Benedict Cumberbatch is a fine actor who, understandably, is fed up being defined by his background and his accent. However the debate that has ensued following his recent comments has, wrongly in my view, focused on the issue of class when the real problem is privilege.
A couple of years ago in an ICM poll for the Guardian 89% of those surveyed thought that people are still judged by their class - with almost half saying that it still counts for "a lot". Over 50% of people said that class, not ability, greatly affects the way they are seen. Social mobility in Britain has decreased in recent years, in fact the British middle classes are operating what is, in effect, a closed shop. For example our top universities are still, in the main, the preserve of a rich well-connected elite. You may well remember the furore a few years ago when Bristol University was accused of gross discrimination and unfairness - spurred on by several influential columnists and leader writers - for introducing a 'fairer' criterion for admissions that would benefit pupils from poorer backgrounds.
Often the real reasons why many left leaning journalists and politicians end up sending their sons and daughters to fee-paying schools are not based on the raw results of the local state schools but on a desire to ensure that their child has access to what the local comprehensive cannot provide: privilege, advantage and the opportunity to network. British public schools have always been a production line of the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, can raise their fees steadily, select their pupils, enjoy a growing endowment income from their benefactors and offer some of the most impressive sporting and extracurricular activities in the country. What's more they now recruit from a middle-class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage. Parents who are willing to take the bold decision to become part of the problem, rather than seeking to be part of the solution. I often hear some of my friends and fellow "comrades" attempting to ease their conscience by announcing that the local comprehensive school is simply not good enough and justify their decision to go private in the name of parental responsibility.
Sometimes I cannot help but feel that the perpetuation of 'privileged' Britain really is part of a 'liberal conspiracy.' It seems clear to me that those who do have influence, those who really do have a "voice" in our society have such a high stake in the current order that they will seek to mobilise and organise in order protect it. It must surely be true for example that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs. Suspicion of the wealthy, the privileged and of the 'upper classes' is hardwired into the DNA of those who espouse left-leaning ideas and policies. Why? Because most believe that the inevitable consequence of a politics that espouses equity and fairness is that it will give comfort to the afflicted and end up afflicting the comfortable. For example the majority of ordinary people watch on in disbelief when Bankers attempt to paint themselves as noble and public spirited by limiting their annual bonus to 'only' a million pounds.
People cannot help being born into a particular context but as a nation we can all support measures that seek to mitigate against your background determining your future. Good luck for the future Benedict, I for one hope it will be firmly rooted here in the UK.
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