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31 January 2011

Andrew Neil is right

It’s time to break open the political class.

By Benjamin Fox

Andrew Neil’s recent television programme Posh and Posher – Why Public School Boys Run Britain was long overdue. Neil’s views are a long way from mine, but his points about meritocracy – and the lack of it in British public life – are entirely valid. Unfortunately, it does matter where you come from, where you went to school, whether you come from money or a political family. Economically and politically, Britain is unequal and the problem is getting worse.

It is crazy to have a situation where 66 per cent of the cabinet were privately educated when only 7 per cent of children go to fee-paying schools. How can the likes of David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne or Chris Huhne possibly empathise and understand the problems faced by most people in Britain when the cost of a year’s education at their schools – Eton and Westminster – is higher than the annual wage of a nurse or a newly qualified teacher?

But it’s not as if we are talking about a new problem. Britain has suffered from the effects of class stratification for centuries. An expensive education is not just about the education, but about the social networks that enable the rich and powerful to stay that way. Those who start off rich stay rich, and pass on their privileges to their children. Social mobility is weakened and the gap between rich and poor and between the weak and the powerful gets wider. Tony Crosland said that 50 years ago.

The answer doesn’t lie in more grammar schools or the iniquitous “assisted places” scheme, which Labour rightly abolished. These merely give high-achieving children the chance to get on at the expense of others. The answer lies in a combination of comprehensive schooling, with well-paid and able teachers working in good buildings and handling manageable class sizes, abolishing the charitable status of private schools, and intelligent affirmative action by university admissions tutors.

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Unlike Andrew Neil, I wasn’t brought up on a council estate. My parents were the first from their respective families to go to university – both went to grammar schools. But times were different then. Selection at 11 had hugely damaging effects on many families and ruined the lives of many young people, while only 10-15 per cent of students, virtually all from the grammars and private schools, went to university.

I went to the local comprehensive, where about 50 per cent of the children got five good GCSEs and a handful of classmates went to university. There were books and newspapers around me at home, as well as political debate, and I knew I wasn’t wealthy but was certain I would go to university. Yet I’ve never felt so out of place as at my Oxford interview (for PPE!).

Surrounded by fellow candidates who expected to win places, and who had expensive clothes and confidence to burn, the difference between the state and private sector was spelled out in giant letters. As Neil rightly pointed out, the vast majority of state schools simply are not able to equip their students to challenge their fee-paying contemporaries.

The truth is that there are many tiers to education in Britain: the privately schooled, the comprehensive educated middle classes and those who come from council estates or from households where there is poverty of aspiration. The first two categories tend to be well-off and stay well-off; the last, with a few exceptions, start poor and stay poor. Politically, a similar pattern emerges.

This surely is part of the reason why Britain has had only three prime ministers who weren’t Oxbridge graduates. These include Gordon Brown, a student prodigy who had a PhD from Edinburgh by the time he was 21. The others are John Major, who didn’t go to university at all, and Jim Callaghan, who studied as a mature student at Oxford with union funding. Most of our PMs took the classic aspiring politician’s degree – philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford.

While you expect the Tory ranks to be dominated by Old Etonians, as they have been for centuries, the rise of the professional politician on the Labour benches is a quite recent phenomenon. Although the Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan governments tended to have Oxford dons like Crossman, Healey, Crosland and Dalton alongside the union men like Bevin, Bevan, Shinwell, Callaghan and Herbert Morrison, this seems to have changed.

Under Blair and Brown, only John Prescott and Alan Johnson were union men-turned-cabinet ministers. If Labour wants to reconnect with its union roots, then it should encourage more union activists and organisers to become parliamentarians.

Modern Britain also has a problem with the rise of the political professional. Peter Oborne recently wrote a book exactly on this subject, The Rise of the Political Class. This class consists of people like me, who have spent most of their working life working in politics, whether as researchers, or political advisers, or lobbyists, and who often go on to become politicians. Many Labour politicos, like me, are trade union branch officers or school governors, but can the same be said for other parties? In any case, is that enough?

Either way, we have a parliament that, 90 years after the granting of universal suffrage, is desperately unrepresentative and a government that could have been plucked straight from the 19th century. But I think this can change. After 15 years of stagnation, British politics is exciting and divisive again. There is more reason than ever to man the barricades.

I think that today’s teenagers will be radicalised by the government’s attacks on higher education and by rising youth unemployment. This, coupled with education reforms that reward merit and talent rather than a parent’s credit card, should deliver a generation of radical parliamentarians and ministers. Let’s hope so.

Benjamin Fox is political adviser to the Socialist and Democrat group in the European Parliament