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 737.

    As an American, I have a lot of things that I dislike about my country, but one thing which I can thoroughly appreciate is the societal mobility which we have. The UK is still dealing with the residue of a feudal society. I've always heard that in the UK class-consciousness was much more prevalent than in the US. This confirms that observation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 736.

    John Major's school may now be a comprehensive, but when he was at school it would have been a grammar school; this would have given him a semi-privileged educational opportunity as it did me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 735.

    @704. James
    I went to a comp / Cambridge and trained to be an accountant in the city - public school kids know about confidence - they can and do Bu****it for England - it is partly why we're in a mess - they talk the talk but really have no idea about walking the walk...
    I have a similar background and totally agree, unfortunately while the bosses have the same background nothing will change

  • rate this

    Comment number 734.

    692. crossalways

    I should like to know how marginally failing my 11+ (age 10) helped my social mobility, especially when you hear how the middle classes coach their children to pass.

    Better than that I know people who passed the 11 plus, but due to one or other hurdle had their place take, by a more suited {middle class} children child my brother for one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 733.


    I think what you've done there is confuse liberal notions of equality, with socialist notions of communal justice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 732.

    "Abolishing it won't improve the masses' education."
    Why? Teachers don't disappear just because their employer did. They'd seek private employment, as private providers expand dramatically to fill the void the state had filled.

    Or, teachers would become entrepreneurs, catering to parents' educational wants, competing/experimenting/innovating on methods and prices for patronage.

  • Comment number 731.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 730.

    Obviously John is losing his memory in his twilight years. He has forgotten that his party is paid by the wealthy to preserve their lifestyles and to ensure there is a large workforce of lower middle and working class who, dependent a low income, will deliver their needs. It is government by the greedy and his party actively promotes greed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 729.

    Right school, right tie, right club = all right jack.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 728.


    imagine the howls from the Tories/torygraph/Mail if Labour had really attempted level the playing field and attack privilege

    Poorer kids had a chance before Labour shut the grammars. Labour are responsible for the lack of opportunities. Shame on them

    Thatcher closed more grammar schools than any labour minister- but don't lets facts get in the way of "your truth"

  • rate this

    Comment number 727.

    He is absolutely right about savings though, we have been hammered and crippled by this policy to protect home owners (yes, I am one too) and people will not draw out savings and spend the interest if they are not getting any useful interest to start with. Or move their savings offshore for a better return. Also they cannot encourage and people will not save under such circumstances.

  • rate this

    Comment number 726.

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

    A quick Wikipedia check of John Major's 2nd Cabinet shows that 13 (60%) of them were educated at Independant schools.


  • rate this

    Comment number 725.

    Its been said lots of times but needs repeated, the ruling elite are not only out of touch in this country they have exchanged compassion for brutality all in the name of a twisted ideology.

    Cameron does not understand not does he care. Lib dems are not far behind and we have to ask if the likes of Clegg really are liberals.

    All the main parties need shamed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 724.

    687 toast

    "What about "Cameron The Con" Seems like you forgot to mention this loser!"

    Tories are what Tories are, like em or loathe em.. They wear their prejudices on their sleeve, I can't hate people that are simply being what they are and always have been. I can hate Labour/Unite/the pleb for putting a row of millionaires in charge of the so called party of the people however.

  • rate this

    Comment number 723.

    How does Eton manage to churn out so many m....s who are clearly not fit for purpose?
    Because they know they do not need to study and pass exams as their future is already secure with Daddy's money or they know that they will always be able to wangle employment out of one of their "connections"

  • rate this

    Comment number 722.

    the real problem of course is that we are powerless to change this many on here really think that voting in the champagne socialists will really change anything..we've had many changes of govt since 1945 and the country keeps sliding..we have no coherent policies on so many critical areas its a joke..if you ran a business this way it would be bust...hang on...we are bust.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 721.

    Parental attitude is the key factor.
    Most of the parents at private schools care about their kids.
    Some of the parents at state schools don't have any aspirations for themselves or the consequences of their accidental pregnancies.
    Break the cycle of kids having kids and you'll start improving things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 720.

    John, you have only just woken up, its always been the same!

  • rate this

    Comment number 719.

    I have met many well educated, intelligent people who went to Comprehensvie schools probably in the 70's and 80's. I also meet bright young trainees also state educated so what's going wrong? I transferred over to a Grammar School from my Sec. Modern that seemed OK as well. Somewhere in the education system something has got lost and the well paid don't trust the system.hence more private schools.

  • rate this

    Comment number 718.


    That is true and that''s why they do poorly when in the world, the rest of the world isn't fooled by an ill fitting suit as a badge of competence


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