Social mobility has become a controversial topic, amid a contested landscape in which different understandings both clash and intersect. The resignation of the chair of the Social Mobility Commission is yet another landmark in the problematisation of social mobility in the UK. It prompts questions about the Commission’s future and what social mobility can and should mean in government policy now, argues Joseph Maslen.
Katharine Birbalsingh has, after only 14 months in the role, chosen to leave her position as chair of the Social Mobility Commission. Explaining her decision, she cited her reputation for controversial opinions on several topics, such as why relatively few girls opt to study physics at higher levels compared with boys. However, and importantly, she also referred to the controversy generated by her inaugural speech of June 2022 (discussed in a previous post). In that speech, she endorsed a “smaller steps” approach to social mobility, alongside the established “big leap” model.
Birbalsingh’s approach, and reactions to it, have a deeper and more intricate substructure than might initially be perceived. There are intellectual and emotional reasons why her stance has been so provocative, to the point where, according to Birbalsingh, “I am still to this day attacked for my apparently abhorrent views on social mobility”. If the question of social mobility appears to revolve around the dignity and status of the working class, it also has the potential to pierce the self-image of those viewing it from other vantage points, higher up the social scale.
Upon resigning, Birbalsingh accused the media of insistently misreporting her as an opponent of working-class aspiration. Relevant here is the Daily Telegraph, whose online headline at the time (for which it subsequently apologised) ascribed to Birbalsingh a view that “working class people should aim ‘lower’ than Oxbridge”. Birbalsingh’s conclusion was that such reactions had done fatal damage to the public’s perceptions of the Commission’s agenda.
Three views of social mobility that have prevalence in UK political discourse can help to explain what lies at the root of the antipathy that Birbalsingh has perceived.
The socialist view
The socialist view is the notion, crystallised by the early twentieth-century Scottish socialist John Maclean (and once quoted in a 2013 article by Diane Reay), of working-class people rising as a class, rather than out of their class. A resonant word, which is used in Tim Shipman’s book Fallout to describe Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal, is Lennonism. Named after John Lennon and particularly his song “Imagine” (and also of course named vis-a-vis Leninism), Lennonism is the dream of a better world; a dream which includes world peace and also entails the comprehensive availability and equality of higher-quality living experiences for everyone in society. In this vision, working-class people collectively gain and move upwards together.
This position is opposed to the “meritocratic” ideal that we have experienced for decades in our educational history: the phenomenon of particular disadvantaged individuals being selected as talented exceptions, carried upwards by such means as the 11+ or the Assisted Places Scheme, as well as by prestigious schools’ (and companies’) own systems of talent-spotting. Of more recent pertinence, it similarly departs from the New Labour “opportunity society” that had promised to widen access to the professions and “put middle-class aspirations in the hands of working-class families”.
In a socialist vision, working-class people collectively gain and move upwards together.
The post-liberal view
The post-liberal view has much in common with the socialist view. However, it is perhaps more explicit in accepting the idea that there may be different social levels as well as different cultures: that people live in different communities and have different types of opportunities, may belong to different social groups or classes and live different types of lives. Where it does have something in common with Lennonism, and perhaps even goes beyond it, is in questioning the universal validity of middle-class ideals. In this communitarian perspective, the bourgeois liberal ideal of (social and geographical) free movement seems mistaken. Such freedom does not, in this view, necessarily push an individual forwards towards their best possible life: for many (even, perhaps, all) people, the good life is constituted by community; being situated “somewhere”, at home in the place where they feel a sense of belonging. Therefore, like the socialist view of social mobility, this view is concerned with the alienation that may be experienced by individuals who ascend to an unfamiliar social setting.
Birbalsingh, in her inaugural speech, broadly took note of this view, indicating the potential for people to become richer and more fulfilled within their existing communities. (“If a child of parents who were long-term unemployed, or who never worked, gets a job in their local area [my italics], isn’t that a success worth celebrating?”) The wider “levelling-up” strategy of the post-2019 Conservative government was similarly framed around the notion of “Stay local, go far”. Like the socialist view, this vision provides an alternative to the individual “long-distance” social (and often geographical) mobility promised in New Labour’s vision. Where it differs is in its more modest approach to equality. Echoing George Orwell in valorising the righteousness of manual work, it sees benefit in an individual simply functioning better within the confines of their traditional social parameters.
The bourgeois view
Finally, we come to what may be termed the bourgeois view; a view which lies in the shadows of the type of misrepresentation which Birbalsingh perceived. The first two views mentioned above both question the values associated with the meritocratic concept of social mobility. The bourgeois view appears to be meritocratic, outraged at Birbalsingh’s apparent suggestion that working-class people should, as the saying goes, “know their place”. It centres on the Telegraph, whose print-edition article (“Little steps ‘are key to social mobility’”) on the day of her inaugural speech started with the sentence “People from poor backgrounds should take ‘smaller steps’ rather than [my italics] aiming for Oxbridge, the Government’s social mobility tsar will say today”.
If we consider the Telegraph’s provocative misrepresentation of Birbalsingh, firstly, there were basic journalistic mechanics at play. Written before the speech and presumably without access to the script, the article exaggerated a point made in the speech’s press release that social mobility was not necessarily “a caretaker’s daughter going to Oxbridge”. However, leaving aside the authorial intention of the Telegraph journalist, the intriguing question is why such a concept would be so triggering for sections of the press and public, to the extent that it would undermine Birbalsingh’s leadership. If partly it was faux-outrage – opportunistic sniping at Birbalsingh by the Twitterati – perhaps it was nonetheless true that a genuine sting could be caused by questioning the established logic of Oxbridge as a universal goal of social climbing.
It is no surprise that the de-centring of the dreaming spires should be posed as an appalling affront to good, honest working-class people.
Here, we may conject the thought-universe of the Telegraph; the characteristic newspaper, perhaps, of the “new squirearchy” who have won a traditional slice of rural and semi-rural English gentility. Within this universe, social justice occurs when subordinated groups are able to fight their way up the social hierarchy that the Telegraph reader has already climbed. Those consuming this discourse (and gratified by it, given that it reflects their worldview) immerse themselves in a version of reality in which the ethos of opportunity, aspiration and risk that has served them so well is spread across society.
So, it is no surprise that the de-centring of the dreaming spires (Oxbridge playing a quite vivid role in this discourse) should be posed as an appalling affront to good, honest working-class people. Yet, at the same time, it is perhaps quite disingenuous.
Note: the above draws on the author’s published work in The Political Quarterly.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Image credit: Photo by Ian Lindsay from Pixabay