Our identikit leaders and why it's little wonder the gulf between politicians and voters is wider than ever
When Ed Miliband stood before his party faithful last week as their new leader, grinning nervously in the glare of the spotlight, did his mind flicker back to the men who preceded him?
From its very first leader, Keir Hardie, who started work at the age of just ten in the coalmines of Lanarkshire, to the perma-tanned, globe-trotting, book-flogging Tony Blair, it is safe to say that the self-described people’s party has travelled an awfully long way.
Yet listening to Mr Miliband joking awkwardly about boyhood battles with his defeated brother David, it was hard not to wonder what on earth Labour’s most famous names would have made of the state of their party.
What would self-made men such as Ernest Bevin and Jim Callaghan, who hauled themselves up by their bootstraps from poverty, think of a leadership election that asked members to choose between two privileged, Oxford-educated brothers from North London?
What would war heroes such as Major Clement Attlee and Major Denis Healey make of an election in which neither of the leading candidates had ever held a job outside the political arena?
And what, they might well ask, does it say about the sad state of British politics that our three major parties are led by smooth fortysomethings who might have been cast from exactly the same mould?
Look again at the scenes of delight and despair at last week’s Labour conference, and you see not just an astonishingly incestuous story of fraternal rivalry, but a damning indictment of the collapse of opportunity in modern Britain — and a depressing reminder of the extent to which we are now governed by a tiny, closed and thoroughly narcissistic political class.
And the one characteristic they all share is an overwhelming sense of entitlement that — despite having no knowledge of the real world — they believe gives them a preordained right to rule over us.
But as genuine mobility slips further from reach, there has rarely been a greater gulf between rulers and ruled. Perhaps not since the Victorian era has the distance between the voter and the politician seemed such a chasm.
After all, Ed Miliband makes a very unconvincing spokesman for the ordinary men and women who Labour claims to defend.
How many ordinary Labour voters grew up listening to discussions of socialist theory in their Primrose Hill drawing room?
One characteristic they all share is an overwhelming sense of entitlement that — despite having no knowledge of the real world — they believe gives them a preordained right to rule over us
How many teenagers today are invited to review films on LBC radio, or work as interns for leading politicians, as ‘Red Ed’ did for Tony Benn?
Depressingly, how- ever, Labour’s new leader is entirely typical of the slick, privileged and strikingly youthful men and women who now dominate our public life.
And for all Mr Miliband’s tiresome emphasis on his youth, British politics could surely do with a few more grey hairs and balding pates.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg are both 43, while Ed Miliband is only 40. That makes him less than half the age of the great Liberal statesman William Gladstone, who was 82 when he led his last reforming government in 1892.
Unfashionable as it may be, there is surely much to be said for the wisdom of years. Winston Churchill, after all, was almost 66 when he answered his country’s call in 1940.
He had been in Parliament for 40 years, and first entered the Cabinet in 1908 — yet it was precisely because he was so experienced, so seasoned, so battle-hardened, that he was the ideal man to lead our nation through its darkest and finest hours. By contrast, today’s politicians might as well have come straight from nursery school.
Indeed, so smooth and effortless has Mr Miliband’s rise been that when he talked last week about the rise of his ‘new generation’, he seemed to have no inkling of the value of hard-fought experience.For him, the new generation means people like his brother David, who enjoyed the same favoured education — Haverstock School in North London, a politics, philosophy and economics (PPE) degree at Oxford and a spell at a top American university.
Or people like Ed Balls — son of a professor, privately educated at Nottingham High School, PPE at Oxford and a spell at Harvard.
Indeed, the closer you look, the harder it becomes to tell the members of our political class apart. Mr Balls’ wife Yvette Cooper read PPE at Oxford, too, before making the obligatory trip to Harvard.
And despite all her talk of equality, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman is hardly a great advert for social mobility: she went to St Paul’s Girls, the expensive sister school to George Osborne’s alma mater. Amazingly, perhaps, Mr Osborne himself did not read PPE at Oxford; he read history instead. But David Cameron read PPE, although the Prime Minister will surely be too much of a gentleman to mention that while Ed Miliband only got a 2:1, he got a First.
And though Nick Clegg, perhaps showing a flash of Lib Dem eccentricity, read anthropology, not politics or history, his background is so strikingly similar it is no wonder that he and Mr Cameron get along so well.
The son of a banker, he went to private school and Cambridge, spent his holidays as a skiing instructor and then, naturally, went off to America to study at the University of Minnesota and work as an intern at a Left-wing magazine.
There is nothing wrong with a private education, an Oxbridge training or a privileged background.
Sadly, though, the fact is that at a time when social mobility has stalled, with bright, hard-working children from poor backgrounds struggling to make their way up the ladder, Britain is governed by a tiny political class with almost identical backgrounds, life stories and values.
There are, of course, notable exceptions.
For my money, the man Labour should have chosen as their next leader was Alan Johnson, an orphan brought up in a council flat by his sister, who passed his 11-plus, went to grammar school and worked as a shelf-stacker before becoming a postman.
No doubt the former Home Secretary has his weaknesses. But at least people would have believed him when he claimed to understand the plight of ordinary families, and at least he could be said to embody the values of thrift, decency and hard work.
The fact is that at a time when social mobility has stalled, with bright, hard-working children from poor backgrounds struggling to make their way up the ladder, Britain is governed by a tiny political class with almost identical backgrounds, life stories and values
Brought up on a council estate by a single mother, educated at a local grammar school, Mr Davis became an insurance clerk, joined the Territorial Army to pay for re-taking his exams and ended up working for Tate & Lyle for 17 years.
There could hardly be a better example of that dying breed, the working-class Tory MP, or a more compelling story of aspiration, ambition and social mobility — in which, you suspect, his grammar school education played a central part.
There have, of course, always been hacks and apparatchiks. Remembered today as a Tory grandee who served as Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary and Deputy PM, Rab Butler was only 26 when he entered Parliament in 1929, and like so many of his modern-day successors, he never held a proper job outside politics in his life. Significantly, he was denied the leader’s mantle that he felt was his by right.
But 50 or 60 years ago, the stories of Alan Johnson and David Davis would have seemed rather less exceptional than they do today.
Four out of ten Labour MPs came from manual working-class families: Attlee’s deputy PM Herbert Morrison was the son of a Lambeth police constable, while Labour’s deputy leader in the late 1950s, Jim Griffiths, was one of ten children born to a Welsh blacksmith, left school at 13 and took night classes while working as a miner.
And even the Old Etonian Harold Macmillan’s front bench boasted the talents of Reginald Bevins, a former Royal Artillery gunner who was one of five children born into a working-class Liverpool family.
Indeed, the ultimate indictment of today’s political system is that instead of becoming more open, it actually seems to be going backwards, becoming ever more narrow, privileged and exclusive.
Today’s House of Commons is stuffed full of Rab Butlers, thanks largely to the efforts of the party machines to secure safe seats for privileged youths such as the Tory millionaire Zac Goldsmith in Richmond and Labour’s Tristram Hunt, the Left-wing historian, in Stoke. And, sadly, the Alan Johnsons and David Davises are becoming all too rare.
Wasn’t it ever thus? In a word: no. Turn the clock back 60 years, and the political class looked very different. At the head of the Labour Party in 1950 was the modest, unassuming Clement Attlee, who had enjoyed a privileged background and a Haileybury education, but learned the harsh realities of life while working with deprived children in the East End of London.
Like many politicians of his day, Attlee knew the rigours of war at first hand, serving with the South Lancashire Regiment in Gallipoli. Later he fought in Iraq, where he was badly wounded by shrapnel, and ended up in the trenches on the Western Front.
Attlee’s great collaborator Ernest Bevin had a very different life story. Born to a poor family in rural Somerset, he never knew his father, left school at just 11 and had to read the daily paper to his illiterate relatives. And to people who met him as a young man, the idea that this West Country labourer would one day become Foreign Secretary would have seemed laughable.
Yet this was the man who not only reorganised British industry to win World War II, but helped to establish Nato and the United Nations, built the post-war Western alliance against Soviet Communism and pushed for Britain to develop its own nuclear deterrent.
As his friend, opponent and wartime colleague Winston Churchill admiringly put it, Bevin’s ‘manliness, his common sense, his rough simplicity, sturdiness and kind heart, easy geniality and generosity’ were the envy of the Commons. Bevin had learned the value of hard work and sacrifice: when he invoked the British people, he knew what he was talking about.
What Bevin would make of his latter-day successors can only be imagined. Perhaps one day somebody, too, will wax lyrical about Ed Miliband’s manliness, sturdiness and common sense. But I would not stake my house on it.
The crucial point, though, is that Bevin was not alone in bringing a wide experience of life to the political arena. When he looked around the House of Commons in the 1940s and 1950s, he saw young men like Denis Healey who had orchestrated the Allied landings at Anzio, or Ted Heath who had commanded an artillery battery in Northern France.
Both Healey and Heath were from modest backgrounds; both had worked their way up by their own efforts; both, crucially, had benefited from a grammar school education. And within a few years they would be joined by another ambitious young politician who was to leave an even greater mark on our national story.
Margaret Thatcher’s background could hardly have been more different from the gilded intellectual cage inhabited by the Miliband brothers. The daughter of a Methodist grocer in Grantham, Lincolnshire, she won a scholarship to Kesteven and Grantham Girls, a local grammar school, where she first established a reputation for ferocious hard work.
Shamefully, critics often held her background against her: in the 1980s, the philosopher Mary Warnock mocked Mrs Thatcher’s accent, clothes and hair as ‘not exactly vulgar, just low’.
The tragedy is that at a time when ordinary families are feeling the pinch, and when the headlines are full of austerity, pain and sacrifice, our political class has never been more out of touch
But unlike the boarding school-educated Baroness Warnock, Mrs Thatcher had worked for everything she achieved. It was sheer brains and effort, not family connections, that drove her from Grantham to Downing Street.
And her belief in the virtues of hard work, inspired by her simple Methodist faith and grammar school education, lay at the heart of her political outlook. Her one aim, she said, was to ‘change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation’.
Margaret Thatcher, the champion of free markets, and Ernest Bevin, the soul of old-fashioned Labour, might make odd ideological bedfellows. But what they had in common was precisely what is missing from so many of today’s political class — a set of basic values, a love of effort and hard work, and a rounded awareness of life and its perils, inspired by their background, education and experience.
Unlike today’s political leaders, they knew what life was like for millions of ordinary people for whom the gilded splendour of the Palace of Westminster seemed as distant as the craters of the moon.
Like their colleagues Aneurin Bevan, a former Welsh coal miner, or Willie Whitelaw, a tank commander in Normandy, they had learned the lessons of life from bitter experience, not in the seminar rooms of Harvard.
‘I get it,’ Mr Miliband said over and over again last week, just as his spin doctors had instructed him. But you wonder whether, given his cloistered background, his lack of experience and his narrow horizons, he can ever really understand the hopes and fears of millions of people in Warrington, Welshpool and Wolverhampton, people who never had his good fortune or family connections.
The Labour Party may call itself the people’s party. But as the political class celebrate their victory, and the hard realities of life slip ever further from view, you wonder whether its nickname has ever seemed less appropriate.