Monday, October 05, 2020

A Conservative MP who's willing to talk about class

David Johnston, the Conservative MP for Wantage and Didcot, has written a valuable article on diversity and social mobility for the Unherd website.

Here are some of his insights:

When I ran social mobility charities, I would watch professional service firms and banks fall over themselves to hire black graduates if they were privately educated and from professional families. These young people were deemed to have the requisite social capital they claimed their "clients expect from us". If, however, you were the sort of black young person my organisations typically helped – poor and from a council estate – enthusiasm waned.

Countless companies in my experience would talk much on their websites about valuing diversity, but diversity of social background did not tend to be high on their agenda. You could be black or white so long as you were suitably middle class. I think this points to a real problem in the UK. And it is just one example of why I think when we talk about race, we also need to talk about class.


At my charities, we did encourage employers to spread opportunity. Some firms struggled: "Our clients need us to have worldliness and you get that by travelling the world. So how will the young people you work with be able to demonstrate it?" This was a genuine enquiry from someone who did want to work with us. Skin colour didn’t matter, but background certainly did.

Then there was the offer of work experience from another firm that came with the warning: “They’ll be alongside the children of high net-worth individuals who we’re teaching how to invest the assets their parents gave them, so you’ll have to send us someone suitable”. Most of the people we helped were eligible for Free School Meals. It was like she lived on a different planet.

I know from my own experience that it is in the area of life experience and social capital that someone from a poor home who gets good qualifications can be lacking. Which suggests to me that the downgrading of anything in education that does not lead to exam success will not help social mobility.

You can also argue that all you really lack if you come from such a home is knowledge of the subtle signs by which people from a privileged background identify one another and exclude everybody else.

Still, it's good to see a Conservative who's happy to talk openly about social class. I wish there more Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs doing it too.

1 comment:

David Evans said...

I think it is a bit more than just the subtle signs though. It might get you through the interview if the interview is not very searching, but it wouldn't make you good at the job. One of the key factors in life as you progress up the greasy pole is being able to get on with people you are working with on whatever the task happens to be and to resolve differences, while maintaining a common unity of purpose.

A good education gives those who don't have those skills through upbringing, the opportunity to get them through schooling. They don't show up in exams though, but in a general awareness and interest in wider things, whether it is the difference between a 4-6-2 and a Bo Bo, or the difference between Gladstone, a racist and an authoritarian lefty witch hunt, a skill sadly missing in the Council of Liverpool University (who ducked) and the BBC
(who dissembled by omission)