This is an extract from Alwyn Turner’s A Classless Society: Britain in the 1990s…
In May 2000 Gordon Brown was speaking at a trade union conference when he raised the case of Laura Spence, an A-level student from a state school in Tyne and Wear, whose GCSE results and predicted grades were sufficient to get her into almost any university, but who was turned down by Magdalene College, Oxford and instead was intending to go to Harvard. This was the result, said Brown, of ‘an interview system more reminiscent of an old boy network and the old school tie than genuine justice for society’.
He added: ‘It is about time we had an end to the old Britain, where all that matters is the privileges you were born with, rather than the potential you actually have. It is time that these old universities opened their doors to women and people from all backgrounds.’
Unfortunately, Brown had garbled the facts. He referred to Spence’s A-level results, when she had yet to sit the exams, and he failed to notice that of the twenty-seven applicants for five places to study medicine at Magdalene, all had comparable GCSE results, while three of the successful applicants were from ethnic minorities and three were women. It wasn’t quite so clear a case of an ‘old boy network’ as it seemed from the initial newspaper reports, which appeared to be the only information from which Brown was working.
The speech generated a huge amount of press coverage. Some of it was encouraging – ‘The chancellor really is talking our language,’ said the Sun – though the broadsheets were far less favourable, criticising Brown’s ‘harsh and uninformed attack’.
There was clearly an issue here. Only 53 per cent of Oxbridge students came from state schools, where 87 per cent of pupils were educated. But that disparity was not necessarily the result of an admissions policy, for applicants to Oxbridge consisted in roughly equal proportions of private and state pupils; in terms of applications, Oxbridge could legitimately claim to give slightly more favourable treatment to those applying from the state sector.
It was also the case that the proportion of privately educated students at Oxford had fallen in the post-war years, so that by 1969 the independent schools accounted for just 38 per cent of Oxford students; the numbers only started rising again with the widespread closure of grammar schools, particularly during the period when Margaret Thatcher was education secretary.
Little of that detail was allowed to cloud the ensuing debate, which lasted for several weeks and split essentially along class lines. The chief accusation on the one side was of ‘elitism’ at the country’s top universities, and on the other of underperforming schools in the state sector. The former charge was curious in this context, as The Economist pointed out: ‘You might as well attack the England football team on the same grounds. Institutions which seek to select and foster the best are inevitably elitist.’
The real question, as Brown had correctly identified, was one of access, though he had offered no answers to it. Nonetheless, it was elitism that came to define the episode, with a belief in some quarters that Oxbridge was largely populated by, in the words of Richard Stott in the News of the World, ‘hordes of upper-class, public school-educated, stinking rich, thick aristocrats with far inferior grades’. The universities, according to Paul Routledge in the Daily Mirror, resented the way in which Brown was exposing ‘the dirty little secret that they prefer to give places to public school pupils’.
Brown himself was bewildered by the storm he had unleashed. He ‘went on and on,’ reported Philip Gould, ‘about how this could have happened, why it was that a simple sentiment should cause such a blast from the press. He simply did not understand it.’ But at a time when the gloss had been rubbed off the government by the passage of time and a series of difficult events, his comments – backed by supportive interventions from Robin Cook and John Prescott – provided the opportunity for a good old-fashioned political row. A leader in the Daily Mail was headlined ‘New Labour, old class envy’, precisely the kind of coverage that Tony Blair didn’t want to see.
And some of those around the prime minister couldn’t help wondering whether it was entirely coincidental that Brown, a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, should be choosing as his target Oxford University, where Blair had studied…