Monday, January 18, 2010

Class War

As the British election draws ever closer, the debate begins to focus on a small number of key themes. This time, the media have taken up Class as a subject of debate, well I say the media, but actually I mean the left wing media which thinks that pointing out that David Cameron is a posh boy will stop him getting elected. Class, we are told, is still with us, and it still matters.

Well no shit, Sherlock.

However it is not really about David Cameron, or even the large number of rather chinless public schoolboys who make up most of his shadow cabinet. It is about something much more fundamental. You see the dark secret of British Society is that Labour too is dominated by the public school system, Harriet Harman is at least as posh as George Osborne. Tony Blair- famously- is an Old Fettesian and Alistair Darling was at the- even posher- Loretto. Amongst the Liberal Democrats, public school educations are equally popular; Nick Clegg went to school at Westminster.

Nor is the extraordinarily strong preponderance of ex-public school types in powerful places limited to politics. In the law, over 70% of judges are ex-public school. In the media, the preponderance is even higher- over 80%. At every level in the levers of state, the 7% of the population that were sent to public schools have massive advantages over the 93% who were not. Just because you go to University does not mean that this exclusive club will let you in, because Class is not about talent. It is about entrenched, often inherited privilege. It is about socialisation as much as education. It is about us, it is not about them.

It is also a total disaster for our country. This narrow elite has closed itself off, not just from the rest of British society but quite often from the rest of the world. The Public Schools have created a Mafia that protects its privileges and largely denies them to those beyond their own circle. Merit is subordinated to clique and the impact has undermined economic and social cohesiveness.

In my early years in the City there was still the vestige of the old school tie- but the vast expansion of finance after 1986 drowned the Piers's and Gervase's in meritocratic foreigners, and the braying of the toffs was diluted. They moved on into other areas: Estate Agency, property, the media. This was why David Cameron could get a job in PR, but not one in the City (though of course many of his friends did go into the City). Not co-incidentally, the power of the City of London in global terms grew dramatically.

Despite dilution in the City, the power of this Class across the rest of society is overwhelming, especially considering its small size. Whole professions are shut to the majority- and these are generally the best rewarded and most powerful ones. As the economic crisis of the coming decade takes a firmer grip, the naked social divisiveness of the system is going to become a far more obvious part of the British political discourse. Although Labour has sucked at the same teat of privilege as the Conservatives, the more obvious self satisfaction of the Tories, and their denial of the institutional power that Class still possesses will make them more vulnerable to attack.

Of course the cynical news minders of Labour know this, and will not hesitate to play the Class card for all it is worth. However as they do that, both Labour and the Conservatives should remember that there is something genuinely wrong about the way that the UK allows powerful elites to remain closed and unchallenged- and it is one reason why so many of the brightest and the best have chosen to leave. Being a foreigner in Britain is far better than to be the wrong class and being derided by braying ignoramuses.


Newmania said...

The Liberal Party has been the best at atracting new people into Parliament prortionately although with such small numbers its hard to know what that means .It is also the most Public Sector and most middle-class Party , notably whiter than the others as well

The Conservative Party has a steady stream of new blood along with establishment figures but the Labour Party is staggeringly incestuous.
So its very much ,do as I say.My own fear is that posh boys like Clegg Huhne and co are good at pitying the plebs and fetishising the blacks but pretty poor at being told they are nothing special by the lower middle classes.

Richard Manns said...

I really must disagree. Especially about the "University" having no effect.

Do you really think that there's some clique-y "avoid the oiks" brigade at uni? You'd think that if it existed, it'd be in Oxbridge, and there is a snobby clique in Cambridge: it's called the students. We seem to define our class as "the ones smart enough to get into Oxbridge/Imperial/UCL"; we're quite far up ourselves, but being at Cambridge is rightly a far greater source of pride than, in my case, Bristol Grammar School.

Frugal Dougal said...

I was recently speaking to some friends, who were ripping George Osborne to shreds for having gone to a private school. When I pointed out that, as you imply, Harriet Harman went to the same school, it was suddenly suggested that St Paul's wasn't so posh after all. It seems that class, while it undoubtedly exists in Great Britain, is also in the eye orf the beholder and is largely determined by who he or she wishes to build up/knock down.

Cicero said...

Richard: my point about the system is not that it is impossible to break in: but I would point out that roughly 50% of the students at Oxbridge are public school kids. Both 93% and 7% get the same number of students into the best universities. If you were not sent to a public school, it is dramatically harder to break in to leadership roles in the UK.

Cicero said...

Frugal Dougal: In the eye of the beholder, well yes possibly, but that is not the same as saying that it doesn't matter.

Cicero said...

Newmania: actually I don't see any party that is classless. However, if the Tories really want to show the voters that they have changed, they could do with accepting that the UK is wasting a lot of talent because good minds are not given the same opportunities as mediocre but expensively educated minds.

Charles said...


Surely it is simplistic just to base it on some amorphous "class" notion to explain all that is wrong with British society. It's not some kind of clique that is prevent entry (I work in the City - which, to be fair, you point out is different - but we simply can not afford to take on a less good candidate.

You get closer to the truth with some of your comments at the end: the problem is the failings of the state education: education is the easiest way that people can break free from background to achieve their maximum potential: that is the biggest failing of the Labour government (declining social mobility) and one that I am hopeful that Cameron/Gove will address.

Anonymous said...

"According to a ComRes poll for The Independent, the Conservatives’ lead over Labour has narrowed to ten points. If this result was reflected at the ballot box, the Tories would be six seats away from an overall majority. It is the second poll in a fortnight which indicates that the UK is heading for a hung parliament."

This was found on an article at