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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.

PETER MACDIARMID/REX
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Ken Clarke: Theresa May has “no idea” what to do about Brexit

According to the former Chancellor, “nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next”.

Has Ken Clarke lost the greatest political battle of his career? He doesn’t think so. With his shoes off, he pads around his Westminster office in a striped shirt, bottle-green cords and spotty socks. Parliament’s most persistent Europhile seems relaxed. He laughs at the pervasive phrase that has issued from Downing Street since Theresa May became Prime Minister: “Brexit means Brexit.”

“A very simple phrase, but it didn’t mean anything,” he says. His blue eyes, still boyish at 76, twinkle. “It’s a brilliant reply! I thought it was rather witty. It took a day or two before people realised it didn’t actually answer the question.”

A former chancellor of the Exchequer, Clarke has served in three Conservative cabinets. His support for the European Union is well known. He has represented the seat of Rushcliffe in Nottinghamshire for 46 years, and his commitment to the European project has never wavered over the decades. It has survived every Tory civil war and even his three failed attempts to be elected Tory leader, standing on a pro-Europe platform, in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“My political career looks as though it will coincide with Britain’s membership of the EU,” Clarke says, lowering himself into an armchair that overlooks the Thames. There are model cars perched along the windowsill – a hint of his love of motor racing.

Clarke won’t be based here, in this poky rooftop room in Portcullis House, Westminster, much longer. He has decided to step down at the next election, when he will be nearly 80. “I began by campaigning [in the 1960s] in support of Harold Macmillan’s application to enter [the EU], and I shall retire at the next election, when Britain will be on the point of leaving,” he says grimly.

Clarke supports Theresa May, having worked with her in cabinet for four years. But his allegiance was somewhat undermined when he was recorded describing her as a “bloody difficult woman” during this year’s leadership contest. He is openly critical of her regime, dismissing it as a “government with no policies”.

For a senior politician with a big reputation, Clarke is light-hearted in person – his face is usually scrunched up in merriment beneath his floppy hair. A number of times during our discussion, he says that he is trying to avoid getting “into trouble”. A painting of a stern Churchill and multiple illustrations of Gladstone look down at him from his walls as he proceeds to do just that.

“Nobody in the government has the first idea of what they’re going to do next on the Brexit front,” he says. He has a warning for his former cabinet colleagues: “Serious uncertainty in your trading and political relationships with the rest of the world is dangerous if you allow it to persist.”

Clarke has seen some of the Tories’ bitterest feuds of the past at first hand, and he is concerned about party unity again. “Whatever is negotiated will be denounced by the ultra-Eurosceptics as a betrayal,” he says. “Theresa May has had the misfortune of taking over at the most impossible time. She faces an appalling problem of trying to get these ‘Three Brexiteers’ [Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox] to agree with each other, and putting together a coherent policy which a united cabinet can present to a waiting Parliament and public. Because nobody has the foggiest notion of what they want us to do.”

Clarke reserves his fiercest anger for these high-profile Brexiteers, lamenting: “People like Johnson and [Michael] Gove gave respectability to [Nigel] Farage’s arguments that immigration was somehow a great peril caused by the EU.”

During the referendum campaign, Clarke made headlines by describing Boris Johnson as “a nicer version of Donald Trump”, but today he seems more concerned about David Cameron. He has harsh words for his friend the former prime minister, calling the pledge to hold the referendum “a catastrophic decision”. “He will go down in history as the man who made the mistake of taking us out of the European Union, by mistake,” he says.

Clarke left the government in Cameron’s 2014 cabinet reshuffle – which came to be known as a “purge” of liberal Conservatives – and swapped his role as a minister without portfolio for life on the back benches. From there, he says, he will vote against the result of the referendum, which he dismisses as a “bizarre protest vote”.

“The idea that I’m suddenly going to change my lifelong opinions about the national interest and regard myself as instructed to vote in parliament on the basis of an opinion poll is laughable,” he growls. “My constituents voted Remain. I trust nobody will seriously suggest that I should vote in favour of leaving the European Union. I think it’s going to do serious damage.”

But No 10 has hinted that MPs won’t be given a say. “I do think parliament sooner or later is going to have to debate this,” Clarke insists. “In the normal way, holding the government to account for any policy the government produces . . . The idea that parliament’s going to have no say in this, and it’s all to be left to ministers, I would regard as appalling.”

Clarke has been characterised as a Tory “wet” since his days as one of the more liberal members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. It is thought that the former prime minister had a soft spot for his robust manner but viewed his left-wing leanings and pro-European passion with suspicion. He is one of parliament’s most enduring One-Nation Conservatives. Yet, with the Brexit vote, it feels as though his centrist strand of Tory politics is disappearing.

“I don’t think that’s extinct,” Clarke says. “The Conservative Party is certainly not doomed to go to the right.”

He does, however, see the rise of populism in the West as a warning. “I don’t want us to go lurching to the right,” he says. “There is a tendency for traditional parties to polarise, and for the right-wing one to go ever more to the right, and the left-wing one to go ever more to the left . . . It would be a catastrophe if that were to happen.”

Clarke’s dream of keeping the UK in Europe may be over, but he won’t be quiet while he feels that his party’s future is under threat. “Don’t get me into too much trouble,” he pleads, widening his eyes in a show of innocence, as he returns to his desk to finish his work. 

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories