Magazine article The Spectator

Class Dismissed

Magazine article The Spectator

Class Dismissed

Article excerpt

IN December 1975, the then West German chancellor, Herr Schmidt, remarked of Britain, `As long as you maintain that damned class-ridden society of yours you will never get out of your mess.' For many years now, politicians, journalists and academics have blamed on the class system just about every form of economic adversity or social malaise in Britain. Even the last Conservative prime minister subscribed to this prejudice; when John Major accepted the leadership of his party, he famously declared:

We aim for a classless society: not in the grey sense of drab uniformity, but in the sense that we remove the artificial barriers to choice and achievement.

The allegations misconceive the character of British society and the nature of economic activity. They also ignore simple and undisputed facts of British history and of British social, economic and political life. And the repetition of such false claims encourages a sense of passivity and disaffection among the nation's youth. If the poor are told that they will never be able to reach the top of the mountain, why should they ever start climbing?

According to the stereotype, Britain is governed by a rich ruling caste. Yet Disraeli was prime minister from 1866 to 1868 and 1874 to 1880; Lloyd George, a very poor orphan brought up by an uncle who was a shoemaker, was chancellor of the exchequer by 1908, and prime minister from 1916 to 1922; and Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a fisherwoman, was prime minister in 1923-24, and from 1929 to 1935. More recently, of the contenders for the leadership of the Conservative party in 1997, Mr Clarke, Mr Hague, Mr Howard and Mr Redwood all went to state schools and were, respectively, the sons of a watchmaker, a small businessman, a Romanian refugee and a cost accountant.

British industry is managed, and has been managed for decades or even centuries, by new men, people who have made their own way, often from humble beginnings. In the interwar period, the leading figure of the British motor industry was Lord Nuffield, who began as a bicycle repairer and had had very little education. Today, the richest man in Britain is, according to the Sunday Times's `Rich List' of 1997, Mr Joseph Lewis. He was born in the Roman Arms, a pub in the East End of London, where his father was landlord.

At least 20 of the top 100 richest people in the Sunday Times list are self-made. They include Jack Walker, the steel magnate; the Barclay twins, who started their professional life as decorators; Ann Gloag, a former nurse, who founded the bus company Stagecoach with her brother Brian Souter; the musician Paul McCartney; the former Smithfield meat trader, David Thompson, who founded the Hillsdown food and furniture group, and Trevor Hemmings, a former apprentice bricklayer who now owns the largest stake in Center Parcs and Pontins. Indeed, it is striking that there are six sons of coalminers in the list of the richest 500 people in Britain. All in all, only 3.1 per cent of the richest 500 people in Britain inherited their wealth.

The higher civil service is often thought of as the exclusive preserve of the upper and upper-middle classes, at any rate before the second world war. But the first Lord Stamp of Shortlands (1880-1940) began as a clerk in the Inland Revenue in 1896. He reached a high position before he retired young, moved into industry and became a director of the Bank of England and chairman of the largest British railway company. A more recent example of how humble birth is no barrier to advancement is the career of Sir Terence Burns. He is Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury, yet he was born in a council house in the pit village of Hetton-le-Hole in Tyne and Wear.

The world of the arts and entertainment has also been open to men of talent: Sir Roy Strong was the son of a struggling commercial traveller and was appointed director of the National Portrait Gallery at the age of 32, then director of the Victoria and Albert Museum when he was only 39. …

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