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Whatever Happened to Social Mobility?

Captain E.J. Smith of the Titanic was described as “the highest paid seaman on earth” and “a celebrity in his own right”. He was born in 1850 in a terrace house in Hanley, Stoke, the son of a potter. Sir William Robertson (Bart.) was born in 1860; the son of a Lincolnshire farm labourer, he rose to become C.I.G.S. – Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Ramsay MacDonald, the illegitimate son of a farm labourer and a housemaid, was born in 1866 and twice served as Prime Minister. Edgar Wallace, born in 1875 to a single, destitute actress became an immensely wealthy author and died in Beverley Hills in 1932. H.G.Wells probably made marginally less money than Wallace, but accrued more literary prestige; he was born in 1866 and his father was a jobbing gardener in Kent.

The force of all this struck me as I stood in front of an audience of a hundred or so journalism students. The lecture was on the history of sports journalism and I was talking about Sir Neville Cardus who started work for the Manchester Guardian round about the time Captain Smith was going down with his ship. It sounded like a fairy story. He walked into the office of the editor, the great C.P.Scott? And he’d left school at twelve? He didn’t have a degree? Or an N.C.T.J. qualification? No five-figure debt just to give himself the theoretical chance of a decent job? He quickly became the chief music correspondent and the chief cricket correspondent? No period as an “intern”? No connections? Cardus was born in either 1888 or 1889 (probably the former) to a Manchester prostitute. He had a large slice of luck when he became the cricket professional at Shrewsbury School and got on well with the Head, Giles Alington, who made him his secretary and offered him, in effect, a personal education. Cardus would have gone to Eton with Alington if he hadn’t been waiting for a decision on his call-up, so when he was turned down for the forces because of his short sight (he was a bowler rather than a batsman) he went to the “M.G.” I had known this story all my life, but it suddenly struck me how odd it must look to those struggling to get on in 2012, especially as they have been brought up on bizarre theories of progress which imply that their life-chances should be better than those of a nineteenth century prostitute’s son.

All of the men I have mentioned were born in the second half of the nineteenth century. None of them had degrees, though Wells attended the Royal College of Science (the predecessor to Imperial College). He left when his scholarship was taken away after he failed an exam, which was still possible in those days. My audience was in some respects exactly the opposite of these men because they will train into their twenties for a job which very few of them will be allowed to do. Many of them will have a picture of themselves in gown and mortarboard the day they graduated from “Uni” which they can look at when they come back from the Tesco checkout or from signing on. The alternative answer to the question posed by Neil Kinnock and then Joe Biden (“Why am I the first Kinnock/Biden to go to university?”) is “Because the world used to be less ossified; it had fewer restrictive practices.”

If social mobility were some kind of military project it seems to have ground to a halt on many fronts. It must always tend to close down because those who have naturally try to look after their own progeny and to protect what they’ve got. Nowhere does this seem more true than in contemporary acting: every time I look up some rising star I seem to find that they are the progeny of people in the business (Benedict Cumberbatch, Emilia Fox, James Fox, Daniel Radcliffe, Keira Knightley, etc.) or extremely expensively educated (Dominic West, Damien Lewis, Emily Blunt, Rosamund Pike). Acting is, perhaps, now like the Bar in that you have to be well-heeled or have connections to afford the training and survive the period of low pay and under-employment. There have always been institutions such as the medieval church and the Royal Navy which were conduits of upward mobility. And periods in which economic growth and rapid technological progress mean that it’s a far more general phenomenon than in more static periods. Even now some parts of the computer industry – such as the games industry – work like that with the first class degrees sitting alongside the self-taught and being judged on what they can do. But business has tended to ossify into a world of MBAs and “graduates from good universities”.

Another thing the successes I quoted had in common was a complete absence of visible tattoos and piercings. (I’m guessing Captain Smith might have had a discreet anchor somewhere about his person as my grandfather did; he was born in 1880 and joined the Merchant Navy from a fishing background, receiving his Master’s Certificate and his first command in 1910.) These are the trivial evidences of a serious condition: what I mean is that none of them defined themselves as inferior – they were respectable and self-respecting people in a respectable and self-respecting society. There is a suspicion now that more people than ever disqualify themselves from any kind of worthwhile job.

The standard target for explanatory accusations for all this is the comprehensive education system and there surely is a case to answer. You send a lower class lad or lass along to a proper grammar school and he or she can become emancipated from their background and receive a good education. The comprehensive school struggles all the time with “discipline”, “standards”, “relevance” and so on and leaves most of its inmates in essence just as they were. The middle-class children usually do all right, of course; my three sons went to the local comp (not my idea) and they all have good degrees, jobs, houses and so on. Occasionally they exchange a “How are you doing mate?” in a local pub with various likeable characters who haven’t got a job or, sometimes, are just out of gaol.

But my personal view is that university expansion has done the most damage. In my generation there were still the John Majors and Alan Sugars who needed no education and tens of thousands of excellent solicitors, bank managers and accountants who went straight from school into a training on the job. But all this has now gone as a glass ceiling has slid over, denying opportunities to non-graduates. Put simply, when 5% go to university equality of opportunity is much greater than when 50% go.

Lurking behind any explanation of what has happened is the concept of equality and the status it has in our society. In a democracy it is necessary that governments and aspiring governments talk the language of equality. (It would be refreshing if they didn’t, if those on the hustings stood up and said, “My policies are designed to appeal to inferior people.”) But nobody really believes in equality: genes and families conspire to make us unequal in every possible respect. There’s an interesting exploration of residual inequality in L. P. Hartley’s dystopian novel, Facial Justice, first published in 1960: one implication is that when you have eradicated all the inequalities you can eradicate, the inequality of sexual attractiveness looms as large as all the others put together.

Utilitarianism justifies many forms of provision and redistribution: for example, some redistributive taxation works not only because the money is more valuable to the poor than to the rich, but because – up to a point – it makes economies work better. But, I submit, there is no sound Utilitarian argument for a policy of 50% of an age-cohort going to university and it has very bad economic effects. If you really believed in equality then 100%, not 50% would have to go. One of the better arguments the late Brian Barry used to develop was that official doctrines of equality generally have the ideological function of justifying inequalities. Thus “Communism” had special shops for its upper class, the idea of racial equality is used to justify “positive” discrimination, multicultural equality aids the repression of Muslim women, bankers and footballers with ridiculous incomes can mumble about “equality of opportunity”. And so on – the list is too depressing to extend.

“The counsel of perfection is the enemy of the good”. It is a hackneyed quotation and I apologise for re-issuing it. Actually, it’s usually quoted as “The best is the enemy of the good”, which is a translation of Voltaire’s “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien” (he was talking about the theatre). But I prefer the version Miss Keighley taught me at primary school because I have nothing against the best or even against perfection; it is incoherent and unattainable aspirations to high ideals which are the problem. Equality is the enemy of social mobility.

It could all be about to get much worse – or better. As higher fees for universities kick in this year applications are plummeting. This could mean fewer people on the right side of the glass ceiling. But it could also mean the glass ceiling eroding. I am seeing job ads – including one for the police – which insist that there is no discrimination in favour of graduates. This would be my legislative solution, to add to the prohibitions against discrimination we should have one against preferring graduates. The medics and the consumer groups might kick up a bit, but it would be worth it.

Lincoln Allison