It’s not exactly an earth-shattering revelation, but if you’re a former Prime Minister, people tend to listen when you express an opinion. You also get a particularly good hearing if you’ve been sparing with your comments over the years.
Sir John Major, of course, knew this all too well when he made a speech at the end of last week expressing his shock at the domination of public life by what he sees as an elite, which he blamed on a “collapse of social mobility” (which he laid at Labour’s feet). But you have to wonder whether he expected the furore and level of debate that his speech has sparked. We already knew, after all, that many members of the Government (and indeed the advisors and civil servants surrounding them) are privately educated and in some cases either come from wealthy backgrounds or have considerable financial assets either through family or following successful careers.
Inevitably, many analyses of Sir John’s comments have concluded that there is a warning to be heeded by the Prime Minister – namely that he and those that surround him risk being out of touch with the wider public. But the issues Sir John has highlighted stretch further than that. It is not as if public-school education or an upper-middle class background is unique to Conservative politicians. So rather than asking what message Sir John was making to David Cameron, we need to grasp the wider context – namely that there is at least the perception of a societal glass ceiling. Or as Orwell put it, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Sir John deserves great credit for highlighting these issues and sparking a debate not just about whether positions of prominence are the preserve of an elite, but what we can do about it. It’s a question that merits serious consideration and Downing Street’s repost that it’s not about where you’re from but where you’re going shouldn’t end the debate as to why some people might not be able to start the journey in the first place.