A couple of days ago, the millionaire Tory MP for Rutland and Melton, Sir Alan Duncan, defending the Prime Minister’s tax affairs in the House, rather recklessly argued that: ‘May I support the Prime Minister in fending off those who are attacking him, particularly in thinking of this place, because if he doesn’t, we risk seeing a House of Commons which is stuffed full of low-achievers who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family and know absolutely nothing about the outside world.’ No doubt, Sir Alan and/or his spin doctors had come up with this line and he was determined to use it. It was probably intended to be funny, but what it of course sounded like was a statement that those of us who are not millionaires are ‘low achievers.’ This is particularly galling, because the majority of the Conservative government millionaires were born into wealth, and did little or nothing to earn it. It further raises the question of who these people represent, given that a recent survey has suggested that a staggering 78% of all British MPs are apparently millionaires, as opposed to the 0.7% in the general population. And as far as knowing about the outside world, let us not forget that David Cameron himself is so clueless when it comes to how the other half lives that when attempting to interact with them for a photo op last year he ate a hotdog with a knife and fork. Finally, as a historian I might also note that the whole point of MPs being paid was in order that common people could afford to run for public office, a battle first fought (and lost) by the Chartists in the 1840s, when politicians were wealthy men representing the interests of other wealthy men.
Whatever his intention, this statement has certainly come back to haunt Sir Alan, and a particularly robust refutation of his definition of ‘low achievement’ written by the NHS physiotherapist Olaya De la Iglesia quickly went viral on Facebook. I had been similarly outraged, and had also written an ‘open letter.’ And while not as eloquent or detailed as Olaya’s, mine has also gone mad on Facebook. I have decided to offer a copy of it here, which I hope you will indulge. It’s not about creative writing as such, although it is about higher education, and it is also about me. Let’s just say Sir Alan’s remarks touched a bit of a nerve…
From a Low Achiever
Dear Sir Alan
How’s this for a bit of low achieving. I was born on a provincial council estate in the sixties; my father was a bricklayer and my mum had previously worked in a shop (before I went to school, she cleaned houses, dragging me along with her). There was never enough money, although my parents always seemed to be working. I went to an unremarkable comprehensive at which the career options outlined for working class kids was the army or an apprenticeship for boys, nursing or ‘home-making’ for girls. I asked the deputy headmistress about university once. She told me that people like me didn’t go there.
When I left school in the early-80s your lot had already created mass unemployment, and I survived on a variety of casual labouring jobs and dead-end government schemes, going on and off the dole. Sick of this, I blagged my way onto a big building development and worked twelve hour shifts seven days a week for a year until I had saved enough money to realistically put myself through college. After passing an Access Course, I got a place at a good university. I started publishing fiction and non-fiction as an undergraduate, and fought hard to get a British Academy grant for postgraduate study, also working nights in a warehouse to make ends meet. I started lecturing when I passed my MA (with distinction). By 2000, I had a Ph.D and had signed my first book contract. All this was not enough to get me a full-time academic post, so I lectured in Japan for three years and paid off my student debts that way, saving enough to put a deposit on a small house back home.
Since returning to the UK I have been made redundant by two universities, and because I have a family and a mortgage I went into business for myself as a developmental editor and creative writing/publishing consultant. Workload has been punishing, and I’ve developed significant auto-immune problems as a result and am now losing my sight. I claim no benefits, I still work, and I have a great family. My latest book has just been published. The first chance we get, we’re leaving England.
Most people in the real world have lives like this. They work hard, and never really get ahead, but they never stop trying, and in that they are truly high achievers. So take your ‘low achievement’ and shove it up your arse.
Dr. S.J. Carver