Dominic Lawson: Will we never escape class in this country?

The greatest victims of egalitarianism have been the least well-off not the wealthiest

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Class war has broken out in Crewe. The Labour Party has been sending activists dressed up in Eton top hat and tails to hound the Conservative candidate in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. As a matter of fact, the candidate in question, Edward Timpson, didn't go to Eton.

The man running Labour's by-election campaign is not bothered by this dissonance, however, declaring that Mr Timpson "is from an excessively privileged background". This is apparently a reference to the fact that he is one of the heirs to the Timpson shoe-repair and key-cutting business, which is indeed worth millions.

This attack on inheritance as a bad thing in itself jars almost comically with Labour's decision to field as its candidate Tamsin Dunwoody, the daughter of the late MP for Crewe and Nantwich, Gwyneth Dunwoody – who was herself the daughter of the former general secretary of the Labour Party, Morgan Phillips. I see nothing wrong with that; why not exploit the Dunwoody name to keep Crewe Labour? But it should perhaps have given the local Labour party pause before engaging in such puerile tactics.

One of the symptoms of a political party in crisis, however, is that it seems doomed to repeat its mistakes, rather than learn from them. The election of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London should surely have made it clear that the public is not, in general, the least bit offended by someone just because he has a plummy voice, or was privately educated – or says "Cripes!" at moments of stress. As one despairing minister has said of his party's campaign in Crewe: "Voters simply aren't concerned if someone went to a posh school, and a good number are actually turned off by such attacks."

It would never have happened while Tony Blair was leader. Indeed, he explicitly told a somewhat shocked Labour Party's conference back in the 1990s that: "the class war is dead". Cynics would say – indeed, they did – that such a remark is only what you might have expected from a man educated at Fettes, a school described as "Scotland's Eton".

That was not the only reason for Tony Blair's visceral aversion to the politics of class antagonism, however. He understood that if Labour were to seize from the Tories the prize of being seen as the party of aspiration, then it made no sense to stigmatise those who sought to get ahead socially – even if that involved (horror!) paying for their children's education.

Under Gordon Brown, the atmosphere has changed. For some time he seemed to have found it impossible to take David Cameron seriously, simply because the new Tory leader had emerged from a background of comfort and privilege. Early on, Brown dismissively described Cameron as "just an Old Etonian", as if there was nothing else worth saying about him.

Oddly, it has tended not to be the genuinely working-class Labour Party members who have taken such an attitude, but those who have also been privately educated, such as Ed Balls. It is almost as though those Labour Party supporters who were themselves privately educated wish to impose on the general population their own sense of guilt at being the beneficiaries of their parents' aspirations.

In exactly this spirit, the Guardian has just run a long feature – Networked at Birth – which sought to demonstrate how British politics and public life had become increasingly dominated by Old Etonians. Well, it's true that David Cameron is the first Tory leader since Alec Douglas Home to have gone to Eton; but the paper's own statistics don't bear out its general argument. Edward Heath's Cabinet was 22 per cent Old Etonian; under Margaret Thatcher the figure was 20 per cent, and under John Major it dropped to 10 per cent – although the proportion of his Cabinet educated privately was a strikingly high 80 per cent. Of David Cameron's shadow cabinet, 62 per cent were privately educated, with eight per cent (which is to say, just Cameron himself and Oliver Letwin) having been at Eton.

It is undeniable that social mobility in Britain has not accelerated in the way which most people would have expected, if they had been asked 40 years ago to make predictions about the direction of movement. Private education does seem, if anything, to be more of an advantage than it was then – at least as far as academic results are concerned.

Pure social class, simply in itself, is much less of an advantage than it used to be: radio broadcasters no longer have to disguise regional accents in a grotesque Henry Higgins-style parody of the upper-class, as they once did. Indeed, Boris Johnson protested that he was the victim of "vocal correctness" when, in 1999, the BBC dumped him from presenting Radio 4's Week at Westminster. (The BBC insisted that its objection to Mr Johnson was "a question of tone, not accent" and that it had no shortage of "presenters with plummy accents".)

It's impossible to assess the advantage that private education bestows, however, without also looking at the state sector and wondering what went wrong. After all, when Harold Wilson's government launched comprehensive education 40 years ago, it declared that its purpose was to provide "grammar schools for all", and, therefore, increased social mobility. It has not worked out that way. However cruel the 11-plus seemed to the children who failed it – and it was brutal – there is little doubt that the near-abolition of the grammar schools kicked away the most significant ladder of social mobility that this country had to offer.

Something else happened, too. The private schools had seen their grip on university places shaken by the grammar schools and they began to fight back. Where once the likes of Eton could indeed have been seen as in part a finishing school for the aristocracy, they are now obsessively competitive at an academic level – and therefore put their pupils at an even bigger advantage against a state sector only just emerging from an ideological opposition to the very idea of academic competition. Thus the greatest victims of a thorough-going culture of egalitarianism became the least well off, rather than the wealthiest.

David Cameron does not want to reopen this question, however, much to the disgust of those in the Conservative Party for whom the restoration of the grammar schools was itself an article of ideological faith. That was a very Etonian thing for him to have done – and not just because he himself never needed to depend on the state system of education.

Nick Fraser, the old Etonian author of The Importance of Being Eton, observes: "Etonians are the ultimate pragmatists, totally free of ideology. Other than the means of getting and gaining power, no conspicuous motives inspire them." If that is even half-true, then they are ideally suited to modern British politics.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

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