A working class candidate can never compete with an Etonian’s “polish”. Photo: Graeme Robertson/Getty
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While “poshness tests” are still in use for top jobs, social mobility will stay a national running joke

Until top recruiters stop thinking that a candidate’s “poshness” is an indicator of their ability, social mobility in Britain will never be more than a myth.

I am increasingly convinced the concept of social mobility is some sort of national running joke. Granted, only the richest are laughing but then, that is probably the point. 

Elite firms in this country are “systematically excluding bright working-class applicants”, research by the social mobility and child poverty commission (SMCP) has found. Class prejudice about accents and mannerisms are being used by the UK’s top law, accountancy and financial companies to “filter out” working-class candidates.

“Filter out”, like rinsing dirt through a disinfected sieve.

Indeed, as one recruiter put it when describing applicants from working class backgrounds – “how much mud do I have to sift through in that population to find that diamond?”

Certain people really are just better than others and the test is as simple as listening to how rough they talk.

“I recruited somebody… she’s short of polish,” an unnamed interviewer explained to the researchers. “We need to talk about the way that she articulates, the way that she, first, chooses words and, second, the way she pronounces them.”

There is an irony in the self-defined boards of intelligence recruiting its workforce based on whether they put an “r” in bathroom. I would explain to such firms that they are more likely to find the best candidates by looking at a person’s ability rather than class background but to them, the two are tied together. As the masses lament the failure of meritocracy, the elite believe they are already in one. It is the version of equal opportunity where some children have savvy parents, private schooling, and cello lessons while others go through school not even being able to afford lunch and when the former gets the sought after job, it is said to be because they deserve it.  This is not as bad as it gets. What research like the SMCP’s shows is that worse than the game being rigged, most of us – blindly competing for the 45,000 leading jobs these firms hold – don’t even know the rules.

True inequality is not only that a child’s qualifications are largely determined by their parent’s wealth but that, for the wealthy, qualifications determine little. Who needs to be “bright”? The right accent, the right name, the right connections are skills in themselves. They are not the skills the working class are told to cultivate and, if they were, they would be imposters trying on stranger’s clothes.

What counts is not taught. That is exactly how the elite can keep everyone else out.

While the social mobility myth tells the working class to work hard, pass exams, to get their degree, the class system means elite positions are as likely to be handed out on the vagueness of cultural codes.

“When I went home… I could go back to, if you like, my old slight twang,” one successful working class applicant explained to the researchers. “When I’m in this environment I pretend I’m posher than I am.”  

It is 2015 and this is how Britain still works. Social mobility? All it takes is the “wrong” accent to put the working class back in their place.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism