I have to confess to having a bit of a problem with Tristram Hunt MP. It’s probably terribly unfair, and a manifestation of some class-based prejudice about people named after Arthurian knights but there it is. It’s just he’s an MP for Stoke-on-Trent, and whenever I see his name, I hear my North Staffordshire-born mother saying: “What kind of name is that? I bet he didn’t go to a comprehensive in Longton.” (I’ve looked Stoke schools up and its all the Stanley Matthews Academy and Business and Enterprise colleges now.) To be fair to Tristram, it isn’t really his name that’s the problem, although I was amazed the people of Stoke voted him as their MP. They elected Oswald Mosley’s wife, Lady Cynthia in 1929 though, so who really knows?
I was prepared to give Tristram a chance. I believe in equality and people can’t help coming from a privileged background any more than they can help coming from a deprived one. But the privately-educated son of Julian, Baron Hunt of Chesterton, has really started to get on my tits. I’ve been irritated for some time by the juxtaposition of his New Labour stance supporting Tory welfare cuts with the reports that children in Stoke were searching in bins for food, or his seemingly bizarre views on education when shadow minister. It’s his most recent remarks I’ve been most irritated by though. The Labour Party, Trist opines, needs to be run by Oxbridge graduates, people – uncannily similar to Mr H himself – he seems to believe are automatically greater of intellect, or ability, than trade unionists, or care workers, or Poly-then-red-brick types like me. Like Tony Blair, I think Tristram Hunt is a believer in “meritocracy” – a term coined by sociologist Michael Young, later Baron Young of Dartington (although I have been reminded that Young meant it satirically – see comment below). It was the second worst thing he ever did after fathering the egregious Toby. I’m not going to write about how much I detest the idea of meritocracy here. I’ll simply say that it’s an idea that, oddly enough, is normally beloved of those who consider themselves to be meritorious. It’s bound up with the whole idea of the successful or unsuccessful, the deserving or undeserving. It raises up a specific view of what is “intelligent” whilst ignoring that there are so many other ways that people can contribute to society – altruism, compassion, technical skills, parenting, and so on. The path to becoming one of the 1% at Oxbridge is not only smoother for those from certain backgrounds but it also priviliges those who think in a certain way, who have been schooled in certain kinds of knowledge. Apols, Boris Johnson, but I’ve never found Latin to be very useful in my life.
Perhaps, Tristram, we might look at education in a fundamentally different way. Not so much a pedagogic survival of the fittest, training and schooling pegs of all kinds of shapes into differently-shaped holes, but a way of giving everyone a chance to learn about all the things that make life worth living, to lead a fulfilled life. For some that might involve being in business, or becoming a politician, but for others it might be literature, art, science or sport that allows them to lead a happy life, contribute to society in the best way they can. A friend of mine once told me that his father, a London bus driver, would come home every evening and the first thing he would do was listen to a complete opera record. He hated his job, but he had a window into a world of beauty that he loved. Only education – in its truest sense – can do this.
But I digress, because what I wanted to talk to an eminent historian about was the history of workers’ education. I won’t have to tell him about the Mechanics’ Institutes, the Working Men’s educational associations, the WEA and so on. The rise of workers’ education in towns like Hanley and Stoke, or like the Sutherland Institute in Longton gave opportunities to generations of people. Now they’re withering away from under-funding and neglect, in order to throw money at private organisations to promote a divisive and damaging form of elitism that will leave most people behind. It was through these institutions, now deemed old-fashioned, that people from my background gained access to education. Through evening classes, part-time study, free public libraries, Access to HE courses, the Open University (the brilliant brainchild of an Old Labour government, now priced out for many), not elitism, meritocracy, Grammar schools or privately-owned academies. Not testing and training people to become unquestioning automata.
It was through these institutions that, if I can use my own family as an example, two generations could go from illiteracy to, not only postgraduate studies, but to become rounded human beings who have spent their entire lives contributing to this country’s economy, as well as to society through teaching and librarianship, and to have lives that have been enhanced by its culture.
The Labour Party doesn’t need to be led by your 1%, Tristram, but by people who’ve had no advantages in life, who have not benefited from an expensive education, or parents who could pay for educational “extras.” Those people have a big enough say already, don’t they? Why don’t we make the Labour Party (shock, horror!) a party that speaks for the poor, the dispossessed, the single parent, the carer, the zero hours worker?
Because, Tristram, meritocracy looks much easier when you start your climb of the social ladder from near to the top.