British ruling class: the perpetuation of privilege

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British ruling class: the perpetuation of privilege

A report issued by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in August caused ripples by confirming that Britain continues to be run by a privileged few, the majority of whom attended private schools, went to the same elite universities and control every aspect of the country’s political, economic and cultural life. It debunked completely the capitalist lie, peddled by all the main political parties, of ‘social mobility’ – that anyone can make it if they try. The post-war boom, which briefly allowed the myth of a meritocracy to flourish, is long over, and the entrenched self-interest of a privileged minority is once again laid bare.

The playing fields of Eton

The report points out that while only 7% of children in the UK are privately educated, they go on to be disproportionately represented in ‘top jobs’. Private education remains strictly the preserve of the wealthy, with fees ranging from £3,400 a term for an average independent day school to around £10,000 a term for one of the more elite ‘public’ boarding schools such as Eton. Money well spent, clearly, as the report found that:

  • 71% of senior judges
  • 62% of senior armed forces officers
  • 53% of senior diplomats
  • 44% of the Sunday Times Rich List
  • 43% of newspaper columnists
  • 36% of the Cabinet, 22% of the Shadow Cabinet and 33% of MPs
  • and 26% of BBC executives were privately educated.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, is of course an Old Etonian, as is the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and four members of the Cabinet. LibDem leader Nick Clegg attended Westminster School (£11,262 per term) and the Chancellor, George Osborne, went to St Paul’s (£10,880 per term). UKIP’s self-styled ‘ordinary bloke’ Nigel Farage went to the £11,553-a-term Dulwich College. Old Etonians amongst media political editors include the BBC’s James Landale, Tom Newton Dunn (The Sun), Patrick Hennessy (The Telegraph) and Roland Watson (The Times).

The dreaming spires of Oxbridge

The point of this elite education is not just to furnish the Old Boys’ networks that will prove so crucial in later life, but to ensure access to one of Britain’s top Russell Group universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge. Only 38% of the population go to university at all, and a mere 1% make it to Oxbridge – with just three private schools and two elite sixth-form colleges supplying as many entrants as 1,800 state schools across the UK. Yet amongst Oxbridge’s alumni are:

  • 75% of senior judges
  • 59% of the Cabinet, 33% of the Shadow Cabinet and 24% of MPs
  • 50% of diplomats
  • 47% of newspaper columnists and 33% of BBC executives

David Cameron and George Osborne were at Oxford, as were Labour leader Ed Miliband and his Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls; Nick Clegg went to Cambridge. 54% of all MPs attended a Russell Group university.

Add to all this the fact that entry into many lucrative professions requires lengthy unpaid internships, and that 60% of jobs are recruited through existing networks, and it’s clear that the only real guarantee of a high income and privileged status is coming from a rich family in the first place. Small wonder that the relationship between parental and children’s future income is stronger here than in any other developed country except for Brazil and the United States. Money begets money, privilege begets privilege.

The meritocratic myth

The role of the ruling class is to defend its own interests by defending capitalism and imperialism. To that end it has always, historically, ensured that it controls every aspect of state power, whether political, financial or economic. The law courts and the media in Britain have only ever been organs of the ruling class. However, after the Second World War, mindful of the revolutionary example of the Soviet Union, the ruling class was under pressure to make concessions to the working class. And so, during what became the post-war boom, and alongside other major changes such as the extension of state welfare, the doors of power were briefly opened, just a chink, to better-off sections of the working class. The establishment of grammar schools and the proliferation of universities during the 1950s and 1960s opened up limited possibilities for young working class people to gain access to jobs in the legal system, media and politics. Harold Wilson was the first state-school educated prime minister ever elected in Britain – a trend that would continue for the next 30 or so years, up to the election of Tony Blair. Those admitted to the corridors of power were, almost exclusively, part of a newly-enriched section of the working class, a petit-bourgeoisie who would do nothing to rock the capitalist boat.

Mind the gap

But in the 1970s, with the onset of a crisis of capitalism, the door soon slammed shut. The ruling class can no longer afford to provide a good education for working class children, and is under no real political pressure to do so. Instead, the gap between rich and poor, between access to decent jobs and a life of deprivation, is widening sharply.

In September 2014, the Office of National Statistics published research confirming that educational attainment had the largest impact on future material deprivation. But ‘educational attainment’ is simply an expression of economic reality. On a broad measure, children from poorer backgrounds start school already 11 months behind their wealthier peers. By the time it comes to university, out of an annual intake of around 6,500 students across the two universities, just 40 children on free school meals – a measure of poverty – are accepted by Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Like everything else, educational attainment, future success and material comfort are predicated on starting off wealthy in the first place.

In 2013, Tony Blair’s former speech writer Philip Collins, himself from a housing estate in Manchester, told the political parties bluntly to ditch the ‘comfortable illusion’ of social mobility, arguing: ‘The dull child of the middle class parent has to come down from the rung in order for me to go up … no British politician is going to go on the hustings and say “What I want is for your child to go down the social ladder”.’ He is quite right. With so much to defend, why would the ruling class give any of it up when there is no sustained pressure on them to do so? What is needed is not social mobility, but social revolution.

Cat Wiener

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 241 October/November 2014