Sunday, 19 August 2018

Privilege Part One

The Bar Council is running a successful social media campaign at the moment titled #IAmTheBar. Barristers from across the country are recounting the adversity they overcame, the long roads they travelled, the deterrents they fended off to be called to the Bar.  The tales make for inspiring reading and hopefully the young and not so young seeing them are persuaded that not all barristers are people like, er, me.

A procession from Eton to Oxford to the Inns of Court misses only a stint in the Guards and a safe seat to avoid giving me the institutional royal flush.  I am the Bar people expect because I am the Bar as it always was.  In fact, as the Bar Council's campaign correctly demonstrates, today barristers are a much more diverse bunch than people and the media give the profession credit for (at least on the publicly funded side).  This is thanks to a short-lived purple patch when Legal Aid was rightly widely available and rightly properly funded.  As the tide has gone out faster than the sea at Weston-super-Mare many commentators have predicted a raising of the drawbridge and a return to the privileged Bar of old.

In one important respect they are wrong.  And they are wrong because of the way in which privilege operates.  This blog is not about the funding of legal aid, I have written about it until I am blue in the face, and the Secret Barrister continues to do so to much more public and beneficial effect than I ever have.

We hear a lot from the privileged.  One of the biggest benefits of privilege is that it gives you the biggest stage.  You don't have to fight to be heard and you assume, by your privilege, that when you speak people will listen.  One topic that the privileged rarely talk about, however, is privilege.  When they do it is often, absurdly, to insist that they don't have it; like a child covered in spots claiming not have chicken pox.  You will no doubt remember the extraordinary claim that Benedict Cumberbatch had been 'held back' by his Harrow education.

I obviously can't speak for Harrovians but the thing about having been to Eton is that you just can't, with a straight face, deny your privilege.  It's like a marquess claiming to be middle class.  That isn't to say that some don't try.  If you live on privilege island you will only meet privileged people and that is a very comfortable place to live, it's surprisingly easy to pretend that there isn't the rest of the world out there.  For the moment you acknowledge your privilege you have to acknowledge the absence of privilege and that provokes some uncomfortable realisations.  Like how you got a bloody great big head start in life.  Like how maybe it wasn't just hard work and brains that got you into Oxbridge.  Like how maybe you weren't the best man (or woman) for the job: just the most advantaged.

And on the subject of women you don't get to be privileged only by going to Eton.  You just have to be a man, or white, or heterosexual, or live in Western Europe, or have a roof over your head.  Every single one of us has some privilege over the next worse off person and there are many, many worse off people.  However, because the conveyor belt of social mobility is only supposed to go in one direction, many of the privileged don't want to know about, still less care for, those less fortunate than them.  You might be in the 1% but unless you're in the 0.1% you're still a worker, still struggling, keeping it real because you only have a Range Rover not a Lear jet.

Have a think about who does the complaining when tiny incremental changes are suggested to reduce the number of trampolines given to privately educated men trying to reach the top jobs.  Quotas for women are unfair, say the men who have enjoyed a 100% quota, quite literally for centuries.  I don't know why they're complaining because they seem to have forgotten the first rule of Privilege Club which is that, like the Hotel California, you can check out any time you like but you can never leave. Privilege is not like your house keys or your passport; it's not something you can lose.  Where it is like your passport (at least until next March) is it enables you to go anywhere and do anything without the hassle of getting a visa, of obtaining permission.

I don't see privilege like an island I see it like a wall.  On the privileged side the sun is alway shining, there is always enough to eat, everybody knows everybody and absolutely nobody wants to be on the other side of the wall, many pretend there is no other side.  On the unprivileged side the weather is very changeable, sometimes there is food sometimes not, there are many strangers some of them hostile, most want very much to be on the other side of the wall and are abundantly aware of how extraordinarily difficult it is to scale.  Think The Wall in Game of Thrones and double it.

On the top of the wall there's an 'I'm Alright's Watch' keeping an eye on the masses but preserving privilege for the few.  From time to time they might dispense the occasional scholarship pour encourager les autres but like a bouncer at Studio 54, ensuring that only the right sort are let in.  Noblesse may sometimes oblige but never forget the divine ordination of the privileged child's favourite hymn: 

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly, 
And ordered their estate.

As a privileged person working in criminal law I ascend to the top of my side of the wall (there's a lift) and see what life is like for the unprivileged.  At the end of the day I go home and when I'm being my better self I reflect on my good fortune and wonder at how I can pass some of that privilege on.  When I'm being my worst self I worry about how I'm going to adhere to the second rule of Privilege Club, which is how I'm going to pass some of that privilege on - to my child.

And that rule is why commentators on the social mix of the Bar are mistaken.  Privilege begets privilege or it is repudiated.  It bears its unfair fruit when one generation passes on the leg up to the next generation.  If legal aid won't pay the school fees (and it won't) the privileged won't touch publicly funded work with a bargepole.  It does rather beg the question where the barristers of the future will come from if the unprivileged can't afford to get over the wall and the privileged are scared they might fall off it.

Next week in Part Two - What to do with your privilege? (hint: pass it on).

I am publishing this on both my legal blog Counsel of Perfection and also my parenting blog The Paternity Test because it touches on both my professional and personal interest.

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