IT’S a well-worn observation that those who insist money isn’t important usually have lots of it. And, strangely enough, these are generally also the people who scream blue murder whenever anyone suggests they should pay a bit more in taxes.

The same applies to those who say class doesn’t matter. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher denied the very existence of social divisions based on income and wealth. “Class is a communist concept,” she insisted, while boasting of her origins as a humble grocer’s daughter.

The myth did not quite square with the reality of her comfortable upbringing. Her father was a pillar of the local business establishment in her home town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, who served as a director of the Trustee Savings Bank and other financial institutions and eventually sold his shops for the equivalent of a £1 million. And that was before Thatcher married a millionaire who had inherited a family business of his own.

Then we had Tony Blair, educated at the £35,000-a-year Fettes College in Edinburgh, inform us that “the class war is over”. And old Etonian David Cameron, who glibly assured us that he was steering us towards a “classless society” via the peculiar route of cutting taxes for the wealthy and slashing social security for the poor.

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The vulgar idea that society is divided into tiers by income, wealth, education and upbringing is not something that those with influence and power are keen to dwell on. Much more gratifying to pretend they rose to the top by a mixture of talent and hard graft – so let’s not get too worked up with these divisive, old-fashioned notions that belong to the age of top hats, bowler hats and cloth bunnets.

For a long time, the same attitude prevailed towards gender. The men who ran our political parties, newspapers, academic institutions, businesses,trade unions and public agencies were the crème de la crème. And the fact women were few and far between reflected the innate differences between the sexes. Men were more dynamic, more rational, more capable of handling pressure. That entrenched sense of male power still holds sway in many quarters, but generations of confident, articulate and iconoclastic women have turned the tide. The so-called glass ceiling has not been smashed, but it is showing signs of a few cracks.

Not so the “class ceiling”.

A report published a couple of years ago – Elitist Britain – revealed that 71% of senior judges, 62% of senior armed forces officers, 43% of newspaper columnists, 33% of MPs and 26% of BBC executives went to private schools, compared to just 7% of the wider population. And that’s just the start. The stock exchanges, diplomatic services, the House of Lords, the heads of public agencies, the Whitehall mandarins, the leadership of the banks and financial institutions are awash with white men from wealthy backgrounds who attended exclusive private schools.

That’s not to blame the individuals. They didn’t choose to be born in Knightsbridge or Windsor rather than Kilmarnock or Wigan, and had no say in which school they were dispatched. But the truth is that well into the 21st century, the road to a high-flying career is paved, not with talent but with social connections. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s not how hard you’ve worked, it’s how easy your upbringing has been. It’s not how many books you’ve read, it’s how many hundreds of thousands of pounds your parents have forked out for your education.

The National: Barack Obama became the first black US president in 2009Barack Obama became the first black US president in 2009

Of course there are exceptions that prove the rule. Having a woman prime minister in the 1980s didn’t signify that women had achieved equality with men. Having a black president in the USA didn’t mean discrimination on the grounds of race had been eradicated.

A new book published last week points out that people whose parents are doctors are 24-times more likely to become doctors themselves. The children of lawyers are 17-times more likely to go into the profession. And 12-times as many people whose parents work in TV or film will end in that field.

From the reviews and extracts I’ve read, the Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, blows apart the myth of our supposed meritocracy. I was intrigued to read, for example, that only 6% of doctors and 7% of TV commissioning editors are from working-class backgrounds – which possibly explains why so many programmes feature stereotypical working-class characters, usually villains with Glaswegian, Scouse or Irish accents. But without minimising the importance of challenging the class ceiling, or the glass ceiling for that matter, there is a more fundamental question that is neglected.

Discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and especially class runs rampant in the highest echelons of society. But there can be a danger that such preoccupations divert our attention away from the millions who live on the edge of poverty.

The low-paid workers, especially those with young families. The single parents who can only work part-time. Those with long-term illness or disability. The over-65s who have no private pension to see them through the final phase of their life. There are millions of people struggling to survive with as much chance of ever becoming astronauts as TV commissioning editors.

Sorting poverty is not just about creating a fair and just society. It’s also a long-term economic investment. In Scotland and across of the UK we spend colossal sums of money tackling the effects of poverty. Health care related to poor diet, alcohol and drug abuse, smoking and mental health problems.

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Police, prisons and legal services dealing with poverty-related crime. Social work. Social security. And that’s before we even start on the wider economic losses that result from the fact a massive swathe of our population has no spending power, beyond the bare essentials.

It’s not far short of a century since the first Labour government was elected, raising hopes of a brave new world of social justice and economic equality. Ninety-five years later, the divisions between the elite at the top and the millions at the bottom are wider than ever before. Scotland can do better than that. And the first founding goal of a newly created independent state should be the abolition of poverty over a clearly specified timescale – as we have done with carbon emissions. Not a vague promise to reduce poverty – but a cast-iron pledge to eradicate it.