Prepare for the toppling of private school politics – and a cultural change within Westminster – The Guardian

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However airless and dull this election campaign has been, one thing remains incontestable: that, unless something very strange happens, we are about to reach the end of a long political era. The years between 2010 and 2024 will be seen as a clearly defined time – of austerity, Brexit, the post-2016 collapse of the Tory party into internal strife … and, underneath it all, a United Kingdom that will end its latest blue period in an immeasurably worse state than when the whole mess started.

One crucial part of the story, however, might be underplayed. Partly because so many powerful British people come from backgrounds characterised by wealth, privilege and private education, emphasising the importance of such things is still often seen as impolite. But if we are going to understand what has happened to us, how can that subject be avoided?

The latest period of Tory domination began with the love-in between David Cameron and Nick Clegg, chummy alumni of elite schools who affected to be enlightened centrists but governed as cruel cutters; it now ends with Rishi Sunak, a prime minister who is rich beyond the dreams of avarice, insisting that he knows about sacrifice because he once went without Sky TV. Of course, not all the disasters that happened in between can be reduced to this stuff. But a lot of them can, and now is a good time to remind ourselves of it.

The week when the election will finally arrive is also a good point at which to point out something else that has been ignored. Last week, I got an advance copy of a very good new book titled Born to Rule: The Making and Remaking of the British Elite. Its authors, Aaron Reeves and Sam Friedman (based at Oxford University and the London School of Economics, respectively) have done fascinating work on the family backgrounds of current cabinet and shadow cabinet members, and arrived at some remarkable findings.


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The key one is this: only 7% of Rishi Sunak’s senior Tory colleagues come from working-class families, but with Keir Starmer’s team, the figure is put at 46%. A lot of people now know about Starmer’s working-class upbringing, and how the rise of Angela Rayner is testament not only to her personal qualities, but the opportunities provided by the trade union movement. But many of their colleagues have made comparable social journeys: the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, the shadow environment secretary, Steve Reed, and more besides.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, who grew up in a council house with no upstairs heating, recently said that she is a member of “one of the most class-conscious shadow cabinets we’ve seen for some time”. That is also reflected in the paltry numbers of shadow ministers who are privately educated: 13%, contrasted with about 65% in the current cabinet. The probable new cabinet, in fact, will be the most state-educated since 1945, a fact which finds political expression in a creditable Labour policy: the plan to impose VAT on private school fees, and use the money to improve state education. It is also part of what 4 July will symbolise: a cultural shift at the top, which will be very interesting to watch.

Appropriately enough, matters of class have played a large role in a Conservative collapse partly linked to the Tories’ revived fondness for leaders from the opposite kind of background. For sure, their party has always been the guardian of privilege and source of employment for posh people with either thrusting ambition or few other career options (or both). But from the mid-1960s onwards, it rightly concluded that it had to present a less entitled face to the public than it had in the long years of grouse-moor Conservatism.

With the arrival at the top of Margaret Thatcher, the party began to embrace an exacting and brutal efficiency grounded in her father’s famous grocer’s shop. Whatever her ideological furies, she was hardly a bumbling incompetent. Until she lost the political plot, she also had an instinctive bond with a huge chunk of the electorate.

Since 2010, by contrast, we have been governed by people who do not know much about how most people live, nor what they think. That explains David Cameron’s cosmically stupid decision to stage the Brexit referendum. It accounts for the misrule of Boris Johnson, and his apparent belief that the affections of the little people would excuse him an infinite amount of disgrace. Liz Truss, who spent some of her time in government decrying her own state education, was an exception to all this, although the reckless arrogance of her Etonian chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, continued the story.

In the case of Rishi Sunak, some of the allegations that he is hopelessly out of touch feel as if they blur into grimly familiar attitudes: witness Nigel Farage’s claim that the prime minister “doesn’t understand our culture”. But there are large parts of his backstory that are worthy of comment, summarised in a recent piece I read about his lack of political acumen: “Winchester, Oxford, Goldman Sachs, Stanford, marriage to an heiress, a hedge fund.” These things inform the latest instalment of a story that goes back to the advent of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition – of wealthy and entitled politicians blithely ruining the lives of poor and vulnerable people in pursuit of cheap political points.

That was the reality of George Osborne’s attacks on people “sleeping off a life on benefits” and the policies it symbolised; now, you see the same calculated cruelty in Sunak (who as chancellor in 2021 snatched away the £20-a-week universal credit uplift) talking about the urgency of changing the “eligibility criteria” for disability benefits.

One thing ought to be clear: the very different personal biographies of many senior Labour politicians do not rule out moves in a similar direction, albeit couched in slightly different language. As ever, the Labour party is not just complicated, but confounding. Every advance is always accompanied by the sound of dragging feet. As the fact that its only elected leaders have been white men proves, it has no end of ingrained issues with bias and prejudice. Put bluntly, Starmer seems much better on class than race and often worryingly reluctant to respond to people’s anxieties about the latter. Besides, a party whose leader now rules out what he calls “tax and spend” is hardly set to match its backstories with a thoroughgoing approach to social justice.

But here, nonetheless, is one sign of both flickering hope, and why Labour is different from the Conservatives. As George Orwell said, we live in the most class-ridden country under the sun. But we now get to choose between a party still surrounded by the crapulent reek of the Bullingdon Club, and another whose deputy leader is a one-time home help from Stockport. If this week goes to plan and the Tory regime is swept away, it might catalyse the beginnings of a change that some of Starmer’s ever-cautious colleagues seem surprisingly happy to talk about: a move away from the tyranny of school ties, members’ clubs and private jets, and the slow birth of something better.

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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