Cumberbatch; Redmayne. Photo: VALERIE MACON/AFP; Ethan Miller/Getty
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Leader: What Cumberbatch vs Redmayne tells us about Britain

Political parties love to discuss social mobility. But with a society ever more skewed in favour of the rich, has cultural life become the preserve of the posh?

There are few causes to which Britain’s political parties give greater rhetorical fealty than social mobility. Left and right alike declare that birth should not determine destiny. Or, as Michael Gove, the then education secretary, put it in an excellent speech in 2012: “More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress. In England, more than in any comparable country, those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege. For those of us who believe in social justice this stratification and segregation are morally indefensible.” Yet each week brings new reminders of the enduring power of the class system and inherited privilege.

The contest for this year’s Oscar for Best Actor, for instance, has been characterised by an ancient public-school rivalry. The award pits the “Old Etonian Eddie Redmayne” against the “Old Harrovian Benedict Cumberbatch” – and how the press has delighted in this, as if either man had any say in the school to which he was sent. However, this is England, and the privately educated are as pre-eminent in public life as they ever were, not least in the performing arts, as the comedian Robert Webb reminds us in his column this week.

In what we are frequently told is an age of opportunity, it is dismaying that the alumni of a few elite fee-paying schools retain such dominance over British life. The Debrett’s 500 list of the most influential people in the country, published in the Sunday Times of 25 January, found that over 40 per cent of those on the list had attended a fee-paying school; in addition, as many as a fifth of the chosen 500 attended academically selective grammar schools.

Should we be surprised? After all, 70 per cent of high court judges were privately educated, along with 54 per cent of chief executive officers of FTSE-100 companies and 32 per cent of MPs. Journalism, it should be noted, is no better: 54 per cent of leading journalists also attended private fee-paying schools.

The US senator Bernie Sanders recently offered an uncomfortable picture of how the rest of the world regards British society. “We look at the United Kingdom and their queens, their dukes and whatever else they have, and say, ‘Well, that is a class society.’” He had a point. Intergenerational earnings elasticity – a measure of how parents’ earnings correlate to those of their children – is higher in Britain than anywhere else in the OECD.

As chastening as they are, the headline statistics about what we have called “the 7 per cent problem” – the dominance of privately educated people in public life and the correlation between poverty and educational failure – arguably understate the extent to which opportunity tracks privilege. Parents who move house, at huge expense, to live within the catchment area of the best state schools are also using their wealth to maximise opportunity for their children.

The great fear, as expressed in Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book Capital, is that society is becoming even more rigged in favour of the rich. Under our unreformed taxation system, income and consumption (VAT is a regressive tax) are overtaxed while wealth and static assets such as land are lamentably undertaxed. Thus, the wealthiest in society have largely been insulated from the effects of the crash.

Indeed, some policies have tightened the grip of the richest. The Bank of England has pursued quantitative easing since 2008, purchasing financial assets, such as government bonds, to reduce borrowing costs and stimulate growth. But the effect is to benefit those who have assets at the expense of those who do not. Bank of England research has shown that the policy is “heavily skewed with the top 5 per cent of households holding 40 per cent of these assets”.

However much politicians like to state their belief in and commitment to equality of opportunity, the truth is that Britain’s social mobility remains as it has been for the past century: shamefully low. That is the result of the very structure of a society and an economy that seems designed to concentrate opportunity on the most privileged. 


This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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