On Privilege #1: A History Lesson
|Social privilege is a real sticky subject to write about, because people would like to feel that inequality is all about prejudice. Yet prejudice is harmless in the absence of power and power can render harmful even the slightest prejudice.|
But privilege tends to be extremely subtle and complex, so let's first of all travel back in time for a simple but illustrative example. Climb into my Glasgow Police Box, queue malfunctioning vacuum-cleaner noise and come with me back to 1957.
Now, we accept that 1957 was a far less equitable time and lots of things went on then which wouldn't go on today. But by this time, we had achieved universal suffrage. Everyone had access to free education and women had been getting proper degrees at university for a couple of decades (as opposed to titular degrees, so named presumably because having tits meant your work didn't count). We had our first Asian MP in back in 1892, and our first woman MP (an American!) in 1919*. Theoretically, there was nothing stopping any individual from joining political parties, running for parliament and being elected.
And yet it came to pass that when Harold MacMillan became Prime Minister, he was related by blood or marriage to thirty-five members of his government. These days, some folks complain that the Scots are running the place**, what if several Cabinet ministers were kin?
Now I don't know much about the MacMillan government, that's one of those bits of trivia that stick in my mind, and I have no reason to suspect anything sinister. In fact, it all seems unremarkable once you consider that in those days, at the very least, a political career was a path rarely traveled unless you were male, white, upper-class, non-disabled, Protestant, English, public school and Oxbridge educated. I miss out straight because male homosexuality was illegal (MacMillan himself is alleged to have been expelled from Eton for just that).
Since it was a very small minority of the population who met all or even most of these criteria, particularly in regards to class and education, it is little wonder that several MPs belonged to the same family. But what does this information tell us about the sort of people who did get into government at the time? Were they all bigots? Were they appalling statesmen who only got their jobs through no merit of their own? Well it's possible, but there's no evidence for any of that. Both the current Conservative leader and the Mayor of London appear to tick every one of those boxes and only one of them appears to be adversely effected by his privilege. Plus these days, it is remarked upon that they are about as socially privileged as it is possible to be.
Here we begin to see the problem with privilege. Privilege doesn't make you a bad person. It doesn't mean that you weren't the best candidate for your job, or that your path through life has been made easy. It doesn't even mean that you haven't yourself experienced some form of discrimination at some point. But it does mean that as a statistical unit, your chances of success in education, employment, socio-economic mobility and political power are significantly greater than for certain other statistical units. And in order for that to be the case, someone else is losing out.
Unfortunately, society tends to be in denial about this – chiefly because those in charge are denial about any unfair advantage that might have put them there. Whilst there's little argument about how fair things were fifty years ago, people tend to insist that things are fair now.
So for example, about national politics, it is often said that women just aren't terribly interested. This is said to explain the fact that less than 20% of our representatives in parliament are women; after a handful of measures to give women a leg-up, this must represent the natural balance of things.
Only, several other European countries have a balance of more or less equal - including 40% and 50% women members in the Scottish and Welsh regional assemblies respectively. So there must be something about British society or British national politics which is causing this inequality. And there must be reasons why some minority groups remain fantastically underrepresented; we've never had an Asian woman Member of Parliament and there's only ever been three black women. One in twenty people in the UK are women of colour; something is amiss.
But whilst significant, the make-up of our six hundred and forty-six MPs is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the effects of privilege on our lives.
* The first female MP to be elected was elected the previous year, but that lady was Sinn Féin, so didn't take her seat in the British Parliament.
** In fairness, the sort of people who say that the Scots are running the place tend to extend the criteria of being Scottish to include having a Scottish-sounding name, possessing a raincoat with a tartan lining or having eaten porridge for breakfast at some point in their life.