Britain is a nation divided. From class, to politics, to geography, there is a deepening sense that parts of our society are living entirely separate lives. While these divides were brought into sharp focus for many after the EU referendum, this is not a new problem. Social mobility in Britain has been low for a long time, with few signs of improvement. The reality is, the background you are born into still plays a large part in determining the opportunities available to you.
Nowhere is this lack of fair opportunity more evident than when looking at the country’s “elites” — those in the jobs that wield the largest amount of power and influence over the rest of us. In Britain today the people in these jobs look very different from the population overall.
As new research by the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission shows, positions of power are dominated by the privately educated. While just 7 per cent of the population attended a fee-paying school, 29 per cent of our MPs, 44 per cent of newspaper columnists, 52 per cent of the country’s top diplomats, 57 per cent of the House of Lords and 59 per cent of civil service permanent secretaries went to an independent school.
Many also went straight from private school on to Oxford or Cambridge, leaving them with a very specific and limited set of life experiences. A quarter of those in the House of Lords, and a third of newspaper columnists took this route to the top.
This matters because it’s the people in these positions who shape which issues the nation talks about and how we talk about them. They also make far-reaching decisions on how to fix them. But when their experiences are so different from the population overall, it risks those at the top missing things, or giving certain issues undue importance compared to their impact on society.
Two years after Grenfell, many are still asking how concerns raised by residents before the tragedy did not make it into the national consciousness. Their concerns, along with so many others, were simply not heard.
And it’s not just missing stories entirely, but also what is covered. Both the media and politicians spend a great amount of time and energy on Oxbridge – and while scrutiny on access to these institutions is welcome, the attention they receive is out of all proportion to the less than 1 per cent of the population they educate. Other universities, as well as crucial alternative routes into the workplace like apprenticeships and further education, inevitably miss out
Our politicians, civil servants and journalists should not look radically different from the society they serve. Those at the top need to take immediate action to open up routes into their industries, from banning unpaid internships (still common in Westminster), to monitoring the socioeconomic diversity of staff.
We also need our future prime minister to ensure the next government puts social diversity at the heart of all of its policies, to ensure opportunities are open to all.
Dr Rebecca Montacute is a Research Fellow at the Sutton Trust and author of the Elitist Britain report.
This blog was originally published on Times Red Box.