How on earth has ex-Tory prime minister John Major, a man hitherto associated with a back-of-the-throat monotone, rumours of grey pants, and a political vision encapsulated by the cones hotline, suddenly become the talk of the Westminster town? Simple: he made a speech that seemed to chime with the mainstream commentariat prejudices about politicians, particularly Conservative ones.
That wasn’t all he did last Friday, when confronted by the amassed ranks of the Norfolk Conservative Association. He also had a go at greedy bankers, and their collapsing banks; he even had a go at those who have spent more than they earn, and stored up debt for future generations, calling it ‘immoral’. But none of this quite hit the mark. After all, which mainstream politician today doesn’t spruce up his tired attacks on the opposition with naughty-banker sentiments, and a bit of ‘won’t someone think of the children’ grandstanding. He needed to say something with the taint of controversy. And then it happened. ‘In every single sphere of British influence’, he monotoned, ‘the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.’
By Sunday, when the speech had been taken up by the media, its meaning was assumed. Major was attacking today’s government of the posh, with prime minister David Cameron and chancellor George Osborne firmly in his sights; he was waging war on the privately educated cabal running the country and keeping the poor and impoverished in their place; and, for many broadsheet commentators, this now made him ‘one of us’.
There has been no shortage of class warriors willing to join Major at the barricades. ‘Private schools… are symbolic of the wider link in this country between how much money your parents have and how much opportunity you’re given’, noted one commentator. ‘The problem is clear’, she concluded, ‘the question is whether we want to do anything about it’. Another pundit at the Guardian extended Major’s putative attack on the poshocracy: ‘[Health secretary] Jeremy Hunt is a stereotypical member of the modern elite… a head boy at Charterhouse (current annual boarding fees: £32,925) who went on to be a contemporary at Oxford of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. Hunt’s social tribe, needless to say, dominates the cabinet.’
Others, too, have been overly keen to agree with Major’s argument: Britain is a country ravaged by inequality, and the upper middle-class toffs now dominating politics and public life, and reinforcing this inequality, have been able to consolidate their position at the top by dint of the UK’s private school system. In short, they pay for the best education, therefore attend the best universities, and therefore get all the best jobs.