The Class CeilingLiz Truss’ Cabinet Offers the Illusion of Equality
Despite the racial and ethnic diversity of the Prime Minister’s top team, this counts for little if ordinary people of colour continue to suffer, says Taj Ali
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Much has been made of the apparent ‘diversity’ of Liz Truss’ new Cabinet. For the first time in British history, none of the four great offices of state – Prime Minister, Chancellor, Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary – are occupied by a white male.
What has been less spoken about is that this is one of the most socially exclusive cabinets in recent history, with the highest proportion of members who attended private schools in more than 25 years.
Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Home Secretary Suella Braverman were all privately educated. In fact, the vast majority of the new cabinet have been educated at fee-paying schools – even more so than under her predecessor, Old Etonian Boris Johnson.
Just 7% of Brits are privately educated yet 68% of the new Cabinet have been. This is more than double that of Theresa May’s 2016 Cabinet (30%), and more than David Cameron’s 2015 Cabinet (50%). We have gone backwards on class.
When people in positions of power are divorced from the impact of their own policies and, indeed, divorced from the everyday struggles of working-class people, it is no wonder so many have little faith in our current political system.
Private schools play a key role in maintaining this social class segregation and the new Cabinet encapsulates how a two-tier education system can create a two-tier society.
As a result of the Government’s austerity policies from 2010 onwards, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, England’s state schools suffered the largest fall in funding since the 1980s, with schools in the most deprived areas worst affected.
Well-resourced private schools have been well looked after by successive governments. A study in the British Journal of Sociology of Education estimates that private schools benefit from tax exemptions to the tune of £3 billion a year. That’s the equivalent of more than 6% of England’s total state school budget in 2020-21.
Private schools maintain ‘charitable’ status and are thus exempt from VAT and business rates. Meanwhile, state school budgets have been decimated by successive cuts, a recent survey finding that 58% of teachers are resorting to feeding hungry pupils out of their own pockets.
It is no coincidence that the gap between private school fees and state school per pupil spending in England has more than doubled over the past decade. When politicians are drawn from an exclusive, elitist education system, it is no surprise that there is little interest in investing in state schools – institutions that they have never used. When politicians opt for the privilege of private education and private healthcare, it’s little wonder that our state education system and NHS are in a state of perpetual crisis.
If we had more people in positions of power with a stake in our state education and healthcare systems, there would be a far greater willingness to adequately invest in these collective systems of provision.
The composition of the new Cabinet emphasises how parentage and privilege continue to determine where power lies in modern Britain.
As we witness a widening chasm between policy-makers and ordinary people; as the rich get richer and the poorest are still suffering from a decade of stagnation and austerity, the pandemic and now the cost-of-living crisis, the notion that Britain has become a more equal, meritocratic and fair society couldn’t be any further from the truth.
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The Fallacy of Representational Politics
But surely having politicians of colour in high places should be cause for celebration among people from those same communities?
When those same politicians preside over policies which disproportionately harm people of colour, there is nothing to celebrate. And, if recent history teaches us anything, mere representation without policies that tackle racial inequalities is meaningless.
But the problem goes beyond an unwillingness to tackle racial inequalities. In many instances, ethnic minority Cabinet ministers can and have maintained and upheld systems of oppression, often using their identities to shield the Government from accountability.
During the Windrush Scandal, former Home Secretary Sajid Javid told former Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott that she didn’t have a “monopoly on anger” over the affair as he was a “second-generation immigrant too”. Except, this anger was not evident in his voting record – Javid voted for the legislation which led to the Windrush Scandal.
This is the point. Home Secretary Suella Braverman and her predecessors Priti Patel and Sajid Javid are people of colour, but that hasn’t stopped them from supporting policies which have harmed people of colour. The Rwanda deportation plan is a case in point.
Race and class are not mutually exclusive, they are intrinsically interlinked.
People of colour in the UK are disproportionately working class and have been disproportionately impacted by right-wing economics. A brutal decade of austerity has punished ethnic minority communities, with the poorest black and Asian women being hit hardest by changes in welfare and income support, as well as drastic cuts to public services.
British Pakistani and Bangladeshi children have the highest rates of child poverty in the country at 54% and 59% respectively. Workers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage also have the lowest median hourly pay of any ethnic group, in the latter case earning 20.1% less than white workers. What material difference then did super-rich Chancellor Rishi Sunak make to the lives of working class people of colour, half of whom struggle with poverty?
Instead of optics-based illusions of diversity that continue to accompany institutional harm to the most marginalised communities, we urgently need economic policies that will make a real difference to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable.