The Class Ceiling – Posh Boys (and Girls) Still Rule OK


When Tory MP Nadine Dorries described her Prime Minister and Chancellor as ”two arrogant posh boys” it prompted me to start thinking about my own experiences of class in British society over the past half century.

My conclusion – there is, still, a ”class ceiling” in British society. True, it is weaker than it once was but it still exists, especially in some of our major institutions.

Let me say two things at the outset. First, I’m what some might call a ”working class boy made good”. I grew up on Council estates, with working class parents and in my later childhood a single (divorced) working Mum who struggled to keep us afloat. We spent most of one year living and sleeping four to a room (Mum and 3 kids). I went to Grammar School, but one which was almost exclusively working class (in Barrow in Furness). And after O-levels I had to leave, cos my Mum simply couldn’t afford for me not to go out to work.

Second, I have been reluctant to write anything about this because of fear that it will just be dismissed as working class winging and envy, which in itself says something about our culture. But here goes anyway.

So, where is the ”class ceiling”? I do not, I confess, have a thoroughly worked out analysis. I just want to recount some experiences.

My encounters have been sporadic but illuminating.

My first encounters with the upper-classes, or the elite, came ironically through engagement with far-left politics. I got involved with the Trotskyist International Marxist Group (IMG) in the early 1970s and first met a whole bunch of the children of the bourgeoisie and middle-classes. Generally I got on OK, but I noticed then there was a class gap – many of my ”comrades” had wealthy families, security, and a self-confidence born of privilege. I quickly realized that those who had been to private schools and/or Oxbridge exhibited this more than most.

I was also involved in the National Union of Students (NUS) – first as Manchester Area President and then on the National Executive. Again, it was obvious that those who were doing well were generally from middle and upper class backgrounds.

My next big encounter with this phenomena came in academia, which I joined in 1990. I came late to academe, and via a very unconventional path. It soon became clear that if you hadn’t come thru the usual route of A-levels (I had none), University degree (I dropped out), and early PhD in your twenties (I didn’t do mine until my late 30s) you were ”odd”. One ”colleague” described me, to my face, as an ”academic cowboy” because of my unconventional background. Another questioned whether it was ”fair” that I had a PhD (from the LSE incidentally) when I hadn’t done O-levels or a first degree.

When, in the early 90s, I began to have encounters with senior civil servants I realized that they were almost the personification of the class elitism that permeates British society. A typical first meeting with a senior civil servant would almost invariably include the use of some Latin or Greek phrase designed to ascertain your educational credentials – i.e. did you go to a ”good” school? It usually also included a bit of intellectual jousting to test cognitive capacity. All this was in the context of a false modesty (by them) that only lightly concealed a clear sense of superiority.

Whilst there has been some opening up of the Mandarinate, this has largely been in non-central jobs like personnel, purchasing, finance and project management. The ”policy” Mandarinate has remained a largely private school > Oxbridge > Fast Stream > senior civil service, despite some improvements.

But hasn’t some of this changed in the past decades? In some ways, yes. Someone like me would have been very unlikely to have made it to be a professor in a top University in the 1950s or 60s. It certainly became easier after the 70s, but my sense (and it is only an impression I admit) is that since then we have gone backwards. Certainly our political classes are more dominated by middle and especially upper class scions now than they were 20 or 30 years ago. The Labour Party in Parliament, especially, has lost many of the working class people who came up through the trade union ranks. Even the Tories seem to have relegated many of the ‘grammar school’ boys and girls who were more evident in the 1980s to the back benches and the ”posh boys” are much more evident at the top.

Britain is, still, a class-distorted society in which meritocracy has made only a partial break-through. Far too much of what passes for ”social mobility” is now based on the lottery of talent for sports, entertainment or the actual Lottery, rather than genuine ability to do socially useful things. There is still a Class Ceiling, even if it is a bit more permeable than it used to be.

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About Prof. Colin Talbot

Professor of Government (Emeritus). Universities of Cambridge and Manchester, England.
This entry was posted in Political Economy, Politics, Public Administration, Whitehall. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Class Ceiling – Posh Boys (and Girls) Still Rule OK

  1. Davy Jones says:

    Perceptive analysis, Colin – made all the more real from your own experiences. As a middle class boy myself, I continue to be amazed at how strong class ties remain – for the upper class. And with this Government, it really is “Government by the toffs, for the toffs”. Never has there been such a glut of millionaires in the Cabinet and a clear sense of ignorance of how the other 90% live.

  2. unionmade says:

    ‘Class ceiling’ – smashing idea Colin! Not just structural – lack of access to institutions, language etc. The psychological dynamic of the class ceiling remains relatively unexplored and undocumented I think. ‘Subordinate consciousness’ – for want of a better notion – is a highly pernicious by-product of our class system and is a stubborn block, not just to individual progression, but the collective challenging of a society which is so skewed towards the posh boys. The lack of worth experienced by many British working class people – even though who ‘make it’ – is deeply rooted I think – and exacerbated by gender and race. I was a cocky, ‘can do’, mouthy working class girl before I won a scholarship to a girls direct grant school which succeeded in silencing me as an outsider. In the 80’s, many of us signed up to the notion that ‘the personal is political’ without taking it seriously enough and developing a psychology of class. The erosion of collectivism via trade unions and other working class institutions and an alternative, positive sense of working class identity can only make things harder for those trying to survive austerity and ‘make something’ of themselves on the margins. The dismantling and privatisation of the welfare state by the posh boys will also have a profound impact on the individual psyche of many for whom it represents the only thing they ‘own’ and a sense of ‘belonging’ (though others wont miss its paternalism and oppressive nature!). Smashing the class ceiling wont happen through positive action and free places for working class kids at public schools (even if they were on offer!). We also need to develop a radical psychology of class which engages with transformative politics….Any working class psychologists out there????????

  3. Des McConaghy says:

    Samuel Beckett was briefly a master at my school. When the Head told him he was lucky to teach the cream of society Beckett promptly replied, “Yes, I know; rich and thick”!

  4. Colin Talbot says:

    Ian wrote: ” I was writing a comment on your blog but iPad glitch meant I lost it. In short: very true; was strangely oblivious to this for most my life; now regularly see in action even in provincialUni, and especially when on outer reaches of great and good solar systems. Knowledge of earl C19th poetry and before also used as signalling systems – very British Bourdieu.”

  5. Churm Rincewind says:

    Speaking as a Scot, I think that the situation you describe is particularly English, not British. Certainly when I moved South I was very struck by the class system, which was entirely new to me. I remember being completely nonplussed at being told “You can tell a gentleman by the shoes he wears”. What on earth could this mean?

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