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Was social mobility greater under Henry VIII than it is under David Cameron?

John Simkin

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Henry VIII had a tendency of appointing people from humble backgrounds to senior posts in his government. For example, Thomas Wolsey, who served as his Lord Chancellor (1515–1529) was the son of a butcher, whereas Thomas Cromwell, who held most of the senior posts in government (1533-1540), was the son of a blacksmith. Other important government officials, including archbishops, during the reign of Henry, such as Thomas Cranmer, William Warham, Thomas Audley, Thomas More, Richard Rich and Stephen Gardiner, came from families outside the power elite. This policy came to an end when Henry died and it is interesting to note that after Queen Mary had Cranmer burnt at the stake she replaced him with Reginald Pole, the son of Margaret Pole, 8th Countess of Salisbury.

Sir Robert Walpole was Britain's first Prime Minister. He started a tradition that was very different from the one established by Henry VIII. Walpole went to Eton, as did many of those who followed him: William Pitt, John Stuart, George Grenville, William Cavendish Bentinck, Frederick North, William Grenville, George Canning, Arthur Wellesley, Charles Grey, William Melbourne, Edward Derby, William Gladstone, Robert Cecil, Archibald Rosebery, Arthur Balfour, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home. Most of the others also went to top public schools. Until the election of Harold Wilson in 1964, the only other non-public school prime ministers were Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1905-1908), David Lloyd George (1916-1922), Andrew Bonar Law (1922-1923) and James Ramsay MacDonald (1924, 1929-1935).
I remember the discussions that took place after Wilson's 1964 General Election victory. It was argued that one of the reasons why Douglas-Home lost the campaign was that he appeared out of touch in a rapidly changing world. It was suggested that we had seen the last public school educated prime minister. At first this seemed to be the case as Wilson was followed by Edward Heath, James Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. The Conservative Party thought that it was too risky to elect a leader who had been educated at public school. Of course, it took the Labour Party to change this mind-set when it elected Tony Blair as its leader. It was therefore not considered a problem to select David Cameron as its leader.
Since coming to power Cameron has returned to the idea that the country should be run by former public school boys. Despite the fact that around only 7% of British children are privately educated, the figure for Tory members of parliament is 54%. As The Guardian pointed out in November 2013: "Recent figures based on current and previous salaries, shares and property suggest that two thirds of senior ministers are millionaires... And though some who sit around the cabinet table came from state schools (the foreign secretary William Hague is a good example), there is still something remarkable about how many of the top political jobs are currently held by people who went to some of Britain's major fee-paying institutions: among them, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, the chancellor, and the mayor of London. Then, of course, there is the Eton factor, which encompasses not just Cameron and Johnson, but plenty of their Tory colleagues, aides and advisers. Cameron's chief of staff is an Old Etonian, as is George Osborne's chief economics adviser. The Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin is too, along with the Tory chief whip, George Young, and the chief of the Downing Street policy unit – Jo Johnson, younger brother of Boris."
John Major, who left his south-London state school at 16, with only three O-levels, is one of those who recently argued: "In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power in 2013 are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class. To me, from my background, I find that truly shocking." It was of course very different during the reign of Henry VIII.
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I found this notion as presented interesting. (It brought to my mind the system used in Imperial China where a 'commoner' could enter the court upon passing an exam.)

According to Wiki : "Domestically, Henry is known for ... ushering in the theory of the divine right of kings to England." (The Emperor of China also had a Divine Right to rule. Not beholden to Commoner, nor Aristocrat, though in China successful revolt signaled Heavenly Displeasure with the Emperor.) In England the steps taken by Henry led to a concentration of wealth and power in the Monarchy.

The English Civil War ( The worlds first Capitalist Revolution leading to The Dictatorship of The Capitalist ) sought to bring to an end these grotesque excesses of the Monarchy and to break the Feudal system so that Peasants could move freely to where Capitalists needed their Labour, (And thus became the Proletariat). Toll gates were abolished. Goods could move freely and Labour had a new type of mobility.

(Fast forward to the Proletaian Revbolutions of our age. Capital is the new Monarchy. Again with grotesque ecsesses. It will be interesting to look back in 500 years to see what has replaced that. I wonder if one can identify a new mobility as well. Perhaps the aim of Capitalists to destroy the Sovereignty of Nations and thus expand its market share is a repeat fo past actions.Perhaps Karl Marx was right after all. (Thesis begets Antithesis which becomes Thesis...))

edit typo

Edited by John Dolva
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I found this notion as presented interesting. (It brought to my mind the system used in Imperial China where a 'commoner' could enter the court upon passing an exam.)

Henry VIII of course, had political reasons for this policy. He was highly suspicious of the nobility and he mainly kept them out of the top posts. He feared they would use this power to overthrow him.

According to the historian, Raphael Holinshed, who wrote twenty-five years after Henry's death, 72,000 thieves and vagabonds were hanged during his reign. Jasper Ridley has commented: "Many letters have survived from judges and government officials which give the number of malefactors executed after a recent assize or quarter sessions - some of them for high treason or murder, but the great majority for theft. The figures usually vary from six or eight to twelve or fourteen. If an average of ten persons were hanged at every session, this means that forty a year would be hanged in every county, which means 1,600 a year in the forty counties of England, even if we disregard Wales, where different circumstances prevailed. This would amount to about 60,000 during the thirty-eight years of Henry's reign. It is over 2 per cent of the 2,800,000 inhabitants of England, which equals the proportion of the 6,000,000 Jews exterminated by Hitler, who constituted 2 per cent of the population of occupied Europe, though it falls short of the 10,000,000 Russians who are said to have been put to death under Stalin's regime - more than 5 per cent of the population of the USSR."
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Sounds like a dangerous time to be alive. Strange that anything ever got done. I suppose previous rulers had established the structures that enabled tyrants like The Divine Monarchs to rule. I can see how a meritocratic approach to patronage can have a place

Step[hen GHardiner - cambridge, doctor of civil law, son of merchant
Richard Rich - cambridge, lawyer, grandson of merchant
Thomas More - cambridge, lawyer, son of lawyer
Thomas Audley - cambridge, lawyer, son of Geoffrey Audley (HRH Charles's 13-Great Grandfather, P.M. Cameron's 13-Great Grandfather.)
William Warham - oxford, lawer, son of tenant farmer
Thomas Cranmer - cambridge, arts, son of modestly wealthy parents
Thomas Cromwell - ?, lawyer-merchant, son of Walter Cromwell, a blacksmith, fuller and cloth merchant, and owner of both a hostelry and a brewery
Thomas Wolsey - oxford, theologian, son of merchant, (before executed : declared the pope Satan (and therefore Queen Mary his minion.))

While arguably outside an elite, certainly not commoners in the way I meant.

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  • 2 weeks later...

'...a new mobility.'

I wonder if the new mobility will be that of woman (the universal underclass). Today the vanguard of womens liberation is Norhern Kurdish. There it is profoundly internationalist and inclusive, as well as being socialist (of course).

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