The great divisions in modern Britain

This week I have been reading the extracts (published in the Guardian) from Polly Toynbee & David Walker’s new book, Unjust Rewards. The book is a contemporary look at class divisions in British society.

The first extract “Meet the Rich” is based upon group interviews with City workers, and their views on disparities in wealth and opportunity in the UK. Predictably, the attitudes reported from these City workers were ill-informed, intolerant or full of self-serving justifications for their position and wealth:

One woman banker described escaping from a provincial town where the main employer was the public sector: “If you aspire to anything beyond that you’re not going to live [there] any more, and that’s the choice you make.”

They had chosen a life that would make them rich while others, making different and morally equivalent choices, had abdicated their right to complain. “Some of these are vocational, things like nurses . . . It’s accepted – they go into it knowing that that’s part of the deal.” Another said: “Many people, like teachers, don’t do things for the pay. But you won’t find a teacher that works as hard as we do.” This was categorical, evidence unnecessary. They spoke of heroic all-nighters drawing up contracts for clients in time zones on the other side of the globe, a Herculean effort that justified fat pay. But did they work 10 times as hard as a teacher on £30,000 a year or, in the case of some lawyers and bankers, 100 times as hard? Such disproportionality did not enter their scheme of things.

What is reported is almost a parody of itself, “Guardian journalist finds out that rich people think that money spent on poor people is wasted”, were there going to be any surprises?

The second extract “Breathless with Amazement” is more touching and in its way heartbreaking. It recounts a visit to Oxford University by a group of high-achieving high school students from a poor London borough, a number of the students from minority backgrounds and none of whom have had family members experience further education. For these kids the trip opens their eyes to the possibilities of what can happen with academic success, but as the article contends, without a change in the disparities of opportunity, the chances are slim that any of them will make it to Oxbridge.

They left the gleaming spires with a vision of university as a place of pleasure – a new thought and perhaps the most important one at this stage in their lives. Would any of them make it back to Oxford after their A-levels? Their teacher thought two of them were in with a chance as they were exceptionally clever. But it would depend on admissions tutors appreciating how much they had overcome in how short a time. Several were Afghan refugees, who in the course of the two days, had talked movingly of American gunships firing on their towns and villages. One boy was African-Caribbean, UK-born and in care for years. In year 9 he barely attended school and was shunted from pillar to post, but once settled in year 10 he had become pupil of the year and was now destined to do well, despite everything. Would an Oxbridge tutor ever hear these stories – and get to assess how their potential stacked up against the attainment of a young person who had no obstacles to overcome?

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