IF ASKED TO IMAGINE a Whitehall civil servant, thoughts invariably turn to Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, who puts his loquacious upper-class manners and learning to work frustrating government initiatives (usually in the guise of supporting them). It’s little wonder that Yes Minister was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite sitcom. Bureaucracy becomes the enemy of democratic initiative. The state appears as a self-serving cabal of elite interests, incapable of initiative or reform.
Thatcherism ultimately prevailed across Britain’s ideological spectrum, and bureaucracy was cut down to size. But in one respect, decades of post-Thatcherite “modernisation” left the upper reaches of the civil service intact (even as the lower ranks of heavily-exploited civil servants ballooned).
A new study by the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) suggests that the civil service elite are “posher” than ever. Hidden rules, the report argues, favour those with the “right accent”. Today, an extraordinary 72 percent of those in senior posts come from elite backgrounds, compared to just 67 percent in 1967; 59 percent today went to private school.
And thus old habits die hard. “You’ll be in a ministerial meeting and they’ll sort of talk in Latin,” said one respondent, “but they’re making what you’ll realise later is a sort of joke about Brussels that everyone sort of understands, and laughs.” Post-Thatcher and Blair, today’s Sir Humphreys are more open to market reform and doubtless more “intersectional” in terms of gender and race; but they are arguably more adept at exercising class closure. A blizzard of “competitive” reforms just made it easier to reproduce the establishment.
Predictably, the recruitment problems are concentrated in London, where 66 percent come from a high socio-economic background. But Scotland, where the comparable figure is 51 percent, is not immune. All of this despite endless chatter in Westminster and Holyrood about the virtues of social mobility. The latter seems to vary inversely with actual social progress.
The report’s recommendations, in that sense, make for interesting reading. Essentially, it frames the problem in the fashionable jargon of intersectional human resource management. Class, the authors argue, should become a protected characteristic, like race, gender, disability, age or religion. Similar arguments were made of hate crime legislation. Aren’t terms like “ned” and “chav” just as hateful and just as vicious in reproducing “privilege” as some of the terms that our government is set on outlawing?
Nonetheless, I must admit to feeling conflicted about this approach. On the one hand, it can be maddening when academics, NGOs and the public bureaucracy endlessly debate privilege without discussing class. And doubtless there are great masses of people who feel shut out because they didn’t go to private school, don’t know Latin and don’t speak in received pronunciation. Perhaps this isn’t the true reality of “class”. But it is how people experience exclusion in everyday circumstances.
On the other hand, this approach risks reducing “class” to yet another competing identity. And one ultimately composed of vowel pronunciations, school ties and an ability to quote Virgil in the original tongue. To this line of argument, if culture is the problem, the answer is more meritocracy. We can solve the problems, some argue, by being more sensitive to the impact of protected characteristics on people’s career tracks, allowing the truly meritorious to rise up the ranks.
This approach suffers from the same underlying problem as most framings of identity politics. In the guise of a critique of privilege, it reproduces the meritocratic ideology which is the main rationale for social class today. There is no real critique of an unequal, hierarchical society. The aim is simply to stop the same old families enjoying the fruits generation after generation; to stamp inequality with “fairness” and “representation”.
We’ve been harping on about social mobility for generations. All political parties think it’s perfectly marvellous (think of the consensus around the “poverty-related attainment gap”), yet there is considerable evidence of its decline. Class barriers seem to harden even as talk of the baleful influence of “privilege” explodes in elite circles.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. You can’t have an equal distribution of life changes in a fundamentally unequal society. The more unequal we become, the more the beneficiaries will protect their children with capture and closure.
So while we should be appalled at “hidden codes” that help privileged youngsters rise to the top, it’s a symptom of a deeper malaise. You could purge the upper classes of its Latin and even of its Etonian playing fields; but class is encoded in capitalism’s DNA. You can wage war against genetic destiny, but you’ll be fighting a losing battle. As Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park – nature finds a way.