The appointment of Liz Truss’ new cabinet has reignited conversations about how we measure diversity in the UK. Truss’ cabinet represents both incredible progress and an entrenchment of the traditional privileges that have long characterised UK public life. The current cabinet is the most ethnically diverse in political history, with none of the Great Offices of State held by a white man and 10 female ministers holding cabinet rank.
The Tory frontbench is vastly different from that of 30 years ago, where John Major’s first cabinet was exclusively made up of white men. By any measure, this is a remarkable achievement. It represents the success of the 'A List' programme established by David Cameron when he led the Conservatives in opposition. The programme fast tracked women and people of colour into the Tory parliamentary ranks. Considering that in 2005 there were just 17 female MPs in the parliamentary party, and now the current cohort has 87 female MPs, this shows that Cameron’s scheme has brought about meaningful change and represents a major step forward for diversity in public life.
Nonetheless, Truss has come under criticism for the domination of her cabinet by ministers educated at independent schools. 64 percent of the current cabinet were educated at fee-paying schools. This represents a significant change from the educational makeup of Theresa May’s 2016 cabinet, in which 30 percent of ministers went to fee-paying schools, and David Cameron’s 2015 ministry, in which 50 percent of ministers were educated independently. This statistic reignited age-old debates of how people educated at fee-paying schools have long dominated public life, with commentators pointing to figures such as that 65 percent of senior judges and 59 percent of civil service permanent secretaries were privately educated relative to the 7 percent of children that are educated in the independent sector in a given year. However, we should look closely at how diversity has often prioritised concerns of gender and ethnicity at the expense of social class.
The landmark 2010 Equality Act rightfully placed gender and race as protected characteristics and this forced many public and private sector bodies to integrate diversity schemes into their recruitment programmes and workforce strategies. However, social class isn’t protected under the Act and this has consequently hampered people of lower socio-economic backgrounds from achieving genuine social mobility. Research by the non-profit Bridge Group stated that a quarter of senior managers in City firms were privately educated, and 9 in 10 senior managers more broadly came from high socio-economic backgrounds. Contrast this with the fantastic progress made along gender and ethnic diversity measures. 40 percent of all board positions in FTSE100 companies are now held by women, up from 12.5 percent in 2010, and 16 percent of such positions are held by people of colour. You can see clearly how diversity in the UK still has not properly dealt with class.
Returning to politics, early career positions exclude candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds whose parents might not be able to support them or may lack the connections necessary to secure such a position. Writing in the Financial Times, the director of the think-tank British Future, Sunder Katwala, said that in Westminster it is becoming “harder and harder to rise to the top for those without a degree and those from working-class backgrounds.”
Katwala’s connection to class and education is at the heart of the issue in how we discuss diversity. It’s been well reported for years that pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds have struggled across a variety of educational metrics to keep up with their middle-class peers, from reading and writing skills in their early years to GCSE exam results at the end of secondary school. This has been made worse by the hap-hazard educational provision given to many pupils over the Covid lockdowns. The disadvantages faced by those from lower income households is plainly illustrated in the wide disparity in pupil funding. Currently, average UK independent day school fees stand at £15,655 per year. The average spend per pupil across the state sector stands at around £5,900 per year.
If we want to get serious about achieving meaningful and society wide diversity across our public life, the influence of class cannot be underestimated. It’s important that, as far as possible, our institutions reflect the country that they serve, and that means making sure that people from all backgrounds are given opportunities to advance. The current Conservative cabinet makeup would have been unimaginable thirty years ago, and the commitment to diversity across public and business life has been genuine. However, we’re fooling ourselves if we obscure the importance of class, and the very tight link to education. If we’re to achieve genuine diversity, class has to be integrated as an essential component of how diversity is conceived of to ensure that access to the most senior positions in national life is judged on merit alone, and the opportunities to advance are as accessible as possible.