Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Social mobility isn't social justice.

A ‘social mobility czar’ sounds like an oxymoron but Alan Milburn seems to be now cast in that role. With the publication of a Sutton Trust report on social mobility, or more precisely the lack of it, it might seem that New Labour is putting the issue of class back on the agenda.

The report shows that in terms of social mobility, Britain has gone backwards. The professions and senior management are dominated by the products of fee-paying schools (not to mention much of the front benches). The likelihood of a working class child ‘advancing’ are apparently now lower than they were in the 1960’s.

‘No shit Sherlock’ is the response of most of us who live in the real world.

So far the debate hasn’t really touched on how our society and its economic system inevitably creates social inequality. It hasn’t even really tackled the issue of fee-paying private schools, the biggest perpetrator of unequal life chances on a scale that sets this country apart from every other country in Europe. Rather than attack the existence of these schools the report looks suspiciously like a preamble for the reintroduction of selective state schools and the ‘golden age’ of Harold Wilson’s meritocracy.

I know a bit about social mobility myself. I’ve moved ‘up’ via state comprehensive to Oxbridge then ‘down’ by taking a career amongst the diminishing ranks of the skilled working class and then ‘fuck knows what direction’ by ending up as a director of a small business. I often feel more confused than emancipated and the only certainty is that I don’t fit in well in any particular category. Even so on balance I’d rather live under a meritocracy than a system where the old-school tie dominates.

But a meritocracy doesn’t abolish inequality it just provides a different mechanism for it – and something of a safety valve.

The period in British history when there was possibly the greatest social mobility was at the start of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. A small but significant layer of skilled master craftsman became entrepreneurs and factory owners. Another layer of skilled craftsman lost their livelihood and status and joined the unskilled working class. The largest section of people exchanged the stability they had experienced for centuries as a rural semi-peasantry for the uncertainty of wage labour in the new urban factories.

There was never a better time to get rich quick, or, within a couple of generations to enter the ranks of the ruling class. It also was - for the majority of people; the labourers and the factory fodder - probably one of the grim-est, shittiest and most unjust periods in which to be alive.

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