Private school influence in public life 'shocking' says Major

Students at Eton College Sir John suggests the privately educated have too much influence in public life

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The influence that a privately educated, middle-class elite have on public life is "shocking", former prime minister Sir John Major has said.

Sir John said the "upper echelons of power" were dominated by those from a similar background.

In a speech to Tory activists reported in the Daily Telegraph he blamed "the collapse in social mobility" on the failures of the last Labour government.

More than half the current cabinet were educated at private schools.

David Cameron was educated at Eton, as was the Mayor of London Boris Johnson and the Archbishop of Canterbury The Right Reverend Justin Welby.

Nick Clegg attended Westminster while George Osborne and deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman went to St Paul's. In contrast, Sir John - prime minister between 1990 and 1997 - grew up in Brixton and left his grammar school with three O-levels.

'Victorian divide'

In a speech to the South Norfolk Conservative Association's annual dinner, he bemoaned what he said was the lack of people from working and lower middle class backgrounds in positions of influence in British institutions.

"In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class," he said.

"To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking."

Sir John said the Labour government, in power between 1997 and 2010, had left a legacy of a "Victorian divide between stagnation and aspiration" which current leader Ed Miliband was in no position to address.

Too many children, he added, were "locked into the circumstances in which they were born" as a result of a lack of educational opportunities.

He added: "I remember enough of my past to be outraged on behalf of the people abandoned when social mobility is lost... we need them to fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them.

"And it is not going to happen magically."

Help for savers

Sir John also called for more help for savers, who have seen their incomes eroded by "cripplingly unfair" low interest rates since 2008.

He urged the Bank of England to raise interest rates to "normal levels", which he suggested were between 3% and 5%, as soon as was economically feasible.

Nick Pearce and Nadine Dorries debate Sir John Major's comments on social mobility

He also advised his party against "personal attacks" on UKIP, suggesting many of their supporters were natural Conservatives who were "patriotic Britons" who felt "bewildered" by the pace of social change.

The speech is his second intervention in contemporary politics in a matter of weeks, after his call earlier this month for a windfall tax on energy profits in the event of a harsh winter and a warning about hidden "lace curtain poverty".

The BBC's political editor Nick Robinson said he did not believe the comments were an attack on the current Conservative leadership but a plea for those from modest backgrounds to have more say in public life.

The former prime minister, Nick Robinson added, was speaking up for what he regarded as his party's natural constituency, the hard-working but aspiring majority who were not well-off.

'Out of touch'

Downing Street rejected any suggestions of a rift with Sir John, saying Mr Cameron spoke to his predecessor "pretty regularly".

And the prime minister said initiatives such as the help-to-buy scheme - which is designed to encourage lenders to offer mortgages to people with deposits as low as 5% on homes worth up to £600,000 - was all about promoting social mobility.

Figures show 2,384 people, the majority first-time buyers, have applied for loans under the scheme in its first month.

"Without this help to buy, we were beginning to see a country where only people who had wealthy mums and dads, who could give them the money for the deposit were able to buy a flat or a house," Mr Cameron said.

For Labour, Kevin Brennan, shadow schools minister, said Sir John was "telling people what they already knew", saying the government was "out of touch" with "the next generation being locked out of opportunity".

The UK Independence Party said the Conservatives were as much to blame as Labour for the social and educational imbalance at the top of British institutions.

UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall said: "The abolition of selective education in Britain has been a hammer blow to the prospects of working class kids. Until we see a grammar school back in every town and city across the UK, Britain's shocking lack of social mobility will go on."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Having deliberately chosen state schools for my kids, I am appalled by their lack of interest in anything that goes on around them - politics, history, arts and so on are all dismissed as 'boring'. It's hardly surprising that with these attitudes entrenched in the state system, few of it's pupils are motivated to get involved in almost anything! It's the ethos not the curriculum to blame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    Milliband, privately educated Marxist, personal wealth of £7 million, never worked a true day in his life. This man is supposed to be the representative of the ordinary working man.
    That epitomises all that is wrong with modern politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    Good comments Waffley Versatile.
    Major is wrong - it's not where they come from or are schooled, it's much more HOW they do the job, runningn the country FOR the country.

    Most of the comments on here are blatantly party political, not reasoned and logical. Are they all written by politicians? God help us.

    Everyone at the H of C just wants votes - nothing more. Sad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    As a former Grammar School boy I clearly remember my girlfriend's brother and his public school cronies referring to us as 'plebs'. Doesn't that word have a familiar ring to it?

  • Comment number 193.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    Just shows how bad Private Education is EH!

  • rate this

    Comment number 191.

    There seem to be a fair number of representatives of the two major parties posting here, whose views may be summarised as : -
    Tories: we are at the top because we deserve it.
    Labour: Its not our fault that we did nothing.

    No wonder an ever increasing number of us are desperate to find a better way and different people to represent our views!

  • rate this

    Comment number 190.

    He's only just realised this? He's simply stating the b****y obvious! Then to blame the past labour government is beyond belief. Britain's history is littered with disasters of the incompetent upper classes who have been placed in power not for their skills but because of their family & the schools they attended. The tragedy is that many of those who have much to offer never have the chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 189.

    Social mobility through education died with the grammar schools, thanks to Shirley Williams (Labour now Lib-Dem). Children were chosen for such an education on intelligence & performance not privilege. Now bright pupils go to schools that do not stretch them and less talented students are encouraged to spend a fortune on university degrees that do not benefit them or society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 188.

    The sad thing is it will never change as those in power are making the poor poorer and the rich richer. Then we have a millionaire prim minister telling the poor who can hardly afford to pay there bills and warm there homes that we are all in it together.
    England is going backwards not forwards ......

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    167. libranmeg
    "John Major was one of the best Prime Ministers this country ever had"

    ... dear, oh dear

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    The abolition of selection has indeed closed the door for many poorer but talented children.There is a myth that those who failed the selection process were placed on the scrapheap but in fact they were well served by dedicated teachers who tailored their schooling according to ability.Many in fact transferred to grammar schools a year or two later.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    The worst thing about todays elite and resulting MP's is that they are uniformly useless.

    They are either lawyers or PPE graduates.If there was a "golden age" of politics post war it was because they had had no choice but to mix with the common man/woman during the war whilst in the services and so had a better insight as to what people wanted and what concerned them.

    This lot are clueless

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    Major is right the Old School Tie Influence is growing daily and not just in the Millionaires Tory Cabinet.

    BBC Every Single One of Your Morning News Regular News Readers went to Public School and 80% of the Rest.

    Overall 65% of Your Journalists went to Public Schools

    Put your own house in order you are paid by ALL of us including the 93% of Us who didn't benefit from elitist education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    Private schools are one of the biggest hinderances on this country.

    Either our education system is good - in which case every child should be forced to use it, or it isnt good, in which case it should be improved.

    as for the fact that private schools are classed as charities for tax reasons, its desgraceful. They are not charities, they are private enterprises and should be treated as such.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    You have to laugh... All that's happened to the Tory party on which the Grey man bases his entire argument, is it's returned to its true roots. It's always been the party of wealth, the 80's cabinets were an out of step with Tory tradition, and DC and co have simply restored the Status Quo. How is that Labours fault?! As for Grammar schools and selection these reinforce the social divide!

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    In a bad year 1 in 4 go from Eton to Oxbridge, on average 1 in 3.

    Going to Eton is just another sound social and business investment for the rich and privileged. Statistically it is highly unlikely that there is that degree of cluster of intelligence.

    And get this Oxbridge fees are roughly 75% less than Eton fees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    Nothing to do with politics left or right but I hate to say this too you He's right and the majority of bussiness failure's are becuase people who have been to private schools are uselss when it comes to bussiness or practical know how Theyve never had to work fronm the bottom up ,these positions handed to them Most of them think they are better than others but they not you know far from it

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    Im UKIP, but I'm certainly not a "patriotic Briton bewildered by the pace of social change"!!!

    Neither am I an nationalist or a traditionalist. I simply stongly oppose unaccoutable centralisation of power with corrupt and incompetent monkeys. That applies as much to Lib/Lab?con as to the ridiculous EUSSR.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    John Major may be shocked but the rest of us have been well aware of this all our lives. I suggest he takes a break from earning a fortune with Haliburton and has a look at the real world.


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