During her box-office testimony at the impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this week, Fiona Hill, a non-partisan Russia expert, made a claim that has caught the attention of the press here in her native Britain.
Hill, a US citizen since 2002, explained that her affection for her adopted home was in part down the opportunities the US granted her compared to back in the UK.
“I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement,” Hill said in her opening statement. “This background has never set me back in America.”
Hill’s statement was right and she could have gone further. Even now in 2019, the upper echelons of government, the private sector and the civil service are largely still dominated by people from backgrounds very different to Hill.
A report published in June of this year by the Social Mobility Commission, an independent advisory body funded by the UK government, revealed that a staggering number of top jobs in the UK are held by people who were privately educated.
The report, for example, revealed that 65% of senior judges were educated in private schools, as were 59% of top civil servants. 52% of the UK’s diplomatic service went to private school, as did 29% of the total number of lawmakers in the House of Commons.
For context, only around 6.5% of British children are currently in private education, according to the Independent Schools Council. And the fees for attending private schools has exploded in the last decade, partly due to the influx of wealthy international students whose parents see these top UK institutions as a path into the British establishment.
“There is a very strong connection between how wealthy your parents are and what you go on to do in this country. If you’re from a poorer home, you’re less likely to get the opportunities to get you into top jobs,” says James Turner, CEO of the Sutton Trust, an independent organization researching social mobility in the UK.
However, the problem goes far beyond education. “Connections and having access to the sorts of people who can give you opportunities is very important – and your accent is definitely a part of that,” Turner explains.
And here we come back to the issues of accents.
A 2014 YouGov survey showed that something Brits call “Received Pronunciation” – essentially a posh accent from the wealthy South East of England – has the highest approval rating of any British accent. By contrast, inner-city accents from parts of the country like the North East, where Hill grew up, and the midlands were the most disliked.
Successive governments have made some efforts to improve social mobility, mostly through tweaks to the education system and encouraging academic institutions and employers to take people on from less advantaged backgrounds.
However, social mobility relies on more than education. And if you consider that last summer, Boris Johnson became the 20th Prime Minister to have attended Eton, the most elite school in the nation which famously educates the Royal Family, you get an idea of how big the problem is.