A few weeks ago, I wrote a Spectator cover story about David Cameron’s purge of the posh. My peg was a new wheeze from the Cameroons whereby prospective employees should be asked not just where they went to university, but about their childhood and parents’ assets etc. The idea was to make sure that too many posh people didn’t make it to the top. Sinister, I argued, and not meritocratic. Judging people on their merits means not marking them down for being poor or posh. Inverted snobbery is still bigotry, and ought to be deplored as such. And yet the government was proposing rolling it out, first with the civil service and then….
…the government hopes other employers will follow: Deloitte, Accenture, O2, Linklaters, KPMG, Barclays and others are supposedly on board. The BBC says it will start asking new employees about family background. So this kind of interrogation — ‘When did you last see your father’s payslip?’ — might become the norm.
I forgot to mention Theresa May. She seems to have taken this approach to her new government and as a result the entire Cameroon set have been subject to a purge of the posh. George Osborne, Nick Boles, Ed Vaizey, anyone who could be seen as part of Cameron’s neo-Brideshead movement has been put to the sword. ‘March of the meritocrats’ trumpeted the Daily Mail, as Theresa May promoted state-educated ministers. And worse, they have been billed as such ever since: as if there’s an inverse relationship between parental wealth and ability. This is unfair on those promoted, as well as those who have been sacked: there is much more to Justine Greening than where she went to school. Or her sexuality. You have a minister who has pioneered a 21st-century formula for handling asylum applications – a formula that the rest of the world will, in time, come to copy. This accomplishment is mentioned nowhere. Instead we learn that she’s female and state-educated.
God knows I have not been a cheerleader for the Tory modernisers, but did they all need to be victim to the May machete? Did none of them have anything useful to offer the UK government? Not even Michael Gove, perhaps the single most effective minister of the last six years?
I’ve also noticed something else over the weekend: a narrative creeping in that the Cameroons governed for the rich and that Theresa May has changed Conservatism by purging the rich and governing for the many. I was on Ch4 news on the evening of the reshuffle, and Jon Snow said surely Mrs May has taken a new direction. Tories governing for the many? It’s precisely the same direction, I said: look at the results of the Cameron years. The income of the lowest-paid rose the most. And who are the free schools for? The poorest. The panelists before me referred to the Cameroons as ‘cockroaches’ and said Osborne was a “face of inequality”.
The paradox of the Cameron project was that David Cameron, an old Etonian with a Brasenose first, became an anti-establishment Prime Minister. He fought the blob, wherever he found it. And yes, he did tend to cling to a social comfort blanket. But he governed for the many, as the below charts show.
To purge ministers because of their social background, or to sell a new Cabinet on the merits of where they went to school, is not the action of a meritocratic government. And the idea that the Cameroons were posh boys who governed for posh boys is awful and wrong. It’s not an allegation that Theresa May has made, but it’s an analysis that is creeping up after her reshuffle. As we say in the leading article of the current issue of The Spectator, it’s crucial that the Tories identify and preserve the best of the Cameron project, rather than go into some kind of Year Zero mindset.
Cameron had the good grace to make explicit that he was building on and extending Tony Blair’s best reforms (in schools and welfare especially). I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that Mrs May will be in no rush to do the same.