No family ties, no emotional inheritance: who would want “perfect” social mobility?

Demonising social luck does not increase social justice.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Four years ago, researching my book Luck, I made a startling discovery. Even in professional sport – a field in which it is not a huge jump to assume that talent is spread reasonably evenly across classes – something odd was happening to social mobility. Twelve of the 13 cricketers who represented England on the winter Test tour of 1987-88 had been educated at state schools. In contrast, the England team that beat India at Lord’s in 2011 consisted of eight privately educated players and three state-educated ones.

Those facts were not anomalies. So I commissioned an economist to work with me on establishing the educational backgrounds of England players in other sports. At the 1987 Rugby World Cup, we discovered, 62 per cent of the England squad had attended state schools; by 2007, that proportion had sunk to 40 per cent. At the London Olympic Games of 2012, more than a third of medallists had been educated in the private sector, which caters for only 7 per cent of the population.

Before I could come to a judgement, let alone a prescription, my first instinct was to revisit my own career. The data suggested that if you had been to a fee-paying school – as I had, though that was only possible because my father taught English at Tonbridge School – you were 20 times more likely to play cricket for England. Here, the logic became uncomfortable. Some players, such as Kevin Pietersen, are so talented that they can rise almost on their own. I never put myself in that category: if better sporting education had been more widely available, I probably wouldn’t have played for England. Someone with more innate talent would have taken my place. That’s what John Rawls meant by “social luck”.

The New Statesman’s focus on social mobility last week made for provocative reading. But I finished the series of articles reminded of how hard it is to draw simple conclusions about the overlapping – but importantly different – concepts of social mobility, merit and privilege.

My experiences in cricket underlined this point. The sport is often ridiculed for having permitted a distinction between amateurs and professionals until 1962. The collective psychological hangover from that dichotomy has been just as damaging. Two of the better captains I witnessed at first hand – Kent’s Matthew Fleming (an Etonian) and England’s Andrew Strauss (from Radley) – had to wait until other captains had been tried out. On merit alone, they could have been elevated earlier in their careers. The perception that the captain had to be “the right kind of chap” was an illusion but the fantasy remained influential.

So already we have come up against a distinction between merit and social mobility. After the 2009 Ashes victory, I argued that Strauss’s leadership of England was, in some respects, a triumph for meritocracy (though I knew I was using the term incompletely to make a counter-intuitive point).

Even the term “meritocracy” has a complex history. It was not, as David Kynaston explains in Modernity Britain, coined by Michael Young in his 1958 book The Rise of the Meritocracy. It was Alan Fox, writing for Socialist Commentary, who put the term in inverted commas two years earlier. It was certainly Young who popularised it, though I wonder how many people who now define themselves as “meritocrats” have read the book: Young’s dystopian projection of a meritocratic society in 2034 ends in catastrophe and revolution. Meanwhile, in the real world, as Young pointed out in the early years of New Labour, we got meritocratic smugness without an underlying meritocratic reality.

The concept of social mobility is also slippery. It is usually measured by transition matrices, in which “perfect” mobility is taken to mean that your eventual income and economic class are completely uncorrelated with those of your parents. This kind of perfect mobility is almost no one’s idea of perfection. A society of total social mobility would be a world in which the family left no trace at all. Yet nurturing and encouraging your children, giving them an emotional and social inheritance – and, perhaps, a financial one – are among the most innately human instincts.

Viewed reductively, anyone who achieves some worldly success and then tries to be a good parent is acting against perfect social mobility. That is why, in practice, perfect mobility would rely on far more than just a level educational playing field: it would require the randomisation of parenting.

Unsurprisingly, none of us is particularly keen on the compulsory swapping of babies in maternity wards. What we want is a certain amount of social mobility but fixing exactly how much is optimal – even if the state could be certain of delivering it – would be impossible.

Meanwhile, demonising (or even stigmatising) social luck does not necessarily increase fairness or social justice. But it certainly encourages social fraud. I cannot improve on the sparkling fact unearthed by Stuart Maconie in his essay last week. Jim Morrison, the frontman of the Doors, claimed that his parents were dead rather than admit that Daddy was an admiral. Many “winners” today follow the Morrison solution, merely watering down the lies – witness the triumph of the mockney accent.

We should also challenge the assumption that a good life can ever be measured in economic terms. “It would probably contribute more to human happiness if, instead of trying to make remuneration respond to merit, we made clearer how uncertain is the connection between value and merit. We are probably all much too ready to ascribe personal merit where there is, in fact, only superior value.” The writer? He is, ironically, usually associated with free market economics: Friedrich Hayek. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

Free trial CSS