The report of the Runnymede Trust's Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain made the point that this country has always been multicultural. It is culturally divided by social class. There are very few people in the south of England who understand the joy of chips and gravy, for example. The treat of crooners screaming the life out of "I Will Survive" is also denied to anyone who does not regularly visit one of the dwindling band of working men's clubs.
This diversity adds to what Auberon Waugh used to call the gaiety of the nation, but it also does more than that. Social class is still, after more than a century and a half of democracy, the principal organiser of our life chances. Men in social class I have a life expectancy nine years longer than the counterparts who serve them from social class V. Children from the manual social classes are twice as likely to die in an accident as those whose parents do not do manual work. When two graduates with exactly the same degree start working, the one from the poor household will earn 9 per cent less than the one from the wealthier home.
Once upon a time, this was the story of English literature. It was only five years ago that Gabrielle Annan could say in the London Review of Books that "not many English writers can manage a novel in which class is not an issue at all". John Betjeman called it "that topic all-absorbing, as it was, is now and ever shall be to us". Tom Jones the foundling was redeemed by the discovery that he was, after all that adventure, of high birth in any case. Pip Pirrip received his baby bond from Magwitch and spent a lifetime struggling not to look down on his guardian.
We tend now to compliment ourselves that we are an open society in which people get on in pretty strict proportion to their ability. In fact, this is no more true now than it was when Jude the Obscure was dreaming in vain of getting into Christminster (Oxford). The odds of moving from the bottom social class to the professional occupations have not altered for a century. It is true that 39 per cent of people born between 1950 and 1959 have been upwardly mobile during their lives, compared with 25 per cent of those born in the decade before 1900. But this increase has nothing to do with more open policy. It is explained by changes to the structure of the economy in that period: 42 per cent of all jobs are now classified as social classes I and II, compared to 18 per cent in the earlier period.
There is a lot more room at the top these days, but no more likelihood of a poor child making it through. Today, someone who starts out in the top social class is 32 times more likely to end up there than someone who started at the bottom. And even such movement as there is tends to be in a very short range. Half of those in the bottom 10 per cent in 1991 had incomes above the bottom 20 per cent by 1998, but fewer than a quarter were in the top 60 per cent.
The barrier to real social mobility, without which any meritocracy will always be flawed and incomplete, is that the middle classes are very good at hanging on to their position of strength.
If English literature is full of heart-warming stories of poor boys made good, it is virtually empty of rich boys fallen on hard times. Even when they do, as in Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, the circumstances are exceptional. There are no tales in which falling down the social scale is written up as a natural drama of life chances. This is because it hardly ever happens. It is quite common for social climbers to begin to prefer avocado to tinned peas, but very rare for a former aristocrat to develop a taste for chips and gravy. The great missing link in the process of relative social mobility is the downward mobility of the stupid middle class. The British bourgeoisie has proved to be highly adept at what the American sociologist Charles Tilly has called "opportunity hoarding".
The tenacious defence of its status by the professions is one way in which opportunities are organised. This does, indeed, happen at all levels of the social structure, like the Jewish rag trade in London and the silversmith, glass-blower and blacksmith clusters in the 18th-century city. Licensed trades, like the London taxi drivers, are effective hoarders of opportunities.
But the most tenacious defenders of professional privilege are the most well-off. Doctors are one of government's most implacable and effective adversaries, resisting every attempt to allow nurses to step into new territory. The teachers' unions were predictably unamused at the suggestion made by Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, that classroom assistants should be used more extensively. Barristers have protected their patch against interlopers with as much eloquence as they ever muster in the courtroom.
None of this would matter too much if access to these elites were entirely open. But it is not. This is not to suggest that the admissions processes are less than fair. Indeed, within their own terms, the British professions, with the judiciary a moot point, are meritocratic. The last remaining social cartel, grouped around the English stockbroking families, has been unceremoniously demolished by the salutary takeover of the City of London by American banks. More can be done. There is no reason why the disclosure requirements on the professions should not be more extensive than they are at present. We have no problem in compelling firms to make public their financial performance. We should extend this requirement to the composition of their staff. If some institutions are full to bursting with the dull children of the middle class, then at least we should shame them in public for it.
But for all that, we cannot expect the recruitment officers of investment banks and accountancy firms to be the guardians of equal life chances. The damage has already been done by this stage, because the middle classes have become so good at ensuring that the dull among them, as well as the bright, have access to opportunities that their ability alone does not warrant.
Education is the principal agent of life chances, and the middle class prevents downward mobility by purchasing superior training for their children. If they remain in the state system, they move into the catchment area of the best schools. This artificially inflates the local house prices and closes off the opportunity for the less well-off. Access to a good school is a finite good. If that good is not available nearby, then the wealthy middle class has access to private education. This could be extra tuition for a child in the state system or, for 7 per cent of the nation's children, an entirely private education. In a recent pamphlet for the Social Market Foundation, Anthony Seldon pointed out that an average independent day school spends £6,200 per annum per pupil, compared to an average of £3,175 per annum per pupil spent at the average state school. There are 17 pupils for every teacher in state secondary schools, but only nine for every teacher in the private sector. It is not surprising, given the great disparity in resources, that private schools provide 39 per cent of students at the top ten universities.
If these advantages were not enough, the dull middle-class child has the privilege confirmed after university. The risk of debt, for example, for a child with no parental bailout, is severe. It means that working-class children have a different attitude towards taking on debt. Dull middle-class children are far more likely to receive help from their parents in buying their own house, and their parents' networks of contacts are likely to yield job opportunities in the professional classes.
The argument about social mobility is always posed as the quest to ensure the passage of the bright child from the poor family. This is vital, and a lot of government effort is going into securing it. But a far better test of social mobility, whether we have the stomach for it politically or not, is how large a cushion we allow for the fall of the dull middle-class child.
Philip Collins is director of the Social Market Foundation. His novel of upward and downward mobility, The Men from the Boys, is published by HarperCollins on 14 January