Definitely not is the short answer, but there is not one event that was significant in itself – it’s been an evolution which is still happening. I grew up in a rural area which was conservative with a small and big C, this accurately described my family as well. Until I went to university I probably didn’t really challenge the received wisdom I grew up with on any significant political topic. But as with lots of people – especially those who grow up in rural areas or small towns – university exposes you to people with life experiences different to your own for the first time – it also exposed me to a level of privilege I had never really seen up close before. Although I came from an economically comfortable family background – and most of my friends growing up would have felt the same way – it isn’t until you start to get to know people from either end of the economic spectrum that you recognise the degree of difference and the impact it has on attitudes and opportunity.
None of the difference in economic background stopped people being friends in a university environment, although it was often noticeable who came back from Christmas holidays with a suspiciously Caribbean tan. But as we left university what become clear was that ability wasn’t the key differentiator on who would get what opportunity, but it was knowledge of and access to different worlds (Finance and media especially) that would make a difference. The kids from ‘middle class’ metropolitan families had a level of knowledge and connection the rest of us didn’t. That turned into internships, interviews and jobs that others didn’t get access to. In the first ten years of my career I became increasingly frustrated with the number of people in jobs beyond their capability, largely as a result of networks and schools. If you live in the UK we have a public life dominated by the 7% of people lucky enough to have a private education, to the exclusion of anyone else. This is especially true in politics & the media and I don’t believe it serves anyone well. Working in recruitment means that you get to meet people from a real cross section of society, the more I interviewed candidates coming from less privileged (and even outright deprived backgrounds) and you learn how much harder it has been for them to reach each successive step in their career, the more clear the level of inequity is that is built into the system. Access to certain industries and jobs is becoming more, rather than less restricted, especially when you overlay other factors, on top of income and class such as race, geography, disability.
My wife and I are both lucky enough to have had decent careers, so can afford to live in a textbook home counties commuter town. Becoming a parent and witnessing the kind of behaviour that happens when jostling for primary and secondary school places are up for grabs, has served to make me only more radical. As a white man from an economically secure family, I had a high level of privilege relative to the vast majority of people. My kids will have an even higher level of privilege then I did, as a parent I struggle with the conflict between wanting to provide the best opportunities for my kids and wanting to level the playing field for everyone – not to do something for my kids that displaces a deserving kid from a less privileged background. I don’t have a solution for this – but getting rid of all private education and investing hugely in education and early years childcare would be a good start.