Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The core problem with UK democracy

Writing in the Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr puts her finger on the central problem with the UK's democracy: everyone went to Oxbridge:

There’s an invisible link that unites Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham. That connects them to Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and Tony Blair. To David Cameron and George Osborne and Nick Clegg. To 12 members of the current cabinet. And 12 members of the current shadow cabinet.

In fact, it’s not invisible at all. It’s right there on their parliamentary bios and their Wikipedia pages and yet the word that links all three is so ubiquitous, so commonplace, that in weeks of campaigning it has barely merited a single mention or raised a single eyebrow. All three are Oxbridge graduates.


But the Oxbridge connection is more invidious than this and if it hasn’t been considered worthy of comment during the leadership contest, it’s in part because in Britain most people who do the commenting also went there. Oxbridge doesn’t just dominate the Palace of Westminster but an entire political class. From the politicians and the special advisers to the political editors, pundits and thinktankees, there’s a homogeneity of experience, of thinking, of networks, of power and of influence that has led to an in-crowd that doesn’t even recognise it’s an in-crowd. There’s arguably more that unites our political elite than divides them. The last election was a battle between one Oxford PPE graduate (Cameron) and another Oxford PPE graduate (Miliband).

Which reduces elections to a meaningless competition between different members of a homogenous elite who share the same worldview.

And no, its not about merit. The UK's elite - descendants of feudal barons and slavers and colonial plunderers - send their kids to segregated private schools, which vastly increase the odds of them getting into those top universities. 7% of UK kids go to private (or "public" as they call it) schools - but they get roughly 40% of the places at Oxbridge. That's not because the rich are smarter, but because they seize and hoard opportunity, while locking out everybody else. Its the very opposite of the meritocracy they pretend to be.

And that homogenous mindset is inculcated from a very early age, as George Monbiot's piece (about trying to track down the book which opened his eyes as a child) makes clear:
One of the functions of private boarding schools is to insulate their pupils from the world, ensuring that they remain embedded within the culture and interests of their caste. They sustain a political milieu so consistent that there is little chance of escaping from it. The children inducted into this system absorb the dominant mores without becoming aware that there might be an alternative.

Were these schools to do otherwise, I expect that the parents would ask for their money back: I doubt that anyone sends their children to such places in the hope that they will emerge fluent in the tenets of socialism. We should not be surprised to discover that the products of this system sometimes seem to be crassly insensitive to the lives and the needs of other people; it is not difficult to emerge from such schools with the conviction that other classes (and the other gender) are an alien species. Until the moment at which I read the book whose name I don’t know, there were no countervailing influences in my life.

Almost a third of MPs - and 48% of Conservative MPs - were shaped by such institutions. Its no wonder they all seem the same. And its no wonder that faced with a "choice" between competing Oxbridge graduates offering the same austerity, people want something different, someone who is actually like them.