Hugo Rifkind

Maybe it’s a problem when all artists are like James Blunt. But it’s worse when Labour MPs are like Chris Bryant

Every prancing Etonian in tights is a stockbroker, or an ambassador, or a permanent secretary that never happened

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

24 January 2015

9:00 AM

What should we do with James Blunt? This is what I have been asking myself. And I am not looking for comedy answers here, such as ‘Lock him in a shipping container and force him to listen to songs by James Blunt’ or ‘Allow him to become a properly recognised bit of Cockney rhyming slang’. No. It’s a genuine question.

I refer, of course, to the enjoyable spat conducted this week via open letters to the Guardian, between the singer (private school and Bristol University), and the shadow culture secretary, Chris Bryant (private school and Oxford), over whether people in the arts are too posh. I don’t know why, even now, it is only people who went to private school and fancy universities who get to write open letters to the Guardian. I suppose we should all strive for the day when such forums are at least also open to people who went perhaps to a grammar school, and then maybe to a decent former polytechnic. Although clearly the good people of Kings Place would not want to descend any lower down the social strata, because then they’d have to go back through the copy, adding the aitches.

Bryant kicked it off, for fairly cynical ‘Let’s not talk about Labour’s plans to keep Tory cuts on arts funding’ sorts of reasons, in the wake of Eddie Redmayne (Eton and Cambridge) winning a Golden Globe for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Certainly, only a certain sort of person could sigh, of the arts, ‘Is everyone just going to be an arts graduate from Cambridge?’ while not feeling it remotely relevant that they themselves, the shadow minister in charge of the arts, are an arts graduate from Oxford, and it’s one of the lasting joys of Bryant that he’s so reliably one of them. Still, in case you should think that I am just a Cambridge arts graduate feeling snippy, I should point out that Bryant wasn’t wrong. There are indeed a lot of posh kids in the arts. Thousands of them. Ever more, and ever more.

Blunt gets targeted with this sort of criticism a lot (partly because he talks like Austin Powers playing Henry VIII) and seems to have swiftly lost his rag. Hence the first open letter, in which he declared the Labour MP a ‘classist, prejudiced wazzock’. For Blunt, the clear implication of Bryant’s remarks was that his success was undeserved; solely the consequence of leg-ups and favours not open to others. You can see why he was peeved: his first album was bought by 11 million people, and his dad can’t possibly have been mates with all of them. More to the point — and I find myself in fairly familiar territory here — he also clearly felt that such accusations were flatly untrue. Perhaps no calls were made on his behalf, no favours were done, nobody said, ‘Oh, you’re the colonel’s boy! Why didn’t you say? Why, you can certainly have a record contract in that case! Got any songs?’ And thus he perhaps feels himself in the clear.

His mistake, though, was to buy into the pernicious and simplistic fiction that this is how privilege must manifest itself. Pernicious, because few career paths are truly devoid of meritocracy, and it’s a sin to tell talented kids that they have no hope without that useful godfather. Generally life’s advantages are more nebulous, or at least more piecemeal. Opportunity comes into it, but so does the confidence of being told, by people who would know, that opportunity is often just a phone call away. Most of all, though, it is a privilege to be able to follow the thing you want to do, comfortable in the knowledge that failure probably just means you’ll traipse off blithely to do something else. Blunt’s open letter to Bryant virtually said as much — failure for him would have meant becoming a stockbroker.

Which is where I begin to grow confused. Because would Chris Bryant prefer that he had? Would that be better for us all, or worse? After all — and I’m not sure how the ‘lump of labour fallacy’ relates to squeaky singer-songwriters, so do forgive me if I’m falling foul of it — you’d have thought we only need a limited number of singers at any one time. Yet the same, surely, is true of stockbrokers, or lawyers, or merchant bankers, or any one of the other careers in which Blunt might have found himself on leaving the army. So, as far as Bryant is concerned, which was the better bed for Blunt to block? Where, ultimately, do we want the posh kids to go?

Perhaps, then, we’re seeing this all backwards. We look at the posh invasion of the arts and we think of all those working-class kids left behind. For every Mumford, we tell ourselves, there’s a frustrated Steptoe, sons and all. Only maybe that’s exactly the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe, instead, we should see every prancing Etonian in tights as a stockbroker or an ambassador or a permanent secretary that never happened — thereby creating a vacancy for somebody else.

I mean, imagine if Chris Bryant had been able to act. The theatre world would barely have noticed; just another noisy posho going for the same roles as all the rest. But the Labour party? Maybe Rhondda might have an MP who hadn’t gone to school in Cheltenham. He could even be shadow arts minister. There’s a thought, eh?

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Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • gerontius redux

    I tried to take an interest. But this is just handbags at dawn.

    • ladyofshalot

      In many ways I agree with you, two posh boys bickering!! However I think Hugo has an excellent point. The more Blunts that become pop stars and actors could actually contribute to more social mobility!!

      • gerontius redux

        Fair enough! I was being irritable

      • I don’t agree: there are lots of bright people that weren’t able to get the poshest of credentials — how could they, else the exclusive poshness would no longer be so exclusive or snooty? — and these people deserve the work. More room for the rest of us, I say!

        • Ed_Burroughs

          Popular music is dominated by the proles. The posh boys are difficult to find.

          • Helen of Troy

            Indeed. And it’s made worse by the fact that all the arts are dominated by the Left — no coincidence, I’m sure, that Blunt’s first album (I know nothing of his other output) had an anti-war presentation, as I recall. I mean, he couldn’t be a former army captain that was for national defence and strong security, could he? What would the progressives think?

            It may be that the posh boys (and girls) are the better educated and more politically realistic, and that’s the true ‘career killer’. On the other hand, almost nobody is getting a decent political education these days, so the playing field of ignorance is pretty much level now.

      • Fraser Bailey

        Actually, with Hugo it’s three posh boys bickering. What larks!

  • his first album was bought by 11 million people
    Yeah, and I was one of them. Waste of money. That’s what I got for listening to my mother’s music ‘advice’ (I’m always looking for new&interesting, and this was before YouTube sampling and an iPod for me).

    • Roger Hudson

      Falsetto and nails scraping the blackboard, plus saying f*cking, pathetic.

      • Helen of Troy

        Was it as bad as that? I don’t remember. Probably blacked it out for my own good : )

  • I think this article is a bit obtuse. The point about coming from an advantaged background is not what specific calls were made or favours delivered or such: the point is that some people are well set up by their education, family wealth, and class whereas others are not. (I’m in the ‘not’ category myself.) Anyone that went to Eton or Harrow, never mind Oxford or Cambridge, is set for life, ipso facto. The most stunning example of our time of a person immaculately well set-up is of course Kate Middleton. There are lots of beautiful girls out there — refined ones with beautiful souls and a companionable instinct — but only the child of a wealthy and well-connected family would have had the opportunity to become a princess through marriage!

    Finally, if it’s a ‘sin’ to tell kids that they won’t succeed without the right connections (and personally, I don’t see how it is), then it’s also a ‘sin’ to tell the aspiring that merit always wins out, that if you’re really good you’re bound to succeed. That’s even less true than the first promise.

    • Nick

      Well, they met at University. So perhaps you should have written “only a child clever enough to have gone to St Andrews” instead of bringing wealth and connections into it. When I was at St Andrews centuries ago the guy in the room next to me was the son of a butcher from Glasgow and, among the girls on the next floor were the daughters of a Dumbarton seamstress and a miner from Consett, respectively. Wealth and connections had nothing to do with it.

      • Helen of Troy

        Right, and none of them became a prince’s wife!

        • MrsDBliss

          Would they have wanted to? Every one assumes that everyone wants these top jobs/positions of power etc. I come from a working class background, went to uni etc. I would hate to marry a prince, don’t want a high powered career or a massive house. I’m happy with my middle class life as I don’t have to give up freedom/family time to support it.

          • Helen of Troy

            Point taken. I come at it from the other direction: I’ve always wanted more of just about everything: freedom, beauty, space, achievement, worldly success, etc.

    • dramocles

      Well, I’m not sure if I’m in the “not” category or, er, not. You see I had a very modest upbringing but went to a grammar school (my parents enlightened enough to instill the virtue of work and application) and then to university (the first in however many generations). This in the north-east in the 60’s. My contemporaries went many different ways (apprenticeships, night school, vocation based careers) as well as others like me. The vast majority did well. None that I know of ended up in welfare dependency.

      My point is that there was no sense that anyone but oneself was responsible for one’s future.

      Then along came the execrable (and privileged) Shirley Williams who blew up the whole shebang (and who still defends her stupidity).

      Back in the 60’s one really did believe anything was possible. I’m not sure that’s true now.

  • evad666

    I am reminded of the fact the current elite of the Labour party are busy trying to get their kids safely ensconsed in safe Labour seats to reinforce their nasty little prejudiced dynasties.
    Labour introduced student loans.
    Labour oversaw a massive increase in unpaid internships
    effectively excluding all those outside London and the SE.

    Labour oversaw the decimation of craft colleges
    Labour oversaw a massive decrease in apprenticeships.

  • RickDastardly

    Is it about money and privilege or is it about belief? Rich kids come from successful families whose parents know what it takes to be a success and probably instill the belief that “you can do anything you want”. Do the parents of poorer kids instill the same belief, the same determination? Or do they believe that its all too hard and far easier to play the blame game?

  • Mark

    “Maybe it’s a problem when all artists are like James Blunt. But it’s worse when Labour MPs are like Chris Bryant”

    And just as bad when so many journalists for major titles are like Hugo Rikfind, who would have been lucky to be on the obituary desk at the Crawley News if his dad had been a car mechanic.

  • mikewaller

    Surely it would have been better to analyse the problem that to dissect the froth.

    One hundred years after total war hit the battlefield, we are now well into the era of total economic competition. The key characteristic of the future – so important that none dare face up to it – is that the World now has far more people capable of making things than there are resources to buy them. And we have only just started with billions more yet to join the labour market. This means that whole economies are going head to toe to secure the rewards available and any country which cannot draw upon its entire citizenry to bring forward the brightest and the best, is heading of the global knackers-yard.

  • justejudexultionis

    Given the whining, almost atonal nature of much of Blunt’s aural offering, he can hardly be described as a ‘musician’ or ‘singer’ in the proper sense of those terms.

  • Ivan Ewan

    Leave James Blunt out of this, he’s done his stint in the armed forces for Queen and Country. His songs made those Barbarians run for miles. (I’m sorry James, I couldn’t help myself!)