17 September 2021

Nadhim Zahawi and the perils of playing identity Top Trumps

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One of the (many) problems politicians and commentators face when they begin to subscribe to an intersectionalist view of privilege is that, too often, those interconnecting lines that should neatly map out and determine our identities can, infuriatingly, get crossed, neutralising each other like tangled tripwires.

Take, for example, the new Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi.  For some, like the usually sensible Shadow Secretary of State for Child Poverty, Wes Streeting,  Zahawi cannot possibly ‘understand the pressures of what family life is like’ because he attended KCS Wimbledon, a fee-paying school.  Whatever else Zahawi has achieved is immediately disqualified by a choice made for him by his parents.

Identity politics is like a highly charged version of Top Trumps, with a clear hierarchy of victimhood (and of course nobody wants the card with a straight white man on it). The rules are easy to follow until someone’s identity goes across a range of categories. Streeting had to conveniently ignore that Zahawi fled Iraq aged nine and attended a state school before going on to be privately educated. The scent of privilege that emanates from public schools is irresistible for some on the left, and it tends to trump all other ‘stats’, even those of race, gender and ethnicity. 

But in terms of privilege, a refugee from a dictatorship, whose ethnic group has faced relentless persecution, may have more insight into disadvantage than the Cambridge University-educated Streeting (if you have to define people by educational establishments they attended).  If only these pesky Tory politicians could all be like Jacob Rees-Mogg then Identity Top Trumps would be much easier to play, and it would be stacked towards those on the ‘right’ side of history.  

Streeting’s main claim that you can only understand ‘the sorts of families’ he is most concerned about if you have attended a state school is a position that should be familiar to many of us who work in education and see the effect of the culture wars, fought as they are by ignorant armies clashing by the night of their own blind visions. Familiar, but always depressing. 

Characterising state schools and their pupils as places of unending disadvantage is both insulting and untrue, but the idea that the school we attended can shape us long into our adult lives is fantasy. Indeed, it is contradicted by the most compelling evidence of all: namely, life itself.  If it were true it would negate the endless other, equally profound influences most mature adults experience after they have left school. Those who argue such things seem to be stating that human growth and empathy are fixed at 18. University, work, falling in love, having children, losing loved ones, travelling…can all of these be rendered secondary to those seven years we spend in a secondary school? In Identity Top Trumps they can. It is a uniquely depressing view of life.

Those like Streeting who argue that you must have a background which is identical to your professional role if you are to fully understand it, promote an idea as insidious and damaging as it is reductive.  We are, by now, no longer surprised when a Hollywood actor pulls out of a role because they are not the right size, or colour, or sexual orientation, but it nonetheless plays to various prejudices, including the idea that those who come from a different background are incapable of seeing beyond themselves, or of using their imaginations to understand the lives of others. 

Schools, both state or independent, should actively campaign against this lazy interpretation of human nature. Instead, they should promote the idea that all of us, irrespective of our background, have the ability to grow, through learning, and not be defined by the narrow preconceptions that others seek to place on us for their own ends. Perhaps, in the new Secretary of State for Education, we have someone who personifies this even better than those who continue to see people as a series of fixed categories, rather than the complex, evolving creatures we really are.  

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David James is deputy head of an independent school in London.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.