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Lee Elliot Major

April 16th, 2024

A Class Apart: Prime Ministers’ origins profoundly impact their political worldviews

1 comment | 37 shares

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Lee Elliot Major

April 16th, 2024

A Class Apart: Prime Ministers’ origins profoundly impact their political worldviews

1 comment | 37 shares

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The background of our Prime Ministers hugely influences the judgements they make. Yet our leaders are drawn from an astonishingly narrow slice of society: every PM who attended an English university since WW2 went to Oxford, for instance. Why should we care about the persistence of social elites at the top of British politics, asks Lee Elliot Major? And to what extent – if any – do Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer buck the trend?


In 2012, David Cameron’s advisers came up with a phrase for the Eton-educated Prime Minister to highlight his aspirations for a society in which anyone could flourish. “It’s where you’re going to, not where you’re from that counts,” announced Cameron, whose father was a wealthy stockbroker and descendant of King William IV. The problem was that it was a complete fallacy. In Britain it has become increasingly the case that where you come from matters for where you are going to. And this is certainly true for prime ministers whose origins have a profound impact on the policies and preferences they promote in power.

Cameron’s advisers “were drawn from an unimaginably narrow social group” – specifically four floppy-haired fellow Eton chums, according to former Cabinet Minister, Rory Stewart. In his book Politics On the Edge Stewart (himself an Etonian) argues that Cameron’s inner cabal were dangerously lacking in their perspectives of the wider world. Their decision to implement brutal public sector cuts during the era of austerity decimated the country’s network of early years Sure Start centres, damaging the prospects of a generation of children.

The background of our prime ministers matters hugely in the judgements they make – particularly when it comes to enhancing opportunities for the rest of us. And the problem is that most of our leaders are drawn from an unrepresentative slice of society. Below I’ve listed prime ministers since the end of World War II alongside their educational backgrounds taken from my latest book, Equity in Education. I’ve added their parents’ occupations and included Labour leader Keir Starmer as a potential future PM.

Every PM who has attended an English university since the War went to just one institution: Oxford.

The educational and social backgrounds of PMs since WWII

The list highlights the persistence of social elites at the top of British politics. Every PM who has attended an English university since the War went to just one institution: Oxford. That fact has stood firm despite a dizzying churn of incumbents at Number 10 in recent years. Five PMs attended the world’s most exclusive school, Eton, before going to Oxford. And just two prime ministers (Liz Truss and James Callaghan) were educated in non-selective state schools, which serve 90% of our population. Three PMs (John Major, James Callaghan and Winston Churchill) didn’t attend university at all.

Each of the past six prime ministers to attend an English university went to one institution: Oxford. Image © Shutterstock.

 

Most of our prime ministers were brought up in middle and upper class families. Categorising social class is not easy, shaped as much by cultural as economic factors. But parents’ occupations can provide a good indication of an individual’s class background. In the early post-war years, it wasn’t unusual for our leaders to boast aristocratic roots. In more recent decades, they are more likely to be the offspring of professional elites – solicitors, doctors and academics. Only John Major and James Callaghan could make claim to proper working-class origins. Around the time of the 1992 General Election, the Conservative Party made political capital from Major’s humble beginnings, delivering the memorable slogan: “What Does the Conservative Party Offer a Working Class Kid from Brixton? They Made Him Prime Minister.”

Education and social class backgrounds of Prime Ministers since World War II

British PMs and social class background

Why should we care about our PMs’ backgrounds if we get the best people for the job? The reason is that our backgrounds create biases in how we see the world – and so a lack of different perspectives at the top can lead to an increasing detachment from the daily lives of the diverse people that our leaders are meant to serve. Given their upbringings, it’s unsurprising that prime ministers tend to value academic talents above other human attributes. They are prone to assuming that everyone should aspire to the same middle-class lives they have led. Furthermore, they can lack understanding of the hardships that hinder people growing up in less favourable circumstances.

Following the neo-liberal consensus of the late 20th century, widening inequalities between the rich and poor have been allowed and encouraged by our political masters, based on the idea that greater overall wealth will benefit us all. But “trickle-down” economics relies on many flawed assumptions. And a big one is that in a deeply unequal world, the education system can by itself act as the great social leveller, enabling all children to enjoy a fair start in life.

Amid ever widening inequalities, promises to create greater social mobility can feel vacuous – satirised to great effect in the scripts for hapless ministers in the TV show, The Thick of It.

In 2004, Tony Blair vowed to create a meritocratic Britain where people would rise according to merit, not birth: “I want to see social mobility, as it did for the decades after the war, rising once again,” he announced at the start of his third term. This wasn’t quite the individualistic, Darwinist approach to social mobility promoted by Margaret Thatcher, but New Labour were still preoccupied with narrow “American dream” narratives: catapulting a fortunate few into elite universities and prestigious professions, overlooking the bigger challenge of improving the prospects for the unfortunate majority living in neglected areas across the country.

In the post-Blair years, this political philosophy – allowing societal inequalities to widen while giving education the sole responsibility for improving individual opportunity – has gone to ever greater extremes under Conservative PMs. Cameron’s view that state schools should be more like private schools and focus on “hard subjects” has seen creative, sporting and vocational talents squeezed out of England’s classrooms. That most contentious of education policies, increasing grammar school places for a fortunate academic few, has been (unsuccessfully) promoted by four prime ministers, who all excelled academically at school (May, Johnson, Truss and Sunak). The daughter of a maths professor, Liz Truss has been scathing about her experiences at a state comprehensive school.

Cameron’s view that state schools should be more like private schools and focus on “hard subjects” has seen creative, sporting and vocational talents squeezed out of England’s classrooms.

In the halcyon post-war years of booming social mobility, our leaders’ origins mattered less. Harold Macmillan may have been a distant leader for most people, but his famous words in 1957 that “people have never had it so good” was to some extent true. Many people enjoyed upward mobility, filling the expanding jobs in hospitals, universities and government created by the new welfare state. But leaders in the early 21st century face an existential crisis in modern capitalism: the dream of doing better, or just leading a decent life, is disappearing for many people. Current generations are doing worse than previous ones – less able to afford the rent, own a house, earn a decent wage, pay for childcare. Increasingly, they reject the notion that success is solely about upping sticks and going to university or leaving their community to achieve success elsewhere.

Looking ahead: the choice facing voters at the next General Election

This is the reality of voters’ lives as we look to the next General Election fought by two combatants, Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer, who in some ways are cut from similar cloth to previous leaders. Inevitably, both attended Oxford – although Starmer admittedly did so only as a postgraduate. Sunak is wealthier than the King; Starmer is a Knight of the Realm.

Yet they also signal a more diverse era of British politics. Sunak is the first prime minister of Indian descent, a practicing Hindu and the son of immigrant professional parents. Starmer is the son of a toolmaker and nurse – giving him strong working-class credentials. Amazingly, he would be the first PM since the War to have completed his first degree at an English university other than Oxford (Leeds).

Our choice is between two men whose personal back-stories have shaped their political visions. Sunak is seemingly loathe to mention the cost of living crisis and has pinned his hopes on growing the economy to create more jobs. Starmer has vowed to “shatter the class ceiling”, tackle snobbery against vocational and creative skills, and improve prospects for working-class children. The daunting challenge for whoever becomes prime minister is to recreate a new wave of expanding opportunity while addressing stark inequalities, enabling people to flourish in whatever they choose to do. In truth, it was ever thus; in his book Equality, published nearly 100 years ago, the historian RH Tawney argued that promoting opportunity depends “not only upon an open road, but upon an equal start”.

 


 

Equity in education: Levelling the playing field of learning, published by John Catt, is available now.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s). They do not represent the position of LSE Inequalities, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Image credits (current and past prime ministers): Shutterstock.

About the author

Lee Elliot Major

Lee Elliot Major

Lee Elliot Major is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter and Visiting Professor at the LSE’s International Inequalities Institute. He was formerly chief executive of the Sutton Trust. His latest book is Equity in Education: Levelling the Playing Field of Learning.

Posted In: Elites | Politics of Inequality | Social mobility | UK inequalities

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