Meritocratic Britain or Apartheid Britain?
Matthew JAMISON | 04.09.2015 | WORLD / Americas, Europe

Meritocratic Britain or Apartheid Britain?

The famous English author-philosopher George Orwell once wrote that England was the most class ridden country on the planet: «It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and the silly». Yet by 1989, the Conservative Prime Minister and arch meritocratic, Mrs Margaret Thatcher was boasting to the House of Commons that 10 years of Tory rule had replaced «the old, class based Labour order» giving way to a new Britain based on «merit, ability and effort». 

Five years earlier at the 1984 Conservative Party Conference Mrs Thatcher extolled to the assembled Tory activists «it’s not who you are, who your parents are or where you come from that matters. It’s what you are and what you can do for your country that counts». Margaret Thatcher’s egalitarian statements on social mobility and class where nothing new. Previous Prime Ministers such as Harold Macmillan who ran Britain from 1957-63 told the country that the «class war» was over. The arrival of Grammar School educated Labour and Tory leaders in the form of Mr Harold Wilson and Mr Edward Heath was supposed to symbolise how progressive Britain had become, liberating herself from the shackles of the upstairs-downstairs mentality of previous centuries, enabling bright and talented children from less privileged economic and social backgrounds to get on in life, and if desired, rise to the top. Countless generations of British school children were brought up to believe they could be anything they wanted to be and there were no glass ceilings or barriers to bettering yourself in modern, post-WWII Britain.

However, is this really the case? A truly socially mobile society is defined as being a place where people get on in life through their own efforts, not what family they were born into, which is beyond all our control. No one choses to be brought into this world, let alone have any say or control over the circumstances of their birth. Unfortunately, from the statistical evidence available and from first-hand accounts of friends from my generation, the proof has been in the eating of the British meritocratic pudding. Fact number one: social mobility is now lower in 2015 Britain than it was in the 1950s. This means children born into economically and socially challenged circumstances, say in an impoverished Council Estate in Tower Hamlets, have less of chance to climb out of poverty or economic and social backwardness and educational ignorance than their contemporaries growing up in similar circumstances in the Tower Hamlets of the 1950s. The average workers share of national wealth is lower than during the administration of Harold Macmillan in the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Inequality in Britain, the gap between the richest and the poorest, now stands higher than any time since the days of Charles Dickens. If you are lucky, and it is pure luck, to be born into a high income wealthy family, you have a far, far greater chance of enjoying a high income in your adult life. However, if you are born into an impoverished, working-poor or middle class household, your income that you go on to earn as an adult in Britain is still tied heavily to the income your parents earned. Even the former Prime Minister Sir John Major, who came from an uneducated working class background has admitted: «in every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent [upper] middle class».

The educational and social mobility charity, The Sutton Trust, has done remarkable empirical research on the subject of social mobility in 21st century Britain. The evidence is shocking, disgraceful and appalling. A subject at the last General Election which elicited unity among all three major party political leaders was social mobility in Britain, or the lack of it. The Prime Minister David Cameron said: «You only have to look at the make-up of the high levels of parliament, the judiciary, the army, the media. It's not as diverse; there's not as much social mobility as there needs to be». Quite. While for the former Leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband concluded: «Despite all the efforts of the last few generations to open Britain up, the doors of opportunity are open much wider for a wealthy and privileged few than they are for the many». The same song has been sung by the former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg: «Our society is still too closed, too static. A society that still says where you are born, and who you are born to, matters for the rest of your life».

Indeed, Britain’s three Party Political Leaders at the 2015 General Election had quite a lot in common and exemplified the problem the country is facing in terms of class and social mobility. Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg attended private schools where fees are charged at an eye watering rate of over £30,000 a year, and that’s just for tuition. All three party leaders attended Oxbridge and all three went on to work straight away in their parties political bureaucracies inside the Westminster village bubble. Each man got his job through family connections, not merit or independent, individual effort.

The UK Government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, headed by former Health Secretary Alan Milburn, confirms and reinforces the findings of the Sutton Trust. In their report released last summer entitled «Elitist Britain» the Commission collated a detailed analysis on 4,000 business, political, media and public sector leaders in Britain today and reveals the grip of private schools and Oxbridge on all the top paying professions.

From my own experience of working in the heart of the British state in Whitehall and Westminster I have come across a great deal of inbred hangers - on who have less education, less qualifications, less credentials and less experience than myself. Many of them as Orwell said are just plain «silly» and it shows, what Lenin called «useful idiots». Yet, because of who their father (or mother) was and because of the private school they went to, with this protection and their inherited contacts, they make it into senior and well paid positions which they are obviously unsuitable for when you look at their CVs and observe their performance in the work place.

Some may ask, so what? Elites have always been in existence and dominated the top of any country and society? The lack of diversity in the people who run the country is a major economic and social (not to mention moral) problem in and of itself: the risks are ‘group think’ and a lack of understanding of those with different backgrounds. The plain unrepresentativeness of the population as a whole. In many ways one could mount an argument that Britain is akin to a milder form of apartheid, where discrimination and lack of access to economic, social and civil bettering is based not on the colour of one’s skin but the circumstances of one’s birth. The root cause of this lies in the highly polarised, grossly unequal and socially divisive educational system.

A narrow elite suggests serious limits on adult social mobility: given the importance of school and university background, it seems prospects of making it to the very top are limited for those who begin their career without these advantages. The sheer scale of the dominance of certain backgrounds raises questions about the degree to which the composition of the elite reflects merit. Are top jobs about what you know, or who you know? Is some talent being locked out? Clearly from the statistics and empirical evidence above Britain in 2015 is anything but a meritocratic society and that is why Britain is slipping further and further down the economic, social and academic league tables. We only develop, nurture and utilise roughly 7% of our populations potential and leave the other 93% to get on with it facing historically, social and politically constructed barriers of snobbery, discrimination and prejudice to overcome. Some do. 

However, an awful lot don’t which is the saddest and most disturbing aspect of all. The waste of talent and potential in Britain is grotesque. Worryingly, it seems likely this trend will continue rather than reversing itself. The old school, old boy’s network still, unfortunately, rules the roost in 21st century Britain and the sooner the people of Britain wake up to the fact that the notion that Britain is a fair meritocracy is errant nonsense, the better for the nation as a whole.

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