Help Wanted: Platonic Guardians Enquire Within

By skepticlawyer

‘Why,’ asked a Labour friend of mine this week, ‘is Britain still run by people from Oxford and Cambridge? When is it going to stop?’

Her despair was as much about her own party as mine, as well as pretty much every other political grouping in the United Kingdom. David Cameron, check. Nick Clegg, check. Tony Blair, check. Margaret Thatcher, check. Gordon Brown gets a tartan pass, but he still went to Edinburgh. Scots also get a tartan pass if they go to St Andrews. Hell, these days even the BNP is led by an Oxbridge boy. The Green Caroline Lucas is an honourable exception to this trend, although she still went to Exeter, one of the better former ‘red-bricks’.

Even worse for those interested in the ability of education to confer life benefits on people of all classes and backgrounds, both Clegg and Cameron are public schoolboys, throwbacks to an older Britain of privilege and power. Why, we haven’t had a PM from Eton since the 1960s. Now we have one again. Clegg, by the way, went to Winchester. In case you think I am making this up out of whole cloth, here are some cliometrics from the Sutton Trust, a well respected British charity dedicated to improving social mobility through education:

Over one third (35%) of MPs elected for the 2010 Parliament attended fee-paying schools, which educate just 7% of the school population. The proportion of MPs attending independent schools for the previous 2005 Parliament was 32%. A major factor behind the increase in the rise is the higher number of Conservative MPs – who are much more likely than their Labour peers to have been privately-schooled.


The study shows that 54% of Conservative MPs attended fee paying schools, compared with 40% of Liberal Democrat MPs, and 15% of Labour MPs. The review, which has gathered school information on 620 (96%) of the newly elected and re-elected MPs, also finds that there are 20 Etonians in the 2010 Parliament – 5 more than those who served in the 2005 Parliament.

The review documents how serving as a Member of Parliament has largely become a graduate profession. Nine in ten MPs in 2010 went to university – by far the highest proportion of any Parliament to date. This includes just under three in ten who were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge universities. Oxford has produced 102 MPs serving in the 2010 Parliament.

If it were not clear already, it is clear now that social mobility is declining in Britain, and has been declining since the 1950s, the heyday of the Grammar school and the Secondary Modern. I think it is fair to say that when Labour got rid of grammar schools, it hacked away at its own educational feet. The consequences are only now being felt, as Britain’s natural ‘Platonic Guardians’ float to the top and, once again, run the country. Our great and powerful friend across the Atlantic is not immune, either, as one looks at the forest of people from Harvard, Yale and the rest of the Ivy League that have occupied (and still occupy) the White House and most senior government and legal positions.

I am not fond of ‘something must be done’ politics, partly because policies developed on the fly tend to fail, and partly because ‘something must be done’ policies tend to come from the political left, and fail more often than not. It was ‘something must be done, here is something, let’s do that thing’ politics that led to the abolition of grammar schools in the first place and has led to the current parlous situation where graduates from a single university make up nearly a fifth of the current House of Commons. Yes, I went to that university too, and I recognise the advantages it confers, but I can also recognise the injustice of it.

It was Plato who famously suggested that it was possible to find and educate the ‘best people’ (his model was gender-inclusive — he would have understood Margaret Thatcher as well as Nick Clegg or David Cameron) and put them in charge of the city, the region and the country. He thought his ‘guardians’ would produce good government, being unusually wise. We, with the wisdom of hindsight, know better. Britain has not, on the whole, thrown up guardians in the Platonic mould, but of late it has started to produce leaders who are so close to Plato’s conception of the leader that the contrasts between what he wrote and what we now have are moot. Meanwhile, the gulf between Britain’s guardians and the rest of Britain is almost unbridgeably vast. In an excellent piece for yesterday’s Independent, Howard Jacobson made the following observations:

Though I don’t doubt the sincerity of his passion for Beckett, Clegg is not what you would call an intellectual. No more than is – or maybe just a little bit more than is – Cameron. We wouldn’t want it otherwise. In this country the intellectual life and the political life are inimical. We don’t do philosopher or poet leaders. That keeps us tepid but it also keeps us safe. Clegg admits himself “unsettled” by Beckett’s idea that “life is just a series of motions devoid of meaning”. A little flirtation with emptiness in the front row of the orchestra stalls is one thing, but we would rather our politicians didn’t embrace nihilism.

It doesn’t, however, have to be a choice between being an intellectual or being a dickhead – the choice Old Labour made when it came up with John Prescott, or New Labour when it came up with Ed “Give ‘Em a Laptop” Balls. Seeing both of them popping up in news programmes as power changed hands last week was like watching a person age before one’s eyes. The world was new and they weren’t. The thing they vowed to go on fighting for nobody any longer wanted – not in those terms anyway. The new language being spoken belonged to men – neither dickheads nor intellectuals – whose time we thought had passed but who suddenly were here again: public school boys unabashed by the privileges education had conferred on them, unapologetic, burnished by advantages of birth and money. That such an old reality could present itself as a new one has been the most fascinating aspect of this election. What are they still doing here, such men? They were supposed to have been superseded long ago. We thought we had cleared the way for people of another sort entirely.


Or – and this is the explanation I favour – isn’t their reappearance the final proof of a self-defeating contradiction at the heart of socialism itself? After 13 years of Labour, and many more years of grievously misguided tampering, not only with grammar schools but with the very principles of a humane education, relativising knowledge for fear of privileging truth, denying children an education in the name of not imposing one on them, have we not simply left the field open for Clegg and Cameron’s return? They are not in power because they are monsters of deviance – the attacks on Clegg for acting politically this past week have been as absurd as anything in Beckett – nor are they in power because they are throwbacks for whom we entertain a sentimental hierarchical regard; they are in power because we have not come up with a sufficient number of people educationally equipped to seize it from them.

Social mobility through education is a wonderful ideal, but first we have to provide the education.

The irony is that the Tories, with or without the Social Democrats, are far more likely to facilitate this mobility through education than Labour in any of its guises. Michael Gove is the new Education Secretary. I confess to a liking for Michael Gove. He is a cultivated man and looks the way a cultivated man should look – always just a touch unkempt, cross-toothed and with a bit of a headache (I’m talking of impression, not fact), ironical, intellectually impatient, not quite inhabiting the space, as the two Cs occupy space, carved out for him by privilege. He is also, against all the prevailing orthodoxies, Arnoldian.

Education, he said recently, is about “introducing young people to the best that has been thought and written”. And you can’t get much more Arnoldian than that.

Democratizing education should not be about democratizing the content of education. Education should not be ‘down to a price’, but ‘up to a standard’. It should give bright working-class children access to the same tools routinely gifted to their social betters. It should not pretend that all educational outcomes are equal; employers — followed by the rest of society — will soon see through that shibboleth. It also should not pretend that all pupils are equal. It should acknowledge that the outcomes produced by competition can have the appearance (but not the reality) of injustice. It also needs to rid itself of the idea that giftedness is some sort of ‘unearned merit’, to use John Rawls’s phrase. If we want the best to rule over us, first we have to find them and nurture them.

Or risk being ruled by people from Eton and Winchester and Oxford and Cambridge forever.


  1. John H.
    Posted May 16, 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Nice post SL. Be careful though, lose your dreams and you’ll lose your mind(Rolling Stones, Ruby Tuesday). Nice co-coincidence for me, just yesterday I saw Mark Shields on the PBS Newshour go on a huge rant about the the number of politicians and public officials in the USA that come from Yale or Harvard. His rant starts at 10.10 into the clip.

    It also needs to rid itself of the idea that giftedness is some sort of ‘unearned merit’, to use John Rawls’s phrase.

  2. TerjeP (say Taya)
    Posted May 17, 2010 at 2:44 am | Permalink

    What is a grammar school?

  3. Posted May 17, 2010 at 7:32 am | Permalink

    Great post. In a sense, of course, is precisely “Guardian” politics that produced this. People who thought an education system run by People Like Them would produce Correct Education, inducing the Correct Ideas.

    The point of a state-run school system is, after all, to control the dissemination of belief (pdf). Hence religious bodies are the second biggest providers of education after government and totalitarian governments ban private schools.

    The conflict of interest in having the same authority run and regulate schooling is irredeemable and creates a single target for disastrous ideas to capture. Particularly given controlling the dissemination of belief is the point of marrying regulation with provision.

  4. Posted May 17, 2010 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    “Democratizing education should not be about democratizing the content of education. Education should not be ‘down to a price’, but ‘up to a standard’. ”

    I absolutely agree. The ALP’s failure to deliver, or even seriously work towards this has been utterly disappointing.

    “It also should not pretend that all pupils are equal.”

    Hmmm, but it also shouldn’t pretend that people at private schools because their parents sent them there have demonstrated an innate gift for matters artistic and intellectual.

    My third way preference is not for hived off grammar schools, but for completely reworking the ambitions driving the schools most kids go to- with ample facility to develop the bright ones at their respective paces.

    On the Oxbridge thing, it’s sometimes quite irrational though. Before going to the UK I’d researched law schools pretty well, and knew for example that the likes of Nottingham, LSE, Uni of London, and at least a dozen others were all considered world class. Then I get there and see that most of the top jobs go to graduates in poetry or the like from Oxbridge who have not even studied law, and that top unis don’t even consider grads from what are, internationally, considered equally competitive law schools.

    Nothing a good stick couldn’t fix, and it wouldn’t lower standards in the slightest.

  5. Posted May 17, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    armagny: public schools systems around the world have varieties of the same problems. They are systemic and cannot be fixed (just ameliorated) within the model of government schooling (i.e. the regulator also being the main provider). The nth version of “if we just had right idea Y and spent X more money, it will be fixed” really has lost plausibility.

    SL: Snap! I was working on a review of Kevin Donnelly’s new book (now up) and this post (particularly its links) was very helpful, ta. 🙂

  6. Skeptic
    Posted May 17, 2010 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    People from Eton and Winchester and Oxford and Cambridge will rule us until each person of the community wins the portion of political power known as ‘The Vote’ and has it at all times, as Kings had the totality of that power during their time on the throne

    I have no such political power and I know of no one who does.

    Until people can exercise their political power at any time they wish, there will be no Democracy.

    Democracy and Constitution are not compatible unless, in any dispute between the interests or will of a person and the welfare of all, the ultimate adjudicatory body is composed of randomly chosen citizens.

  7. Posted May 17, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    I’m a fan of the guardian idea, as long as it sticks to the idea that guardians have no right to personal property, or that, at least, their resources are limited to those at the bottom of the social heap. (I suppose the modern equivalent for the politician would be living on the dole, but provided with transport, laptop, etc, required to do their job).

    But I cannot think of any education system anywhere in the world that provides the depth and breadth required to be a guardian in modern times, where you need at least few bachelors/majors equivalents in the subjects Aristotle considered necessary for the highest calling (ethics, sociology, psychology, economics, and I think a science – enough to make CP Snow’s two cultures idea look weak)

  8. Bartak
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Clegg actually went to Westminster, not Winchester. Which is probably worse. But I think it’s the schools that you should be taking aim at here, not Oxbridge. That’s the real indicator of an elite education – Oxbridge is just a proxy.

    As for selective grammar schools, they still exist in large swathes of England (Kent for example) and the evidence is that their intakes are dominated by the middle classes; numbers on free school meals are much lower than in the secondary moderns and comprehensives and not reflective of the local demographic. There’s also plenty of research concluding that taken across the board (combining results for all the schools in the area), the selective system does no better for the total population of students than the comprehensive system; it just looks like it does better because the grammar schools score well in league tables, which given their selective intake is as you would expect.

    It’s true that social mobility did not improve under Labour, but the cause of that may not lie in the school system.

  9. Posted May 18, 2010 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Gah, Westminster, that’s even worse.

    I’d also be careful of the research indicating that students with the same A-Level results from comprehensives and grammars achieve differentially in favour of comprehensive graduates at university: every single study of its type I’ve seen only looks at university results in first year, not in each subsequent year (the effect of looking only at prelims and mods, not finals). My very strong suspicion is that the difference bleeds out during the course of a normal 3 year qualification.

    [She says, knowing how little work she did in first year…]

    I do agree that Oxbridge is only part of the nexus. As I said over at LP, the elite universities in the UK (and, I believe, France) are tied to elite schools in both countries, but the nexus can be broken. Many of Britain’s working class best and brightest came to Oxbridge via selective grammar schools during the more socially mobile 50s and 60s. The grammars didn’t expand the university system much beyond Oxbridge, Imperial and Edinburgh, but they did at least broaden the intake at those places. The point made by the Sutton Trust (and Howard Jacobson) is that the intake is narrowing again. Maybe we can’t get around the problem of a few elite universities and ecoles… but surely it is possible to ensure that the best students of all backgrounds get into them.

    Which means a serious consideration of streaming, grammar schools and the substantive content of education.

  10. Patrick
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    I was a fan of the guardian idea, until I realised that, eg DB’s ideal guardian world would just result in greater redistribution towards the dole.

    At first I thought this was just a practical problem to overcome.

    Later I realised that this was the problem, period. Plato wasn’t talking about the human race, and since my concerns are with them, I’ll keep Aristotle.

  11. Posted May 19, 2010 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Patrick, Aristotle gifted us with intellectual malarky suggesting that goods and services have an inherent value. Aquinas picked this up and ran with it to the extent that even Smith was suckered by the labour theory of value.

    The Roman jurists and the Salamanca School, by contrast, argued that something was worth exactly what someone was willing to pay for it.

    Spot who would have passed ECON101. No-one Greek, but a few Romans and medievalists — they would have.

    That said, we haven’t as a society addressed exactly what we should do with the extremely clever and capable in a systematic way since Plato, and that’s our loss. I’m convinced, for example, that much of the contempt directed towards ordinary people on issues like immigration comes from clever people treated badly by stupid people at school. When the stupid people want the clever people who (by then) rule over them to take their concerns seriously, the clever person’s response is a version of ‘where were you when I was being beaten up behind the bike shed in school? Why should I care about your pissy little job?’

  12. Patrick
    Posted May 19, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    SL, I was only concerned with Government.

    And I think the answer is for the clever people to a) work out, b) continue mental development past the age of 15.

    Not a fundamental philosophical issue.

2 Trackbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Hacking. John Hacking said: Help Wanted: Platonic Guardians Enquire Within: ‘Why,’ asked a Labour friend of mine this week, ‘is Britain still … […]

  2. By skepticlawyer » Artistic Expertise on May 28, 2010 at 4:35 am

    […] I raised in my post about the intellectually privileged backgrounds of those now governing the UK: what are we to do (if anything) with our Platonic Guardians, especially when they finish up ruling over us anyway, despite our best efforts to deepen the […]

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