Don't Panic

Benedict Cumberbatch, gold medals and silver spoons.

This week, Sherlock Holmes (otherwise known as Benedict Cumberbatch) complained that ‘all the posh-bashing that goes on' has made him consider leaving Britain to go to the US, adding that he’s been 'castigated as a moaning, rich, public-school b****d'.

It comes after a record breaking Olympic performance by the Team GB, whom despite delivering 29 gold medals, were subject to a degree of teeth-gnashing over the disproportionate number who were privately educated. Those who went to fee-paying schools made up 37% of Team GB's gold medalists -  a noteworthy figure when considering that independent schooling accounts for just 7% of UK youngsters.

Indeed, criticism has come from none other than the head of Britain's Olympic team, Lord Moynihan, who called it "one of the worst statistics in British sport".

Add to this the sustained attack that members of the government have come under for being perceived as part of an ‘Etonian Elite’ and there is an undeniable trend that the economically privileged are seen as fair game for resentment, no matter what they have achieved.

The crux of the matter is the UK’s attitude to private education, and the way that such a start in life increases opportunities. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, the British-born writer describes a system of accumulative advantage, highlighting how minor differences in a child’s upbringing - the month in which they were born, for instance - can have a profound effect on their long term goals.

In this respect, many attacks on the posh individuals are little more than straightforward envy masquerading as social conscience. The assumption is that that person’s success is success at the expense of others, is hardly the fault of that person. After all, I don’t know of many children who chose their school.

But does that make Holmes (sorry, Cumberbatch) completely justified in his words? After all, fame and acting recognition are things for which you put yourself forward - one has to be prepared to take the criticism along with the acclaim, and his gaggle of female Twitter fans, whom refer to themselves as ‘Cumberbitches’ must be of some comfort!

Furthermore, his perceived longing for America as a kind of class-free acting environment is problematic. While it’s great to see Old Etonians Damian Lewis and Dominic West playing decidedly non-posh roles in TV, there is a broader heritage of British actors playing stately villains, from Tom Hardy’s Bane, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, through Alan Rickman, all the way back to Laurence Olivier and beyond. British actors are often hired ahead of Americans because they offer an old-world grandeur.

Cumberbatch's statement seems to imply that Americans have the correct view of privilege, whereas the Brits are labouring under some pernicious misconception. I'm inclined to think that, if anything it's the other way around. (Many) Americans are persuaded by a certain right-wing narrative that explains success by appealing to hard work and initiative (which are, doubtlessly important) while playing down the role of the social circumstances of one's upbringing.

What the British medal stats reveal, of course, is that this narrative is out of kilter with the facts. It would be ludicrous to think that the well-off were just innately more disposed to hard work. They have the better facilities and more support - simple as that.

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