Leader: Boris Johnson’s privilege and irresponsibility

The Conservative front-runner’s ascent reflects the unseriousness of our politics and the enduring dominance of British public life by those educated at elite private schools. 

NS

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On 23 July, in the absence of a surprise upset, the Conservative Party will elect the 20th Old Etonian prime minister. Boris Johnson – arrogant, entitled, blustering – is straight out of central casting. With privilege should come responsibility, but in Mr Johnson it has merely bred irresponsibility and insouciant self-regard.

Listening to the former London mayor being interviewed this week, the novelist Robert Harris was moved to recall one of George Orwell’s last diary entries, on “upper-class English voices”. He wrote of: “A sort of over-fedness, a fatuous self-confidence, a constant bah-bahing of laughter about nothing… people who, one instinctively feels, without even being able to see them, are the enemies of anything intelligent or sensitive or beautiful. No wonder everyone hates us so.” Orwell could have been describing Mr Johnson, who as foreign secretary brought dishonour on the country.

The Conservative front-runner’s ascent reflects the unseriousness of our politics and the enduring dominance of British public life by those educated at elite private schools. At one time, such a system was thought to have been supplanted by a genuine meritocracy. “The thing about Margaret [Thatcher’s] cabinet,” former Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan sardonically observed, “is that it includes more old Estonians than it does Old Etonians.” (The novelist Martin Amis similarly wrote of Mrs Thatcher subverting the traditional class system “with her Cecils, with her Normans, with her Keiths”.)

But should the Old Etonian Mr Johnson yet falter, his replacement will be Jeremy Hunt, a former head boy of Charterhouse. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, attended a private prep school and two of his most senior aides, Seumas Milne and James Schneider, are Old Wykehamists.

This week, the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission published a new report, Elitist Britain 2019, which examined the backgrounds of 5,000 individuals in prominent positions across British society. They found that two-fifths (39 per cent) of the elite group were privately educated, more than five times as many as the total population (7 per cent). This number included 65 per cent of senior judges, 59 per cent of civil service permanent secretaries and 39 per cent of cabinet ministers. Of the 37 categories surveyed in the report, only among footballers were the privately educated under-represented.

There is no simple solution for Britain’s stratified society, but this is no excuse for inaction. The Sutton Trust’s report makes important, evidence-based recommendations, including the abolition of unpaid internships of significant length, and greater use by universities and employers of contextual data, which reflects academic potential rather than merely attainment. Contextual data – used at many elite American universities – permits lower university admissions offers to less advantaged state school pupils (who once at university, studies have shown, outperform their peers from private schools).

Others, including the former education secretary Michael Gove and the present Labour leadership, have argued for the imposition of VAT on private school fees. The risk, however, is that the most prestigious schools become even more exclusive.

In their recent book, Engines of Privilege, Francis Green and David Kynaston propose a Fair Access Scheme under which private schools accept a proportion of state-funded pupils – initially a third but rising over time – according to government criteria. If private schools are to endure, they must honour their founding missions and charitable obligations in letter as well as spirit. In common with too many British institutions, they too often delight in serving a global plutocracy, rather than upholding their wider social responsibilities.

The prospect of a Johnson premiership, three years after the last Old Etonian prime minister departed, is a symptom of an unequal and unserious society. If the UK is to regain its moral standing and serve the common good, far-reaching reform is required.

This article appears in the 28 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order