Going up to Oxford in 1997 from my unremarkable state school (oh, god, it’s another freaking “My struggle at Oxbridge” post, when will you wingeing twats realise we’re just not interested and shut up, etc) there was this guy on my course. We both took Cicero for our Special Subject. I only ever had a couple of conversations with him, but he seemed perfectly nice, if a bit of a classic rich-Tory-public-schoolboy-from-Balliol, and he was certainly bright. We both got Firsts, I believe, and we both won scholarships.
Then what? Well, I carried on in the groves of academe for a while, largely funded by you on account of being awesomely brilliant (cheers; I owe you a pint), then chucked it in and did the normal thing all graduates who don’t have any money behind them but find strategy consulting and banking inimical have to do. I got a job, a boring, averagely-paid, first jobber’s job in a large company where I’d have space to develop, in a line of work I thought was probably moderately interesting once you got a bit higher up. Well, that turned out to be a total disaster, so I took another job, a stressful, slightly-below-averagely-paid, second jobber’s job in a different line of work I thought would at least keep my mind active and me off the breadline while I pursued more inspiring projects in my free time. That didn’t work either, so I chucked it all in and decided I’d rather be free and poor and answer to no-one. I was going to decide how I wanted to live and what I wanted to do with my time on earth, and then try and fit the money-making in around that. Hooray!
A year into the experiment, little by little, it’s working out. People periodically give me interesting work that I’m good at largely on terms of my choosing. I don’t have to get out of bed at the same time every day. I can’t yet support myself on freelance work alone, there are some weeks when feeding myself is a struggle, and every journey into central London in particular has to be carefully costed and weighed against the probable social/professional/financial benefit of making it. Temping is ever more of a bind, particularly because the people whose well-remunerated task it is to find you the work don’t always appear to appreciate the basic calculation at hand – is it worth my while to get out of bed and do it? One agency tried to get me to take a four-hour per day job at £9.50 an hour in central London, and for the benefit of those lucky enough not to live here, a monthly zone 1 ticket from where I live costs somewhere in the region of £100. You, as they say, do the math. But, day by day, I inch a bit further towards vindication.
I certainly couldn’t have got this far without a ferocious and unceasing barrage of support from family and friends, and while some of that support has been financial, no-one is in a position to bankroll my whimsical idea of what I should ideally be allowed to do with my time (least of all me, it seems). But I like the freedom, I like the way my interests have blossomed and sometimes brought unexpected gain (I’d have stayed an armchair supporter of the Lib Dems in my old life, for one thing) and I still think my original calculation will probably turn out to be correct: if you do things you like and are good at, you’ll end up roughly solvent anyway, and much happier than if you just pay the rent at the expense of all else.
So I’m going to stick with it and see how Year Two pans out. If nothing else I have acquired a properly solid grasp of what it’s like, how exhausting and soul-destroying and mind-numbing it is to live on a low income. And I’m someone with no dependents and a way out! This isn’t a sob story – I’ve chosen this life, and I could go and get a middlingly paid third-jobber’s job tomorrow if it really got unbearable. But it has given me at least the shadowiest inkling of what it must like to live on something like a minimum wage and not have a way out, and believe me, it’s the stuff of the most shuddering twitchy nightmares imaginable.
What strikes me most of all is just how tiring it is. All those little daily calculations – shall I spend this pound on a packet of pasta I can live on for four days or shall I save it for the journey in to work tomorrow? How much is on my oyster card? I can only top it up from my credit card at the moment, and that’ll put my minimum payment beyond reach unless that cheque finally arrives. How many more pay dates are there before the rent is due? And of course, the classic which will raise a groan from every economic liberal – is it worth my taking that work, or will I lose more in housing benefit than I gain from the extra pay? You expend so much energy just thinking through how you’re going to survive.
I used to regard people on benefits with low incomes with extreme compassion but no real empathy. Like most thoughtless young sprigs, I thought they (it’s always “they”, isn’t it) had either been unreasonably unlucky or made bad choices and, poor things, didn’t have the psychological werewithal to leverage themselves out of trouble. It’s a far less sympathetic and extreme version of this philosophy that prompts Tories to bark “Well, what’s stopping them from working?”. Left-liberal answers usually reference lack of skills and low self-esteem, but I would add to these sad truths a bus fare, an interview suit (or equivalent), no familial obligations and a decent meal in the belly, and the time it takes to figure out how to acquire the money to assemble all that – things even the most empathetic lefty or liberal finds hard to conceive f unless they’ve been there. These days I don’t just empathise – I salute every last one of Britain’s benefit claimants for carrying on at all. How the hell they do it is beyond me.
Withal, Tory-chap-who-took-Cicero-with-me hadn’t so much as crossed my mind in over half a decade when suddenly, hanging around the blogs one day, as is my wont, I come across a name on Lib Dem Voice that rings a bell, and a few clicks later I am looking at said chap peeping out of a photoshopped Tory mock-up! Yes, my erstwhile co-classicist is Robin Walker, Tory PPC for Worcester, his father’s old constituency. Good grief! thinks I. I wonder what he’s been up to? Hm, he left university and started his own business. Ve-ry nice. Then after that went into press communications in the finance and industrial sectors. Thence to the PPC candidature. There are those who would use phrases like “well-worn groove” to describe this particular path of progress.
Now, to be plain, I am not for one moment denigrating the achievements of someone I don’t know much about. And the whole game of trying to quantify the advantages of a PPC who has a former MP for a father is so beset with complexities and caveats as to be basically unplayable. But the observation remains that at a time when the academically bright lower-middly class kid had to go and get a boring job, the academically bright moneyed upper-middly class kid was able to “start his own business”. And by all means shoot me down in flames if you’re out there, Robin, but I’d be extremely surprised if you had to temp to support your burgeoning career (and two weeks’ paid work experience at the Adam Smith Insitute secured by a family friend doesn’t count).
Whenever we talk about poverty of ambition, we generally mean kids whose parents have my financial situation, but not my education or basic advantages. If it was unthinkable for someone like me to leave university and start their own business, it’s unthinkable for some kids to do what I consider my fallback position – go and get a middlingly decent job. Unlucky them. Lucky me. Luckier Robin Walker. Occasionally someone from a truly impoverished background does break out – gets the university education, gets the good job. I’ve made a much smaller, but still upward progression – I’ve (belatedly) done something that normally only rich kids do, because they have a fallback position that I don’t have – financial support to a decent standard of living.
They seem to get very upset about this, by the way. I’ve known moneyed people complain vociferously when I put this theory to them, and protest that they “never take any money” from their parents. That’s not the point, I explain patiently (assuming I believe them; often it seems to turn out that actually they live in daddy’s town flat rent-free but don’t consider that to be money changing hands). It’s the mindset that coming from money gives you. That anything is possible. That there will always be a second chance. That you can take a risk. That you can leave university and not instantly be panicking about how your CV looks at the expense of all else. Essentially, as the Cleggster pointed out in his conference speech, it’s freedom. No point in, as the libertarians have it, owning yourself unless you can feed, clothe and otherwise take care of what you own.
On the whole, then, a Good Year. It has shown me that poverty of ambition is a graduated thing, and the magic circle of those who are totally untouched by it is actually vanishingly small. It has been the making of me as a liberal, and of my social conscience as a sophisticated instrument of analysis, as opposed to a great big wobbly cuddle for the disadvantaged. Most of all it’s made me less fucking complacent about where my next meal is coming from, and accordingly I recommend it as a lifestyle to anyone who has ever thought of people on benefits and/or low incomes as a great big unwashed lump of “them”.