“Classist gimp”, and “prejudiced wazzock”. Such are the insults levelled by James Blunt at MP Chris Bryant, for daring to suggest that the entertainment industry is disproportionately dominated by people from wealthier backgrounds. In his letter, Blunt frantically denies that he has been the beneficiary of social privilege; instead, he insists, his background worked against his success. To clarify, James Blunt attended Harrow. How we all pity him.
In Britain seven per cent of children are privately educated, with around one per cent attending boarding school. And yet with Tom Hiddleston, Eddie Redmayne, Harry Lloyd, Damian Lewis and Frank Turner all Eton alumni, and hundreds of celebrities from Lily Allen to Leona Lewis likewise attendees of prestigious private schools, you’d be forgiven for assuming that education in the UK resembles a bizarre amalgamation of Harry Potter, Downton Abbey and Glee.
So why is it that so many of the successful come from so narrow a sector of society? The bitter reality is that our elitist entertainment industry simply reflects a wider problem: modern Britain is far from meritocratic. Blunt’s wail of “classist” is therefore a particularly poignant moment of irony. While correct to point out the existence of reverse snobbery, Blunt’s claim that being mocked as “too posh” is somehow comparable to the fierce struggle faced by those without the building blocks of wealth and opportunity, which he takes for granted, is wildly out of touch. If Blunt of all people cannot recognise that he, having attended a £30,000 per year boarding school, is privileged, then there is no hope for any of us.
Blunt’s illogical stance is indicative of a pervasive, wilful refusal to admit the existence of any form of privilege due to the mistaken assumption that this would entail the denial of individual effort and achievement. Far from it. Blunt, and his fellows mentioned above, are fantastically talented and highly deserving of success. However, it is foolish to pretend that socio-economic background doesn’t have vast influence on who will succeed, when, in an entertainment industry glutted with talent from all walks of life, it is individuals from wealthy families who achieve such statistically disproportionate fame.
“Privilege” is simply a label for the fact that some begin life further forward on the starting block than others, and that this head start helps sustain them throughout their careers.
In fact, according to the Equality Trust, lack of social mobility is the only indicator of social inequality among Western nations in which Britain out-performs (or rather under-performs) even the United States. Particularly in the competitive creative industries the benefits of having attended wealthy institutions, which facilitate both academic excellence and social connections, become of increasing importance.
No-one should be made to feel ashamed of their wealthy background, but neither is it acceptable for the wealthy to blindly assume their success is down to natural talent alone. It is vital that we all take a moment to step back and gain perspective on our lives, and acknowledge that we may well be benefiting from some form of privilege, whether in terms of wealth, race, sexuality or gender. There are many out there, like Blunt, who are living in an illusionary bubble of meritocracy. It’s about time they snapped out of it.