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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era