A “glass floor” for middle-class dimwits, the wisdom of John Sewel, and surviving the seagulls

Dim middle-class children do not enjoy life chances equal to those of their brighter working-class peers. Their prospects are, by some distance, better.

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When politicians lament the decline in upward social mobility, usually blaming state schools for “low expectations”, they nearly always ignore a sizeable elephant in the room: the lack of downward social mobility. They seem unable to grasp that, for about thirty years after the Second World War, an exceptional expansion in professional jobs – in, say, financial services, the law and media – allowed thousands of children from working-class homes to move into high-income, high-status jobs without detriment to children from middle-class homes. There was, to borrow the title of a John Braine novel, “room at the top”. That could not continue indefinitely. Room for upwardly mobile children from humble backgrounds can now be created only if children from affluent families drop out of the middle classes and become, say, burger flippers.

This point has just been highlighted by the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in a report that contains a startling figure: children from affluent backgrounds who do badly in tests at five are 35 per cent more likely to become high earners at 42 than children from poorer homes who do well in the same tests. So, dim middle-class children do not enjoy life chances equal to those of their brighter working-class peers. Their prospects are, by some distance, better. They benefit from what the commission calls a “glass floor”, which can’t be explained wholly by attendance at private or grammar schools.

The report has been met with almost complete silence from politicians. No wonder. Ways to break the glass floor and push privileged children into downward mobility include setting an upper limit on the numbers of students from fee-charging schools whom elite universities are allowed to admit; requiring law firms and banks, for instance, to recruit minimum proportions of entrants from low-income backgrounds; and outlawing the unpaid internships through which children from affluent homes get a foothold in the top professions. Would even Jeremy Corbyn dare to advocate such things?

Sewel’s jewels

Whatever Lord Sewel (as he still is, despite resigning from the House of Lords) puts up his nose, one must admire his political analysis. According to a Sun on Sunday recording, he told prostitutes that Tony Blair “fell in love with George Bush absolutely”; Cherie Blair “is obsessed with money”; Andy Burnham is “terribly contradictory”;
Yvette Cooper is “OK but not strong”; David Cameron is the “most facile, superficial Prime Minister there’s ever been”; and Alex Salmond is a “pompous prat”. I haven’t heard a more convincing or succinct assessment of current political figures. Instead of pillorying the poor man, a wise newspaper editor would give him a column.

 

Terrible blows

A Daily Mail headline claims that Sewel “has dealt democracy a terrible blow”. I don’t think so. Although he was a member of Aberdeen District Council from 1974 to 1984, Sewel has never been elected to Westminster or Holyrood. He has dealt a terrible blow to an unelected, oversized parliamentary chamber that mostly comprises political cronies, ageing nonentities and dim aristocrats. Or so one would wish.

 

Blair’s a believer

Has anybody read Tony Blair’s recent speech to the Progress group? It was widely reported as a warning that Labour couldn’t win from “a traditional leftist position” and must compromise on its principles by tacking right. Yet that is precisely what Blair didn’t say. The choice, he said, wasn’t between “government and opposition . . . the pursuit of power and the purity of principle”. It was between good and bad ways of applying social-democratic values in the 21st century. “I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform,” he said. “Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”

In other words, Blair, like Corbyn, takes a stand on principle, not electoral advantage. He argued, for example, that Labour should confront “head-on” Ukip’s belief that we should get out of Europe and blame immigrants for our problems. “I don’t know whether this is a winning strategy but at least it’s one I believe in.” I am not sure that, in office, Blair was always quite the conviction politician he now invites us to admire, nor that I liked what I saw when he stuck by his alleged principles during the run-up to the Iraq war. But I hope that Burnham, Cooper and Liz Kendall take heed and don’t leave principle entirely to Corbyn.

 

Death from above

As if Islamic State (or whatever we are now supposed to call it) were not enough, we now have to cope with the seagull terror, following the birds’ attacks on ­pensioners and, worse still in most Britons’ eyes, dogs and tortoises. Perhaps I can help. In the days when, as NS editor, I strode early to work through Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, I was frequently alarmed by the loud squawking of what seemed like hundreds of gulls flying above and sometimes swooping down on the high road. Apparently they came from the coast where, thanks to overfishing, there was a shortage of food, and they favoured Loughton because we had acquired several new fast-food outlets surrounded by discarded cartons of half-eaten burgers, chicken nuggets, fried fish and the like.

The solution to troublesome gulls, rats, urban foxes and similar menaces, I decided, was simple: make fast-food shops responsible for clearing up any rubbish they generate on pain of being closed down instantly.

 

Bulldog Guardian

The cheekiest marketing ploy of the week came from the Guardian, “the world’s leading liberal voice”, as it calls itself. On 24 July, the day after the Financial Times was sold to the Japanese company Nikkei, the paper featured a Union flag above its masthead with the words “British based, British owned, your quality newspaper”.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double