By Ed Conway in THE TIMES, 24 August 2018:
I do not work for the BBC, but if I did, and if Jeremy Corbyn had his way, you would soon discover that I am, officially, posh.
You would learn that I was privately educated; that my parents were both doctors. You would learn this because the Labour leader has decided leading journalists should show “complete transparency” about their backgrounds.
Let’s leave aside the churlish objection that Labour has yet to publish any analogous audit of its own leading MPs and advisers and ask what complete transparency means. Does it mean understanding someone’s background? Does it mean parsing whether their lot is down to luck or skill? Or is it simply another way of sticking people into convenient boxes?
I would qualify as posh because I went to a private school — a boarding school, no less. I’ve no doubt that going to my school afforded me enormous opportunities many children could only have dreamt of. I am supposed, at this point, to tell you I feel incredibly fortunate to have had this advantage. But sorry, no. No I don’t.
When I was six my father died. He was a senior NHS doctor and dying young as he did (he was 56), with a big family (seven children in total), my mother was left with some life insurance money. It wasn’t a lot, but if we were lucky enough to get scholarships or bursaries, it would just be enough to help fund some of us through private school.
I tried to stop her. The last thing I wanted was to be plucked from my friends and the life path I had been heading for: the local state school, hopefully university and then who knows what? Would I be a different person today had I continued on the path I was heading for at the age of six? Quite possibly. What I do know with absolute certainty is that I would not have traded in another minute with my father for an independent school education.
This is not the only reason Mr Corbyn’s latest wheeze so sticks in the craw. Why this fixation with classifying people on the basis not of performance or ability but on stuff they couldn’t influence: their parents’ jobs, the education their parents chose for them? Surely this only perpetuates the notion that our fates are sealed by our parents’ status or our skin colour? Surely that risks sowing division rather than solving it?
Anyway, the statistics indicate that the opposite is happening. The latest OECD research suggests that social mobility is actually improving, not deteriorating. Sixty per cent of the poorest people in this country in 1997 remained stuck in poverty three years later. By the same measure that proportion dropped to 40 per cent between 2010 and 2013. The improvement is happening faster than in any other developed country.
Don’t get me wrong: this country still has enormous problems with class. It has problems with inequality. Millions of families are trapped at the bottom. And, while we’re at it, yes: the media is too posh, too white, too nepotistic and prone to groupthink. None of this is good enough. We need real change. But please let’s do it the right way.
One thing I’ve learnt from having spent much of my life buried in spreadsheets is that there are broadly two ways of approaching a dataset. You can take a step back and focus on the major trends, drawing out some broad-brush conclusions. Or you can step forward, into the detail. Here you see the complexities and inconsistencies that show how fragile and misleading those broad-brush generalisations were.
So it is with most of what we call politics. The statistics are complex and equivocal. We can take a step back and generalise, fixating on black and white dichotomies that get everyone worked up. Or we can attempt to empathise and revel in the complexity.
Sadly, the era of empathy seems to have given way to the era of generalisation. Mr Corbyn is hardly the only politician guilty of this. Far easier to blame immigrants for your problems than admit they tend to contribute more to the economy than they extract. Far easier to blame the EU than to confront the complexities and disappointments of the lot globalisation has dealt you.
And no wonder: the tools of generalisation and division are the most powerful in a politician’s armoury. During the cultural revolution, Mao Zedong used them to turn China upside down. Your job, home, livelihood depended on your “class background”: whether you were categorised as red or black. He used the tools of division to turn the people on each other, to stir up hate.
Truly great leaders choose empathy over division and generalisation. They inspire change without putting people in pigeonholes. They are capable of comprehending the complexity of statistics; that generalisations aren’t just lazy, they are dangerous. Were he such a man, Mr Corbyn would realise that privilege is not just about the school you went to or the job your parents did. It is about having an upbringing that gives you the freedom and opportunities to explore and do what you want to. It is about being supported and loved, being allowed to succeed and fail at your own pace. It is about all sorts of stuff we can’t fit inside a pigeonhole.
It is a shame that Mr Corbyn is not that kind of leader. If he were he’d realise that it is possible to build a fairer society without sowing yet more division.
Ed Conway is economics editor of Sky News