Britain's rich kids do better than ever

Astonishingly, class advantage has grown since the 1950s. Nick Cohen blames the series of "new waves

To say that Britain is a class-ridden country dominated by hereditary elites is to invite incredulity or ridicule. No one in a position of power supports hierarchy or privilege. John Major announced his determination to achieve a "classless society" more than a decade ago. Tony Blair declared in 1997 that "the Britain of the elite is over". In the current election campaign, new Labour says it's on the side of "hard-working families" while the old Tories say they are the voice of the "forgotten majority".

You can see, just by looking around you, why modern media managers believe that class no longer matters. The Times and the Mail are all but indistinguishable, as are BBC1 and ITV1. The Queen is about the last person left who speaks the Queen's English, while every institution from the National Theatre to the Lake District National Park is emphatic that it has no wish to serve the white middle class. A foreigner who heard the estuary accents and declarations of solidarity with the masses might assume this country was in the grip of a proletarian revolution.

In the late 1950s, Harold Macmillan could find ministerial jobs for the Duke of Devonshire and the noble Lords Carrington, Dundee, Gosford, Home, Lansdowne and Munster. Now, as Cherie Blair said last year, "Whoever's calling the shots in this country, it isn't the people on the grouse moor." Indeed it is not. But here's what is odd: a child born into the Britain of Harold Macmillan and his dukes and earls in 1958, who turned 35 in 1993, will have been far more likely to have broken away from his class and pursued a career that reflected his talents than a child born in 1970 who is 35 today. Far from being a meritocracy, Britain has become a country of castes. The children of the rich are rich when they grow up. The children of graduates graduate themselves and the children of the working and lower middle classes sink ever further into financial and intellectual impoverishment.

The findings come in a series of studies, for a charity called the Sutton Trust, by Jo Blanden of the London School of Economics, Stephen Machin of University College London and Paul Gregg of Bristol University. They took two big surveys from the past half-century - the National Child Development Study of 1958 and the British Cohort Study of 1970 - which followed newborn babies through schooling and into adulthood. They could see how children had done compared to their parents: whether they had risen or fallen in the pecking order, or stayed pretty much where their mothers and fathers once were.

They found that, on average, a boy born to a well-to-do family in 1958 earned 17.5 per cent more than a boy born to a family on half the income of the rich boy's parents. If the equivalent Mr and Mrs Moneybags produced a son in 1970, he would grow up to earn 25 per cent more than his contemporary from the wrong side of the tracks. In other words, far from decreasing, class advantage grew as the 20th century progressed.

Although there are no more recent figures that are so authoritative, there are few signs that the separation of Britain into distinct classes of wealth and relative poverty is slowing down. Perhaps where an upper-middle-class husband and wife are both working full-time to maximise their income, leaving eastern European nannies to care for their children, class advantage will be reduced. Babies raised by Bulgarians may not have the linguistic and cultural advantages of their predecessors. But that is about the only hopeful sign. Every other indicator points in the opposite direction. However they measure class, statisticians have found that the huge university expansion of the past 20 years has disproportionately benefited the children of the well-off. The gap between the higher-education participation rates of the working and middle classes is now wider than ever.

All the effort that new Labour has put into increasing the chances of the poor - all the Sure Start schemes and all Gordon Brown's measures to redistribute wealth - have merely slowed the march of inequality. The reasons are controversial. They fall into two categories - economic and cultural.

The economic argument is easy to grasp: money begets money. The rich pass on their wealth and its advantages to their children. This is one reason why social mobility is far more constricted in Britain and the supposedly classless US than in the more egalitarian societies of Germany, Canada and Scandinavia. The greatest myth of the free-market right is that its policies allow the poorest child to go from rags to riches. Socially mobile societies have very few people living in either rags or riches.

But given that the British rich have always had the gravy, economics alone does not explain why the children of the poor are finding it ever more difficult to take it from them. As the saying goes, the right won the economic war and the left won the cultural war; and it is in the confusions of liberal-dominated cultural life that the second set of reasons for middle-class dominance can be found.

I have written this piece as if social mobility and careers open to talent were desirable, but in the 20th century the left was far from sure that they were. The classic case against was put by Michael Young in his Rise of the Meritocracy, published in 1958. His point was that a society where the rich believe they have earned their money and the poor believe that their poverty is their own fault would be intolerable. Better to have an aristocracy that feels guilty about its luck and poor people who can blame the toffs for their poverty.

Young's ideas helped bring about the abolition of the grammar schools. The comprehensive cause was taken up as enthusiastically by many Tories as by Labour, for the sound class reason that if you combine a comprehensive state system with a selective private system - as Britain and America do - you have the rich parents' dream. If their children are bright, they go to a good private school. Competition for places is fierce, but limited by the parents' ability to pay. If their children are clots, their wealth can still be decisive because they can afford to move into the catchment areas of the best comprehensives. Either way, money talks, and poor but talented children are confined to the worst schools.

The unintended consequences of educational egalitarianism would not have mattered so much if they did not combine with wider cultural changes which were profoundly hostile to the working class. At the end of his Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, Jonathan Rose asked why 200 years of cultural self-improvement through libraries, lectures, schools and newspapers organised by and for the working class died in the 1960s. His conclusion was that the supposedly egalitarian assault on the "dead white men" of the classics increased middle-class privilege. When there was agreement on what the canon was and that, say, you couldn't be educated without knowing Shakespeare, it was relatively easy for the self-taught to catch up. Since the 1960s, cultural trends have had "as brief a shelf-life as stock-exchange trends, and they depreciate rapidly if one fails to catch the latest wave in architecture or literary theory". Avant-garde, advanced, progressive, le dernier cri, new wave, modernist, postmodernist - all, argues Rose, "reflect the Anxiety of Cool, the relentless struggle to get out in front and control the new production of new cultural information".

Each new wave carries high culture further away from the working class. Once, the middle-class left saw the workers as the very vanguard of history; now they are dismissed as sexist, racist and conservative. Rose searched a database of academic books published between 1991 and 2000. He got 13,820 hits for "women", 4,539 for "gender," 1,826 for "race", 710 for "post-colonial" and a piddling 136 for "working class".

It shouldn't be too great a surprise that the humble do not care about education and that they regard intellectual life as alien, when the educated care so little for them.