In David Cameron’s recent article for the Mail on Sunday on British values he wrote of his regard for selected ‘British’ institutions. He said: “We should be proud of what Britain has done to … develop these institutions – Parliamentary democracy, a free press, the rule of law’”. But the majority of senior figures in government, the media, and the judiciary happen to share a little in common: they are predominantly upper class, privately-educated, white male Oxbridge graduates, and as such are not truly representative of Britain at all.
Even after Cameron’s reshuffle, 45 per cent of all those attending cabinet went to independent schools, and 61 per cent graduated from Oxbridge. The shadow cabinet figures are 16 per cent and 34 per cent respectively. All are disproportionate to the 6.5 per cent of all pupils that attend independent schools in the UK.
Similarly, editors of the UK’s top-selling newspapers and political magazines comprise of 75 per cent privately educated, and 58 per cent Oxbridge graduates. The Heads of Divisions, and Lords and Lady Justices of Appeal in the judiciary: are 69 per cent and 71 per cent respectively.
So we have the best-educated people in the most senior positions, what’s the problem?
As Harriet Harman said in her recent speech on parliament and equality, “equality and diversity is important to avoid the group-think which comes from a homogeneous group which fails to understand the different groups of people in this country”. If almost two-thirds of your cabinet colleagues are of the same educational, social, and ethnic background, no matter the collective IQ, that group will prioritise issues within their narrow perceptive field.
The message from Cameron is clear: if you want your children to occupy positions of influence in society, it’s best to have males, fork out £150,000 for each of your kids’ private education, and be of white ethnicity to ensure smooth admission into Oxbridge.
Harman is herself privately educated but is tangential to this dominant group as a woman. 76 per cent of government (56 per cent of the shadow cabinet), 91 per cent of those editors, and 81 per cent of the most senior judiciary are men.
It’s not just the working class and women who are underrepresented but those of a black, or minority ethnic (BME) background as well. Just five per cent of government (ie. two people), six per cent of Labour, ie. two), 8 per cent of those media editors (one), and none of the forty-two most senior members of the judiciary are of a BME background.
So that’s Cameron’s idea of British equality. But as the prime minister writes in his article, ‘We have been … sending out a worrying message: that if you don’t want to believe in democracy, that’s fine; that if equality isn’t your bag, don’t worry about it … this has not just led to division, it has also allowed extremism”. He must also ask himself what sense of disenfranchisement – the sort that can sometimes, if left to fester, lead to extremist views – his government’s failure to implement a representative democracy and put an end to discrimination has contributed to.
Even the coverage of Harman’s speech is indicative of ingrained bias within the media. From a speech on the challenges facing marginalised groups, the Guardian, Telegraph, Standard, and BBC, all led their coverage with her fleeting mention of Gordon Brown. This distracts attention from the contentious subject of the privileged, white, male monopoly on power to which these institutions are themselves fallible.
“It’s embarrassing in a democracy,” Harman continued, ‘if you are deciding on behalf of people who are not there to speak for themselves’. It is first through politics that change must happen. We must at least insist that our representatives are reflective of all society. We need an extension of selective shortlists to include minority ethnic and working class candidates to enforce change. Harman’s conclusion is pertinent: ‘Parliament … must champion equality. It cannot do that if, by its composition, it’s an emblem of inequality’. Cameron’s empty rhetoric, or cosmetic reshuffles, can’t refute the reality that class, gender and ethnic privilege is alive and well.