Social Mobility doesn’t equal Social Justice
‘Social mobility’ has been all over the media in Wales and elsewhere these past two weeks. What’s striking about this, as a value and goal, is just how much time people spend agreeing about it. When Nick Clegg launched Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility, it was the cue for a slew of debate in the London political establishment. But hardly any of this was about whether social mobility is the right goal to have. Rather, it was about how it might be achieved – and why we don’t have more of it already, at the UK level, considering that every administration since that of John Major has installed it as an aim.
For Clegg, a ‘fair’ society is ‘a society in which everyone is free to flourish and rise’. For Alan Milburn, in a speech discussed here by Jeremy Miles last January, the goal is ‘an open mobile society in which all have a fair chance to progress’. The goal is always put as if its priority is self-evident, and as if it is a kind of definition of fairness. The case will usually start with a reference to the (of course) drastically unfair effects of inter-generational inequality, and about how vital it is – as Milburn puts it – to ‘narrow the life chances gap’ between those born into privilege, and those not. One BBC reporter last week defined social mobility as ‘allowing people from all social backgrounds to move up the social hierarchy’.
And that’s the problem. The dominant logic of social mobility entails the preservation of exactly that hierarchy. It promises not a society in which everyone will flourish or progress, but a society in which everyone has the notional freedom to flourish or progress – and in which some, by the same token, do not do so. By definition, not all can rise – for ‘rising’ is relative. ‘Mobility’ in these terms is mobility from disadvantage to advantage: away from those who remain at the bottom, and towards those who remain at the top. Its sense requires the maintenance of the advantage/disadvantage divide. As Owen Jones puts it, the appeal to social mobility can be seen as ‘the idea of creaming off a small majority of able working-class kids and catapulting them into the middle classes’. Michael Young pointed out in his coruscating satire The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) that mobility needs to go in both directions, for its promise to be true. This would mean the already-privileged stopping doing whatever they can to prevent their less talented kids dropping down the social hierarchy. Maybe somehow you can legislate for that. But will the Westminster coalition? Fat chance.
A post-Thatcherite definition of social mobility holds sway. Maybe it needn’t be like that. Maybe this particular definition should not have exclusive rights to the term. For now, though, we should resist very strongly the idea that social mobility on the Clegg/Milburn model somehow, by itself, amounts to social justice. Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers does not apply in Wales, given the Assembly’s remit. And Welsh political discourse has been less seduced by this model than its Westminster counterpart. Long may it stay that way.
Dr. Gideon Calder
Social Ethics Research Group
School of Health & Social Sciences
University of Wales, Newport
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