‘We need an open society, in which people choose their place,’ says Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister
Class snobbery is holding Britain back by creating a society divided between those born with a sense of entitlement to succeed and others who are “permanently excluded”, the deputy prime minister has warned.
Nick Clegg quoted the historian Frank Harris saying 80 years ago that “snobbery is the religion of England”, adding: “I think that statement still has more than a ring of truth today.”
He said: “We end up with entitlement at one end and exclusion at the other. A closed society, in which people know their place. We need an open society, in which people choose their place. As a nation we have to shake off the outdated, snobbish attitudes of class that are cramping our society and hobbling our economy.”
Clegg was speaking on the second day of a conference in London on social mobility, organised by the Sutton Trust foundation, an event which has already heard speeches from Ed Miliband, and the education secretary, Michael Gove.
The Sutton Trust also published international research on Tuesday showing children from poorer families in Australia and Canada have a “much greater” chance of doing well at school, getting into university and earning more in later life than their peers in the UK and the US. This was despite similar income gaps in all four countries, and higher spending on education in the US and UK, said the report. One important link identified in the UK was between similar education success – or lack of it – from one generation to the next, said the trust.
Quoting similar statistics to the report, Clegg said the lack of social mobility was shown by facts such as: one in five pupils were on free school meals but only one in 100 Oxbridge entrants were, and 7% of children attend independent schools, but public schools provide more than half the chief executives of Britain’s top companies and 70% of high court judges.
“This is a legacy we cannot afford. Morally, economically, socially, whatever your justification, the price is simply too high to pay,” said Clegg. “We must create a more dynamic society. One where what matters most is the person you become, not the person you were born.”
He continued: “For liberals, this is core stuff. It gets to the very heart of our politics. We are a party and a creed that is defined by our belief in a fairer, more open society. For me, it’s the reason I do this job.”
Miliband’s speech on Monday addressed what he said was an often overlooked issue: the snobbery attached to university education, and called for changes to the education system and culture to give more respect to vocational qualifications as a route to improvement.
Clegg said class was another issue too often “in the shadows” and “the ghost in the machine”, because politicians – especially those from privileged backgrounds, among whom he included himself – were reluctant to discuss it. “I was lucky, but it should not be a question of luck,” he said.
He also attacked claims that making allowances for social background, for example when deciding university admissions, was “dumbing down” as one of what he called the “pernicious myths” of the debate.
“At one end of the spectrum, there’s almost a sense of entitlement,” he said. “Entitlement to the best schools, universities and professions. Advantages are handed down almost automatically, generation to generation. The most fortunate see the horizons of their opportunities stretched far in all directions. And so from day one, they hear a clear, self-confident message. One that says: ‘The world is yours. Go for it.’
“I think everyone should hear that message. But too many children from less advantaged homes look at certain qualifications, educational institutions, or jobs and think: ‘That’s not for people like me.’ Because all too often, that’s the message they’ve heard, over and over again.”
Clegg also announced the publication of a Cabinet Office strategy for social mobility, updating progress in the last year on 17 different indicators from the birth weight of babies born into poor families to how far low earners progress in the labour market. For many measures it was too soon to publish statistics, but three appeared to show progress.
The report also set out policies aimed at encouraging more equality of opportunity, including free nursery places for 40% of two-year-olds and £1.25bn for the pupil premium fund to help children from poorer families.
In a heartfelt speech Miliband had said: “The foundation for my politics is the equal worth of every citizen. From that flows the idea that everyone should have equal chances to get on and make a better life.”