Hands up who went to state school.
Ninety three per cent of you? Well done.
As you’ll know, it’s given you a deep insight into the world around you.
Or, in my case, to the fact that girls in Nottingham twenty years ago liked it if you wore ripped jeans, but did not approve if your goth inspired black shirt was one your mum got you from M&S.
If I hadn’t learned that vital life lesson, I probably wouldn’t have got off with (REDACTED) in Planet Earth in Newcastle that time, a life experience surely not available at Eton or Westminster.
Going to State school is about as universal experience as Britain can offer. It’s the Blue Peter badge of life.
So why do politicians (and Sunder Katwala is right, it is all sorts of politicians) make such a big deal out of going to state schools?
It’s because it’s a way to signal universality.
It doesn’t matter if your State school is a leafy suburban high achiever or a gritty inner city comp, It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bog standard school or that one in North London that seems to produce more famous politicians than Harrow.
It’s still a state school. Going to a State School is a way of saying, in the words of the late, lamented Christine O’Donnell: “I’m you”.
There are terrible ways of asserting this spirit (see Ms O’Donnell here) and there are ones that work very well.
Probably the best I’ve seen is John Major’s in the 1992 election campaign.*
(A side note: John Major says “badinage” in this video, and tells us that as a teenager he set up soapboxes in Brixton to debate political issues. Politics was gentler on nerds two decades ago. These are signals that he’s us, but he’s also, well not us. Not most of us, that is. I probably did something equally toe-curling. I probably use words like badinage to prove I know them, too)
The Major broadcast works because it tells us something we might not know. It tells us that the Conservative Prime Minister grew up in one of London’s roughest areas, that he had been unemployed, that he had struggled and that this experience informs his view of life and impacts the way he does his job.
Note they call it “The journey”. The film begins in Brixton. It ends with world leaders and Downing Street. The one informs the other.
Does the simple act of going to a state school have the same effect, whatever claims you make for it? I’m not sure.
To me, from our political class it feels like an attempt to assert, not demonstrate, commonality.
After all, if almost all of us went to state school we’re unlikely to be impressed by huge claims for the experience as being somehow revelatory or special.
If we’re playing at Inbetweeners politics, I can’t help but think the politicians are all acting like Will. You know, the one who thinks that being at State school is a strange, amazing, freakish journey, not just what everyone does.
I reckon the only people who find going to state school a particularly provocative or unusual thing to do are left wing intellectuals and ex-public schoolboys. Now, these two groups make up about eighty per cent of the British political and media classes, so in that world, (the one I live in too) it might sound exciting. and be worthy of discussion.
But surely making a big deal out of going to state school is like making a big deal of shopping at Tesco, or having legs. Everyone who shares the experience will wonder why on earth you’d make a big deal out of it, and the few who shop at Waitrose or are completely limbless will feel a little put out at your claims for the wondrous power of the near universal.
Maybe we have reached such a stage in the disconnect between British politics and the public that actually persuading people you’re not totally cut off from how everyone lives has a major political benefit. I don’t know the poll numbers, and I’ve not been at the focus groups.
If that’s the case, we’ve got bigger problems than worrying about what schools our leader went to.
Full disclosure: Bluebell infants, Hogarth Primary, Margaret Glen-Bott Comprehensive (Now closed due to poor standards), United World College of the Atlantic, Oxford. Sadly, I’m not everyman. I’m a unique little snowflake.
On the plebometer, I think I get plus 5 for the infants and primary, plus 50 for the struggling comp, Minus 20 for the sixth form scholarship and minus 50 for Oxford.
Mind you, I get minus 5000000000 for having had a New Statesman subscription for a 16th Birthday present, so it’s all a bit academic.
*Actually, the best I’ve ever seen is this one, from the US Senate candidate in Montana in 2006.