Employers are told to spot ‘potential not polish’, but polish is about the tiny, monstrous ways that class functions – deliberately baffling to outsiders
Everyone stop being horrible to posh people! It’s not their fault they have everything. It’s the fault of the schools they went to. I blame the parents. They refuel the class system by sending their offspring to private schools because they are not entirely daft. As a mechanism for maintaining privilege, private education, with its gated communities of the elite, simply works. It has worked through thick and thin. Its pupils may be both.
That 7% figure of people who are privately educated, and who run just about everything, has stalled. Sometimes, people like me squawk about it but, as I have never learned to talk proper, it’s dismissed as “the politics of envy”, an idiotic phrase that reduces justified politics to a personal grudge. Occasionally, though, one of the gilded boys has a go at levelling the playing field. They do love a playing field.
So here we have cabinet minister Matt Hancock (King’s) suggesting that employers check the socio-economic backgrounds of applicants to stop the 93% of us who did not go to private school being discriminated against. Don’t people put their schools down on their CVs anyway? Wouldn’t it be easier to ask applicants if they knew much about skiing and refuse to interview anyone who did?
Still, Hancock’s vapid suggestion was enough to cause Lord Waldegrave, provost of Eton, to have a meltdown and complain that the privately educated could be discriminated against. The poor babies. How they bawl, not when the playing field is level but when anyone ventures near its electric fence.
All this came about as part of Cameron’s “life chances” agenda, some sort of baleful drivel about enhancing social mobility. It is patently obvious that social mobility does not start at a job interview but long before it. When employers are told to spot “potential not polish”, we may ask where on the periodic table this mysterious element “polish” appears.
I have never been able to locate it, that’s for sure. The idea that the existing system can be levelled out by allowing a few escapees from the lower orders into the public school milieu of law, politics, media, academia, judiciary and the City is somewhat cack-handed. For polish is surely about the tiny, monstrous ways that class functions, a series of codes and signals that enable small gangs of people to recognise each other as clubbable, employable, breedable.
It is deliberately baffling to outsiders. When I first started working in the media I was astonished at how everyone seemed to know each other from college. Then I began to realise they had been in schools with “houses”, small class sizes and peculiar sports, and shared the assumption that everything that came out of their mouths was innately fascinating.
On a Radio 4 show, I heard a producer bemoan my “polytechnic accent”. At every meeting I would feel unwashed and somewhat dazed, however long I had spent getting ready. Class manifests as acute discomfort. It’s not about thinking a Findus Crispy Pancake is a nice dinner, it is shared assumptions about what matters.
Lynsey Hanley’s book Respectable charts extremely well her journey into the middle class and all the anxiety it produces. But it bears little relationship to my journey, because there are many different working-class cultures.
What is shared, though, is that to be working class in a middle-class environment requires you to learn certain codes, and once you learn a code you can deconstruct it. The condescending nature of all the guff on private school education is part of this code. This system produces the brightest and the best, if the brightest and the best means booming confidence, inflexible thinking and the regurgitation of specific histories. Thus we have a chancellor who, without studying economics, believes himself an expert on it, whatever the figures say, whatever renowned economists say. Private schools sell self-belief.
In working-class culture, self-belief is played out as bravado and different kinds of knowledge are valued. I don’t romanticise it, as it’s stultifying. Everything is about what can be shown: practical skills, big tellies, getting really dressed up. What can’t be shown, that which is abstract, is not to be dwelt on, so I am forever glad I got away.
Social mobility, though, involves living with restraint. One must bite one’s tongue in order not to bite the hand that feeds you. Do not be prejudiced against your superiors. Just accept they got into Oxbridge by dint of their brainiac qualities. It was simply handy that, while you spent your teenage years sitting on a wall, they were competing in debating societies, editing their own magazine or playing the harp.
Here is the mystical polish. Sadly the self-improving element of the working class beloved by the likes of Raymond Williams, enacted though evening classes and further education, has been killed dead. So, instead we have the engineers of social class suggesting they pull a few of us on to the lifeboats. It is no real answer. What is it about private education that I would want for more children? It is confidence. The confidence to ask whether those in charge are actually so much cleverer than the rest of us, the confidence to insist that employing a normal person is not discrimination, and most of all the confidence to know that “power can be taken, but not given”.