UK society is increasingly divided by class
A new film about privileged youth has sharpened the debate about class division in modern Britain. Top jobs increasingly go to the privately educated. Whatever happened to meritocracy?
‘Filthy. Rich. Spoilt. Rotten.’ reads the tag line for ‘The Riot Club’. Out this week, the film was inspired by the activities of the Oxford University Bullingdon Club, notorious for its social exclusivity and drunken vandalism.
It is intended as a satire on the club’s members, who have included the current Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Mayor of London, and the persistence of class in modern Britain. But critics have noted that the production itself makes this point. Finding actors to play the film’s rich, privileged characters wasn’t hard — there’s no shortage of young public-school talent out there. And two of those they chose, Freddie Fox and Max Irons, had famous acting fathers too.
Recently actors, including Dame Judi Dench, have argued that it has become increasingly hard for anyone except the children of the rich to break into acting. Many of our current best actors were privately educated, like Damian Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Dominic West. That’s fine, but where’s everyone else? Hefty drama school fees and the expense of living in the early, underpaid days are pricing working-class people out of the profession.
And acting is only the tip of the iceberg of privilege. According to a report published by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission last month, three quarters of the senior judiciary, a third of the English rugby and cricket teams and two thirds of the senior armed forces attended fee-paying schools, as did a majority of senior journalists, editors and broadcasters. Yet just 7% of the UK population attend private schools.
Last week, the leader of the TUC, Frances O’Grady criticised an era of ‘silver spoons’, widening pay gaps and class prejudice; a society similar to that seen in the TV series ‘Downton Abbey’. Improving access to higher education, with its qualifications, networks and opportunities, is frequently suggested as a way to counter this rising inequality.
Nice jobs for nice people
Some say that leading universities must be forced to impose quotas on the numbers of privately educated students in publicly funded higher education. If universities reflect a more balanced and diverse cross-section of society, eventually, so too will the top professions. Only that will break the power of privilege.
Others say this would amount to dangerous social engineering and destroy the reputation of the UK’s world-class universities. It would unfairly punish private school students simply for their background. Instead, massive investment and improvement in state schooling is required, combined with serious public commitment from all publicly funded institutions to ensure access for all.
- Is Britain a deeply unequal society?
- Are university quotas a good idea?
- In groups, make a list of reasons why diversity in public life and the top professions is important.
- Create your own infographic using the statistics in this story and in our expert links.
Some People Say...
“Deep down we are in love with the idea of the upper class.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why should I care about elitism?
- This story concerns all of us because it asks us what kind of society we want to live in. If Britain’s judges, politicians and journalists all attended the same schools and universities, read the same books and heard the same lectures, it might mean that the top professions are losing out on a lot of talent and creativity from elsewhere. This might make us less inclined to trust their judgments, their ability to run the country, or to report on the issues that matter.
- Is it a hopeless situation?
- No, and recently more attention has been devoted to the issue. Universities are under greater pressure to make sure they offer places to state-school pupils and companies are increasingly refusing to take into account what school or university an applicant attended.
- Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, the Chancellor George Osborne and Prime Minister David Cameron were all members of the Bullingdon Club while studying at Oxford. However in recent years they have distanced themselves from it. Johnson has described the club as ‘a truly shameful vignette of almost superhuman undergraduate arrogance, toffishness and twittishness.’
- Social mobility
- A person’s ability to move between classes. In 2013, more than 161,000 people took part in the Great British Class Survey, which revealed that there are seven classes in Britain, ranging from the ‘elite’ down to the ‘precarious proletariat.’
- The Trades Union Congress represents the majority of trade unions in the UK.
- Frances O’Grady
- Ironically, O’Grady’s televised speech was interrupted with the news that the Duchess of Cambridge was pregnant with her second child.