Sometimes real life leaves no space for satire. How else to explain two stories in the news this week?
The front page of the Guardian on Wednesday 14 November led with: “PM’s despair at private school grip on top jobs”. The story beneath this headline informed us that prime minister David Cameron was worried about the lack of social mobility in Britain.
“You only have to look at the make-up of the high levels of parliament, the judiciary, the army, the media,” said Mr Cameron (Eton, Oxford and descendant of King William IV), apparently without irony. “It’s not diverse; there’s not as much social mobility as there needs to be.”
Which begs the question of how much social mobility Mr Cameron considers necessary. Presumably not so much that budding Prime Ministers need feel embarrassed about their passage into an early job being eased by a mystery call from Buckingham Palace to inform Conservative Central Office that the young hopeful they were about to interview was “a truly remarkable young man.”
A bigger question is what might actually be done about the dire and worsening state of social mobility. Perhaps by people in positions of influence, like the prime minister maybe?
“It’s not good enough to…sit back,” Cameron says. “You’ve got to get out there and try to attract talented people…find people, win them over, raise aspirations and get them to get all the way to the top.”
I wonder if that reference to aspiration suggests that Mr Cameron may think that the root of the problem is poor people simply not setting their sights high enough.
Still, good on him for wanting to encourage a bit more ambition from the lower orders. One might ask how he is getting on with this mission, after eight years as leader of the Tory party, and over three years leading the country.
Ably assisted by the chancellor, George Osborne (St Pauls and Oxford, and heir to the Osborne baronetcy), and not forgetting the progressive influence of deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (Westminster and Cambridge), Cameron leads a cabinet of whom two-thirds are reckoned to be millionaires.
As he considers how he might make further progress in improving the diversity of our leaders, Mr Cameron no doubt values the insight of his top team, including fellow old Etonians Jo Johnson (head of the No10 policy unit) and Ed Llewellyn (Cameron’s chief of staff).
I can’t help picturing them, sitting in No10 Downing Street with their heads in their hands, agonising about what more they can possibly do to encourage social mobility.
“Where can we find clever people?” I imagine them crying in anguish. “Is it our fault that all the best people went to our school? It’s a good school, dammit. Is that so hard to understand?”
The spy in the bag
The other story that had my jaw dropping was this one: Spy found dead in bag probably locked himself inside.
You might remember the case of Gareth Williams, an employee of the secret intelligence service MI6, who was found dead three years ago, naked and padlocked inside a large holdall in the bath of his London flat. A coroner concluded that he was probably unlawfully killed; either poisoned or suffocated before someone locked him in the bag.
None of which looked good for MI6. But now, lo and behold, the geniuses of Scotland Yard have revealed the fruits of a three-year enquiry. They think that Mr Williams somehow got himself into the bag, locked it, and was then unable to get out. (Don’t try this at home.) Despite there being no trace of his fingerprints on the padlock, or the rim of the bath into which he would have needed to lower himself.
What’s the point?
What possible link can there be between these stories, apart from the fact that they made me check the date on the newspaper in case I’d missed half a year and woken up on 1 April?
Well, it’s this. We are invited to believe that a spy found dead in bizarre circumstances chose to squeeze himself into a bag and padlock it, there to expire slowly and painfully.
Equally, it appears some people believe that Britain’s dire inequality and the domination of power and wealth by a privileged elite is somehow down to a failure on the part of the daft majority who lack the ambition and foresight to have the right relatives or go to the right school.
Like you, there are lots of things I don’t know.
I don’t know what really happened to Gareth Williams.
I don’t know how sincere Mr Cameron is in his comments on social mobility. I have no reason to doubt that he means what he says. He seems a nice enough chap.
But this I do know: David Cameron and many of those around him were handed a cosy, high-quality and durable holdall of privilege very early in life. They happily got into it and locked themselves in tight.
And there isn’t much room in there for the rest of us.