Since leaving Downing Street in 1997 John ‘Maastricht’ Major has been a popular presence on the after-dinner speech circuit, getting £25,000 a pop. (Many people are willing to pay for Sir John’s dazzling insights: there’s one born every second.)
Yet for those who don’t often listen to after-dinner speeches, Major’s profile has been rather low. Finding nothing to latch on to in his soliloquies, the hacks mercifully left them unreported.
Now that Sir John’s latest homily has made the papers, one can understand their prior reluctance to give his thought a wider exposure.
It’s not that Major’s speech was any more vacuous, dishonest and hypocritical than those with which his successors have been regaling us in the intervening 16 years. It’s just that it was no less so.
What excited Major’s hitherto hibernating mind is his old bugbear: the predominance of the ‘affluent middle class’ in public life. This at least displays laudable consistency: he dreamt about the delights of ‘classless society’ when still Prime Minister.
If he meant it as it sounded, then we should all be enlightened by an example of a single classless society in the 5,000 years of recorded history. More likely Major meant not a society devoid of any social structure but one where elevation is achieved on merit.
None of that has ever been clarified, and obviously Sir John has now decided to address this deficit of meaning.
The fault for having all those Eton boys at the top, explains Major in his latest oration, lies with Labour who are responsible for the ‘collapse of social mobility’. Specifically, it’s the educational system put forth by Labour that’s holding back lower-class youngsters chomping at the bit.
Though he didn’t specifically mention the demise of grammar schools, this had to be what he meant, for elite free education was indeed a successful social hoist for able youngsters from lowly backgrounds.
So did the Tories ever try to reverse that asinine policy when in power? Did they reintroduce the tripartite education that had worked so well in the past? Not exactly.
In fact, when still Education Secretary, the sainted Margaret Thatcher shut down more grammar schools than any of her Labour counterparts ever did. And Major himself did absolutely nothing to get rid of comprehensives during his seven-year tenure.
Actually his own example suggests that scant education is no obstacle to a successful career, albeit in politics, a field that doesn’t require intellectual attainment – and in fact actively discourages it.
Little Johnny was educated at a comprehensive in an iffy part of London, emerging with three O levels and an unbridled ambition. Although he later acquired three more O levels by correspondence, that didn’t noticeably add a patina of cultural refinement.
Yet this manifest lack of basic education hasn’t held John Major back. In fact, he found himself in a position to sign the disastrous Maastricht Treaty and preside over the Black Wednesday calamity. If this isn’t testimony to towering achievement, I don’t know what is.
In common with most people whose minds haven’t been sufficiently trained, Major confuses different concepts altogether. Unfortunately he isn’t helped by modern English, in which the words education, diploma and training are often used interchangeably.
But they mean entirely different – some will say mutually exclusive – things. Education is a process of enriching a person intellectually, spiritually, morally and aesthetically. This may or may not prepare him for practical life, and when it does it’s by pure coincidence.
For example, someone who has spent 10 years at university studying, say, scholastic ontology, has a fair shot at becoming well-educated. However, it’s not immediately clear how this can help him run a pyramid scheme or for that matter a government (these days the two are often indistinguishable).
Should he reach such a career apex it would most likely be not because he’s educated but in spite of it. Conversely, someone trained in computer science may not know much about scholastic ontology, but he has a clearly signposted career path in front of him.
Sir John can’t mean education in its proper sense for the simple reason that he doesn’t know what it is. Nor does he probably mean professional training – after all, he talked specifically about success in public life, which doesn’t often depend on proficiency in systems analysis.
So what does he mean? A diploma of some sort to beef up a CV? Alas, I don’t know what Sir John means and I doubt he does either.
But I have news for him: in every society the world has ever known, most people who rise to the top in public life come from what Sir John would brand a privileged background. Typically this would involve several prior generations of cultural and professional attainment, or at least one.
There will always be exceptions, talented and energetic youngsters who make their own way in life. Such people should be helped, encouraged, applauded and held up as examples for all to follow.
But all will not follow: talented people are never thick on the ground, and those who can completely buck their family background even less so. That’s how the cookie crumbles and crumble it will.
The problem with Britain today isn’t that there are a few Eton boys in prominent political positions but that so many in Britain, including the Eton boys in prominent political positions, have been disconnected from Western civilisation.
The culprit here isn’t the Labour party, even though it’s undeniably revolting. It’s not the Conservative party, which is these days barely distinguishable from Labour. It’s our anomic, soulless, materialistic modernity.
John Major isn’t going to understand this – and wouldn’t even had he gone to Eton rather than to a Brixton comprehensive. So perhaps he ought to concentrate on cricket, which reputedly he understands quite well.