Tuc Chief: elitist Britain resembles Downton Abbey

08 September 2014 -


The leader of Britain's trade union movement says a growing division between class and wealth is reversing social mobility and creating a “Downton Abbey-style” society.

Warning that social mobility in the UK had “hit reverse,” TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady explained that, as the country begins to bounce back from the economic crash in 2008-9, there has been "no sign of the economic recovery in most people's lives".

She accused the Coalition government for backing class divides and making prejudice “respectable”.

In a speech to TUC delegates in Liverpool, O’Grady said: "Are we going to settle for a nastier and poorer Britain – a Downton Abbey-style society, in which the living standards of the vast majority are sacrificed to protect the high living of the well-to-do?

"We are piling yet more riches onto a privileged few. Economic growth is back but there's no sign of it in most workers' pay packets. In fact, the gap has got worse. Top chief executives now earn 175 times the wages of the average worker.

"Silver spoons are ever more firmly clamped in the mouths of those who were born with them."

The Tories provided a sharp response, stating the party refused to take "lectures from a cluster of union bosses on six-figure pay deals".

A Conservative Party spokesman said: "The real threat to people's living standards is the return of a Labour government, bought and paid for by Frances O'Grady and her union colleagues.

"Nothing could hurt Britain's future more than Ed Miliband as prime minister, marching to the unions' tune.”

However, the union boss’ comments follow a recent government report which provides evidence of a “deeply elitist” Britain, with a public-school education and a Oxbridge degree putting the fortunate few far ahead of the rest.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission studied analysis of 4,000 UK leaders in politics, business, media and the public sector, finding that the homogenous social backgrounds of those “running Britain” are utterly unrepresentative of the public they serve.

There are several ways to define social mobility, inter-generational, absolute and relative. Inter-generational social mobility underlines a person’s ‘social positioning’ due to the status of their parents, whereas as absolute social mobility reflects an individual’s acceleration into a different class.

Moreover, relative social mobility is the extent to which a person in one ‘social position’ has the same opportunity as someone in another ‘social position’ to move up (or down) the ‘social ladder’.

Despite only 7% of the UK population being educated at a fee-paying school, those pupils represent 41% of British-educated FTSE 350 CEOs, and 60% of people on the Sunday Times Rich List.

Similarly just 1% of Britain’s attend the country’s most illustrious universities Oxford and Cambridge, but that small elite forms 75% of senior judges, 59% of the Cabinet, 38% of members in the House of Lords and 33% of BBC executives.

Commission chair and former Labour health secretary Alan Milburn explained: “This research shows that, despite decades of effort to open up opportunity in this country by successive governments, the UK’s top jobs remain disproportionately held by people from a narrow range of backgrounds.”

Professions for Good, of which CMI is a member, has produced a social mobility toolkit for businesses. Access it here

Image of Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey courtesy of Mr Pics / Shutterstock.

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