Michael Gove is of course quite right: the "stratification and segregation" of British society are "morally indefensible". He is also right to observe that "it is remarkable how many of the positions of wealth, influence, celebrity and power in our society are held by individuals who were privately educated". Among other beneficiaries of this unearned privilege, he names some "of our most prominent contemporary radical and activist writers". As I came top of his list, I feel I should respond.
The first thing to say is that he has one heck of a brass neck. He talks of "those of us who believe in social justice". I'm sure he does believe in it, much as he might also believe in the existence of the Higgs boson. What he does not believe in is making it a reality. Or if he does, he finds himself in some very strange company.
In successive budgets, George Osborne has slammed the door on the poor, sometimes trapping their fingers in the process. By cutting the taxes the richest people pay while simultaneously shrinking both benefits and essential social services, he has done more than any chancellor in living memory to prevent the poor from rising and the rich from sinking.
That, after all, is the point of this government. It exists to secure and enhance the position of the banks, the corporations and the rich. It exists to support the system of rentier capitalism – and the inherited wealth that arises from it – that made so many members of the cabinet wealthy. This is the plutocratic class that funds the Conservative party, whose air it breathes, whose interests and opinions it shares. Social justice would require the redistribution of its remarkably concentrated wealth. But that is, of course, structurally impossible for the party to contemplate.
The Conservatives cannot tell us how the land really lies, which is why Gove must make stirring speeches about social justice. If he really believed in it, in the sense of being an adherent to the cause, he would implement a simple policy, which lies within his department's reach: shutting down private schools. This would produce the following beneficial effects:
1. It would prevent the rich from securing unfair advantages for their children, and thereby obstructing social mobility.
2. It would break down the social segregation that private schools foster, and which Gove claims to lament, in which the most powerful class is separated from childhood from those it will come to dominate, ensuring that its members can neither understand nor empathise with their needs and interests.
3. It would ensure that, rather than opting out of the state education system, they would be obliged to fight for its improvement and better funding. As it is, the dominant class has no qualms about cutting a service upon which it does not depend, and in whose improvement it has no stake.
But this would be the last policy Gove could contemplate: he knows what and whom he exists to represent. In fact the occasion of his speech about "social justice" was the celebration of the elite institution that has just been named "independent school of the year" – Brighton College. Among the methods he celebrated, it has "aggressively recruited, and generously remunerated, talented individuals from a range of backgrounds". In other words, it has cherry-picked teachers from the state sector. Without any apparent embarrassment, he then went on to insist that the key distinction between good schools and bad ones is "effective teaching", which "can make a difference of a whole additional year of progress to poor pupils". In other words: if pupils fail, according to Gove, it's because they have bad teachers, yet he celebrates a system that reserves the best teachers for the children of the rich. So much for social justice.
As for myself, I can't help where I've come from, but I can help where I'm going. One of my aims is to challenge the system that has granted people like me such undeserved advantages, and help sweep away the obstacles to social mobility, both upwards and downwards. That's because I believe in social justice. But not in the sense that Michael Gove does.