Tories 'increasingly dominated' by privileged Oxbridge minority

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The Independent Online
DONALD MACINTYRE

and CATHY NEWMAN

The myth that the Conservatives have forsaken their patrician past to become a classless party of self-made, self-educated barrow boys and shopkeepers is comprehensively debunked in an academic study to be published this month.

If anything, the leading cadres of the party have shown a greater tilt towards a public school and Oxbridge background since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, the new research reveals. And the trend has actually accelerated since John Major made its demise the theme of his leadership campaign in 1990.

While Tony Blair is on the brink of becoming the first public school prime minister since Lord Home and Mr Major famously went to a state comprehensive, there has been an increase in the number of Tory ministers to have been privately educated and to have attended Oxford and Cambridge.

The report, The Conservative Parliamentary Elite 1964-1994: The End of Social Convergence, to be published in the November issue of the journal Sociology, demonstrates that in the last 16 years there has been a 7 per cent increase in the number of Tories with a privileged academic background.

The authors, David Baker, Imogen Fountain, Andrew Gamble and Steve Ludlam, from Sheffield and Nottingham Trent universities, say: "The patrician retreat has actually been halted and reversed."

Since 1983, the number of Conservative MPs educated in the private sector and at traditional universities has gone up by 3 per cent.

During the Thatcher years, 19 per cent of ministers were Old Etonians; under Major, 22 per cent. The figure is particularly striking as the proportion of Old Etonian Tory MPs in general has halved since 1974.

The Prime Minister's lack of university qualifications is not matched by his colleagues. More and more Tory MPs have a university degree. In 1964-66, the research found, 24 per cent of Conservative MPs had no tertiary education; the figure in 1992 fell to 9 per cent.

"The party's parliamentary elite, and recruitment into it, remains predominantly the preserve of men from a socially and economically exclusive minority group, and their predominance is being reasserted," the report says.

This pattern may be explained by the social composition of the Tory heartland, which means that public school and Oxbridge educated politicians tend to get selected for safe rural seats.

Steve Ludlam said: "There was a bit of research in the Eighties suggesting that Margaret Thatcher's leadership was heralding 'embourgeoisification'. Our research suggests that this trend has gone into reverse. The Tory elite has a very disproportionate access to safe seats."

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