I kept checking my news feeds yesterday, but still no announcement came that the Bishop of Burnley was standing down.
After his Thought for Today and his solemn appeal to conscience, that the problem of social mobility lies not just with the government but also with us, I thought he must.
Sacrifice your rental incomes for ‘fair rents’, he’d exhorted second home owners. Lower your profits and reduce share dividends, you employers and shareholders, be ready to forfeit them for fair pay! If greater access for the poor to university means a bright kid with better-off parents forgoing his place, sacrifice your child!
The bishop left no table unturned in his modern Temple of Inequity.
Surely, though, it could only be a matter of time before he realised that his inspiration, ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven’ (Matthew 19:21), had to apply to him too. That social mobility logic must mean giving away your job too.
But no. I’m afraid that virtue signalling, as my colleague Dr Jules Gomes explained this weekend, comes at a rather cheaper price than personal sacrifice.
It is not my intention to trouble Dr North’s own conscience, rather to wake up his brain. For like so many denizens of the media and political establishments, he is in the grip of the social mobility delusion.
This is the mental disorder that conflates poverty with (lack of) social mobility and puts both down to inherent capitalist unfairness. You can be sure that anyone you hear rehearsing ‘if you are poor you die poor’ (Alan Milburn) or that ‘patterns of inequality are imprinted from one generation to the next’ (Nick Clegg) or even ‘our social mobility rate is morally indefensible’ (Michael Gove, to his shame) is in the grip of the condition.
The irony that two of the three – Alan Milburn, born in 1958 of a single mother and brought up on a council estate in County Durham, and Michael Gove, adoptive son of an Aberdeen fish skinner and cutter – demonstrate the very opposite has passed them by.
Not that the chippy Mr Milburn, just removed as the government’s ‘Social Mobility Czar’, seems very grateful for anything. The angry, self-delusional one told Marr on Sunday that his fate had sealed it: ‘There is little hope now of progress to a fairer Britain.’
Not once, in the seven years on the government’s gravy train since the witless Nick Clegg appointed him to the role of chief grievance inciter, has Mr Milburn stopped to properly examine the evidence for his ludicrous claims.
There is none. Sociologist Peter Saunders’s exposé of politicians’ cynical exploitation of this myth has been in the public domain since 2012. He concluded then that ideology and preconceived beliefs have driven the debate, not facts.
Contrary to received wisdom, we are not a caste society; the evidence of social mobility in Britain is extensive:
- More than half of us are in a different class from the one we were born into and the same proportion of us are downwardly mobile out of our class as are upwardly mobile.
- Four out of five children who grow up in poor households do not end up poor themselves.
- Social mobility is the norm in Britain, not the exception, and it covers the range from top to bottom.
- International comparisons show that our social mobility rate falls around the middle of the rankings.
Research on class mobility simply does not support the claim that social mobility has been falling, and several studies show the reverse to be true.
But, he says, it suits politicians in both main parties to believe we have a social mobility problem, even though we don’t. It fits Labour’s egalitarian conviction to believe that rich kids get unfair advantages and that working class children are prevented from improving themselves. For the Cameron ‘modernisers’, he continues, attacking private schools and elite universities is a way of showing that the party has changed its spots, and that it now cares about ‘ordinary people’.
On this, May is the spawn of a Cameron-Miliband marriage. Like Labour, she assumes that where there is difference it must mean a problem of unfairness; where there is any association between origins and destinations, it must be the result of unfair social advantages or disadvantages.
Politicians may say they want a meritocracy, but few will face the truth that in a meritocracy there will always be some association between class origins and destinations. Nor do they want to know that innate intelligence explains about half of the variance in cognitive test scores, or, as research like Saunders’s finds, that cognitive ability is about three times stronger than class origins as a predictor of people’s eventual social class destinations in Britain.
So they continue to define the wrong problem while remaining wilfully blind to the real one. Britain does not have a serious ‘social mobility problem’ but it does, as Saunders argues, have a serious ‘underclass problem’.
The problem of underclass children growing up in welfare-dependent households, frequently abandoned by their fathers and brought up by young mothers who cannot cope, exposed to substance abuse in the home, with no structure in their lives and no positive adult role models, is not one of lack of opportunity, but one of fundamental neglect.
‘Breaking down barriers’ has little relevance to their problems. Nor will forcing universities to accept youngsters without qualifications, or pushing positive discrimination policies on to employers, have any significant effect on social mobility rates which, Saunders says, have hardly varied despite fifty years of radical educational upheavals. They will, though, do lasting damage to our economy by preventing the recruiting of the best on purely meritocratic principles.
In the meantime, the government’s fiscal individualism encourages lifestyle choices that could not create a more effective barrier to children’s life chances, or be more cruel.
You might put that in your conscience pipe, Bishop North, and smoke it.