Monday, 2 June 2008

The Privileged Strike Back

I have often commented that the UK seems to becoming a more divided society. In the period after the Second World War, there was a sense that the strict social hierarchy of the 19th and early 20th centuries was beginning to be shaken off. Access to free education at all levels and a free health care system combined with a prosperity around 1956-73 that increased social mobility. In the 1960s people began to talk of a 'meritocracy' (though this term was originally a derogative term it was captured to be used in a more positive way) that people could get on it life due to their abilities rather than which social class they had been born into. The hope that was that in contrast to the 19th century and pre-1945 era the UK would never suffer deaths and failure as a result of stupid rich people being in charge as they seemed to have been on so many occasions in British history. You just have to think of the Crimean War, the Boer War and the First World War for starters, in fact most of the Napoleonic Wars before Wellington was put in charge in Portugal in 1808.

In the 1960s and into the 1970s I think we probably got as close to a meritocracy as we ever will in the UK. Of course most senior politicians, government officials, leading military personnel, church leaders, many business people, all still came from very privileged backgrounds and were unmolested by the increase of more ordinary people in positions. In some sectors like the police, hospitals and certainly in the media, popular music, writing, etc., though there were greater opportunities for people to 'get on' than ever before. There was a sense of this in other countries like West Germany, France and the USA too. Of course the privileged remained unthreatened but there was more space and opportunity for people to rise from humble origins. I would argue that despite Bush seeing the wealthiest as his core support, in fact partly due to the public education system, you can still rise in the USA in a way you no longer can in the UK. Financial pressures are making it harder of course right across the Western world.

John Major, the UK prime minister 1991-97, who worked his way up from bank clerk to head of the government despite his nostalgia for the 1950s, would often speak of working towards a 'classless society'. In fact his period of office marked the end of the greatest assault on opportunities for ordinary people. The years of Margaret Thatcher 1979-91 had seen the selling off of council housing, the ending of grants to attend higher education, the smashing of trades unions who were both a voice for ordinary people and a way for individuals to advance, plus she had tried to even end the concept of 'society' denying it existed, to quote, she said: "There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families." Searching for quotes from her, I have just found so many in which she revelled in a divided society: "If your only opportunity is to be equal then it is not opportunity." Yet interestingly she also said: "Object to merit and distinction, and you're setting your face against quality, independence, originality, genius; against all the richness and variety of life." Of course the merit for her did not come from ability but from societal status.

Thatcher engineered a society which actually would have prevented her a woman who only went to grammar school, not public school, ever reaching the position she did. This is represented by the current leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron and the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, both who come from a public school background more like the Conservatives of the past like Sir Anthony Eden or Lord Douglas-Home; even Sir Winston Churchill for all his popular touch was from the family of a duke. Thatcher did ridicule the concept of social class saying "I'm working class, I work jolly hard". For her it was about individuals rather than structures, but she actually barred access to so many opportunities for so many individuals through her policies, that in spite of the superficially inclusive nature of her rhetoric in fact she was dividing society even further.

Blair, of course, more Conservative than Socialist or even Liberal, added to the divisiveness of British society. In this education, which famously was his watchword, has played a huge role. He tirelessly promoted divisive schooling through encouraging grant-maintained schools, grammar schools, faith schools, foundation schools and city academies. All of these were free to put up barriers to universal entry. They received better funding too, meaning those children left to go to what were increasingly demeaned as 'bog-standard comprehensives' had to be taught under tighter budgets. In theory the Blair regime sought to expand access to higher education, but as in my posting last month, in fact the financial arrangements have meant no increase in working class children going to university since 2002 and in fact even middle class families are being priced out of sending their children to higher education. In addition graduates are saddled with £20,000 debt and so are shackled into working in the UK in any job they can get to pay off these debts before they are in their 40s. I was speaking to a man last week who looks at the employment of graduates and he told me that my estimates of what a graduate earns when they leave university, apparently it is not the average national salary of £24,000 (€30,200; US$47,000), but more like £17,000 (€21,400; US$33,200) that they earn in their first jobs no matter what subject area they have studied, though people who have not done business studies courses have a more realistic impression of what they will earn. Those who have done business studies apparently expect to walk into high-paying jobs and are disappointed.

What is now interesting to note is that given the increasing restrictions on social mobility brought about by a combination of sustained government policies over the past thirty years, those in privileged positions are now beginning to voice attitudes that would have seemed a little improper even in 1908 and outrageous in 1968 or even 1978. I am grateful for the BBC Education website for alerting me to these. Education is not the full extent of the issues around privilege and social mobility, but it is clearly a central aspect. The new head of the Independent Schools Council (independent schools are fee-paying schools that educate 6% of the school aged population), Rear Admiral Chris Parry, told a select committee of Parliament that he was angered by attempts to make independent schools more open to access by people from poorer backgrounds that received attention earlier this year. In fact the Blair government gave greater power to independent schools by allowing them to back city academies and create new kinds of independent schools in the form of foundation schools. Yet, this does not seem enough for the independent sector and they clearly now feel strong enough to try to force back initiatives to open their doors wider and share facilities with poorer children. This is a re-assertion of divisive education and also embraces strengthening of the sector in terms of resources and its status in society, so turning away from the egalitarian education approaches of the past. Of course such schools have never been under threat, but what is interesting is now rather than staying quiet and sometimes defensive, they are now being aggressive and clearly feel that the government has created an environment that permits that to happen without them being criticised. Even in the 1980s with Thatcher at her peak there were sufficient old left-wingers and strong liberals who would have contested such attitudes, but they are now generally extinct, especially in political terms.

More alarming than the rear admiral's comments were those that came from Dr Bruce Charlton of the University of Newcastle. He stated last week that the reason why working class students were not getting into university had nothing to do with lack of opportunity, it was simply because they lacked the intelligence. This is a shocking return to the attitudes of the 19th century and is a eugenic attitude that would have been out of place in the 1950s let alone the 2000s. Again, such attitudes seem to be increasingly expressed, if you think back to Dr James Watson one of the investigators of DNA. He was banned from speaking at the Science Museum in October 2007 because he argued that Black people will always be less intelligent than White people because of their genetic make up. This is Social Darwinism and racism on a level that I hoped had died with the Nazi regime or at the latest with the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. These attitudes began as distortions of Darwin's theories in the 1860s and evolved into eugenics. This was an attitude towards race and class that underlay the Nazis' slaughter of millions of people on racial, sexuality and disability grounds. The whole Nazi legal system became founded on people being guilty not by what they did but simply by what kind of person they were.

What these disgraceful men are effectively saying is: if you are Black or come from a working class background there is no point the state even making provision for you to go to university because you will never be intelligent enough to take up your place. That is the ultimate divisiveness in society. Already the government is saying: 'we will make it financially hard for you to get an education' and universities are admitting 'we will make it hard by having all these unwritten codes and social rules that will exclude you and even if you get there you will not understand what we are doing or expect because you cannot know these codes it says now'. Yet the next stage is coming upon us very quickly. The privileged, now freed from what they saw as the shackles of equality are saying openly now 'we are simply going to bar you as we do not like your kind soiling our universities and you have nothing to offer to education or our society and you should just stay in the low-paid jobs we feel you are suitable for'. It seems criminal that all the improvements which people worked and died for over the past two hundred years are being swept aside so quickly. Can it be long before we have the stamp on our foreheads at birth designating which opportunities we are permitted? Brave New World, we are on our way, very quickly.

P.P. This is on 12th June, interesting news that Rear Admiral Chris Parry has been forced to step down from his position in representing 1200 private schools. I doubt those private schools actually think any differently from what he said, but they just want to be more devious about their feelings rather than the head-on approach he adopted.

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