The splash in today’s Daily Telegraph is drawn from a single sentence in a speech delivered by Sir John Major last Friday.  It was: “In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me from my background, I find that truly shocking.”

What some will draw from Sir John’s comment that the Conservative Party is dominated by Old Etonians and that social mobility in Britain is getting worse.  It’s a statement of the obvious that a perception of the latter for a very long time is that they are “the party of the rich”, and that David Cameron’s way of leading the Party has left him open to the charge that he’s leading a “chumocracy”.

Since a socially mobile country would be one in which people’s living standards rise or fall relative to those of former generations (absolute social mobility) or their own contemporaries (relative social mobility), it is also a statement of the obvious that Britain is in some ways not a social mobile country – particularly since there has been a reduction in income growth since 2002, long before the Coalition and “austerity”.

But there’s no conclusive evidence that social mobility in Britain is getting worse, and quite a bit to prove that the Tories aren’t dominated by Old Etonians –

  • The OECD ranks Britain ninth out of 30 on the extent to which children’s educational attainment is independent of their parents’ socio-economic status.
  • It ranks Britain second out of 17 on how far years of schooling of parents and children differ.
  • It ranks Britain fifth out of 14 on the risk of early school leaving, comparing parents and children.
  • It puts Britain in the middle of the rankings on the probability of a child attending university if their parents are not graduates.
  • It is “impossible to say with any confidence whether Britain ranks above or below countries like Sweden, the USA, Australia or France”.
  • David Cameron’s first Cabinet contained only one Old Etonian – himself.
  • It was the first Tory-led cabinet in which more than half of its members had not gone to public school.
  • The proportion of public school-educated Conservative MPs is steadily falling, and now stands at 54 per cent.
  • Of the 46 per cent of Tory MPs educated in the state sector, 27 per cent attended comprehensives and 19 per cent grammar schools.
  • The percentage of Old Etonians in among their ranks fell in 2010 from 6.6 to 6.2 per cent in 2010 (that the number rose reflected the election result).

Obviously, I wouldn’t advise the Conservatives to respond to Sir John’s remarks by claiming that everything is absolutely tickety-boo – or simply by trying to remind voters of the good work the Coalition is doing in trying to improve children’s life through the pupil premium, or the extension of academies and apprenticeships, or by taking millions of people out of tax altogether.

They will need to do much, much more to create the popular conservatism that Margaret Thatcher, with her council house and share sales, managed to sustain only briefly.  Cuts or shifts in those green taxes, a further raising of the tax threshold, an apprenticeship premium, transparency in fuel pricing, more help for poorer Conservative candidates…all these and more will be needed to shift the problem.

But there is a time and place for pointing out that what will be taken from Sir John’s comments isn’t what he actually said, and that Britain’s government problem runs deeper than the “privately educated or the affluent middle class” having a grip on public life (which they’ve always had – so it’s hard to see why he finds this “truly shocking”).

For until recently, that dominant class wasn’t a political class – supported by the taxpayer, rather than political parties with a mass membership and a social base. It is here that Britain’s class problem really lies, at least when it comes to Parliament and government.

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