It was The Spectator’s summer party last night, the high point of Westminster’s social calendar. We had the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary - and Lady Nugee (aka Emily Thornberry) apparently walking away in a fury when told her friend could not come in just because he had a peerage. We had a High Life bar, in honour of Taki, and a Low Life one, named for Jeremy Clarke. But the stars were a group of young people from the Social Mobility Foundation, and I thought I’d say a little more about them.
We at The Spectator have worked with the SMF for years. Typically, they are straight-A students from disadvantaged backgrounds: bright, hard-working and hugely appreciative of advice and opportunities. They learn a little about how a magazine is put together, and enough about journalism to put them off it as a career when they find out what it pays. But this year we thought we’d add a dimension to work experience and invite a dozen or so to our summer party so they can learn a bit more about these events – and how to network. As the pictures show, they did pretty well.
This might sound daft: do students really need to be taught how to drink free booze and enjoy themselves? But there’s an art to these parties; to many it comes naturally but to others (myself included) not so much. You learn important things: how to behave, how to smile as if you’re enjoying yourself even when no one is talking to you and you’re dreaming about returning to your TV and sofa. How to summon the courage to talk to strangers. How to handle and escape a bore. How to work out if you’re boring someone. And if you’re shy, how to make the best of it. And how to follow up on contacts.
How to behave in such soirees is a skill the children of the rich learn quite early on, but children from council estates have less experience. And does it matter? A friend of mine says he got into Cambridge, in large part, because his well-connected parents regularly held dinner parties so he learnt this kind of chat from an early age. When his university interview came, he was completely comfortable – thanks to the soft skills that are not taught at school.
This holds true beyond Oxbridge. The Laurence Stern fellowship, for example, is the most coveted award for young British journalists: applicants are selected by interview but also in a drinks party where they’re judged by sociability. Some banks have the same system: applicants are placed in a room with some cheese, wine and a few senior executives to see how they cope. To those dragged by their parents to such soirees since the age of 14, it's a piece of cake. But those for whom such cheese-and-wine bashes are a new, bizarre and uncomfortable experience will be at a disadvantage. This is, in my view, an area where the British class system has gone unchallenged.
Before the bash, one of the SMF students asked if they’d be seen as nobodies; why would any government minister care about them? But the students are some of the most interesting and inspiring people you’ll ever meet. One is from Easterhouse, one of Glasgow’s most deprived council schemes, and is now reading PPE at Oxford. Another went to a comprehensive in London’s East End and won a scholarship to Princeton University. The scale of their achievement at such a young age, against pretty large odds, is simply extraordinary. You'd want them at any party.
As things turned out, they need not have worried. Theresa May, Amber Rudd, David Davis, Boris Johnson all spent a good amount of time talking to the students, asking them about their circumstances, hopes and ambitions. Andrew Marr was especially generous with his time as was Sajid Javid, who was asking why they thought the Tories had lost their majority. One of the students told me afterwards that the idea of approaching the PM had been terrifying, but talking to her was easy: she had been just incredibly normal. And that was the purpose of the exercise: to demystify. And show these incredible young people just how little they have to be nervous about.
I'm writing this, mainly, for other employers - a great many of us do have policies to make sure internships are not hoarded by the relatives of the well-connected. So perhaps offering summer party places could be another part of what we do. We did wonder if it would be an odd look to have a bunch of students floating around what is (as Lady Nugee can attest) a rather hard party to get into. But the guests seemed happy with the variety of guests, as did our party's sponsors (Airbnb and Maitland).
I was asked by a few guests why there were so many students around - it does look unusual - but when I explained, they ended up saying they'd be interested in doing the same. So I do think we're on to something. Our chairman, Andrew Neil, said afterwards that the whole party was worth it to see the SMF students chatting with the PM. I think a new Spectator tradition has been born.
UPDATE Here's an extract from a couple of emails sent afterwards. My thanks again to the PM, her Cabinet colleagues and other guests who gave their time and encouragement.
I just wanted to drop you this email to say a huge thank you for allowing the Social Mobility Foundation to bring some students to the party. I had a truly wonderful, unforgettable evening. Being able to meet and talk to so many high profile figures in the world of politics was an absolute dream come true and something that I never would have had the chance to do otherwise. I also now feel much more confident attending events like this in the future - after all, when am I ever going to have to talk to anyone more important than the PM?!
And another one...
I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the various people and came away feeling confident, with details of new contacts - something I had not felt before. Prior to this party I had not realised the importance of stepping out of your comfort zone and socialising.