Politics: A Posh Boys’ Game

Dan Walsh 

Image © conservativeparty

The recent row over Andrew Mitchell’s alleged use of the word ‘pleb’, hot on the heels of a fairly undisguised ‘lurch to the right’ in a Cabinet reshuffle, once again brings up the age old ‘the Tories are a party of public school toffs who will always be the same and value only themselves’ argument. Labour supporters find it immeasurably tempting to give into this, and it can often unhelpfully cloud debate and disguise their own failings. It has to be said though, the Coalition have not been lacking in giving ammunition.

It’s easy to begin to wonder just what goes through the mind of Prime Ministers when making appointments to cabinet. As mentioned above, the statement of intent was clearly to move right in this instance; the appointment of the right-wing and climate change skeptic Owen Paterson as an environment minister and the somehow unsacked Jeremy Hunt, a co-author of a book describing the NHS as a 60-year mistake, as health secretary are perhaps the prime examples. Quoting a previous appointment though, it’s also worth mentioning Theresa May’s selection as equalities minister as well given her history of reportedly holding meetings to attempt to cure people of being gay and a voting record that includes voting against gay adoption and against the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality.

Whatever your views are on homosexuality, the NHS or the climate, it seems sensible to feel that the ministers for these particular areas ought to have two things: a level of expertise in the field and a desire to stand up for the field. The lack of expertise is the one that never fails to amaze. If a musician wanted to hire a guitarist for a recording session, would their attitude be ‘well he can’t play guitar but he’s a good friend so I’ll get him in and he’ll pick it up as he goes along’? And yet that is basically what happens within the Cabinet as the Prime Minister passes around jobs to people who know nothing about the realities of daily life and yet are expected to run the country and a government department dealing with issues and problems that are beyond the expertise of the budding minister. 

The expertise factor is perhaps more obvious in terms of motive. In the interests of eventually performing yet another u-turn on the new third runway at Heathrow, best get rid of the transport secretary who actively opposes it. In the interests of threatening the NHS still further, appoint a man who believes in homeopathy and thinks the NHS is a mistake. The logical assumption would be that the health secretary ought to really stand up for the nation’s health service or an environment minister would care about the environment, but we shouldn’t be so daft.

Of course the burning question is why they are allowed to get away with all this. Why is the cabinet dominated so overwhelmingly by public school educated men, who have proved themselves outlandishly incompetent in countless ways, who simply pass the important roles around to each other and worse, stay put despite blatant infringements of their parliamentary code? Jeremy Hunt’s appalling bias in the Murdoch affair is well documented but let us also note his deafening silence on the Hillsborough findings, an incident which he lazily and ignorantly described as being down to hooliganism like the Heysel disaster not so long ago. Mitchell’s recent performance is another example, of course.

Why is it that no-one outside of their world can break into these positions? The time-honored argument that would come from many Tories: ‘anyone can get there if they work hard and graft for it’. This would be fine if it were true, but is anyone seriously claiming that no-one outside of the public school system endeavors to get to that point or is a more capable politician? Might it not be that being from a rich family means big business which eventually means power and influence? It is worth noting that public schools in fact have charitable status, an absurd notion given that posh boys hardly need charitable status which provides tax exemption and other financial assistance. This exacerbates the stranglehold they have on politics still further. This is not to suggest all public schoolboys are the same, far from it and such inverted snobbery would be equally unhelpful, but it is totally wrong that only the rich, and not necessarily the bright, can break into the political world. State educated viewers of Question Time on Thursday night surely broke a hundred television screens between them as Jacob Rees-Mogg effectively said that state schools needed to get better, so they produced more people ‘up to the top jobs’ because of course you need a public school education to be capable. Perhaps more disturbing was the lack of comment on this from the rest of the participants apart from Steve Coogan, the only state educated member on the panel.

Mitchell may not have called the policeman a ‘pleb’ (although as quick as he is to say what he didn’t say, he’s not so eager to reveal what he did say) and yes it may have just been a random one-off loss of temper after a hard day, but one can’t help but feel it is indicative of all that is wrong with British politics when a public servant simply doing his job is yelled at with such arrogance by yet another politician who believes he has the right to be there. It’s easy to say ‘same old Tories’ but what’s sadder is it’s basically a case of ‘same old politicians’.

Dan Walsh


‘Incredibly gifted, if anyone has the chance to see him they must’ – Janice Long, BBC Radio 2


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