Is there a word to describe the sensation of watching someone make a catastrophic error of judgement, because their circumstances blind them to the fact that they are the perfect example of the very thing they are criticising? Something beyond schadenfreude, past hypocrisy, the linguistic equivalent of smacking both palms into our foreheads, and then moving them down, so our eyes are protected from the stupidity before us?
Because that’s the word I was looking for yesterday to describe my feelings as I read about Nick Clegg’s assault on unpaid internships. Nick Clegg is a man who, for thousands of students, embodies political betrayal, the leader of a party opposed to tuition fees right up until they made it into government and voted for lots more tuition fees. Now he tells them they should be able to get a job based on what they know, and not who they know. And so long as what they know is that your dad’s friends are the best way to get a well-paid job, that should work out just fine.
Clegg’s critics saw the open goal and kicked – Clegg himself was once the recipient of an unpaid internship at a bank (friend of his dad), and got his first job at the EU through a friend and neighbour of his parents, Lord Carrington. I don’t know about you, but I always mean to neighbour a lord, and then I get sidetracked with other stuff and it just slips my mind. Boy, will I feel stupid if I ever have a child and they want to work for the EU. Actually, I might already feel stupid at that point.
Obviously, being the recipient of great contacts and rich parents doesn’t mean you can’t see that other people don’t have those advantages. It doesn’t mean that you might not sincerely want to change their prospects. The strangest thing about this story isn’t that Clegg wants to improve the life chances of those less fortunate than himself. It’s that he didn’t mention his free passes into the world of work until after he’d been accused of hypocrisy. Like so many people with a very privileged background, it seems simply not to have occurred to him that he had benefited from it until it was thrown in his face.
The internship scandal will, of course, be old news to anyone who has tried to get a toehold in the media over the past couple of decades. If you can’t afford to work for a TV production company, unpaid in Central London for a few months, your chances of a career in television are much reduced. If you’re hoping to get a newspaper column like this one, it often helps if your surname is the same as someone writing a similar column a few years ago. When very desirable jobs are in very short supply, a meritocracy no longer works - lots of people could do the entry-level jobs equally well.
And that is what Nick Clegg would do better to admit: companies aren’t going to give up using interns. For a start, some of them can’t afford to – there are plenty of companies that don’t have the resources at the moment to pay, who would just go without interns altogether and would still have plenty of candidates to pick from next time a paid job became available.
He should rather warn against falling into the trap of assuming that you can only make it in a competitive world if you have connections, so everyone else needn’t bother trying. I wrote my first op-ed column five years ago because I was on a TV show with a journalist and he asked me to write for his paper. I was on the TV show because the booker had heard me doing stand-up on Radio 4. I was on Radio 4 because their scouts had seen me perform in Edinburgh. And I was in Edinburgh because that’s what comedians do in August. Sometimes it’s about luck and persistence, and not who your dad’s friends are.