Joyce McMillan: Worship of wealth ruins leadership

Both major parties chose an ideology where the rich again became regarded as the natural leaders, writes Joyce McMillan

Former Prime Minister Sir John Major and current Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: Getty

How the Prime Minister must wish it had never been taken, that 1987 photograph of members of the Bullingdon Club – including David Cameron and Boris Johnson – posing in their best Edwardian-style formal dress on a flight of steps at Brasenose College, Oxford. At best, they look like a gang of empty-headed toffs, of the kind that were supposed to have vanished into history, after the Second World War; at worst, like the young shock-troops of a vicious counter-revolution, future bankers, mayors and prime ministers defined not by their ability and ambition, but by their parents’ wealth.

Now, though, Westminster’s long period of denial over the return of inherited power and privilege in Britain seems to be coming to an end, as economic inequality continues to widen and politicians begin to register just how unrepresentative the present government is, in economic and social terms. Earlier this week in Norwich, the former Tory prime minister Sir John Major described the current dominance of Britain’s top professions by a tiny, privately-educated elite as “truly shocking”, to someone from his humble background; and other Conservative politicians murmured agreement, with even the Prime Minister agreeing that social mobility should be improved.

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That the figures are shocking is hardly disputed, certainly not by those who once cherished the fond belief that the trend towards greater social equality in Britain had become irreversible. Today, more than half of Conservative MPs, more than two-thirds of senior judges and more than half of the present Cabinet, are drawn from the 7 per cent minority of the population who went to private schools. Nor is there any point in arguing that privately-educated people are simply more able; on the contrary, all the evidence suggests that able young people often do spectacularly well in comprehensive schools, in terms of exam results. What students gain from a private education, though, is the famous “three Cs” of culture, contacts and confidence. They learn to believe that they are born to lead and go on to do so; and it goes without saying that, in excluding 93 per cent of the population from so many opportunities, they conspire in a massive waste of talent and potential, and in the over-promotion of far too many well-connected mediocrities.

If the problem of stalled social mobility is becoming more widely recognised, though, there is absolutely no agreement on what should be done to reverse the trend. On the Conservative side, the main policy suggestion seems to be to reintroduce state grammar schools or various forms of elite academies, and to lecture people in a strikingly condescending manner about the poverty of their aspirations. The former New Labour minister Alan Milburn, appointed by the coalition to investigate social mobility issues, is perhaps slightly nearer the mark when he talks about the impact on social mobility and opportunity of an age of decline in the real earnings of most British workers, relative to living costs.

What is absent from the debate, though – thanks to a culture of complete denial on the Conservative side, and decades of fuzzy and evasive thinking by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP – is a simple acknowedgment that the kind of market-driven ideology which has dominated western politics for the last 30 years almost inevitably leads to greater social inequality, unless it is matched by an equally powerful commitment to use the instruments of the state to redistribute wealth and opportunity.

If Britain achieved a higher level of social mobility in the years between 1945 and 1980, it was because a strong state, largely supported by all three major political parties, was deliberately acting to raise ordinary families out of poverty, and to provide them with the secure employment, the good, affordable housing and the free education and health care, that both gives people the basic tools to improve their lot in life and endows them with the confidence that they live in a society which genuinely wants to see people valued for their abilities, rather than for their backgrounds.

And if those progressive changes have gradually gone into reverse since the 1980s, it is because both the Conservative and Labour parties chose to adopt or condone an ideology in which cash – the bottom line – is regarded as the only true measure of value; where the redistribution of wealth is dismissed as interference in the market; and where the rich, in a strange reversion to pre-democratic values, therefore come once again to be regarded as society’s natural leaders, no matter how they acquired their wealth, or whether they did anything at all to earn it.

And so it is that after a whole generation – between 1964 and 1997 – when Britain was governed by prime ministers of humble origin, from Harold Wilson to John Major, we now seem to have returned to a world in which only an education at Fettes, Westminster or Eton is seen as a suitable preparation for power. The worship of wealth is always an ugly thing; and the struggle against it, and for a more generous and complex vision of human worth, has inspired many of this island’s finest writers, from Robert Burns to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.

In the end, though, moral protests against the cult of wealth are not enough, and neither are vague statements about the need for high aspiration and equality of opportunity. What we need – and what our grandparents set about building, 60 years ago – are politically-driven systems and institutions which express that belief in equal opportunity through real transfers of resources, and through every detail of their activity, bricks and mortar, education and healthcare, heart and soul. With that, anything is possible; and we are still enriched every day by the huge efforts in that direction made during the post-war period.

And without it – well what are we, exactly? Either a bunch of morally bankrupt fools posing in Edwardian costume to celebrate our status as winners in a blatantly unjust world; or the poor college servants somewhere beneath their feet, obliged to accept whatever pittance they throw our way, and to show a lifetime of deference to those who have not earned it, but have simply come, like the doomed aristocrats of old, to expect and demand it, as their birthright.