In the 1980s, with a shop-keeper’s daughter as Prime
Minister of the United Kingdom, there was a distinct feeling, for the first
time in Britain, that anyone could aspire to be anything they wanted to be,
irrespective of background.
There is ample evidence to suggest that sense of social
mobility has declined since then. We have seen the Presidency of the United
States, a country founded on opposition to hereditary monarchy, passed from
father to son, and the current British Prime Minister went to Eton, possibly
the most elitist school in the world – he is Eton’s
nineteenth Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Britain’s socialist Labour Party has more
in common with the Medieval Royalty of The
Lion In Winter ...
...than with its egalitarian founders, as two brothers are now fighting each other
for its leadership.
Those may be unfair examples, but there is a lot of research
that backs up the impression that the Establishment – political, academic, and
cultural, as well as banks and big business – is a lot more incestuous and inward-looking
than it was twenty years ago.
It should be stressed that this is no longer, if it ever
was, about “class” – a nebulous concept these days – or about race or gender or
It is all about contacts.
Birth and education can influence success, but only in as
much as they can be used for making connections. The real dividing lines in the
modern world are between those who are plugged into the relevant networks and
those left on the outside. Barak Obama, for example, came from humble origins,
but, from his twenties onwards, he was filling a formidable address book, which
was the real foundation of his apparent rise from nowhere in just six years.
Many become entrepreneurs precisely because they dislike old
boy networks. Small business may be the last surviving enclave of true egalitarianism
and meritocracy – where what you know matters more than who you know.
Yet even in small business, contacts matter. Whether you are
buying or selling, negotiations are easier if you can pick up the telephone and
get straight though to the Chairman or Chief Executive of a big supplier or
customer. It also helps, more than ever, to have friends on the inside when
dealing with public authorities. It is depressing that things work this way
now, but we did not make the rules – we can only play by them.
Even more depressing is the fact that entrepreneurship was
always the best ladder by which people could rise by talent alone – and
increasing regulation and taxation by the closed Establishment is now kicking
that ladder away.