My take on the Eton Mess
Posted Tuesday, 18 March 2014 at 10:33
There has been an unfortunate emphasis over the last few days regarding the pervasive dominance of Eton educated men in Parliament. This, unfortunately, detracts from the main issue. The problem is in the numbers public/privately educated from all schools that dominate at all levels in society, particularly amongst the high-earning professions.
I find depressing the reports that Michael Gove has been 'given a new one' for speaking out. If MPs in Parliament cannot speak out in fear of losing their whip or having a strip torn off by the party leadership, what is the point of being an MP?
To speak out against the dominance of public/private school educated people at all levels in society, and for the return of equality and fairness for all, is exactly what we MPs should be doing. This dominance has to stop and yet in all political parties, and especially as a result of the introduction of a body like IPSA, the situation can only get worse as Parliament becomes a place for the rich and favoured.
Recently I gave a speech at a public school on this issue, one I have used a number of times since. You might think that following my posh boys comment, a public school would not be the most obvious place for me to deliver this speech. It was in fact absolutely the place to take a message of the importance of diversity and equality of opportunity in the global race.
Here is a copy of the speech:
I’d like to begin by saying thank you for having me here this afternoon. I was a parent of two daughters at Ampleforth and I know the school very well. I have a deep admiration for the work done here and for the ethos that is instilled in the young people that pass through this school. I always think, wherever you are in the world, you can always tell when you meet someone who has been to Ampleforth. The manners of the young people who have been to this school set them apart from any other school but most especially the other public schools. I shall come back to that a bit later.
Given what I have just said about Ampleforth, I understand that my comments early last year about the behaviour of certain ‘arrogant posh boys’ may have dismayed people at the school who felt I was painting with too broad a brush. I therefore want to explain why I said those things and what made me use the language that I did. Those remarks have since been portrayed as an off-the-cuff response to passing events. Various people found it useful to suggest that I did not really mean what I said. Well, let me tell you here today, I was talking about a very troubling and significant trend present in the higher strata at many levels in this country that is working against social mobility, stifling meritocracy and reducing the effectiveness of our ability to compete on the world stage.
I was, therefore, not merely expressing a mild irritation, as some would have you believe, but voicing my analysis of a fault at the heart of all political parties in Westminster and the ability of those politicians to represent citizens in the Global Race. If we are facing competition from a growing number of active, aggressive foreign economies we need to have our society and economy working at their peak of effectiveness, yet we are crippling them by stifling internal competition in our workforce to ensure that we always have the best possible person for the job.
Public schools are at their best when they are helping children compete. Competition of all kinds is healthy for an individual’s body and mind. Learning to take loss on the chin with no reduction of enthusiasm is one of the great lessons in life that needs to be taken in as early as possible. Competition within a marketplace is the best way to generate wealth, employment and stimulate innovation. Yet this is not the situation currently in the UK. Competition has given way to an iniquitous form of inefficiency we would decry in the developing world as corruption. I am talking about the suppression of the advancement of state education children who are dominated at all levels where earnings are high, by the public/private sector.
We have a situation in this country whereby all three of the main party leaders owe their positions, to a greater or lesser degree, to their family connections. Ed Miliband is the son of a Marxist intellectual whose name propelled both his children into influential positions within the socialist movement, culminating in their appointment as Special Advisers to Blair and Brown. Nick Clegg’s father secured for him an internship at an investment bank that allowed him to make his personal fortune before deciding to turn his hand to politics. My own party leader, David Cameron, was granted his first opportunity in the Conservative Research Department following a mysterious phone call from a senior adviser at Buckingham Palace. A similar story can be told about many MPs throughout Parliament in all parties, the city banks and journalism, including the bastions of the leftist establishment the Guardian and the BBC. Both the previous and new Chair of the BBC trust, both privately educated and over fifty percent of the new BBC intake each year, ditto. This is not the result of healthy competition but of its quiet removal from British life in the past twenty years.
When I was first elected to Parliament my party was toying with the idea of using all-women shortlist to boost the number of women at Westminster. I was always appalled at this idea. The Labour Party uses this technique often and I wonder how the women elected this way can cope with not knowing that they were not the best person for the job, only the best woman. The implicit suggestion, that women are incapable of competing with men for the position I now hold, Member of Parliament, is abhorrent. Why should it be any different in any other walk of life? Why should anybody want a position knowing that they could only obtain it by keeping other competitors out of the race? This is the situation that we now face in our most important industries and it is a situation that is actively encouraged by some schools that have adopted a short-term view of what education should mean.
The lack of diversity has not only reduced the ability of our economy to compete, but by unfairly promoting those not worthy while restraining those who are it creates conflict in society. The old divisions we thought we had removed for good in the meritocratic post-war years when the class system seemed to be breaking down are in fact still with us. We once again have a situation with them and us, a stark division between the rulers and the ruled.
Would the same opportunity for a grocer’s daughter from Grantham rise to become Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister exist today? Looking at the party leaders we have I am not sure she would. She simply did not have the friends in high places, required to progress today.
Here, there is a saying for those of you who move up to Newcastle and become university students, as did my own. SHAC. Senior House Ampleforth College.
In fact, parliament is very much the same. One remove from the old public school model. The fags, the organisation of supporting teams, the friends of friends from the main schools and Oxford.
In 2013, that’s depressing, isn’t it?
It was all very well for Tony Blair’s government to pretend that we live in a classless society when an economic boom meant that living standards were rising for all. When they were talking about ‘sharing the proceeds of growth’ in those heady days before 2008, nobody minded that George Osborne and David Cameron came from immensely privileged backgrounds. However the Brown crash and subsequent recession, followed by dramatic reductions in government spending, meant that the public began to look askance at the two millionaires imposing cuts. Cuts, no matter how necessary, have to be carried out in a way that is fair and sensitive to the people they affect the most. Empathy and understanding of situations less fortunate than your own are the vital characteristics for successfully carrying through such a difficult task. This is what I felt was lacking in government policy at the time and that is why I felt I had to speak out.
I doubt he was aware of the irony when the multi-millionaire Miliband used my comments to attack David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions.
The perception of privilege was real and needed challenging. That was what I sought to address and I believe we have seen real change since then as a gradual realisation has come over the leadership that they simply could not govern with the same metropolitan social liberalism as before. I firmly believe that social liberalism is primarily an indulgence of the wealthy. The people who can afford to enjoy liberalism whilst protecting their own children from the societal influences of such by sending them to the most expensive schools. In addition to the majority of the British public being far from social liberals, they also aren’t stupid. They know that each family struggles financially whilst we send a billion of our hard earned cash to Europe each year.
I shall give an example of how this change in the Coalition has emerged, demonstrating a policy shift showing how the presentation of policy has switched to demonstrate their positive effect on so called ‘ordinary working people’. Even that phrase, which I think has terribly patronising undertones, has become part of the standard political lexicon.
So let’s examine the political about turn on fuel duty. For decades now fuel duty has been seen as a way of reducing the distance people drive, punishing car users for their damage of the environment and attempting to push people onto forms of public transport. This has been based on the standard assumption held by people who live almost their entire lives in big cities that the use of a car is a luxury, not a necessity and that public transport can easily take the strain. In my constituency of Mid-Bedfordshire, like in many others across the country, both of these assumptions are so obviously, jaw-droppingly wrong that it would take only a few seconds to understand that for many people a car is vital if you want to get to work, pick up the children or access any form of public services such as healthcare.
Public transport is virtually non-existent for many of my constituents who live in small villages spread out across a large rural area. Buses do run, but perhaps once a day into the nearest town. Year on year the fuel duty escalator, used most enthusiastically by Gordon Brown as Chancellor, has added an ever heavier financial burden to people who had no other option by to pay and pay and pay. Even after the coalition took power it was over a year and after enormous political pressure from his own backbenchers before George Osborne scrapped the escalator and froze the duty. He still maintained that the pressure of the deficit meant that he couldn’t actually cut fuel duty. The move was still a victory for MPs like me who could go back to our constituents and point to a solid achievement that meant they had more money in their wallets at the end of the month because of something we had done in Westminster.
In a small way and as part of a wider collective effort by MPs and others dismayed by the direction of the early part of the Coalition government, my comments about ‘arrogant posh boys’ have served as part of an education that David Cameron at Eton and George Osborne at St Pauls missed the first time around.
I believe that the roots of those missteps in the first two years of the coalition, culminating in the omnishambles budget, can be traced back directly to public schools that focus not on what makes a pupil a good and able person, but rather on who they are, who their parents are and who they know. I find it particularly interesting that my party leadership, with their educational backgrounds, are so adamantly opposed to the return of selective grammar schools. The slide back to rule by a privileged elite comes after almost fifty years of the post-war era in which working class children from poor backgrounds were to be found throughout the commanding heights of industry, politics and almost every field of life. The famous ‘northern chemist’ driving forward British innovation was a fantastic asset to the country that has been lost in the appalling drop in social mobility that followed from the abandonment of Grammar Schools in favour of comprehensives. I am in no doubt that if the grammar school system had remained and if Labour had not scrapped the assisted places scheme, there would be state educated children from poor backgrounds at all layers within society, rather than what we have today, which is almost extinction. Within the unfortunate educational framework left by the blinkered removal of the most effective driver of social mobility, grammar schools, Ampleforth stands out.
There is an important difference that I see in Ampleforth pupils I meet at the school or elsewhere in life. Let’s not pretend that pupils here are not privileged, but crucially they are not just privileged. They are blessed with an understanding of others that comes from following the teachings of St Benedict. Kindness and empathy mean that you are able to listen to and understand other points of view rather than riding roughshod over anything or anybody that happens to stand in your way. It is the moral aspect of education that has long been absent from many state schools and has possibly never existed in most of the country’s top private schools.
This blessing that has bestowed upon you and those that have gone to the school before you creates a responsibility. You must strive to succeed, to compete harder and better than your peers in whatever field you choose to enter, yet that success must not come at the expense of society but in cooperation with it.
Ampleforth pupils are not simply privileged but blessed Key difference between Ampleforth and many other public schools: who they are makes them, rather than what they are e.g. kind, empathetic, able to listen to other points of view.
This creates a responsibility. Success must not come at the expense of society but in cooperation with it. Uphold the values of Ampleforth long after you leave school because you will be the ambassadors.
[Check against delivery]
Nadine Dorries MP
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
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