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?

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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