In which I get down with the kids again …

Meritocracy is dead. Or so Andrew Neil tells us.

I’m a great admirer of the work of Julian Fellowes. Sorry that’s Baron Fellowes of West Stafford in the County of Dorset. Although I suspect there are a few issues on which we would have differences that would be difficult to resolve. Nevertheless I enjoy his writing for its languid fluency.

I also – I suspect I am not alone here – enjoy the insight his work provides into the lives of the Nobs. Not the beneficiaries of ersatz fame that our society bestows on anyone with a pulse willing to expose themselves on national TV. No, Baron Fellowes’ beat is the lives and preoccupations of the truly powerful and influential.

I recently read his novel Past Imperfect. Its cast of characters is followed from the late 1960s through to today. I wouldn’t pretend to a deep firsthand knowledge of the lives of the rich or connected people who feature in the book. But reading it did make some of my memory bells chime.

My mother earned some cash in hand back in the late 1960s and early 1970s by ‘doing’ for some of the local worthies who could have been the inspiration for many of Baron Fellowes subjects. These were people connected to the London ‘scene’ who had bolt holes for weekend escapes. They were artistic types – actors, photographers, musicians and writers. And they partied. Gosh did they party.

My mum had left school at 14 to enter domestic service. Her parents simply could not afford the cost of sending her to the Grammar. She would have recognised Julian Fellowes’ worlds – Gosforth Park, Downton Abbey and Past Imperfect. In fact she would have loved all three.

Her understanding of how to do things properly, obtained at great personal cost, was greatly prized by some of the folks in the village not quite from the top drawer but with pretensions to peep inside. And because there was no one at home to baby sit me I went along too. The late 60s and early 70s were like that. The strongest impression I am left with is one of terrific optimism. All things were possible. Being working class was in many respects an advantage particularly in the creative industries.

Mum might have been a little sceptical about the genuineness of the offer but we did not look it in the mouth. Great primary and outstanding secondary schooling saw me arrive at a good Redbrick University. The first of my family in living memory to get anywhere near a university. Then a career in public service.

Julian Fellowes’ Past Imperfect re-awoke memories of this journey in me. And, of course, I have been in a reflective mood brought on by recent events. Like any parent I worry about the lives my children might enjoy. I know my mum did the same. But I recall being untroubled by any notion that my options might be in any way limited because I was being raised by a single mother in a council house in an obscure part of the world.

By now you may be wondering what has brought on this fit of modern social history. It started with Jacob Rees Mogg poping up at PMQs. The braying face of natal good fortune and easily worn privilege. And then came a programme on the BBC later in the evening by Andrew Neil which examined why meritocracy seems to be losing out to plutocracy. It was profoundly depressing for a sixties kid like me.

The programme abounded with shocking statistics. All of which added up to a radical focusing of political power and access to it back into a shrinking pool of people with virtually indistinguishable backgrounds. Worse, that the men and women in the coalition cabinet are financial insulated from ordinary people’s experience of making household budgets work.

Interestingly Neil interviewed Mogg in his Somerset constituency where he claimed to be a man of the people with a knowing insouciance. In an amusing moment which Baron Fellowes would have enjoyed Neil correctly identified Mogg as not being quite out of the top drawer. Despite appearances Neil pinged Mogg as upper middle class. Oh, the shame … It was a moment those of us, from the working class, who have been on the fringes of Baron Fellowes world would have enjoyed enormously. I know I did.

Neil’s programme visited Paisley Grammar his old school. Pupils there said they felt unequipped to compete successfully against the public school, Oxbridge PPE and SPAD mafia. The section of the programme probably made me saddest. At their age my friends and I were aiming to succeed. Not anticipating failure. We thought we were at least the equal of any public school products – even of the famous one just down the road.

Yet here in the second decade of the 21st Century bright children born outside that golden circle seem resigned to being second class when it comes to getting to the top of our public life. What a terrible, terrible waste.

I thought I’d check with the RPS kids about how they felt. Did they feel second class?

Not a bit of it. They feel the equal of anyone. And they see no reason why they shouldn’t run the country. Afterall, according to our youngest, if the country can apparently be run by posh idiots why shouldn’t it be run by people with a bit of good sense?

It’s an interesting point of view. One that, after watching Neil’s film, I find heartening. As a father I only hope they’re right. I’m not sure Baron Fellowes would entirely approve though.


About redundantpublicservant

A redundant UK public servant looking for work, sharing his experiences and providing a space for others to do the same.
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9 Responses to In which I get down with the kids again …

  1. SCH says:

    I absolutely agree with this – I came from a similar background to yours, by the sound of it and was the first person from my dad’s side of the family to go to university, and only the second from my mum’s side. Dad worked in a car factory, mum was a housewife and if I’d had to pay (or they’d had to subsidise me) I couldn’t have gone. The more I see of this administration, the more I despair for people like us, the bright working classes; it seems like we’re moving back to a situation where those that can afford it will get a decent education / healthcare / house and the rest can go whistle. How on earth can we be going backwards like this? Where is the economic sense in denying able people the ability to participate?

  2. Mean Mr Mustard says:

    I honestly don’t recall that much optimism in our 70’s family, even though the 3 bed London suburb terraced house cost £5,500. (!) My stepfather was a station foreman on the London Underground, while my mum held a succession of temping admin jobs. I remember the three day week, 24% inflation, and the winter of discontent. And the shock at a million unemployed at the end of that decade.

    I attended Uni only through being in the public sector and getting piecemeal course funding. That was Open University – a fraction of the cost of the mainstream ones both in terms of cash, earnings preserved and time spent.

    Obviously not educated enuff though. A spot of jargonese there, RPS – I only know a SPAD as a WW1 fighter plane, or Signal Passed At Danger, and PPE as Public / Private Enterprise, or Post Project Evaluation… 🙂

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  4. I thought the programme was a salutary reminder that in the modern world, ability alone is not always enough. I find it deeply depressing not that such posh idiots as Rees-Mogg (who I know is very intellectual, but his social skills are somewhat lacking) can become MPs, but rather the idiots who keep voting for them!

    Of course I want voters to choose whoever they wish to represent them, though I am becoming ever more partial to the idea of voting for a person rather than a party (which, in theory, is the current system we have). But, it would be great if voters would ponder a little on what sort of person they think will best represent them.

    As has often been said, how does this Cabinet of millionaires and ex-public schoolboys really understand what life is like for the unwashed masses? I am sure there are some that are self-made and/or from the state sector, but in general, they are from an elite background and our PM, DPM and Chancellor have never had to worry about money. Ever.

    In case anyone accuse me of taking sides, I find the whole SPAD/Oxbridge route evident in the Labour party equally depressing. Bob Holman spoke a lot of sense when he contributed to the programme – I thought the way Tristram Hunt was hoisted in to his seat, however able and intelligent he may be – was an insult to the local party.

    Nothing wrong with intelligence and I know people cannot choose their birth and family background, but we do need our rulers to be more like the people they rule over – the wider the difference, the more trouble there is likely to be, as the disconnect grows ever bigger.

    I vote for your kids, RPS!

    • Dear Publicsectorman,

      It’s the narrowing of experience that troubles me most. As I write David Anderson, the MP for Blaydon, is speaking in the debate on the Health and Social Care Bill. He is a former union official and careworker. His speech is being accompanied by a soundtrack of chit-chat from the government benches. Presumably his strong North East accent means he is less worthy of a hearing …

      Yours with grinding teeth,


  5. The key thrust of the Andrew Neill programme was we need to change the education system for everyone (almost) so that we can bring Grammars back so that a few people stand a chance of running the programme. Even were this proven its a helluva wastage rate. Declared interest here – worked all my life in comprehensive system, came from a Direct Grant school (yeuch) – kids went successfully through local comprehensive.
    And those that don’t make the selection – give them proper vocational education…. I nearly fell off my chair laughing at that rubbish!
    And of course Andrew Neill struggles with his pennies doesn’t he, I mean that poky little Knightsbridge house with servants……

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