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Why the Darcys and Percys are still running the country

The British upper class have been masterful in maintaining their privileges

The best part of a millennium has passed since the Norman Conquest. But the descendants of William and his henchmen are still conquering us all today. That was the conclusion of a study by two economic historians, Dr Neil Cummings and Professor Gregory Clark, published this week. The pair tracked the prevalence of particular surnames in the student rolls of Oxford and Cambridge Universities over the centuries. They chose one group of “rich” family names, associated with the aristocracy, such as Darcy, Percy, Mandeville and Neville, and another group of “poor” names like Delmer, Goodhill, Trevellyan and Cholmondley. Sure enough, names from the first group popped up continuously over the centuries, while those in the second did not. In the words of Dr Cummins, “The names of the Normans who conquered England nearly 1,000 years ago are still over-represented at Oxbridge and also among elite occupations such as medicine, law and politics.”

My first reaction, unfair perhaps, is that  Cummins and Clark may be expert statistical analysts, but they don’t seem to know much about the nuances of the class system. For example, the idea that Cholmondley is a “poor” name would come as a surprise to the three Cholmondleys who are the Earl of Leinster, the Marquess of Cholmondley and the Baron Delamere.  Likewise, a “rich” Neville could be an Earl of Westmorland, or Marquess of Abergavenny. Or he could be Gary or Phil Neville, lords of Old Trafford and Goodison Park, and in today’s society those upwardly mobile Nevilles probably rank higher.

All that said, it’s undeniably true that the British upper class have been masterful in maintaining their privileges over the centuries. Of course, it helps to have ambition in the blood. Even the most la-di-da toff owes their title to a medieval hardman, Empire-building soldier, tight-fisted factory owner or back-stabbing politician who fought, bought or connived their way to the top.

And while it’s perfectly true that a fair number of these men came to this country with William the Conqueror, plenty more did not. There’s always been new blood and new energy being pumped into the top end of the class system. This continual churn has been assisted by the extraordinary way that our ruling class has been able to adapt to survive the changes that brought down their counterparts elsewhere. It’s a huge mistake to believe the Bertie Wooster myth of the idiotic chinless wonder, loafing his days away. The reason the ruling class still rule, why the Prime Minister, Archbishop of Canterbury, mayor of London and future King of England all went to the same, unashamedly elitist school is that the upper classes have never stopped aspiring. No matter how much they already have, they still want more.

The great public schools were always tough, disciplined, even brutal institutions that literally beat an education into their pupils. They produced young men who knew how to give orders as well as obey them; who were encouraged to work hard, make the best of their abilities and get to the top of whatever field they happened to be in. Public schools have never been worried about ranking their pupils, testing them relentlessly, rewarding success and punishing failure. A boy of 13 who has lived away from his family since he was eight is a tough little sod. He can handle it.

Today, of course, public schools are far more civilised, but not less ruthlessly effective in giving their pupils a competitive advantage. As the historian and author David Kynaston pointed out just this week, one of the problems of private education is that it prevents the downward mobility that is essential if upward mobility is to be possible. Even the dimmest, laziest child has a fair chance of success once processed through the fee-paying system.

So the more interesting question is not so much, why do the upper classes keep succeeding, as why does everyone else fail? How can seven decades of the welfare state, 30 years of post-War Labour government and an educational establishment overwhelmingly dominated by people who would define themselves as progressive and egalitarian come to a point where, by any measure, the British education system is serving as a brake, not an aid to social mobility?

The evidence is all around us. British state school pupils (among whom, incidentally, my own children have been numbered) slide further and further down international tables. Only this week the OECD released a report stating that British pupils were among the least numerate and literate in the developed world and, uniquely, were less well educated than their parents’ or grandparents’ generations.

To me, this is the single greatest, culpable failing of the post-War British left. Two kinds of elitism, that of class and that of achievement, were conflated with catastrophic consequences. Desperate to remove deference and privilege, ideologues, often themselves the beneficiaries of private schools and Oxbridge, damned the elite status of talent and achievement as fiercely as that of birth or wealth.

The closure of grammar schools, the bias against competition (and the accompanying terror that any child should ever be seen to fail), the steady erosion of rigour across a whole range of subjects, and the obsession with “relevance” all illustrate the willed abandonment of the intellectual and sporting high ground.

Of course, anti-elitism is in itself an incredibly elitist concept, since it rests on the assumption that the proles just can’t handle anything really demanding, be it Shakespeare plays, German grammar, or quadratic equations. And it plays into the reverse snobbery that cripples so many Britons: the notion that aspiration, getting ahead and being well-educated are somehow forms of class treachery. Oxbridge admissions tutors have longed complained that they aren’t nearly as much of a barrier to working-class entrants as all the teachers who tell their pupils that Oxbridge is for toffs and there’s no point even trying to get in.

Yet, for all that there is a massive social and educational shift taking place in this country: one that Messrs Cumming and Clark do not appear to have noticed. One of my daughters is a student at University College London: not Oxbridge, I grant you, but UCL currently holds fourth place in the QS World University Rankings, ahead of Oxford, so it’s not too shabby. She is, like all female undergrads, in the great majority, since boys are disproportionately disadvantaged by the failed state system. Her two closest girlfriends are British Asian. Her closest male friends have Nigerian, Egyptian and Greek Cypriot backgrounds, and the student body as a whole has a very significant proportion of students whose families have come from, or still live in the Indian sub-continent and the Far East.

The class of students may not be changing, but their gender and ethnicity certainly is, and overwhelmingly so. If another pair of researchers start combing through university students’ surnames in a century’s time, what they will find will be huge numbers of women with names we once thought of as foreign. And there won’t be too many men called Cholmondley, however rich or poor they might be.