Social Mobility is Not Allowed
If I ever revive the Banned List – and I am on the cusp – one of the first phrases to go on it will be social mobility. Nick Clegg last week made a speech and published a document on the subject. Faisal Islam at Channel 4 News summed up the Government’s new “strategy” thus:
1. Rename a commission; 2. Publish indicators; 3. Make Clegg chair of a ministerial committee.
I didn’t know there was a Child Poverty Commission, but now it will be called the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. At least it will be chaired by Alan Milburn, who knows what he is doing.
But, as Charlie Beckett at the LSE pointed out,
Social mobility is now a meaningless phrase, or rather, it has a different meaning according to your political position and vision. And this matters because your definition of the language dictates your policy, too.
Phil Collins in The Times last Friday (pay wall) captured the central problem brilliantly:
What Gore Vidal said about friendship is true of social mobility: “It is not enough that you should succeed. Others must fail.” Easy social mobility, room-at-the-top social mobility, is over. Welcome to the hardcore version, a zero-sum game in which my rise requires your fall. In the competition for scarce resources, for the best school places, the best jobs and the best houses, my ascent threatens your monopoly of advantage. Whenever somebody says sweetly that they are just doing their best for their own children, remember that means they are out to stop yours.
He is right in principle, but I am not sure that “easy” social mobility is completely over. What was interesting about Deborah Mattinson’s finding that 71 per cent of people now describe themselves as middle class is that it represents a social revolution since the 1980s, when only 27 per cent were willing to apply this label to themselves. A lot of that shift is linguistic and cultural rather than purely socio-economic, and I can’t see why the shift away from manual and routine labour shouldn’t continue.
But social mobility should go on the Banned List because it means anything or nothing. The basic idea is the American one, that it shouldn’t matter how humble your origins, you can “get to the top”. But numbers at the top are by definition are limited. And it is already perfectly possible to make that journey in this country, as Alan Milburn, David Blunkett and Alan Johnson all demonstrated. All of them were senior Cabinet ministers and any of them could have been prime minister if the chips had fallen slightly differently.
What many people mean by the phrase, however, is greater equality. Which is a phrase that means something specific and difficult. Let’s use that instead.Tagged in: banned list, social mobility
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