or, “A long post about short people”.
Randy Newman’s Short People was a surprise hit in 1977. Randy’s way of parodying prejudice is to write in character. Even with the over-the-top caricature in the song, it wasn’t always taken as intended. There was widespread criticism for the extremely negative picture it painted of the “vertically challenged”.
Here’s Randy giving a solo performance:
I’ll get back to the height thing later. Let’s talk about the circumstances of birth for a bit.
Let’s talk about privileges
It’s not the done thing, talking about one’s privileges. It needs to be done sometimes, though. Take the Liberal Democrats. The party is notably lacking in members with coloured skin or low incomes. An increasingly common question these days is, “How are the Lib Dems any different to the Tories?”. There are some sensitive aspects to this that aren’t being much discussed by the membership. Yet restricting the notion of “privileged” to the top few per cent is dangerous.
I could paint a picture of not being particularly privileged. My father was a town planner for the council; my mother a physiotherapist for the NHS. They bought a house after they got married, and live in the self same house over 40 years later. Even with two parents working, our holidays were just camping holidays in France. No flights, no hotels, and an exhausting 600+ mile drive from Glasgow into the bargain. When I learnt to play guitar, I taught myself on a hand-me-down acoustic that Mum once bought for herself; it was a year or two before I had earned the right to get my own electric guitar. It was yet another couple of years before I could afford an amplifier.
But, I’m wary of becoming a Laurie Penny. It could be politically convenient to focus on, say, the years I spent on minimum wage. My brief stint in youth work in Maryhill was the most worthy part-time job I’ve ever had to supplement a low income. I could regale you with tales of drinking and gigging in some of the roughest pubs in Glasgow. But that would ignore ten years living the ex-pat life in Hong Kong. And if the goal is to deal with privilege as a powerful social force, it needn’t mean emulating Laurie’s tales of slumming it to establish one’s right-on bona fides, all part of a career conceived at Oxford University to become a voice of the people.
Was she even a teen when Jarvis Cocker sang about Common People?
Rent a flat above a shop, cut your hair and get a job.
Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you never went to school.
But still you’ll never get it right ‘cos when you’re laid in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your Dad he could stop it all
Inequality will not be dealt with by acting as if people must forego nutrition and decent housing before they can have worthwhile views. Nor with the more mainstream Labour approach of simply ignoring the Oxbridge effect. In an age where relative poverty affects far more people than the absolute variety, we need to shift from posturing at the extremes to a frank discussion about just what advantages different people enjoy.
Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful
This is my list of primary advantages: I’m white, British, naturally suited to academia and privately educated. Not a bad list in the UK at all. Even so, I think it is fair that I stand with most in laughing at the idea of Kate Middleton as a “commoner”. My family background was not awash in money; schooling for my two brothers and I was an incredibly expensive investment for my parents compared to those who afford the school fees but still have a detached house and a BMW in the drive. But of course I still recognise the advantages it has given me, and not by my own efforts.
Others might do well to do the same. Some families of similar incomes and backgrounds have chosen a state education for their children – but also more and bigger cars, houses and holidays. There are those who stay in council housing, and spend their money on being the big man on the estate. All these approaches confer some similar advantages: a certain kind of confidence, a way of speaking that combined with society’s racial and gender biases leads to freedom of choice and financial reward. There are people in the Lib Dems, I’ve noticed, who repeat the 7% figure of privately educated individuals as if that fact alone means they have not enjoyed any particular boost in their own lives. How often is the dearth of candidates from a low income background addressed?
Reaching the top shelf
All of this gets rather fraught, so let’s get back to Randy and another advantage I was born with: not being a short person.
It might seem a trivial and vain thing to point out, but not so. I’m 6’ 2”, and if statistical studies are to be believed, I owe a percentage point or two of the money I’ve earned to this fact alone. Were I American, it would play an essential role before I could get elected President, and has a similar impact on elections around the world. Women in general find it attractive – you can consider this a particularly trivial and vain point, if you believe that matters of sex don’t have much impact on general human behaviour.
All that has nothing to do with anything I’ve done. It’s the combined result the DNA I was gifted at birth, and Mum feeding me well (believe me when I say this is not a sexist take on gender roles in parenting; Dad’s taste in food is as healthy as you might expect of a Glaswegian!).
How does this relate to being a Liberal Democrat? Well, to take a similar function of simply being born, consider intelligence. It’s generally not acceptable to talk about it too much, but some people are born smarter than others. From the productivity of computer programmers to the pay scales of lawyers, this difference reveals itself in cold, hard figures. 50% more IQ points produces 600% more income. I’ve plucked those figures from the air – and don’t get me started on the problems of using IQ as a measure of intelligence – but the fundamental point remains.
From hard fact to soft thinking
It is noticeable to me that many highly intelligent and influential people seem to draw a very stupid conclusion from this kind of phenomenon. They act as if comparative values reflect absolute realities.
I am a taller than about 95% of the human race. You could say I have a tendency to look down on people, for I am exceptional. This doesn’t mean, however, that I can reach a shelf 10’ off the ground. And if there are answers to be found in the cupboard of life, they are kept on shelves at least that high. Like everybody else, I need help to find them and it doesn’t matter how similar they are to me, in height or anything else.
As a more serious scenario: it’s all well and good that Ed Balls is smarter than the rest us, but that doesn’t mean he really understands what’s good for the economy. There is an unfortunate tendency to almost deify the man (it’s usually a man) at the top, and to convey authority upon them that has not actually been earned.
Labour and the Tories constantly make this mistake; it is built into their party structure. Their wonderfully brilliant Oxbridge ministers are treated as if being tall means you’re 10’ tall. (To be fair, the Lib Dems aren’t immune. Vince Cable is tall, too.)
Keeping the good stuff safe
The financial sector has an even more dangerous attitude: not only do they act as if they’re 10’ tall, they ferociously defend a system where all the good stuff is kept 7’ off the ground. So while the global economy might repeatedly collapse as they regularly overstretch themselves, in between crises an increasingly large slice of wealth is stored in places where increasingly few people can get to it.
They are living the high life in several metaphorical senses.
The Liberal Democrat philosophy really is different. It builds into its very structure a reflection of the nature of things. The shelf is in fact not 10’ off the ground but even higher, and only with a large group of people actively contributing can we reach it. Thus we have democracy built into the policy making process.
Let’s not get too proud of ourselves, however. Lib Dems are not immune to holding beliefs that can prevent an objective view of reality. I believe that diversity is one such area, and in particular those who hold any form of positive action to represent a form of unfair advantage.
The difference between equality and equal treatment
In a limited, mathematical sense this concern for absolute fairness is fair. But every female or asian or black or lesbian or low income individual in the nation has some way to go before they catch up with the advantages I receive simply for being a tall white guy with a mainstream accent. The broader mathematical concern is that decision making by a diverse group is measurably superior to that of a group that resembles itself. Further, narrow definitions of “meritocracy” statistically result in the top tiers being populated by people with advantages not just from gender and racial bias, not just social or educational background, but also trivial issues such as height and perceived attractiveness.
Do minor advantages matter? When there are only a few spaces at the top, and the reward system is “winner takes us” in nature, absolutely. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the “de’il tak’ the hindmost” issue that keeps people on the poverty line. The right wing declares that inequality is the necessary consequence of different people being willing to make different efforts. To the extent that is true, however, the degree of inequality is the result of rewarding circumstances more than work.
At the Lib Dem conference, there were a few young women sat behind me who were disappointed to be possibly the only people in the entire hall voting against the diversity motion. I admire their determination to do earn success by their own efforts, to reject both unfair advantage and being patronised. These are noble aspirations. But strong principles have a habit of breaking the world down into artificial compartments. What makes sense in one context does not always translate to the whole. The advantages that people like me receive tend to tunnel into the subtext, undermining the goals more openly declared. They will continue to do so for a generation or more, so deeply buried are they in our culture.
As long as the measures adopted are reasonable – such as the Leadership Programme to develop “diversity candidates”, if you’ll pardon the clunky phrase – these principled women should take some comfort in the fact that any unfair advantage is smaller than the ones I’ve already got. Ones that I couldn’t even refuse if I wanted to.
Deciding on merit, not DNA
Perhaps it is patronising of me, as a tall person, to offer assistance to those who are shorter. I don’t mean it to be, though. My 5’ 4” Mum would have a few sharp words for my 6’ 1” Dad if he started calling her “little lady”. But she’d also tear off a strip if he became reluctant to fetch something from a high shelf because she’s a capable, independent woman perfectly capable of getting it herself.
In a competitive world where small advantages can deliver outsized returns, it’s perfectly reasonable to actively compensate in such key areas as candidate selection. When people live their entire lives with a predominantly white, male, middle class Parliament, they will instinctively favour similar candidates. It’s a mental association that was not their choice to make. And that’s before we raise other challenges such as the four c’s.
A small ladder up really does no more than allow everyone to be judged on their merit, and not their DNA.