John Major is right: social mobility is the silent NIMBY

John Major is right: social mobility is the silent NIMBY

And all the parties are complicit

Around fifty years ago, the prime minister of the day confided in his PR advisor that “the period since 1832, in which the middle classes had dominated government and politics, was disappearing” and that “power was passing to organised labour”.  It was a surprisingly Marxist analysis to come from a Conservative PM but not untypically for a Marxist analysis, it was wrong.

In some ways, Macmillan’s opinions were understandable (though he had won a 100-seat majority two and a half years earlier!).  The 1960s was the start of the period when unions enjoyed their greatest power, institutionally and practically, within the country: increased industrial militancy, tripartism, beer and sandwiches at Number Ten and great swathes of industry and services owned by the government.

Fifty years on and the middle classes have a stronger grip on all aspects of public life than ever.  The genuinely upper class has largely been eased out of their previous bastions of power in politics, finance, the military and raw inherited wealth.  At the other end, the decline of traditional working class industries in which union organisation was strong has played a part, but a more significant reason is not so much that working class organisations have been defeated but rather that they have been captured by the middle class, which has then reset their policies and priorities to their own agenda.

John Major’s comments earlier this week about the dominance of the privately educated, affluent middle class are entirely right.  The government front benches has very much more than its fair share of such individuals and while there are fewer such in the Shadow Cabinet, the importance of connections and political patronage there is if anything even stronger.  The chances of ordinary men or women from relatively humble backgrounds – Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Major – making it to the top or even near it may be if not zero then certainly much less than they once were.  Not that it’s just politics: the same pattern repeats across most if not all the major sectors.

Opportunity for all ought to be at the heart of a One Nation Conservative party and of a Labour movement originally founded to represent the interests of the working poor.  However, there were probably more ministers from genuinely working class backgrounds in the outgoing Tory and the incoming Labour cabinets of 1964 than their equivalents of 2010.  What happened?

One aspect is that mass social mobility produces losers.  As some climb the ladder, others slip down it and those that do fall will resent the fact and do what they can to prevent it (or others will on their behalf).  Clearly, a lack of mobility also produces losers but it’s not as obvious because the process is less dynamic.  The abolition of grammar schools is often cited as a cause and to an extent that’s true but it’s very far from the whole story.  More relevant is the reason why the grammars were largely abolished in the first place: the changing priorities of social campaigners – in society, in unions and in the political parties.

    In politics, the biggest culprit is the candidate selection process.  Candidates are often expected to commit three or four years of their lives to nursing a seat before an election.

  That’s a considerable burden for someone of even moderate means if standing in a constituency any distance from their home – and the national nature of selections means that could well be the case.  All the more so if they have a family.  The qualities and skills that parties look for in approving candidates gives another advantage to confident, articulate privately-educated individuals – or those who’ve lived the life since their early twenties, or before.  There’s a reason parliament looks and sounds so homogenous, for all the additional women, ethnic minorities and sexual minorities: the system weeds out and puts off too many of those who don’t fit the risk-averse culture (which is ironic given the low esteem that generic politicians are held in and the often higher regard for the maverick).

Far from declining, the twenty-first century has seen the triumph of the middle and upper-middle classes.  Whether by direct confrontation, by absorption, infiltration and subversion, or by ridicule and derision, the middle classes have close to eliminated or drowned out all other voices and all other agendas.  It is an extraordinary achievement; it’s just a same it’s so wasteful of the country’s talents.

David Herdson

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