John Redwood: We are becoming a more unequal society

In many ways, we have made it more difficult for today's child from the council estate

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Today's child from the council estate does not face that same challenge. In some ways we made it easier for them, with much more encouragement for those who do not come from public schools and well-heeled families. But in other ways, we have made it more difficult - we have taken away access to some of the best schools by abolishing direct grants and destroying many grammars. Some believe the answer is to give all prizes. But there is no pride in winning if winning is too easy.

There is less upward mobility now than 20 years ago. The challenge for today is to recreate in our modern setting ways for children from all backgrounds to aspire to be the best in their chosen area. If it's money they want, they should be able to compete for their place in the Chelsea football team or be encouraged to set up their own company. If it's lifestyle they want, plumbers and electricians often do better than people with degrees. If they wish to pursue careers in the media, medicine, the law and public affairs, they need places at high-quality schools which will stretch them whoever their parents. I would like all to win prizes - but only if they have achieved something worthy of such recognition.

Today most people in the country would either regard themselves as middle class or as classless. The huge armies of factory workers who owned nothing and depended on the mill owner for their livelihood have largely disbanded. The Labour Party apes Conservative language, recognising its old class rhetoric demanding the automatic support of the "workers" caters for a declining minority.

The Conservative Party, as it embarks on its search for the elusive extra votes to take it to government again, should recognise this shift. For with it has gone a shift in aspirations. We should be the party that offers more hope of joining the comfortable classlessness that characterises the best of modern life. If there is a class divide left, it is between what social commentators now call the underclass and the rest of us.

Most people in the UK now own property. Shareholding is much more widespread than 30 years ago. We need to encourage more people to become owners, to have a stake in society around them. We need to find pathways to prosperity for those who currently own nothing.

In the years after the war there was still an aristocracy with its own mores which attracted admiration and anger in equal quantities. Today, instead of aristocracy, people look up to or peep in at celebrity. Celebrity itself has become ever more democratic.

The new Britain does offer us the chance to create something better. The pursuit of celebrity is but candy floss on the body politic. Underneath that today, there is a more equal community. Oxbridge graduates may become plumbers because the hours and pay suit them better than taking a conventional graduate job. The footballer is now by far the best-paid man in the street and can stay rich if he plays his cards right.

Conservatives should be angry that Labour has damaged social mobility. The abolition of grammar schools, the taxation of pension saving, the continuous increase in regulation of the self-employed and small enterprise, the sniping at the best universities, all serve the interests of those who have already secured their place in Labour's pantheon of cronies and placemen.

Conservatives must offer to remove obstacles in the way of individuals building their own business, saving for their future, striving for the best. We should want all to go to an independent school, rather than trying to punish the independent schools we have. We should have a tax system which is kinder to those who make an effort, and reinforces those who save for their futures. We need to remodel the regulatory framework to cut the number of ways entrepreneurs can end up in court.

The Conservative Party is the party of aspiration or it is nothing. The state should do less, but what it does do should reinforce the new classlessness in Britain with the right kind of help to strivers from poorer backgrounds. It should not build them up by knocking down the children of the comfortable. It should let them build themselves up by setting the right challenges and the right expectations.

The author is the Conservative spokesman on deregulation

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