The "rigid" British social class myth

by Peter Saunders

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 above is a press release from the Centre for Independent Studies, dated November 5. Enquiries to Snail mail: PO Box 92, St Leonards, NSW, Australia 1590.

1 comment:

  1. I am sending these few lines from Spain, and I should say I do not have a deep knowledge about English social classes. Nevertheless, I have enjoyed your article and I agree about the start in school or family children should have. We have to encourage children to succeed in whatever they intend to do, study and work hard in this case.
    But is this valid in the credit crunch time we happen to live at the moment?
    Reyes Calzada


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