The influence that a privately educated, middle-class elite have on public life is “shocking”, former prime minister Sir John Major has said.
Sir John said the “upper echelons of power” were dominated by those from a similar background.
In a speech to Tory activists reported in the Daily Telegraph he blamed “the collapse in social mobility” on the failures of the last Labour government.
More than half the current cabinet were educated at private schools. For example, David Cameron was educated at Eton, as was the Mayor of London Boris Johnson and the Archbishop of Canterbury The Right Reverend Justin Welby. Nick Clegg attended Westminster while George Osborne and deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman went to St Paul’s. In contrast, Sir John – prime minister between 1990 and 1997 – grew up in Brixton and left his grammar school with three O-levels.
In a speech to the South Norfolk Conservative Association’s annual dinner, he bemoaned what he said was the lack of people from working and lower middle class backgrounds in positions of influence in British institutions.
“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class,” he said. “To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking.”
Sir John said the Labour government, in power between 1997 and 2010, had left a legacy of a “Victorian divide between stagnation and aspiration” which current leader Ed Miliband was in no position to address. Too many children, he added, were “locked into the circumstances in which they were born” as a result of a lack of educational opportunities.
He added: “I remember enough of my past to be outraged on behalf of the people abandoned when social mobility is lost… we need them to fly as high as their luck, their ability and their sheer hard graft can actually take them. And it is not going to happen magically.”
Sir John also called for more help for savers, who have seen their incomes eroded by “cripplingly unfair” low interest rates since 2008. He urged the Bank of England to raise interest rates to “normal levels”, which he suggested were between 3% and 5%, as soon as was economically feasible. He also advised his party against “personal attacks” on UKIP, suggesting many of their supporters were natural Conservatives who were “patriotic Britons” who felt “bewildered” by the pace of social change.
The speech is his second intervention in contemporary politics in a matter of weeks, after his call earlier this month for a windfall tax on energy profits in the event of a harsh winter and a warning about hidden “lace curtain poverty”.
The BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson said he did not believe the comments were an attack on the current Conservative leadership but a plea for those from modest backgrounds to have more say in public life. The former prime minister, Nick Robinson added, was speaking up for what he regarded as his party’s natural constituency, the hard-working but aspiring majority who were not well-off.
Downing Street rejected any suggestions of a rift with Sir John, saying Mr Cameron spoke to his predecessor “pretty regularly”.
And the prime minister said initiatives such as the help-to-buy scheme – which is designed to encourage lenders to offer mortgages to people with deposits as low as 5% on homes worth up to £600,000 – was all about promoting social mobility.
Figures show 2,384 people, the majority first-time buyers, have applied for loans under the scheme in its first month.
“Without this help to buy, we were beginning to see a country where only people who had wealthy mums and dads, who could give them the money for the deposit were able to buy a flat or a house,” Mr Cameron said.
For Labour, Kevin Brennan, shadow schools minister, said Sir John was “telling people what they already knew”, saying the government was “out of touch” with “the next generation being locked out of opportunity”.
The UK Independence Party said the Conservatives were as much to blame as Labour for the social and educational imbalance at the top of British institutions.
UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall said: “The abolition of selective education in Britain has been a hammer blow to the prospects of working class kids. Until we see a grammar school back in every town and city across the UK, Britain’s shocking lack of social mobility will go on.”