Britain’s Class System and the Question of Political Opportunity

British airwaves are crackling with talk about a new book. That’s unsurprising. Because in “Call Me Dave,” Lord Ashcroft, a disaffected Conservative Party donor, claims Prime Minister David Cameron once interacted with… a dead pig.

While the pig story is spurious, Cameron has engaged in some upper class excesses. While studying at Oxford University, for example, Cameron was a member of the Bullingdon Club, a dining society renowned for heavily intoxicated dinners that end in the destruction of restaurants and large payouts to restaurant owners. Still, in British conservatism, such experiences assist access into the establishment.

The door to Britain’s conservative establishment begins at boarding schools, which aren’t merely centers of learning but doorways to social mobility. And unsurprisingly, Britain’s top private school is Cameron’s alma mater, Eton College, a school that has educated 19 British Prime Ministers. Through the “old boys” networks Eton and similar schools sustain, students can pursue lucrative vacation schemes, networking events and employment opportunities from their teenage years. Bound together by common experiences, “Old Etonians” and “Old Harovvians” support a lifelong club.

But when it comes to politics and access to the establishment, these clubs become problematic because they restrict access to British conservative politics. The contrasts with the Republican Party in the United States are significant. While many congressional Republicans enter politics from successful careers in business, law, medicine and the military, their educational and social backgrounds are highly diversified. Many did not attend private school, graduate from Yale or buy their suits from Brooks Brothers. Instead, these politicians won office through vigorous campaigning, strong organization and effective fundraising.

The wealth of socioeconomic diversity in the Republican Party stands in stark contrast to the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom

It’s very different in the British Conservative Party. Until recently Conservative Party primaries were highly restrictive. Conservative candidates were often “parachuted” into constituencies by Conservative central office. The local party was a peripheral concern.

Even more troubling, the availability of jobs within the Conservative Party continues to be defined by the “old boy” networks. This is a big issue in Britain. In the U.K., prospective future politicians are expected to “earn their stripes” behind the scenes in party headquarters. That’s true of all the political parties. Of course, if one cannot get a job in Conservative HQ or access networking events, opportunities for a political career are limited. This isn’t to say that Britain’s Democratic Party equivalent, the Labour Party, is a citadel of meritocratic opportunity. On the contrary, it is a pawn of hardline unions. Regardless, there’s a reason many Conservative politicians attended private school.

My point here is not to slam David Cameron. The prime minister has a reputation for civility and patriotism. That said, Britain’s class system impinges upon political opportunity and distorts political representation in the Conservative Party. And that’s something American conservatives should reflect on. While the Republican Party primary campaign may sometimes be absurd, its extraordinary diversity speaks to something pure: that America’s democracy remains open to individual dreams rather than socially restricted networks.

Tom Rogan is a contributor for Opportunity Lives and writes for National Review. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.