What's the point of the professions?

EDITOR'S BLOG: With the recent strike by junior doctors, the distinction between professionals and other jobs has become blurred.

by Matthew Gwyther, MT Editor
Last Updated: 26 Jan 2016

A belated Happy New Year. MT is 50 this year. We like to think we're wearing well as we advance into middle age - no toupee, still possessed of all our faculties, full of vigour, but possessing the wisdom and insight that goes with having seen a few things down the last six decades.

Back in 1966 it was pretty clear that there was a difference between professionals and non-professionals. Doctors, solicitors and accountants were, those at the grubby end of commerce definitely weren't. I'm not sure that the distinction is so obvious now, as our feature suggests. Margaret Thatcher had an intrinsic mistrust of closed shops from whatever social class and she would have concurred with Shaw that 'all professions are conspiracies against the laity'.

The Big Bang in the City was all about blowing up a cosy clique of what had been bowler-hat wearing 'financial service professionals'. You'd elicit an odd look now if, as a Goldman Sachs operative, you described yourself as a 'professional'. It's all about the Benjamins not the letters after the name.

And consider junior hospital doctors. I'd say that their recent strike makes them less 'professional'. Many would be happier if they were honest and admitted that their militancy is not really about patient safety but money. Otherwise, in the long run, the public will just think about doctors the same way as they do about the RMT when it strikes over 'passenger safety' which, one suspects, is very low down their true list of priorities. RMT members are not professionals - you don't have to train for eight years to open and close the doors on a tube train.

You're unlikely to find Sebastian James going on strike any time soon. He's too busy making what looks like a rare success out of a merger: Dixons and Carphone Warehouse. The class-warrior Corbynistas will screech that this son of privilege - he was at Eton, is a close friend of the prime minister and appears in the legendary black and white photo of the Bullingdon Club - doesn't need to fight for his employment rights. So what? Is my response.

I found it profoundly depressing that when I spoke to one businessperson who was at school with James, the individual begged me not to mention his education because it would cause him commercial disadvantage. What is our enduring problem with That School, which is among the finest on the planet? We may be in the process of turning our back on the professions but when it comes to nasty and reductive class war, we still lead the world.

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