Nick Clegg’s effort to promote the concept and reality of social mobility has not gone down particularly well. He has found himself attacked from both sides of the political spectrum for pushing this idea. Does this reflect a problem with the concept, or with Mr Clegg?
On the one hand, and as is to be expected, he is derided by those who have a vested interest to protect the status quo. This includes a certain headmaster who last week described Mr Clegg’s interventions as “old-style communist creation of a closed market, to try and deal with the problem after the event”. The unfortunate (mis-)use of the ‘c’ word, possibly belies this headmaster’s political leanings. Mr Clegg is not attempting to “close” the market; his suggestion was that universities take into account an applicant’s background when offering places. If anything, this would provide this ‘market’ with more information, improving the possibility of optimal decision-making: after all, taking more information into account is not the same as ‘closing a market’ – something this headmaster has seemingly failed to appreciate.
On the left, however, Mr Clegg has also been taking a battering (nothing new there). Zoe Williams wrote an article on Wednesday dismissing social mobility as a concept. By her understanding, it is just a tool for “fast-stream[ing] clever kids out of deprivation leaving the rest facing shabby prospects”. She continues by claiming that “[e]ven if the waters of the social fountain were in perpetual motion… you’d still have to accept, even embrace, the idea of some people living and dying in the sludge.”
I fear Ms Williams has set up a straw-man argument, for I doubt this is how social mobility should be understood, nor how Mr Clegg meant it. It is not merely about allowing the smart kids from the bottom to rise to the top, but about allowing people to determine their success and place in society, according to their own merits and efforts. In this sense, it is conceptually similar to equality of opportunity. One or two people breaking out of their prescribed circumstances to move to a different position is not social mobility; it is only if everyone can, that society can be called ‘mobile’.
To be sure, we currently do not live in a socially mobile society. It is therefore not meritocratic, either. The key determinants of where we can reach are not within our control: they are dependent on where we were born, to which parents, and to where we were sent to school. A glance at the statistics confirms this. Moreover, general opposition to inheritance tax in the UK, means that wealth can be passed through the generations, ensuring that society’s stratification remains embedded. I saw an advert this week for a private bank, with the tagline: “Protecting wealth through the generations”. It could have read: “ensuring social immobility and a lack of meritocracy, for years to come”.
Social mobility would allow easier movement of individuals and groups through society, rather than condemn them to the circumscribed roles that their circumstances dictate. Because of this, it is more universally appealing than the (unfortunately) tarnished term ‘equality’. It is probably also more politically palatable, and – if my claim above is accepted – achieves the same as equal opportunity.
Social mobility relates to facts, not values, and thus does not say anything about one job being ‘better’ than another, just that both should be attainable. Of course, not everyone can do the ‘top jobs’, but the probabilities should not be so skewed by the factors in one’s background that are beyond that person’s control. In this sense, the obstacles to social mobility are the usual societal gremlins such as prejudice, vested interests, disadvantage, or child poverty. They are noticeably all underpinned by inequality.
This is the nub of the issue: inequality and social mobility go hand-in-hand. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett reveal this in their book, The Spirit Level, which contains a wealth of evidence to support this link. Societies with greater equality of income have greater social mobility (and do better on many other indicators, too). It is not clear where the optimal level of equality is, but it is clear that Britain’s inequality is too high. The solution therefore, would seem to be to focus on shrinking the gap between the top and the bottom: through more progressive taxation and a higher inheritance tax, perhaps (not to mention a genuine effort to clamp-down on avoidance).
This, of course, is not what the government is doing. Instead, it is cutting taxes for the rich, and cutting welfare for the poor. As the Beecroft ‘plan’ (if something that contains so little evidence and so much ideology deserves such a name) shows, equality seems to be the least of its concerns.
This, indeed, is the real reason why Mr Clegg deserves criticism: he is right that social mobility is a goal worth striving for, but fails to see that it cannot exist at the same time as great inequality. For advocating social mobility while pursuing this government’s regressive agenda, Mr Clegg has been accused of “doublethink”. Social immobility will be ensured, for years to come.