NEVER judge a sausage by its skin, said my mother when I was a child. She knew of what she spoke. Her grandfather, a bit of a toff, was also a rat of the first order. He dressed and spoke beautifully, but was utterly feckless. He gambled the family money away on horses and then bolted himself, leaving behind his wife and children.

With no means of support, my great-grandmother opened a shop and managed to scrape by. When, 20 years later, her errant husband returned, instead of barricading the door she let him in. He spent his final years in comfort, living off her hard-earned cash. Clearly, as well as being a scoundrel, he had charm.

There are more than a few who fall into my great-granddad’s mould: well presented, poshly spoken and persuasive in every respect. As the upward trajectory of the former Bullingdon Club boy Boris Johnson shows, we seem never to learn that appearances can be deceptive. Put a plum in someone’s mouth and most of us think they’re cleverer than we are. It’s on this principle that parents send their kids to fee-paying schools, paying eye-watering sums in order for them to learn to behave as if they were born to rule.

You can scoff at the notion that class still matters, but a glance at the twittersphere ahead of the election shows that the age-old British caste system is still in rude health. Indeed, according to a recent survey from Yale University, interviewing panels judge a job applicant’s suitability within seven words of them speaking. In a blind experiment, would-be lab assistants were asked to describe themselves verbally. The interviewers listened to the recordings without the benefit of any CVs. As a result, those with plummier, more expensively educated voices were automatically deemed more competent than the rest.

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These findings are troubling, yet are they really any surprise? When I was at St Andrews University, it took me two years to realise that the phalanx of Hooray Henrys from Roedean, Harrow and the like, were no brighter than the rest of us, and in some cases considerably less so.

You might say that to be so easily persuaded of my intellectual inferiority in itself marks me down as rather dim, especially since I was brought up to hold the landed gentry in anything but esteem. Yet as was evident in my student days, in one sense at least, those who had gone to independent schools generally enjoyed two marked advantages: an impregnable veneer of confidence, and voices that could be heard even when Nimrod jets were roaring overhead from Leuchars.

The persistence of deference or exaggerated respect for those on society’s higher rungs is hard to explain. Are we essentially pack dogs, bred to function best in a hierarchy, to cower and fawn before the loudest bark? Well, even if that is the case, 150 years of growing political enlightenment and educational levelling ought surely to have made greater inroads on our animal instincts.

You could, certainly, argue that there is a north-south divide in class consciousness, with those of us on this side of the border at times actively discriminating against the fruitier tones of private school alumni. But that sort of adverse and unfair reaction is just another way of placing too much weight on class and what it represents.

The Labour Party’s recent idea of abolishing all fee-paying schools tells you how pervasive and divisive class remains. The superabundance in Westminster of former Etonians and their ilk is not an indication of their greater ability but of the influential and self-perpetuating network that nurtures and promotes them. At times, this class effect seems magically effective, a smattering of stardust bestowed in the cradle by a fairy godmother, that adds a lustre lasting for the rest of their lives.

I’ve no problem with anyone wanting to spend silly lolly on their children’s education. That’s their decision. Labour would be guilty of crass social engineering by removing that freedom of choice. Where we need to see change is not in dismantling the fee-paying system, but in our attitudes towards those who emerge from it.

A clever updating of the famous Bullingdon Club photo in which Johnson and David Cameron posed liked extras in Brideshead Revisited, shows just how true it is that clothes maketh the man, or woman, in their own and in onlookers’ eyes. To drive home the point, photographer Rory Carnegie asked homeless people to be his models. Their arrogant, disdainful postures and expressions, their preposterous upper-class togs, immediately confer authority upon them, whereas their usual down at heel garb will do precisely the opposite, rendering them almost invisible.

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For the time being, it seems we are stuck with the legacy of old prejudices. It requires a dramatic shift in outlook to reset the dial. Already there are moves towards this in application forms for jobs and universities, where every aspect of a candidate’s background – ethnicity, education, parents’ education, postcode, hobbies, etc – is calibrated. Indeed, this tickbox culture is making some uneasy. Some who fear their privilege will go against them are already finding ways around the system.

More enduring and possibly more effective would be to teach ourselves to become blind to class. We should be neutral about where someone went to school, or university, neither inflating their importance nor diminishing it on this basis alone. The same goes for accents and dress, on which most of us still place far too much emphasis for first impressions.

Official attempts to improve access to opportunities and power might eventually, after half a century, change things. But if the first sentence someone speaks in an interview undoes all that screening, we will be back to square one for a long time to come. Real change has to start within us all as we strip away unthinking preconceptions and realise how little someone’s social status really tells us.

The legendary football manager Bill Shankly liked to say, “Form is temporary, class is permanent.” He was talking about class in the deepest sense, the dimension of irrefutable outstanding quality that anyone can strive to attain, regardless of where they come from or how they look and speak. He, of course, was a true class act.