Andrew Vine: A bizarre piece of class war on middle England

DEMONISING the middle classes has long been a British obsession, but even by the familiar standards of scoffing at decency, the latest manifestation takes some beating.

Britain should be a meritocracy, argues Andrew Vine.
Britain should be a meritocracy, argues Andrew Vine.

That’s because the attack comes not from traditional foes on the left, but from a Conservative government which might be expected to stand up for middle-class virtues of working hard, getting on in life and doing the best by your children. But no.

Instead of praising middle class families, it’s about to put their children at a disadvantage in getting jobs, thanks to a nasty and discriminatory piece of social engineering.

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This bizarre and misguided exercise comes in the form of a series of questions prepared by the Cabinet Office eventually intended to become part of the job application process across the public sector. Its authors would then like to see it adopted by the private sector, too.

The questions probe the family background of applicants, neatly and unfairly pigeonholing them as haves and have-nots.

Was it a state or private secondary school you attended?

Were your parents graduates?

What did they do for a living?

Did they own their own home, or rent?

It is being done in the name of getting young people from poorer backgrounds into top jobs by spotting what is being termed “potential, not polish”.

It’s a laudable aim to give everyone the best possible chances in life, but this absurd approach is completely the wrong way to go about it.

Creating a framework in which a young person who has grown up in a council house is institutionally regarded as being a better candidate than one whose parents owned their home is as bad as automatically preferring someone privately educated.

This isn’t going to do anything to break down class barriers or increase social mobility. All it will achieve is to create a whole new strata of snobbery.

And the flip side is, what a stigma for somebody to know that the deciding factor in their getting a job is that they came from a less-affluent background.

The middle classes ought to be outraged because this is an attack that goes to the heart of their values and aspirations, which do so much to give Britain its strength and stability.

Middle class virtues of working hard for exams, going to university and getting a good degree, pressing ahead with careers and striving to buy a home within the catchment area of a good school ought to be championed by the Government.

Such goals in life produce good citizens who are committed employees or bright entrepreneurs, who bring up children responsibly and who instil in them decent values.

Family backgrounds should not form any part of a job application process. The quality of the candidate and their qualifications should be the deciding factors, irrespective of whether their father was a stockbroker or a street sweeper.

Discriminating against job applicants on grounds of gender and race is rightly unlawful. Doing so on grounds of class is similarly indefensible, in whichever direction it operates.

The clumsy and unfair questionnaire will get in the way of objective assessments of candidates’ strengths and undermines the central principle that a job should go to the best person for it.

That they should have come out of a Conservative Party that has been the target of a lot of sniping over class divisions in recent years looks suspiciously like nothing has been learned.

David Cameron was dogged throughout his premiership by snide – and sometimes explicit – accusations that his wealthy background and Eton education meant he lacked understanding of ordinary people.

Similar accusations are less likely to be levelled at Theresa May – a grammar school student – but as the person who once told Tories that they were regarded 
as “the nasty party”, she 
should know better than to preside over a calculated act of nastiness towards the middle classes.

She came to office promising to improve social mobility. But the use of an inflexible questionnaire that unfairly stereotypes people as haves or have-nots is not the way to do it. The best course of action would be to file it in the bin.

On a fresh sheet of paper, the Cabinet Office could instead set down a series of measures which really would help the children of poorer families get on.

Things like tackling failing schools, offering training to adults, helping deprived areas improve and increasing the supply of affordable housing.

All of which are harder to achieve, and more costly, than bashing the middle classes, but at least would yield results.

The Government is on a hiding to nothing if its answer to increasing fairness of opportunity involves imposing unfairness on a middle class 
that does not deserve to be treated to shabbily.