Major doesn't name the real culprits behind the fall in social mobility

The distribution of power that the former PM laments was created by the surge in inequality under the Conservatives in the 1980s.

For the second time in the last month, John Major is attracting praise from unlikely quarters. After his recent call for a windfall tax on the energy companies, today's Telegraph reports that the former PM told a Conservative association dinner in South Norfolk: "In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking."

For a government as dominated by the privately educated as this one, the comprehensive schoolboy's comments make for uncomfortable reading. But before greeting Major as an egalitarian ally, it's worth studying his comments more closely. 

Major went on to blame the "collapse in social mobility" on Labour, which, he said, "left a Victorian divide between stagnation and aspiration". Yet it was under the Thatcher government of the 1980s, not Labour, that those now occupying the "upper echelons of power" were educated. The current distribution of power, with the privately educated accounting for more than half of all cabinet ministers, 35% of MPs, 45% of senior civil servants, 15 of the 17 Supreme Court judges and heads of division, 43% of barristers and 54% of leading journalists was shaped by decisions taken by Conservative administrations. 

The decline in social mobility owes much to the surge in inequality that took place after 1979 (the gini coefficient rose from 12.9 in 1978 to 22.2 in 1990), which Labour failed to reverse. As The Spirit Level showed, it is the most unequal countries, such as the UK and the US, that have the lowest levels of social mobility, while the most equal, such as Sweden, Canada and Japan, have the highest levels. This is hardly surprising: greater inequalities of outcome make it easier for rich parents to pass on their advantages to their children. As Will Hutton's report on public-sector pay for the coalition noted: "There is now good evidence that income inequality can become entrenched across generations, as elites monopolise top jobs regardless of their talent, gaining preferential access to capital and opportunities. This harms social mobility."

Nor can the last Labour government be blamed for David Cameron's predilection for handing senior posts to those who were also privately educated. As Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston commented following the appointment of Old Etonians Jesse Norman and Jo Johnson to the No. 10 policy board, "I’m not asked for policy advice, but just in case . . . there are other schools and some of them even admit women." David Davis put it more bluntly: "No more Etonian advisers". 

While alive to the symptoms of inequality, Major is unwilling to name the culprits. But even for the dissentful former PM, that would have been a heresy too far. 

John Major arrives to give evidence at the Leveson inquiry in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.