Social mobility is a slippery concept
But there has always been a political trend that sees social mobility (or equality of opportunity as it used to be known) as a substitute for equality.
Michael Young was one of the great progessive UK thinkers and activists of the last century. He invented the Open University and the Consumers’ Association and on the way wrote Labour’s manifesto for the 1945 election. He coined the term meritocracy in a book in 1958 called The Rise of the Meritocracy . Peter Wilby rightly calls this a dystopian satire that warns that meritocracy doesn’t lead to equality but to a new, more vicious form of elitism. Or as Roy Hattersley put it on Newsnight:
My last conversation with Michael Young, in September, was, we were discussing whether the Prime Minister (TB not GB) would be a meritocrat if he knew what meritocracy produced, which in Michael Young’s view, and in mine, it’s just shifting patterns of inequality – different people being unequal at different times, but nevertheless a fundamentally unequal society.
Yet meritocracy has now come to be seen in casual conversation as a good thing. Clearly it’s better that people do well on the basis of their merits than an accident of birth, skin colour or other random factor. But in itself this is not a particularly progessive view. The American Dream is based on a kind of meritocratic idea, and while it is hard to see someone like Barack Obama becoming British Prime Minister, it does not stop the USA being even more unequal than the UK.
Inequality that arises on the basis of meritocracy is easier to justify than inequality based on class background for sure, but it is still inequality. The big progressive challenge in the UK remains reducing the obscene levels of inequality that arose during the eighties and nineties, and have not changed that much since 1997 as many worthwhile government initiatives were overtaken by the growth of the super-rich.
Today’s measures are doubtless worthwhile, but fairness is not the same as equality. We should not think better social mobility necessarily leads to less inequality. It’s much more slippery than that.
The big question today is whether social mobility is being talked up as a diversion from greater equality or as an easy way into wider arguments. The answer is probably a bit of both given the nature of the various people in government that have contributed to this project.
But that is not a reason for ignoring today’s White Paper – indeed it’s right to welcome it. For as Nicola argues, social mobility measures are not only usually useful in themselves, they do tend to put more fundamental equality issues on the agenda pretty damn quick, and that’s a whole more interesting conversation.