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Levelling up to where?

The chatterati are in no place to lecture

Artillery Row

It’s clear that levelling up is looking every bit as intransigent a political goal as social mobility — which shouldn’t surprise anyone who thinks that both phrases have never been anything more substantial than slogans, the former replacing the latter as soon as voters started to smell a rat. The idea that British citizens can, in these first few decades of this new century, stand back and admire their children’s progress up some increasingly slippery social ladder, is an idea that merits fierce interrogation. That’s not just because global events and nervous economies have rendered the prize more elusive. It has always rested on some hugely questionable premises. 

The naïve assumption behind Tony Blair’s distinctly unholy grail, “education, education, education” was that an upsurge in university graduates would deliver social mobility if not on a silver plate, at least on one of brushed aluminium. All those tech businesses eagerly queuing up to catch the bounty (whilst recently promoted New Labour acolytes were busy throttling the magic money tree to fill shiny new schools and universities with shiny new computers) were in no doubt that the equation was a simple one. Graduates earn more in a lifetime, so make more graduates. Then stand back and admire them, no doubt basking in the glow of all that brushed aluminium.

It is wholly unsurprising that the Sutton Trust was founded in 1997, the same year Tony Blair first took office. The Trust enshrines the belief that education delivers social mobility. Its founder, Sir Peter Lampl, an ex-grammar school boy turned private equity philanthropist, is still chair not only of the Trust but of a Tory government funded spin-off, the Education Endowment Foundation. Both these organisations have been, and remain, hugely influential in driving a wider political agenda that believes education and especially schools are levers of social mobility. But they aren’t. 

Why assume you are in any position to improve the lives of total strangers?

Longitudinal researchers into social mobility like John H. Goldthorpe at Oxford, or Gregory Clark at UC Davis (whose fascinating studies track surnames over centuries), tell a very different story. In his 2019 book with colleague Ezrsébet Bukodi, Social Mobility and Education in Britain, Goldthorpe concludes: “In sum, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, rather than the idea of Britain as a low mobility society being derived from any serious examination of the body of relevant research, — whether relating to income or to class mobility or to absolute or relative rates — it is essentially a political construction: … an idea that has been found convenient to advance in support of the attempt, made across party political lines, to form a response to increasing inequality of condition in Britain, primarily through a policy emphasis on raising levels of mobility.”

One of the statistics from their book is wonderfully thought provoking in this respect. In 1972, the so-called golden age of social mobility, of the men in managerial positions in the top two social classes, almost 50 per cent had no formal educational qualifications at all. Put as brutally as possible: more grammar schools, indeed more shiny schools of any type, won’t help thousands of British teenagers to step one rung higher up the ladder than their parents.

But why assume such steps are desirable at all? Where does this desire to level up and to improve total strangers really come from? If levelling up is merely about dishwashers and trips to Disneyworld, what professor Goldthorpe calls inequality of condition, then why not just go hell for leather down the road of a universal basic income and embrace the idea that the State really is everyone’s Nanny McFree? I suspect it’s because the most enthusiastic advocates of social mobility and levelling up are doing something else entirely, and it’s really all about them.

Part of the problem is that think tanks work in Excel and trade in infographics. It’s much easier to persuade politicians to fund you with colourful bar charts about home ownership or free school meals, than it is to actually address that fundamental question: why assume you are in any position to improve the lives of total strangers? It’s this weirdly unnatural assumption that intrigues me.

It’s difficult to avoid using class as a proxy for change in this discussion, because centuries of academic and political thought have shaped classes into widely shared, shorthand categories. But how well do we really understand contemporary class differences? 

The hard core British middle class — descendants of tea plantation owners and market town solicitors — were supplanted a long time ago by chattering classes which the media blissfully imagines as not including them. In fact these classes are home to every single contemporary politician, activist, lobbyist or otherwise powerful voice you care to point the finger at, irrespective of how often they use the word “scum”, what they claim their dad did, or which school they didn’t go to. In this increasingly amorphous layer of contemporary British society, you will find the kind of climate change activist who thinks glueing themselves to tarmac or a Titian is courageous, along with every single MP and the entire civil service. 

Who is it that all these people are so keen to improve? The answer of course is the working class: men and women who make stuff, move that stuff around, sell you stuff in person and clean stuff. There is more than a whiff of evangelicalism about levelling up. 

The hard core British middle class have never been exactly the most communicative or familial with human beings. Dickens caricatured this trait most memorably in the figure of Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House, who devotes herself incessantly to furthering missions in Africa whilst cruelly neglecting her own children and family. In the real middle class you can talk about anything at the dinner table — as long as it doesn’t matter. That pillar of middle class socialism, Edith Nesbit, saw her own child die because she neglected to listen to the family doctor. 

If you can’t care for your own offspring, what can you possibly offer others?

Two relevant issues in particular seem to raise their embarrassed heads at this point: stubborn divorce rates and expanding numbers of single households. Irrespective of any detailed statistical source you opt for, or any trends you might care to believe you’ve identified, it’s hard to imagine either circumstance is beneficial for human beings of any class. Children are so often the appallingly mistreated victims of divorce, whilst no one could fail to grasp the negative risks that accompany loneliness. A society that is increasingly urbanised and atomised at the same time, is not a healthy prospect. This week the Office for National Statistics announced that for the first time in the UK, a majority of children were born outside of marriage. People who are failing to bring up the next generation healthily are in no position to evangelise.

What’s needed is a radical reversal of this superficially selfless concern for strangers. If you can’t care for your own offspring, successfully enough to transform them into stable, secure adults willing to do the same, what can you possibly offer others less well-resourced in either material or human terms? We should primarily focus on our own lives, our own immediate family and that miniscule part of the real world that any of us ever occupies. 

If you spend time on researching class, there are two distinct things which strike you. Firstly, social mobility or at least something like it, is really the result of a vibrant economy. Secondly, geography really matters. At a time when the working class is under considerable economic stress, whether in terms of inequality of condition or class, it seems entirely logical that this should be a priority. It’s equally logical that what’s missing is choice. 

For decades, working class children have had little or no choice — their destinies determined by often less than a handful of dominant local industries. Where you start from on the map is the most pernicious influence when it comes to those lives the chatterati are so eager to improve. In a free nation, what we should be fuelling is choice. 

It’s worth noting that women have recently begun to cite the car alongside contraception, as the most powerful enabler in their lives. What anyone hampered by their place of birth needs is more options and fewer crutches. Innovative ways to give children wider experience, even just a flavour of places and choices they would otherwise never know existed, should be far more attractive to true democrats than utilitarian policies foisted on schools, tinkering with exam subjects or even the ever expanding benefits.

The benefits of a humbler, more local way of thinking were captured perfectly decades ago by George Eliot, at the close of Middlemarch, where she says of her heroine Dorothea Brooke: “ … the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 

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