There is probably no political goal more widely subscribed to in British politics than that of social mobility. Everyone professes to believe fervently in the creation of a “meritocratic” society of “equal opportunities” in which the life chances of every individual are independent of social class, race, religion and background. This isn’t a recent development in British politics. Politicians have paid homage to social mobility since the aristocratic Britain of orders and deference, in which everyone knew their right and proper place, was eclipsed. But it is a long-frustrated goal, something that government has not been able to realise in spite of decades of cross-party consensus and consistent public support.
Politicians and public haven’t just advocated this societal destination for decades, they have always assumed that it was compatible with a free, open, liberal society of broadly the sort that we have now. And that it could be achieved in a liberal society built on the ruins of institutions (public schools, the House of Lords, Oxbridge, the civil service) and traditions (noblesse oblige, deference, pervasive class awareness) belonging to a very different sort of society. Achieving social mobility was just a question of refinement, of finessing anomalies and redressing obvious abuses. A radical overhaul of our social and economic institutions wouldn’t be necessary, and our ways of thinking and doing things could be left largely intact. Britain could institute equality of opportunity, whilst remaining faithful to its liberal capitalistic ethos and whilst continuing to enjoy the indolent benevolence of its non-intrusive state. There would be no need to trample upon the world-famous tradition of English (sic) liberty in which people are left to themselves if they’re not hurting anyone.
But what if they are hurting someone? What if just by going about their own business and looking out for the welfare of their own, the are scuppering any chance that we might have of realising that universally subscribed ideal of social mobility? What if this twentieth-century value cannot be made to agree with revered nineteenth-century Millian values?
There is an intellectual slackness and shallowness to most popular thinking about social mobility. At first glance the commonly accepted paradigm seems so eminently right and to run in such clear parallel to our ways of going about things, as to require no deeper reflection. But it is important to try and get behind the calcified terms in which the debate is carried on to grasp the true radicalism of this goal that has become so obscured by repetition. Equality of opportunity means that whatever it is that does not belong to the individual but which impacts differentially on their life chances has to be equalized. The whole social matrix of determinants in which the individual is embedded needs to be reconfigured so that there are no longer individuals who are given more exposure to the enabling factors and less to the disabling ones. You would have to find some way of engineering the early lives of every individual so as to protect them from the all the varied, alien social influences that stamp us with our peculiarities of background.
Just try to think for a moment about all of the things which you would have to neutralise. Everything that comes from parents and family background, first of all. That means the social background of the parents, their educational histories, their income, their language skills, their emotional intelligence, how conscientiousness they are, how ambitious they are, the nature of their relationship (assuming that they are still together and indeed living), the household diet – and everything which parents might do to privilege their children. It means education as well, both primary and secondary. It encompasses peer-group determinants too: whether at school, in churches, via parental networks, in local neighbourhoods or extracurricular settings. Genuine equality of opportunity would involve the neutralisation – probably the standardisation – of every aspect of our early lives which wasn’t entirely attributable to the individual themselves. And it is impossible even to inventory all of these things; the impact of the social on us is so pervasive and ineliminable, we are so inextricably caught up in fabric of the social world, that we can’t even hope to get a grasp of it
When it is elaborated in such a way, I don’t know that I can sustain belief in the goal of equality of opportunity. Certainly even if I continue to will the end, I cannot consent to will the means. An inheritance tax of 100% would have to be instituted. Private schools would have to be abolished. Grammar schools would have to go in favour of total comprehensivization and standardisation. The government would have to radically escalate early years education. We’d practically be forced to throw our children into the Spartan agoge – and even then the children would probably be taken away from the parents too late. Unless children belong to the state and unless their treatment is radically and undesirably homogenised then I don’t see how we can hope to do more than approximate slightly better the ideal of social mobility, whilst monitoring vigilantly the damage which it does to the sort of liberal society that we want to live in.
The privileging of this goal of a completely fluid social system also has to be questioned because of the values that it enshrines. I find it hard to conceive of equality of opportunity as being anything other than an economistic goal. Does social mobility mean anything more than amassing a greater quanitity of money than your parents (adjusted for growth in the intervening period)? Is equality of opportunity anything more than the opportunity to sit upon a bigger pile of gold, like some idolatrous dragon? Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps the the ideal represents some sort of transcendence of particular, parochial backgrounds. Maybe it is about emancipation from the fetters of circumstance that have in the past denied people the right to live lives of their own choosing and to construct identities that are peculiarly their own. But I’m stretching here. At the heart of this goal is the idea that poor children do not deserve to be excluded from the capitalistic bonanza; they too should have the chance to make a worldly success of themselves and become rich.
The popular understanding of social mobility is also tainted by another obtuseness. It is very easy to endorse upward social mobility. The idea of children from disadvantaged backgrounds making good is an edifying one – and one which somehow seems to reflect positively back upon the society that propounds it as an aim. The same cannot be said for downward social mobility. Downward social mobility is the evil twin of upward social mobility, locked in the basement of this discussion. Politicians and mainstream commentators consistently make the mistake of conflating social mobility with upward social mobility, talking about the family as if it had only one son and heir. What they are arguing for – and what we are actually attached to – is the sort of structural upward mobility that Britain saw between the 1950’s and 1970’s when a massive increase in the number of white collar jobs presented Britain’s working-class with a one-time opportunity to achieve social advancement without displacing parts of the middle-class. Social mobility in twenty-first century Britain would have to be a reciprocal process, a zero-sum game: for working-class children to advance socially, we would have to be willing to accept the corollary of middle-class children coming down in the world.
That brings me to my final critique of the way that social mobility is dealt with in Britain today. I am worried that the current paradigm for social mobility has become so corrupted that it has been transformed into a vehicle for ensuring the evermore effective reproduction of the current social structure. That is, its practical effect may well have come to be the opposite of its stated intentions.
The great panacea of most mainstream politicians is education. The key, they say, to greater social mobility is to widen access to University. University education must be open to everyone; it is the silver bullet that will kill the werewolf of privilege. The problem with this is that the pro-University propaganda is so strong, and student numbers so high, that employers are starting to make a fetish of qualifications. Increasingly it is becoming impossible to break into the golden circles of the more favoured professions without visa-like qualifications; there is no longer any place for the virtuoso interviewee or the plucky upstart in this culture of pedantic exclusivity.
This is supposed to favour anyone with merit, but the people it actually favours are the children of the middle-class who – for material and cultural, as well as educational reasons – are more likely to go to University. Cultural expectations (both at home and at school), fear of debt, and differences in the strength of relationship between schools and universities combine to keep down the number of people from working-class backgrounds who make it to good universities. And after graduation, if anything, the system comes to favour children of privilege still more strongly. An increasing number of careers require one either to obtain postgraduate qualifications or to endure the rites-of-passage of unpaid internships. Forget about being a journalist, a social worker or a teacher without postgraduate qualifications. Want to work in publishing? Or for an MP? You’d better hope that you have parents who can afford to support you whilst you intern. It is just possible that this ostensibly progressive focus of education and qualifications has perversely become the great bulwark of the existing class structure. It might just be that an apparently open, “meritocratic” system is the best way for the middle-classes to inure their own against the dangers of downward social mobility.
Britain needs to think with greater rigour about its concept of social mobility, to consider clear-headedly what the realisation of such an ideal would require us to sacrifice and then to decide exactly what to do. The vagueness and half-heartedness of the present cannot be allowed to continue.