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.