Boris Johnson’s clown makeup slips off his face. What’s underneath the jolly ho-ho haystack is the same hard-right I-deserve-it just-world-fallacy you get everywhere else. People who are clever get everything they deserve; people who aren’t clever get everything they deserve; everything’s all right, because we need to have something to strive for, otherwise we’d all be happy with less.
It’s convenient, isn’t it, that the world should only reward those of us who try very hard and who are very clever, and punish those of us who don’t try or aren’t very clever. That there’s no point in thinking about anything like equality, because those of us at the top are there through our own graft, and those of us at the bottom are there because we simply don’t deserve anything more. Everyone finds the level where they belong. Everything is working perfectly fine. We need inequality to give people something to fight for.
It’s not just people born into a world of comfort, money and privilege who think it, of course, though it rather nicely rewards them for having had nothing to do with where they ended up. It gives a solid pat on the back to those who haven’t had to work at all to get where they are. It tells them that while it might seem from the outside that they didn’t do anything to attain their achievements, actually it was all down to their supreme cleverness. Don’t feel ashamed of getting that job – it wasn’t anything to do with the tie and crest from your school, or who your father knew or owed a favour to; it was all because you are so brilliant. You deserve it. Relax.
People who have experienced some kind of social mobility might be inclined to agree with Boris as well. After all, they have moved. It couldn’t be due to some kind of random chance, could it, or some set of circumstances that led them to find achievements where their peers couldn’t. No. It must be because they shone out like brilliant stars and their cleverness and guile took them to the top. That’s what it must be. If they can do it, why can’t everyone? The others who aren’t so privileged should just get off their sorry backsides and do some proper work, like what I did: I’m here because I did the right things and I’m getting my reward. You’re down there because you didn’t.
But the appeal of this message isn’t just for those of us who are fortunate enough to be in a position where we don’t have to worry about where the next meal is coming from or whether we’ve got enough money to heat the house this winter. There’s also an attractiveness in thinking that the world is just – that people do get what they deserve, on the whole – even when the evidence around us doesn’t seem to confirm it.
If you look around you, and see people who have tried so very hard, but failed, and see other people who have just turned up and succeeded immensely, that is a bit disheartening. The world can’t be like that, can it? We want to see the world as the kind of place where you can make a difference, where you are encouraged to do the right things and where if you do the right things you will get along – and where if you lie and cheat and steal and trample over others you’ll get punished.
The alternative would be a world in which politicians would be drawn through the same narrow funnel, from private schools through Oxbridge and PPE/PPS to interning in some government department (for no pay, of course, since you can afford it, which helps weed out those who actually need some money), who run the country in the interests not of voters but of those huge corporations, and conveniently end up on the boards of those corporations.
If that were the case, you’d need to back up this level of unfairness with a lot of persuasion. But that would be easy enough, given that the loudest voices in the media would come from giant corporations in whose interest you decide policy, staffed by people from the same private school/Oxbridge background as you, who understand that, look, this is simply the way things are, and there’s no point in trying to rock the boat, since we’re all doing so well out of it.
Even the state broadcaster could be co-opted into providing a safe mouthpiece for your unchallenged views, running dozens of daily documentaries about benefit scroungers and people cheating the system to give the impression that the problem lies with those right at the bottom, never those at the top. All the while you could constantly lambast it for being a Trotskyite enemy, despite the laughable lack of evidence.
And if all that were the case, people would have to buy into the narrative that you were trying your best. You’d need to bring out the jester – maybe give him a funny haircut to make him more of a clown, and make him say vaguely amusing things in a comedy voice to make people think he’s a figure of fun. Every now and then the mask would slip, but you’d soon paper over the cracks by making him wear an ill-fitting suit or bumble around on television, and everything would be all right again. Look at him! He’s funny! We really must get him running one of the biggest cities in the world! Maybe he could be Prime Minister one day!
That all sounds too far fetched, doesn’t it? It’s probably easier to accept that the reality is that rich people deserve to be where they are, because they earned it. It gives you hope that if you’re a good citizen, if you do the right things in the right order, you might get the four cherries on the fruit machine and end up winning as well. Everyone has the same chance, it’s just that you came along at the right time.
That must be it. It must be fair. If it wasn’t fair, what would that make it? And what could I do about it?