Saturday, 15 December 2007

UK Society: Divided and Lacking Social Mobility

Regular readers of this blog will know I am acutely aware of the difficulties of British society and how a lot of these are driven by corrosive attitudes and obsessions, notably over property and the very self-centred, consumerist attitudes so prevalent in the UK today. To some extent, people in Britain have been lulled into a false belief that the social divisions of the past have begun to be eroded. Apparently in the 1970s (a time when sociology was really developing as a research area) the UK was one of the most socially divided industrialised countries in the world. This was despite having had free education for a century and a welfare state since the 1940s.

One key difference between the UK and neighbouring states in Europe was that the UK had neither had a revolution nor had it had suffered the upheaval of either being occupied by a foreign power or being under a dictatorship. All of these factors disrupted the societies across Europe. Ironically people from ordinary backgrounds stood more chance of advancement under a Fascist, Nazi or Communist dictatorship than they did in British democracy. Partly, as I have mentioned before, this is because the UK is not a true democracy, half of its parliament is unelected and the prime positions in the Civil Service, Government, Military and its established Church, go to people (still predominantly men) who have attended a small number of select fee-paying schools called 'Public Schools' (ironically very exclusive and certainly not public). The next layers beneath the highest in each branch of British public life are held by people who attended less exclusive and a bit cheaper private schools. The highest that a person who has gone to a free state school can rise is to something like a senior doctor in a hospital or a chief constable (i.e. in charge of all the police of one county) or a brigadier in the Army or possibly their Naval equivalent (the airforce, the RAF, is more exclusive). Given that you have to be put on the lists of these schools the moment you are born and the annual fees are far higher than the average annual salary of people living in the UK, unless you have very wealthy parents you stand no chance of getting in and thus no chance of moving into the higher levels of British society.

Now, I accept that other European states have nobility and very wealthy families, the UK is not unique in this, it also applies to countries elsewhere in the world. However, if one looks at comparator industrialised countries, there are exclusive schools, but, say for example the Grandes Ecoles in France, even the poorest, intelligent pupil can get into them. In countries without a monarch, an ordinary person can rise to be president. In addition, middle ranking people who in the UK may never rise above being a low-level lawyer or civil servant or doctor or bank worker, similarly can reach higher positions. This means there is something to aspire to and you are not ruled out of so many areas the moment you are born. The USA has also suffered from social division. It has wealthy families who are politically powerful, but again it has structures that allow people to advance, no matter what their backgrounds. Show me the black people in the UK who have attained the level of power that Colin Powell or Condaleeza Rice have obtained; this is despite black people coming to Britain for at least the last 2000 years. In public service, the military and so on, as an ordinary person you can rise in a way that you could never do in the UK.

What the UK resembles is the post-Communist states like Russia, Poland, China (which is now really only Communist in name) where influence in political circles and so access to money from the break-up of the state machinery can give you an unfair advantage. To some extent social mobility in these states for those coming up in enterprise is currently greater than such small business people struggling in the UK. Many successful British entrepreneurs come from outside the UK especially from Eastern Europe and the Indian sub-continent, rather than from within Britian. That is because they can draw on resources unfettered by British constraints. In addition they have often had access to the best education that their British equivalents are denied. This is one explanation for the growing percentage of people from an Asian background working as doctors in the UK. Ordinary white and black British people simply do not have access to sufficiently high level schooling to even aspire to be doctors and the wealthy whites in Britain lack the altruistic attitudes of their Asian-background counterparts to do something as beneficial as care for people.

The sharp divisions in Britain were exacerbated in the 1980s. Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister 1979-90) infamously said there was no society, just families and individuals. However, her policies reinforced the social divisions in the UK. She was the daughter of a grocer and had only attended grammar school (i.e. a free school, though in the upper educational category) in her youth and yet made it to be prime minister, something I doubt will be repeated in the UK in coming decades. Her obsession with property-ownership wrecked the state housing sector (which in Scotland had housed 60% of the population) and pushed people to own property or to be seen as irrelevant. The rise in house prices increased homelessness, rising the numbers of people living on the streets or temporary accommodation and also removed from many working class people affordable housing permitting them the money to spend on improvement for themselves and their children, especially in terms of education. In addition, Thatcher scrapped grants for students to attend university substituting loans instead. Working class people have less access to credit and a greater aversion to debt than people in other classes so again it closed down what had been becoming at least one way for working class people to get on through education. This was worsened anyway by budget cuts on education and pressure on local authorities who ran schools at the time to cut their expenditure too. Certain schools were encouraged to leave the local authority system and it was these elite 'grant-maintained' schools which received direct, generous government money whilst the so-called 'bog standard' schools that most children attend could only survive by not repairing buildings, by selling off playing fields and fund-raising events.

Whilst the UK, like the rest of the industrialised world was facing shifts in industrial patterns, the economic policies of Thatcher led to a very abrupt closure of manufacturing industries leading to unemployment of over 4 million people (about 16% of the working population of the time). Whilst work in manufacturing and related industries, such as fuel resources, was varied there were many skilled jobs that had paid well in the 1960s and 1970s. In their place came low-skilled, low-paid service jobs, so cutting household incomes among working class people and also destroying the ladder for improvement through skill development and hard work. In a call centre you come and leave without having gained new skills and there is little chance for promotion. Similarly the casualisation of labour has increased with large numbers of even office workers being on short-term contracts. If they lack the skills needed when a company changes methods they are simply laid off and other workers employed. Businesses constantly whine that they want schools and universities to train workers to exactly match the skills they need; yet seem entirely unwilling to see a role for themselves in that process, again another difference from comparator countries, notably France and Germany.

Thus, through the 1980s the few opportunities for a solid base for the working class (the majority of the population) and their chances to rise up the societal ladder were pretty quickly smashed. John Major (Prime Minister 1990-7) who worked as an ordinary bank manager and rose to the highest position in the UK liked to talk of the UK's 'classless society' (for those unfamiliar with UK terminology 'class' in UK usually refers to socio-economic groupings, commonly working, middle and upper classes and sub-divisions in these; since the 1980s we have also had the 'underclass', people who are deemed to have dropped out the bottom of society and are usually homeless). In the early days of his regime Blair also spoke in the same terms, though it is notable that it did not survive his first time of office (1997-2001). It is clear that any reference to classlessness was a fantasy. Unemployment has fallen in the UK since the end of the 1980s, but the restructured economy is still very rigid in preventing people rising socially.

Why am I going on about all of this now? Well, it is because some people have been shocked by evidence that has appeared this week that brings how the reality of it. At the age of 5 the most intelligent children from poor backgrounds score far higher than the least intelligent children from rich backgrounds in terms of communication skills and other scholarly measures. By the age of 7 however, the least intelligent children from rich backgrounds exceed even the most intelligent children from poor backgrounds and from then on the poor children never catch up ever again and throughout the rest of their schooling never match less intelligent rich children. Partly this stems from the way British schooling works with the emphasis on projects and getting internet resources; the heavy encouragement to take additional classes outside of school hours and increasingly that children need to have home tutors too, all of these things are beyond my budget (and as I keep saying I earn 50% more than the average annual salary so am far from 'poor') let alone the average working class family's resources. With secondary schools being increasingly selective, when they reach 11, the poor children lose out in entrance tests to rich children who on an objective basis are less intelligent than them. Again partly this is because the tests are focused on knowledge common in the middle and upper social classes rather than the experience of the working class. It is not surprising then that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge (reckoned to be the best universities in the UK) still take over 47% of their students from private schools (there are about 2000 private schools in the UK out of a total of around 30,000 schools of all kinds; primary schools tend to be much smaller so there are 22,300 of these whether state or private alone). More politicians for example have gone to either Oxford or Cambridge than any other university, so being blocked from them means you are often effectively blocked from parliament and alternative routes of the past such as coming through a trade union to being a member of parliament have been weakened as trade unions were hammered under Thatcher and have haemorraged members in an era when people are on short-term contracts and fearful of not being re-employed if they are politically active.

What has alarmed the government (and it is good to see that they are alarmed rather complacent) is that despite all the policies of the last decade under a Labour government (which coming from a Socialist background is supposed to be equality of opportunities for all) and an awareness of the need to challenge social division at least going back to the Labour governments of 1964-70, as a UK citizen it is as unlikely that your standing in society will improve during your life as it would have been 33 years ago. You could walk into a maternity ward at a hospital today and accurately predict the kind of work all the babies there will be doing in 2025 just by looking at their parents. (In fact whether you chose a state-run hospital or a private one would give you a good clue for a start). None of those babies will be able to improve on the level of income or education that their parents have.

Recently there was commentary on the novel by Aldous Huxley 'Brave New World' (1932) which tends to get overlooked when referring to dystopian novels in favour of '1984' by George Orwell (1948). However, the novel shows a society driven by consumerism and in which happiness comes in the form of a pill. For this posting, though, is the fact that all children born in the UK of the novel (they are all test-tube babies) are categorised from birth into a range from Alpha to Epsilon depending on their mental abilities. That is effectively what we have in the UK today, except that an Alpha-intelligence baby from a poor family will be beaten in life by a rich Epsilon-intelligence baby. Our current dystopia is not even based on how beneficial a child can be to our society in terms of aptitude the way Huxley's was, it is far more arbitrary than that, it is simply based on who your parents are, nothing more.

Finally I have come to understand why in my teenage years my father encouraged me so strongly to emigrate. By then it was too late I was infected with the British fear of the unknown and instead shackled myself to a society in which I can never have any better standing than my father did. In fact in terms of income, adjusting for inflation, I earn much less than he did when he was my age.

If birth is the only qualification for success in the UK no wonder we are lagging behind rival countries. We effectively exclude millions of talented people from ever getting into a position to use their talents. How many people working in call centres in the UK, could instead be running successful businesses or government departments, if they had simply been born to richer parents? The UK would rather adhere to almost feudal mentalities than shake these up to benefit itself. I recognise that other industrialised countries do not have all the solutions, but if I was going to have a child I would want them to be born in one of those countries and at least feel that they could get as far as they have the ability to do so rather than being held back by the unbreakable caste system which denies them so many opportunities simply because of who I am rather than who the child is.

No comments: