Barriers break as Britain embraces upward mobility

Class distinctions may exist but are not a block to reaching the top, according to a report. Michael Streeter looks at the debate over whether family background still matters in Britain.

Last year the distinguished economist Lord Bauer and the editor of the Spectator magazine, Frank Johnson, nominated an earl for membership of the Garrick Club. Here were two low-born men - one the immigrant son of a Hungarian bookmaker, the other son of a pastry chef - backing the blue-blooded Earl of Onslow for entry to one of the country's most exclusive establishments.

Mr Johnson recalls the impact it had on his friend. "I remember Peter [Lord Bauer] saying, `how can people believe this is a class-driven society when two oiks like us nominate the Earl of Onslow for the Garrick?'"

The outcome was that Lord Bauer dusted down a 20-year-old pamphlet on British society and today publishes the updated version called "Class on the Brain", a brief study of social mobility.

Its theme is simple. Differences of class may still permeate British life but they are not - and he claims, rarely have been - barriers to social advancement. Moreover, Lord Bauer claims that widespread acceptance of the "misconceptions" about class has itself harmed society and social mobility by encouraging damaging policies.

In his introduction, Lord Bauer says: "The [restrictive and divisive class] system is supposed to be a major barrier to economic progress in Britain and also a significant source of justified social discontent. This is untrue."

To back his argument, he gives examples of numerous people from "modest" backgrounds who have achieved much in fields such as commerce, the Civil Service, politics, education, the media and the church.

In the media, the pamphlet cites the John Birt, director-general of the BBC, who was born in Bootle into a family of dockers, and Melvyn Bragg, author, radio presenter and director of London Weekend Television, who Lord Bauer describes as being brought up "in the family pub" in Wigton, Cumberland.

Examples from the world of commerce include Joseph Lewis - described as Britain's richest man after making a fortune in currency dealing - who was born and brought up in an East End pub; Newcastle multi-millionaire Sir John Hall, the son of a miner; Ann Gloag, a former nurse who co-founded the bus and train company Stagecoach; and Mark Dixon, son of an engineer, who left school at 16 to sell hamburgers and later founded Regus, now the world's largest provider of serviced offices.

Lord Bauer also refers to the relatively humble origins of prime ministers Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Major. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, is the son of a hospital porter, while among the "elite" of the Civil Service the Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, Sir Terence Burns, was born in a council house in a pit village. Lord Bauer also quotes the results from a study last year in which 52 per cent of a sample group had "moved class" in their lifetime.

The thrust of the pamphlet, published by the Centre for Policy Studies, sits uneasily with a book to be published next month called A Class Act, the Myth of Britain's Classless Society by Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard. This describes the emergence of a new "super class", an elite grouping "divorced" from the rest of society by "wealth, education, values, residence and lifestyle".

However, the authors appear to square the circle with Bauer's thesis by admitting that this class has emerged in an "open" society where social mobility abounds.

The "super class" concept coincides with the views of historian and writer Sir Roy Strong - himself mentioned in the pamphlet - who regards the new Labour elite as its embodiment. "The Blairs are a monument to this new Establishment class." Sir Roy, who believes the impact of old-style class is waning, recalled an incident when he had applied for work at a museum. "I put down my father's occupation as commercial traveller. Someone told me not to, and instead put `businessman'. At that time one felt very humble, and museums were incredibly class-bound. But I don't think that would happen now."

Mark Dixon, head of Regus, believes class does exist but provides "obstacles" rather than barriers. "If you have no contacts or education you just have to start from scratch and do it all yourself, but that can help - it makes you better at opening doors. "And if you come from the bottom you have nothing to lose - and every move you make is a step up."

Class on the Brain - The Cost of a British Obsession; Centre for Policy Studies; 57 Tufton Street, London SW1P 3QL; pounds 7.50

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
United States President Barack Obama, right, uses actor Keegan-Michael Key from Key & Peele to play the part of 'Luther, President Obama's anger translator'
video
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions