On the ever-lengthening list of issues that British politicians and officials are confused about, social mobility must be very near the top. It’s surely in the Top 5. For here we have something that just about every mainstream public figure pays lip service to – with handwringing speeches about why we need more upward mobility and class-hopping in unequal Britain – yet which they also actively limit through policies that punish material aspiration or cage individuals in their ‘culture’. Our leaders love to utter the words social mobility, because it’s a buzzphrase that makes people feel good, yet they have helped to create a stubbornly anti-mobile climate in modern Britain.
Their confusion over social mobility was on full display yesterday, when Peter Brant, head of policy at the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, wrote a piece about how working-class oiks find it hard to fit in at top-notch universities. He didn’t use the word oiks, of course; instead he bemoaned the fact that ‘children from less well-off backgrounds’ often ‘struggle to adapt’ to university life, because to them it feels like ‘an alien middle-class world’. What these poor-but-clever youngsters need, he says, is ‘advice to help [them] navigate this world’. For example, they could be encouraged, when young, to become comfortable in more middle-class settings, such as theatres and restaurants, so that they won’t feel like social lepers when they suddenly find themselves surrounded by people called Ethan and Poppy at Oxford. Too many worriers about social mobility ‘assume that if educational inequalities can be reduced and aspirations of young people from working-class backgrounds raised, then that will be enough to tackle the problem’, says Brant, when in fact there are other ‘cultural barriers’ to these unmoneyed yoof joining the great and the good.
There is a profound irony to Brant’s rather therapeutic diagnosis as to why social mobility seems to be stagnating: his assumption that the less well-off find it really hard to adapt to ‘new worlds’, and thus might need ‘advice’ from what he calls ‘policymakers who mostly come from middle-class professional backgrounds’, calls into question the ability of the less well-off to exercise the very moral autonomy that is at the heart of moving on and moving up in the world. That is, this social mobility chief’s concern for the mental and social wellbeing of poorer youngsters who make it to the best of Britain’s ivory towers actually makes a mockery of the idea of social mobility, through implicitly doubting that the less well-off have the confidence, self-possession, swagger and hustling skills necessary to pull off a big leap from their origins into new worlds of higher aspirations and potentially greater wealth.
This contradictory promotion of social mobility coupled with concern about the dearth of aspirational abilities among certain social classes infuses the modern-day debate about class and inequality. It reached its nadir last year when celebrity capitalist James Caan, formerly of the BBC show Dragon’s Den, was given the position of ‘social mobility tsar’ by the Lib-Con government. A tsar, of course, is an autocratic ruler who lords it over the little people – what a strange (yet revealing) title to give to the bloke charged by British officialdom with giving more poor youngsters ideas and opportunities above their station. The deputy prime minister Nick Clegg has also said that poor youth need special assistance in social-mobility matters – for example, government-funded internships and lessons on how to get ahead – if they are to have any hope of competing with the ‘well-connected, sharp-elbowed’ sons and daughters of the aristocracy.
What we have here are social-mobility policies that go way beyond removing the old structural barriers to working-class engagement in university life and middle-class professions – which is a good thing to do – and now erect a kind of therapeutic scaffolding around allegedly fragile poor youths, with the aim of boosting their self-esteem and advising them on now to fit in with alien peoples and cultures, which is a bad thing to do. Why? Because it potentially undermines the key component of any act of social mobility worth its name: the exercise of ambition and autonomy by the individual who has made a decision to pursue a new path in life. It turns social mobility from an act of autonomy by the aspirational less well-off into an act of charity by ‘policymakers from middle-class professional backgrounds’. It has a strong whiff of Eliza Doolittle to it.