Thank heavens for a voice of sense and reason in the debate about so-called ‘class war.’ The shame is it is not a Cabinet minister’s voice, but that of journalist Will Hutton in The Observer. It is welcome nonetheless.
Let us track back a bit. At a time Labour were drawing blood on inheritance tax, and Zac Goldsmith was causing his party trouble over his non-dom status, GB suggested to Cameron at PMQs that his tax policies were drawn up on the playing fields of Eton.
It was evident from Cameron’s face that he hated it. It was clear from the faces behind that they shared the hurt.
Inflicting political pain on your opponents is part of the job of politicians. Deflecting it is another part.
The Tories went immediately into ‘this is class war’ as a tactic in that perfectly legitimate act of deflection. Most in the media chimed along, partly because they realised it was a story, but also because as Will Hutton points out, most senior journalists send their kids to private schools, and do not want a real debate about the consequences of their choices. Far easier then to say it is a misguided political tactic by a flailing political leader.
Will Hutton’s article today makes the blindingly obvious point that whether we like it or not, class does indeed still matter, and that it is not remotely anti-aspirational to point that out, or to point out the social and economic consequences of inherent unfairness in a class system in which private education plays such an important part.
That is the argument Labour should have engaged in after the GB-DC exchange. Instead, they allowed the Tories and the papers to get them onto the back foot, inhale the false interpretation being put upon the exchange, with ministers briefing that they disapproved of this anti-aspirational strategy. As the rumbles went on, Gordon went along the concessionary route, saying it was a joke. Indeed it was, but one with a very serious point.
Nobody is saying Cameron is unfit to be PM because he went to Eton. But when his background dictates his policy agenda – and on the table at the time were two policy positions absolutely rooted in privilege – it is a perfectly legitimate attack to mount. And when Cameron tries to portray himself as having a real understanding of how people live their lives, his background and lifestyle are relevant to that debate too.
The best conference speech Tony Blair made, in my view, was the one aimed at the ‘forces of conservatism,’ saying they were the barriers holding people and Britain back. Because the vehement reaction unsettled some people in the party, we backed off a little as the debate unfolded. Labour ministers are doing the same now, by accepting the premise that it is class war, when all it is is pointing out that class and privilege are still reasons why Britain is not the country it can be, and that a Tory government risks reversing what progress there has been towards genuine meritocracy.
Will Hutton writes of the report Alan Milburn published on social mobility and describes its findings – on the link between private education and top jobs – as ‘lethal.’ If we really believed in aspiration, we would worry more about that than fraudulent claims that saying someone went to Eton is a sign of class war.
And as a footnote, I don’t remember any charges of class war when all the Tory toffs were calling former Speaker Michael Martin ‘Gorbals Mick.’