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Thanks to Will Hutton for talking sense on ‘class war’

Posted on 10 January 2010 | 12:01pm

Thank heavens for a voice of sense and reason in the debate about so-called ‘class war.’ The shame is it is not a Cabinet minister’s voice, but that of journalist Will Hutton in The Observer. It is welcome nonetheless.

Let us track back a bit. At a time Labour were drawing blood on inheritance tax, and Zac Goldsmith was causing his party trouble over his non-dom status, GB suggested to Cameron at PMQs that his tax policies were drawn up on the playing fields of Eton.

It was evident from Cameron’s face that he hated it. It was clear from the faces behind that they shared the hurt.

Inflicting political pain on your opponents is part of the job of politicians. Deflecting it is another part.

The Tories went immediately into ‘this is class war’ as a tactic in that perfectly legitimate act of deflection. Most in the media chimed along, partly because they realised it was a story, but also because as Will Hutton points out, most senior journalists send their kids to private schools, and do not want a real debate about the consequences of their choices. Far easier then to say it is a misguided political tactic by a flailing political leader.

Will Hutton’s article today makes the blindingly obvious point that whether we like it or not, class does indeed still matter, and that it is not remotely anti-aspirational to point that out, or to point out the social and economic consequences of inherent unfairness in a class system in which private education plays such an important part.

That is the argument Labour should have engaged in after the GB-DC exchange. Instead, they allowed the Tories and the papers to get them onto the back foot, inhale the false interpretation being put upon the exchange, with ministers briefing that they disapproved of this anti-aspirational strategy. As the rumbles went on, Gordon went along the concessionary route, saying it was a joke. Indeed it was, but one with a very serious point.

Nobody is saying Cameron is unfit to be PM because he went to Eton. But when his background dictates his policy agenda – and on the table at the time were two policy positions absolutely rooted in privilege – it is a perfectly legitimate attack to mount. And when Cameron tries to portray himself as having a real understanding of how people live their lives, his background and lifestyle are relevant to that debate too.

The best conference speech Tony Blair made, in my view, was the one aimed at the ‘forces of conservatism,’ saying they were the barriers holding people and Britain back. Because the vehement reaction unsettled some people in the party, we backed off a little as the debate unfolded. Labour ministers are doing the same now, by accepting the premise that it is class war, when all it is is pointing out that class and privilege are still reasons why Britain is not the country it can be, and that a Tory government risks reversing what progress there has been towards genuine meritocracy.

Will Hutton writes of the report Alan Milburn published on social mobility and describes its findings – on the link between private education and top jobs – as ‘lethal.’ If we really believed in aspiration, we would worry more about that than fraudulent claims that saying someone went to Eton is a sign of class war.

And as a footnote, I don’t remember any charges of class war when all the Tory toffs were calling former Speaker Michael Martin ‘Gorbals Mick.’

  • Jed

    Blair also said in that speech “The class war is over”. Like so many things, I think he got carried away before the reality was apparent.

  • Clara Porter

    Great column by Will Hutton, great blog by you. It is all about confidence in our arguments. Do we think class and privilege are still factors in our society? of course we do. Do we think there are things governments can do to address that? Of course. Are the Tories less progressive than Labour? Without any doubt. Nobody is or ever was saying shut down all private schools – though the charitable status is a nonsense – but let us not pretend it does not impact upon broader society. They want aspiration for the few not the many. It is what Cameron was bred to believe. Thanks to you and Mr Hutton for telling the truth about this argument

  • Tom Pendlebury

    Spot on. A lot has been done to make Britain less class bound but it is still there and a Tory government sure ain’t gonna go in the right direction on this.

  • Malcolm Pearce

    Isn;t the problem that the debate was going on – it would now seem, post ‘coup’ attempt – amid a debate about general direction and so oponents of Brown used it to undermine him. I agree with Hutton is was quite a good joke which made a good point. Why Labour allowed it then to become defined as class war is strange. Not enough fight in there.

  • Mark \’Elvis\’ Wright

    If the Tories get in it’ll be our money paying for their interests. Simple as that.

  • Ian

    The ‘class war’ is not over. It never has been, and never will be. Not in this country, or any other country which allows inherited wealth to be handed down from one generation to the next.

    When will a politician call for 100% inheritance tax for all estates valued above £100,000?

  • John

    The fraud beeing carried out on the British people is for the privileged Notting Hill Tory coven to present themselves as ‘we’re all in it together’ good ‘ole ordinary folk.

    A recent article showed how many Shadowers are millionaires.See Georgie on the Andie Marr show tother week filmed from his village hall – not his pile.Witness Samantha in her M&S dress – yeh sure it was specialy ade for her.( My better tells me .)

    Bah, humbug !

  • John

    Sorry to say it but the fight has gone out of Labour. No balls (sorry Ed) – infighting, instead of total focus on the Torys.

    It seems most supporters/members have a defeatist death-wish ! It CAN be done, it must be done ! Do you want to see a Heathite Dave replaced in a Tory induced recession by Neo Thatchersites. They’re still there and it wo’nt be long before Nicey is forced to walk the plank by the Neo-Thatcherites. Heck we could be in for another 20 years of the real Nasty party.

    Remember ’em bashing miners heads with big bonus overtime police deployed as stormtrooperslite ? The Poll Tax riots,Murdochs lockout, the jingoism of Thatchers war, mass unemployment. The fear of major negative equity when emplyees were on new short one year contracts. Neo slavery. Hospital management threatening staff not to talk out of court. No wonder Maggie was a friend and supporter of General Pinochet. How short our memories are.

    Not a great Prezzer fan but Labour need some of his bottle more than ever now – remember his big fist !

    Daves advertising and personality image cult reminds me very much of Joerg Haeders some years ago. That Austrian rightwing (Neo-fascist) ultra-populist was much criticised in the West for his Big Brother campaign. If the policies dont match the advertising and propoganda campaign is very similar.

    Beware after Nicey…….reality !

  • betty curtis


    Good article & ofcourse we must still pursue the war against priviledge & the affluent Tories.
    It is not envy of their wealth but the fact their Party is steeped in ignorance & denial that their Conservative policies have always meant that ordinary people have suffered under a Tory Governments.
    We will never trust them & if we don’t learn from the past then history will definately repeat itself & bring back the devastation in our Country of the 80’s 90’s.

    I don’t know how anyone could trust the Tories. They gave no support to the Government’s stimulus to help reduce unemployment & give families a help through the recession.
    We must remember that Tories believe Unemployment is a price worth paying ie A method of controlling ordinary people.

  • Steven Calder

    Hold on a minute, where has Labour’s ‘class war’ been for the last decade?

    Why bring it up now, why not have policies aligned to it?

    Was the hike in 10p basic rate income tax a ‘battle’ in this ‘class war’.

    Labour’s hypocrisy is astounding and demoralising to those that really do want to alleviate suffering and tackle deprivation.

    You’ve spent a decade blowing cash on bankers, big business and the rich and now become all humble when the recession arrives.


  • Xavier Attwell

    So true what you are saying however I do find it is sad after 13 years of Labour governement that still
    50% of students in the top 10 universities come from private schools when private schools only have 7% of students!

  • olli issakainen

    May I start with the 2009 Legatum Prosperity Index Table Rankings. Number one country (of 104 countries) is Finland. We do not have class wars of any kind in this country.
    I guess New Labour´s message in 1997 was that the class war is over, but class divisions still exist. New Labour was not against wealth and success, and the idea was to provide opportunities for social mobility for a wider range of people. At this moment of time most people were supposed to be belonging to the middle class.
    The unlikely class warrior Margaret Thatcher stood for the middle class. In fact, her aim was to make class irrelevant. John Major aimed at classless society.
    But it seems that class still matters. And it is not on political agenda simply because of an Etonian at the helm of the Conservative Party. It is still a real problem.
    Ed Miliband wrote in today´s the Observer that Labour is in for a society where government spreads opportunity to the majority and we all advance together.

  • Wyrdtimes

    Personally I have no problem with Labour giving the Tories grief over the amount of Etonians in the shadow cabinet. With out a doubt it has an impact on how in touch (or not) they are with the average voter.

    The Tories of course have access to an equally damaging tactic to use against Scot run Labour. The English question.

    How can it be right that the Prime Minister and other MPs from Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish constituencies can vote on issues that affect England but that don’t affect their own constituents? This equates to about 90% of legislation including: health, education and training, local government, social work, housing, tourism and economic development, many aspects of transport, law and home affairs, the environment, agriculture, forestry and fishing, sport and the arts, statistics, public registers and records, planning, natural and built heritage.

    How can it be right that Scots get >£1500 more per person per year funding than English people? Which in turn gives them numerous advantages. For example: free care for the elderly, free higher education, free hospital parking, cheaper prescriptions (already free in Wales and soon to be free in Scotland – currently £7.20 a pop in England), no NICE so better access to life saving drugs, no road or bridge tolls – the list goes on and on.

    At the same time Brown doesn’t even have the decency to call England – England. He deliberately misleads when he’s talking about Health, or Education, or Law and Order or 90% of legislation when he says “our country”, “the country” or the blatant lie of “Britain”.

    Brown is a signatory of the Scottish claim of Right. He knows damned well he’s lying when he calls England something else. He does it in an attempt to hide the implications of the West Lothian Question.

    While Labour have consulted on then given Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland their devolved assemblies England continues to be ruled by the UK parliament to the detriment of the English people. We get no consultation and no vote on democratic equality – we get no English Parliament. Instead we get the “English regions” foisted upon us with no vote.

    If Labour want to play the class card – that’s fair enough. In return the Tories should stand up for their English constituents and play the English card.

    All they have to do is shout “say England” at Brown next time he stands in parliament and talks about an issue that affects England but not his own constituents.

  • Lou Rossati

    A key problem with trying the ‘class war’ angle is that so many Labour MPs send their own kids to private schools, or pull strings to get them into the highest performing state schools. They may not be contributing to a new batch of Etonians, but it would be rather holding our MPs up to scrutiny which would not be helpful.

    What would be more to the point is the differences in aspirations and life chances between Cameron, Osborne et al and the people in Labour’s heartlands. Stressing the educational and economic differences in one of the most developed countries in the world isn’t banging on about the ‘class war’, it’s pointing out that the people running the country and the people living in it need to have some common ground.

  • B Smith

    Am I missing something? Didn’t Tony Blair go to public school?

  • Barry

    Just the other day I was thinking how GB could deflect the charge of engaging in class war. My thought was that bringing up the backgrounds and early lives of the Tory leadership was a valid point. GB has often talk about his background and upbringing to demonstrate the calibration of his political compass. cameron himself, has talked about how his ‘love’ for the NHS stems from the treatment received by his late son Ivan. Every constituency MP will have had to, to some degree, talk about their backgrounds to their constituents. As party leaders, and want to be PMs, the spotlight inevitably becomes brighter. When your policies appear to favour the privileged few, and your background is one of privilege, then connecting the two is perfectly legitimate. So GB should talk more about his background and upbringing, and how they still play a major part in his political thinking, and then pass the mic to Cameron.

  • Brian Tomkinson

    Didn’t your pal Brown say he was only joking when he referred to decisions made on the playing fields of Eton – or was that just more Labour spin? People aren’t interested in your outdated prejudices which are no doubt rooted in your own background.

  • mollie j collins

    My identity is attacked because there is no First Minister for those who reside in England. PM Gordon Brown, Chancellor Alistair Darling????? Is this taxation without representation? Devolution is not regional quango’s. Devolution requires a Parliament for England. It isn’t “the Scottish question” it’s THE ENGLISH QUESTION.

  • peter farley

    Alastair – The broken record is now spinning out of control. Whay do most journalists send their kids to private schools – because they are better! You are becoming the biggest hypocrite out there – you couldn’t bring yourself to back Kinnock or Smith, but just waited for a winner – so Blair came along. Now you are flying a flag in anticipation of the next revival. The truth is you have no clue who to back – and it certainly ain’t going to be Brown given what you have said about him in the past. Either throw yourself into the fray and pick a horse – or put up and shut up and see the whole mess finally slide into the slough where it belongs. Peter

  • Alan Quinn

    I mostly find that people who were educated at private schols a bit thick, but it’s the networking that private education brings is what gets them on in life.
    Thanks AQ, four O’levels and a City and Guilds in Fabrication and Welding which enabled me to work in the same sheet metal working trade of “Gorbals Mick”.

  • Claire

    I came from a working class background, and lived in a Grammar school system. I was an able girl and passed to go to the local Grammar school. Which is where, sadly I encountered my first taste of “class war”.

    Later in my life, I have come to the opinion that, it isn’t necessarily the choices your parents made for you education. We lived in that system, and I passed the exam. It is what you DO with your education afterwards.

    So Tony Blair went to private school? Should that matter when he went on to use his abilities to help others. And lets be honest. For the majority of the Labour time in office, people have done well. It is only when the banking crisis hit, that suddenly, the Labour policies ruined the country… The conflicts abroad are another issue, but we certainly did prosper as a country. It is down to a small group of irresponsible people in the banking world that we are where we are now.

    I am a secondary school teacher, and I hope that I have treated all children the same, whatever their background may be.

    If DC and Co were to show they are party that do not just give jobs to the boys, then they should perhaps get out and genuinely experience the country a bit more, and not just for photo opportunities. And some Labour MP’s should get back in touch with reality too. And remember why we voted for them in the first place. They were the party who were in touch with the majority of Britain. I think they still are – and agree with David Tennant. The prospect of the Conservatives back in power does make me shudder.

  • Patrick James

    The Will Hutton article is excellent.

    It was the papers that support the Conservative Party which introduced the class war terminology.

    I grew up in Northern Ireland and there was an important political rule in Northern Ireland which was “call the other side sectarian first”.

    The Conservative Party is protecting the interests of the privileged aristocracy and when Gordon Brown points this out they say “class war”. So they won that round even though it is they who are waging the class war. They won the round because they used that rule from Northern Ireland, “call the other side sectarian first”, or “call the other side class warriors first” in this case.

    The biggest problem for Labour was that other leading Labour spokespersons chimed in with the Tory “class war” allegation. How silly of them. If they had problems with the strategy then surely they could have communicated directly with Gordon Brown.

    There is a great opportunity for Labour proceeding with an “equal opportunity for all” agenda against the Conservative Party’s “protection of the privileged”. I think that Labour would do well to return to this. The “fields of Eton” comment by Brown did work I think until the Conservative “class war” counter attack. There is plenty of time between now and the general election for Labour to promote itself as the party of opportunity for all against the Conservatives as being the party of the privileged.

  • Matthew

    Having seen Alistair’s post I rushed to my Observer in great excitement. What a disappointment. In essence all Hutton is saying is that private education confers an ‘unfair advantage’ and that this should be a legitimate topic of debate.

    No big insight there – although this fairness thing does always remind me that I frequently say to my (privately educated) children that life is not fair. Never has been, never will be I’m afraid.

    What saddens me is the lack of any grown up debate about this issue in British politics and the media. I am also sometimes infuriated by the hypocrisy of the debate that does take place. Often those shouting loudest about ‘unfairness’ in education have their kids at a state grammar or one of the better comprehensives and have spent time and effort gaming the system to make sure they get the school they want. Those of us without the time, influence or inclination to do so, and the money to go private are not necessarily on the wrong side of this argument.

    I accept that Alistair has taken a principled decision to state educate his children. But any system that involves parents taking a principled decision rather than doing what is in their own self interest is doomed to fail (MPs Expenses anyone?).

    Ultimately this is not about the choices that indivduals make but about what education system we want. If private education is so patently unfair why has no political party pledged to ban it? I can only assume this is because such a pledge would not be a popular vote winner – and we do live in a democracy.

    Where I live in south London it is clear that comprehensive education has failed and acts as a kind of social apartheid. At age 11-13 most middle class kids go to the local grammars in Kingston or Sutton or private school. As a product of the 1970s state system it gives me no pleasure to say this, but its true.

    What I don’t understand is why selection is such a dirty word in progressive politics these days. Schools can select pupils who are good at sport, music, have a particular faith, or in the case of private schools by the ability to pay. So why can’t they select on the grounds of academic ability? It may have been flawed but the grammar school system allowed working class boys like my father to get ahead and become middle class. That avenue is now closed.

    Whether what Will Hutton says is ‘sense’ is neither here not there. What he and Alistair need to do is to come up with a workable solution and get one the major parties to adopt it rather than bleating about ‘unfairness’. The only thing I will agree on is that there is no meaningful debate going on right now.

  • Cliff Longfoot

    These post election machinations are sickening.Fiddling while Britain burns. Smart arsed non-elected commentators vying for influence, pursuing their own narrow agendas as the country slips into fiscal and broader economic decline. Oh for strong majority government able to “get things done” in the interests of our country. Hung parliaments? – put the efficacy of that to the electorate next time and you’ll be annihilated.
    Pass this on to Will will you as I quite enjoy his Alice in Wonderland musings in the Observer each Sunday.