sat 02/07/2022

Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain, BBC Two

Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain, BBC Two

Clearly, it's a one-horse race to the top for the toffs

Say what you like about the posh – they know their place. Equipped from an early age with a sense of entitlement, they also have access to the oldest and most powerful social network there is: call it what you will, but the old boys' network remains, and you’d be hopelessly naïve to think otherwise. Where would our current prime minister be without it? Tony Parsons, who, as a working-class boy made good, is among a pitifully declining breed, thought he knew: “If David Cameron had gone to a comprehensive school he’d be lucky to be digging ditches,” he spat. That seemed unduly harsh, but after absorbing a few of the stats in last night’s Posh and Posher, it seemed fairly clear what Cameron’s “life chances” – to use old New Labour parlance – would have been, and it certainly wouldn’t have included running the country.

So what did we need to know to convince us? Three-quarters of the current cabinet are millionaires, we were told, and 66 percent of them are privately educated. That compares with just seven percent of the country – even tinier if you factor in those who go to the top public schools, such as Eton and Westminster, respectively the alma mater of Cameron and Nick Clegg. I can’t determine the figures for Westminster, but 19 Old Etonians have so far made it into prime ministerial office.

But although it’s sobering to think that the annual fees for both schools are higher than the national average wage, that’s not the most interesting thing to ponder. Far more so is the fact that for a few decades in Britain's post-war history, this class-ridden island managed to break away from public-school domination at the upper echelons of public life. From the arrival to Downing Street of Harold Wilson in 1964 to the departure of John Major in 1997, for 33 unbroken years all our prime ministers were products of the state education system. It was a line broken only by the arrival of a Labour government and the man who declared that “classless Britain” was now open. Astonishing.

And now it seems we’re back to business as usual. So how did we return to such a sad, plutocratic state of affairs?

Like fellow grammar-school boy John Humphrys, Andrew Neil has a fairly convincing answer: the abolition of grammar schools robbed those from ordinary backgrounds, like theirs, of the chance to compete with those at the elite end of the social spectrum. This meant that those of Cameron’s generation and below were confronted with a playing field so uneven that competing was never even a realistic option. (And what's set to change? None of the parties favour a return to the grammar school system, and selection is only talked of sporadically. Another third way, perhaps...?)

Cameron’s ideological mentor Margaret Thatcher may have been wrong about a lot but with the advantage of the great god of hindsight, she seems to have been spot-on about one thing: her education played a huge part in her rise to the top. “People from my sort of background,” she once told a packed conference hall in her uniquely imperious way, “need grammar schools to compete with children from privileged homes, like Shirley Williams and Anthony Wedgwood Benn.” Cue uproarious laughter (though who would laugh now, when we recall Williams the destroyer of grammar schools?)

Neil doesn’t have the most sympathetic of presenting styles. We didn’t really need, for instance, to see him in his jogging shorts, puffing away on his running machine at his Knightsbridge home, telling us that all this – the pad, the housekeeper, the chauffeur – was down to individual ability, sheer hard work and ambition alone, and not the result of daddy’s money, nor some fancy-pants fee-paying school.

But some of the interviewees he spoke to were a marvel, including old Etonian and Conservative buffoon Jacob Rees-Mogg. “I am a man of the people,” Rees-Mogg smirked, adding, as if the dim were in need of some approximate translation, “Vox populi, vox dei”. What a wag. Mandelson, meanwhile, banged on about how the trade unions were now so effectively castrated that ordinary people couldn’t rise through their ranks to become MPs. What? His own government had had its hands tied, obviously. I quite admire Mandelson, for a lot of reasons, but a life-time of toadying to the filthy rich has clearly addled his brain.

Douglas Hurd put it very simply. Though once preferring, for the sake of political expediency, not to bandy about his Etonian roots, he could afford to be a little less circumspect these days: “Doors were opened to you which were closed to others,”  he eventually admitted. There. You heard it from one of the horse's mouths.

  • Watch Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain on BBC iPlayer


Watching British politics from Australia is like looking back in time. The class structure still strangles British innovation and creates corruption and resentment. England drowns in sports glory when it beats Australia, like a drunken yob. The death of the Empire requires some amputation for the home country to survive, but nobody is brave enough. The gangrene sets in, and Europe laughs at it's little lost neighbour.

I, too, found the programme riveting and also deeply depressing - as a parent who cannot possibly afford to put my children through public school, it seemed I was watching this compelling commentary while being forced to give up any hope of my children making their way in any of the professions so dominated by this privately-educated elite. And then I remembered that all we're talking about, really, is politics, law and finance. Do I even want my children to become greedy bankers or part of the duplicitous breed that runs our country? No, I don't. Perhaps I'm kidding myself, but, as a journalist, and someone working in the arts (design, architecture), I have no sense whatsoever that these particular fields are dominated by those who went to elite schools - or that anyone I've ever met within the arts is even remotely interested in where you were educated. It's the quality of ideas that counts.....But I could be kidding myself. What I'd like to see is a really thorough investigation of other professions to see if the same 'elite' prevails there too, or whether there is still something of a level playing field, somewhere in the UK professions!

Whilst generally the programme was well informed, I felt that it would have been more informative if he had pointed out which political party has done its best to destroy the grammar school system thus reducing all pupils to the lowest denominator and thereby depriving many poorer, but brighter, children of a decent standard of education similar to that of his own.

Really enjoyed the documentary, I felt very well-informed and pleased to see it's very positive opinions towards grammar schools and hope that it will help more people to come about thinking as such. However, having attended a public school (founded as a grammar school, still remains selective with about average fees ~3000 per term,) I was surprised to see one of my former colleagues in the video debating in the Oxford Union portrayed as the Etonian stereotype which was so often mentioned. I don't believe there was a harder working person in his year; our old school is only responsible for instilling a very strong work ethic in its students and has no more vetting/links to politics than any state college in the area.

Dear j walsh (and Michael Gove): Grammar schools are not like they used to be. They still offer opportunities for the very bright from the lower economic echelons, but they now take in mostly middle-class children whose parents fork out £25 (or more) once a week (or more) for a year (or more) on private tuition which will enable their darlings to pass the 11-plus. The actual poor are consequently on an extremely tilted playing field, and they are running uphill no matter which bit of it they're on. The tutors are meanwhile adding expensive conservatories to their houses and enjoying much better wine.

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