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March 01, 2016


Matt Moore

I'm pleased to see this debate framed in terms of cognitive diversity, which I think is important. (Although, in individual teams in particular circumstances, I think there is a local cognitive diversity optimum, since the proverbial Martian would not have a lot of the cultural assumptions that are needed to make cooperation easy).

I'll just make a Buchanan-esque criticism, which is that to the extent that cognitive diversity improves performance, there is a cost to engaging in taste discrimination. The more competitive the market, the hard it is to indulge that discrimination.

I suggest that the media is monopolistic, whereas sport class uniformity is more a product of actual differences in value, due to the importance of youth training.

Politics obviously has some of these weakest competitive pressures of all.

Dave Timoney

The early-80s may have produced Boys from the Blackstuff and Two-Tone, but they also gave us Brideshead Revisited and the Sloane Ranger Handbook. The point, of course, is that the era was marked by cultural diversity and a sense of genuine ideological conflict.

What neoliberal hegemony delivered was not just a slowing of social mobility and an increase in inequality, but the end of plurality in the guise of consumer choice and technocracy. The consequences of this are common across the arts, economy and politics: blandness, nostalgia, infantilism and horror at the prospect of change.

Matt Moore

One thing that really annoys me about Jones et al complaining about private school dominance is that the one policy that was ever effective at reducing this - grammar schools - is for some reason totally verboten in left-wrong thought.


There was one area of activity that did not have a marked public school dominance; bank trading desks. The ones I worked on went out of their way to find talent from a variety of sources and had a state school composition of over 50%. Perhaps that's why the aristocrats in the labour party hate bankers.

Dave Timoney

@Matt Moore,

Grammar schools never reduced the dominance of private schools, because they weren't meant to. The tripartite system introduced by the Butler Act was prompted by the growth of the tertiary sector and the welfare state. In other words, state-funded grammars produced candidates for the growing number of managers, professionals and civil servants needed by postwar society, but the "top jobs" continued to be dominated by the privately-educated.

If grammar schools were really conduits of social mobility (i.e. helping demote the privately-educated rather than just promoting the state-educated into an expanding career market), then the upper reaches of the military, law and politics would have had a very different complexion over the last 50 years.

Churm Rincewind

Owen Jones and Chris Dillow overlook the fact that the "disproportionate number of privately-educated people in politics and the media" is exceeded only by the disproportionate number of Oxbridge-educated people in politics and the media. Thus, for example:

BBC Executives - 26% privately educated; 33% Oxbridge

Newspaper columnists - 43% privately educated; 47% Oxbridge

Cabinet members - 36% privately educated; 59% Oxbridge

Select Committee Chairs - 16% privately educated; 50% Oxbridge

And so on. So it's a complete mystery to me why Messrs Owen and Dillow should argue that the dominance of the privately educated "damages us all" while passing over the greater dominance of Oxbridge.

Has anyone any idea why this should be so?


Very good post. Hayes, too, talks a lot about this in Twilight of the Elites with regards to "vertical social distance":

"To talk to members of MoveOn or Occupy Wall Street or the Tea Party is to see a system that has radicalized those who under normal circumstances should feel most represented. The activist ranks on both left and right are largely drawn from demographic groups whose concerns are the most reflected in our national political culture. And yet their chief complaint echoes that of the colonists: that those in power are irredeemably distant. The problem we now face is that there is a very real sense in which the winners of twenty-first-century America live on a different continent than everyone else. And as they recede away from the rest of the country, we are faced with a crisis of representation."

"Those in positions of power and high status, on the other hand, are relatively less dependent on others, and so those skills never develop, or as these people attain more and more power and status, the skills atrophy. Which means that those members of the elite who occupy the high offices of our pillar institutions and organizations are already psychologically disposed to close themselves off to the perspectives of others. If those of lower status are going to be represented in the decisions made by those of higher status, it’s not going to just happen naturally. There have to be some mechanisms in place that make it happen."


@ Churm - the difference lies in what I said about cognitive diversity: having lots of people from rich backgrounds in influential positions reduces cognitive diversity, especially because other forces (ideology, state capture) reinforce the power of the rich to limit political debate. However, there's less evidence that Oxbridge reduces cognitive diversity: PPE produced me and Owen, but also Ann Widdecombe David Cameron & Toby Young. (The latter of course reduces the credibility of any claim that Oxford is a meritocracy).


@ Churm -- the thing is : the more that Oxbridge select on strictly meritocratic grounds, the MORE we can expect Oxbridge alumni to dominate, well, everything.


It is a sad realisation that people both (i) representing us (politicians) and (ii) 'creating' culture (artists, writers of op-ed and fiction, leading musicians) are drawn from a narrow slice of society.

Some thoughts following Owen's article and your piece, Chris:

1. We see these positions as influential because, in part, people in these very visible positions - often excellent self-marketers - tell us they are important and influential.

However, they are not the only sources of influence. Creatives in advertising are overwhelmingly not privately educated but are extremely influential in forming preferences (I remember once going to an open day at an advertising agency to meet the creative department and being told privately-educated people were too normal to be employed there - their ideas were too mainstream to shift preferences. I thought that was pretty cool).

Weirdly, I'd also say that recreational drug culture is (and thereby illegal drug dealers are) very influential - half of Europe's youth seem to be taking MDMA and ecstasy at weekends and this is definitely not an establishment-sanctioned pasttime. I am not too sure I can yet define what recreational drug culture is, but I'd say that it is definitely (a) very "huggy", and (b) very tolerant. I wonder whether it might have shifted taboos around homesexuality, for example.

(2) A lot of the positions regarded as prominent, and stuffed with standard public school productions, are held out as desirable. It is true that they are often well-remunerated and, in office, can wield (some) influence. But these positions (outside rock fame) are also boring and alienating. I jumped at my first opportunity from a career in the law, partly because of the dead-eyed, slack jawed millionaire partners who had traded their youth, health and a meaningful life for cash and what they perceived to be status. I can't imagine being a politician is much fun. (I recognise it is better than being on benefits, but there are careers and lives which are rewarding, pay enough to get by and don't involve huge trade-offs).

(3) There are public schools and there are public schools. Equally, there are Oxbridge students and there are Oxbridge students. It would be useful to look more closely at precisely which schools, families and networks stuff the ranks of the establishment to work out who really runs Britain. I feel "public school and Oxbridge" is far too broad a brush-stroke.

An Alien Visitor

"I suspect that one reason why Tories support the bedroom tax isn’t so much that they hate the poor as that they just don’t realize that a few pounds matter so very much to the worst off."

No, Ian Duncan Smith is a vile and evil human being. He reminds me of Mengele. His cruel responses to questions, delivered in a cold and expressionless, almost vacant, manner, give me the creeps.


I agree with An Alien Visitor. The cumulative cuts to social spending are so large when you add them up and so targeted at the most disadvantaged that they are not any kind of accident. Whether the Social Darwinian ideology these people have decided to believe in is the fault of private education is debatable. Atlee was very posh but that never prevented his administration passing the National Health Service Act or National Assistance Act etc


It may be less about the rise of public versus other schools. I think it is about the rise of the mutant elite, the Reagan/Thatcher era in which it was decided that empathy was a sign of weakness in the ruling class and needed to be eliminated. It is almost by definition that nations are run by the powerful, and the powerful are most likely to come from certain circles and have a certain type of education. The Romans made their ruling class read Horace. The Carolingians made their ruling class eat lots of meat. This isn't what stops the ruling class from making the lot of the rest less terrible. It was the purposeful renunciation of any form of empathy. The very idea of looking at things from any one else's point of view is now considered radical, polarizing, and outrageous. It isn't where people were educated. It was what they were taught.

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