Being a ‘have’ not a ‘have not’. Privilege in 21st Century Scotland
The affair draws to a close as an organ belts out some more dreary notes and as one we rise again for another drowsy tune, this time the school hymn, written specifically for the school. The lyrics speak of sins conquered, brotherhoods maintained, courage shown, and God obeyed. In a more sinister turn they also speak of overseas property and landowners guarded as well as decreed races, a worrying finale to a room that is 95% white in a school founded by a Merchant Company with links to the slave trade. The whole show ends as the groundskeepers, today having dropped their work flannels for tailcoats act as ushers to the mass exodus out onto the tree-lined front lawn (an arboretum?) where a pipe band, in full regalia marches back and forth in traditional fashion.
This, for me, was normality.
Evidently, this is anything but.
However I grew up, like any child in their own setting, thinking that classes of 25 people or less were normal. That a full selection of subjects ranging from all the sciences to five modern languages including Mandarin was normal. That having a separate auditorium for musical recitals was normal. That a vast acreage of grounds for the practice of every sport under the sun (with the conspicuous absence of football) was normal. That student support was normal. That careers advice and help with access to tertiary education was normal. That ex-alumni parents sitting on a board of directors and thus tuning the school’s direction was normal. That not paying tax because the school was technically a charity was normal.
This is the normality for over 25% of Edinburgh’s school children.
That’s not to say that school wasn’t normal in a sense. I made friends, lost friends, made new ones etc. I hated some things and tacitly liked others. Felt let down by some teachers while at the same time feeling utterly inspired by some. Though the pomp and circumstance described before was indeed a facet of our education, it wasn’t omnipresent as maybe it would be at Eton or Harrow or at one of the schools that we, children whose parents could afford fees of five figures per annum, labelled ‘posh’ or ‘snobby’.
A lack of awareness of one’s position in the grand and complex hierarchy of the British class system is surely a privilege for those upon whom it has little to no negative effect. I was, as far as I understood the term, from a standard middle-class family. Though I lived in a flat and came from a single parent household, at no point did I feel that situation would put me at a disadvantage, as it surely would to someone from a different family background with a different set of circumstances. My brother’s social problems saw him forcibly removed from the educational basket of privilege only to be replanted in another across town. The 25% generally stays just that, and we always look after our own before others, that was a value transmitted continually throughout my education.
The idea that what I had experienced was anything other than normal was questioned more outside of school. Where the ravages of capitalist self-interest could be seen in the awkward silences when passing homeless people, or the quasi scare stories of what goes on in the housing schemes that remained very much apart from the Edinburgh that we knew; a land of McCall-Smith rather than Irvine Welsh. On seeing the obvious uniform, the word posh, an epithet that we ourselves reserved for those that we considered privileged, was leveled against us in the few times that we found ourselves outside of the bubble that had been created for us.
How did it feel to be called posh, to be a part of the problem?
Awkward certainly, but it certainly didn’t inspire me to question the privilege that I had taken as standard for my whole life. Rather more worryingly it made it clear that society had great gulfs, ones that made life close to impossible for people from lesser socio-economic circumstances. This gulf had a certain affect on the circles in which I frequented. If we were to avoid confrontation, if we were to avoid facing up to the gross inequality of society then the easiest way of doing so would be to keep things ‘in-house’ so to speak.
15 years later, and the fruits of privilege have ripened, flowered into the world of white-collar dominance. We are civil servants, politicians, doctors, property developers, lawyers, managers, bankers, and engineers, already or soon-to-be bigwigs of both private and public enterprise. We are everything that student support and a comically limited careers guide said we would be. We are comfortable, respected and in most cases happy, or at least content. Despite all the calls to ‘check privilege’ or question the status quo, by this point the cycle of insular self-interest has become such a closed-door affair that all efforts at reform are useless.
From this flowers the privileged isolationism that is so rightly the cause of working class anger. Rather than expand out to meet the problems of society and deal with a world that is inherently unfair, privilege closes in on itself and begins to self-perpetuate. The institutions that govern our society, that drive industry, that promote connections and interaction, that look to drive progress are just that, OUR institutions. It is a closed club in which privilege begets privilege and keeps the door shut. University, an unquestioned rite of passage for my contemporaries and I, provided another similar bubble with like-minded people and furthered the self-perpetuation of our very privilege. This in turn granted access to connections and jobs that, were it not for the chance of upbringing, remain and will remain almost impossible to access to those who don’t come from within. One needs only to cast an eye on Westminster to see this manifestation of isolationism at its zenith of resplendent shame.
The scene described at the start of this narrative occurred once a year, an obligatory sufferance for all those concerned. As the tired strains of the UK’s national anthem bathed us with further reminders of the longevity of our subservience to an unelected monarch, I naively asked a teacher as to why the national anthem wasn’t ‘O Flower of Scotland’ only for it to be dismissed out of hand as a ‘rugby song’. Not a football song, a rugby song you’ll note. What does Scottish independence mean to privilege? A huge terrifying change. Now why would anyone blessed with such privilege want change, let alone affect said change?
In 2014 I voted yes, indeed my family have always been vocal advocates of Scottish independence, this despite being privately educated in what could only be described as bastions of Unionism. Like most independence movements, there is an evident left-leaning current to the project, one that clearly clashes with the closed shop of the establishment. There is justified ire on the part of the working classes whose tirades of angst against this insular privilege continue to fall on deaf ears that take little notice of the little nationalist press that does exist. Quite correctly working class communities fear that in the event of a Yes vote, the Westminster model of government and the current, inadequate way of living could easily be transposed in miniature to a newly-independent Scotland in which a privately-educated and predominantly Edinburgh-based elite would thus exercise the same tired rights as Westminster did before, after all we have been brought up to do just that.
Therein the issue lies. There is little point addressing the issues mentioned to fully formed working members of privilege, the damage done by generations of propagated self-interest are deep and perhaps irreparable. Take the rightful removal of charitable status from private schools for instance; an act that is clearly just, yet has caused nothing but rancour on the part of the recipients, those who see it as an erosion of their privilege. The recent questioning of culture, whether the BLM protests or the unveiling of Scotland’s dark imperial past, was met with very little fanfare from private schools, whose identity is bound up the privilege afforded to those that these movements seek to change. Any act of self-assessment is again an attack on the very foundations of said privilege.
Scotland is on the cusp of great political change and independence is a very real prospect. The kind of society that we would like in a new Scotland has been the subject of a great many articles, and it is clear that the model of inherent unfairness inherent within the UK is one thing that must be addressed with a view to complete reform. Opening the bubble of privilege, which critics justifiably see as a threat to a brighter future for Scotland, is only possible through education of those who are growing up within it. If a younger me was one of the few to question the singing of a national anthem, then think of the thousands that don’t, content in their ignorance to affiliate Scotland within the British state but without the tools to question any aspect of it, right or wrong.
One thing that we all have in common, from state school to private is that we sit the same exams regulated by the same body. Regardless of said body’s shameless endorsement of privilege in the recent exam scandal, the fact remains that the themes taught are the same. We have it in our power to ‘empower’ privilege in order for it to understand its place within a wider societal context. This isn’t done by learning a tailored history to suit the status quo, nor is it about passing exams on a conveyer belt to exclusive tertiary education experiences and employment. To generalise, children in positions of privilege do not realise the world that they contributing to, that is the fault of educators and parents intent on maintaining an antiquated and unthreatened power structure. Children with the ability to question what is portrayed as normal can lead to the unravelling of what has been until now a very tightly closed bond. The motion to decolonise education in North Lanarkshire hints at the kind of future in which school-aged children have a more rounded idea of their potential effects on society, and I welcome more moves in this direction.
So why write this? Well, frustration. Middle-class values lie tied up in a culture of guilt and ignorance; guilt at the inherent unfairness from which we benefit, and ignorance of it in order to keep ourselves in the style to which we have become accustomed. Virulent diatribes are the preserve of the slighted workers, while snide critiques of self-worth are the preserve of the upper elites. The middle class mouth stays shut. We make our way and we keep to ourselves, but this blinkered view on things may be good for our own ends in the short-term, but it represents a rotten core at the heart of a new society. It is evident that things have to change for those that ‘have not’, but it’s high time for those who ‘have’ to change with them.