Tall Poppy Syndrome

Australia is notorious for the “tall poppy syndrome” but it was adopted originally from Scottish immigrants. It can be seen most clearly today in Gordon Brown’s ambivalence towards success. In his New Year “class war” statement he does not describe the great social division as being between “rich” and poor” but as between the “privileged few” and the rest.

 However, there is a serious flaw in his philosophy. In modern Britain, most of the people Brown calls the “privileged” are just those who were once aspirational and who, through hard work, talent, and self-sacrifice, made their wishes come true. In other words, they are precisely the sort of people with whom he and his alter ego Ed Balls are supposed to sympathise.

Of course, there are still a small number of players who win the lottery of life by virtue of their birth but the huge majority of those fortunate enough now to be highly educated, highly paid and professionally influential got where they are by some combination of merit, industriousness and, most important, positive attitude.

They probably did have the good fortune to be raised by parents who believed in the value of education and the virtues of self-discipline and personal achievement. But if they themselves try to perpetuate those attitudes in their own child-rearing, they will be labelled “pushy parents” and condemned for wanting to pass on their own “privileged” status.

In Brown’s weird world you may have come from an impoverished childhood but as soon as you have gained the university degree, the healthy salary, the position of power or status, you are immediately inducted into infamy. In fact he often seems to believe that the very virtues which allowed you to make that arduous climb from your disadvantaged roots to your new station in life were themselves privileges.

To be clever, to be academically motivated, or to have a stable and supportive family life – all of these things he appears to believe are benefits which give people an unfair advantage. That is why he wants to handicap those who are in possession of them – lay obstacles in the course of the naturally able, block the determined efforts of the conscientious parent, discriminate against the academically superior.

Clearly aspiration is only admirable in the weird world of Brown and Balls until it succeeds. Then it is transformed into that wicked thing, “privilege”. And indeed, the very fact of its having succeeded suggests that you were in possession of the “privileged” traits of intelligence, self-respect, etc to begin with.

So, to sum up, the only way a citizen can win sympathy and support from Labour is to remain deprived and disadvantaged but rather wistfully aspirational. Whatever they do, they must not try to take their fate into their own hands, or to make articulate, forceful representations on behalf of yourself and your loved ones – that would be “pushy” and selfish. You must put your trust in the Government’s all-seeing beneficence, which will provide “fair” opportunities to everyone equally, even if their talents, attitudes and efforts vary wildly.

As an ideology, this is deeply confused and self-contradictory. As practical politics, it is pernicious, and it reaches into the furthest corners of Labour policy. On public services, for example, Brown is eager to tell us that he embraces consumer power: “not uniform services, but personal services, tailored to your need and your aspirations.” Then he goes on to give a list of Government-dictated objectives which will be enforced across the board. And he tops off this set of nationwide edicts with the promise that “we will always ensure that you get the individual excellent services you need to make the most of your life”.

Brown does not appear to know what the word “individual” means and “choice” is another word to which he attaches a rather specialised meaning. In the hands of the “privileged” it is very dangerous tool. They might use it to choose a school or a hospital which would be  an insidious form of social divisiveness.

Brown does understand that class in Britain has less to do with money than with attitude. It is cultural poverty with its defeatism, passivity and hostility to education which locks people into deprivation. But he seems to have decided that the solution to this is to attack the “unfair” distribution of good attitudes by penalising those who “monopolise” them. In doing that, he shows the old socialist weakness of patronising those he wants to help and trapping them even more firmly in their disadvantage.


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