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29 December 2014

Forget immigration, the big issue in 2015 should be the death of social mobility

By accepting vast inequalities of wealth, the political class has acquiesced in the continual erosion of opportunity. 

By James Bloodworth

“In every single sphere of British influence, the upper echelons of power…are held overwhelmingly by the privately educated or the affluent middle class.” 

Which radical scion of the establishment could have said such a thing? Tony Benn? Dennis Skinner? Or even Leon Trotsky perhapsThe answer is former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major, that well known scourge of capitalism and tribune of the working class. When the man who privatised British Rail and launched propaganda campaigns against single mothers believes society is insufficiently meritocratic it ought to be clear that the UK is heading in the wrong direction.

And a closer look at the top of British society demonstrates that, rather than turning into a bleeding heart in his retirement years, Sir John is simply stating the obviousJust 7 per cent of Britons are privately educated yet, according to a government report published in August, 33 per cent of MPs, 71 per cent of senior judges and 44 per cent of people on the Sunday Times Rich List went to fee-paying schools. If you were waiting for some sort of media outrage about such an appalling state of affairs then you may have to wait a little longer: 43 per cent of newspaper columnists and 26 per cent of BBC executives hail from the private school system too.

Even the grittier sections of the music industry, which once gave expression to working class authenticity, are increasingly dominated by the affluent. In 2011, music magazine The Word found that the majority of UK chart acts were either privately educated or from exclusive stage schools. This compared with 1990, when it found that nearly 80 per cent of artists in the Top 40 were educated in state schools.

Acting is hardly faring any better, with cut-glass accents and fatuous self-confidence increasingly ubiquitous. As the actress Julie Walters recently explained: “I look at almost all the up-and-coming names and they’re from the posh schools … Don’t get me wrong … they’re wonderful. It’s just a shame those working class kids aren’t coming through. When I started, 30 years ago, it was the complete opposite.”

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Elitism in Britain is now so pronounced that the coalition government’s own social mobility commission has compared it to “social engineering” in favour of the rich. (That’s right: social engineering – the term right-wing pundits lazily throw around whenever it is suggested that Oxford and Cambridge admit at least a few more pupils from ordinary – not poor, just ordinarybackgrounds.)

Speaking of which, Oxbridge graduates are snaffling a large number of the top jobs too. While they comprise just 1 per cent of the population, Oxford and Cambridge graduates make up 75 per cent of senior judges, 59 per cent of cabinet ministers, 47 per cent of newspaper columnists and 12 per cent of the Sunday Times Rich List.

Attendance at one of Britain’s top universities is admittedly different from attending a private school in that a place at the former is won strictly on merit. But when you consider that just one in 10 children who attend either Oxford or Cambridge are entitled to free school meals – compared with a fifth of children in Britain as a whole – it becomes clear that more is at work in getting a golden ticket to one of Britain’s top institutions than talent alone.

A quick glance at some of the surnames that dominate Oxford ought to illustrate my point. According to a 2013 study by the London School of Economics, a disproportionately large number of places at Oxford are taken up by people with Norman Conquest surnames such as Baskerville, Darcy, Mandeville and Montgomery. This isn’t because a Norman surname confers great wisdom; rather it is because we live in a society where privilege begets privilege. Did I mention, too, that London is the unpaid internship capital of Europe?

Like Sir John, you ought by now to have picked up on something: the offspring of the privileged are greedily snapping up a large proportion of jobs in the most desirable – and usually best paid – professions. As a consequence the door is being slammed shut on millions of bright, talented and hardworking kids from modest backgrounds. Britain in 2014 is a family with the wrong members in control, as George Orwell famously put it.

Yet it would be a mistake to view the increasing stratification of society as accidental. By accepting vast inequalities of wealth (and focusing instead on equality of opportunity) the political class has acquiesced in the slow death of social mobility for one very simple reason: the vastly unequal outcomes they almost all accept as de rigueur render all notions of “equality of opportunity” null and void.

The reason is a straightforward one. Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking book Capital in the 21st Century looked at how wealth concentrates when the returns on capital are higher than economic growth. Or in plain English, how it’s easier for someone who already has plenty of money to make more of it. But like wealth, opportunity concentrates too. Or as Piketty’s predecessor Karl Marx put it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they make it …under circumstances … given and transmitted from the past”. 



Despite politicians paying lip service to the meritocratic ideal, Britain today has some of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world. Of the rich countries listed by the OECD, the three in which men’s earnings are most likely to resemble their fathers are the UK, Italy and the US – in that order. Predictably enough, of the OECD countries Britain also happens to be the fourth most unequal – only Mexico, Israel and the US have a more unequal distribution of wealth. The privileges of British parents become the privileges of British children. Meanwhile, the relatively egalitarian Scandinavian countries have some of the highest levels of social mobility, indicating a strong link between a lack of social mobility and a gaping chasm between rich and poor.

And so, in allowing those at the top to grab an increasingly large share of Britain’s wealth, politicians of several generations (Sir John Major included) have knowingly trashed social mobility. This, rather than the number of Romanians living next door, ought to be the real political scandal in 2015.

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