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Society, Politics & Law

Britain’s cosy elite survives the social mobility test

Updated Wednesday, 12th November 2014

Despite decades of social engineering and change, we still live in a society in which power is held by a privileged few, writes Dick Skellington.

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A cartoon of two job applicants: one a posh-looking man with crossed arms, sitting at a desk containing books; the other, a Catherine Tate 'Lauren' character. A speech bubble says: 'And now let's meet the final two university-blind job applicants for that remaining place'. Creative commons image Icon Gary Edwards under Creative-Commons license

Britain has long since been run by a ‘cosy club’, so the latest findings from the Government’s own advisory Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) that Britain remains a ‘deeply elitist’ country came as no surprise.

I still remember one of my first lectures on my Social Science degree way back in the late sixties in which we soon realised that in all walks of life, it was not a meritocracy that we lived in, but a society where class and money dictated who had the power and who did not. Social mobility seemed trapped for many, and the chances of breaking into the elite depended on background, not on ability.

Today, half a century later, it seems that despite Government efforts to increase social mobility into ‘the governing class’, we still live in a society where a small unrepresentative rump of private and Oxbridge educated people dominate nearly all sectors of our lives.

Given the way the Coalition has imposed an ideological dogmatic adherence to austerity in which we are not all in it together, it comes as no surprise either to find that while only 7 per cent of the British public went to private schools, 52 per cent of Conservative MPs and 41 per cent of Liberal MPs enjoyed the privilege. While only 10 per cent of Labour MPs were privately educated, it is worth reminding Leader Ed Miliband that a fifth of his Shadow Cabinet attended private schools, three times the average. 

Across Parliament in the Lords, that cosy elite is astonishingly higher still. Only 12 per cent of peers went to a comprehensive school. The majority went to independent schools and Oxbridge.

At the level of political representation there is clearly a need for improvement. In this light it will be interesting to see if any manifest changes occur in the 2015 General Election, but given the impact old elites have on all our lives, don’t count on it. It will be interesting to see after the election whether the proportion of MP’s who went to Oxbridge falls from the current level of 24 per cent.

SMCPC investigated the backgrounds of over 4,000 people who ‘run Britain’ - from the judiciary, the civil service, politics, to the media. Small elites are everywhere, they found, and dominate every area investigated. 

Over 71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior armed forces officers, 55 per cent of Whitehall permanent secretaries, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists – the list seems endless – all were privately educated.

Since the report received wide coverage in the media, a media dominated by privately educated employers, there has been a debate about whether it really does mean that we still live under a cosy elite. One dissenting voice was miner’s son Stuart Nicholson, who went to Oxford and is now principal of the Cambridge Centre for Sixth Form Studies. Nicholson maintains that the SMCPC report deflects attention from the factors which make the cosy elite so difficult to break down.

‘Unfortunately’, Nicholson writes, ‘for our oldest universities a disproportionate number of the applicants with the necessary qualities come from independent schools, opening up the professions and the top universities to criticism. The debate however should centre on how to prevent affordability and ambition from being a constraint, rather than suggesting that the professions and the universities should select people on a basis other than who is the best candidate’. His argument, that the raison d’etre of private schools and Oxbridge is to produce a pool of people who are the best candidates in their own field, is also shared by other institutions including state schools and universities. Just look at their mission statements.

SMCPC did make some recommendations, the kind that governments soon kick into the long grass. There was a recommendation that the Government open up the top jobs to a wider pool of applicants, especially from the State sector and from non-Oxbridge universities.

SMCPC even suggested adopting a university-blind job application process, so the education background of applicants is not known to the appointing panel. But I do not see that being accepted especially as educational background is so entrenched in short-listing candidates in the first place.

So it looks as if those that hold power in Britain will continue to be unrepresentative. Of course, this research is only based on educational background, and I am sure women will remind us, if you did a gender analysis, we will find that elite to be male dominated, while opening up the ruling class to ethnic minorities remains a stubborn if not a forlorn hope.

If you want to know why there is so little innovation, so little change, so little diversity, just reflect on one of the report’s most chilling conclusions. The cosy elite ‘all studied the same courses at the same universities, having read the same books, heard the same lectures and even been taught by the same tutors’.

Me? I went to a secondary modern school, a bog standard one where you left at 15, and I studied my Social Sciences degree, the first in Britain, at the now defunct Enfield College of Technology. And hey, readers, I am hardly part of any ruling media elite.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.





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