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Laurie Penny: Willetts has reminded us that social mobility is a scam

The entire premise of social mobility rests on the blithe acceptance of social inequality.

If you want to slip an awkward truth past the guard dogs of Middle England, it helps to throw them a bone of contention. Last week, in a bid to set the terms of the new class debate, universities minister David Willetts MP casually mentioned that it might actually all be women's fault. Willetts's words, to the effect that mass female employment has been the 'biggest single factor' holding back working men, were tossed out just in time to cause maximum controversy in the Friday headlines and the Sunday columns. And off we all went, yapping after the bait, the liberal left and the chattering classes, barking and bickering between ourselves.

Have women sold out working men? Have working men sold out women? While the commetariat pondered these questions, everyone failed to draw attention to the solid, foundational fact that it is the rich who have sold out the poor, mortgaging their life chances to pay the debts of global finance.

Over the course of a fortnight, conservative spin-doctors have performed an exquisite feat of repositioning. Framing the initial debate as a whodunnit - which sex killed social mobility? - lays down two important principles as a given. Firstly, that social mobility is the highest possible public good; secondly, that whoever is responsible for the nosedive in social mobility since the 1970s, it definitely wasn't the free market.

Willetts's notion that "feminism has trumped egalitarianism" holds no water. Ask any unemployed labourer in any of the thousands of northern towns eviscerated by Thatcher's maceration of industry what's really holding them back, and chances are they won't say 'women'. The delusion that women selfishly taking the jobs and university places that should have gone to working class men, and then even more selfishly refusing to sleep with them - a practice that Willetts delicately calls 'assortive mating' - distracts us from the greater truth that the social mobility experiment of the mid-century is over.

Today, children born to working-class parents are overwhelmingly likely to remain working class. Children who go to low-achieving schools usually end up in low-paying jobs, especially in former industrial towns. Wage repression has meant that it is now nearly impossible to raise a family on a single person's wage, meaning that most couples with children are obliged to work two full-time jobs between them. Labour has become more precarious, and structural unemployment has continued to rise. Top jobs in politics, journalism, law, management, business and finance are held in trust for the sons and daughters of the wealthy, as opportunities go to those who can afford to work as unpaid interns or, increasingly, to pay for vital work experience. In fact, like nearly every other journalist under 35, the main reason I have this platform to talk to you now is that I'm a beneficiary of the private-school-and-intern system.

All of that was the case even before the June budget. Now, an increase in regressive taxes that hit the poorest hardest, a threefold increase in university fees that places higher education beyond the reach of many, and the withdrawal of the few remaining benefits, such as Education maintenance Allowance, that really did help young men and young women of all ages to cross class boundaries, have lacerated the ailing proto-corpse of social mobility in Britain. The government's suggestion that sending a few civil servants to give motivational talks in schools will somehow solve the problem is a the equivalent of smearing a little ointment on a gushing arterial neck-wound.

The cuts are already too fast, and too deep: the body politic is bleeding out. The government has begun to panic, desperate to stem the flow of public opinion in the best way it knows how : by appealing to the self-interest of the sharp-elbowed middle classes. middle England cares about social mobility. middle england wants its sons and daughters to be wealthy. Unfortunately, its sons and daughters are currently sliding onto the graduate scrapheap, stuck on the dole or in dead-end jobs, or tearing through the streets of London in masks and hoods, smashing up banks. This is not good news for coalition approval ratings.

If the Tories are to retain power, public discourse has to be shifted, and it has to be shifted fast. Nobody who has so much as squinted at growth projections could claim that social mobility is likely to do anything but decline in this country for the forseeable future, but that's not what matters to the government. What matters is the appearance of concern, a shadow-play of interest in helping the "squeezed middle" - a catch-all term for electorally crucial swing voters - rise through the ranks.

A brief shuffle through the social mobility strategy turns up glossy pages of utter vacuity, full of platitudes, vague half-policies, disclaimers explaining that government can't do all or indeed really any of the work, and doleful insistence that 'there is no magic wand we can wave'.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the document, however, is the opening premise: "a fair society is...a society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise." Social mobility is apparently this government's "principal" social concern. But are fairness and social mobility truly synonymous?

Social mobility, lest we forget, is not the same thing as equality. On the contrary: the entire premise of social mobility rests on the blithe acceptance of social inequality, so long as a handful of have-nots are able to scale the ladder of privilege. In a world where wealth and resources are finite, not everyone can be a billionaire. The encouraging notion that anyone can 'make it' relies on the unspoken assumption that most people, ultimately, won't.

That vision of unfettered self-improvement is the lie that has sustained free-market capitalism over a century of ruthless expansion. It is the lie that neoliberal governments across the developed world have used to justify the destruction of welfare, healthcare and education, the decimation of labour and the entrenchment of inequality along divisions of race, class and gender. It's a lie that convinces most when it is most manifestly false: indeed, recent studies have shown that in America, the more social mobility decreases, the more desperate voters are to believe that 'anyone can make it if they try.' It is the cross-continental American Dream, the dream of enterprise as redemption, the dream that, in the words of the late George Carlin, "you have to be asleep to believe."

Let's return to David Willetts, whose opening salvo makes the bigoted assumptions behind our understanding of "social mobility" plain. There are a finite number of places 'at the top,' for which citizens of all classes are supposed to compete. Middle- and upper-middle class men have first dibs on those places, and after that, middle-class women and working-class men are allowed to slug it out for the scraps. Working class women rarely get a look-in, but that's social mobility for you.

Social mobility is a scam. It's a scam that is useful to governments implementing austerity programmes: after all, if anyone can make it, anyone who fails to do so must be personally at fault. Social mobility, however, is not an adequate substitute for social justice.

Which brings us neatly back to feminism, and to the uncomfortable admission that David Willetts does, in fact, have a point. Mass female employment has affected social mobility. Feminism is nowhere near as significant a factor in the stagnation of social mobility as the destruction of industry or wage repression. The fact remains, however, that if one accepts an unequal system whereby only a handful of elites make it into well-paying professions, and if one also accepts a feminism which settles for cramming a few extra women into those elite jobs, then some people are going to be nudged off the podium. What we have, to paraphrase Willetts, is neither feminism nor egalitarianism. What we have is a ruddy mess of recrimination and sharpened elbows.

Willetts has a point, and he is using that point to stab innocent bystanders in the back. Along with most of Westminster, Willetts has mistaken bourgeois feminism, which merely boosts the life chances of wealthy women within an unequal system, for feminism proper, which demands redistribution of work, wealth and power in order to deliver equality. Along with most of the country, Willetts has mistaken social mobility, which merely boosts the life chances of a few middle-class aspirants, for social justice. As inequality soars and the standard of living in Britain drops through the floor, those mistakes are about to cost us all very dearly.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.