By Mike Ion
Last year’s “Tory toff” campaign prompted a plethora of articles and comment about whether class is still a major issue in modern Britain. But why? Why is it still an issue and why do so many people in the media react to the debate in the way that they do?
In my experience, talk of “toffs” and privilege – particularly in the present economic climate – resonates with ordinary people and makes many so called ‘liberal’ journalists and media folk feel a touch uncomfortable.
The truth is that Britain remains a nation that is still dominated by class division. In 2007 an ICM poll for the Guardian found that 89% of those surveyed thought that people are still judged by their class – with almost half saying that it still counts for “a lot”. Over 50% of people said that class, not ability, greatly affects the way they are seen.
Despite more than a decade of Labour in power social mobility in Britain has decreased, in fact the British middle classes are operating what is, in effect, a closed shop. For example our top universities are still, in the main, the preserve of a rich, well-connected elite. You may well remember the furore a few years ago when Bristol University was accused of gross discrimination and unfairness – spurred on by several influential columnists and leader writers – for introducing a “fairer” criterion for admissions that would benefit pupils from poorer backgrounds. Often the real reasons why many left leaning journalists and politicians end up sending their sons and daughters to fee-paying schools are not based on the raw results of the local state schools but on a desire to ensure that their child has access to what the local comprehensive cannot provide: privilege, advantage and the opportunity to network.
British public schools have always been a production line of the class system. They employ some of the best-qualified teachers, can raise their fees steadily, select their pupils, enjoy a growing endowment income from their benefactors and offer some of the most impressive sporting and extracurricular activities in the country. What’s more, they now recruit from a middle-class obsessed by perceived educational and social advantage – parents who are willing to take the bold decision to become part of the problem, rather than seeking to be part of the solution. I often hear some of my friends and fellow “comrades” attempting to ease their conscience by announcing that the local comprehensive school is simply not good enough and justify their decision to go private in the name of parental responsibility.
Sometimes I cannot help but feel that the perpetuation of class divisions in Britain really is part of a “liberal conspiracy.” It seems clear to me that those who have influence, those who have a “voice” in our society have such a high stake in the current order that they will seek to mobilise and organise in order protect it. It must surely be true for example that when middle-class parents abandon the state sector in favour of the private, it is conservative and not progressive politics that triumphs.
Suspicion of the wealthy, the privileged and of the ‘upper classes’ is hardwired into the DNA of most of us who espouse left-leaning ideas and policies. Why? Because most of us believe that a politics that espouses equity and fairness, a politics that seeks opportunity for all and not just an elite few, is a politics that gives comfort to the afflicted and ends up afflicting the comfortable.