Stephen Cook: Sir John Major was the conservative UK Prime Minister who replaced Margaret Thatcher, so it’s rather ironic to hear him – and, in fact any former world leader from a western country – making such anti-establishment statements.
By Christopher Hope, Senior Political Correspondent, November 10, 2013 | Thanks to Golden Age of Gaia.
The dominance of a private-school educated elite and well-heeled middle class in the “upper echelons” of public life in Britain is “truly shocking”, Sir John Major has said.
The former Conservative Prime Minister said he was appalled that “every single sphere of British influence” in society is dominated by men and women who went to private school or who are from the “affluent middle class”
More than half of the Cabinet, including David Cameron, the Prime Minister, George Osborne, the Chancellor, and Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, are thought to have gone to private school and are independently very wealthy.
In the speech to Tory party grassroots activists on Friday evening, Sir John – who went to a comprehensive in south London and left school with three O-Levels – said: “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.”
Sir John blamed this “collapse in social mobility” on Labour, which despite Ed Miliband’s “absurd mantra to be the one-nation party they left a Victorian divide between stagnation and aspiration”.
But the comments will be seen as a challenge to the Eton-educated Mr Cameron who has faced repeated criticism for surrounding himself with advisers and ministers from a similar background and failing
In the speech to South Norfolk Conservative Association’s annual dinner on Friday evening, Sir John also said:
– the Government should help pensioners who have saved carefully for their retirement and are being punished by “cripplingly unfair” low interest rates
– the Bank of England ought to return interest rates to “normal levels, say three to five per cent”, so that society treats “the saver as fairly as it treats the debtor”.
– Tory party members were right to feel “unsettled” by the Coalition’s decision to legalise same sex marriage, but activists have to move with the times.
– the Conservative leadership should to pull their punches on the United Kingdom Independence Party, pointing out that “many of the Ukip supporters are patriotic Britons who fear their country is changing” and will come back to the Tory party.
Similar concerns about social mobility were voiced by Michael Gove, the Education secretary who went to state school, last year, but they will have extra resonance because of his role as a party grandee and former Tory Prime Minister.
Sir John said: “I remember enough of my past to be outraged on behalf of the people abandoned when social mobility is lost.”
He continued: “Our education system should help children out of the circumstances in which they were born, not lock them into the circumstances in which they were born.
“We need them to fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them. And it isn’t going to happen magically.”
Turning to the Conservatives’ prospects at the 2015 general election, Sir John said that if the party decided to “shrink into our comfort zone we will not win General Elections – the core vote cannot deliver a general election majority”.
Party members were right to feel “unsettled” by “bewildering” changes such as the Coalition’s decision to legalise same-sex marriage.
He said: “Social mores have moved on from the way in which we were brought up, with the values that we had. They have moved and changed.
“And that is why issues such as gay marriage have proved so toxic for the Conservative party.
“Because for many Conservatives, people who are conservative because their instinct is to conserve, to change slowly and only when you know it is certain for the better, that is classically Conservative.
“For people like that who form the bulk of our party and a great deal of our country too, these are difficult issues, these bewildering social changes and mostly it is my generation and older who are unsettled by these changes.
“We may be unsettled by them, but David Cameron and his colleagues have no choice but to deal with this new world. They cannot Canute-like order it to go away because it won’t.
Sir John, Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997, said internal criticism of the Government should be kept behind closed doors, even though it could be “productive”.
He said: “If members of our party wish to criticise the Government that it is fine. It is their right and it is often productive to do so.
“Government should have the benefit of alternative views, but let’s do it in private. Public criticism is destructive. Take it from me. Political parties who are divided and torn simply do not win general elections.
“Can we win this election? I am sure that we can but only if we pull together.”
Richard Bacon MP, who hosted the dinner, said: “It was a superb speech which drew attention to the huge damage done to social mobility especially by the last Labour Government.
“I think the Coalition is acutely aware of this problem and is taking steps to address it such as cutting tax for the low paid and the pupil premium but it is an enormous task.”