UK: Boys who were most unlikely to succeed.

UK: Boys who were most unlikely to succeed. - It is a funny old world indeed when lack of higher education is lauded as the chief virtue of our new Prime Minister. Actually, a brief glance at the history books would show that John Major is the sixth prem

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It is a funny old world indeed when lack of higher education is lauded as the chief virtue of our new Prime Minister. Actually, a brief glance at the history books would show that John Major is the sixth premier of the century to enjoy this distinction, though he alone can claim to have graduated from the playing fields of Brixton.

Jim Callaghan, Bonar Law and David Lloyd George all left school at 16, while the great Winston Churchill was never to become a bachelor of arts or science. As for Ramsay MacDonald, he went one better, being sans degree and sans paternity both.

Yet, despite Major's humble origins, many would argue that the establishment is more established than ever - particularly in politics, the Civil Service and the military.

One might expect business to be more egalitarian. Certainly it is easy to think of "barrow boys" or girls in the most entrepreneurial areas, like retailing and property development. Names that spring to mind include Sock Shop's Sophie Mirman (she began her career in the Marks and Spencer typing pool), George Walker (a Billingsgate porter and professional boxer before turning to the less physical, but still bruising, role of property tycoon) and Charles Saatchi (who, unlike younger brother Maurice, eschewed college).

It is much more difficult to find examples of outsiders who have made it to the top in Britain's blue chip industries. Almost all of the firms are headed by middle class, male graduates, predominantly from Oxbridge. However, there are exceptions. Ford's Bill Hayden was raised on the outskirts of east London, and educated at the far from glittering spires of Romford Technical College.

But perhaps the most obvious example of the self-made man who has really joined the elite is Lord King, of British Airways and FKI repute. Born in Brentwood, Essex, Jack King was brought up in the Surrey village of Dunsfold, where his father was the village postman. He left school with no qualifications, to work first as a milkman and then as a machine operator making clips for Goblin vacuum cleaners.

It was the war which gave him his first significant break: he started up Whitehouse Industries, which used American machinery on lease-lend contracts. But it was Margaret Thatcher who threw the whole weight of the Government behind him and put him in charge of the then loss-making British Airways in 1981, following this up with a life peerage in 1983.

King's success in moving up the social ladder is, however, all too rare. Unfortunately, British industry would appear to be as class ridden as the traditional establishment.

If proof were needed, just look at the other side of the fence. Like John Major, Britain's trade union leaders were, virtually to a man, educated in the "university of life". Eric Hammond, the electricians' leader, went to Corner Brook School, while Gavin Laird, the engineering union general secretary, went to Clydebank High School. Colleague Bill Jordan proudly boasts that his education extended to "secondary modern school, Birmingham". On the left, Ken Gill of the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union made it to Chippenham Secondary School before becoming an apprentice.

John Edmonds, general secretary of the General Municipal and Boilermakers Union, is the exception who proves the rule. Unusually for a union leader, he took his degree from Oriel College, Oxford. A matriculation in metal bashing, perhaps?

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Why collaborations fail

Collaboration needn’t be a dirty word.

How redundancies affect culture

There are ways of preventing 'survivor syndrome' derailing your recovery.

What they don't tell you about inclusive leadership

Briefing: Frances Frei was hired to fix Uber’s ‘bro culture’. Here’s her lesson for where...

Should you downsize the office?

Many businesses are preparing for a 'hybrid' workplace.

How to make your team more accountable

‘Do as I do’ works a lot better than ‘do as I say’.

Black talent isn’t hard to find: It’s just you

If you want to attract the widest range of applicants, you need to think about...