We live in an elitist country which permeates our culture and makes purblind sense out of human nature.
Hunting the insular big game of national politics has become something like a sport. Members of Parliament aren’t people of the real world, but career politicians, who move along a predictable trajectory. They gestate by studying PPE at Oxford, and, on graduating, become parliamentary researchers or special advisers to senior politicians. And once they acclimatise to the dead air of parliament, they can put their grown-up paws on the public purse.
They might be able to inject fearful obscurity into a debate about tax credits or fiscal consolidation, but econometric analysis is just the priestly Latin of the present: a meaningless language of the elite. The inflated brains of our politicians are like helium balloons fighting for freedom from the world of bodies and their contact with bacterial reality.
They say they are democratically accountable. But, taking the long view, 1945 to the present reveals something like a cross-party consensus about how you manage the affairs of state: until 1979 Keynes was all the fashion, since when neoliberalism has ruled the roost. So, if the choice before the electorate is between two people from the same social and educational background, who have spent their professional lives inside a metropolitan bubble, and despite technocratic marginalia, broadly agree about how to run the country – is it really a choice? Is democracy a flensed bone thrown the way of the hoi polloi to disguise an oligarchy in 650 privileged parts?
This sort of rhetoric can easily disguise the reality, but whatever the truth, perception quickly gives way to political capital. UKIP, the SNP, Jeremy Corbyn – and, on the other side of the pond, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump – have all, in quite different ways, benefited from the anti-establishment language they deploy, and the empathy with ‘ordinary voters’ they project. Each has their own agendas, each appeals to differing political factions, and, interestingly in marked contrast to the establishment, each relies on the charisma of individual leaders. Each has also been charged with political immaturity: some are ‘swivel-eyed loons’, others are economically illiterate, and still others are fighting battles several decades out of date.
All are, nevertheless, looking for a public reckoning. UKIP and the SNP have both, in significant ways, directly influenced the complexion and fortunes of the Conservative and Labour parties. Why should this be? And, more particularly, why now? Has Westminster not always been a bubble? Historically non-mainstream parties have benefitted at times of economic stringency, so they may simply form part of the long convalescence that has followed the economic crisis of 2008. Or they may, as the work of some economists implies, be a sign that the gap between the haves and have-nots reveals a neoliberal settlement that is, if not broken, then threatened with ominous cracks.
Perhaps because all of these movements are political, they only rustle the branches of the establishment without digging up its roots. For this hard labour we don’t have to look far. In February, The Sutton Trust released an update to a report going back a decade on the educational background of the UK professions. It reiterated previous findings, and chimed with the clamorous condemnation of social injustice set out in the 2014 report, ‘Elitist Britain?’, from the Commission on Social Mobility.
Seven per cent of the population, we read, are educated at independent schools. This figure is fairly well known. But the seven per cent achieve in quite an exceptional way. They account for over half of all permanent secretaries, senior diplomats, senior armed forces officers, members of the House of Lords, journalists, and solicitors. They also make up 45 per cent of public body chairs, 44 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List, 36 per cent of the Cabinet, 35 per cent of the national rugby team, 33 per cent of MPs, 33 per cent of the England cricket team, and 26 per cent of BBC executives. Somewhat ironically, they make up over 70 per cent of a profession the central aim of which is to do things justice: the judiciary.
For anyone who was not independently educated it’s hard not to feel a strange mixture of anger and depression at these statistics. And this is a feeling sharpened by other research, like for example, the fact that state-educated students with the same level of prior attainment as their privately educated peers tend to do better at university. The commission’s comments do nothing to assuage this pessimism. In the report they suggest that Britain contains ‘elitism so stark that it could be called ‘Social Engineering’’.
The commission also made it clear that social immobility is not just a matter of education but of geography. Wherein the country you are educated matters. Just under half of the cabinet (45%), the shadow cabinet (43%), the judiciary (45%), and the Sunday Times Rich List (42%) attended school in London and the South East.
People respond to facts like these in different ways. I have heard some historians argue, in a sense rightly, that most societies have always formed elites, and that, by the standards of the past, our own elite is a good deal more progressive and accessible. The Commission on Social Mobility, in contrast, upholds principles of fairness, meritocracy and equality of opportunity: if you have the talent, society should recognise it.
The first response is explicitly elitist. The second looks and sounds like its antithesis, but the spectre of elitism lingers. It doesn’t challenge the existence of the highest echelon, just who comprises it. Society is fair, in other words, where the small coterie of professionals who run the country achieve their exalted status on merit rather than privilege. But a small cabal of power and influence remains.
So is there another way to respond? The assumption of these arguments is that the shape or ‘idea’ of an elite is morally neutral. It is, we might say, a bit like a piece of technology: the nature of it matters less than what you do with it.
But another way to think about elitism might recognise that, like technology, it influences or conditions the people inside it regardless of their background. Without naming names, person A might enjoy the benefits of an independent education, attend one of the Russell Group universities and pursue a career at one of the top commercial law firms in London. They are entirely shaped by the institutions of the elite. Person B, on the other hand, might be a barn-burning firebrand from a disadvantaged background, outraged by the inequality and injustice of entrenched privilege. Their intelligence and motivation admits them to Oxbridge, and subsequently, they become an outspoken columnist for one of the national left-leaning newspapers. And voila, they have been initiated into the elite circle of metropolitan journalists!
The pre-socratic philosopher, Parmenides, suggested that all change is an illusion. Is there not something Parmenidean about this sort of elitism? Is the debate about social mobility a hut built on the crumbling ruins of a previous structure in a landscape that remains fundamentally unchanged? And does this not mean that the culture of the elite straightens out the crooked timber of humanity to fit within the narrow chamber of value and success it fosters? Does ‘success’ of this sort demand a kind of self-erasure?
Under the right focus, it’s just possible to spy this sort of grim social engineering at work in many different ways. The story of state education in England since the 1944 Education Act drifts, very often on currents of hot air, between a clarion call for greater social mobility and an equally vociferous call for fairness and inclusion. Grammar schools created a dynamic route through the social hierarchy for bright young working class pupils, but, in the process, created a two-tier education system.
From either corner it implies the same idea of ‘success’: largely academic achievement which leads to a place among the professions. Education, in short, is all about joining the elite. Does this make adequate sense for the full range of human character and potential? What about the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake? Or is education, in fact, concerned only for the potential of a few? And is it only concerned for the welfare of a few because the education system starts from a singular and distorted view of success conditioned by tacit elitism?
These days arguments about education morph quickly (perhaps too quickly …) into arguments about economics. An educated population is a more productive, innovative, and dynamic one. Or so it goes. I’m no economist but I hear the chorus of voices bemoaning Britain’s inveterate productivity problem. And yet if education is the soil from which economic prosperity grows and it has a purblind view of achievement, is this really surprising? So perhaps our elitism also creates a ‘political economy’ which does not make the most of its most valuable asset: human resource.
But what about British culture and the arts? They are in rude health, aren’t they? Theatre is an international treasure. Four out of the ten highest-grossing British films were made in the last ten years. British film makers these days seem to have their fingerprints all over Hollywood. Galleries and museums repeat-produce crowd-pleasing exhibitions. Then, of course, there’s Harry Potter.
Still, the mythologies spun out by the creative industries do often reflect a privileged world. James Bond has a first in oriental languages from Cambridge, Hogworts looks an awful lot like an old-fashioned private school, Richard Curtis’ comedies seem to traverse the most expensive real estate in the country, Downton Abbey romanticises the landed gentry, and The King’s Speech was … well, about a king. What is more, while they are often excellent actors, many of the bright lights of screen and stage do seem to have been educated at the top private schools. And, in spite of the BBC’s adventure in Salford, publishers, literary agents, film studios and so on, are mostly located in the South East.
One of the interesting passing observations of the commission is the connection it makes between elitism and what it calls ‘group think’. People from the same background tend to think in the same way, which produces a sterile and predictable habit of thought and judgement.
The commission’s report implies that greater diversity in the corridors of influence and power would produce a richer and more dynamic cast of mind. But if the Parmenidean character of the metropolis holds true, then surely this lack of imagination is more institutional than personal? Just as an artificially elevated elite creates a unique notion of success, so too it creates a one-track mind.
If that’s so, then ‘representative diversity’, the fashion of liberal thought, is actually something like an internal contradiction and disguised by the same smokescreen. Members of parliament might draw on different genders, and represent the spectrum of ethnic backgrounds, but they will all inhabit the same ‘ethnic’ culture of parliament. The BBC bends over backwards to be as inclusive as possible, but this just paints an impression of diversity in a monochrome scheme of inclusion. Richard Curtis films are as kind, cuddly and liberal as anyone could hope, but they do tend to romanticise a privileged world.
Real diversity, it might be argued, is something much deeper and starts from a more rounded view of human nature rooted in the brambled briars of circumstance. People are different. They come from different backgrounds, invested with different perspectives and assumptions. Consequently, they think differently, they have different abilities, preferences, interests, personalities and insights. Surely the skill, or the trick, of any successful political economy is not just to tolerate these differences but to celebrate them. The deeper point, in brief, is that the stark elitism decried by the social mobility commission creates a culture with one voice to speak for many, when we should give everyonea voice.
And if it’s true to say that elitism tries to fashion human nature into a single mold, then it also shapes the way people react and object to it. Which brings me back to Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump.
The political establishment likes to think that Corbyn, Trump, the SNP, and UKIP have got the wrong view of national politics. They are, it is almost implied, politically illiterate (which often translates as economically illiterate). National politics is much more murky. It is a business of fudge and compromise conducted by fairly unexciting people working out the finer points of public policy in obscure committee rooms.
But the rallying voices from outside the political mainstream are products of this attitude, xand they take advantage of its patronising tone. A removed and insular establishment creates, by definition, the political conditions for resentment, protest and cynicism. It is the crucible for the height of political sophistication, but equally, across the entire body politic, for glaring ignorance and superficiality. By ceding the exercise of power to the executive, political literacy becomes a matter of public information and transparency, which is almost always truncated, partial and often hollow.
It might not be too strong to say that someone like Corbyn is aninvention of this political space, rather than anyone with a resonant insight. Establishment voices suggest he still thinks he is speaking at a student rally from the 1970s. But the point surely is that he wasn’t chosen in a climate well-groomed by concern for political substance, but in one that welcomed the subversive tone of his distance from the lacklustre cadre of establishment MPs vying for control of the Labour party.
The same is true of Trump, with the key difference that he is actively and shamelessly superficial. He is to a large extent whatever sensationalist headline he has provoked (which means he is not so far from a living, breathing cartoon). This is political territory he has made his own through a tawdry concoction of calculation and megalomania. He is, as others have already said, very smart at appearing very stupid.
The point is simple: by concentrating value – across an array of senses – in a small part of society, elitism denudes it elsewhere. Anti-establishment voices are almost bound to come across as ever-so-slightly ill-informed and deranged.
It follows that the same point could be made about culture. It is too easy to identify the accounting mentality which corrals fiction into ‘commercial’ and ‘literary’, or films into the kind of thing that the BFI might show and the multiplex stuff screened through explosions of popcorn. Opining about deep-focus long shots in Rossellini might count as snobby, but is there not also an obvious connection between the litany of vacuous comic-book flicks like Deadpooland the cultural space in which Donald does yet another trump?
This sort of discussion rests on how society “makes sense” out of human nature. Our current values imply a uniform and universal creed of redemption, which is incongruous with the sheer diversity of human character. If we are the victims of social engineering, then it comes with the emotional range of a production line.
So does it not, therefore, also follow that things would work much better if widely distributed cultural circumstances, rather than a sterile clique, were to mediate the exercise power and all it entails (economics, education, art and so on)? Or, to say it differently, would it not work better if we put people, in their unpredictable finery, before the impersonal forces that currently control their destiny?
The roots of our elitism are those of an English oak. But they aren’t immoveable.