Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Becoming a Tory

While my ranting post about Conan a few weeks ago was, it should hopefully be clear, about my failure to live up to my own political ideals this week is all about my failure to live up to someone else's. In this respect, it's something I'm actually rather proud of having achieved. Or rather, something I'm proud of having failed to do. I shall explain.

I was born and grew up on a council estate, in poverty. Over the years that poverty eased somewhat, and eventually we moved to the more relatively well-to-do area of Lewisham and were merely poor, maybe even reaching the heady heights of not-very-well-off. Meanwhile, thanks to a couple of loopholes designed to keep siblings together I was able to go to a much more middle-class and also liberal primary school than the changing catchment legislation would have normally allowed me. So it was that, at the appropriate age, the idea of private school was presented as an option for me.

Both of my sisters were already at, or about to go to, private school but it still wasn't certain that I would go. Interestingly enough, the decision for my sisters was an easier one (or so I recall) because there was a clear political principal in favour of the institution that they joined. Back in the 80s and early 90s, to our eyes at least, the Girl's Public Day School Trust was, while undeniably right-wing in economic terms, charged with a strong feminist agenda - their stated aim being that girls should not have to aspire to being secretaries and housewives.

(The waters of discourse on private education are in fact further muddied by the fact that a lot of schools are still called public schools. This is because, historically, these schools were opened to provide access to education to members of the public otherwise excluded because they were poor or common and didn't have private tuition. They were in many ways a beachhead in the fight towards universal education; but now they find themselves entrenched and gone native, like Colonel Kurtz, wedded to their own way of doing things and no longer able to relate to the main army.)

So this, then, was the dilemma. I could go to a state school - Forest Hill - which looked pretty good. I could go to a selective state school - Haberdashers' Aske's - which while it looked good even at the time I found the concept of it uneven; it was supposed to be for everyone - and was paid for by everyone, but actually it wasn't because it had its own exam beyond the 11-plus. Or I could go to a private school - the one I liked best was Dulwich College - although I fully admit that a part of that was that one of my best friends, and a person I desperately wanted to be, was going there as well.

At ten, when you're poor and you have no way of knowing that you will ever find a way of leaving your council estate otherwise, the decision seems easy. Private school, as far as I could tell, would lead directly and securely to a middle class lifestyle, somewhere down the line at least, and was in fact the only certain route available to me. In fact, at the time I genuinely couldn't understand why a lot of the nice, lovely middle-class families that we knew were specifically insisting that their kids should go to state schools, even though they could afford the private school fees - it seemed mad when it was theirs for the taking, no questions. How could they want a life like mine when I so desperately wanted a life like theirs?

Of course, there's no way that I, or either of my sisters, would have even had the option without outside help, and this is where the real politics comes in. The old Tory government ran a scheme called Assisted Places, where they got clever kids and paid some (most, in fact in cases like mine) of their school fees. Part of the reason that I viewed Private School as a route out of poverty was that the assisted places scheme actively presented itself as a route out of poverty. And when you are poor, and when you are clever in the mean way that is the natural response to a fractured and ignored environment, if someone says 'this will stop you being poor, and give you options and opportunities that you otherwise have no chance of ever seeing,' you grab it with both hands.

And that was the ideology behind assisted places. Rather than put money into making the state system better, or into making council housing sustainable and  habitable, so that tenants felt comfortable and secure enough to form communities, they just offered the brightest of us, the sharpest of us and the luckiest of us a ladder out and into a different world. And once we were in that world, they let it shape us, as it naturally would, as any environment does to the teenage mind, into good little meritocrats - the token poor and the token immigrants who show that anyone can make it, and make the rich and the established less guilty about the grip they still have on power.

I now know, and can see clearly, that it is pure Thatcherism - the mythology of the self-made man and of the moral right to plenty by the example that one can come from nothing if only one has the will. Except that those of us who went through that system were not self-made, for however bright and hardworking we were the fact remains that our individual fees were paid from the same budget that should have been spent on everyone's education. It is the singular folly that bedevils all right-wing ideology - that individual plenty can come in a vacuum, that it doesn't necessitate lack in others.

One of the reasons I rarely engage in this debate is because I am aware that my position could well be seen as wanting to kick the ladder from beneath me and to deny other poor kids the opportunities that were available to me. However, despite my experiences I cannot subscribe to the viewpoint, on a policy level, that it is better to help some and leave the rest to rot.

I'm not ashamed of having gone to a private school, even if as an adult I don't agree with them as institutions and I don't agree with the system that got me there. I can't be ashamed of the decisions that I took as a ten year-old, because I was ten at the time. More importantly, I did not have the same information available that I have now, and one can only make decisions based on the information and the opportunities that they have.
Neither am I ashamed of my mother for allowing, and in fact paying for me to go. Based on the information that she had again it was what would seem to be best for me, and in many important ways that was correct. As an immigrant, and someone who grew up in a very different social structure, she has an awareness of the British class system, but not really an understanding of its nuances, or the mechanisms by which the class war prosecutes itself.

Going to public school for her and for me at that time did not seem to be a political act - how could it? It was a route out of poverty and a chance to be challenged intellectually, and it worked, which is possibly the most terrible thing. What it didn't do, though was turn me into a Tory, and that is something of which I remain proud.

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