Privilege is a very complicated thing, as privately educated white men know only too well. No one gets to choose who their parents are, not even people whose parents happen to be extremely rich. Hence it would be terribly unfair to judge a child on the basis of which school they attended. We should all aspire to be class-blind, even those whose inferior education has made them less likely to hold opinions that matter anyhow.
Thus it is with horror that many have received Cabinet Office minister Matt Hancock’s suggestion that companies should ask job applicants whether or not they went to a private school in order to “develop a national measure for social mobility”.
Quite how such a measure will counteract the UK’s horrifying gap between rich and poor is unclear, but it is enough to strike fear into the heart of every defender of those great British values: meritocracy and fair play.
According to the Telegraph’s Charles Moore, Hancock “is trying to impose . . . systematic bias in employment”:
“Instead of employers working out who is the best candidate for the job, he is trying to conscript them into his babyish attempt at class war.”
Meanwhile, Lord Waldegrave, a former Conservative minister, now Provost of Eton, has threatened to resign from the party over the proposal, describing it as, “quite wrong to punish children for decisions taken by their parents, and to run the risk of choosing crucial public service jobs not on the basis of merit but of social engineering”.
There is something quite mesmerisingly awful about hearing the Provost of Eton complain about “social engineering”. Whatever else is being taught there, one imagines, it is not self-awareness (then again, what use would the average Etonian have for that?).
It’s fascinating to see someone come so, so close to understanding that no child deserves to experience disadvantage, then falling at the last hurdle. Some things are “quite wrong”; others just are, one assumes, the way things go. It matters that rich children don’t choose to be rich, since it’s one of the few choices they don’t have. That poor children don’t choose to be poor is of little interest, since it is merely part of a broader culture of non-choice.
As a feminist, I’m very much aware that when it comes to matters of sex, class and equality, I’m on the wrong side of history, backing the losers. Team Woman has been losing for millennia because the game is rigged.
To say so, however, is to risk being accused of playing the victim, demanding that normality – just the way things are – is “re-engineered” to suit your needs. A far more face-saving strategy is to embrace the language of individualism, doing battle not with material disadvantage, but with such nebulous foes as “lack of empowerment” and “low self-esteem”.
The trouble with this is we then start to feel as though we have created our own void, one which swallows up opportunities before they have the chance to be grasped. Yet women’s labour and resources are not disappearing into nothingness. The problem is not that they do not exist but that they have been appropriated. The value of women – or indeed of any other subordinate class – is not waiting to be unlocked. It is the work and ideas of those who are deemed not to have “reached their full potential” that keep the world turning.
Last month, Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford University, suggested that the introduction of quotas for students poorly represented in higher education would lead to institutions having to “lower their standards in order to make up for some inadequacies in our secondary education system”.
It’s an argument that’s been rumbling on for years. I remember hearing similar opinions when I was accepted at Oxford over 20 years ago. As a state school pupil from the north, I took them quite personally (as a middle-class, grammar-educated state school pupil from the north there may have been more than a little Common People-style self-indulgence in my having done so).
The implication, never fully voiced, is that it’s all very sad, but it’s simply too late to bring the masses up to scratch. Universities may engage in their own ever-so-slightly patronising, My Fair Lady-style outreach programmes, but to be required to take students as they find them? That would be a step too far.
Eton can have its 20 per cent of pupils on bursaries, Oxford can have its 59 per cent of state school pupils, many of whom will be every bit as “underprivileged” as me. And we can carry on kidding ourselves that the same 7 per cent of the population just so happen to offer, rather than take, so much more than the rest of us.
If Hancock truly believed in social justice, he would not be a Conservative MP. He describes his goal as simple: “To make sure everyone has the opportunity to succeed and make the most of their talents, whatever the circumstances of their birth.” Which is not the same as everyone having access to the resources they need, or having their talents recognised and adequately rewarded, whatever the cultural prejudices surrounding said “circumstances”.
Hancock is no class warrior, babyish or otherwise. The social mobility of the few both requires and ensures that the majority know their place. What’s amazing is that for some, even such a security measure – one that ultimately works in their favour, consolidating privilege – is too much to contemplate.
It’s always staggering to witness how passionately those who work hardest to prop up unjust institutions believe in their own sense of British fair play. Then again, fair play is not the same as justice or the absence of exploitation. It’s the maintenance of a performance whereby dominant and subordinate groups may be recast as winners and losers. Fair play means cheering on the winners without ever questioning how it is that they came to win. After all, that would be, to use Charles Moore’s term, “babyish”.