Survey Variable: Perceived Private Education of MPs

Figure 1. See also Table A1.

Beyond perceptions of their own engagement with politics, people also have perceptions of politics itself. These might relate to how open, responsive, or efficacious the political system is, to the competence of specific politicians, or to the characteristics of politicians overall. Such perceptions can intersect with people’s perceptions of privilege, for instance if they think that politicians are drawn from a sub-set of the population that they see as an elite. This is illustrated neatly by the percentage of MPs that people think are privately educated, as displayed in Figure 1 (above, using weighted data), which is a kernel density plot indicating the distribution of answers to that question.

There is a clear peak indicating that the most popular answers fall in the upper seventies, and we can see that the bulk of answers fall between the mid-forties and one hundred percent (mean = 67.9%, standard error = 0.7%). Given that slightly more than one third of MPs at the time were actually privately educated, these answers represent a dramatic over-estimation. This fits with the observation that people’s estimates of figures are often wide of the mark, meaning that our perceptions are often, actually, misperceptions.[1] However, given that private education is often seen as a key indicator of privilege, the answers also show that people perceive politicians as a rather privileged group. In some senses, these perceptions are correct.

Although only half as many MPs were privately educated as people thought, the rate was still five times higher than in the population (amongst whom, around 7% of people are privately educated). Further, the proportion of MPs from working class, and especially manual, occupations has fallen dramatically in the last half a century, and people’s answers may have reflected some awareness of this trend. Finally, three of the most prominent MPs at the time, in the shape of the Prime Minister (David Cameron), Deputy Prime Minister (Nick Clegg), and Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Osborne), were educated at very prestigious private schools (Eton, Westminster, and Eton respectively). Thus, whilst people drastically overestimate the percentage of MPs who are privately educated, their intuition that politicians come from notably more privileged backgrounds than the population at large is not so far wide of the mark.

Variable namespoli_mpsprivsch
Number of cases1,405
Number of categoriesInterval scale (0-100)
Categories to code as missing997 (‘Don’t know’)
Cases to code as missing180
Recoded variable namepv_mpps_mv
Number of cases1,225
Number of categoriesInterval scale (0-100)
New and old categoriesPeople who indicated that they
did not know (997) on the original
variable were coded as missing on
the new variable, which otherwise
remained the same. As such, 0 on
the new variable indicates that the
respondent thinks no MPs were
privately educated, whilst 100
indicates that the respondent
thinks that all MPs were privately
Details of the original and recoded perceived private education of MPs variable.

[1] See also Heath (2018), ‘Policy Alienation, Social Alienation and Working-Class Abstention in Britain, 1964–2010’.

Published by joegreenwoodhau

Joe Greenwood-Hau is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Government & Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, where he works on the Capital, Privilege and Political Participation in Britain and Beyond project.

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