River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Ron’s Rambles

February 2020

Social Mobility Our society has a structure based on ‘class’, it was ever thus and, despite efforts by governments (generally half-hearted) and others, nothing changes very much. The top class is the ‘privilege class’. Members of the privilege class are very rich, mostly through inherited wealth, their wealth may be counted in thousands of millions, but being rich does not necessarily gain entrance to this class, appropriate background is a further requirement. Appropriate background includes family connections and usually includes an education at one of a limited number of independent schools and preferably, but not essentially, at one of the top universities. Members are usually in a position of power and influence. Roughly 50% of the land in the UK is owned by a relatively few members of the privilege class. Many of them can boast that the land has been in their family since given to them by William the Conqueror, not that that should be much to boast about since it was land that had been stolen. Because of the property and land in their portfolio and their contacts and inside knowledge, members of the privilege class have no difficulty in maintaining their wealth, if not increasing it. It is difficult to say what percentage of the total population constitutes the privilege class, since it depends where the line is drawn, but probably it is less than 5%. A recent study by The Sutton Trust that looked at 5000 leading figures in public life revealed that, although only 7% of children attend independent schools, 71% of top military officers, 74% of top judges, 61% of top doctors and 59% of top civil servants went to independent schools, as did 43% of media bosses, even the number of MPs that went to the best independent schools is disproportionate. One might understand that education in a public school could possibly better equip someone to be a judge, but why would it make better doctors or better army officers? (perhaps by instilling a false belief in their superiority?) A recent article in the ‘i’, relating the experience of a young and very well qualified graduate, told that she had found class discrimination insidious in the workplace as bad, if not worse, than sex and race discrimination. The fees for the public schools used by the privilege class are such that few from the lower classes can afford them. Many more youngsters with ordinary background are now getting a university education but relatively few will get into the top universities, and even fewer of those that do will finish up in the sort of positions normally filled by members of the privilege class. Cambridge, currently seen as the best UK university, has almost 50% of its intake from independent fee-paying schools, some other top universities have even higher proportions of independent schools in their intake. Clearly the privilege class is self-perpetuating, members of the privilege class are usually responsible for selecting and appointing people to top jobs and, no doubt, in offering places at top universities. Why do we allow this situation to continue? Class structure is by definition hierarchical, at the very top of the privilege class is the monarchy along with the royals and the lower members of the aristocracy, just below the privilege class is a group that is also very rich, can probably afford to send their children to good independent schools, they are very comfortable, some even deluding themselves that they are in the privilege class. These people will not want to upset the status-quo. Below them there are others not quite so well off but still very comfortable and they consider themselves upper-class, they are equally unwilling to encourage change. Then there are the middle class, successful business people, people in good jobs and quite happy with their lot, but probably aware of the inequities in society and worried by it. By keeping these people in these lower strata happy, the privilege class members know they are secure, hence the giving of tax cuts to the better off. The rest, almost certainly the majority, are mostly disgruntled and would like to see more done to make life fairer, but are not in a position to do very much other than vote for politicians whom they hope will do something. To date they have not done very much and the situation has become progressively worse since the end of the second world war, we are now near to the situation that existed in the 1930s with extreme wealth at one end and fairly extreme poverty at the other. There have been politicians genuinely keen to make society fairer. It is clear that education is key to improving the lives of the less well off. Tony Blair saw this and made two strong speeches on this topic, famously saying ‘education, education, education’. In fairness to him, he did try to improve state education, he increased spending, created more teaching assistant posts, introduced the idea of academies, (possibly not a good idea), and he greatly increased the numbers of youngsters going to university, that must be a good thing, even if the standards of degrees may have been lowered. When Theresa May became prime-minister she made her wish to combat the inequalities in society a focal point of her first speech, I believe she genuinely wanted to do that, but her government failed to make the changes necessary, it may be argued that she was severely restricted by financial considerations, but her government saw giving tax reductions to the privilege class and the well-off as having a greater priority. Just to add to the injustice of private education, some private schools have been getting tax relief as registered charities or discounted business tax and their income from fees is free of VAT. It is estimated that this is depriving the treasury of a potential £1.6bn. In an attempt to improve social mobility, the Labour party is proposing to ban private schools. As I reported once before, Finland took this step over ten years ago, the effect was that those with power and influence had a need to ensure that state education was at a high standard. In Finland the consequence of their action was that within very few years the OECD rated their state education the best in the world. If we really do want to do something about improving social justice and mobility it will be necessary to be radical and ruthless. It would seem that we should ban private education and make the queen the last monarch. I suspect that there may be a few people who would disagree with that.

(At the time of writing it looks very likely that, once again, the great British public will vote to be ruled over by the boys from Eton)

Syria The decision by the US to withdraw their troops and give the green light to the Turks to attack the Kurds, after having relied so much on the Kurds to help defeat Isis, was treacherous and unprincipled. Not only that, it was stupid, they have created a dangerous situation and they have allowed Russia to take the initiative and limit the Turks’ action. Once again they have given Russia the opportunity to appear to be the good guys in the middle east and further increase their influence in the region. The decision to try and overthrow Assad, strongly promoted by David Cameron, was a ghastly mistake, it allowed Isis to prosper and has resulted in an appalling mess in Syria and endless suffering. Under Assad Syria was stable and prospering, clearly there was a need to use what influence we had to get Assad to improve his human rights position, but to foster a revolution without being prepared to back it militarily was a big mistake. Of course, it all followed on from the equally appalling decision by the Americans and us Brits (Tony Blair) to invade Iraq and hunt Bin Laden, that resulted in the destruction of a stable and prosperous country and gave Isis the opportunity to get started. Goodness knows how many people have died and how much suffering there has been in that region, largely as a result of American and our interference, and for what?

Ron Watts

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