There was a time when trade unions were routinely attacked for their defence of the closed shop. ‘A symbol of excessive sectional power’, its opponents would argue, ‘unions feathering their own nests at the expense of personal liberty’, ‘jobs for the boys’. The idea that working-class people should have any sort of exclusive agency through which they might exercise industrial or economic power was anathema to some.
Ultimately, the closed shop was outlawed by the Conservative government in the early 1990s – a move designed not only to tame the unions, but also to bring the UK into line with European legislation. (I wonder how many among today’s fanatically pro-EU labour movement know or even care about this.)
But there is one closed shop that wasn’t outlawed. In fact, it’s the most powerful that ever existed, and it remains alive and well. It members are not those fighting against the system, but those running it.
After years of talk by politicians about the value of meritocracy and the need to smash glass ceilings, progress at tackling the culture of elitism that infects the upper echelons of our public life and institutions has been utterly lamentable. And this failure is resulting in a nation increasingly atomised, and in which large numbers simmer with resentment at those who exercise power over them while seemingly being devoid of any desire to understand their lives.
Politics, business, the media and public services remain resolutely in the grip of those who (let’s be clear, through no fault of their own) were born into wealth and privilege. Class, parental income and geography remain key determinants in how far one might rise. Advancement in today’s Britain is still as much about who you know, not what you know; about where you came from, not what ability you might have.
In its most recent State of the Nation report, the Social Mobility Commission found a labour market highly polarised, with five million workers caught in a low-pay trap from which there is little chance of escape. Predictably, London, the Home Counties and East of England dominate when it comes to high-skilled, high-paid and knowledge-based jobs. 58% of internships – often a pathway to a plum job and career – were located in the Capital, placing them out-of-bounds to millions. That many were unpaid rendered them further inaccessible to the less advantaged. And it’s not only workers in the old industrial heartlands who are locked out of good-quality employment. Those in rural areas and coastal towns suffer the worst outcomes.
Earlier research by the Commission exposed the staggering degree to which the commanding heights of our society remain stubbornly under the control of the privileged few. Its study of 4,000 leaders in politics, business, the media and other areas of public life revealed that 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior armed forces officers, 50% of members of the House of Lords, 45% of public body chairs, 44% of individuals on the Sunday Times Rich List, 43% of newspaper columnists and 33% of MPs were educated at private schools – that compares to 7% of the population as a whole. Oxbridge, as you might expect, features heavily too.
The Commission also found that children’s future income was, in Britain more than in many other countries, determined by parental background.
”Twas ever thus,’ some might say. Indeed so. But today, those who run the establishment are united not merely by advantages of family affluence and education, but very often by opinion too. With many of them having been exposed to the radical nostrums of the cultural revolution that took hold in universities in the 1960s – and which were designed to supplant the traditional values held by millions of ordinary people – it is hardly a surprise that liberal tendencies tend to dominate among the modern elite.
This in turn has encouraged a rigid groupthink at the top, which can easily destroy the reputation and careers of those who violate it either innocently or through dissent. Witness, for example, the sacking of Nobel laureate Professor Tim Hunt for telling a silly joke about girls crying in the lab, or the forced resignation of Sarah Champion from the Labour front bench for offending the multiculturalists by drawing attention to the grooming exploits of British Pakistani men. Today’s establishment closed shop is filled with closed minds.
Almost comically, even our supposed anti-establishment protest groups – such as Momentum, whose co-founders Jon Lansman and James Schneider were educated at Highgate and Winchester respectively – are these days frequently led by the sons and daughters of the privileged.
All of this has led to a worsening social apartheid in the UK – an estrangement between the haves and have nots, the powerful and powerless, governors and governed. Across the piece, throughout politics, business and public institutions, our leaders have very little concept of (or affinity with) the lives of those over whom they rule, while those at the bottom look upwards and conclude that that way of life is ‘not for the likes of us’. The divide is profound, and widening.
And these working class communities feel abandoned by their own institutions of the Labour party and trade unions, which once fought their corner proudly but with their modern middle-class liberal inclinations now barely tolerate them. This divide has left the working classes unrepresented, and feeling there is no vehicle through which they might exercise any sort of political or economic clout in pursuance of their own interests.
We are expected to believe that Britain is more open, tolerant, meritocratic and inclusive than ever before. And for some, that is undoubtedly true. But for millions, the best opportunities in life remain beyond their reach, not through a lack of talent, but for reasons of wealth, privilege and geography. Britain is, for them, a closed shop – the shutters firmly down. And the privileged, ‘open’, few will not be extending an invitation to step inside any time soon.