Lessons Cameron must still learn

The Church of England - - COMMENT -

Does it mat­ter that the govern­ment and so-called es­tab­lish­ment is dom­i­nated by Oxbridge grad­u­ates and for­mer pub­lic school pupils?

I have changed my mind on this in re­cent times, hav­ing pre­vi­ously ar­gued that no one should be judged on their back­ground and school­ing: they should sim­ply be the best for the job. This mer­i­to­cratic ar­gu­ment, how­ever, ig­nored the way that net­works op­er­ate and fac­tion­al­ism, em­pire­build­ing and in­fight­ing dom­i­nate ev­ery kind of in­sti­tu­tion.

Michael Gove has it about right that the sit­u­a­tion is ‘ridicu­lous’. We’ve al­ways been a class-rid­den so­ci­ety but it was back in the 1990s that John Ma­jor, from a rel­a­tively hum­ble back­ground, ex­pressed his vi­sion for a ‘class­less’ so­ci­ety. His ap­point­ment co­in­cided with an Arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury from a work­ing class back­ground.

The trou­ble is that the way this sort of net­work­ing op­er­ates – in­clud­ing the pub­lic school kind – is that people sur­round them­selves with the like- minded. It used to be said that Mar­garet Thatcher set great store by whether a per­son was ‘one of us’, yet her govern­ment seemed to be full of ‘wets’ and rebels in com­par­i­son to the coali­tion cab­i­net, which seems nar­rowly com­posed of people from a van­ish­ingly small so­cial strata.

And the trou­ble is that this sort of elitism be­comes self-per­pet­u­at­ing. It is rarely the fault of those in po­si­tions of power that they tend to iden­tify and favour those with whom they have much in com­mon. But it does re­quire them to ac­tively seek to in­clude those from a dif­fer­ent back­ground.

The sad pass­ing of Tony Benn should help to fo­cus minds on the in­sid­i­ous elitism that in­hab­its in­sti­tu­tions like Par­lia­ment. Benn re­jected his Baronetcy and iden­ti­fied him­self with those from a very dif­fer­ent so­cial class. It is clearly pos­si­ble for at least some people to tran­scend class and reach out to ev­ery­one, but you don’t do so by sur­round­ing yourself with your chums. It is this les­son that David Cameron has yet to learn.

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