I wasn’t going to write about Benedict Cumberbatch’s complaint that the UK is too ready and willing to “posh-bash” for two reasons – one I quite like him and I think he’s probably badly phrased a sentiment about being typecast.
Two, because this is a quite effort to raise his profile before his new show (about a very aristocratic aristocrat – funnily enough) comes out.
But his comments do raise a common problem – that of conflating the questioning of privilege with the questioning of background. And as such, I think this question – rather than the more simplistic “Do we bash the posh too much” line – is worth examining.
The thing is, Cumberbatch can’t help being born posh. No more he can help being born male and white in a first world country.
He can’t help having been born to parents who decided to privately educate him – as a child he would not have had a realistic say in that decision. But all of these factors make him an incredibly privileged individual. It’s what he does with this that counts.
Class politics can be complicated. Labour got “posh bashing” disastrously wrong in Crewe and Nantwich in 2008, by targeting not privilege but background.
It doesn’t and shouldn’t matter that Edward Timpson is posh.
It absolutely matters that his party have deemed it wise in these uncertain economic times to reward the already privileged with a tax cut while making cuts that affect those with the least privilege.
Rewarding those whom life has already richly rewarded is an odd approach to fairness.
Privilege matters a great deal – especially in a country as divided and as unequal as ours. The extension and protection of privilege is rife and a key part of old Toryism.
This is a different flavour of Toryism from Thatcher’s protection of the individual at the expense of society, and they two clash as often as they agree - as can be seen in some of the divisions within the modern Tory Party.
The recent debate on Lords reform laid bare this Tory protection of privilege. It was Tory backbenchers protecting Tory peers who believe they rule by divine right that scuppered these reforms as before they fought moves to remove hereditary peers.
David Cameron’s recent sneering at Indian dancing revealed more than just the PMs continuing inability to properly prepare for interviews.
He has a very traditional noblesse oblige approach to his leadership of the Tories.
Politics has become extremely middle class across all the political parties.
Labour have a route to working class representation built in through our union link, but this needs strengthening in communities. Labour has to have a reach into the middle classes but we can’t be a party solely of the middle classes and we must never become a party that protects the entrenched privilege of the middle classes.
It is not and must never be considered wrong for a person who has come from a privileged background to see Labour as their natural home.
If they believe in the creed of equality and social justice it must be their natural home. But it must never become a vehicle through which the privileged are allowed to further their interests at the expense of the under-privileged.
On occasion, we have veered too close to making that happen.
Privilege is as complicated a concept as class. Questions about where the understanding of background end and the entrenchment or privilege begin are fraught areas.
I – for example – would not judge another Labour member for having attended a private school.
I do, however, feel it is wrong for them to send their own children to private school. If they genuinely believe that what is best for their child is a more equal future, then entrenching this inequality is the wrong thing to do.
But this does mean that they and their child will have fewer shared experiences. I can see how that would be a painful and difficult thing to experience.
Combating the effects of privilege to ensure genuine equality is incredibly difficult – as are most things that are worth doing.
But the rewards will be the development of talents we might never have otherwise discovered, the fulfilling of all people and the harmony that a more equal society brings.
So let’s not waste time “bashing the posh”. Let’s devote our energies to ensuring that there is no longer an ingrained privileged that come simply through the lottery of birth.