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.