Magazine article The Spectator

The Fall of the Meritocracy

Magazine article The Spectator

The Fall of the Meritocracy

Article excerpt

Politicians from ordinary backgrounds have become an endangered species

I caught the figure strolling towards me out the corner of my eye. At first I thought I was mistaken. Then it nearly took my breath away.

I was standing in the impressive wooden-beamed assembly hall of Paisley Grammar, where I'd gathered at the start of each school day many years before, silent and smartly uninformed, along with 900 other pupils. The current head was explaining how this ancient institution, dating back to the 16th century, was still giving children as fine an education as the one I had enjoyed.

It was then I noticed the policeman coming along the corridor and into the hall, sauntering along as if his presence were as natural as a French or physics teacher. His uniform was clean and tidy.

So was his stab vest.

It's been 35 years since Paisley Grammar was a selective state school dedicated to getting pupils into university or the professions. It's now what Alastair Campbell would call a 'bogstandard' comprehensive. I could see it was catering for a wider range of abilities and that school uniform had become an optional extra. But I wasn't ready for it having its own policeman with his own wee police station. I was told it's now quite common in state schools. That didn't make me any less sad.

I was back at my old school for a BBC documentary on social mobility, asking whether politics had again become the preserve of the privileged and if someone from my ordinary background could still enjoy the same opportunities I had.

It's an increasingly relevant question. The resignations last week of Alan Johnson and Andy Coulson boys from council estates who dragged themselves to top political positions through ability and ambition - suggest senior politicos from ordinary backgrounds are an endangered species at Westminster.

There are no more Johnsons in Labour's elite, and very few Coulsons close to Cameron.

As one of the grammar-school generation, I grew up as part of a postwar meritocracy that steadily infiltrated the citadels of power.

The public-school-educated still grabbed a disproportionate share of the top jobs. But we were in no doubt that future generations of plain folk would have even more opportunities than we had. It never dawned on us that by the start of the 21st century the meritocracy might come to a grinding halt.

Britain's great postwar meritocratic experiment was broad-based, but it was in politics that the change was most dramatic. In the immediate aftermath of the second world war, one public-school prime minister followed another: Attlee (Haileybury), Churchill (Harrow), then three Etonians, Eden, Macmillan and Home.

The watershed came when a Yorkshire grammar-school boy, Harold Wilson, won the 1964 election. For 33 years after that, every prime minister, through the years of Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher and Major, was educated at a state school.

Nobody thought there would never be another public-school PM - just that it was no longer the default position. The run of state educated PMs ended with the Fettes educated Tony Blair in 1997, who nevertheless presided over probably the least Oxbridge, most state-educated cabinet in British history. But deeper forces were already undermining the meritocracy.

With the demise of the grammar schools, the public schoolboys started having their own way again in the Tory and Liberal Demo crat parties. Labour remained less posh, but even it has been captured by middle-class professional politicians.

Consider the social pedigree of the leading lights on both front benches today. Cameron, Clegg and Osborne went to private schools whose fees are more than the average annual wage.

More than a third of the current Commons was privately educated, three percentage points up on that elected in 2005, reversing a downward trend over several generations.

Twenty went to the same private school (Eton, naturally), of whom eight are in government. …

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