To the cynical, anti-establishment eye, Zoe Williams is the personification of the media elite. When we meet, she’s here for the annual Cambridge Literary Festival, an altogether lovely gathering of right- minded (read: left-minded) folk over the Easter break. She’s smart, quick- witted, and seems genuinely interested to talk to me, which is unusual.
As two private-school, Oxbridge- educated lefties sit on the steps of Trinity College’s fountain, it’s hard to avoid the question of elites. She doesn’t live in North London, land of Guardianistas and ‘liberal elites’, but admits “living in London at all now is like being part of that elite. There’s a real problem, I think, with people pretending that they’re not part of an elite when they are. If you have privileges and then you deny them it’s worse than having privileges and admitting them.
“What I don’t agree with is this prevailing idea that if you’re part of an elite you’re not allowed to care about people that aren’t in your elite. This is a massive conservative stitch-up. If we’re going to make a society that works for everybody, you have to accept that we care about each other, however rich we are, and however privileged we are.”
The idea that we can’t is “all bullshit. We really have to rediscover talking as people who understand each other because we’re humans, and not because we have the same hourly wage.”
What about Oxbridge? As ‘the best universities in the country’, isn’t it OK that they feed the ranks of politics and the media? “If Oxford and Cambridge had really great admissions policies, then it would be a good thing. Obviously that’s bullshit because they don’t make that effort and” – she leans into this bit – “I don’t think they’re even trying. I don’t think there’s enough effort towards getting people who might not have had the same advantages. And they know that. God knows why they don’t accept it, because they all know it.”
If you’re writing about big political issues, you often get told to ‘go out and do something’. What does she make of this? I ask. “The thing is it’s the Miltonic argument – ‘They also serve who stand and wait’’. It’s true that I’ll never stand for political office, and it’s true that people who do will have a more obvious influence, but we all have a part to play.
“I think it’s the most important thing on the left. We’re really bad for finding gradations of value, right, so it’s like the person who lives off-grid and only eats pulses, and doesn’t even engage with normal society – they’re like the kind of ‘pure lefty’, and then the person who joins the Labour Party is like the ‘shit polluted lefty’. But we do all need each other, because no massive movement is going to be built by Swampy, [nor is it] going to be built by a party that’s on its last legs. You need everybody.”
This includes Jesus: “Jesus’s message in the gospels is one of infinite generosity and actually, leftwing position-taking doesn’t make much sense without generosity. You have to accept justice, generosity, love, and empathy as the real four corners of human experience before any of it makes sense. Take your allies wherever you can get them. Don’t concentrate on the divisions.”
As a female writer in an increasingly hostile online environment, has the inevitable abuse shored up her feminism? “It would never have occurred to me to be anything other than a feminist, and I made a little speech about it when I was at primary school. It just wouldn’t have crossed my mind. I was quite a rubbish feminist in the 1990s – the only feminist conversations we used to have were about whether or not the ‘ladette’ was an articulation of a new kind of feminist or not. I was, like, a really good feminist just by drinking a lot. I was like well look I’m doing my piece, sisters – now you get drinking as well then we can all be feminists.”
And that’s just it. Zoe Williams, in all her well-dressed, Oxbridge-educated, Guardianistahood, is as down-to-earth as the rest of us. If we in the left can stop fighting over who’s part of which elite and who can talk about what, I’ve a feeling we might just get somewhere. As for us in the mythical ‘media elite’, Zoe’s got it about right: “They also serve who stand and wait.”