Peter Saunders is a UK/Australian writer and sociologist. He is Professor Emeritus at Sussex University and a “Distinguished Fellow” of the Centre for Independent Studies. This article appeared on the CIS website.
I spent last weekend at the ‘Battle of Ideas’ conference in London, on a panel debating the relevance of social class in contemporary Britain. The topic was prompted by the election of the first Old Etonian Prime Minister since 1964.
British intellectuals are obsessed by class divisions. When television producers are not busy filming Edwardian upstairs-downstairs dramas, movie-makers are working on tales of plucky steel workers being made redundant by Thatcher, or colliery brass bands stoically playing on after the pit has closed, or miners’ sons wanting to be ballet dancers as their fathers go on strike. As economist Peter Bauer put it in a pamphlet 30 years ago, British opinion-formers have ‘class on the brain.’
So, nowadays, do British politicians. In the last three years of the Labour government, three official reports were commissioned on class inequality. They all concluded that Britain is an unfair society where lower class children are blocked from realising their potential. Former cabinet minister Alan Milburn claimed in one of these reports: ‘Birth, not worth, has become more and more a determinant of people’s life chances,’ and he described Britain as ‘a closed shop society.’ Not to be outdone, the Tories then produced a report of their own, which proclaimed: ‘Social mobility has ground to a halt.’
Very similar claims were made by my fellow-panellists at the Battle of Ideas debate. One, a journalist from the left-wing tabloid The Daily Mirror, told the audience: ‘Your parents’ occupation will almost determine your occupation.’ Another, a sociologist at a FE college, told us: ‘Upward social mobility is a total myth.’
Now, I recently wrote a review of the evidence on social mobility in Britain. It showed that social mobility is extensive, both up and down. More than half the population is in a different social class from the one it was born into; one-third of professional-managerial people come from manual worker backgrounds; one in seven sons born to professional/managerial fathers end up as manual workers. Britain is remarkably meritocratic: somebody’s raw ability, measured by an IQ test at age 11, is more than twice as important as their class origins in predicting their class destination.
Why, given this evidence, do intellectuals continue to claim Britain is an unfair, class-ridden country? And does this repeated falsehood matter?
I think the resilience of the myth may have something to do with the survival of the monarchy and aristocracy at the very top of British society. This upper class froth gives credence to left-wing claims that birth matters more than worth, even though this doesn’t apply to the other 99% of us.
And yes, these claims do matter, because they send out such a negative and counter-productive message to working class children. The evidence tells us that, if you are bright and you work hard, there is nothing to stop you from succeeding in Britain, no matter where you start. But working class families are being told by Labour politicians, Daily Mirror journalists, and Marxist FE lecturers that it’s all hopeless, the game is rigged, and their future is pre-determined. Nothing is more likely to prevent children from succeeding than being told by those in authority that there is no point in them even trying.
The GOS says: The Centre for Independent Studies is an Australian think-tank. You have to wonder, don't you, why this article had to appear on an Australian website instead of a UK one?
The GOS once had a girlfriend who was rather thick. She was a lovely girl in every other way and the GOS was very fond of her. Of course, he was the GYS in those days. This girl would get in a terrible wax whenever the GYS mentioned the word “class”. She was convinced that even to use the word was snobbish, and was completely unable to discuss the subject rationally. Mind you, she was Welsh.
Actually, we know perfectly well the answer to the myth of invulnerable class division. In the past it has been promulgated by authors, playwrights and film-makers for the simple reason that it gives them an extra dimension for their plots: not only is the hero a misunderstood messiah spurned by the people around him and loved only by one faithful, clear-seeing woman, but he's working class so all hands are against him. Or most of the dramatis personae are just ordinary human beings with human needs and dreams, but made more interesting because they are just that tiny bit alien as they live in a stately home and have servants and posh frocks (“The Go-between”, “Brideshead Revisited”).
In the present day it is perpetrated by media people who have very tiny brains and can't be arsed to look around them and make their work reflect the real world they live in, instead of the artificial one that's built up over the years in books, films, plays and TV programmes (“Downton Abbey”. And don't we all love it?).
Class exists, sure. But does it matter? A lot less than you'd think. Scum will always float to the top, and shit eventually sinks.
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