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Elite rule: Liz Truss' socially exclusive cabinet

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Liz Truss in Australia in 2022 (image by UK Government via Flickr)

Despite her rhetoric of inclusivity, Liz Truss' cabinet is anything but that, writes Sam Bright.

"We will transform Britain into an aspiration nation… where everyone, everywhere has the opportunities they deserve.”

These were the words of new Prime Minister Liz Truss, as she delivered her opening address to the British people outside 10 Downing Street.

In the hours that have followed, however, her promise of creating a great British meritocracy has already fallen flat — appointing one of the most socially exclusive and inexperienced cabinets in modern history.

The Byline Intelligence Team has analysed the backgrounds of all the individuals who will be attending Truss’ Cabinet. Some 70% (68% if Truss is included) were educated at fee-paying schools, including the Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, Deputy Prime Minister (who also serves as Health Secretary), Defence Secretary, Justice Secretary, Business Secretary, Education Secretary, Levelling Up Secretary, and Transport Secretary.

Ergo, each holder of a great office of state (aside from Truss herself), was privately educated.

This compares to just 7% of the population overall who are educated privately and 29% of MPs elected in 2019. Some 41% of Conservative MPs elected in 2019 had been privately educated, compared to 14% of Labour MPs.

“It’s not where you’ve come from that counts; it’s where you’re going”, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron said at the Party’s 2012 conference.

Yet, since the Conservatives gained a clear House of Commons majority in 2015, the holders of high office have been drawn from increasingly elite school backgrounds. 50% of Cameron’s 2015 Cabinet had been privately educated, falling to 30% among Theresa May’s 2016 Cabinet, before soaring to 64% under Johnson in 2019/20 and now 70% under Liz Truss.

For context, under John Major in 1992, 71% of the Cabinet were privately educated, while 91% of Margaret Thatcher’s Cabinet in 1979 had attended fee-paying schools.

Despite this elevation of the privately schooled into Thatcher’s Cabinet, the former Prime Minister was also credited with tackling the dominance of a few elite private schools in the upper reaches of politics. Tory journalists called the Thatcher years “petit-bourgeois triumphalism” – the supposed victory for the middle class over the old aristocracy (and the working class) – prompting The Atlantic to claim in 1999 that, “Under Thatcher, the Tories finally became a meritocratic and populist party, for better or worse”.

Equally optimistically, the Guardian noted in 2005 that:

'There are still, to be sure, Etonians in the Tory party; but what Alan Clark called "government by means of the Old Etonian cabal", appears distinctly passé nowadays.'

Thatcher’s sacking of four Cabinet Etonians in 1983 seemed to herald the death of the institution’s stranglehold on Conservative politics – a moment that prompted the derisive (and antisemitic) comment from former Tory Prime Minister Harold MacMillan that there are “more Old Estonians than Old Etonians” in the upper ranks of Government. MacMillan himself was educated at Eton, and no fewer than nine alumni of the school were Cabinet ministers in his 1956 Government.

Then came the Cameron era. Although the former Prime Minister attempted to encourage greater diversity among Conservative backbenchers, his inner circle drew heavily from his alma mater. Then Education Secretary Michael Gove was even motivated in 2014 to say that the number of Old Etonians in Cameron’s top team was “preposterous”.

These included Oliver Letwin, who at the time served as Minister for Government Policy; Jo Johnson, head of Cameron’s policy unit; Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff; and Rupert Harrison, then Chancellor George Osborne’s chief economic advisor.

Boris Johnson was of course himself on Old Etonian – and a former member of Oxford University’s infamous Bullingdon Club – who was also known to rely on the counsel of social elites. Johnson appointed old Eton friend and seasoned Foreign Office diplomat Peter Wilson to run his private office in March 2022, while recently appointing Harry Mount – a fellow former Bullingdon Club member – as the individual responsible for overseeing new House of Lords appointments.

Current Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng and Business Secretary Jacob Rees Mogg – the two figures tasked with steering the country through the cost of living crisis – are both Old Etonians.

A New Experience

The regional divides within Truss’ Cabinet are also stark. The new Prime Minister took the opportunity today to chide Labour for its last two leaders holding seats in north London, yet she neglected to mention that 30% of her new Cabinet were born in the capital. Just 13% of the overall UK population lives in London.

Meanwhile, there is not a single attending member of Truss’ Cabinet representing a seat in Wales or Northern Ireland (and just one from Scotland). Almost 60% of the MPs in the new Prime Minister’s Cabinet represent seats in the south of England.

This has wider significance, beyond the hypocrisy of the Tory "meritocracy" and the ability of working-class kids to reach the highest political offices. Indeed, one’s background informs one’s view of society, economics and therefore decisions. And the disproportionate clustering of the privileged in positions of power typically creates a disregard for the circumstances of the poorest – who are dismissed as feckless and anti-aspirational.

Indeed, this has been the rhythm of Truss’ rhetoric in recent times. “To look at everything through the lens of redistribution, I believe, is wrong,” Truss has said. “Because what I’m about is growing the economy. And growing the economy benefits everybody.”

Truss has similarly claimed that lower economic output outside London is “partly a mindset or attitude thing” – a libertarian conviction widely used to justify restricting state support for the poor.

While Truss is not an aristocrat, she appears to have been captured by the elitist politics that flows from aristocratic rule – fuelled by the belief that those at the top of society have not succeeded due to their cultural capital or inherited wealth, but instead through genetics, intelligence, and hard work. Packing her Cabinet full of the privately educated, it seems likely that this myth – and the harmful policies that accompany it – will be sustained throughout her time in Downing Street.

And there is a final aspect of Truss’ Cabinet that is worthy of attention – and concern.

Aside from a number of her Cabinet ministers having worked previously in party politics, and in local council positions, there is a distinct lack of past experience in public services – in education or the health service, for example – or in "key worker" professions.

While five of her Cabinet members have a background in banking, four in law and five in accountancy/consultancy, none – that I can identify – have previously worked for any period of time in public services.

This jeopardises Truss’ pledge to “[deliver] on the economy, on energy and on the NHS”, and conforms to a long-term trend in British politics towards the triumph of a political class – the population of Parliament being political operators and wealthy professionals, rather than representatives drawn from a broad cross-section of the public.

In 1979, 21 MPs had previously worked in politics before entering Parliament; by 1997, the figure had jumped to 60, rising to 90 by 2010. Commensurately, MPs with an employment history in education fell from 17% in 1997 to 5% in 2010, and whereas 15.8% of MPs in 1979 had previously been manual workers, the figure stood at just 4% by 2010. 

This focus on "delivery" was further jeopardised by the sheer lack of ministerial experience among Truss’ top team. No member of her Cabinet was in it prior to 2019, and there is a measurable lack of experience compared to historical standards.

Truss may hope this leads to innovative thinking and new ideas. In reality, it’s likely to mean further chaos and Government paralysis.

Sam Bright is Byline Times’ Investigations Editor and the author of Fortress London: Why We Need to Save the Country From its Capital.

This article was originally published by Byline Times on 7 September 2022 and is republished with kind permission. 

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