The French unashamedly develop their political class, and have in place a structure which ensures progress to the Grand Corps of the state. As a rule, future leaders begin at the Institute d’études politiques de Paris and move seamlessly to the École nationale d'administration, from which graduates, knowns as énarques, take up their positions of power. Presidents Giscard d’Estaing, Chirac and Hollande are énarques, as are half a dozen prime ministers and – on average – between a third and a half of every cabinet since the ‘60s. The majority are strangers to any occupation other than politics.
Aren’t we fortunate that we have no such institution in the UK, regurgitating 100 graduates a year onto the top of our political hierarchy?
Of course, we do have such a system. And it’s called Eton and Oxford. It could – at a pinch – be St Paul’s, or Harrow, or Winchester. And it’s possible that a Cambridge graduate might sneak in. But the principle is sound.
Eton and Oxford train those of a certain class in the same way as Ecole nationale d’administration. The difference is, the French is a meritocracy (established by de Gaulle to democratise access to the senior echelons of the state); the English version is about money and class.
Yep, we’re back to this recurring theme.
I have banged on about this a number of times, pointing out that not only is our cabinet from this background, but also many of the journalists and civil servants and lawyers whom one might expect to maintain checks and balances.
Back in 1968, Stephen Sedley (at that time not the Right Honourable Lord Justice Sedley) pointed out to me that only one High Court judge at the time was not educated at public school and Oxbridge, but the real issue was that one could not tell which one!
And this is the broader point. In the same way as capitalism re-invents itself constantly, so the ruling political class absorbs those from different class backgrounds and transforms them into upholders of the status quo, rewarding them for their change of allegiance.
A case in point is the former Labour leader of Sheffield city council, David Blunkett, who became Home Secretary under Blair, and was yesterday defending the political class, claiming that we should be grateful for this “volunteering” for public service. When Will Self pointed out that he had been forced to resign not once but twice and that he had managed to find a role within the Murdoch empire which paid him £45,000 for a few days work, he “would not deign to respond to such a slur”.
But it’s not a slur. It’s a statement of fact. And a particularly relevant and significant statement of fact.
This prominent player in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire has become part of the establishment and is unable to recognise the contradictions in his position. Or perhaps he can but refuses to admit them.
Either way, we have a problem. It is the structure of the class system which makes it impossible to make the profound changes to a system which works to the benefit of a single class at the expense of others.
We are emphatically not in this together.
Today from the everysmith vault: Celebrated the 39th anniversary of BOTT on Monday by playing both versions, New York and Minnesota. But, subsequently, it's been Mahler, conducted by the late, great Claudio Abbado.