A class act

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 “Popular Capitalist Manifesto” as an antidote to the all too influential “Communist Party Manifesto”, 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 Brown’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 parents’ 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 – finding ways to lift state schools to similar levels of performance would be the positive way ahead.


  1. Bert Rustle
    March 2, 2008

    John Redwood wrote … 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 … To a certain extent, this has been effective in the economic sphere. However Egalitarianism is similarly motivated and is based on bogus science, yet as far as I am aware not one Westminister politician has addressed it, even though there is a great deal of research on the topic in academic journals.

    For example, equal pay for equal work is correct but the believe that a lack of women in desirable positions is due to discrimination by men has reached the level of a religious belief. By this I mean it is presented as a revealed truth, such as the immaculate conception, and that it is categorically not “consistent with the statistical analysis of empirical data”. Peter Wood’s Diversity: The Invention of a Concept details how it arose. For example, Professor Timothy Bates’ current research Abstract … Males have only a marginal advantage in mean levels of [IQ] but substantially greater variance. Among the top 2% … there were almost twice as many males as females. These differences could provide a partial basis for sex differences in intellectual eminence. I suggest to you that within the contractually mandated policy of Diversity, quoting this would be an example of “the truth is no defence”. Do the politicians of Norway, who mandate that 40% of top jobs be held by women, know of this research? Would they want to?

  2. Rose
    March 2, 2008

    Contrary to what we are so often told I do not consider Britain to be too class-ridden as compared with some other countries. We always had a fluid system whereby people moved up and down according to luck, attraction, intelligence or money. It was never dependant on breeding alone – which is perhaps one of the reasons we did not suffer violent revolution in the 18th or 19th centuries. What I fear is the meritocracy that some want to come in its stead. That will indeed be ruthlessly exclusive, and the differences in outcome stark. as hierarchy of some form or another is inevitable in ordering human affairs, surely the old ways were gentler and more civilized, allowing for more variety at the top, and the whole range of eccentricity which has always been one of our strengths. Without eccentricity what is liberty?

  3. Devil's Kitchen
    March 2, 2008

    As an OE myself, I share your assessment. This is why I so loathe people like Polly Toynbee (and most socialists): they do not aspire to raise the bottom to the top, but to drag the top down to the bottom. Or, in Polly's caravan analogy, to prevent fracture by slowing those at the front, not by helping those at the back to speed up; thus ensuring that the caravan reaches its destination at a much slower pace.

    I have always maintained that the true value of a public schooling is not what is learnt in the classroom — although when people talk about classroom sizes, I always remind them that my main classes (which included English Lit, etc.) — had about 24 pupils in them — but what one is encouraged to do outwith pure (and limiting) academia. As it happens, I spent most of my spare time, as a metal sculptor, wielding an oxyacetylene torch in the art schools.

    I firmly believe that the Swedish education system is by far the best. It involves state funding, sure, but through vouchers, thus allowing parents to choose the school that they feel will best serve their child (thus, coincidentally, breaking the postcode lottery). Most importantly, every single school is independent and thus has control over their own finances and curriculum. Amongst other things, this approach allows us to scrap the LEAs — pointless administrative bodies that waste up to a third of all school funding through pointless pen-pushing.

    We can see that it works, and does so very well. Unfortunately, I don't believe that any politicians have the guts to put forward such a policy (although Willetts hinted at it in his now infamous grammar school speech). As a result, thousands more children will be failed and consigned to the scrapheap of life.


  4. Brian Pol
    March 2, 2008

    This is an excellent article, and indeed reading your book on popular capitalism is a key reason why I am a free (though mixed) economy Rawlsian rather than a socialist. It was a very convincing and thorough argument for democratic Thatcherism, which in my view was carried too far with regard to railways, (though she and I don't think you either, ever argued against the principles if not the practice of the NHS) Markets should operate where they can and are beneficial, breaking up the inefficient system of feudalism/aristocracy and avoiding both the petty tyrannies associated with this and the more obvious ones associated with socialism and more vulgar marxism.

    Some services and key 'social capital' though, are more efficient when run by democratically accountable states, local governments and voluntary groups. This was recognied well by pre- Thatcherite Tories.

    The public provision of education is a good example of a good devalued by abundance, with many no longer valuing their 'free' education (which is of course nothing of the sort), even into higher education which should be a highly rewarding and beneficial experience. This may be more a result of wider cultural changes and prosperity (poorer countries from Eastern Europe to Africa have a long record of greater appreciation of the merits of education)

    The fact is though, that even with excellent education for all and a change in culture whereby education is valued (and not merely in terms of 'skills' for jobs) there will still be people who end up working on checkouts, on menial jobs in factories and cleaning the streets. A system of equal opprortunities means that at least those ending up at the bottom can benefit from the gains made possible by others but I firmly believe that cultural/social elitism is the answer, even benefitting those left behind, rather than any 'levelling down' which pursues equality as a good in itself. Hence, there is nothing wrong with graduates in literature, philosophy etc. and other 'economically' worthless subjects occupying these lower rungs where required as the standard has been raised for everyone. This is surely better than the system where a small elite (whether deserved or not)were able to benefit from higher education.

    Of course, grammar schools were and should be a key part of such a mutually beneficial system. Unfortunately, this nulab government has led to a dumbing down culture combined with a lack of opportunity and private schools for the Diane Abbots of this world. I simply cannot understand why Cameron/Osbourne would not introduce more elitism again, perhaps Mr Redwood could enlighten me? Do you agree with the current shadow cabinet views on this subject?

    Reply: They favour a grammar stream in every school, as building new grammars in certain places would be expensive and slow to act.

  5. niconoclast
    March 2, 2008

    Or follow the Tebbit suggestion of privatising all schools therby depoliticising them. Trying to reform the state system is doomed to failure.Socialised education has been an unmitigated disaster. Conservative policy should be a principled objection to the whole State experiment in education..

  6. Bazman
    March 2, 2008

    To quote the ever quotable Liam Gallagher of the band Oasis. "We didn't want to be middle class. We just wanted your money."

  7. Steven_L
    March 4, 2008

    Well I’m not sure I agree with all of this. Whilst not wanting to take anything anyway from the boys at Eton who have organised this, I think you have to admit that they have a unique selling point. I have no doubt you mean what you say when you express the desire to be invited to similar events at state schools in your constituency. However, would the same star-studded cast accept an invitation to a debate at any common or garden state comprehensive?

    My first school was a very good C of E affair. When I was about seven or so I asked the headmaster if we could have a pond. He was quite impressed I had asked him but took about 10 seconds to refuse on the grounds that some boys might push each other in. I really don’t know what the headmistress of my high school would have said if I’d wanted to invite a few famous politicans and a comedian around for a debate. I imagine she’d have though it all a bit far fteched and suggested that I organise a pupil to pupil debate on something.

    My teacher in year five certainly wouldn’t have let such an event go ahead – he hated you and Mrs Thatcher with a passion.


  8. Richard Fletcher
    March 4, 2008

    I think that the restrictive nature of the national curriculum is partly responsible. If teachers in state schools are dissuaded from teaching their subject in the way that they think is best, it's hard to see how they can transfer the enthusiasm they have for the subject to their students.

    If teachers were able to deviate from the curriculum where they thought appropriate, I think this could kick-start a pupil’s interest in a subject. Then, providing the school were supportive, it's only a matter of time before the extra-curricular activates follow.

  9. Steven_L
    March 5, 2008

    I agree there is work to do on tackling negativity in the public sector. The biggest irony of the whole local/central debate is the locals like to shout loud for automany, whilst at the same time resisting any innovation that does not come top down – well in my opinion.

  10. auditor
    March 18, 2008

    Here is my suggestion for cutting public sector waste.

    Scrap all the RDAs. In their place selectively reduce business rates in specific postcodes of economic depression.

    Such a scheme could easily be administered nationally for £200k/year by a couple of statisticians. It would be a transparent and uncorruptable system.

    It would deliver targeted tax cuts to business that most needed them.

    My belief is that such a policy would really help small business and entrepreneurs in areas of 'social exclusion'. It would be hugely popular because it would be fair and sensible.

    It could save billions in waste and still help far more people than the current scheme.

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