Lessons Cameron must still learn
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.