Alan Milburn, the government’s paradoxically named ‘social mobility tsar’, last week released the first annual report of his Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission. The findings are not surprising: inequality is getting worse; the government will miss its child poverty targets by up to two million; 275,000 more children are now in absolute poverty, two-thirds of them in working households; youth unemployment is at a 20-year high. The report concludes:
We see a danger that social mobility, having risen in the middle of the last century then flatlined in the end, could go into reverse in the first part of this century.
This is bad news for Nick Clegg, who declared in 2011 that the ultimate test of the coalition was whether it increased social mobility – this on top of the spurious idea that increasing mobility rather than reducing income inequality, let alone general financial inequality, should be the proper aim of progressives. Clegg’s attempt to square progressive feelings with regressive policies was bound to fail. The report is the first government-sponsored source of evidence that it is.
Clegg has said the report ‘makes some debatable assertions’. He should count himself lucky; if the commission had used inequality as a measure, the conclusions would have been far more damaging. Inequality in Britain declined steadily from the late 1930s until 1976. Since then it has been rising, though the rate briefly slowed during the New Labour years. We are now at our most unequal since 1940.
The Milburn commission proposes putting more of the burden of fiscal consolidation on pensioners, paying a living wage, improving vocational education and introducing universal child care: all useful measures, all unthinkable under the coalition. It’s a sign of how far Clegg has come that most of them were once Lib Dem policy.
Anyone who actually cares about social mobility and inequality (which should be all of us, however self-interested, since everyone benefits from a more equal society in terms of lower crime, better health, lower unemployment and higher levels of happiness) faces a larger problem: a collapse in the idea of what the state is for. Once upon a time, reducing inequality was a central concern of the state, considered a good thing by governments of all stripes. Now we have one small piece of government that splits hairs and measures mobility.
Since the 1980s, we have engaged in what Tony Judt called ‘collective forgetting’, coming to believe that the state was born bloated and private has always been best. I was recently dismayed to have to explain to a group of young people that the utility companies were nationalised in the 1930s and 1940s precisely to address the kind of price-fixing and price-gouging that they appear to accept with a shrug as the modus operandi of corporate Britain. Faced with the impunity of the corporate sector, many young people today dream not of taming it, but of joining it (that’s social mobility for you).
Meanwhile, in place of the welfare state, we now have the transactional state. The job of government is to balance the books and deliver services. Political parties compete on competence and efficiency, not on any vision of what constitutes a good or fair society. The terms of political debate are economic (debt, deficits, cuts), not moral or, even, in the old sense of the word, political, between competing classes and interest groups. The framing of our current politics, the yardstick by which all other considerations are judged and excluded, is an overriding obsession with how to instrumentalise economic growth.
But growth has very little to do with inequality or, as David Cameron likes to remind us, happiness. When George Osborne says that we can’t afford to help everyone, or when Clegg says that the coalition has done more to create an ‘open society’ than New Labour ‘managed at a time of plenty’, we should remember that the welfare state was built on the back of a postwar national debt twice as large as the present one; that, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrate in The Spirit Level, all the social ills condemned by governments (crime, poor health, unemployment) have been empirically shown to be best and most cheaply combatted through broad-based efforts at reducing inequality; and that, despite the strikes, inflation and IMF bailout, 1976 regularly comes out top in surveys of when people in Britain were happiest.