to do, comfortable in the knowledge that failure probably just means you’ll traipse off blithely to do something else. Blunt’s open letter to Bryant virtually said as much — failure for him would have meant becoming a stockbroker.

Which is where I begin to grow confused. Because would Chris Bryant prefer that he had? Would that be better for us all, or worse? After all — and I’m not sure how the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ relates to squeaky singer-songwriters, so do forgive me if I’m falling foul of it — you’d have thought we only need a limited number of singers at any one time. Yet the same, surely, is true of stockbrokers, or lawyers, or merchant bankers, or any one of the other careers in which Blunt might have found himself on leaving the army. So, as far as Bryant is concerned, which was the better bed for Blunt to block? Where, ultimately, do we want the posh kids to go?

Perhaps, then, we’re seeing this all backwards. We look at the posh invasion of the arts and we think of all those working-class kids left behind. For every Mumford, we tell ourselves, there’s a frustrated Steptoe, sons and all. Only maybe that’s exactly the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe, instead, we should see every prancing Etonian in tights as a stockbroker or an ambassador or a permanent secretary that never happened — thereby creating a vacancy for somebody else.

I mean, imagine if Chris Bryant had been able to act. The theatre world would barely have noticed; just another noisy posho going for the same roles as all the rest. But the Labour party? Maybe Rhondda might have an MP who hadn’t gone to school in Cheltenham. He could even be shadow arts minister. There’s a thought, eh?

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