In Depth

From Rotherham to Eton: democracy lets us all down

The lack of social mobility in Britain and the shock findings in Rotherham have something in common

The two major reports released this week may appear at first sight to have little in common: the truly shocking disclosure that hundreds of children in Rotherham, south Yorkshire, had been abused and groomed for prostitution by gangs of predators; and the most comprehensive report to date on the massive gulf that has opened between the well-heeled and the well-connected and the (vastly more numerous) rest. But both go to the heart of the major ill afflicting the country: a crippling democratic deficit.

The gulf between the advantaged and disadvantaged and the plight of girls forced to sell their bodies on the street may not be as extreme as they were when Queen Victoria reigned, but there are echoes of those days of plutocracy and destitution and total vulnerability of those at the bottom of society. What is truly shocking is that those in a position to do something about both disgraces have sat on their hands.

There is little surprise in the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission findings that British society is “deeply elitist”. Twenty-plus years after John Major declared that Britain was finally a classless society, class is more entrenched than it has been at any time in the post-war period. The Commission reeled off the mind-boggling and disproportionate percentages of judges, generals, doctors, newspaper columnists, diplomats, senior civil servants who had the advantage of a private education.

Alan Milburn, the former Labour cabinet minister who chairs the Commission, said that the situation – only seven per cent of children go to fee-paying schools; those who go to schools that truly “count” in this context (Eton, Westminster etc) are far, far fewer – is unacceptable, not just because it is grossly unfair (which indeed it is) but because it locks out “a diversity of talents and experiences, thus making Britain’s leading institutions less informed, less representative and, ultimately, less credible than they should be”.

The phrase “not for the likes of us”, which by now should be dead and buried, is still heard too clearly in many a school and community. A ceiling is placed on expectations which – given the inequality of opportunity – is possibly realistic, but nonetheless dispiriting to believers in change who grew up in the post-war period. Whither has fled that hope and expectation that we would as a nation become more equal, better educated, the inheritors of opportunities beyond our parents’ dreams?

So we come to the Rotherham report from Professor Alexis Jay, the former chief inspector of social work in Scotland. A rather arbitrary number of victims of systematic sex abuse – “more than 1,400 children” between 1997 and 2013 – is headlined, but the horrific crimes were clearly widespread and the victims numerous. What is most striking is that research, submitted down the years by youth workers highlighting their alarm at the child-sex offending in the town, was ignored.

The police (the South Yorkshire force has a record of controversy second to none: Hillsborough, the raid on Cliff Richard and now, capping all, this) did nothing, believing in police parlance that the victims were “toe rags”, so far down the social scale as to be unworthy of concern. Parents who tried to rescue their children from abusers were themselves arrested. And Rotherham Council equally sat on its hands, fearing – according to some accounts – that they would be taken for racial bigots if they tackled abuses largely committed by men of Pakistani descent.

Had similar gangs carried out a string of bank raids, the cops, with the whole-hearted support of the council, would have been on their tails like greased lightening.

Few council officials or police officers are scions of Eton or St Paul’s Girls School, but where the two reports connect is that both highlight a familiar immunity from accountability. The well-heeled can cram Oxbridge with their offspring; while the well-connected can ensure their children the best starts in the most prestigious careers through a quick phone to a friend, relation or acquaintance.

Educational experts may bleat over the inequality of education – and have done so for decades – but their arguments are water off a duck’s back to sharp-elbowed parents pushing their offspring towards life’s goodies. Many councillors and their officials – a lot of them grossly overpaid – often seem more concerned about self-advancement and town hall politics than about the welfare of the people they are supposed to serve.

The defiance of Shaun Wright – responsible for children’s services in Rotherham from 2005 to 2010 and now the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner – in refusing to stand down from his key role, is indicative of how elected officials look at their personal responsibility for what happens on their watches.

Many years ago I reported from Rotherham for a now defunct regional morning paper. The town’s MP then was habitually a member of a relevant trades union, the mineworkers’ or the steel makers. He – like other Labour MPs across the industrial heartlands – was always locally born and bred.

I do not suggest that Denis MacShane, Rotherham’s MP throughout much of the period of the abuses (later jailed for expenses fiddling), was not a conscientious local MP.

But he was a career politician, who sought a safe Labour seat and later became the Minister for Europe. I shook my head when he was selected to represent a close-knit town which to my eye required its MP’s full attention. In his own defence for not having fully appreciated what was going on in his constituency, MacShane has admitted being a “liberal Leftie” who averted his eyes from wrong-doing in the local Muslim community. The Rotherham of my day would not have touched a “liberal Leftie” as their MP with the longest of bargepoles.

Yesterday Ukip had a shot-in-the-arm with the defection to its ranks of Tory MP Douglas Carswell. He believes he will be re-elected, as a Ukip MP, by the people of Clacton, and he may well be right. Such populism is a heartfelt cry from those who have lost faith in mainstream politicians or town hall wallahs. Faced with grass-roots uprisings, self-interest may (indeed ought) to make the privileged and the powerful take note. Looking after Number One isn’t - and never should be - enough.

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