Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"The Establishment" strikes back: SpAds, Dads and Rads

Politicalbetting.com this week pointed out that the succession of Ed Balls to the position of Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer marks the final triumph of the SpAd- the political special advisor. Now virtually all of the key positions on the front benches of both the Government and the Opposition are filled with professional politicians- who know no other life outside of politics. In fact the political clique is even narrower than you might think, since in order to obtain the unpaid jobs at the foot of the political ladder, there is a minimum degree of wealth required. It is not an accident then, that so many of the political leaders of Britain come from a privately educated background. The political class- in Peter Oborne's memorable phrase- is also a narrow social elite. "The Establishment", in the shape of the public schools, has recovered a level of control over politics that would have been regarded as unthinkable just a couple of decades ago.

Not just in politics.

In journalism, the Rifkinds, the Johnsons, and a whole host of other families have begun to make the press into hereditary dynasties. As I have noted before, the same is true of the legal profession. Even in entertainment, we see a parade of new faces but familiar names as comedians or writers.

Meanwhile the 90% of us who lie outside this magic circle have ever less chance to break in.

All this is coming at a time when the rewards for professional success have never been higher. The wealth gap between those at the top of the ladder- the judges or university professors- versus those lower down on the ladder- the solicitor or the research student- is wider than it has ever been. Yet the opportunities for those from ordinary backgrounds to break in to "The Establishment" are far fewer than in the 1960s. Indeed the radicals of that era have spawned their own group of celebrity success- the litany of Jaggers or Osbornes that appear in the press and on the television is testament to that. Those who have achieved success hand it on to their children.

It can not go on like this.

Social inequality is damaging at every level.

Yet, I do not buy into the Labour politics of envy- not least because it is laced with the hemlock of hypocrisy. Your wealth does not cause my poverty, because wealth is not a fixed cake of money to be divided, it is a flow of money.

The issue is therefore not equality of outcome which can not be achieved unless it is the equality of the grave- it is equality of chance. In the UK today if you are not part of the 7% who are privately educated, but part of the 93% who are not, then your chances are nearly five times less of entering the best universities and of achieving ultimate professional leadership. I do resent the public school politicians who presume to lead, despite having no executive experience and little understanding of the social crisis that the UK is stumbling into. The political class does not have to face the squalid breakdown of the NHS, the barely suppressed violence on the streets and in the (state) schools. Yet at the end, the fact is that the British people have allowed themselves to be gulled by an electoral system that permits a rigged choice every four or five years, by a social order that does not give sufficient educational opportunities to the economically disadvantaged. We have the government we deserve, because no one is speaking up.

In Buckinghamshire, where I stood for Parliament in 2005, the Grammar schools received nearly twice as much money per pupil than the non-Grammar schools, plus the support of wealthier and more involved and articulate parents. Yet it was the non Grammar schools were those who were taking in non English speaking kids and improving their attainment faster than those of the Grammar schools. There are successes to report, but these get drowned in a sea of social prejudice and a pervasive sense of failure of those not party to academic and social privilege.

In my view it is time for the Liberal Democrats to reassert their radical credentials. It is time to emphasise the need to create a more open society. It is time to remind ourselves why a free market creates not only greater wealth but also greater opportunity.

In the face of the closing doors of the Establishment, it is time to remember the radicalism and creativity of the 1960s- they time when Liberalism began to recover from its near death experience. Although as in the 1920s and the 1950s there is again pressure from the Conservatives to work more permanently together, we should- in my view- resist this powerfully. Liberalism is not Conservatism-lite, any more than it is Socialism-lite. It is a powerful ideology that informs an agenda of radical change.

British Society will in time reject the political class and this could be a serious breakdown. Yet at that point it could be the Liberal Democrats- with the free ideology of Locke and Hayek- who could be leading the way towards a more open and egalitarian political and social system.

That is a vision that we should be considering carefully over the next few months. Even as we note the filibuster in the House of Lords to try to prevent even the smallest change to our corrupt and dangerous electoral system. Those entrenched forces should be forced to defeat.

Radical change is needed and is coming- the question is who will lead it? And to what end?

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