There’s real irony in Alan Milburn’s report on Fair Access to the Professions. It reintroduces to the diversity debate a subject that is supposed to have been consigned to the dustbin of history (as Trotsky would certainly not have put it) by ‘third-way’ proselytisers like Milburn himself – class.
Blairism instructs that identity (and in particular race, gender and sexuality) is what truly defines people in this solipsistic, post-ideological age. Socio-economic status, like collectivism, is so 1970s, like British Leyland and The Rubettes. ‘We’re all middle-class now.’
As a political philosophy it delivered three election victories in the boom years. Just about everyone could keep up with the Joneses by maxing out their credit card or leveraging their houses to fulfil aspirations stoked by rampant materialism. Britain remained a low-wage, low-skills economy, but it didn’t matter.
Now the party’s over. As we sober up, it’s clear that Britain is as hamstrung by class as ever. And in certain respects – including in respect of access to, and advancement within, the legal profession – seemingly more so. Depressingly, after 12 years of (nominally) Labour government, equality of opportunity remains as distant an aspiration as ever.
So, What Is To Be Done? (As Lenin certainly would have put it, and indeed did). Well for a start, the government should look closer to home. The legal profession did not abolish maintenance grants for students and introduce fat tuition fees, disincentivising poorer people from seeking higher education, especially at the top universities. Nor did it entrench in society a culture of greed and soaring inequality that established private gain and private sector provision as virtues in their own right, implicitly scorning the notion of state provision – including state school provision.
Milburn deserves credit for disinterring the class debate nevertheless. And the report’s authors are right: the profession does need to look again at diversity and consider the issue more broadly. Signatories to the Law Society’s Diversity Charter pledge to publish annually the diversity profile of UK employees and details of their work on equality, diversity and inclusion. They need to remember that social class needs to part of their rubric, along with gender, race, disability and sexuality. Otherwise the elephant in the room will continue to be ignored.