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Elitist Britain: Holding onto the powerbase

Today brought the release of the long awaited report on ‘Elitist Britain’. It is billed as a joint effort by the Sutton Trust, who take the lead, and the ill-fated Social Mobility Commission (SMC). It had its genesis in the previous incarnation of the commission and was originally drafted in 2017. It should have been published back then, but the 2019 version has been updated since. The findings are stark and they have attracted considerable media attention. The stranglehold on the powerbase of the UK remains firm with privately educated ‘elite’ dominating the judiciary, civil service and the military. The BBC reports it as ‘Private school and Oxbridge 'take top jobs' whilst ironically stressing “But pop stars are out-poshed by international cricketers and national newspaper columnists”. The BBC itself, as the predominant news and media organisation in the UK, is not immune from the same criticism.

Elitist Britain 2019 ‘The educational backgrounds of Britain’s leading people’ paints a sorry picture of a divided and grossly unequal society (The Sutton Trust also provides a powerful interactive page on its www site). However, none of this is a surprise since the situation has prevailed for centuries. The idea of the privileged protecting their own is deeply engrained in our culture and expectations. 

The conclusion that “The broad trajectory of private school over-representation appears to be downwards, but change is happening slowly” is little consolation for those excluded from top jobs by virtue of their birth and circumstances.

Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, says that “We find ourselves an increasingly divided society. Divided by politics, by class, by geography”.

In a further affirmation, Martina Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, stresses the “power gap” and that “Elitist Britain shows little has changed at the top in recent years”.
These are indeed harsh words that reflect a divided and unequal society that the valuable report illuminates. They should be forced into the minds of our leaders and make a significant impact upon the ‘zeitgeist’ of the modern UK.

No change at the top table.

Little has changed since the first survey was carried out by The Sutton Trust in 2012, ’The Educational Backgrounds of the Nation’s Leading People', and again in 2016 with ‘LEADING PEOPLE 2016: The educational backgrounds of the UK professional elite’. A report by the previous ill-fated Social Mobility Commission in 2014, ‘Elitist Britain? 2014’, probably hit the nail on the head with “Our examination of who gets the top jobs in Britain today found elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’…”. By 2017, the Social Mobility Commission had been reduced to a few commissioners when they resigned en masse in protest. The current ‘Elitist Britain 2019’ report is an updated version of a report first produced in 2017 but not released. The minutes of the SMC from 18th December 2018 indicated that “Elitist Britain: This report was drafted internally in 2017. The Commission has partnered with Sutton Trust who are updating the data”.  That progress is so slow is down to a government so intent on dragging i
ts feet with the SMC that it now looks willful.

Social engineering and the ‘power gap’ persists.

The idea of a 'power gap' instead of a gap in social mobility is one that might be considered further as a better explanation for hollow promises and no real action from government. Whilst it is only to be expected that families with more resources seek to provide the best for their children, this alone may not explain the persistent gap. Our society remains stubbornly recalcitrant to change and breaking down the elite structures that persist from generation to generation. This could be better explained by a collective desire by those controlling the powerbase to retain a status quo of power and control. The idea of the ‘Three Estates of the Realm’ or Ancien Regime’ comes to mind (as does the Middle Scots Satire of the Three Estates from 1552 – listen to a great discussion on BBC Radio Night Waves programme).

Looking through this filter at the ‘Elitist Britain 2019’ report, and its predecessors, makes this idea more attractive. The pattern becomes clearer. The established elite reside in their own social stronghold and they are not coming out without protection. In considering where the ‘establishment’ power resides, the list of the elite privileged starts with senior judges, permanent secretaries, lords, diplomats, junior ministers, senior armed forces and public body chairs. In the modern UK, the power is held by the ‘three elite estates’ of the judiciary, civil service and the military security forces. This is held together by the influence of a so called ‘fourth estate’ of the media.

However, the rise of a ‘fifth estate’ of unregulated social media and lobby groups is gaining in influence and presents a threat to the established status quo. Add to this mix the composition of our leading universities and control is virtually secured. With most graduates coming from well off backgrounds, it is natural to assume that most university professors are from similar backgrounds. Thus perpetuating the social bias.
However, it is perhaps no accident that universities are becoming more marginalised by government as they are opened up to increasing numbers of less advantaged students and more staff from similar backgrounds in time. Indeed, only 16% of their leaders are now from independent schools. They are even attacked as hotbeds of left-wing bias in an effort to distract them from their mission. Whilst on the one hand it is universities that are likely to shift first in social equality, on the other there are those seeking to control this unruly estate. In time this becomes increasingly imperative. One way is to restrict funding and burden them with a torrent of rules and bureaucracy.

What is to be done?

The ‘Elitist Britain 2019’ report makes ten demands or recommendations. These are all sensible and would rebalance the social inequalities to a great degree. But it should be recognised that addressing “confidence and motivation” alone will not be enough. Those from advantaged backgrounds have family resources as a safety net to fall back on if things go wrong. Those from disadvantage backgrounds have no such confidence simply because there is no safety net below them. But when given too much help or support they begin to represent a ‘revolution’ in the eyes of the established elite. At the core of this lies the idea of ‘contextualised’ access to jobs, schools and universities. This idea draws the battle lines for an assault on the established elite. The main battle will be fought at the gates of our top universities. The report emphasises that “Universities should revolutionise their practice in relation to disadvantage, by contextualising admissions and reforming their approach to outreach and partnership”. If this happens, the old order will tumble and a new brasher elite will emerge fast. It will unleash a wider talent base in our society. Those holding the keys to the power base will no doubt react to try to stall this process. They may be doing so already as the SMC and Augar report recommendations fade into the background with time and 'contextualised' interpretations of their recommendations.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years  teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics


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