I’ve heard two truly great speeches live. One was by Tony Benn and the other was by my A-Level economics teacher. I know this blog is about HR(ish), but some of the noise from UKIP has stirred a memory of that speech by my teacher.
I was lucky enough go to grow up in a part of the country where grammar schools still provide, essentially, a free public school education. It’s worth checking this map to see the uneven distribution of grammar schools in the UK. It’s also a part of the country where a disproportionate amount of people can afford to pay for a public school education anyway.
I went to school in Royal Tunbridge Wells. It was a bit like Hogwarts without the magic. When you are 16 years old it feels like your entitlement. A great education and then a nice life somewhere leafy. The large proportion of my school will have gone on to have good careers in established professions, some will have gone on to senior roles in government, the military and industry. It’s just the way it works.
Except that as I grow older I recognise that the access to power and influence isn’t strongly correlated to people being a worthwhile human beings. In that way it really doesn’t work. It’s not that I went to school with bad people, it’s just that there is a richness or depth of experience that most of us didn’t have access to that you need to truly understand the wider world. We grew up in relative shelter, but with disproportionate influence.
I studied Economics for A-Level, except that I didn’t really study it because I had no work ethic whatsoever. If you ever want evidence of grade inflation it is simply that I got an A when my revision consisted of reading the textbook on the day of the exam, over a cup of tea, whilst playing snooker at my friend Dan’s house. That is how we rolled in Kent.
Achievement, status and effort quite regularly were divorced from each other.
My school used to ‘invite’ individuals who were struggling with Economics to move to study Business Studies instead. Business Studies was easier. The result of this was that I was in a good school, studying economics, where the wheat and chaff (academically) had effectively been sorted. In the room that I studied economics, you had (theoretically) the best of British.
Within a few weeks of starting the term it became clear that you can’t really separate economics and politics. Your view of what a government should do to influence economic behaviour is anchored in your concept of right and your understanding of how and why people act. We didn’t have much to work on in terms of life experience.
On my left sat a chap who has gone on to become an award winning economist. On my right sat the kind of person who now votes UKIP. Let’s run through his mindset.
The following were absolute truths that were recognised about foreigners
- They were poorly educated
- They came over here to take our jobs
- They came over here to sponge off our benefits system
- They were criminals
- They weren’t all bad – but you know the ones that I’m talking about.
After one of these diatribes he provided a nice nod to me by saying ‘I’m not talking about you Dave, because you were born in this country, so you are only a bit foreign, and you are in a good school’ – yes, that conversation actually happened. I wasn’t sure whether to say thanks or just ignore it. There was a lot to process.
After about half a term of this mentality being applied to every economic and social problem we discussed our teacher felt moved to give one of the best addresses I have ever heard. It is the kind that I wish popped up more often on Question Time – or just in life more generally.
To protect the guilty we’ll call the individual involved Tarquin. Tarquin had just finished a speech on the economic necessity of closing the borders. This is how I remember the response. I really hope it was as good as I remember it.
“Jesus…just…Jesus Christ young man… you dumbfound me with your prejudice, you really do. I have no fucking idea how kids like you can get an education this good and still end up so stupid, I can’t begin to understand it. You are given access to all this knowledge and privilege and the best you come up with is reasons why other people shouldn’t get access to it? You really are an idiot. Even worst than that you are a bigot. You are a bigoted idiot.
I walked into the staff room the other day and overhead someone talking about bigoted behaviour – so I ambled across and asked them if, just guessing, they were talking about you and they were. You are a known bigot. We have such low expectations of your moral fibre its almost tragic. I know that you justify some of your comments by the fact your father is a banker, as if that is all we need to know, but let me tell you that whilst it might count for something in Tunbridge Wells, it doesn’t dictate right or wrong in the real world. Nobody gives a shit. I’ve seen the real world, it has no resemblance to what you describe as the UK when you open your mouth to give us another taste of your prejudice.
You’ve been studying economics with me for some time now and you are still unable to explain to me how these ‘foreigners’ are both claiming the dole and stealing your jobs and all without being educated enough to do either. I can understand why you, as an idiot, should be concerned about someone with a modicum of sense and ambition stealing your job, but the other folks in this room really shouldn’t worry about that.
I can see you are starting to cry so I’m going to stop talking to you, but I’m also going to ask you not to talk to me until you can give me some semblance of an idea that might make sense in terms of economic theory and the real world. All you offer me currently is that your father taught you to be scared of foreigners and that 6 years of education at this school hasn’t managed to undo that. Next time you speak please offer something that gives me some more confidence in both your intelligence and basic human nature.
If you can’t then just shut up and listen to these other gentlemen. I’ll mark your work fairly, but I have no time for your ideas being circulated in this classroom or elsewhere”
When I hear UKIP talking I hear people with a fear of ‘their’ world being taken over. I hear the voice of people who have just enough power to want to keep other people out of it. Who understand the politics of suspicion and greed. I don’t hear the voice of the people, I hear the fears of people being stoked. I hear the worst of human nature being manipulated. I hear hypocrisy and a sneering aggression. I hear an absence of compassion masked as concern. I hear arguments that didn’t pass muster when I was 16.
I hear nothing that gives me confidence in intelligence or human nature. I hear people who dumbfound me with prejudice.
The fact the traditional party system has left us with a void doesn’t mean we should tolerate it being filled with poison. Or incoherent nonsense.