Thursday, January 31, 2013

The trouble with posh boys


It's been a while since I've written about politics or ruffled a few feathers at the bike shed. Although I never quite reasoned it out, I think I've been concerned that readers of my book might be put off.  I've been anticipating a rush of visitors wanting beautiful words on family and landscape -  not me ranting about the wrongs of private education or the demise of the UK pension system. 

The assumption is flawed.  

Firstly, it presumes my book would attract readers here - a hope which the stat-counter confirms isn't happening, or at least not in volume. Secondly, it's dried up my output so that even the regular visitors are tailing off.  And thirdly, I've a list of political issues clogging my head - and blocking the route of things less contentious.

So if you're new here and expecting something more on nature or landscape, bear with me a while, or try clicking the sidebar - meanwhile I'll start with an anecdote that set me thinking.

The proper post starts here.

The other week my son related a story of a 'rich girl' at his school who'd blithely asserted, 'all of us have smartphones that our parents pay for'.  No we don't! was the firm response from her peers. 'Really? But I thought...'

Whilst the tale is not quite on the level of 'let them eat cake', it reminded me of how easy it is for the privileged to lose touch with the lives of those less flush. I'm sure I've been guilty of this - probably most of the middle classes have at some point. George Orwell, whose writings are currently being celebrated on Radio 4, argued it was impossible for the upper classes (of which I am distinctly not a member) to fully understand the realities of the working class.

My son's story also brought to mind the MP, Nadine Diorres' recent description of Cameron and Clegg as two arrogant posh boys. The country, she claimed, was being run by public school toffs with no understanding of those who can't afford to fill their kids' lunch boxes. What's more, she added, they don't care!'

I disagree with Diorres and (dare I say it) to some extent with Orwell. Aside from the occasional backbench rant, I don't see any evidence that this Government is entirely ignorant or uncaring of those on low incomes. Indeed they overtly state that those with the broadest shoulders who should carry the biggest burden - and whilst we might argue about what constitutes 'broad', most of their fiscal policies have reflected this. 

But what I think the anecdote illustrates is something more subtle - and it get's to the heart of the trouble with posh boys...

Drive through any middle class housing estate and you'll see rows of properties looking very much alike, cars on the drive, gravel around the plant pots. From outside appearance, you might reasonably conclude the lives and incomes of the residents are much of a muchness. But you'd be very wrong.  

Scratch the surface, and you'll find that number 26 is mortgaged to the hilt; next door they're debt-free but under threat of redundancy; the chap at number 32 has no pension and will be working till he drops; the bungalow at the end is being sold to pay for care home fees... The middle classes of the UK may all look alike - but the deeper reality is that their only commonality (quoting Orwell again) is a fear of becoming working class. 

And it seems to me that this hints at what posh boys fail to understand. It's not that Cameron and Clegg can't recognise and empathise with those on truly low incomes. Rather, it's that if you went to a school costing £12,000 a term, then it's hard to see a problem with university fees of £9000? If you're set to inherit millions and a mansion, then what's all the fuss about the demise of pensions? If your family is rolling in cash then surely the difference between individual and household earnings is just a technicality? 

Well no it isn't. 

Take, for example,  the patently unfair arrangements for removal of Child Benefit. This doesn't affect those on low or average incomes - but it is classic 'posh boy' to think there's no difference between a household with three children and one earner on £61,000p.a. (entire benefit of circa £2,300 removed) and another with two adults earning a combined income of £98,000p.a. which retains all of the benefit.  For clarity, I'm not arguing here that benefits shouldn't be removed; I'm saying the way they have chosen to do it shows a  certain disregard of the difference £40,000 per year makes. 

And it's classic posh boy to argue the provision of bursaries to students from lower income families makes the system of fairer, and by implication more palatableOf course, we need to encourage social mobility, that's obvious - but let's not be ignorant of the impact on a lower middle class teenager who wants to become a teacher and is facing the prospect of £50,000 debts. 

As an aside, one of the few truly 'fair' aspects of the university fees system is that students repay loans when they earn above a threshold. Ironically for the posh boys, this means that subsidising students from low income families is potentially a gross injustice. Imagine a fully subsidised student who has no fees to repay but who then goes on to earn a multi-million salary (they become an investment banker perhaps).  Now imagine an average income student whose parents struggle to support through university and whose career takes them to a socially valuable but middle income job (a policeman perhaps) - but who then has to repay over £50,000 in fees and loans! That simply can't be fair. 

But then you see fairness is a tricky concept. And our view of it is highly dependent on the company we keep and how we experience the world around us. 

So next time you hear Cameron, Clegg and their chums promoting this Government's policies, ask yourself how aware they are - not of the obvious income gaps, but of the subtleties that lie behind appearance. Ask whether their kids might think that parent funded smartphones are what everyone teenager enjoys.


  1. Cannot imagine that Orwell had much clue idea of the graduations in working class as seen by working class people.
    Which bears out your point that the posh boys can't see the graduations in middle class as seen by middle class people.

    So our problem is how to get a balance of working, middle and posh into power.

  2. hear, hear!!

    I used to be part of the team running the gallery and bookshop in Oriel Theatr Clwyd in 1977. We used to get parties of girls from the local private school, located in an old castle. Their visits were dreaded- they had no idea what "change" was, only paper money! Also their attitude to us "minions" was despicable.

  3. "Of course, we need to encourage social mobility, that's obvious" Although increased social mobility (or perhaps in other words, a meritocracy) is good overall for the nation, for "posh boys", the new doors opened by increased social mobility lead mostly downwards. This does not encourage such people in charge of education to maximise its efficacy.

    I got the best education available anywhere, largely paid for by the state, and I'm grateful. I could weep for what has been done to education in Britain.

  4. Knowledge or ignorance of the subtleties that affect the common man is what makes a good politician or a bad one. The ignorance can usually be cured by talking to people rather than spieling ivory tower manifestos at them... That is also where Cameron and Clegg fail.

  5. What a coincidence - we both are featuring politics today.

    I was in a well-known supermarket yesterday, where a young mother was checking through the 'knock down price shelf' looking for something good, yet cheap for her very young daughter's lunch box. After she'd carefully explained what she was doing, her daughter started to help her and eventually held up two boxes. 'Look, sushi mummy' :o

  6. Thanks for commenting on my book blog Mark, nice to see you again. I really have no intelligent comment to make on this post, and as my new year intentions include - if I can't say anything nice, say nothing at all, and ditto if I can't add anything meaningful to a conversation I keep quiet....

  7. I enjoyed your post Mark though I disagreed with some of it.

    I agree that Cameron, Osborne et al understand that some people can be 'poor' - but (and here's a novelty for me) I agree with Dorries that they do not 'care'. In fact, largely they blame the poor. 'The poor are poor and it's all their own fault - and what's more they drag the rest of us down' - that's the refrain behind their attack on benefit claimants and their blatant association of fraudulence with claiming.

    I'm a product of those 60s- early 80s policies which supported poor working class kids into further and higher education.
    I come from a poor family blighted by serious parental ill-health and frequent unemployment; benefit dependant; from a Council Housing Estate and a sink Comprehensive School. I got to Uni on a full grant. Then did another couple of degrees.

    I am now - by anyone's definition - 'middle class'. Though I suspect that many of the middle class don't really want some ex-schemie like me in their midst - reminding them that they're at risk of losing what makes them feel 'superior' if 'social mobility' is successful...

    I lost my child benefit and would have done even if I'd been a widow or hubby had been pennyless.

    Thing is, I believe that universal benefits are 'a good thing'. Reminding us of our social bond - the fact that we are 'all in it together'. So, of course I was not happy to see it go - people earning the cash I earn have no reason at all to link themselves to the welfare state now and in the selfish world we live in no reason to care about it either. But I'd have been less angry to lose it if I thought for a minute that any of it was going to actually help lift a burden from those more vulnerable. It isn't. It's helping the current Government give more to its 'ain kind' (tax breaks and etc).

    Of course, I know of middle class peers who are struggling to pay the mortgage (they borrowed when times were good and prices very high). They dread the weekly food bill at Waitrose/Sainsburys and are thinking about getting rid of a car. They say they can't buy from Boden any more. They are trying to keep up appearances and are still intent on paying the school fees. One acquaintance was furious with me when I suggested that repossession of her house might be less likely if she simply switched the (4) kids to her local comprehensive and used the money saved to pay debts...

    Do I feel sorry for them?

    Fraid not. I feel deeply frustrated that they are so bound up in the trappings of middle-class-ness - they define themselves by their consumption - by where they shop; what they own; where their kids go to school; where they holiday.

    Why would I feel sorry for them? Some of my friends and my family exist on minimum wage and cannot make it from one end of the week to the other. They are felled by a car repair bill or a shoe size rise in their youngest kid. Or a hike in rent. Or a central heating system that has packed in. But in order for the middle class to exist my family and friends are essential. They make the middle class feel ok. Comforted. 'I'm not as bad as them...'

    I'm convinced that social mobility is a myth. It's dog eat dog. The rich parent is hardly going to be happy that their progeny lost out to the wee ned from Possilpark who got in on a university initiative to 'widen access and social mix'. For every poor kid who makes it to uni there'll be a rich kid who has to make do with their second choice.

    Re VP - I visited a prestigious private school on Thursday - and was saddened by the pupil arrogance/ignorance which could ask 'but are there really poor people? couldn't they all just go to Uni?' and 'My Dad says he'll save money when I go to Uni'. A little reminder for me of the chasm between expectations of the poor v rich.

    1. I think that must rate as my longest ever comment received - and you know, I reckon I agree with virtually of it. Well said.

    2. Thanks Mark. I'm laughing as I re-read. You must've touched a big nerve with the post as I got onto a bit of a roll there...

  8. One of the (many) problems with the current crop of top politicians on both sides is how many of them are career politicians, with little (sometimes no) experience of the ordinary working world outside politics. They exist in a Westminster bubble which skews their perceptions, so of course they don't properly understand the true effect of their policies on those most affected.

    If I could have my way, no-one would be allowed to stand for Parliament until they'd held down a real job outside politics for at least 10 years. It won't happen, but if it did I think it would help.

    1. All of the parties are stuffed full of 'career politicians'. It's another bug bear of mine Perpetua.
      The student politicians make their way through the mire of political internships and personal assistant-ships and research posts after a stint of NUS or similar tenure.
      I'd enforce the same rule - 'real job' or else!
      Thing is - politics is become such a 24/7 ugly media-exposed goldfish bowl with impossible standards and restrictions placed upon entrants that I wonder what 'real' person would actually a) want to put themselves through the selection process and b) actually (if they are truly sane) want to become an MP or etc?
      Maybe we - the electorate - need to look at what we demand from our political representatives?

  9. I hate to disagree with you Mark but I do think Cameron is an arrogant posh boy. Although I agree with what Nadine D says I think she is a publicity seeking career politician like the majority of them. I also agree with Orwell because let's face it how can anyone understand anything they have not experienced themselves (or at least lived amongst). This government is both ignorant and uncaring precisely because it is run by a bunch of privileged posh boys. What Cameron even considers is a low income when calculating his child benefit cut-off makes us laugh where I live because it would be considered a high income here and very few earn even that much! So I will not shed tears over the middle classes with their school fees and child care costs to agonise over. As for university fees I think those earning enough can pay back their fees in time and that is fair enough. After all the (working) folk who haven't been to university have paid in their taxes for these students to study. I studied partly with the OU and paid for my courses. The working people of this country are really struggling and suffering and I don't mean the middle classes. The NHS is collapsing, education standards are a joke, social care is under threat and those on benefits or onlow income are seen as guilty - the deserving poor of Victorian times once more. In fact this era is so reminiscent of Victorian times, the era I studied with the OU.
    As for benefits to the low paid to 'top up' their earnings - have you ever thought how we are really subsidising the employers, people like Tesco for one example. They employ people for peanuts and the taxpayer shells out to top up the low paid's income. Who wins? The employer. We are being ripped off. Rant over.