In qualified defence of Tristram Hunt
Was Labour MP Tristram Hunt wrong to call for the top one per cent to assert their leadership in the Labour Party?
Lots of people seem to think so, at least judging by the online hysteria now picking up steam following Hunt’s address to the Cambridge University Labour Club last week.
From the Independent:
Labour-supporting students at one of Britain’s two elite universities have been told by a Blairite MP to lead a campaign of “dissent” in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory.
Tristram Hunt, the former shadow education secretary, told students at Cambridge University Labour Club that they were the “top one per cent” and needed to show leadership within the party.
“The way you serve the Corbyn leadership is to be as dissenting and creative as possible,” he told the students, according to the Cambridge University newspaper Varsity.
“You are the top one per cent. The Labour Party is in the shit. It is your job and your responsibility to take leadership going forward.”
But the truth is a little more complex than an outraged headline in the Independent or an angry Facebook post. And ultimately, it depends on what 1 per cent Tristram Hunt was talking about.
We can probably all agree that calling for the top one percent of wealthiest Britons to take leadership of the Labour Party – of any political party or the country as a whole, for that matter – would be elitist and wrong. And this seems to be the interpretation that offence-taking activists are busy adopting on social media right now:
Physically sick, really?
If you look at what Tristram Hunt actually said, it’s clear that this is not what he meant. In fact, Hunt clarified his remarks shortly afterwards, saying:
My message to the students at Cambridge was clear: Labour has a mountain to climb if we are to recover from our defeat in May, and as the next generation of Labour activists they are absolutely central to our efforts to renew.
I am confident that – with the support of committed Labour activists from across the country, and from all walks of life – we can build a strong, credible and forward-looking movement that promotes the interests of the many, not the few.
What Tristram Hunt actually said is absolutely right, and to be commended. We do want the top 1 per cent of intelligent people, the type of people who should (and increasingly do) get into Oxbridge on merit, to lead our political parties and our country – or at least we should want this to be the case. We should want the intellectual crème de la crème, those people gifted with abnormal talent and genuine inspiration, to lead us and take us forward.
The very last thing we should want is for the British political discourse to more closely emulate the United States, where an angry, intolerant anti-intellectualism runs through the heart of American politics and where “Ivy League elites” are scorned and derided by too many conservative populists.
Not that those right-wing populists don’t sometimes have a point – it was American left wing academia which gifted us our corrosive culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces, after all – but the last thing we should want is for Britain to become the kind of country where intelligence is looked down on by tub-thumping rabble-rousers.
Just as I would not want the next US president to be someone I would necessarily enjoy having a beer with – the leader of the free world needs to be fearsomely intellectual and far cleverer than me, especially in these difficult times – so we in Britain should not aim for a prime minister who scraped a 2:2 in a doss subject and who binge-watches shows on Netflix when they should be reviewing policy papers or reading a history book.
When it comes to the leadership of our country, some form of elitism is not only good, but downright necessary. We want to keep the key macroeconomic levers – not to mention the nuclear codes – out of the hands of anyone without the mental capacity or intellectual curiosity to think through the context and ramifications of the decisions they make, oftentimes five or ten steps ahead. Such people are rare – they are the intellectual one percent.
Oxford and Cambridge are two of the best universities not just in Britain but in the world. Up until now, they may have supplied the bulk of our prime ministers and senior establishment figures because of the advantages conferred by inherited wealth and privilege, but in this more egalitarian age we should not be angry if the next generation of political leaders also attended Oxbridge. Being an Oxbridge student and being a wealthy elitist no longer go hand in hand. I know this first hand, because I got into Cambridge University having grown up in a council flat in Harlow.
And yet still we do not live in a meritocracy; there are genuine problems of entrenched privilege and barriers to achievement which must be tackled, not least in education. But railing at Tristram Hunt will solve none of these problems. The Labour MP was making a fair and sensible point, one which took on an unfortunate double meaning thanks to his unfortunate use of the now highly loaded phrase “one percent”.
Left-wing activists seeking to use this verbal misstep as a weapon against Labour centrists should tread carefully. Their side already has a pretty solid reputation for scorning exceptionalism and brilliance in favour of dull, state-enforced equality of outcome.
Going to battle against the top one percent of everything and every field – and targeting Britain’s brightest students, many of whom are not part of the economic one percent – will not win the activist Left any new friends.
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