A Gilded Political Elite, Hypocrisy and the Death of Social Mobility

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Byline: by Dominic Sandbrook

SO HERE we go again. Making Britain fairer and improving social mobility, declared Nick Clegg before his bid to stamp out unpaid internships blew up in his face, is the Government's 'overriding mission'.

Life, he said, should be about 'what you know, not who you know'. You wonder, though, whether he thinks that principle should apply to politicians, as well as to the rest of us.

Within hours the Deputy Prime Minister was fighting off accusations of hypocrisy, with critics pointing out that he got his first internship after intervention from his father, the head of the United Trust Bank.

Even his first job only came after Lord Carrington, a family friend, put in a good word with the European Commissioner Leon Brittan.

There is no doubt that the death of social mobility in modern Britain, one of the most unequal societies in Europe, is a matter of extreme urgency.

But with their loose talk of imposing quotas for state school pupils on universities, and their ham-fisted efforts to crack down on internships, our political masters are in danger of turning a desperately serious issue into a farce.

Troubling Behind the fuss of the past few days, however, lies a deeper and more troubling reality. For Mr Clegg is far from unusual: inside Westminster's gilded Oxbridge elite, his CV looks positively normal.

Indeed, if Mr Clegg wants to see the principle of 'who you know' in operation, he should take a look at the self-satisfied faces around the Cabinet table.

He might ask the Chancellor, George Osborne, how he landed his job at Conservative Central Office after leaving Oxford -- the answer being that his pal George Bridges, a political journalist, put in a good word for him.

Then there is the Prime Minister, who once claimed that he got ahead through 'sharp elbows', but who actually owes his rise almost entirely to birth, breeding and contacts.

Even before going up to Oxford, David Cameron had worked as a researcher for a Tory MP -- who just happened to be his godfather. He got his job in PR at Carlton Television through his mother-in-law, Lady Astor, who asked the TV mogul Michael Grade to give him a break. Most famously, he got his job at the Conservative Research Department only after an anonymous phone call from Buckingham Palace. 'I am ringing to tell you,' the mysterious caller said, 'that you are about to meet a truly remarkable young man.' Look across the House of Commons, though, and the story is no better. Absurd though it now seems, there was once a time when the Labour Party called itself the People's Party, its benches crammed with former miners and manual workers.

These days its leader, Ed Miliband, is the son of a Marxist academic, bred in the highminded intellectual salons of North London and educated, naturally, at Oxford. His first experience of work was as an intern for Tony Benn, who, yet again, just happened to be a family friend.

As for Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, it is the same old story. Her uncle, the Earl of Longford, was a Labour minister under Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. And Harman herself, the self-proclaimed champion of equality, actually went to St Paul's Girls' School, one of the most exclusive establishments in the country.

For those of us who wish that our political classes actually represented the people, this is a sorry tale indeed. But it merely reflects a wider picture.

Between 1964 and 1997, not only had every British Prime Minister been educated at a grammar school, but many came from distinctly humble working-class backgrounds.

Yet out of 119 Coalition ministers today, 66 per cent went to public schools, compared with only 7 per cent of the general public.

And only last year, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that one revealing indicator of social mobility -- the difference between parents' and children's incomes -- is worse in Britain than almost anywhere else in Europe. …