What Westminster gets wrong about social mobility

Social mobility touches on deeply personal issues of self-understanding, authenticity and identity that policy alone can't address. I would know—I've lived it

January 16, 2020
article header image

The fantasy children’s books author Philip Pullman said once that his single best idea was equipping his human characters with a “daemon” as seen in his trilogy, His Dark Materials. The daemon is an animal: it could be a monkey, a bird, a rat, a snake, or any other creature—and it represents that particular person’s character, a clue to their nature.

A child’s daemon is constantly shifting and assumes different shapes. First it could be a crow, then it could instantly turn into a small fox, or perhaps an even smaller animal in order to fit into its human’s pocket. It’s only when that young person reaches full adulthood does their daemon—and by extension their character—“settle.” For me, this idea has a strong connection to the ideal of social mobility. The daemon shows the endless possibilities that ought to be available to every child, the boundless ways in which they grow. Regardless of what daemons happen to be carried by your parents.

Social mobility is about a great deal of things, as I noted while writing my own book, People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain. In Prospect’s latest issue, editor Tom Clark made a comprehensive and wide-ranging analysis of the core issues. He considered the pitfalls which come with placing too much emphasis on education as the great leveller. There is the continuing cross-party political obsession with giving “everyone the best possible start.” There are concerns over whether the status quo will actually ever change, no matter what processes are adopted at government policy level or in the boardroom. There are no easy answers to these questions.

Against this background, let me state my position clearly. I think that social mobility can work. It worked for me. But I am an anomaly, not a good example of how it may be replicated. In my book I articulate the less discussed and potentially more consequential issues. Two are worth exploring here. The first is our understanding of character and the notion of “self,” particularly as it relates to an impoverished child whose fate may be decided—whose daemon may be settled—before they’ve understood what’s happening. The second is related to the power of harnessing the right language to bring you towards a different future.

A shifting sense of self

Character involves how people feel about what they’re doing, consciously or unconsciously. If you are socially mobile and manage to beat some of the odds stacked against you, then sooner or later you will find yourself in an entirely new world about which you know nothing. Gaining the inner strength to fight the insecurity that you do not deserve to be there is essential. The issue isn’t always about feeling out of place in your new world, or suffering from imposter syndrome, or the attempts of others to undermine you. It might be, as it was in my case, just as much a question of having to face down family or friends who believe you have “abandoned” your roots. Or it might involve trying to hold on to a sense of self while you are caught between old and new worlds. Right before your daemon has properly settled.

I have had to spend a lot of time away from family and old friends over a number of years: working, studying, trying, failing, failing again, concentrating on my next steps, finding ways to answer endless questions about when I would finally be “this lawyer,” all to build a different and more prosperous future, not just for me but for my family.

These struggles attempt to settle your character and nature for you, rather than leave you to develop it in your own time. Pushing past it requires a great deal of confidence and discipline. It is something which, to some of those closest to me, is seen as a mixture of self-centredness, aloofness, an abandonment of my origins, and a focus on the future to the exclusion of all else. It’s difficult to see policy on social mobility sufficiently addressing these points.

The trap of linguistic authenticity

Another perverse barrier to social mobility is when young people attempting to change their circumstances are told that they must remain “true to themselves” and that any change is “selling out” or somehow inauthentic. This is particularly pertinent when it comes to discussing language, articulacy, accents and registers.

There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, these young people face enough discrimination without needing to give up one of the few things within their control: the opportunity to use language to shape their own narrative. Evolve or die. The best teachers, social workers, the most supportive parents and mentors understand that it’s not about who you are now—it’s about who you could be. The idea that the “true self” of a young person from a disadvantaged background is fixed is also profoundly patronising—and not all that different from the kind of prejudice that leads many to suggest, for example, that someone from a particular town couldn’t sound the way they do and come from anywhere other than the Home Counties.

At heart, it’s the assumption that people who come from a certain background must never change or develop. That our expectations for how they act or speak must never be challenged. That their daemons were born settled. If you’re French or Irish and settle in Britain, your accent might soften over time or you might consciously change it in order to be better understood, and no one will come and take away your passport. But if your linguistic journey crosses class boundaries, you will be told that you’re waving goodbye to really belonging anywhere. That new accent isn’t really yours, some will say, because we know you didn’t always speak that way: you’re not a real working-class person either, because what working-class person speaks like you? You’re not authentic.

In other words, you’re trapped in one place, in that character you were born into, forever the person you were at what may have been the worst point in your life. These are the walls that, as the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah puts it “hedge us in; walls we played no part in designing, walls without doors and windows, walls that block our vision and obstruct our way, walls that will not let in fresh and enlivening air.”

I don’t know whether Pullman was talking about social mobility when he came up with his best idea. But it certainly makes sense to me. Social mobility and any personal journey goes beyond your family circumstances, what kind of schools you went to, what kind of environment you grew up in, and whether you went to university or hold a professional and lucrative job. It is also fundamentally about how these and other factors interact, intersect and seek to settle your character and nature for you.

Hashi Mohamed is Author of People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain