David Kynaston

Social mobility has become a meaningless mantra

Equality of opportunity has been the watchword for British politicians since the 1980s — with laughable results, says Selina Todd

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‘Whatever your background,’ Margaret Thatcher told the Sun’s readers in 1983, she was determined that ‘you have a chance to climb to the top’. So, too, Tony Blair in 2004 (‘I want to see social mobility a dominant factor of British life’), David Cameron in 2015 (‘Britain has the lowest social mobility in the developed world — we cannot accept that’) and Theresa May in 2016 (‘I want Britain to be a place where advantage is based on merit not privilege’). Put another way, for the best part of four decades equality of outcome was largely on the back burner; equality of opportunity was, at least in theory, the name of the game, and social mobility became one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie causes, like corporate social responsibility in the business world, which it was almost rude not to sign up to and utter warm words about.

Perhaps no longer. The world of Covid, exposing huge material inequalities, has underscored the importance of collective rather than individual endeavour. The influential writings of David Goodhart have privileged the ‘somewhere’ hewers and drawers over the ‘nowhere’ brainboxes. Michael Sandel’s much discussed The Tyranny of Merit is firmly in the tradition of Michael Young’s dystopian The Rise of the Meritocracy, which in 1958 popularised the term and warned against an arrogant, heartless, self-serving new elite. The Social Mobility Commission barely makes a dent in the national conversation, let alone policy makers; and the one-time Red Wall votes happily enough for its Old Etonian betters.

But irrespective of how the issue plays out in the 2020s, the great strength of Selina Todd’s Snakes and Ladders, a history of social mobility (or its lack) between the 1880s and the present, is the richness of her presentation of it as a lived experience, whether upwards or downwards, and of course sometimes both during a lifetime.

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