This is something that the actor, James McAvoy, recently chose to comment on (“It's a frightening world to live in, because as soon as you get one tiny pocket of society creating all the arts, or culture starts to become representative not of everybody but of one tiny part, and that's not fair to begin with, but it's also damaging for society."), causing a bit of a furore and accusations of reverse snobbery. The reality is though, as the government implements more and more stringent cuts to education and the arts, diversity is going to become a thing of the past. Nobody is suggesting that posh people can’t be talented but rather that there should also be room for people who may have had a less privileged start in life.
Politicians like to drone on about the ideal of a classless society but I don’t think class has ever been so relevant. During any recession, the chasm between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ invariably becomes more glaringly apparent but, it’s never seemed more so as the current government continues to wield its economic axe. The difference between what’s happening now and recessions that have gone before is the way in which education has been made the province of the wealthy. To be fair to Cameron and his cronies, they are only finishing what a Labour government started, but linking education to wealth is always going to be a massive step backwards for any society.
The biggest change that I have seen in my life time has been the obliteration of what was a working class to be replaced by a class of people, who are workless, skill-less and hopeless. I grew up in a working class community of proud, aspirational people. The word aspirational has, in recent times, almost become tarnished to mean something tacky and grasping. During my childhood, however, it was the bedrock of a community of people, whose sole aim was to see their children better educated, better empowered and with more life choices than they themselves had had. It was a word which saw immigrants arriving in this country with nothing but the desire to work hard to provide for their family and, within a couple of generations meant that their grandchildren’s futures were no longer defined by the steelworks or the mines.
In the community I grew up in, worth was linked to hard work and decency not to material possessions. It was a time when there were enough jobs for everyone and unemployment was seen as a stain on the character. Nobody I knew had big TVs or cars or any of the things that have come to represent status in our society. What they did have though was a pride in industriousness, houses that were clean and maintained by mothers who took satisfaction in the gleam of the windows or whiteness of the step. It’s easy to sneer at the way women channelled their energy, and no doubt wasted talent, on an obsession with ‘keeping house’ but, as more and more people’s lives seem to be mired in squalor, it begs the question – was the idea that the state of your house reflected the state of your character so far from the mark?
I’m not glorifying the past and nor am I suggesting that life, particularly for women, wasn’t restrictive but, in the working class of yesteryear, there was a sense of order and belonging that is missing from society now. The term working class has become something to be looked down upon. I work in schools where young people see being referred to as working class as an insult. The idea of it representing a class of people who work for a living is no longer valid. In fact, the working classes have disappeared and been replaced by a new ‘under class’. A group of people for whom social mobility must seem so far removed from their lives there’s no point in even hoping for anything.
The biggest blight on our society has been unemployment and it is this that has eradicated the traditional idea of the working classes. Estates which used to be home to communities of people who took pride in their homes and environment have become sink estates, where nobody would want to venture after dark. Four generations of unemployment have wiped out any desire for anything better than watching daytime TV and playing computer games. It’s easy to judge but long term unemployment would snuff out the zest for life in anybody.
In any civilised society it’s the job of all of us to imbue young people with the idea that, with hard work, commitment and resilience, they have the potential to realise their dreams. This may still be a universal truth for half of society, the half who were fortunate enough to be born into the world of ‘haves’ but what of the rest? What’s the point in encouraging a child who may want to be a doctor, actor or fashion designer when, even though they may have potential in abundance, they don’t have the necessary funds to gain a place in university, drama school or art college?
Okay, there may be loans that will pay for the course but it’s not as easy as that. What about the cost of living during the time spent learning their trade? I went to university at a time when education was free and full maintenance grants were available on top of that. Despite this, everyone I knew still had to work weekends and holidays to top up their money and so how is someone supposed to pay the full cost of rent, bills, food and all of the other expenses even a frugal existence demands? The reality is that by taking away free education our government has taken away the only hope of a better life for countless young people within our society.
So back to my original point, an artistic framework that reflects only the privileged will lead to a one dimensional and mediocre cultural life for everyone. If art imitates life then this should be a massive wake up call for all of us. If we deny talent a chance to flourish, it will be to the detriment of society as a whole. Talent does not co-exist with wealth and if we continue to pretend it does then a whole generation of potential will be squandered and can we really afford to lose that?