For decades mainstream politicians fixated on education as the way to level the playing field of life. They were wrongby Tom Clark / December 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
Face it, then fix it. It always sounds like a plausible proposition but when it comes to the question of social mobility, it is an approach that has failed. Nobody could accuse our politicians of being in denial about the entrenchment of privilege. From Major to Cameron by way of Blair, Brown and Clegg, British political leaders would trip over each other to highlight how loaded the dice of life were against children from humble homes. Their speeches would mix a few shocking statistics about professions that slam doors on the poor with stock slogans about how things should be: “it’s not where you come from, it’s where you’re going.” Soon after the speech, some sort of education initiative would inevitably follow which would, supposedly, create an “opportunity age.” Similar language passed seamlessly between presidencies in the US—from Clinton to Bush and Obama.
Yet after a generation of “facing it,” nobody on either side of the Atlantic believes we’ve “fixed” social mobility at all. And one marker of how politics has been transformed is how suddenly the language of “aspiration” has fallen from fashion. The memorable phrase at Donald Trump’s inauguration was not the “American dream” but “American carnage,” and his project is about stoking resentment at opportunity denied, not promising he can do much about it. Some months before the election, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party formally ditched its attachment to social mobility in favour of a supposedly more inclusive notion of social justice. As for Boris Johnson’s pitch to voters in downtrodden Britain, he scarcely bothered to pretend—as Conservative leaders going back to Churchill had done—that he would provide them with a “ladder up.” Instead of opportunity, it was all about patriotism, policemen and hospitals—security, in other words.
It is not hard to grasp why politicians judged mobility to be a winning theme for so long: it is for the same reason that Dick Whittington has endured as a story for centuries. The idea that anyone can make it gives everyone hope. Nor is it hard to see why the warm words about aspiration have come to ring hollow. Their plausibility always depended, more than anything else, on…