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11 November 2013

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.

By George Eaton

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”. 

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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.