When Thatcher became prime minister in 1979, she was one of only 19 women in the House of Commons, 3 percent of the total. Not one lawmaker out of more than 600 came from an ethnic minority. Almost half had attended private schools, while 36 percent went to Oxbridge, as Oxford and Cambridge are collectively known. The lawmakers included 96 lawyers, 49 teachers and 138 businesspeople — but also 98 manual workers, including 21 former miners.
In the current Parliament, 22 percent of legislators are women and 4.2 percent are from an ethnic minority. Just over a third of lawmakers went to private school and 27 percent to Oxbridge. There are still scores of lawyers and businesspeople, but only 25 former manual workers. And a total of 90 members of Parliament now give their background as ‘‘politician/political organizer,’’ more than four times as many as did so in 1979.
‘‘There are many more call-center workers than ever there were miners, but it’s hard to envisage how a call-center worker would become a member of Parliament in the current system,’’ said Labour Party lawmaker Jon Trickett, a former plumber and builder.
THE SONG AND DANCE
If the bastions of business, politics and the professions were hard for working-class people to storm, there was always entertainment, where a working-class hero, as John Lennon put it, was something to be. You don’t need money or a degree to be a movie star or play rock ‘n’ roll.
Or do you?
Britain’s leading actors appear to be drawn from a smaller pool compared to a generation or two ago.
In a list of actors with the highest cumulative box-office earnings on website Box Office Mojo, there are 10 Britons in the top 50. The older end of the list includes actors from working-class backgrounds such as Michael Caine, son of a fish-market porter, and 55-year-old Gary Oldman, son of a sailor and a London housewife. The 74-year-old Ian McKellen and 61-year-old Liam Neeson both attended state-funded schools.
As the list gets younger, it climbs the social scale: Ralph Fiennes, 51, grandson of a wealthy industrialist; Helena Bonham Carter, 47, whose great-grandfather was a British prime minister; and Orlando Bloom, 37, educated at private school. Of the three young stars of the Harry Potter trio, now in their 20s, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson attended private schools; Rupert Grint went to a state school.
‘‘I look at almost all the up-and-coming names and they’re from the posh schools,’’ actress Julie Walters said recently. ‘‘Don’t get me wrong ... they’re wonderful. It’s just a shame those working-class kids aren’t coming through. When I started, 30 years ago, it was the complete opposite.’’
If actors are becoming posher, surely there’s still plenty of room for working class heroes in popular music?
The best-selling British artists of all time, according to data from the Recording Industry Association of America, are The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Elton John and the Rolling Stones — often self-taught musicians, mostly from lower- or middle-class backgrounds who worked their way up from small, smoky clubs to the big time.
But that was several decades ago.
There’s a growing perception — though hard proof is elusive — that the upper classes are gaining ground in the music business. For every working-class singer made good, such as Adele, there’s a posh, privately educated Coldplay or Mumford & Sons. And there’s also a new kind of class warfare between the ‘‘authentic’’ bands and manufactured TV talent-show products, such as world-conquering boy band One Direction, molded by pop Svengali Simon Cowell. These days in Britain, with the rise of talent-show acts and performing-arts training academies, the grassroots approach is no longer the main way to fame.
That leaves sports — especially soccer — as the one arena whose stars are overwhelmingly working class. Sport provides a parallel elite, complete with an honorary king, David Beckham, who is handsome, regal and at ease standing alongside Prince William to lobby for British sports.
But in the parallel universe of sport, only a tiny minority of the most talented can even hope to make a living.
BACK TO SCHOOL
In most areas of British life, success comes down to going to the right — usually expensive — school.
A third of Britain’s lawmakers, half its senior doctors and more than two-thirds of its High Court judges went to private schools, which educate just 7 percent of British children, according to statistics compiled by the British Parliament. Well more than a third of Oxbridge undergraduates still come from these private schools, although the figure for non-white students has gone up over two decades from 5 percent to 13 percent at Oxford and 16 percent at Cambridge.Continued...