Blahspeak

Stefan Collini

  • Unleashing Aspiration: The Final Report of the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions
    Cabinet Office, 167 pp, July 2009
  • British Social Attitudes: The 26th Report
    National Centre for Social Research, 294 pp, £50.00, January 2010, ISBN 978 1 84920 387 6
  • An Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK: Report of the National Equality Panel
    Government Equalities Office, 457 pp, January 2010

Historians have a taste for labels that capture the character or spirit of a period – The Bleak Age, The Age of Equipoise or, in a recent work on the interwar period, The Morbid Age. It will serve early 21st-century Britain right if it becomes known as ‘The Aspirational Age’.

To those who can use the word ‘aspirational’ without wincing, this might seem high praise. It connotes endeavour, making something of oneself, trying – as an older idiom had it – to improve one’s station in life. Glossed in this way, the term might seem blameless, a near universal human disposition, but in the past few years ‘aspirational’ has been used to pick out something more specific, something symptomatic of a particular moment in the development of social attitudes in Britain. There is now, according to some commentators, an ‘aspirational class’, rather uncertainly located within a traditional hierarchical social structure, but composed of people who probably had working-class parents, who hope to have professional or managerial-class children, and who want more of ‘the good things of life’. But they want, it is said, to attain these goals without taking on the trappings and snobberies that historically went along with moving into a higher social class. An edge of ressentiment lurks under ‘aspiration’, not the old ‘Jack’s as good as his master’ kind, which acknowledged social position while claiming it was not the whole of life, but a more relativist kind, confident that ‘no one has the right to say what someone else ought to do or think.’ Any other view of the matter is damned as ‘elitist’. As these attitudes assert and impose themselves, we are encouraged to talk not merely of an aspirational class but of an ‘aspirational society’ at once insistently egalitarian and aggressively competitive.

Politicians of all parties are committed to giving the aspirational society more of what it is thought to aspire to; indeed, an inflationary tendency in our public language has seen these objects of desire elevated to the status of a ‘right’. This is partly the verbal flotsam thrown up by the market populism of the Thatch-Lab pact of the mid-1990s. But it also has to be seen as evidence of a deeper shift in the ways we conceive of our social relations. The emphasis on ‘aspiration’ is one symptom of the abandonment of what have been, for the best part of a century, the goals of progressive politics, since, as an ideal, the ‘aspirational society’ expresses a corrosively individualist conception of life. Three recent semi-official publications throw some light on the relation between this conception and the reality of contemporary British society.

In January 2009 the government announced the creation of a Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, chaired by Alan Milburn, a cabinet minister during the Blair years, and it has published its conclusions in a report entitled Unleashing Aspiration. The panel’s task was to ‘help ensure that everyone, including those on moderate and middle incomes as well as the wealthiest, has a fair chance to access careers in high-status professions’. Pause for a moment to consider the statistical absurdity of the euphemism ‘moderate’, then focus on the circumscription of the task itself. The start and end points are given and apparently immutable: people come from very different economic backgrounds and the desirable professions are ‘high-status’, so the issue is how to ensure a ‘fair’ chance for those trying to get from the one to the other. Although both the title and the remit of the panel appear laudable – who, after all, would want to stand up for unfair access to the professions? – they are deeply ideological, grounded in the politics of market populism. And make no mistake, though the panel emphasises its independence from government, this report is all about making the right noises and promoting popular changes (i.e. politics) rather than deepening our understanding of social processes (i.e. social science).

In one of those phrases we have heard so frequently that we no longer register their absurdity, the Milburn report says we need to see how parents ‘could be empowered with a new right to choose a better school for their children’. What does this actually mean? A ‘right’ is something universal, something everyone in the relevant category – in this case, parents – has. But if all parents have a right to choose a ‘better’ school for their children, won’t we have to maintain in each locality a number of ghostly ‘worse’ schools to which no children are actually sent, whose function is to show that some schools are ‘better’ than others? This rhetorical pattern has become depressingly familiar: each individual has a ‘right’ to something ‘better’, where ‘better’ tends, in practice, to mean ‘better than someone else’s’. Over and over, the Milburn report uses the rhetoric of a ‘race’ in which ‘everyone’ is ‘entitled’ to have a ‘fair chance’ of winning. But if there are winners there must be losers, and sporting metaphors such as this one are intended to deflect attention from the basic fact that the most important determinants of who ends up in which category are not the miraculously independent qualities of ‘ability’ or ‘effort’ on the part of the individual, but the pre-existing distribution of wealth and power in society.

The ideological function of this language is revealed most clearly in the metaphor of the ‘level playing field’. ‘We will not create a mobile society,’ the Milburn report says, ‘unless we can create a level playing field of opportunities.’ We know, or think we know, more or less what the phrase means. It’s a way of saying that everyone should have a chance to compete on equal terms from the start, without things being tilted either against them or in their favour. But language carries its own histories, which come to bear without our intending or even being aware of it. Sports that are contested on a ‘playing field’, we might point out, are nearly always between two teams; indeed, the metaphor suggests something as old-fashioned as class conflict. More important, what happens on the playing field, however level, is heavily determined by things that happen off it. Recruitment, wealth, facilities, time, training – there’s almost no end to it. Taking a spirit level to every inch of the pitch won’t do anything to even up a contest between Manchester United and a local pub team.

By the time the teams get onto their level playing fields, unfairness has already done the greater part of its work. Moreover, such sporting metaphors conjure up a very simple, end-stopped activity as a model for the vast complexity of social life. Becoming a successful barrister, say, is not like running a hundred metres or kicking a ball into a net. What is a ‘fair’ advantage? Being confident and being able to speak clearly may be helpful qualifications for a barrister who has to lead in a crowded court, but we have to ask where these capacities come from, who is likely to have them, and so on. These are all familiar arguments, or at least they were. I’m rehearsing them here only because the relentless cultivation of individualism by governments of both parties over the past 30 years has begun to make them seem extreme or obstructive.

But it is in its handling of ‘social mobility’ that the report is at its sloppiest and most symptomatic. The phrase ‘social mobility’ is now deployed to refer to one or more of the following: the trajectory of individuals away from a starting point defined by their parents’ socio-economic position; the changing patterns of advantage and disadvantage between social groups in comparison to patterns among the previous generation; the changing structure of employment or rewards in a society across generations such that a larger proportion of the population comes to be in ‘higher’ occupations.

Clearly, these changes do not entail one another, and one may take place at the expense of the others. A common criticism of the ‘scholarship boy’ model of individual mobility was that it left the relative position of the social classes unchanged, even reinforcing existing hierarchies by siphoning off some of the outstanding talent in the lower classes into the higher classes. Conversely, the third type of social mobility, structural change in employment over time, may result in, say, many manual jobs being replaced by white-collar jobs but without any significant alteration in the relative status and scale of rewards of most of the class filling those jobs. In 1951, one in every eight jobs was classified as ‘professional’; by 2001, more than one in three jobs were so classified, but the relative position of the groups filling the various levels of job may not have changed very much.

Colloquially, and in practice if the Milburn report is to be believed, social mobility is always upwards. But since many of the things being ‘competed’ for are positional goods, upward mobility for some can only be achieved at the expense of downward mobility for others. The Milburn report’s obsession with the question of who fills what it calls the ‘top jobs’ deflects attention from this. If more of those jobs are filled by the children of parents whose social class practically never filled such jobs in the past, then, we are told, we have social mobility. The report is entirely silent about what happens to the people who would have occupied these jobs but have now been pushed out by the upwardly mobile. And the report is almost entirely silent about what happens to all those left behind in their original class after the ‘talented’ and ‘able’ have sped off to success. The Milburn report seems to envisage society as a lifelong eleven-plus, but with the majority ending up in grammar school occupations and the minority in secondary modern occupations.

The picture of the future in Unleashing Aspiration is one in which nearly everybody gets a better job and some people get a much better job. ‘At its simplest, social mobility means better jobs for each generation, so that our children can do better than us.’ It manages, or tries to manage, this juggling act by fudging the senses of social mobility. Some of the time, it seems to recognise that what is involved is a structural change in the economy, with manual and routine jobs being replaced by managerial and professional jobs. This is said to be what happened in ‘the first great wave of social mobility’ (roughly the 1950s to the 1970s). And this is what will happen in the near future: we are told that ‘up to nine new jobs in ten created over the next decade will be in professional and managerial sectors’ and that ‘seven million new professionals may be needed.’

On this showing, the Milburn report’s problem will solve itself: if these really are new jobs, then there will have to be massive recruitment of children from outside the professional classes. Of course, as a general mechanism for social mobility, this is inherently inflationary. In subsequent rounds, the number of new professional jobs that would have to be created to exceed the supply of professional-class offspring available to fill them increases exponentially, and very soon social mobility comes to an end because everybody fills a job at the same elevated socio-economic level occupied by their parents (and there’s nobody to empty the dustbins). In general, however, the report’s attention is not focused on this kind of structural change, but on the characteristics of the individuals recruited to fill the ‘top jobs’ in the existing occupational structure. The task is to make sure these don’t go to the kinds of people who used to get them. That would be the ‘closed-shop society’. They must go to ‘able’ people from groups who didn’t use to have them. That is the ‘aspirational society’.

The mixture of bounciness and vacuity indicates that the report is written for the most part in Blairspeak – or, since this idiom is now general not individual, ‘blahspeak’. In blahspeak, social mobility is equated with realising ‘pent-up aspiration’. One of the absurdities here is that the second phrase refers to subjective experience, the first to an objective pattern. People may realise pent-up aspiration in all kinds of ways without altering their position in the social structure in the slightest. This slide into the subjective once again reveals the individualist assumptions behind the Thatch-Lab pact, signalling the transition from do-good to feel-good. Social life is a benign competition in which most shall have prizes.

The report never confronts these contradictions. It acknowledges that the idea of a ‘meritocracy’ as coined by Michael Young had ‘downsides as well as upsides’, and that ‘others point out that social mobility cuts both ways – the more there is, the greater the likelihood is that, as some people climb up the social ladder, others fall down it.’ But the very next sentence goes on: ‘The panel takes a different view. We believe that a socially mobile society is not just a laudable objective. It is a necessity if the UK is to flourish – economically as well as socially.’ The panel doesn’t argue against the position stated in the previous sentence: it simply ‘takes a different view’. But the use of the verb ‘point out’ in that earlier sentence indicates that this isn’t something about which a ‘different view’ can simply be ‘taken’. What those others were pointing out was a matter of logic: where positional goods are concerned, no one can go up without others going down. But that’s so off-message; clearly, we need to ‘take a different view’.

The Milburn report talks the language of optimism, but its assumptions actually reveal a deep pessimism. It is a pessimism, first, about there being any way in which society collectively, acting primarily through the state, can reshape its underlying socio-economic structure. Staggering inequalities of wealth are simply taken to be part of the natural order. Where it used to be said that ‘the poor are always with us,’ eternal existence is now granted to the rich as well. The market distributes wealth; government then tries to see ‘fair play’ in the resulting (destructively unequal) situation. And it is a pessimism, too, about there being any way for people to agree on what is valuable in life other than in terms of market-modelled consumer satisfaction. The only goals people may be assumed to share are a desire to ‘get on’, to move up some imaginary ‘social ladder’. When these two forms of pessimism are combined, we get the hollow activism of ‘fair access’. Everyone has an equal right to try to get what they think they want. Wants can’t be criticised: that would be elitist. The market cannot be gainsaid: that would reduce prosperity (itself an implausible and undemonstrated contention). Prosperity is the only agreed good, and it trumps all other considerations. We are all, apparently, believers in what George Bernard Shaw once dubbed ‘the Gospel of Getting On’.

How, on the other hand, can we know with any reliability what ‘we’ all ‘believe’ in? This is what social surveys are supposed, not least by politicians, to tell us. Among these surveys, British Social Attitudes is pre-eminent. Published annually since 1983, it claims to be the ‘authoritative guide to public opinion in modern Britain’. Its ‘findings give a voice to the general public, and paint a picture of what Britain really thinks and feels, in all its richness and diversity’. What the 2010 edition tells us is that in the past dozen years ‘the public has taken a decisive turn to the right’ and that ‘the public, including Labour supporters themselves, no longer has as much belief in the importance of equality and of government action to secure it as it once did.’

The contributors to the survey are social scientists trained in immensely sophisticated statistical techniques, but there is no way round the fact that the eliciting and recording of social attitudes is an inescapably verbal business. Even leaving aside philosophical questions about the extent to which attitudes are constituted linguistically, the simple practical point is that all the information contained here comes from asking people questions. There is no such thing as a transparent and neutral medium in which to do this (though social scientists sometimes appear to believe there is): we have to use the everyday vocabulary of a natural language, and we are thus immediately caught up in the not wholly controllable operations of meaning and reference, tone and register, association and resonance, which it would take a reader of Empsonian delicacy to begin to do justice to.

For example, in one survey reported here, respondents were asked: ‘Do you think it is wrong or not wrong … a married person having sexual relations with someone other than his or her husband or wife?’ The answers are said to reveal ‘the acceptability of cheating on a partner’. Well, maybe, but ‘cheating’ introduces associations of covertness and betrayal that are not necessarily triggered by the original question. That question doesn’t specify whether the husband or wife knows about the sexual activity, or whether it is sanctioned or encouraged by them. Some respondents might think it was acceptable for a husband or wife to have sexual relations with other people if their marriage no longer, for whatever reason, provided them with sexual satisfaction, while at the same time being very censorious about ‘cheating’ on a partner. (All the questions in this survey, incidentally, assume heterosexual coupledom as the norm.) Others might think that where having sex is concerned, the crucial distinction is between being ‘married’ and having a ‘partner’. Others might detect a moralistic impulse behind the asking of the questions and respond negatively as a result.

At one point, two statements from different surveys are equated: ‘People who want to have children ought to get married,’ and ‘It makes no difference to children whether their parents are married to each other or just living together.’ But, as they admit, the wording in each case produces a different set of associations. Some people might rebel against the prescriptivism of the first question, but feel that the second is too open-ended to be agreed with. Other respondents might tick the ‘disagree’ box in the second case because they think that bitterly unhappy couples might be less likely to separate if they were married, so that having married parents is likely to make a negative difference to children. But their answer will have been aggregated as characteristic of those who hold a ‘traditional’ view of the family. And so on. There is no way to escape the web of language.

What kinds of evidence are the judgments about the British public’s shift to the right based on? One set of data indicates whether respondents agreed or disagreed with statements about welfare benefits such as ‘If welfare benefits weren’t so generous people would learn to stand on their own two feet’ or ‘Many people who get social security don’t really deserve any help.’ The responses show that, under New Labour, the numbers disagreeing with these propositions have fallen fairly sharply. In 1994, 52 per cent disagreed with the first of these statements; by 2008 only 20 per cent did, while the numbers disagreeing with the second proposition fell from 50 per cent to 27 per cent. These figures can be interpreted in various ways: they may, for example, be related to the actual level of benefits, or to the numbers in the population claiming them, or to the degree of prosperity enjoyed by the respondents themselves, and so on. The authors of the survey plausibly interpret these and similar figures as showing that the public’s attitudes are in considerable measure shaped by government policy and rhetoric. But it is also evident that the questions cast the choices in starkly individualistic and moralistic terms. When a statement describes the existing benefits as ‘generous’ and characterises the alternative as ‘standing on their own two feet’, it requires a certain analytical effort by the respondent not to be carried along by the powerful evaluative weighting. It’s possible that many of those who say they agree with the statements in the survey might also agree with a differently worded statement which points towards opposite policy conclusions, such as: ‘Large-scale changes in the economy mean that some of the least well-off people are going to need welfare benefits at some point in their lives.’

We are told that in 1994 support for the government’s role in redistributing income was as high as 51 per cent, but by 2007 had fallen as low as 32 per cent (the financial crash has since driven it back up a little). At least, that was the proportion of respondents who said they agreed with the proposition that ‘Government should redistribute income from the better-off to those who are less well-off.’ Why would two-thirds of the population in such a grotesquely unequal society be against this? Do they think of themselves as the ‘better-off’ and thus as potential losers? Statistically, most of them must be wrong about that, and anyway, historically a lot of the better-off have been among the most ardent champions of redistribution: narrow economic self-interest does not dictate all views. Does ‘redistribute’ suggest something too indulgent as well as too literal, just giving a chunk of some people’s money to other people? Is the emphasis on ‘income’ significant, as being what individuals ‘earn’ as opposed to ‘wealth’, which they may acquire in various ways? Or is it simply that taking money away from those who have ‘earned’ it to give to those who haven’t seems unfair?

I have used quotation marks liberally as a reminder that such reported ‘attitudes’ depend on and are shaped by linguistic transactions. The rhetoric of our public debate is never ‘mere’ rhetoric: how we talk about these things comes to be part of what we think we ‘believe’ about them. In the case of the question about redistribution, the danger of such ‘findings’ is that a political party may conclude from them that it would be an electoral liability to support, say, a properly graduated tax system. Nonetheless, the change over time in positive or negative responses to the same questions is a significant finding of some kind, and it would be hard to disagree with the authors’ conclusion: ‘In repositioning itself ideologically New Labour helped ensure that the ideological terrain of British public opinion acquired a more conservative character.’

British Social Attitudes also inquires about many matters that are not conventionally thought of as ‘political’, and every so often one comes across a priceless nugget. Buried in a table in an appendix to a chapter on ‘Religious Faith and Contemporary Attitudes’ are a remarkable pair of numbers: 48 per cent of the British adult population believe in the existence of ‘heaven’, but only 28 per cent believe in the existence of ‘hell’. The discrepancy between these two statistics is puzzling, even alarming. Heaven and hell, after all, stand to each other conceptually as do ‘on’ and ‘off’. There have traditionally been Lib Dem kinds of places such as ‘purgatory’ and ‘limbo’, but these have functioned only as detention centres where various dodgy or unlucky characters are kept until their full entry visas come through. What do those people ‘believe’ who show up here as believing in heaven but not in hell? If everyone goes to heaven, then (other conceptual puzzles aside) doesn’t that turn us all into potential salvation-scroungers, deprived of the incentive to work for a better afterlife? But this is already over elaborate: all we know is that 72 per cent of respondents in this particular survey responded ‘no, probably not’ or ‘no, definitely not’ when confronted by the words ‘Do you believe in hell?’ (Those who answered ‘no, probably not’ presumably exercised some hermeneutic charity and took that answer to indicate a lack of certainty about hell’s existence rather than any uncertainty about their own beliefs.) Unfortunately, those who had already answered positively the question about ‘heaven’ were not then asked: ‘So what do you think happens to those people who don’t go to heaven?’

Instead of seeing the difference as a theological one between omni-salvationists and selective-salvationists, perhaps we should see these responses as saying something about people’s place on a ‘kind-tough’ range. A quarter of the population identifies as ‘tough’, believing that people should get what’s coming to them, while another quarter identifies as ‘kind’, wanting everyone at the end of the party to get a goody bag. And in this respect, the discrepancy between the answers, though theologically confused, may be deeply expressive of everyday social attitudes in contemporary Britain. Perhaps heaven functions as another metaphor for the kind of competition in which there are quite a lot of winners but absolutely no losers. Heaven is where the aspirational aspire to. Hell is a leftover from the old ‘closed-shop society’; ‘fair access’ has become the new theology. Upwards is, after all, the direction in which we all want to move: everyone has a right to a better afterlife.

The National Equality Panel’s Anatomy of Economic Inequality in the UK is all about the size of the goody bags we each get in the here and now. The panel, chaired by John Hills, was established in October 2008 under the aegis of the Government Equalities Office. The Hills report is everything the Milburn report is not: analytical, systematic and free from feel-good rhetoric. The panel was required to explore the ways in which socio-economic inequalities interact with the ‘strands’ defined by existing legislation about equality: gender, ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation, religion or belief, and age. But to do this, the panel first needed to establish a finely textured account of the forms and patterns of socio-economic inequality, using a vast mass of information, much of which, it claims, has never been analysed in this way before. This new picture of the economic structure of contemporary British society is all the more striking for being drawn up ‘against a backdrop of widespread public ignorance of the scale of inequality in the dimensions we have examined’.

The concentration of inequality at the top end of the scale is what emerges most clearly. The disparities of income among the bulk of society (those in work, at least) are certainly substantial, but they are not huge: 90 per cent of those in employment earn less than about £42,000; the median income is around £21,000, so even the 90th percentile is only earning twice the median. But where the seriously better-off are concerned, the report draws conclusions that should stop all current talk about ‘equality of opportunity’ in its tracks. To take one example: ‘Households in the top tenth have total wealth (including private pension rights) almost 100 times those at the cut-off for the bottom tenth.’ It is worth spelling out that the ‘cut-off for the bottom tenth’ is quite a long way from the very poorest in society; below that point the graph falls away very sharply. Nonetheless, the households in the top tenth are not just two or three times as wealthy (the sort of differential we are used to observing in everyday patterns of consumption), and not just ten times as wealthy (the sort of multiplier that makes for wholly different kinds of life-experience), but one hundred times as wealthy as those who are themselves some way from the bottom of the heap.

This is dramatic enough in itself, but the aggregate figures disguise an even more extraordinary disparity. Within that top tenth, the gap between the 91st and 100th percentiles is huge: the former have approximately four times the median total net wealth of the population, but the top 1 per cent have almost 13 times that median figure. It is repeatedly (and laconically) recorded that the income or wealth or other advantages of the top 1 per cent cannot be properly represented visually in this report because they would be ‘off the scale of the figure’. All the distribution charts and bar graphs have this absurd appearance, with a huge chimney at the right-hand side disappearing off the page.

The Hills report establishes incontrovertibly that, first, this has not always been the case, and second, it is not the case in other European countries. It shows a massive increase in income in the top tier of society since the 1980s, and quite staggering increases for a small (but still numerous) elite since the 1990s. The top 0.05 per cent of the population had seen its share of national income decline pretty steadily from 1937 till the 1970s, as might be expected as societies moved in a broadly social-democratic direction, but by 2000 its share was higher than it had been in 1937. And the very rich got richer faster than the merely wealthy. In the 1980s, every group in the top tenth of taxpayers increased their share of national income, but in the 1990s ‘the increase in the share of the top tenth was all accounted for by the top 0.1 per cent.’ Certain occupational groups stand out, and not just bankers, celebrities and footballers. Between 1999 and 2007, the real earnings of all full-time employees in Britain were almost static, but ‘the real earnings of the CEOs of the top 100 companies more than doubled (reaching £2.4 million per year), and those of the next 250 companies almost doubled (reaching £1.1 million).’ (According to a calculation by Compass, not quoted in the Hills report, the average ratio of CEO-to-employee pay was 47 in 1999; ten years later it was 128.) No less striking is that in other leading European countries the top 1 per cent’s share of the national income, having declined from the 1930s to the 1970s as in the UK, thereafter remained broadly flat. ‘The rise in the incomes of the very top,’ Hills concludes, ‘has not, therefore, been a global phenomenon.’ It has happened, of course, in the US, whose Croesus-versus-helot economic arrangements the UK seems more and more determined to ape.

This report is sobering, not least for those who think that the achieving of ‘equality’ principally involves combating inequalities between social groups defined in terms of gender, ethnicity and so on. However desirable that may be, the fact is that the ‘differences in outcomes between the more and less advantaged within each social group … are much greater than differences between groups.’ What the Hills report carefully and unanswerably documents – and what the Milburn report over and over again inadvertently reveals – is that class (in the sense of objective economic position) is a much more powerful determinant of life chances than any other variable, including gender and ethnicity. The Hills report also shows – this, once again, shouldn’t be at all surprising, but tends to get lost amid the muddy rhetoric of ‘opportunity’ and ‘fair access’ – that economic advantage and disadvantage are cumulative, in terms both of further economic advantage or disadvantage and of other kinds of social and cultural advantage or disadvantage. ‘Economic advantage and disadvantage reinforce themselves across the life cycle, and often on to the next generation.’

In its conclusion, the Hills report notes that ‘for people across a wide political spectrum’ the key question is whether individuals’ choices are made against ‘a background of equality of opportunity’. Its response is all the more crushing for its measured restraint: ‘The systematic nature of many of the differences we present, and the ways in which those advantages and disadvantages are reinforced across the life cycle, make it hard … to suggest that there is such a background of equality of opportunity, however defined.’ This means, in effect, that in a society as staggeringly unequal as contemporary Britain, all talk of ‘equality of opportunity’ can function only as an ideological smokescreen.

‘For many readers’, the panel reflects, ‘the sheer scale of the inequalities we have presented may have been shocking.’ In fact, no one who takes the trouble to read this report is liable to be shocked, especially if, as is likely, they have paid attention to the discussion of recent studies such as Polly Toynbee and David Walker’s Unjust Rewards (2008) or Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level (2009).[*] But what should remain shocking is the way in which the officially endorsed language of ‘aspiration’ occludes the stark facts of economic inequality in so much public debate. It is characteristic of the antinomies of individualism that the rhetorical stress on ‘choice’, ‘respect’ and so on has to be ramped up to compensate for the loss of any real prospect of altering the economic structure that shapes and sets limits to all agency. Moreover, as evidence from the US has long shown, in an aggressively individualist society, large numbers of people identify with what they dream of being able to do rather than with what they are likely to be able to do. (For many, that may be the only way to cope.) So, is the ‘aspirational society’ simply the most recent ideological reflex of the entrenched inequalities of market individualism?

Some light is thrown on the contradictions within the individualist position by its uncertainty as to whether the fundamental unit is the individual or something inexactly but emotively referred to as ‘the family’. This unsteadiness surfaces in attitudes towards inheritance tax. At the beginning of the 20th century, a tax on estates (‘death duties’) was the flagship of progressive politics. It was thought to be a singularly effective weapon in the attack on ‘privilege’, the visible accumulation of advantages that the rich passed on to their children. At the time, the case for such a tax drew strength from arguments about the need for rewards to be proportional to effort; indeed, the Victorian argument about the deleterious effect of doles on the ‘character’ of the poor had a parallel in the case of the children of the rich. Such taxes thereafter had a significant effect on the break-up of great landed estates, especially in times of economic downturn or other upheaval (in 1919-21, for example, and in the years after 1945). In subsequent decades it proved easier to protect assets that were predominantly financial rather than tied up in property, but inheritance taxes continued to have a mildly redistributory effect in the late 20th century.

In recent years, however, such taxes have been steeply declining in popularity. In the US, George W. Bush introduced a proposal to abolish federal estate tax altogether, and it proved hugely popular. (In fact, 2010 may be the first year since 1916 when no inheritance tax will be levied by the federal government, though Obama has pledged to reintroduce it in 2011.) What makes the popularity of Bush’s move all the more remarkable is that the tax was paid by only the wealthiest 2 per cent of estates. There are signs that inheritance tax is becoming almost as unpopular in Britain, despite the fact that at present it affects only 6 per cent of estates.

This puzzling development may owe something to the increase in home ownership in Britain, and particularly to the increase in the value of the homes owned. For a great many people, one of the most important ‘aspirational’ goals has been to own their own home, and this has involved not just a shift from rented to owner-occupied accommodation but also to smaller households, as people increasingly prefer not to live with relatives (and have fewer children). In the past 50 years Britain’s population has increased from 53 to 62 million, but the number of households has grown from 16.7 to 26.6 million, meaning that in 1961 there were on average 3.17 people per household as against 2.32 in 2009.[†] An individualism enabled by prosperity is expressed in another statistic: in the period between 1945 and 1964, only 10 per cent of new properties in England were detached houses; since 1980 36 per cent of new properties have been detached.

As always, it is crucial to recognise who did and did not benefit from these changes. In the half-century between 1959 and 2009 the growth in earnings in real terms (i.e. adjusted for inflation) was 165 per cent. This represents a huge surge in overall prosperity, though we know that such aggregates mask the uneven distribution of the gains. The very, very poor have not done well; the poor have made substantial gains; some in the lower-middle and middle income groups have made big gains, some not; and the wealthiest have made stratospheric gains. The increase in house prices over the same period, similarly adjusted, was 273 per cent. The two figures, taken together, might seem to suggest a disillusioning constraint on aspiration, but it has to be remembered that, even now, only certain groups in society are in the housing market. In 1961 only 43 per cent of the adult population owned their own house; the figure is now 68 per cent. (It is also important to remember that as late as 1981 a third of households lived in council housing.) A third of the population currently don’t own a home, and on present trends many may be getting less rather than more likely to do so. Conversely, many of the children of those who already owned a house half a century ago have benefited from a huge inheritance windfall, further strengthening their position in the distribution of wealth.

The fallacy of individualism is that what may appear to be rational for an individual acting in isolation is often not what would be rational for a society acting in concert. There is an obvious tension between our rhetorical emphasis on individual effort and the ‘fairness’ of competition, and the endorsement of parents’ ‘natural’ urge to help their children through the transmission of wealth and capacity. The language of ‘aspiration’ is used to mask this contradiction. Like house-owning, with which it is now closely bound up, giving one’s children a ‘good start in life’ is something to work for, a significant meaning-creating narrative. Milburn’s aspirational society is made up of people who (altruistically) want their children to ‘get on’ better than they did and who (competitively) want their children to get on better than other people’s children. They want them to have a ‘fair chance’, but they want to give them a better chance of having a fair chance than other people’s children – which transmits and entrenches advantage. Parental levels of wealth and education are by far the most significant single determinant of life chances. A recent OECD survey showed that male earnings in Britain were more highly determined by father’s income ‘than in any other wealthy nation’. That is not what most people understand by social mobility. So, on this evidence, most people are in favour of social mobility, but most people are also in favour of passing on their estates to their children. The only way to square the circle is to talk of everyone moving upwards across the generations, a rank absurdity, but one which rising general prosperity disguises much of the time.

The subjectivism of ‘aspiration’ is both its strength and its weakness: it speaks to individuals’ sense of themselves as trying to get on, but hides from them the reality and power of the social patterns that determine their ability to do so, and which result from their blinkered striving. Similarly, the emphasis on ‘social attitudes’ as being both given and sovereign, the bedrock which governments must simply accept, reinforces the tendency to let the operations of the market replace collective deliberation. Attitudes are what consumers have: they must be simply pandered to or exploited. Citizens, on the other hand, need to be given reasons, including reasons to change their attitudes.

Overwhelmingly, the evidence suggests that policy and legislation play an important part in forming attitudes. This has been true of matters as diverse as capital punishment, homosexual activity or smoking in public places. Equality legislation, especially in relation to gender and ethnicity, has clearly helped change attitudes towards discrimination. If government took seriously the task of, first, educating us about the scale and consequences of the inequalities of wealth in this country and, second, reducing them, then ‘social attitudes’ on these matters would change. Politics can lead as well as follow.

[*] David Runciman reviewed The Spirit Level in the LRB of 22 October 2009.

[†] All figures in this and the following paragraph are from the Halifax Housing Survey published in January 2010.