Posh and Posher

Andrew Neil always was a class warrior.

It can't be a surprise to anyone that Andrew Neil is feeling cross about all the posh boys who now adorn both the cabinet and, to a lesser degree, the shadow front bench. When he was the editor of the Sunday Times - where he happened to be my first boss - his raison d'être was to be as anti-establishment as possible.

Not for nothing did Neil serialise Andrew Morton's book about Diana: the gossip interested him far less than the idea of the book as a bomb beneath the smug backside of HRH the Prince of Wales. When I arrived in 1991, the paper still felt very Thatcherite, and although I disagreed with his politics and disliked his chippiness and journalistic vulgarity, I admired his passionate belief in meritocracy. Neil isn't, as any reader of Private Eye will know, blind to fame. But when it came to social class, he was as inclined to listen to a girl with a Yorkshire accent as to some floppy-haired bloke who spoke perfect RP.

Still, I'm mildly surprised that the BBC allowed him to make such a polemical film. Posh and Posher - Why Public School Boys Run Britain (26 January, 9pm) wasn't an even-handed examination of a social phenomenon; it was a quiet call to arms. Isn't he supposed to maintain an air of impartiality for the purposes of the politics shows he presents? Not that I'm complaining. His documentary was flawed, but also highly entertaining, as anything featuring Neil usually is. I could look at his hair all day. In particular, I loved the scene in which he tried to illustrate how far the boy who grew up in a Paisley council house had come. "I have a housekeeper," he said. "And a driver." Cue a shot of both employees chatting in the kitchen of his flat in Kensington.

We saw Neil jogging in his home gym and then we saw him putting on a jacket and carefully adjusting his tie in his interior-designed bedroom. It was like the beginning of Saturday Night Fever, minus the disco beat. Finally, we saw him walk past a dining table so incredibly long, it could easily stand service in the hall of Magdalen College, Oxford. (I'm picking on Magdalen because, according to Neil, there are more Magdalen men - five, to be precise - around the present cabinet table than there are female ministers from any background.)

So where did he score and where did he fail?

I couldn't disagree with much of what he said at the start - though he didn't always back up his claims with evidence. State school students are not being equipped to challenge their public school contemporaries; the meritocracy that began to arrive at about the same time as Harold Wilson, which those such as Neil and my parents - all grammar-school-educated - felt would be permanent, did not turn out to be so; and the statistics are appalling - 66 per cent of the coalition is privately educated, compared to 7 per cent of the general population. I also enjoyed his encounter with the new Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who I thought came across as a twit. ("What class are you?" asked Neil. "I'm a man of Somerset," said Rees-Mogg.) But then he lost me.

Turning his attention first to Oxford and then to the shadow front bench, Neil made a snide comment about how Andy Burnham, the shadow education secretary, had broken the mould by choosing to read English at Cambridge instead of PPE at Oxford. But Burnham's father was a telephone engineer and he went to a comprehensive school. He's exactly the kind of person Neil claims is being shut out of Oxbridge (and thus, parliament).

I felt that most of the Oxbridge stuff had the whiff of envy about it. One of his "Magdalen men", for instance, was William Hague, another comprehensive school boy. And did Neil have any cures for the myriad unfairnesses he had exposed? No. Though he mentioned his own dislike of selection at 11, the suspicion grew that this was just another plea for grammar schools (the film's last thought was left to the writer Tony Parsons, who argued for their return). As for the conviction of many of Neil's interviewees that the rich and posh cannot possibly represent the poor and the working class, I think that we should be wary. Isn't life about empathy? Once you decide that one man can never understand another, you've more or less kissed hope goodbye.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.