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 palatable. Of 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.