A government distracted by Brexit is better for mobility than the alternative—a government reintroducing the 11+by Tom Clark / December 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
There was always an irony in the idea of a “social mobility tsar,” seeing as emperors are not known for coming up the hard way. Now, in the wake of Alan Milburn’s resignation, there is an extra unlikely twist: we have the tsar turned mutineer.
And the quirks of this story do not end here. For while the ideal of the ladder of opportunity is a powerful one, it seems to me that the whole notion of “social mobility” has very often been used as a convenient way for governments of all stripes to change the conversation away from difficult topics like inequality and poverty. I say that not only because Nick Clegg set up the commission which Milburn is now walking away from as the first benefit cuts bit, but also because—almost by definition—the way that opportunities play out across whole generations is something we can only ever see deep in the rear-view mirror.
One endlessly-cited chunk of evidence frames the whole of the UK’s social mobility “debate”: the comparison of two surveys—one tracking babies born in 1958, the other tracking those born in 1970—which suggested that the slightly older group tended to move a bit further along the income spectrum from their parents than the younger group did. But just look at those dates. It’s about comparing the mobility of those who went to secondary school under Ted Heath with the high school pupils of the early Thatcher era. The data, in other words, has virtually nothing to say about the record of education policy of the last third of a century.
Politicians have been free to make speeches about social mobility without worrying about being caught out by their own words until long after they have retired. Until now. Hapless Theresa May, who last year gave a good impression of being more resolute than her Etonian predecessor about forging new paths for less-privileged people to get to the top, now finds herself pilloried for being too “distracted by Brexit” to make good on her agenda. Strikingly, it is not just the ultra-New Labour former health secretary, Milburn, who has reportedly walked, but also his fellow social mobility commissioners, the former Tory minister Gillian Shepherd, the economist Paul Gregg and David Johnston of the Social Mobility Forum.
“From the point of view of social mobility, the ‘distraction’ of the May ministry is actually no bad thing at all”
So how exactly is it that May is supposed to have aggravated, or at least neglected, Britain’s social sclerosis? While I’ve been impressed with Milburn’s command of the evidence on social mobility, insofar as it exists, that evidence remains both patchy and contested. He’s made the greatest waves in the media on some important, but fairly narrow, questions about the often appalling elite domination of top professions such as law and medicine, and indeed journalism where the withering of the local press has closed off the traditional working class route to the top. Not much of this will have changed since the Brexit vote.
What of the bigger picture? There is a good deal of murk. While economists are pretty clear that income mobility did get worse over the late 20th Century, sociologists such as John Goldthorpe at Oxford—who look at class instead—call even that claim into doubt. Even the most basic question of whether mobility has been tending to get better or worse over the long haul is, in other words, somewhat contested. It is even harder to say whether progress has faltered in the last year or so, or whether indeed—as Milburn is reported as saying today—the opportunity gap will likely take 80 years to put right. Quite possibly, but who knows?
So what’s really changed? The government is, as Milburn says, fixated on Brexit, but what exactly is this stopping it doing? The single most prominent idea that May had in the field of education, the thing we might assume she’d be getting on with if not distracted by Brexit and a vanished majority, was to reintroduce grammar schools. This is one of the very few things one could do in the endlessly-contested field of social mobility where all expert opinion is of one mind: early academic sifting and selection makes matters worse. The OECD, for example, has looked across advanced economies and found exactly this effect. That makes perfect sense: more privileged homes are much more seized by the importance of the entrance exam and coach their children through it.
From the point of view of social mobility considered in isolation, then, I’d argue that the “distraction” of the May ministry is actually no bad thing at all. Indeed, it is a positive boon, as it has stopped them doing harm.
So what is the real story? My own guess is that both Milburn and Shepherd, a Remain voter last year, are understandably fed up with the chaotic and nationalist turn the government has taken, and thus disinclined to work with it any longer.