The world I was born into was class ridden. Over my lifetime there has been substantial social mobility, with many more families entering the worlds of white collar work and property ownership. Meanwhile the old landed families have lost relative power and wealth as others have grown richer from trade, commerce and investment.
I loathed the Marxist reaction to the problems of class. I devoted much of my intellectual energy in the my early years to understanding and refuting the Marxist analysis, based as it was on bogus science and misunderstood history. In the 1980s I wrote the â€œPopular Capitalist Manifestoâ€ as an antidote to the all too influential â€œCommunist Party Manifestoâ€, and took that series of ideas to countries emerging from the autocracy and poverty of communism. They have prospered much more since throwing open their doors and windows to the global marketplace, and hurling out the restrictions of the Marxist era.
There are three principal solvents of class division: more wealth, more income, and better education for those who would otherwise be on the wrong side of the class divide. Socialists try penal taxation and regulation to take wealth and income away from those who are successful, to redistribute to others. Taken too far, it merely drives the successful and their money away from any country trying such an approach. Believers in freedom seek ways to liberate people, to promote greater social mobility and to generate more wealth and income throughout society. Both socialists and freedom lovers in the UK believe in free education for all, whilst allowing some to buy a different education in the market if they have the money and the wish to do so.
Gordon Brownâ€™s speech this week-end claimed to want to create a society based on ambition and opportunity. I have no problems with such a vision. The problem is, the actions of his government seem to be pointing in the opposite direction.
On Thursday night I appeared on a Question Time panel with Charles Faulkner, Chris Huhne, Theresa May and the Head of Barnardos at Eton College. Rory Bremner chaired the proceedings. I accepted the invitation because they promised to raise substantial sums for charity, and because it was organised by the boys themselves. They made a good job of doing so, and showed enterprise and maturity in the way they handled it. It is the second time I have visited Eton in recent years, going to an evening event organised by the boys. I am impressed by what they achieve, and always leave knowing they have something special, an advantage for life. I went because the school was near to home, the date was convenient and I was happy to help them in their initiative. I would love to accept a similar invitation for a Thursday or Friday evening at a local Berkshire state school organised by the pupils.
The question we should ask, is how can we achieve more of that spirit in the state schools? Whilst praising those state schools that do put a lot in to events they organise, I have never received similar invitations from pupils at a state school. I am usually told by socialist friends that it is all a question of money. The fees are much higher at Eton than the per capita spend at a comprehensive, so it is bound to be better. Of course it is true that Eton can afford specialist sports coaches, and teachers for a wider range of subjects. It is also true that it needs to spend much more because it has boarders, who need some adult support and supervision 24 hours a day.
The two events I have attended at Eton did not require extra money. The boys organised the Economics lecture I gave, and the Question Time, by sending inexpensive emails and making short phone calls. They used the free hall and meeting room facilities in the school. In each case the main thing they offered was a large audience, underwritten by the Eton senior pupils themselves, but with invitations extended to other schools, to friends and family. None of these things are beyond the capability of state schools, nor beyond the ability of state school pupils to organise. In the case of the charity, they did also obtain some sponsorship, where their parentsâ€™ network of contacts probably helped, but this was to raise more money for the charity rather than being essential for the Question Time itself. In each case the audience was lively and interested, wanting to get something out of the event they had produced.
Like Gordon Brown, I want opportunities opened up for everyone. I want the Etons of this world to raise more money so that they can offer more scholarships to pupils with talent from low income backgrounds. That will help some more young people, and will help bridge the divide. Threatening good schools with cancellation of their charitable status is to regress to the old class war â€“ finding ways to lift state schools to similar levels of performance would be the positive way ahead.