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NO SUCH THING AS SOCIETY

“There’s no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher told Woman’s Own magazine in 1987, though her government was awash with Oxbridge graduates. Twenty-eight years on, Jeff Clark-Meades questions whether today’s accusations of elitist cronyism stand up to scrutiny.

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NO SUCH THING AS SOCIETY

The UK is ruled by a cosy elite, and that must be true because the Daily Mail says so.

To be fair, the paper was quoting David Cameron’s former chief strategist Steve Hilton when it made the suggestion; and “cosy elite” was actually one of the milder things Hilton had to say about how everybody but the crème de la crème is now excluded from power. Early last year, he claimed too many at the top of government were not just educated in the same places but go to the same dinner parties and are seeking to preserve their hegemony by sending their children to the same schools and universities they went to. He argued, “Our democracies are increasingly captured by a ruling class that seeks to perpetuate its privileges.” Hilton coined an expressive word, “chumocracy”, to describe the homogenously-educated cabal of those currently in power.

But is it entirely true? Do those of us not in a chumocracy ever stand any chance of joining one? Well, the trend in the numbers is actually in our favour. According to figures compiled by social reform organisation The Sutton Trust, 12 members in each of the cabinet and shadow cabinet (that’s 24 people for folks who didn’t go to an elite university) went to independent schools. So, for the ruling Tories, that’s 12 out of 33 ministers who are eligible to attend cabinet meetings who were educated, at least in part, somewhere other than their local comprehensive.

That equates to just about 36 percent and compares with 62 percent of independently-educated ministers in the previous, coalition cabinet. Both of these totals are significantly lower than those for the last two cabinets under Conservative prime ministers: the figure for independently-educated cabinet ministers in John Major’s time was 71 percent and under Margaret Thatcher in 1979 it was 91 percent.

THE OXBRIDGE SET

Conservative MPs as a whole are generally declining in privileged status in educational terms, according to The Sutton Trust. In the current parliament, 48 percent of Tories went to independent schools; this compares with 54 percent in the last parliament and 73 percent in 1979. Overall, 32 percent of MPs of all parties in the present parliament were independently educated, down from 35 percent after the 2010 election. The current figures for the opposition parties break down to 17 percent of Labour MPs with an independent education, 14 percent of Lib Dems and 5 percent for SNP representatives. All this compares with 7 percent of the total population who are not wholly state educated.

So, the figures seem to suggest, even though the independently schooled are still a potent force, the trend is that having an expensive school-years education is becoming less significant for those who want to reach the top in politics and elsewhere. But what about going to the right university? Does being an Oxbridge graduate still count for anything? Does the system continue to exclude people who can’t locate Oxbridge on a map and just assume Uxbridge has two world-class universities?

Government figures for the coalition cabinet prior to last year’s election show 59 percent of ministers eligible to attend cabinet meetings were educated at Oxford or Cambridge. The figure for MPs as a whole was 24 percent. However, that is dwarfed by the 75 percent of senior judges who went to one of those universities, the 57 percent of the most senior civil servants who attended and the 50 percent of diplomats. Even newspaper columnists and top journalists were 45 percent Oxbridge educated, but we know what kind of risible poltroons writers are so this last figure can be ignored.

The Lords, which, apart from the royal family, is the most traditional bastion of hereditary privilege, is actually more representative of the general population than the cabinet in that only 38 percent of its members are ex-Oxbridge folk. That compares with 33 percent for BBC executives, 8 percent for local council leaders and 6 percent for chief constables. So, come the revolution it looks like the coppers may be on the side of the rebels.

POSH ROCKERS

Where, then, can people succeed no matter what their origins? In the civil service, despite the domination of its first division by the Oxbridgesque? Well, maybe. Last year the percentage of Oxbridge folk accepted into the Fast Stream of stellar entrants to the service was 22.2 percent, down from 26.6 percent in 2012… so things are looking up, then.

What else is open to anybody? Sport, for sure. If you can chuck your thing further than the other bloke can, you win and no questions asked (unless you’re Russian). Accent and education count for nothing there; viz Wayne Rooney who would be sweeping things for a living if his feet weren’t more eloquent than his tongue.

And how about the arts? For certain music is an open door and, often, one that is a portal to the most egalitarian of places. Outside the classical sphere, there are a lot more working class musos than posh ones and many have been empowered by the industry. Indeed, there’s a plethora of musos who’ve made a ton of cash from music but who wouldn’t be able to hold down any other job for more than about 10 minutes. (“Mr Osbourne, due to your serving of wholly inappropriate types of meat, and the bat carcass was not the only example, the management of this branch of McDonald’s needs to terminate your employment forthwith.”)

And the fine arts? That’s got to be an open door, too, hasn’t it? If people love your art, that’s all there is to it, surely? Well, maybe so, but a particular education helps, too. In the first six years of the Turner Prize, 1984 to 1989, five of the winners went to one or both of two colleges: The Royal College of Art and/or St Martins School of Art. But things have broadened out significantly since those days, even though some places like Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, still figure disproportionately strongly.

Clearly, then, the door is opening wider, but in all these dog-eat-dog competitive worlds success is often still a matter of pedigree, chum.

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