Britain has seen a “disturbing” decline in social mobility over the past three decades, Foreign Secretary William Hague has said.
He was speaking after Sir John Major, the ex-prime minister, warned of the “shocking” dominance of privately educated and affluent individuals in powerful positions.
Prime Minister David Cameron suggested this week that social mobility is being held back because people from outside the white middle-class can lack the “aspiration” to make it into top jobs.
And a leading think-tank yesterday suggested it is becoming “impossible” for working class Scots to achieve an elite lifestyle.
Mr Hague, who attended a state school in Wath-upon-Dearne, put the blame on shortcomings in the education system, which he said were being tackled by Education Secretary Michael Gove.
Mr Hague said: “I did go to a comprehensive school and I’ve become the foreign secretary, so not everything goes to privately educated people.
“The disturbing thing, I would say, is that in the 30-odd years since I was at a comprehensive school, it probably, in those intervening decades, will have become a bit harder for somebody from a comprehensive school to become the foreign secretary, or whatever position they aspire to.
“That reflects on a long period of this country falling too far behind in the world in state education, and thankfully we now have the best education secretary in living memory – or longer – who is trying to put that right.”
Mr Hague played down the suggestion that his state-school background left him feeling “socially inferior” to Eton-educated Mr Cameron.
“I can tell you, having grown up in South Yorkshire, in Rotherham, and been to a comprehensive school, I’ve never felt socially inferior to anybody. And I have met most of the kings, presidents, queens and princes of the world,” he said.
The issue has come into the spotlight in the past week after Sir John criticised the “truly shocking” dominance of the affluent and privately educated in public life.
It prompted Mr Cameron, himself Eton and Oxford- educated to concede that there was insufficient social mobility in British society. The Prime Minister said it was the job of the government to raise the aspirations of people from poor backgrounds to get top jobs in public life.
Robin McAlpine, of left-wing think-tank the Jimmy Reid Foundation, said yesterday that society is now more unequal and the domination of those at the top has increased.
The demise of organisations such as trade unions, which were once pivotal in helping “working class people get a shot”, has been central to this decline, he added.
“If you want social mobility, we have to flatten society – if you’re coming from a working-class background, it’s got to be a gentle walk up a slope, not a massive hike up a sheer cliff.
“That’s the problem we’ve got. If you come from a working-class background in Scotland, the distance you have to travel if you wanted to have a prosperous life is so great that it’s almost impossible.”
But Scotland is far less dominated by privately educated individuals and the Oxbridge elite, according to Mr McAlpine.
“We’re in a better position to do something,” he added. But this hinges on taking the process of government out of the hands of “a tiny elite and spreading it across society”.