Accident of Birth

Commuting days until retirement: 390

My commuter train reading in recent weeks has been provided by Hilary Mantel’s two Mann Booker Prize-winning historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. If you don’t know, they are the first two of what is promised to be a trilogy covering the life of Thomas Cromwell, who rose to be Henry VIII’s right hand man. He’s a controversial figure in history: you may have seen Robert Bolt’s play (or the film of) A Man for All Seasons, where he is portrayed as King Henry’s evil arch-fixer, who engineers the execution of the man of the title, Sir Thomas More. He is also known to have had a big part in the downfall and death of Anne Boleyn.

The unique approach of Mantel’s account is to narrate exclusively from Cromwell’s own point of view. At the opening of the first book he is being violently assaulted by the drunken, irresponsible blacksmith father whom he subsequently escapes, seeking a fortune abroad as a very young man, and living on his very considerable wits. On his return to England, having gained wide experience and the command of several languages, he progresses quickly within the establishment, becoming a close advisor to Cardinal Wolsey, and later, of course, Henry VIII. I won’t create spoilers for the books by going into further detail – although if you are familiar with the relevant history you will already know some of these. I’ll just mention that in Mantel’s portrayal he emerges as phenomenally quick-witted, but loyal to those he serves. She shows him as an essentially unassuming man, well aware of his own abilities, and stoical whenever he suffers reverses or tragedies. These qualities give him a resilience which aids his rise to some of the highest offices in the England of his time. In the books we are privy to his dreams, and his relationships with his family – although he might appear to some as cold-blooded, he is also a man of natural feelings and passions.

Thomas Cromwell and the Duke of Norfolk

Thomas Cromwell (left) and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk – both as portrayed by Hans Holbein

But the theme that kicked off my thoughts for this post was that of Cromwell’s humble origin. It’s necessarily central to the books, given that it was rare then for someone without nobility or inherited title to achieve the rank that he did. What Mantel brings out so well is the instinctive assumption that an individual’s value is entirely dependent on his or her inheritance – unquestioned in that time, as throughout most of history until the modern era. As the blacksmith’s son from Putney, Cromwell is belittled by his enemies and teased by his friends. But at the same time we watch him, with his realistic and perceptive awareness of his own position, often running rings around various blundering earls and dukes, and even subtly manipulating the thinking of the King. My illustrations show Cromwell himself and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, a jealous opponent. By all accounts Norfolk was a rather simple, plain-speaking man, and certainly without Cromwell’s intellectual gifts. So today we would perhaps see Cromwell as better qualified for the high office that both men held. But seen through 16th century eyes, Cromwell would be the anomaly, and Norfolk, with his royal lineage, the more natural holder of a seat in the Privy Council.

Throughout history there have of course been persistent outbreaks of protest from those disempowered by accident of birth. But the fundamental issues have often often obscured by the chaos and competition for privilege which result. We can most obviously point to the 18th century, with the convulsion of the French revolution, which resulted in few immediate benefits; and the foundation of a nation – America – on the ideals of equality and freedom, followed however by its enthusiastic maintenance of slavery for some years. Perhaps it wasn’t until the 19th century, and the steady, inexorable rise of the middle class, that fundamental change began. As this was happening, Darwin came along to ram home the point that any intrinsic superiority on the basis of your inheritance was illusory. Everyone’s origins were ultimately the same; what counted was how well adapted you were to the external conditions you were born into. But was this the same for human beings as for animals? The ability to thrive in the environment in which you found yourself was certainly a measure of utilitarian, or economic value. But is this the scale on which we should value humans? It’s a question that I’ll try to show there’s s still much confusion about today. Meanwhile Karl Marx was analysing human society in terms of class and mass movements, moving the emphasis away from the value of individuals – a perspective which had momentous consequences in the century to come.

But fundamental attitudes weren’t going to change quickly. In England the old class system was fairly steady on its feet until well into the 20th century. My own grandmother told me about the time that her father applied to enrol her brothers at a public school (i.e. a private school, if you’re not used to British terminology). This would have been, I estimate, between about 1905 and 1910. The headmaster of the school arrived at their house in a horse and trap to look the place over and assess their suitability. My great-grandfather had a large family, with a correspondingly large house, and all the servants one would then have had to keep the place running. He was a director of a successful wholesale grocery company – and hearing this, the headmaster politely explained that, being “in trade” he didn’t qualify as a father of sons who could be admitted. Had he been maybe a lawyer, or a clergyman, there would have been no problem.

Let’s move on fifty years or so, to the start of the TV age. It’s s very instructive to watch British television programmes from this era – or indeed films and newsreels. Presenters and commentators all have cut-glass accents that today, just 60 or so years on, appear to us impossibly affected and artificial. The working class don’t get much of a look in at all: in the large numbers of black-and-white B-movies that were turned out at this time the principal actors have the accents of the ruling class, while working class characters appear either as unprincipled gangster types, or as lovable ‘cheekie chappies’ showing proper deference to their masters.

By this time, staying with Britain, we had the 1944 Education Act, which had the laudable motive of making a suitable education available to all, regardless of birth. But how to determine what sort of education would be right for each child? We had the infamous eleven plus exam, where in a day or two of assessment the direction of your future would be set. While looking forward to a future of greater equality of opportunity, the conception seemed simultaneously mired in the class stratification of the past, where each child had a predetermined role and status, which no one, least of all the child himself or herself, could change. Of course this was a great step up for bright working class children who might otherwise have been neglected, and instead received a fitting education at grammar schools. Thomas Cromwell, in a different age, could have been the archetypal grammar school boy.

But given the rigid stratification of the system, it’s not surprising that within 20 years left wing administrations started to change things again. While the reforming Labour government of 1945-51 had many other things to concentrate on, the next one, achieving office in 1964, made education a priority, abolishing the 11 plus and introducing comprehensive schools. This established the framework which is only now starting to be seriously challenged by the policies of the current coalition government. Was the comprehensive project successful, and does it need challenging now? I’d argue that it does.

R A Butler

R A “Rab” Butler

To return to basics, it seems to me that what’s at stake is, again, how you value an individual human being. In Cromwell’s time as we’ve seen, no one doubted that it was all to do with the status of your forbears. But by 1944 the ambitious middle class had long been a reality, showing that you could prove your value and rise to prosperity regardless of your origins. This was now a mass phenomenon, not confined to very unusual and lucky individuals, as it had been with Cromwell. And so education realigned itself around the new social structure. But with the education minister of the time, R.A. Butler, being a patrician (if liberal-minded) Tory, perhaps it was inevitable that something of the rigidity of the old class structure would be carried over into the new education system.

So if an exam at the age of eleven effectively determines your place in society, how are we now valuing human beings? It’s their intellectual ability, and their consequent economic value which is the determining factor. If you succeed you go to a grammar school to be primed for university, while if not, you may be given a condescending pat on the head and steered towards a less intellectually demanding trade. We would all agree that there is a more fundamental yardstick against which we measure individuals – an intrinsic, or moral value. We’d rate the honest low-achiever over the clever crook. But somehow the system, with its rigid and merciless classification, is sweeping the more important criterion aside.

Anthony Crosland

Anthony Crosland

And so the reforming zeal of the 1960s Labour government was to remove those class-defining barriers and provide the same education for all. The education minister of that time was a noted intellectual – private school and Oxford educated – Anthony Crosland. His reported remark, supposedly made to his wife, serves to demonstrate the passion of the project: “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland”. (In Northern Ireland, it should be noted, he was less successful than elsewhere). But the remark also suggests a fixity of purpose which spread to the educational establishment for many years to come. If it was illegitimate to value children unequally, then in no circumstances should this be done.

You may or may not agree with me that the justified indignation of the time was leading to a fatal confusion between the two yardsticks I distinguished – the economic one and the moral one. And so, by the lights of Labour at that time, if we are allocating different resources to children according to their aptitudes – well, we shouldn’t. All must be equal. Yes – in the moral sense. But in the economic one? Even Karl Marx made that distinction – remember his famous slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?  All that the reformists needed to do, in my opinion, was to take the rigidity out of the system – to let anyone aspire to a new calling that he or she can achieve, at whatever age, and under whatever circumstances that their need arises.

Back to personal experience. I can remember when we were looking over primary schools for our first child – this would be in the early 90s. One particular headmaster bridled when my wife asked about provision for children of different abilities. The A-word was clearly not to be used. Yet as he talked on, there were several times that he visibly recognised that he himself was about to use it, spotted the elephant trap at the last moment, and awkwardly stepped around it. This confused man was in thrall to the educational establishment’s fixed, if unconscious, assumption that differing ability equals unequal value. (We didn’t send our children to that school.)

Over the years, these attitudes have led to a frequent refusal to make any provision for higher ability pupils, with the consequence that talent which might previously have been nurtured, has been ignored. If you can afford it, of course, you can buy your way out of the system and opt for a private education. Private school pupils have consistently had the lion’s share of places at the top universities, and so the architects and supporters of the state system ideology have called for the universities to be forced to admit more applicants from that system, and to restrict those from the private sector. Is this right? I’d argue that the solution to failure in the state schools is not to try and extend the same failed ideology to the universities, but to try to address what is wrong in the schools. A confusion between our economic and moral valuations of individual threatens to lead to consequences which are damaging, it seems to me, both in an economic and a moral sense.

The plans of the present UK education minister, Michael Gove, have come in for a lot of criticism. It would be outside the scope of this piece – and indeed my competence – to go into that in detail, but it does seem to me that he is making a principled and well intentioned attempt to restore the proper distinction between those economic and moral criteria – making good use of individual ability where it can be found, without being condescending to those who are not so academic, or making the distinctions between them too rigid. And of course I haven’t addressed the issue of whether the existence of a separate private education sector is desirable – again outside the scope of this post.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King
(Nobel Foundation)

What, at least, all now agree on is that the original criterion of individual value we looked at – birth status – is no longer relevant. Well, almost all. Racist ideologies, of course, persist in the old attitude. A recent anniversary has reminded us of one of the defining speeches of the 20th century, that of Martin Luther King, who laid bare the failure of the USA to uphold the principles of its constitution, and famously looked forward to a time when people would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. The USA, whose segregationist policies in some states he was addressing, has certainly made progress since then. But beyond the issues I have described, there are many further problems around the distinction between moral and economic values. In most societies there are those whose contribution is valued far more in the moral sense than the economic one: nurses, teachers. What, if if anything, should we do about that? I don’t claim to know any easy answers.

I kicked off from the themes in Hilary Mantel’s books and embarked on a topic which I soon realised was a rather unmanageably vast one for a simple blog post. Along the way I have been deliberately contentious – please feel free to agree or disagree in the comments below. But what got me going was the way in which Mantel’s study of Cromwell takes us into the collective mind of an age when the instinctive ways of evaluating individuals were entirely different. What I don’t think anyone can reasonably disagree with is the importance of history in throwing the prejudices of our own age into a fresh and revealing perspective.

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