Justine Greening interview: 'It's about understanding what it's like to start from scratch'

The International Development Secretary says her party needs to get back to Thatcher's message of aspiration for all

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

Justine Greening wants to talk about social mobility. If it is not immediately obvious why the Secretary of State for International Development wants to talk about this issue, it becomes clear. Growing up the daughter of a steel worker gave her an insight into what it’s like to struggle, she tells me, when we meet in a conference room overlooking Parliament Square. She says she feels that the Tories are not pushing as hard on social mobility as they ought to be.

Ms Greening thinks the issue needs a champion. She never says so explicitly, but clearly this is her pitch to take on that mantle. As she explains what it was like to be the first person in her family to go to university, how she had to get on in life without well placed connections, and how that helps her understand people’s problems, there is an elephant in the room. The elephant is David Cameron’s privilege. But every time the elephant makes its presence felt, the MP for Putney smiles and politely sidesteps its massive bulk.

She must know that venturing onto the subject of privilege and non–privilege is a risky business. Sir John Major caused a stir last year when he complained that the affluent upper classes still dominated every sphere of British influence, and that hard graft was no longer enough to propel poorer people into positions of power. Major’s comments were seen as a dig at the number of privately educated advisers in Downing Street, the lack of diversity in the coalition cabinet — and at the Eton-educated Mr Cameron himself. After the attack, Cameron promised to redouble his efforts on social mobility.

Nevertheless, Ms Greening feels that the Tories are not pushing hard enough on the issue. More than that, she doesn’t think they will win big until they do. ‘Unless you are pushing it, it will go backwards. Unless we are winning this battle to open up opportunities for young people, the doors have a tendency to gradually close back. This is an agenda that the Conservative party should absolutely own… We should be the people that are pushing forward on it.

‘To my mind the Conservative party has always been most successful when we’ve won the battle for hearts as well as minds and I think that means being a party that can take care of [people’s] dreams as well as their money and help them achieve their goals.’

Ms Greening’s back story is certainly one of the more inspiring ones in the cabinet. She grew up in a working-class family in Rotherham, was educated at a state school and went on to study economics before working as an accountant and financial manager for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, GlaxoSmithKline and Centrica. ‘Both my dad and my granddad worked in the steel industry. The harshest economic lesson I had was the day my dad became unemployed. He eventually found a job filling vending machines. I know what it is like to grow up knowing you are not starting in the best place, or that other people are having a better start than you are. The experience I had growing up, going to my local comprehensive, my family going through difficult times … it’s about understanding what it’s like to start from scratch more.’

There’s the elephant. More than who?

She won’t elaborate. She goes on: ‘My first job was working in Morrisons supermarket in Rotherham.’ I am mindful as she says this that Cameron’s first (and only) job in the private sector was at Carlton television in the 1990s. In their biography of the Prime Minister, Francis Elliot and James Hanning reveal that he was hired after Annabel Astor asked her friend Michael Green, chairman of Carlton, to employ her future son-in-law.

Back to Greening. ‘For me the reason I’m Conservative is because I think that is fundamental to what this party has always been about. Margaret Thatcher’s message to me was, it doesn’t matter where you come from, this is a country where the effort you put in will mean you can get the reward out of it. She was creating a country that was smoothing my path. I could decide how far I got. Even though I didn’t have a whole load of people around me who had already gone to university, it gave me that encouragement to get on.’ So what has happened? ‘Over the years that message has been diluted. My biggest concern is that we are ending up with a country where you have not one ladder to climb up but people are on different ladders. You might start at the bottom of a short ladder that will only get you so high. What we need to recreate is one ladder that everyone can climb up.’

It is a powerful image, all the more poignant, I feel, given Ms Greening’s own progress in government. After luxuriating in the big spending brief of Transport Secretary, with huge infrastructure projects like HS2 to manage, she has been taken out of the limelight somewhat by Cameron, despite being one of the most capable women in the Tory ranks, with extensive business experience. She is gracious when asked about the frustrations of being in government. ‘It is difficult but there are millions of people round Britain doing tough jobs that sometimes they feel are a bit thankless. I’m privileged to be the member of a government. Of course it’s tough but lots of jobs are tough.’

She is careful to say that good progress has been made by the coalition in getting youth unemployment down, in job creation, apprenticeships, welfare reform, and house building. But that is only a start. ‘What is next is really starting to shift the overall culture and mindset. What can we do to identify and bring through Britain’s talent? You see the statistics still there in the proportion of privately educated people in the professions.’

And in Westminster. I ask if she would like to see more people who have worked in Morrisons in the government. ‘Yes, I would. I think it’s really important. One of the reasons it’s important to talk about this is there are actually lots of people in the Conservative party who know what it’s like to start at the bottom… I know how it feels to be slightly locked out of the system.’ It may be the controversy surrounding the reshuffle, in which Greening went unpromoted and other strong women were put in some incongruous positions, but again I feel the poignancy relates to her situation now, as well as then.

But what can ministers like her do to improve the lot of people growing up in less than privileged households, as she did? She suggests tax cuts are part of it: ‘It’s about helping working people get on with their lives and keep more of their money.’

She goes on: ‘I do think as we come out of recession and people look ahead to what kind of Britain is emerging from this, it’s got to be a Britain where our focus is on social mobility. As a party we need to be helping people climb up the ladder. I think the elections we’ve done best on are where people have understood that we know what they are trying to achieve in their lives.’

The inference is that, as yet, the Conservatives are not winning hearts or minds.

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  • misomiso

    Always quite liked Justine Greening.

    The big irony is that everyone in the political world knows that re-introduing Grammar schools would solve the problem of social mobility over night, but there is too much pressure from the left at the moment.

    All we have at the moment is a system where the rich can afford to live in the best catchment areas.

    • red2black

      Pressure from the left? The Independent 22/10/98:
      ‘Margaret Thatcher holds the prize as the secretary of state who closed or merged the most grammar schools for a comprehensive alternative.’
      And from the same article:
      ‘Given the chance to return to selection in the Eighties by the Thatcher government, parents in no less leafy a suburb than Solihull gave the idea a resounding thumbs down. Politically speaking, John Major’s offer of a grammar school in every town went down like a lead balloon.’
      The rich, quite naturally, live in the best catchment areas. They always have done and always will do.

    • Kaine

      If you have setting and streaming, along with bussing to even out the catchments, you might get further. Grammars were indeed a life raft for some clever, poor children. However the eleven plus was a bloody stupid way to do it. You need more movement between the groups. You also need to work out what you do with everyone else. It’s all very well to say that going to the secondary modern/technical schools isn’t ‘second best’ but the money and expertise needs putting into them to make them equivalent to the grammars.

      • global city

        Who was responsible for the lousy secondary moderns though? I agree that the 11 plus was too rigid, but the system was smashed by those inside the sector in order to justify ushering in the comprehensive system. Cynical manipulation of peoples’ life chances on the back of loony dogma yet again.

        • Kaine

          Both parties actually who chronically underfunded them.

          • global city

            You are absolutely right. I was not making a party point (I have no party angle on most of these issues). It was the Blob, the stupid cultural Marxist Blob that still thrives to this day!

            Where is Steve McQueen when you need him?

  • Terence Hale

    Is Mrs Greening a traveling Circus?

  • Ludo

    She needs to leave the Tory party if she’s serious about being a decent human being.

    • samhol

      Actually, the Right have a vested interest in people moving from State-reliance to self-reliance. The offer of tax cuts to the welfare class has no resonance, obviously; but it does for those who aspire to self-reliance.

      It is the Left that requires the continuation of the status quo. It needs people to remain poor and without the means for self-actualisation. The moment the poorest move into gainful employment, and earn enough to be self-reliant and free of the State, they become far harder to buy-off with benefits and instead demand tax relief on their own income.

  • cartimandua

    We need excellent vocational trainings and we need to stop importing people to do jobs our low skilled people should be doing.

    • The Masked Marvel

      Precisely. Start with computer programming. The chap who invented the Raspberry Pi had the right idea.

  • rtj1211

    The argument is really rather silly, it focussing solely on the academic route to ‘social mobility’.

    Did Wayne Rooney go to grammar school?? Was he capable of it?? It appears to me that he has been extremely socially mobile in where he has got to compared to where his parents were. Same can be said of Ashley Cole, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell to name but three working class blacks who made a shedload of dosh through kicking a football. David Beckham has made a huge fortune on the back of being a good crosser of a football. He came from north east London and still retains a fairly working class accent. I don’t particularly care for all that he does, but he made the most of what he had.

    How many ICT gurus needed to go to grammar school and university to make a fortune programming?? None is probably the truth. Many will be Aspergers or dyslexic and does it matter a jot?? No.

    I have met countless people who make more money in construction and its supply chain than management consultants make. Countless. Most have heartily working class accents which suggests that they didn’t go to Eton, St Pauls or Westminster. They own property overseas, have homes worth > £500k and are free of student debt.

    Do City traders need university degrees to trade?? No. They can be East End barrow boys for all the HR departments care. They are judged on whether they make or lose money. Couldn’t give a stuff about Shakespeare, the trading floors of the world.

    This argument is the anally-retentive, media-centric navel gazing about the media, medicine, the law and investment banking. Not to mention politics. In case you missed it, PWC et al are now taking on 18 year olds instead of graduates: says that they don’t see ‘social mobility’ as being characterised by a University degree, doesn’t it? Just because your niches of the world have been bought up by daddy’s money and influence doesn’t mean other parts haven’t. In case you haven’t noticed the reputations of all those arenas have gone through the floor at precisely the time that nepotism has risen to prominence.

    One rule of the world is that as one door closes, another one opens up. If you’d said to working class lads 25 years ago that they’d be multimillionaires as footballers, they’d have said you were crazy. The same can be said to a lesser degree of rugby, cricket, snooker, cycling and athletics.

    What I don’t want to see is the working class imposing their mores on people who grew beyond them by the age of 18, due to their dominance complexes, ruthless power-crazy hungers etc etc. That’s not progress, it’s regression. Regression to the law of the jungle, not leadership earned through superiority.

    • post_x_it

      Some of this is rather outdated. The barrow boy trader in the City is rapidly on the way out, as the simple, high-pressure spot trading they excel at is being replaced by automated software. The profile of a successful trader with a bright future is a geek with a maths PhD who devises algorithms.
      And: I’m sorry, but multimillionaire footballers are neither here nor there. It’s true that they didn’t have to bother much with education and that they’re spectacularly rich, but there just aren’t enough of them to draw the conclusion that this a viable career plan for half a million teenagers who reach GCSE age each year.
      By all means, exceptional talents in non-academic fields should be spotted and fostered. However, the oft-espoused notion that everyone can be whatever they want as long as they believe in it hard enough is a dangerous con. It leaves far too many people with broken dreams and no education or skills to fall back on.

  • cremaster

    Ho Hum.

    I didn’t bother reading the article; I just noted that a prominent “Conservative” dimwit had made the comment – the sort of comment you hear on BBC channels every day.

    While these people fiddle, our country burns.