Sir John Major has recently come in for praise from the Guardian, not usually known for praising former Tory Prime Ministers. The reason is Major’s remark to Norfolk Conservatives that “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. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.”
Although Major blamed Labour for stalling social mobility, the comments have inevitably been interpreted as a dig at Old Etonian David Cameron and his posh chums for taking over the Conservative Party from the likes of Major himself — the son of a music hall performer who left his south London grammar school with three O levels. The presumption is that the Conservative Party has become less meritocratic and more toffish since the 1990s. In fact, the exact opposite is the case.
Yes, roughly seven per cent of British schoolchildren go to independent schools and 54 per cent of Tory MPs in the current parliament went to fee-paying schools, but this is the lowest percentage of Tory MPs ever to have attended such schools. In the 1987 parliament, during which Major became Prime Minister, 68 per cent had attended independent schools, and after his 1992 election victory the percentage was 62 per cent. These figures understate the degree of change: the vast majority of the third or so of Tory MPs from the Major era who had been educated in the state sector would have gone to selective grammar schools; most of the 46 per cent of current Tory MPs who were state-educated would have gone to comprehensives, for the simple reason that grammar schools had been abolished in most of the country by the time they were of school age.
Looking at the cabinet the change is even more stark. Of the 22 members of Major’s first cabinet, four had been state educated — Major himself, Kenneth Clarke (whose school, Nottingham High, was then a direct grant grammar school but is now fee-paying), David Mellor and Michael Howard — and 18 had gone to independent schools. More members of Major’s first cabinet (two) had gone to Eton than had gone to a secondary modern or a comprehensive (none). By the time Major left office in 1997 the members who had attended state schools had increased to seven and they included the first boy from a comp, William Hague. The Etonians had however also staged a revival-there were now four OEs in the cabinet.
David Cameron’s first cabinet in 2010 was the first ever Tory-led government in which more than half its members — 12 out of 22 — had not attended independent schools. Cameron was (and is) the sole Etonian. If one compares this to Anthony Eden’s 1955 cabinet — of which all 18 members had been privately educated and more than half (ten) were OEs-the change is revolutionary. The parliamentary Conservative Party is being transformed in its social makeup.
It may not seem so at first glance, but Cameron’s Tory party is much more meritocratic than Major’s. Yet Cameron says he “absolutely” agrees with Major. If so, they are both wrong.